The Tennis Lawn Murder, 17th July 1883
by Bob Ricketts
On the evening of the 17th July 1883, a small party was playing tennis on the private courts in a small paddock at the rear of The Ship public house in St. Cuthbert’s Street. The party comprised Miss Eleanor Evelyn McKay, aged ‘about 20’, her friend, Miss Kempson, daughter of the Rector of St. Cuthbert’s, Miss Kempson’s brother, Mr. Edgar Kempson and Mr Charles Stimson, solicitor, of Mill Street. Twenty-two-year-old Lieutenant Hubert Wigram Veasey Vere, who had become infatuated with Eleanor McKay, but whose affection had not been reciprocated by her, made his way to The Ship and approaching the tennis party drew out his revolver. He shot Eleanor at point-blank range through her chest and then shot himself, killing them both. A letter to his mother and a photograph of his victim were found in his coat pocket.
Eleanor’s murder and Hubert’s suicide shocked Bedford society and predictably generated lurid headlines in the Bedfordshire Mercury of the 21st July 1883:
“HORRIBLE TRAGEDY IN BEDFORD”
“MURDER OF A YOUNG LADY”
“SUICIDE OF THE MURDERER”
“the awful tragedy which has spread such a gloom over Bedford”
Both Eleanor and Hubert were buried in Foster Hill Road Cemetery. Eleanor has a striking tombstone; Hubert’s more modest stone is only a few yards away. They were both buried on the same day. The Coroner’s verdict on Hubert was that he killed himself when the balance of his mind was disturbed, which meant that he could be buried in consecrated ground.
The victim – Miss Eleanor Evelyn McKay
Eleanor, born in Chorley, was the daughter of Mrs. Eleanor McKay of Bedford Terrace, 46 Harpur Street, a 37 year-old widow of a Cheshire merchant, who had recently moved to Bedford and was “well known in respectable circles” (The Herald, 21/7/1883). Their household comprised Mrs. McKay, Eleanor McKay, Eleanor’s brother, J. Lumsden McKay, 14, a scholar, and a cook.
The murderer – Hubert Wigram Versey Vere
Twenty-two-year old Lieutenant Hubert Vere lived with his mother, a respectable widow of St. Cuthbert’s parish. Educated at Bedford School and Sandhurst, he had been a Lieutenant in the York & Lancashire Regiment, serving in Egypt at Tel-el-Kebir (13 Sep 1882) and Kassassin (10 Sep 1882), before resigning his commission and returning to Bedford. He had subsequently become obsessed with Eleanor McKay, even though she and her circle of friends were averse to him and tried to avoid him. From evidence given before the Coroner, it appears that at an entertainment in St. Paul’s schoolroom she refused to be escorted home by him. There was also a quarrel of some kind between them. According to the Bedfordshire Mercury, he “was brooding over the estrangement which had arisen and the obvious disappointment of his hopes in winning her affections”.
Hubert “happened to come upon the scene and ascertained that Miss McKay was there. Whether he had a revolver with him then or not cannot be determined, but it is clear that he left the spot. After an interval he returned but left again. A third time he came there, this time at least with a revolver, and entering the Ship Inn, he called for some 8d. worth of brandy, which was served to him diluted with water. He merely tasted it, then left his stick or cane in the house, and went out to the tennis-ground. A moment more, and he was close to his intended victim. Miss McKay, hearing his steps, turned round and looked him full in the face. His hand was raised he fired his revolver point blank into her heart, and she fell to the sward mortally wounded.” (Bedfordshire Mercury… The murderer, seeing the main object accomplished, then placed the pistol to the right of his head, just above the ear, fired and fell dead instantaneously, the ball having gone through his brain leaving a wide perforation in his hat as it made its exit.” (Bedfordshire Mercury 21st July 1883).
The crime scene
Reproduced from the Bedfordshire Mercury, 21st July 1883
The scene of the tragedy is no longer a paddock behind The Ship, it now lies somewhere under Saint Cuthbert’s Court or its near vicinity.
The Herald (21/7/1883) attributed the crime to “jealousy”. The Bedfordshire Mercury (21st July 1883) blamed frustrated love. The Coroner considered that Hubert’s mind was unbalanced. More recently, Paul Adams (Secret Bedford, 2018) speculated that Hubert might have been “suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress following his experiences in Egypt.” We shall never know.
“THE FUNERALS. – The funeral of the remains of Miss McKay took place at noon yesterday (Friday) at Bedford Cemetery, amid many signs of grief and public sympathy. The service was conducted by the Rev. A. Hawkins Jones, curate of St. Peter’s, the Rev. Howard Kempson, rector of St. Cuthbert’s, and the Rev. Mr. Phillips (a friend of the family from Scotland); the surpliced choir of St. Peter’s Church under the direction of Mr. and Mrs. Rose attended and assisted in the singing of the appointed Psalm and the hymns “Days and moments quickly flying”, and “Jesus lives! No longer now”. The chief mourners were – Mr. Lumsden McKay, Miss McKay, Mr. Henry McKay, Mrs. Trapnell, Mr. Lumsden, Mrs. Lumsden, Mr. Murgatroyd, Mrs. Donald McKay, Mr. Trapnell, Mrs. Murgatroyd, Mr. Taylor, Miss Kempson, Colonel Bourchier, Mrs. William McKay, Mr. E. Kempson, Capt. Fegen, Mr. C. Fegen, Mr. C. G. Johnson, Mr. G. Porter, Mrs. Walling. The coffin, which was of polished oak, with silver mountings, was laden with choice floral wreaths and immortelles, the gifts of many loving relatives and friends, and the service throughout was of a most affecting character, thousands being present, notwithstanding the threatening weather. Mr. J. R. Bennett, of High-street, was the undertaker. – Mr. Vere’s funeral took place in the afternoon, and was also largely attended and of an affecting character. Messrs Gilpin and Sloper were the undertakers. The mourners were – Mrs. Vere, Miss Vere, Mr. Vere, Mr. E. Kempson. Mr. C. Stimson, Mr. C. Fegen, Mr. Piper, Mr. Statham, Mr. Phillpotts. The hearse was escorted by seven policemen, five other constables joining the procession at the Cemetery. The Rev. H. Kempson and the Rev. W. P. Beckett rendered the service”.
Bedfordshire Mercury 21st July 1883
Grave ref G4.179
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