In the spring and summer of 1910 the brutal murder of a colliery wages clerk from Heaton and the subsequent death sentence of the man found guilty of the crime (also formerly of Heaton) gripped the nation. When Clement Attlee set up a review of capital punishment some 40 years later, this case was one which informed the Royal Commission. And it has fascinated writers and dramatists to the present day. Here we examine the case, paying particular attention to the Heaton perspective.
Census records tell us that in 1901 John Alexander Dickman (36) was living with his wife Annie and children, Catherine (7) and Henry (3), at 11 Rothbury Terrace. Less than a mile away at 80 South View West resided John Innes Nisbet (35) with his wife Cicely and two children, Cicely Gertrude (7) and Lily (4). By the time the next census was taken in 1911 both men were dead with one executed for taking the life of the other. How did this happen and why has the story been such a sustained focus of controversy and argument?
When the 10.27 train from Newcastle arrived at its destination of Alnmouth on Friday, 18 March 1910 a dreadful discovery was made. Thomas Charlton, the foreman porter at the station, noticed an empty compartment with a window down. When he opened the door to close the window, he saw what looked like blood stains across the floor of the third-class compartment. It soon became apparent that the blood was running from a body which had been pushed as far as possible beneath the seat. The person had suffered a number of grievous and fatal wounds to the head. The name tag inside the victim’s hat gave his details as ‘J I Nisbet, 180 Heaton Road, Heaton’. Various other items were discovered in the compartment including two newspapers, a return ticket from Newcastle to Widdrington, broken spectacles and four bullets of two different calibres.
It is hard to imagine the dreadful shock that John Nesbit’s wife Cicely must have received later that day when the police arrived at their home on Heaton Road. It soon became apparent that Nisbet had been carrying out a regular fortnightly task for his employers, the colliery owners Rayne and Burn. This involved cashing a cheque at Lloyd’s Bank then take the monies to Stobswood colliery close to Widdrington. On 18 March this was a sum of £370 9 shillings and 6 pence which would be equal to approximately £45,000 in 2023. The cash was carried in a lockable leather bag and had been destined for payment of the workers’ wages. There was no evidence of what had happened to this cash, most (if not all) of which has never been recovered.
The basic details of the crime were soon circulated together with an appeal asking for any further information that individuals may be able to offer. Two colliery clerks employed in a similar position to Nisbet, though working for the Netherton Coal Company, came forward to say that they had also been on the 10.27 train that day.
Percival Harding Hall stated that he had carried out the same task as Nisbet for a number of years and through travelling on the same train each fortnight knew him well by sight. Hall, together with his travelling companion John William Spink, had settled into a compartment near the front of the train. Hall stated that while still at Newcastle Central station he looked out of the window and saw John Nisbet in the company of a man he did not know. He put forward a reasonably detailed description of this individual and stated that he thought he would recognise him again.
Just after 10.30 the train pulled into Heaton Station where it paused briefly. In these few minutes Nisbet’s wife Cicely spoke to her husband through the open window of his compartment. It is important to remember that compartment trains on this line would not have had corridors and therefore were quite isolated unless someone joined from a station platform. At Stannington, Hall and Spink left the train but both men remembered seeing Nisbet in the company of a man they did not know in the next carriage and nodding to him in acknowledgement. It could be assumed that as Nisbet did not alight from the train at his scheduled stop of Widdrington his murder had taken place by then.
The police were fortunate in that another witness John Grant, a platelayer, came forward to say that at Morpeth before climbing into a smoking compartment of the second carriage he walked past the first compartment which was empty. As this was the location of Nisbet and his companion which had been attested to by Hall and Spink it led to the view that at this point Nisbet was already dead and his body hidden beneath the seat. The police concluded that Nisbet had met his end between Stannington (11.06) and Morpeth (11.12). The track between these two stations was searched as there was an initial hypothesis that the killer must have left the train in this area. This was given some credence as Grant said that he had not seen anyone leave the first compartment. A rather general though useful description of John Nesbit and the person that had been seen with him at Newcastle Central station was circulated.
