Thursday, 9 June 2011

Henry Wainwright, a severed hand and Leek Mechanics Institute

The Mechanics Institute in Russell St cuts a rather forlorn figure. I took a party to look at it. It is an early Sugden building dating from around 1860 and strongly influenced by Ruskin. The lions on the front of the building suggest to me someone who had read the "Stones of Venice". The chronology is right of the book was published in 1853 and for William Sugden, as for many, it must have resonated. I said forlorn and the ground floor frontage of the building now occupied by Age Concern must the most hideous in Leek.

But first what was a Mechanics Institute. They were established at the beginning of the 19th century. Historically, they were educational establishments formed to provide adult education particularly in technical subjects, to working men. As such, local industrialists often funded them on the grounds that they would ultimately benefit from having more knowledgeable and skilled employees. The Mechanics' Institutes were used as 'libraries' for the adult working class, and provided them with an alternative pastime to gambling and drinking in pubs. In practice however the fees demanded from Mechanics Institute put them out of the reach of many of the working men of Leek. The Leek Literary and Mechanics Institute was initially founded in 1837 and it moved to the present location in the early 1860s. It was described as a very impressive structure with a commodious reading room and lecture theatre. It was the only library in town prior to the establishment of the Nicholson Institute in 1884.

One of the earliest speakers at Leek in late January 1864 was a 25 year old Londoner Henry Wainwright. He was an acknowledges expert on the 18th century poet Thomas Hood and Wainwright spoke on the "Wit, Whims and Oddities of Thomas Hood. The meeting was chaired by Lord Norton and the money raised for the building fund totalled £13 7s 1d. It was a very successful meeting.

Move forward 11 years and Wainwright is in a very different situation. He had a brush making business in East London and lived in the Whitechapel Road. Right next door was the Pavilion theatre - and Henry did love a trip to the theatre, socialising with many performers, even inviting them back to dine with his wife - though the younger, prettier actresses were entertained elsewhere. And, when he met a hatmaker by the name of Harriet Lane, he set her up as 'Mrs King' in various East end residences, the last being in Stepney's Sidney Square. But, Henry tired of Harriet's charms. She was murdered and her body was buried under the floor at his warehouse. A year later, in 1875, with the warehouse sold and about to change hands, Henry exhumed the corpse, cutting it into pieces, which he wrapped in thick canvas cloth. He certainly did try to move the remains, even asking a member of staff to help with transporting them to his new premises - claiming they contained hair for his trade. When the poor workman complained at the stench, Wainwright assured him that it would 'blow off'. A little while later, out in the street, when he complained again at the weight, Wainwright became exasperated, leaving his employee alone with the parcels while he went off to find a cab.

He returned and loaded the packages into the cab and then travelled on alone. But during his absence, the suspicious employee had sneaked a look and discovered a decaying hand. He did not challenge Wainwright at the time, fearing he might be murdered too, but as soon as the cab set off, a constable was informed and, in due course, Wainwright was detained, red-handed, with blood seeping out through the cloth in his arms. However, there was a twist. Wainwright was hanged for the crime, but during the court case it came out that he had a brother, Thomas, and Henry had encouraged Thomas to woo Harriet in his place - hoping to make their break easier. When Harriet's body was found, Thomas had long disappeared. Some believe that Henry, having already lost his reputation, sought to protect his brother's name, taking the blame for her death on himself.

Prior to the Mechanics Institute cottages occupied the site. One of the cottages a Mrs Yates an oatcake maker. She was known to augment her supply of wood for her business by stealing from neighbours. They were determined to teach her a lesson and hid an amount of gunpowder in a pilfered amount. The subsequent detonation served Mrs Yates right and cured her of her stealing.