The Middlewich of fifty years ago was very different from the town we know today. The days of open-pan salt production were coming to an end and the canals which had carried the fuel for the pans and the salt which they produced were also falling into disuse and disrepair.
|Salt Works and Canal: Middlewich in 1967. This was the spot where we launched our canoe ready for the trip to the Anderton Lift. The site of the Pepper Street works, seen on the right, has now been re-developed as The Moorings.|
But at the same time the canals were finding a new use as part of a growing leisure industry and Middlewich, like other towns on the network, began to see more and more pleasure boats taking the place of the old working narrowboats.
In the Summer of 1967 - now forever immortalised as the 'Summer of Love' - a schoolfriend from Sir John Deane's Grammar School and I travelled by canoe from Seddon's Salt Works in Pepper Street to the Anderton Lift.
One of the highlights of the journey was the passing of the Lion Salt Works at Marston, long before its days as a museum and tourist attraction. Unlike the open pan works in Middlewich the Lion works had no plans for closure - despite its characteristic tumble-down, almost semi-derelict appearance - and would continue making salt in the traditional way until the 1980s by which time, as the only remaining open pan works in the country, it had a chance of being earmarked for preservation.
Another highlight was the Anderton Lift itself which was also, by then, in a state of semi-dereliction. It was still working and some of the rapidly dwindling fleet of working boats were clustered around it waiting to take the last of the output from the Cheshire salt works down the River Weaver towards Weston Point.
The lift was built in 1875 and served the area well for many years, linking the local salt industry with the Weaver, Liverpool and salt markets all over the world.
However, by the time of our visit it was suffering from heavy corrosion due to the salt and chemical works in the area and suffered frequent breakdowns.
By 1983 it had become inoperable.
Restoration began in 2001 and the lift re-opened in 2002.
If only we'd thought to take a camera with us!
What we could not have known, and only discovered later in the year, was that our valedictory trip up the canal had also taken us close to the site of a gruesome discovery which was to be made in the October of 1967.
Our canoe journey took us through Whatcroft, which lies on the Trent & Mersey Canal between Middlewich and Northwich.
Whatcroft is a mysterious and rather sombre place. In the 1960s this wide area of the canal was used by British Waterways as a kind of Scapa Flow for narrowboats. After the virtual collapse of the canal carrying industry in the early 1960s many working boats deemed surplus to requirements were brought here and deliberately scuppered, just to get them out of the way. It was a depressing and slightly surreal experience to walk this way and see rows of perfectly serviceable boats just left to rot and slowly sinking deeper and deeper into the water.Middlewich soliciter Herbert 'Bertie' Wilkinson had, by October 1967, been missing from his home for over five months.
|Nearby is Whatcroft Hall, a very desirable property. It was close to Whatcroft Hall, on the banks of the Trent & Mersey Canal, that a gruesome discovery was made in October 1967|
On June 2nd he left a 'hastily scribbled' note with his housekeeper, walked out of his house and was never seen alive again.
There is no record of what this note might have said, so we have to assume
that it gave no clue at all to the police in the subsequent investigation.
'Bertie' Wilkinson was a well-known figure in Middlewich for many years, and was often to be seen walking along Nantwich Road from his home to his office in Wheelock Street.
Photo: Blain, Boland & Co
The Solicitors' office in Wheelock Street once used by Herbert Wilkinson
We lived in Nantwich Road until 1959 and my mother, who kept tabs on everyone walking past our house, used to say 'there's Bertie', in a mysteriously 'knowing' sort of way, as if there was something we should all realise about him and what he was doing, but then again she kept up a running commentary on all the comings and goings in the street and nothing escaped her eagle eye. In this, of course, she was no different from any other woman in the street, or the rest of the town.
I never really took much notice of Bertie. I was,after all, a very young lad at the time and knew little of the world.
There were many people walking past the house all day long - going to work and coming home from work; going for a drink and coming home again slightly (or much) the worse for wear....
There was nothing exceptional about 'Bertie'.
Except for one thing, apparently.
Bertie, my mother used to say darkly, 'liked men'.
And what's wrong with that? you might well ask.
I certainly did. In my innocence (and please remember, this was when I was very young) I couldn't see anything wrong with Bertie liking men.
When Mum elaborated, it still didn't mean an awful lot.
'There are some,' she said, 'who think Bertie likes men a bit too much'.
What innocent times we lived in then!
In 1967 Herbert Wilkinson was 54 years old and unmarried.
His solicitor's practice in Middlewich had run into serious trouble, leading to his being struck off by the Law Society.
The poor man must have been at the end of his tether and by this time, by all accounts, was 'sick in both mind and body'.
Who can say what kind of life he had been leading up to that time? We don't know and, I'd like to think that even in these prurient times most of us wouldn't really want to.
A few months after our little trip to Anderton, two young men were searching for fox earths alongside the canal at Whatcroft when they came across a shallow grave containing the decomposing remains of a man. One of these young men, Billy Grey, has been in touch since this Diary entry was first published. He still has vivid memories of that day.
This was long before the barbaric 'sport' of fox hunting was officially banned and Billy and his mate were doing some work on behalf of the local hunt. Billy remembers that there were actually two 'graves' rather than just one and was surmising that the first one was too close to a hedge to fit the body in and a second one had to be dug further away. We hope to bring you a fuller account of Billy's memories of that fateful day in due course.
