The Women of Peasenhall

The Women of Peasenhall
The Women of Peasenhall


“If, as people were saying, the new century was to be the century of the common people, the Peasenhall case was an appropriate overture. The victim was a servant girl, the accused was a workman, the witnesses were, almost without exception, villagers”
This novel is based on a famous real-life murder in Suffolk in 1902. Rose Harsent, a young housemaid, was found with her throat cut in the kitchen of Providence House, Peasenhall, early on a Sunday morning in June.
She was pregnant, and there had been some attempt to set fire to the body. All the evidence pointed clearly to the guilt of William Gardiner, a leading figure at the chapel where she worshipped. There had been strong rumours about Gardiner and Rose.
Gardiner’s little house, where he lived with his expectant wife, Georgina and six children, was only a stone’s throw away from Providence House, and a letter of assignation for the night of her death was found in Rose’s bedroom. Gardiner was put on trial for wilful murder.

To this strange story Mr. White brings the perception and wit that made his earlier novel, The Smartest Grave, so outstanding.
He conjures up the ‘Silly Suffolk’ of a bygone age, its characters and its oddities: such as the ‘pikers’, the ‘bible bangers’ and the ‘proxymater’ (a wife-substitute for a man during his real wife’s pregnancy). And he provides a new and plausible solution to the nagging mystery of who really killed Rose Harsent.

R. J. WHITE has been a Fellow of Downing College, Cambridge, for some twenty years. He has also served in his College as Dean and Librarian. Since the end of the Second World War he has been a University Lecturer in History.

This book came to my attention because of its Sixties cover plus the fact I spent some lovely holidays in a cottage in Peasenhall during the early to mid-Eighties. I have to admit we didn’t stay in the village itself much as Aldeburgh, Southwold and Dunwich called. When people talk of ‘sleepy’ Suffolk we totally agreed with this summary. It was wonderful driving at a lower speed limit and sitting on shingle beaches with an ice cream and frequenting secondhand bookshops, such as the one in Yoxford itself, just up the road from Peasenhall.

The cover design was by Bentley, Farrell and Burnett, a rather famous trio, it turns out. For years I have owned another cover by them, the Hunter Davies Beatles biography. Mike Dempsey’s article from Eye (no. 93 vol. 24, 2017) is available and will tell you more on the trio (Mike’s blog is a great read too).

The complete dustjacket

This novel – and it is a novel – recounts “the free reconstruction upon the facts of the Peasenhall crime of 1902”. It is based on William Henderson’s volume “Trial of William Gardiner” (1935) and John Rowland’s “The Peasenhall Mystery” which was published in 1962 and might be why White became interested in the story. Unsolved murders are always intriguing and this one is no exception. A quick search on the Internet for “Rose Harsent”, the victim, shows many hits all regurgitating the few facts. Forensic science was not very well developed at the start of the 20th century and Sherlock Holmes was fictional too, but many others have tried explaining the case – Wikipedia alone has a citation index containing 28 entries. White’s conclusion, put in the mouth of his policeman is interesting and chimes with some people’s view of village life.


Peasenhall is a village on the Yoxford road, 6 miles from Halesworth and 5 from Saxmundham. The night of 31 May saw a typical Suffolk storm arise, soaking all in the village. On the following morning of 1 June 1902 Rose Harsent’s body, a housemaid for the Crisps, was found by her father who always brought her clean linen on a Sunday. She was found at the foot of the stairs in the kitchen with her throat cut and her body partially burnt. A medicine bottle was found which belonged to Mrs Gardiner which had contained medicine until being filled with paraffin. Three letters were found in Rose’s bedroom, all of which were quite obscene. Frederick Davis, confessed he was the author of them, and had written them at Rose’s request as she liked the titillation.

More importantly an unsigned note found, read:
“Dear R, I will try to see you tonight at 12 o’clock at your place. If you put a light in your window at ten for about ten minutes, then you can put it out again. Do not have a light in your room at 12 as I will come round the back way.”

Rose’s character was well known and access to her upstairs room in the Crisps’ house was via a rear entrance which according to local knowledge was well used.

Contrasting Rose, was her alleged murderer, the main suspect throughout, William Gardiner, a father of 7 children and a member of the Primitive Methodists. He worked as a carpenter and foreman for Smyth & Sons in the village, producers of seed-drills and was known to be of good character. William Gardiner’s wife, knew of the allegations made about a sexual encounter between Gardiner and Rose which resulted in a recent inquiry in the chapel, but knew them to be rubbish.

On the night of the storm, at about 10pm, Gardiner was seen outside with neighbour Harry Burgess, discussing a thunderstorm heading their way and sure enough around 11.30pm, it began in force. The Gardiners visited their next-door neighbour, Rose Dickinson, and left her house around 1am to 2am after which Gardiner claimed he slept until about 8.30am Sunday morning. His wife claimed she had been feeling unwell and gone downstairs. A neighbour corroborated this as the walls between the cottages were thin. She returned to bed at 4am.

In terms of evidence, that morning brought firstly the testimony of James Morriss, a gamekeeper who claimed he saw footprints between Providence House and the Gardiners’ home in the rain on the road. This, of course was not able to be verified after the village awoke and the sun came out.
A neighbour backing onto the Gardiner’s property saw the fire roaring smoke early on the morning and the suspicion led to the police wondering if bloodied clothes had been disposed of.
The issue of the candle has been raised. A later voice made out that Gardiner could not see it from his nearby cottage because of the angle of the buildings to each other.
Handwriting experts disagreed about whether the important letter was written by Gardiner and Georgina agreed it looked somewhat like his hand, but no, it wasn’t.

A post-mortem examination showed Rose had been stabbed in the chest, had a bruise on her face and jaw, and had hand injuries that suggested she’d tried to fight off a knife attack and more importantly Rose was six months pregnant.

Gardiner had his knife on him and it had traces of blood – explained by Gardiner simply as obvious, he caught rabbits and skinned them with it. Why did he not dispose of such an incontrovertible clue when he did ‘burn his bloody clothes’? Inconsistency and circumstantial evidence appear to have been the order of the day in these trials. Some people changed their testimonies – maybe having had time to consider what they were doing.

Strangely, or maybe not, when one considers the investigating policeman had never handled a murder before, the police considered this a suicide and neglected to arrest their chief suspect until the 3 June – two days later. His trial began on 4 November that year in Ipswich and the jury returned a verdict of indecision – 11 guilty; one not guilty which led to the re-trial in which, ironically, the jury came back with the reverse: 11 not guilty; 1 guilty! It’s likely that by this time (21-24 January 1903) that poor Rose, being dead and buried, was not as in evidence as the poor man and his wife dragged before the courts once again. The judge decided to issue a “Nolle prosequi” – meaning, although not acquitted of murder, the judge did not feel inclined to further pursue the case against the defendant.

Gardiner and family disappeared afterwards to make a new life in London and Rose was buried in Peasenhall where her grave can still be seen – online too.

I have scanned the photographic postcard I found in the book which, after some investigation is of Providence House – which is not named after the religious concept but after the insurance company.

Providence House, Peasenhall
Providence House, Peasenhall looking East