Although the motive appeared self-evident, to begin with there was no clear idea of any possible suspects. Cicely Nesbit, the widow, gave her statement regarding the visit she had made on the morning of 18 March to Heaton Station to see her husband on one of his regular train journeys carrying the miners’ wages.
She said that she was surprised to see him in a carriage near the engine rather than his usual place closer to the rear of the train. ‘My husband was laughing and appeared to be in excellent spirits. I had only time to say to him, :You won’t be no later than six o’clock tonight mind, auntie is coming”.’ Mrs. Nesbit said that her husband replied positively and although she noticed another man in the compartment, she did not have a good view of him. The identity of this person was unknown until a telephone call was received on the Sunday morning, 20 March, from Wilson Hepple, an artist with a studio on Gallowgate. Hepple informed the police that he had been on the train in question and that he saw two men together on the platform at Newcastle Central. From the description supplied he was sure that one of the men was John Nesbit and he recognised the other as being a long-standing acquaintance of his, John Alexander Dickman.
On the Monday afternoon of 21 March Inspector Andrew Tait arrived at 1 Lily Avenue in Jesmond to ask Dickman in for questioning at Gosforth police station. Calmly and clearly Dickman agreed that he had taken the train in question with a proposed destination of Stannington. His intention was to visit the Dovecote colliery and nearby Lansdale Drift to discuss the possibility of new workings there. Dickman said that he had occupied a smoking compartment towards the rear of the train. Being occupied in reading the Manchester Sporting Chronicle about the upcoming Grand National, Dickman said that he remembered people leaving and entering the compartment at various stops but could not recall any particular details of individuals. His concentration upon the racing information in the newspaper was such that he accidentally went past his stop of Stannington and therefore needed to alight at Morpeth where he paid two and a half pence excess fare.
Dickman said that he had known John Nesbit for a number of years and had seen him from afar in the ticket hall of the station but they had not met or spoken. After leaving Morpeth. Dickman said that he had proposed walking along the road to the two collieries near Stannington but was taken ill and had to lie down by the edge of a field for a short time. After recovering to some degree Dickman walked back towards the station and eventually caught the 1.40 slow train to Newcastle. As he had missed the express train Dickman had spent some time in Morpeth itself where he bumped into an acquaintance, Edwin Elliot, together with another man called William Sanderson. This meeting was confirmed by both men who recalled a conversation about the Grand National and possible winners.
Dickman was found to have a sum of £17 9s 11d, the majority of which was in a Lambton’s Bank bag. Evidence of a loan of £20 from a local money lender in October 1909 was also discovered. Upon being cautioned and arrested for murder Dickman replied, ‘It is absurd for me to deny the charge because it is absurd to make it.’ A thorough search of the house, which involved dismantling the piano and digging up the garden, then took place. Items removed included two pawn tickets, personal letters, and bank books as well as a pair of suede gloves and trousers. The light-coloured Burberry raincoat that Dickman had been wearing at the time of his arrest was also taken.
There is no doubt that the organisation and conduct of the ensuing identity parade would fail to meet more modern standards of objectivity and rigour. Hall and Spink were asked to inspect a line of nine men to see if they could pick out the individual they had seen in the company of John Nisbet. Hall was unable to do so and Spink was equivocal and somewhat uncertain in choosing Dickman despite some possible prompting from one of the officers present.
On Wednesday 23 March the ‘Shields Daily Gazette and Shipping Telegraph’ reported on the funeral of John Innes Nisbet. ‘Immense crowds gathered in the vicinity of the house’ and stretched all the way from Heaton Road along Armstrong Bridge to Jesmond Road. The gates of Jesmond Old Cemetery were only opened to enable the funeral procession to pass inside. An open landau carried ‘a magnificent collection of most beautiful floral tributes of respect’ and was followed by six carriages containing relatives, friends, and business associates. The service was led and conducted by Rev R Trotter, the vicar of St Gabriel’s Church. The real and personal nature of what now seems merely a historical incident is brought out in the following newspaper comment. ‘The two daughters of the deceased were almost prostrated with sorrow, and they wept most bitterly as they walked to and from the graveside leaning upon the arms of friends.’
