1909: South Westmorland Mystery Solved


On 31 January 1908 William Dawson, a highway superintendent for the council, was last seen leaving the Kent Tavern close to the River Kent in Kendal. Nearly two years later, on 7 December 1909 the council sanitary inspector made a gruesome discovery. He found William Dawson’s decomposed body in a quarantine hut on the Helm near Oxenholme.

Details of the inquest held the following day were published by the Westmorland Gazette a few days later. We have transcribed the full article below.


Corpse found after nearly two years

South Westmorland Mystery Solved
The headline in the Westmorland Gazette, 11 December 1909

Two years ago next month, Mr. Wm. Dawson, a road surveyor in the employ of the South Westmorland District Council, mysteriously disappeared from Kendal, where he lived, and until this week there was absolutely no trace of his movements.

His public affairs had been properly conducted, his books were found absolutely correct, and so far as could be gathered beyond some personal troubles of a minor character, there was nothing that could account for his disappearance. He was a man well liked and a good public servant, and was generally of a cheerful disposition.

The last that was seen of him was on the night of January 31st, 1908, when he called at the Kent Tavern, Kendal, where he had left his gun some time before, and asked for that firearm, but there was no suspicion in the mind of those who saw him that he meditated putting an end to his life, as he was apparently as usual. Since then various rumours had been afloat as to his whereabouts, and it had been asserted that he had been seen in the United States. How unfounded those rumours were has now been proved.

In the course of his employment, Mr. Dawson had the oversight of a hut on Helm which had been used for purposes of quarantine in connection with outbreaks of smallpox.  It was customary for him to visit this place at intervals to see that it was in good order., but until this week the place had not been opened by anyone connected with the Rural District Council.

On Tuesday morning Mr. Robert Dobson, the sanitary inspector for South Westmorland, visited the place, and as the proper key could not be found, he opened the door with a skeleton key. To his horror, he found the decomposed body of Mr. Dawson lying in such a position on the spring mattress of a bed, with a double barrelled gun in his hand, that there could be no two opinions as to how he had met with his end. The top of his head was blown off, the body decomposed and had almost dried up, and it was apparent that death had taken place many months before.

The Inquest: Some pertinent inquiries

The facts of the case were reported to Mr. G. E. Cartmel, the District Coroner, who held an inquest on Wednesday afternoon at the Station Inn, Oxenholme, which was attended by Mr. Milne, clerk to the South Westmorland Rural District Council.

The Coroner said they had met to inquire into the death of the deceased, who disappeared from the district in January, 1908, which was rather a long time since. Nothing further was heard of him except that he had gone out with his gun. It was wondered where he had gone as he had left everything in perfect order, and his disappearance was a complete mystery. Everything was done to find him, but nothing was heard of him until this week, when Mr. Dobson, the sanitary inspector, having occasion to go to a quarantine hut on Helm, found the decomposed body of deceased. He gave information to police, and Sergt. Miles went up and found the body lying on a bed, with the gun in his hands. The left hand was on one of the barrels and the thumb of the right hand on the trigger, one finger being on the stock. The deceased’s face was partly blown off, but he was perfectly recognisable as being the absent man. One of the barrels of the gun had been discharged, and in the other there was a full cartridge, and he thought the jury would have little difficulty, judging from the position of the deceased and the circumstances, that he had done away with himself. The deceased was possessed of the keys of the hut, and it seemed that after he had gone in he had locked the door and hung the key up behind it. Then he had shot himself on the bed. Of course it might be a matter for wonder that a person could be left in that place for about two years without being discovered. It did seem strange that some person had not gone up and looked about the place, because if an epidemic had broken out it must have been rather startling to have found a decomposed body there. Mr. Milne and Mr. Roscoe were present, and would perhaps be able to explain why the place had not been looked into before. Although it did not arise in connection with that case, certain remarks had been made that the place should have been so long locked up without being examined.

The Evidence

The former Kent Tavern premises where William Dawson was last seen
The former Kent Tavern premises where William Dawson was last seen

Mr. James B. Rooke, landlord of the Kent Tavern, Kendal, said he had known deceased for a number of years. He had seen the body and identified it was that of Wm. Dawson, who he believed was about 50 years of age. He was a road surveyor for the District Council. Before he identified the body he had told the police about some particular marks on the deceased’s gun, and he identified the gun produced as the one.  Deceased took that gun from his (witness’s) house on the night of January 31st, 1908. He then seemed in good spirits. Not to witness’s knowledge had he had any trouble. Witness next saw deceased on Tuesday this week, lying on a mattress in the quarantine hut on Helm. In answer to a juror, he said the deceased was not under the influence of drink on the night of January 31st last year, and he had only complained of a little bit of cold, and that he had been spitting blood slightly.

Mr. Robt. Dobson, inspector of nuisances for the Rural District Council, said he had occasion to go up to the smallpox quarantine hut on Helm on Tuesday. He went for the purpose of lookin inside and seeing that all was right. He had not been up before. Deceased had always had care of the hut. He had the key of it. When deceased disappeared witness took over the highway business until another appointment had been made, and the council gave him the help of an assistant. On May 27th, 1908, he sent Mr. Thexton, the assistant, up to look at the place, and Thexton informed him the key witness had given him was not the right one, and that he could not get in the place. Witness mentioned that at the clerk’s office, and also mentioned when the new surveyor was appointed that it had been the duty of the deceased to keep an oversight of the hut. Witness had nothing to do with it except when patients were taken there, and after they had been removed and the place disinfected his duies in connection with it ceased.

A Gruesome Sight

In answer to the Coroner, witness stated that he mentioned the matter of the hut in the council clerk’s office on November 22nd, and was instructed to break the door open or get in in some manner. For that purpose he got a skeleton key and went up on the previous morning. When he got inside he lit a lamp as it was very dark, the windows being blocked up. He saw marks across the floor which appeared to him at the time to be caused by rain water which had come in. On putting the lamp through into the other room he saw the body lying on the spring mattress, stretched out with the head towards the top of the bed. The butt end of the gun was towards the feet, and the muzzle close to the head. The left hand was on the barrel and the thumb of the right hand was on the trigger, the fore-finger lying on the stock.

The Coroner: You got in with a skeleton key. Hadn’t you thought of using a skeleton key before? – It was not my duty.

The Foreman: Did the new surveyor know it was his duty? – I mentioned it.

The Foreman: Whose duty was it to go there? – There was no necessity to go there.

The Foreman: Is this place supposed to be left a year and eleven months without being inspected? Supposing any of our children had had to be taken there? – That is a matter for the council.

The Coroner: Is it anyone’s duty to attend to it? 

The Foreman: Is it the surveyor’s duty. Mr. Dobson: It is a special duty.

P.S. Miles said about ten o’clock on Tuesday morning he was informed of the finding of the body, and went with Mr. Dobson to the quarantine hut and saw it. It was in the position stated. The choke barrel of the gun had been discharged. The whole of the cranium part of the head had been blown away. There was 36s. 4½d. in the deceased’s possession, a pocket-book with a number of letters, and a receipt addressed  to deceased from Clerk to the District Council, a knife and other smaller articles. Witness recognised deceased. The body was stripped and the clothes destroyed. Witness had since examined the place and found two large keys hanging behind the door, one of which opened the door of the hut. There was no doubt in witness’s mind as to deceased having committed the act himself. The gun was very rusty.

Mr. Milne explains

Asked by the Coroner if he desired to say anything, Mr. Milne said he would gladly explain the matter. He stated that the shed of which they had heard was purchased seven or eight years ago by the Rural District Council at a time when smallpox broke out. The idea was that it should be a place of reception for persons who might have come in contact with smallpox cases. It was kept expressly as a sort of isolation place until it was seen whether there was smallpox or not. He did not think any use had been made of the place for something like five years. Mr. Dawson was highway superintendent, and it was not his duty as highway superintendent to have anything to do with the shed. But at a time when Mr. Dobson was very much pressed with other work, Mr. Dawson was asked to keep an eye on the place when he was passing, and see that it appeared to be in order. The bedding which was in the place was taken away to Woodside hospital, where they had one or two cases of smallpox sometime ago. The furniture which was left was not perishable and would take no harm. Mr. Dawson went to the place occasionally, and after his death Mr. Dobson took over his duties until Mr. Nelson was appointed. He was not certain now as to the instructions given when Mr. Nelson was appointed, but he believed Mr. Nelson would tell them he received no instructions in regard to the quarantine shed. He (Mr. Milne) did not know that it was not being inspected, and it came upon him as a surprise. He had not yet referred to the instructions given by the councilat the time of Mr. Nelson’s appointment.

The Coroner: I think you will agree someone should have inspected it. Mr. Milne: It is very desirable. It is a most terrible and regrettable incident.

The Foreman: Do I understand you that this duty was put on to Mr. Dobson? Mr. Milne: No. It was found he had not the time, and Mr. Dawson was asked to look to it. That continued until Mr. Dawson left.

The Coroner: It was really no one’s duty after? Mr. Milne: I could not answer that , and in order to do so I should have to refer to instructions which were given.

The Foreman of the jury said he was given to understand that Mr. Dawson periodically visited this place and a fire was put in occasionally, and it is apparent he had instructions to see  the sanitary arrangements were kept in good order. He considered that it was the new officer’s place to see the place was all right. The council had been negligent on their part in not appointing a man.

The Coroner said he thought they had better confine themselves to questions and not give expressions of opinion. They must have bounds to their inquiry. No doubt Mr. Milne agreed that it was unfortunate. Mr. Milne: Most unfortunate.

The Jury then returned a verdict of “Death from a gun shot, self-inflicted whilst temporarily insane.”

Westmorland Gazette, 11 December 1909


More information about William Dawson established by Oxenholme Past:

William Dawson was born at Old Hutton in 1858 to Thomas Dawson and his wife Isabella nee Bell. By 1861 William’s father had died and Isabella and William were living in Shap. His mother married George Wilson at Shap in 1863 and they had a daughter shortly after. Sadly Isabella died in 1864 leaving two young children. By 1871 William aged 12 was a farm servant lodging with his employer.

In 1881, William, then aged 22 was an agricultural labourer living with his uncle Robert Benson and aunt Elizabeth Benson nee Bell, his late mother’s sister.

William married Margaret Bentham (1858-1947) in 1883. William and Margaret had three children together: James Dawson (1883-1965), Robert Benson Dawson (1885-1972) and Isabel Jane Marr nee Dawson (1886-1957).

In 1901 the family was living at East Bank, Scalthwaiterigg. William was now Highway Surveyor and Inspector.


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