A Thrapston court judge once said that “Ringstead has had more bad luck and tragedy than any other village or town when it comes to self-inflicted death”. This story about Harry William James Cope reflects that view.
Harry’s Early Life
James Cope and Jane Hillson were married in 1862 in Ringstead and had several children, including Harry William James who was born late 1877. Tragically Jane died aged 35 years, in 1881 very soon after the birth of their daughter Ruby.
In 1881 James was an Army Shoe Maker and by 1891, his son Harry, aged 13 years, was working as a boot closer, and by 1901 was also a shoemaker.
In 1886, James subsequently married a second time to Hannah Austin.
Marriage and a Family
In early 1909, Harry married Lucy Bird and they moved to their new home in London End Cottage, Ringstead. Their family began with Reginald who was born in 1909 (but who probably died sometime after the 1911 Census), followed by Harold in 1910 and Ronald in 1911. Lily, their daughter, was born in 1916.
In 1917 the couple resided across the road in a cottage from London end road cul-de-sac. The cottage is still there now but has been added too over the years. It’s thought that the cottage when first built was a beer house.
Lucy suddenly became ill towards the end of 1917 and quickly died after suffering a terrible fever. Harry was left a widower with three children.
Harry was working for the Regulation Boot Company in Raunds and would have been well aware of the terrible conflicts in World War I.
The Military Service Act in 1916 had enabled the British Government to begin conscription for single men aged 18 to 41 years old. Exemptions were allowed and so a system of Military Service Tribunals was established to adjudicate claims on the grounds of civilian work of national importance, domestic hardship, health and conscientious objection.
Later in 1916, because of the need for more men, married men were included on the list for the first time. So until then Harry would have had no concerns about conscription and would have been satisfied to have been working in an industry that supported the armed forces.
However, from the autumn of 1916, Harry would have been eligible for conscription but to his no doubt relief, he wasn’t immediately called up.
It is possible that Harry received his call up papers the following year, around the time that his wife died and so understandably did not immediately lodge a claim for exemption. When his claim was finally received by the tribunal at its meeting on 14th February, 1918 the military representative ruled it out of order as a late appeal. The Tribunal however asked that Harry should be graded, to see if he qualified for exemption.
Harry would have left that Tribunal very worried. It would have seemed to him that he could be called up and the welfare of his three children would be at risk.
Four days later, on 18th February 1918, after days of anguish about what would happen to him and his family he finally snapped and he murdered his two sons by cutting their throats whilst in bed and then committed suicide himself. The dreadful scene was discovered by a friend (Harry Adams) who managed to break in after looking through a small gap in a window.
At work that day it was on his mind that much and after his usual dinner break at his sister’s house in Raunds he biked back early to the house. He must have prepared himself mentally for the task he was about to commit later that day.
He himself picked the boys up from Ringstead school, prepared dinner and soon after dinner he sent the boys to bed.
According to a witness at 9.30 Harry went to a friend’s house get a bucket of water from their well and returned home. The witness noted he was in his good cheerful self.
Harry had bolted both doors and locked the shutters so no one would enter.
On the following day a fellow shoe maker Harry Adams on walking by the cottage noticed something was very odd with all the shutters closed down and then immediately went over and looked through a small gap in one shutter and began shouting Harry’s name. He knew something wasn’t right and broke in, he found Harry on the side of the bed next to both the 6 and 8 year old boys.
There was evidence that the elder boy gave a struggle with his father as there were many cuts to his face before the final stroke of the blade.
His daughter, 2 year old daughter Lily, was being looked after by Mrs Judd, a friend of the family. She ended up going to the children’s home in Raunds.
The funerals were held the following week and the streets from Back Lane to the chapel were lined by crowds of people waiting for the hearse cart to go by so they could pay their respects. Many had come from Thrapston, Raunds and the Addingtons.
As the procession drove by with hearse and cart hundreds of flowers were thrown on to the coffins in the hearse.
What Harry would not have known was that a month earlier the County Tribunals had agreed that the boot trade of the county had sent more than their quota of men and so had recommended that the appeals of men over 35 years in the boot trade should be adjourned. More importantly, the Act had also made provision for widowers with children to be exempt too.
This was a very sad outcome due in part to poor communication and a lack of urgency on the part of the Tribunal.
Notes: I tracked down Lily Cope (her named changed to Mayes) where she went to live with a family in Birmingham and she died in 1992 a single woman living on her own.
She would have not known a single thing about her father or her brothers.
There are two living relations to Harry, one is Ringstead man Alan Mayes at Spencer Street, Ringstead, and a lady in Stanwick, who is the granddaughter to Harry’s sister, Maggie Cope. Both of them give me their blessing on writing this.
In summing up on why Harry killed his boys, it’s often known when a person is in a worried mental state he may take his loved ones with him, as this has happened in many cases before.