It is perhaps to be expected that large crowds would also gather when John Dickman was being charged. Before the beginning of the trial itself on 4 July another discovery was made. A routine inspection of the recently closed Isabella mine shaft (part of the Hepscott colliery near Morpeth) was undertaken on Thursday 9 June. Peter Spooner, the mine supervisor, had almost completed his monthly survey when he noticed something lying half buried in the mud. A number of coins together with a sturdy leather bag which had been cut open lay at the bottom of the mine shaft. A small amount of money as well as wage slips for the Stobswood Colliery lay at the bottom of the bag.
The trial itself began with the sharing of background information and the evidence of witnesses who would attest to seeing Dickman in the company of John Nisbet on the day in question. The individuals we have already encountered were summoned to give evidence though this time they were augmented by Cicely Nesbit who had some new information to share. At an earlier magistrates’ court session on 21 April Mrs Nesbit had been taken unwell and had fainted. She now revealed the cause of this collapse. She said that she had recognised the profile of the unknown person she had briefly seen in the railway compartment at Heaton Station as being the accused, John Alexander Dickman. In the trial at the Moot Hall before Lord Coleridge, Mrs Nesbit was now certain in her conclusion that Dickman was the man she had seen at Heaton Station in her husband’s company.
Although the reliability of this observation may be doubted. its power and impact on the jury must have been considerable.
The prosecution began by examining the lifestyle and financial situation of John Dickman. The way in which the two men’s lives coincided is illustrated by the fact that John Dickman and his wife lived in several properties across Heaton in the 1890s with their daughter Catherine being born at 45 Seventh Avenue and their son in 1897 at 97 Falmouth Road.
After an initial period of employment in the family butchery business, John Dickman worked as a clerk with a company called Mason and Barry in Wallsend. In 1901 Dickman found employment as secretary with the Morpeth Colliery Company and five years later helped facilitate their sale to new owners, Moore, Brown, and Fletcher. Although this transaction made him unemployed, Dickman received a commission of over £500, which was the equivalent of several years’ wages. Soon afterwards, a distant relative left him £200 in her will. This sudden largesse encouraged ambitions of becoming an unofficial (and illegal) off course bookmaker as well as a professional gambler on the horse racing circuit. There was substantial evidence, however, that by 1910 the financial situation of the Dickman household had become precarious. The prosecution was determined to provide evidence that this would demonstrate a sufficient motive.
A list of debts to money lenders and pawned items including field glasses (presumably for use at race meetings) were presented to the court. Clerks and members of staff from several banks including Lloyds and the National Provincial gave evidence that the accounts held both by Mr Dickman and his wife had declined in the last six months to being virtually empty. Other circumstantial and contested evidence afforded by the prosecution included the inspection of all the clothes that Dickman owned. Newcastle College of Medicine’s Professor Robert Bolam, who had been educated at Ashfield Villa, the School of Science and Art on Heaton Road was asked to examine the evidence.
Professor Bolam gave his findings regarding possible bloodstains on a number of items of clothing including suede gloves, the front pocket of a pair of trousers and the fawn-coloured Burberry overcoat. This front of this last item appeared to have been subjected to vigorous cleaning using paraffin. There was some debate concerning what these marks were and how / when they had been made.
Although it was much easier to procure and own a gun of any kind in 1910 than it is nowadays, it would still count as an unusual possession. Henrietta Hyman who managed a newsagents in the Groat Market testified that Dickman had made use of the shop as a postal address. Until January 1910, however Ms Hyman believed that John Dickman’s name was Fred Black. In October 1910, Mr ‘Black’ told her that he was expecting a firearm to be delivered. Shortly afterwards two parcels arrived interspersed by a postcard from Bell Brothers of Glasgow asking for the return of a revolver which had been sent in error.
The sole defence witness was John Alexander Dickman himself. He gave a forthright, if at times vague, description of his actions on the day of the murder. Dickman did accept that he had made the same journey two weeks previously and emphasised that his aim in doing so was to visit an acquaintance, Mr. Hogg, at Stannington regarding the sinking of new shafts at the Dovecot colliery. Dickman stated that he did not make appointments in advance when embarking on visits into the Northumberland coalfield though said he always received a positive welcome. It is fair to say that Dickman’s overall impression was somewhat unconvincing and may have seemed evasive. The circumstantial nature of much of the evidence may have been the most persuasive argument that the case had not been proven ‘beyond reasonable doubt.’