Apparently it was difficult to make a positive identification of the body but the police came to the conclusion that it had to be that of Herbert Wilkinson who they had been searching for since his disappearance five months earlier. A pair of shoes and some fragments of clothing helped in the identification.
Cheshire Police's missing person's enquiry was about to turn into a murder hunt.
And no ordinary murder hunt, either.
According to The Cheshire Magazine, writing in 2002, it was one of the biggest murder investigations ever mounted in Britain and was headed by Arthur Benfield who had, a couple of years earlier, been in charge of the team which investigated the horrendous Moors murders. There have, of course, been many major murder investigations over the last fifty years, and it's possible that what the magazine means is that it was one of the biggest such investigations up to that time.
One other factor which hampered the investigating team was the Foot & Mouth disease outbreak which came along at the end of the summer and decimated the cattle population, bringing severe restrictions on any movements throughout the county. The outbreak lasted through the autumn and winter and well into 1968.
More than sixty detectives were involved in the investigation, which took over six months to complete. They questioned every male in the town over a certain age, including me.
As I recall the 'interview' was very short indeed. All they wanted to know was whether or not I knew Herbert Wilkinson.
I said that I knew of him, but hadn't ever spoken to him.
I told them that I used to mix up this particular Bertie with another one - Bertie Maddock, the town's rating officer at that time and, ironically, someone who I would end up working with at Middlewich UDC a couple of years later.
Some instinct told me not to mention Mum's oft-repeated assertion about Bertie Wilkinson 'liking men'.
Looking back over all those fifty years, that might well have caused complications...
The investigation involved detectives taking eight-hundred written statements and talking to eight-thousand people - at that time a fair proportion of the population of Middlewich.
They also talked to nine thousand other people across the country- people who might have, or were known to have, used the canal system in June that year.
This was because the investigating team were making the not unnatural assumption that as the body was buried close to the canal bank in a location quite remote from Middlewich, it was likely that it had been taken there by canal boat.
So keen was the interest in the murder case that Granada TV's Scene At Six-Thirty programme (the fore-runner to Granada Reports) sent a camera team to Middlewich and we were able for the first, but not the last, time to see our town on TV.
The inquest into Bertie's death took place in Northwich in 1968 and the jury returned a verdict of 'murder by person or persons unknown'.
Strangely, the detectives involved in the case could only say that Herbert Wilkinson had 'either been killed with a blow to the head, or strangled'.
Even allowing for the fact that forensic techniques were not as advanced fifty years ago as they are now, this still sounds a little odd. Surely, there's a world of difference between being strangled and being hit over the head?
Update: 9th May 2020. Paul Williams, a former Middlewich resident who now lives in Bunbury, Australia, has an eminently plausible explanation for this apparent anomaly.
He points out that if there were two assailants using different methods of attack, there could indeed have been a dispute over how poor Bertie had died. Alternatively, of course, a single attacker could have employed both methods to achieve his, or her ends. A horrible thought but, as we say, still eminently plausible.*
*Editor's note: Sadly, shortly after making this contribution Paul Williams was taken ill and died at the start of June 2020. Paul was a very intelligent and highly talented man and, despite his having made a successful new life in Australia, remained very interested in Middlewich. His knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, his home town was immense. We were so sorry to hear of Paul death's and offer our sincere condolences to Paul's family and many friends. DR.
Of course in a small town like Middlewich, rumours abounded about the identity of Herbert Wilkinson's killer, or killers, and the way he was killed.
For many years it was 'common knowledge' that the murder weapon was a windlass of the type used on canal locks.
This, of course, ties in with the police investigators' theory about a canal boat being used to move the body and with the 'blow to the head' theory for the cause of death but there seems to be no mention of a windlass in any police reports.
It's long been assumed that the police were well aware of the identity of the killer but were unable to gather enough evidence to convict him or her.
After fifty years, the sad case of the murder of Bertie Wilkinson remains on police files as 'unsolved'.
It's all a long time ago now, in any case.
Poor Herbert Wilkinson might, in these more enlightened times, have been able to gain more sympathy and get some help for the problems which beset him.
Whatever the ins and out of the case, he surely didn't deserve to die as he did.
May he rest in peace.
The Cheshire Magazine (Cheshire County Publishing 2002)
Facebook Feedback (from 6th May 2020, when this entry featured in our 'Middlewich Diary Revisited' series during the coronavirus outbreak)
Jane Walker My Nan was Mr Wilkinson’s housekeeper and his sister gave his piano and books to my Nan which we still have. He used to play the organ at church. I wonder if the men who killed him are still alive!
Paul Williams Fascinating stuff. 1967 truly a different world. It didn’t have me for a start.
Andrew Tomlinson Massive police operation, for the day. I remember my dad - and every man of a certain age in town, being interviewed by the police.
Susan Johnson I remember this, wasnt very old at time, policeman interviewed me as i had been down canal & seen some blokes acting strange on a canal barge & told my mum about it. Dont know if they had owt do with it though, they could have been inocent but they may have seen somat. Blimey a lot of years ago.
Elizabeth Royle We lived in Nantwich Road the same a. Bertie and we were interviewed by the police like everyone else in the street. I remember it like yesterday.
Betty Williams We were interviewed by the police. The policeman who came to our house went to school with my brother. Did they ever find who killed him ?
(Officially, no - Ed)
Middlewich Diary entry © 2017 Salt Town Productions