At 12.55 pm on Wednesday 16 July the jury retired to consider their verdict. They returned just after 3.30pm to give their judgement: ’Guilty of wilful murder.’ In response John Dickman stated clearly and loudly, ’I can only repeat that I am entirely innocent of this cruel deed. ……. I declare to all men that I am innocent.’ Lord Coleridge in passing sentence of death intoned, ’In your hungry lust for gold, you had no pity upon the victim whom you slew, and it is only just that the nemesis of the law should overtake the author of the crime.’
Although there had been some public animosity and vitriol directed at the Dickman family during the time of the trial, at its completion there was an immediate petition to the Home Secretary asking for a retrial. This focused on the circumstantial nature of the evidence as well as issues regarding the probity of the identity parade and the ignoring of the earlier police theory that two guns had been used with the murderer(s) escaping onto the line between Stannington and Morpeth. There was also the fact that neither the weapon(s) nor the cash itself had been found.
Winston Churchill, the Home Secretary, considered the process sufficiently insecure to refer the matter to the appeal court which sat on Friday 22 July. The appeal judges did spend some time examining the criticisms of the first trial but afforded particular weight to the testimony of Hepple as being the most certain and reliable witness. The earlier verdict and sentence were confirmed meaning that Dickman’s only hope lay with an appeal to the Home Secretary to commute the sentence to life imprisonment.
On Wednesday 27 July a lengthy document confessing to the crime and signed C A Mildoning was received at Newcastle Gaol. It was considered to be an attempt to confuse the issue in order to undermine the notion and phenomenon of capital punishment itself rather than stemming from an actual agent of the crime. On the same day, Dickman wrote his last letter to his wife stating that, ‘I am still hoping and trusting that something or other will be disclosed which will prove my innocence.’ The Home Secretary saw no reason to commute the sentence and upheld the decisions of the initial judge and jury. The execution date was set for Tuesday 9 August 1910.
Early that morning a crowd numbering between one and two thousand people gathered outside Newcastle Gaol on Carliol Square. The public interest in the case is demonstrated by the actions of one journalist who had clambered onto the roof of a nearby building, refusing to leave. In order to block his view of the prison yard, a large canvas sheet was erected. The ‘Newcastle Evening Chronicle’ reported that when asked by the chaplain to confess, Dickman was silent but that he ‘marched to his execution as erect as a soldier, never flinching….’ As an executed felon, Dickman was buried in the grounds of the gaol.
When the prison was demolished in 1925, a decision had to be made concerning what should happen to the bodies of the condemned men there. It was felt appropriate to disinter the cadavers and rebury them in an unmarked space in All Saints Cemetery on Jesmond Road opposite Jesmond Old Cemetery where Nisbet had been interred fifteen years earlier.
The two men with which we began this tale of tragedy are now both dead but it is worth considering the subsequent fate of their wives and families. The redoubtable Annie Dickman who supported her husband throughout did not remarry or change her name. Their daughter Catherine (Kitty) became involved in the Suffragette movement while the son Henry served in the Great War.
It is somewhat heartening to note that, in 1913, Cicely Nesbit married Robert Foster Meikle and, with her two daughters, emigrated to British Columbia where their relatives still live.
The impact, and to some extent notoriety, of this case is illustrated by the fact that the first published account appeared as soon as 1914. The circumstantial nature of the evidence together with Dickman’s continued and straightforward denial of any involvement in the crime made the case grist to the mill of the opponents of the death penalty. Indeed, before Dickman met his end C H Norman, a member of the Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment, wrote an article in the ‘Daily News’ entitled ‘Ought Dickman be hanged?’
Clarence Henry Norman had been the court shorthand note taker at the Dickman trial and was a known campaigner in left wing and liberal circles. In 1925, a 40,000-word document was made public confessing to the killing of Nisbet. A copy was also sent to the Home Secretary who had no interest in re opening the case nor discovering the author of the work which concentrated upon the unreliability of Dickman’s conviction above the supposed guilt of the author. The document of over 200 pages was signed ‘Condor’ though Diane Janes believes that this was also the work of C H Norman. When Prime Minister Attlee set up a Royal Commission to investigate the issue of capital punishment a memorandum regarding the case of John Dickman was included in their documents.
One interesting aspect of the tragedies that befell both families is the experience of the writer Beezy Marsh, the great granddaughter of John Dickman. A television programme looking at possible miscarriages of justice in the 1980s included a picture which she recognised as being in the house of her grandparents. The case and its implications had been kept as a family secret. This became the inspiration for a novel written by Beezy Marsh concerning the generational impact of concealing and obscuring family histories.
Questions and Areas of Debate
Those familiar with this case will know that much has been omitted in order to enable a clear line of narrative and exposition. It would not be pertinent to furnish a survey of all the many elements of disagreement regarding the details of the case nor the wider speculations concerning Dickman himself though it may be interesting to list some of the areas of debate and controversy. These are given below in no particular order of chronology or significance:
- How secure was the identification of Dickman at Newcastle Central station and were all witnesses being truthful?
- What conclusions should we draw from the two different types of bullets used? Did this mean two guns were used or just one adapted to fit both calibres?
- What happened to the money which would have weighed approximately 29 pounds? It has been speculated that this must have been hidden on the day and may still await discovery along a country lane on the outskirts of Morpeth.
- Did Dickman plan to alight from the train at Stannington as that was as far as his ticket allowed?
- How far did the murder depend upon premeditation and planning or mere opportunity?
- Why did the defence fail to call any other witnesses apart from the accused?
- Why did no one notice that Dickman had blood on the front of his coat either in Morpeth or on his return to Newcastle?
- Had Dickman already killed before the murder of John Nisbet? Some have pointed to the violent death of a moneylender in Sunderland in March 1909 as well as the unsolved 1908 killing of wealthy Caroline Luard of Ightham near Sevenoaks, Kent. The latter case has led to speculation regarding the actions of the Home Secretary in denying clemency to Dickman as Winston Churchill was a friend of the Luard family.
The intriguing and uncertain nature of the case has meant that it has featured in a number of television programmes (Episode 4 of ‘Second Verdict’,1976, ‘Nightwatch: Mystery’, 2008 and ‘Murder, Mystery, and My Family‘, 2016) and the radio show ‘The Black Museum‘ narrated by Orson Welles. Those keen to follow up the potential lines of investigations (or ‘rabbit holes’ to use more modern parlance) will be easily able to do so and a glance at the ‘Sources’ (below) will provide an easy starting point.
Significance for Heaton
Though these incidents have taken us well beyond the boundaries of Heaton itself there is something quite particular and apposite in the tale of these two families. Whilst the fashions and style of 1910 means that the two men resembled each other to some degree it is also the case that they were typical of the many lower middle-class individuals who lived in Heaton and the surrounding area. They also seem to have shared a degree of ambition for themselves and their families which they took different routes to satisfy. The essential narrative thread of the story was the railway line and the stations between Newcastle and Alnmouth with Heaton having a particular significance. The possible status of this case as being a ‘miscarriage of justice’ should not make us forget that the story revolves around an ordinary family man whose cheerful last words to his wife were spoken from the window of a railway compartment that he was destined never to leave alive.
Researched and written by Karl Cain, Heaton History Group.
British Newspaper archive
‘Edwardian murder – Ightham and the Morpeth train robbery‘ / by Diane Janes; The History Press, 2007
‘Murder and crime – Northumberland‘ / by Paul Heslop; The History Press, 2011
‘New book delves into John Nisbet murder case’ ‘Evening Chronicle’, 5 February 2012
‘Story of last man to be hanged at Newcastle jail is at heart of new book’ ‘Evening Chronicle’, 28 July 2019
‘The murder of John Alexander Dickman‘ / by John J Eddleston; Bibliophile, 2012
‘Trial of John Alexander Dickman‘ / by S O Rowan – Hamilton, 1914
Websites including the following: