“I am only a poor unhappy man”. John Lee wasn’t that poor – this letter appeared in a book published in 1908 by Lloyds Weekly News where he had been paid a small fortune for his story. By now he was in demand as an ‘A list’ Edwardian personality. If television had been invented, he would have been on every chat show on every network in every country!
On this page:
- John Lee to Kate Farmer October 1884
- Kate Farmer to John Lee October 1884
- Emma Keyse to Reverend John Pitkin, Exeter Prison, 1st January 1901
- From George Whitehead to Isodore Carter 9th January 1885
- From Bailey, Shaw and Gillett to Isidore Carter, 11th February 1885
- Chief Constable – Devon to Home Secretary 20 March 1885
- Charles Scott – Editor Manchester Guardian (Telegram) 21 March 1905
- Stephen Bryan to Home Secretary 30 August 1906
- John Lee to Stephen Bryan 14 September 1906
- Stephen Bryan to Private Secretary, King Edward VII 1 November 1906
- Private Secretary, King Edward VII to Stephen Bryan 5 November 1906
- John Lee to Stephen Bryan 24 January 1907
- John Lee to Stephen Bryan 28 March 1907
- John Tomlinson Brunner – MP for Northwich to Stephen Bryan 31 March 1907
- Fred Farmer to Stephen Bryan 22 April 1907
- Fred Farmer to Stephen Bryan 5 May 1907
- John Lee to Stephen Bryan 14 June 1908
- Stephen Bryan to unknown 1907
- Fred Farmer to Stephen Bryan June 1907
- Stephen Bryan to Under Secretary of State – Home Office 17 July 1907
- John Lee to Stephen Bryan August 1907
- John Lee to Stephen Bryan 15 August 1907
- Emma Balkwill to Stephen Bryan 17 August 1907
- John Lee to Stephen Bryan 26 September 1907
- Emma Balkwill to Stephen Bryan 18 November 1907
- Emma Balkwill to Stephen Bryan 22 November 1907
- John Lee to Stephen Bryan December 1907
- John Lee to Stephen Bryan 1 January 1908
- Stephen Bryan to Emma Balkwill 23 January 1908
- John Lee to Stephen Bryan 3 March 1908
- John Lee to Stephen Bryan 8 April 1908
- John Lee to Stephen Bryan 9 May 1908
- John Lee to Stephen Bryan 29 May 1908
- John Lee to Stephen Bryan 13 July 1908
- John Lee to Stephen Bryan 18 September 1908
- W.H. Bond to Stephen Bryan 1928
from John Lee to Kate Farmer October 1884
My dearest Katie, I am very unsettled in what I am going to do in my future life. I am tired of service and I am going to look out for something else and to do something which may not be to your liking. And my dear, don’t let me keep you from going anywhere where it will be for your good. You may get a better chance by going away, and we might not always be the same as we are now, in love. My dear, I implore you, if you think we shall not come together, let us break off our engagement before it is too late. I am beginning to love you so much it will break my heart if we should leave in time to come. Do let us break off at once. My dearest, let what we have gone by die out of our thoughts, but our love never can. My dearest, you have been the kindest I ever met with, in love and all things. I shall ever love you the same; and I shall leave the town as soon as possible. I shall feel it very much my darling. If I had kept your company when first I seen you, I would have married you and made you happy. I am unsettled now, and don’t know what my fate may be, my darling own love.
Goodbye my sweetest love, from one who will ever love you the same. John Lee
(Within weeks, John Lee was to allegedly murder his mistress, Emma Keyse).
From Kate Farmer to John Lee – October 1884
My dearest love, Your letter to hand, which has caused me the greatest pain and grief. What can you possibly mean by telling me one time you will leave me and then writing to know if I wish to break off our engagement. It is no use to tell, I can’t make it out. As you are so undecided about what you intend to do for the future, are you also undecided about me? Do you think seriously of what you are doing before you give me up. I tell you now the same as I told you before, our engagement shall not be broken off with my consent. As regards what you intend in the future, if it was to be your lot to break stones in the street, I will not say no have a pity for me and think how dearly I love you. Perhaps if I had loved you less you might had valued me a little more. As to my getting another chance away, do you think I want anyone better than the one I love? If you knew how you were deceived, you would never mention it. Why not have told me last night when I mentioned about going away? What you write then would not come so hard for me. There is one thing I wish particularly to know. That is, do you think I wish you to marry me before you see your way clear? No my darling I am prepared to battle my way until you see fit to make me your wife. I will never be the one to grumble at waiting for you. Jack, think if we part you will be the cause of grieving me to death and breaking my heart. After what you said to me on Sunday, I never dreamt of your writing me in the same strain as your last letter was written. But never mind, I freely forgive you, but at the same time will not give you up. My mother will naturally come into your mind. Would to God it had been my funeral you went to instead of hers. Then I should never have got your letter and you would never have written it. She was my only friend, but I have always depended on you to be something more than a friend to me. You have been my chief support in all my troubles and helped me to bear them better than I could else. Before concluding I should very much like to see you once more as I have something to say which can’t be written. You asked me whether I would be annoyed if you sent me a present. You must fancy me annoyed with you which you know could never be. Nothing will give me more pleasure than to receive something from the hands of one whom I love devotedly. What ever it is it will die with me and my love. Grant my last request by coming down tomorrow evening (Wednesday). Except my fondest and truest love, and believe me ever you true love.
Emma Keyse to Reverend John Pitkin, Exeter Prison, 1st January 1884
I hope you will excuse my troubling you, but I feel anxious to know what report you can give me of John Lee? Whether he has conducted himself satisfactorily, and whether those who have had much to do with him can give a good report, and whether you consider that he truly and really feels the great sin he has been led into, and whether he is and whether he is really penitent.
I shall be grateful if you will make careful enquiries, in additional to your own personal opinion. He lived with me as a lad, and I like him very much, and found him very honest and truthful and obedient. I had no particular fault to find with him, but considered his was a simple minded, easy disposition that would be easily led astray, and hoped, by being on a Training Ship, he would gain stability of character and purpose, and was very sorry that his health would not admit of his remaining. I feel much interested in his family and himself; and I have told his mother that I will take him back into my service, and to work in the garden with my gardener for a while, to be able to give him a character, until something desirable may turn up.
He will live in the house, and sleep, as before, in my pantry. It depends on what character you may give, and if you consider I may really trust him. We trusted him so implicitly when he was here, that I do not feel disposed to be mistrustful now. Still, it is serious matter, and I should like to hear from you about him, and what you may think of the matter.
I cannot give him much in the way of wages; and he must promise to be content to keep in of an evening, and to be very steady. I could not have anxiety to be looking after him constantly; being a lady, it would not be pleasant. Two of my servants have lived nearly forty years here (my late mother’s servants), and the other is half-sister of John Lee. So they would be all interested in him. I was in hopes that I should have an opportunity of his going with some people I know to the colonies, but that has fallen through; they are supplied. I think it would be desirable when he is older, and his principles are more firm. But fear he would now be too easily led astray, though I hope this severe lesson will have taught him more strength of purpose for good.
I hope you will excuse my thus troubling you, but feel anxious to hear what report you can give. And if you can kindly talk to him about being steady, quiet, and contented, and to keep quiet and not be seeking companions, I should be grateful.
Waiting you reply,
I remain, Dear sir,
Emma Whitehead Keyse.
From George Whitehead to Isodore Carter – 9th January 1885
Page 1 – St. Stephen’s Club, Westminster
“Re. Miss Keyse deceased”
Dear Sir, Having been unsuccessful, in meeting you, when I called at your office, before leaving Torquay. I write to call you attention, to a matter, which was not mentioned by the Medical men, in their evidence, before the Coroner, and which, I think, should not be overlooked. It is,
Page 2 – that there were, three distinct marks, upon the throat of the deceased, two above, and one below, the wound itself, where the murderer, evidently failed from the blunt nature of the knife use, to make the point enter, and this, I think, shows, in all probability, that the knife produced, is that which was used upon the occasion. They were dull
Page 3 – red marks, unmistakeably so cause, and could only have been produced, by a pointed, blunt, instrument. It is possible, as the knife bears traces, of quite recent sharpening, upon a rough stone, that it may have been so sharpened, at the moment, when he found it too blunt, to make it penetrate. My addings, after this week, ( – ? – )
Page 4 – Edinburgh, in event of you wishing to communicate with me. & I am
very truly yours
Isidore Carter Esq.
From Bailey, Shaw and Gillett to Isidore Carter, 11th February 1885
5 Berners Street, London, 11th February 1885
Lady Harriet Scott Bentinck deceased
Miss Keyse deceased
We understand that you act for some of the family of the late Miss Keyse. If was are rightly informed no doubt you can tell us who represents the executors or Administrators of the deceased. We are concerned for the Executors of the late Lady Harriet Scott Bentinck who have a claim against Miss Keyse’s estate.
We are, Dear Sir,
Baileys, Shaw and Gillett
Exeter, 20th March 1885.
Devon Constabulary, Chief Constables Office,
In further reply to your letter of the 13th instant (A38492) respecting the written statements of the convict John Lee (papers returned herewith) I have the honour to inform you that I have personally made careful enquiries in order to ascertain if there is any truth in them and that I can arrive at no other conclusion than that they are absolute fabrications, for the following reasons:
1st Elizabeth Harris declares most positively that the allegations made by the convict respecting her and the supposed man are “lies” and having subjected her to cross examination I am unable to see any reason to doubt the truth of the evidence she gave at the trial, and which she declared she is ready at any time if called to re-iterate on her oath
2nd. Cornelius Harrington is one of a respectable crew of fishermen resident in Babbacombe, who was never known at any time ever to have been on Miss Keyse’s premises and who I am informed was in his quarters on the night of the murder, and against whom there does not seem to be the slightest ground for suspicion.
3rdly. The extreme circumstantiality of the convict’s statement defeats it’s own object and establishes it’s falsity, and is moreover contradicted on numerous important points by incontrovertible evidence of facts, as for instance, such a cash box and writing desk as described were never known by any of the old servants in the house to have existed, no property of any sort had been stolen, and the only cash box the deceased lady was in the habit of using was a small wooden one, which I found in it’s accustomed place intact, when I searched for room and wardrobe.
John Lee did not run up stairs and meet Eliza and Jane Neck saying, “What’ s the matter”. Elizabeth Neck’ s evidence at the trial clearly proves that when she came down stairs she found him standing near the pantry door which is some distance from the foot of the stairs.
The conversation described as between John Lee and Jane as to where Miss Keyse was did not take place.
His description of the position of the dead body in the dining room is the reverse of fact, as also of the mode of carrying it.
I would beg to call attention to the fact that the story now put forth by John Lee was only committed to appear by him on the Wednesday previous to the day fixed for his execution although he was represented by Counsel at the Coroner’ s Inquest, the Magisterial investigation and the trial at Assizes and it bears strong evidence of having been built up by the prisoner upon the foundation of the suggestions thrown out by his Counsel at the Assizes that there might have been a possibility of the half sister, Elizabeth Harris, having admitted a man who might have perpetrated the murder.
I purpose to do myself the honor of calling at your office on the morning of Monday 23rd instant and of placing myself at your disposal with a view to affording you any further information as to details which you may possibly require.
I have the honor to be,
Your obedient servant,
G. de COURCY HAMILTON
Chief Constable of Devon.
The Right Honourable, Secretary of State, Home Office, WHITEHALL
28 May 1885
The Governor Exeter Prison,
Please report on the matter of the enclosed letter.
Telegram, London, 21 March 1905
I will inquire into the case of which you write, but cannot promise to take it up in the House. The usual course in such cases is to (two words illegible) a petition.
*Editor of Manchester Guardian 1872-1929, MP for Leigh 1895-1906
To the Home Secretary, 30 August 1906
Right Hon Sir,
I beg most respectively, to draw your official attention to the enclosed newspaper cutting, culled from the Manchester Sunday Chronicle (date illegible) which said cutting contains a reprint re, John Lee, who is at the present time serving in H.M. Prison, Portland. A life sentence on account of the Babbacombe Murder case, for which crime he was sentenced to death & afterwards reprieved and sent to penal servitude for life, about 21Â½ years ago, that being so, I venture to ask you honourable Sir, whether you can supply any information regarding this unfortunate prisoner as to whether there is any possibility of his sad and regrettable case being officially reconsidered, with a view of this particular prisoner being granted the Clemency of the Crown, and thereby such means obtain his release in due consideration for the terrible ordeal through which he has passed since his conviction, or on the other hand, is this unhappy man destined to end his life in prison without any hope of ever again regaining his liberty, in the event of such being the case, I further beg to ascertain for what special reason or offence is he being detained in prison for, in other words, is this long suffering prisoner to remain under perpetual detention for the term of his natural life, when it is publicly known that other criminals, equally as guilty in the eyes of the law, have been on certain occasions, more mercifully dealt with according to the aforesaid report, which I humbly submit for your official perusal, with the object of ascertaining your learned opinion thereon, as I the writer cannot comprehend in the sight of God and man, why any detention should be made to persons found guilty and convicted on the Capital Charge, and who afterwards get their death sentence commuted to penal servitude for life, more especially when their conduct in prison is proved to be satisfactory, then in the interests of Justice & from a humane standpoint, why is the herein named prisoner being still detained after undergoing a full term of over twenty years imprisonment, when such term is generally understood to mean a life sentence. In conclusion I firmly believe the prisoner has a public sympathy in his favour, and when the sad and painful circumstances of his situation are duly considered and given strict investigation, I have no
doubt whatever but that the prisoner in question is fully justified in claiming to receive your official and influential intervention on his behalf, and also make a public announcement as to whether he will ever get released & officially explain the reason why his freedom is denied him, so hoping to be the recipient of (illegible)
PORTLAND PRISON, 14 SEPTEMBER 1906
To: S. Bryan
I was informed by the Deputy Governor on the twelfth of September of the great kindness you have done me in interesting yourself on my behalf. And that everything is being done that can be done for me. I thank you, Sir, very much for your great kindness in my own name and also in my Dear Mother who is longing and praying for my release. It has pleased God to spare my Dear Mother all these years. And I pray to God to bless your endeavours for my release. Words cannot express my thankfulness.
Dear Sir, I beg to remain your most obedient and humble servant,
November 1st 1906 To the Private Secretary Respectively, To His Most Excellent Majesty The King, Buckingham Palace, London.
I beg most respectfully to submit this application, also the enclosed newspaper cutting culled from the Manchester, Sunday Chronicle, under 28th instant, containing a report on the Babbacombe case, which I humbly beg to forward for your official perusal and consideration, with a view of ascertaining whether your Lordship can see your way to entertain this humble appeal, by placing the said appeal before His August Majesty, with the object of receiving His Majesty’s intervention and mercy, on behalf of John Lee, who was found guilty by a Devonshire Jury, and convicted for the Babbacombe crime, over 21Â½ years ago, and who is still detained in His Majesty’s Prison, Portland.
As your Lordship will please note from the enclosed report, that our Gracious Lady The Queen, has nobly extended her heartfelt sympathy unto the prisoner’s Dear Widowed Mother, and has listened to her pleadings on behalf of her erring son, and God only knows what mental anguish and grief she must have suffered, longing and praying all these long years, and still hoping against hope, that God will yet spare her in her old age, to meet (page torn – approx five words missing) before Her only son has obtained his release, in consideration for the terrible ordeal through which he has suffered and passed, as an atonement for the crime of which he was convicted. In conclusion, I pray and implore your Lordship, to grant my humble request by submitting this very humble petition, which emanates from a very firm loyal subject, to His Majesty’s notice, in the hope that something will be done on behalf of this unfortunate prisoner, and thereby through such influential means, obtain for him, his freedom in the near future, so trusting your Lordship will kindly give this your sincere and earnest official attention, and hoping to be the recipient of a favourable reply in due course, I remain your humble and obedient servant,
TO S. BRYAN FROM SANDRINGHAM, NORFOLK, 5 NOVEMBER 1906
I have had the honour of submitting your letter to the King, and I am commanded by His Majesty to forward it to the Secretary of State for the Home Department.
I am, Sir,
Your obedient servant
(illegible signature) Kudlys ?
24 JANUARY 1907 PORTLAND PRISON
I have the pleasure of answering your most kind and welcome letter which I received on the twenty third of November last. I am very thankful to you, Sir for all, the kind words that your letter contained. And I also thank you very much for the nice kind letter that you wrote to my Dear Mother. I cannot find words sufficient Dear Sir, to express thankfulness enough to you for all the trouble you have taken on my behalf. The only thing that I can do is, if it pleases Almighty God, that I get my release from prison is to show you Dear Sir, and Mr Howell by my future life, that you will never have to regret the great trouble you have taken and the sympathy you have shown to me and my Dear Mother, has not been thrown away on me â€” who cannot fully appreciate it.
Sir, Mr Howell is the gentleman I mentioned in my last letter. He came to Portland and visited me on the seventeenth of November last. And he told me about my Dear Mother petitioning to Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Alexandra. And I told him that you Sir, had written to the Governor of the prison on the fourteenth and asked him to be so kind as to inform me that you had petitioned to His Most Gracious Majesty King Edward. And that the answer you had received was that he had been pleased to forward the same to the Home Secretary. He asked me if I knew your address, I told him that I did, so I gave him your address and be said that he would come and see you and see what could be done for me. Mr Howell has been very kind to my Dear Mother and me. He has done everything in his power to get me my release. It was Mr Howell who asked Mr Fenwick to ask the Home Secretary in the House of Commons why it was that I was not released. And the Home Secretary said that Sir William Harcourt thought it a very bad case and that I had threatened some persons who were still living and also quite recently which is false. Sir, I have never threatened anyone or had any ill feeling against anyone. In July last, I appealed to the Board of Magistrates about these threats and they searched my records and there was nothing against me. And they wrote to the present Home Secretary and his answer was in August last, that I was not kept in prison on account of any threats whatever having been issued during the whole of my imprisonment. After that I heard that Mr Berry, who was Executioner in my case, had given out in his public lectures that I had written threatening letters and something about the Chaplain of Exeter Prison. So I appealed to the Board of Magistrates again on the tenth of December last and they told me the Home Secretary had spent a lot of time in going into the threats in July last and that they did not see that they could go into them again. So you see Dear Sir, that there is nothing against me – Mr Howell can tell you what my Character has been during the whole of my imprisonment. Noâ€”one can have a better record than I have got. If people say things against me, they are false. If anyone says that I have threatened anyone, let them bring forward their proof and prove them before a Bench of Magistrates. I say t~iat I have never threatened any person or persons or ever had any ill feelings against anyone. During the whole twenty years of my imprisonment, there was not one word against me , but as soon as I had completed the twenty years and expected my release, they raised up a lot of false accusations against me. Sir, I will tell you what the Governor of the prison said to me in December 1904. He said that I had got a splendid record. And I have never done anything since, but complained about being kept in prison, which you will admit every person will do, or would do if they were in my place. I told Mr Howell about it when he was here. I also told him that I thought I was kept in prison because a prisoner named Walker L226, who went home from Portland Prison in the end of the year 1904, put in the papers that when I came out in January following, I intended to exhibit myself and to show up the authorities, which was false, I never spoke half a dozen words to the man. He did ask me the day before he went home, if he could do anything for me and I told him no. I told him that I should be out myself in a few weeks. Of course, he did this for money and I have to suffer for what another does or says. Mr Howell told me that here are a lot of things put in the newspapers by prisoners released who very likely never saw me. The reporters ask them if they knew me and they tell them anything for a few shillings.
Dear Sir, I think it is time that the Home Secretary does something for me or give me some definite answer as to the time that I shall have to do in prison. I must thank you again Dear Sir, for all that you have done for me and my Dear Mother.
Sir, I wish to remain your most obedient and humble servant.
L150 John Lee
PORTLAND PRISON, 28 MARCH 1907
To: Stephen Bryan
I am very thankful to have the pleasure of answering your most kind and welcome letter that I received on the 7th February. I thank you Sir, very much for all your kindness to my Dear Mother and myself. My Dear Mother tells me in her letters that you are so kind as to write to her every week. I am sure that is most kind and noble of you to take such an interest. Also, your kindness in that you have kept petitioning to the Home Secretary for my release. Dear Sir, I gleaned from your beautiful letters that whatever rank of life you hold at present, that you did rise from the noble British Workman which is the backbone of the English Nation. And I must say Dear Sir, that it is very noble of you to come forward and to intercede for my Dear Mother and myself in our hour of need, both to His Majesty King Edward and Mr Gladstone, the Home Secretary. Whether you succeed or not in my release from prison, you may rest assured Dear Sir, the God Almighty will remember it. I shall be forty-three years of age in August next, so that there is not much difference in our ages.
You are Dear Sir, comparatively speaking, quite a young man yet. But I am afraid that the trouble and the long sentence which I have done in prison will make me appear more of a man of fifty years of age than forty three. My Dear Mother is about the same age as your own Dear Mother. Dear Sir, I hope that it will please Almighty God to keep your Dear Mother in good health and to spare her to you for many years to come yet. If it pleases God that I am released, I must come and visit you and thank you for all that you have done for me and mine. And I should like to have a good talk with you and your Dear Mother. As I do not see any sign yet of being released, I have asked my Dear Mother to come and see me when the weather is warm enough to do so comfortably. You see, life is so very uncertain that we do not know whether we shall have the pleasure of meeting again on Earth.
My Dear Father & Mother both wanted to come and visit me in 1901, but I would not let them, because everyone thought that I would have been released in 1902. And as I was not, my Dear Father died in September 1902. After living so long he was not spared to see me out. And if I do not see my Dear Mother this summer, I may not see her again on Earth. I wrote to my Dear Mother the twenty first of this month. I have not heard from Mr Howell and I do not know his address. I thank you again Dear Sir, for all that you have done for me and my Dear Mother.
I wish to remain your most humble and obedient servant,
Hotel Du Palais Biarritz, 31 March 1907
Dear Mr. Bryan,
If my memory serves me right, I sent you a further letter saying that it was impossible for me to take up the Babbacombe case.
It has been enquired into by successive Home-Secretaries who have refused to release the man for what are apparently good reasons.
John Tomlinson Brunner*
MP for Northwich, Cheshire 1887-1910, created Baronet 1895
22 April 1907
22 Wesley Road
S. Bryan Esq.
Mrs Lee says you would like to have my address so I send it on to you. She has sent me yours.
Are you helping or inclined to help poor John Lee? I was with him in Portland & have all his case & wishes at my finger ends. I shall be glad to hear from you so that I may know your news.
22 Wesley Road
5 May 1907
Mr Stephen Bryan,
I thank you very much for your nice long letter and also all you have done for poor John Lee.
I do not not think that any petition to the Home Secretary is any use. He has refused every one that has been sent to him. Someone has said that John used threats, but he told me he had never done so. However, the Home Office evidently believes he has. Some wicked person has made a false statement about him and so the authorities are keeping him in prison. It is a great shame after all he has gone through. He has completed 22 years of imprisonment last January besides going through the awful suffering of to hang him three times. He maintains he is an innocent man, but of course, very few people believe him. However, even if he is guilty, he has surely been punished enough. He has borne an excellent character all the time he has been in prison and that ought to have got him out. Other murderers are released after 15 years if their conduct has been good. And why not John Lee?
I think if we could get a good paper to take his case up and get a lot of petitions from the public for his release it would help him most. For any one person to write to the Home Secretary or the Queen is clearly of no use. That has been tried, as you know, many times and has failed. Or, if some strong Member of Parliament would take his case up it would be of great help. I have tried one or two London papers but they won’t.
We also want a good solicitor to work for him in getting petitions from from the public, but that of course wants money7, and we have none. I am still out of work myself unfortunately. It is almost impossible for a convicted man to get on again â€” such is the world. I have written tonight to poor Mrs Lee and sent her your letter to me to read. Mr Howell has not answered my last letter to him. I shall be very pleased to hear from you again.
3 TOWN COTTAGES
14 JUNE 1908
Dear Mr Bryan,
I am very sorry that I have not been able to answer your letter before as I have been so very busy writing and I have hundreds of letters to answer and a hundred & one things to do. I have wrote and asked Lloyds if I should get legal advice on the letter you sent me, but they have not answered them yet. I don’t think they want me too. I see Mr Berry did not sign his name to his letter. There are none of them say anything about threats now I am out and I can defend myself. I have had some very extraordinary letters from London. Some ladies there write and say that my step-sister, the cook at Miss Keyse, died some years ago and confessed to a Salvation Army officer that she committed the crime. I am going to London soon and see into it and see the ladies and hear what they say personally.
Both my Dear Mother and myself hope that you are in good health & your Dear Mother & sisters. I must thank you for your kindness and I shall hope to see you when I can manage it. It is a long journey but I shall come. I have been up to Exeter and seen the Warder who was with me all the time of the Executions. I must conclude wishing to remain
Your most humble servant
re: John Lee, The Babbacombe Murderer
I herein named person contend that the above named prisoner, who was committed and sentenced to death, on account of the Babbacombe crime, only on circumstantial evidence, on the 4th Feb. 1885 at Exeter Assizes, and after passing through the terrible ordeal of three attempts to hang him, on the 23rd of the same month, although he was nothing more than a youth at the time, was officially ordered back to his cell. He was in due course, reprieved and his sentence was commuted by the Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt, to one of serval penitude for life. The morning following his attempted execution, he was compelled to exercise past the grave which had been prepared to receive his expected lifeless body, and as the aforesaid prisoner in question, has now completed a long weary term of 22 years imprisonment last January, and stoutly denies the alleged threats which he was accused of using against the lives of persons who were still living, and claim to possess a splendid record for good conduct during the whole of his imprisonment, I am of the opinion after considering the special punishment and long sentence which he has undergone, that his sad and pathetic case merits public attention, as it is my firm conviction he has suffered sufficient, in the sight of Heaven and the law, as an atonement for the crime of which he was convicted, and under the sad circumstances I humbly beg the public to appeal to appeal to tye Home Secretary, Mr Gladstone, praying for the release of this long suffering fellow countryman, to be conceded, yes, as an act of mercy.
Please Note â€” John Lee’s case was before the Public and reported by the Editor of the Manchester, Sunday Chronicle, early in the year 1905, and there was a wave of public sympathy in his favour at that time, as he had then completed a full term of twenty years imprisonment, and numerous letters appeared commenting on his detention in prison, and the then Home Secretary, Mr A. Ackers-Douglas made an official statement in reply to questions put by Mr Fenwick, M.P. in the House of Commons, to the effect that John Lee had used threats against the lives of persons still living, on the other hand according to the prisoner’ s version, such a statement is absolutely false and entirely without any foundation whatever, in fact the contents of the prisoners recent letters clearly shows that the present Home Secretary, Mr Gladstone has cleared him of the alleged threats, then why does the Home Secretary still refuse to release this man, who claims a splendid record for good conduct, and also refuses when petitioned on the prisoner’s behalf, to give a definite answer, as to whether he is to be, or not to be released, he has promised consideration & due attention, I therefore consider he should give his official decision without any further delay, or announce to the public why he refuses still to release him.
Stephen Bryan (1907)
London cJune 1907
I have been very much interested in reading the paragraphs which appeared in the Leigh Journal on May 23 last about John Lee in connection with the Babbicombe murder, and also in reading John Lee’s letter to you, which was published in the same paper. Poor Lee seems very grateful to you for all you have done for him, and I hope you will be able to continue to work on his behalf until his release has been obtained. It is very gratifying that an influential paper like the Leigh Journal should concern itself about him.
I know John Lee well, having been with him in Portland in the same working party, and am acquainted with the full history of of his case. As you are aware, he completed 22 years of continuous imprisonment on January 28th last, and when you consider the three attempts to hang him, and what terrible punishment that was itself, apart from the imprisonment, I am sure you and all reasonable people will admit that he has fully expiated his crime and ought to be released. I am quite sure that there are many thousands in England who would sign a petition on his behalf, if it were put before them. And in no part of the country could such a petition be more successfully launched than in Lancashire with its thousands of warm hearted and outspoken people. If you could induce your Editor to take the case up in earnest I am sure it would meet with hearty response from all his readers.
John Lee’s case cries aloud for Justice. Other men and women convicted of murder have been released after 15 years. And why not Lee? Then think of the awful fiasco of the hanging. He has described his sufferings to me at that time. If your fellow citizens saw a man making such a bungle over hanging a cat and causing it such pain they would lynch him, I am sure. Let people realise, if they can, what it is to be lead to the scaffold three times. When Lee was taken down after the third failure, he was more dead than alive.
He has all along been a most exemplary character in prison and has the sympathy and good wishes of everyone in Portland.
17 July 1907 To the Under Secretary of State, for the Secretary of State,
respectively, Home Office, Whitehall, London.
Right Hon Sir,
I beg most respectfully to acknowledge receipt of your official intimation, of the 3rd ultimo, re John Lee, The Babbacombe Murderer, who I note has been removed from Portland to Parkhurst Prison, on whose behalf I humbly petitioned His Majesty The King, on the 24th of June last, with the object of endeavouring to assist the above named unfortunate prisoner to secure his probable release from prison, in consideration of his special punishment and long sentence, which he has undergone, of nearly 22 years and 6 months, and also on account of his good conduct, such being the case, I regret to say I am greatly disappointed at your official decision, in regard to this particular prisoners sad and pathetic case, because I cannot fully comprehend the reasons why you officially inform me in your official communication, that you hon. Sir, are unable to find sufficent grounds to justify you, consistently with your public duty, in advising His Majesty, to interfere in this case, I therefore, under the circumstances, feel it incumbent upon myself in the interests of justice, to submit this further appeal for your official perusal and consideration with the view of ascertaining what is the official objection in refusing to release John Lee, or in other words, why is the Clemency of the Crown not extended to this prisoner, in the same manner as in other modern criminals, cases like his have been convicted and sentenced on the Capital Charge, as for instance take the recent case of (Haynes-Whitelsy?) murderer, undoubedly public sentiment saved his life, and I am also confident that the public would be in favour of John Lee’s release, if in case a public petition was drawn up in his behalf.
Hon. Sir, to be frank, apparently there seems to me to be a law for the rich and none for the poor. Your official decision has come as a great blow to the prisoner’s Dear, lonely, widowed Mother, who is now in the winter of her life, and in conclusion, Hon. Sir, I have no hesitation in expressing my dissatisfaction at your official decision, which you arrived at in reference to this prisoner’s sad case, as I contend, although only a humble petitioner, interested in this prisoner’s behalf, that in my opinion, it is a case which cries aloud for justice and that the prisoner in question is fully entitled to receive a remission off his long sentence, in consideration of his good conduct during the whole of his long term of imprisonment, and further it is my honest conviction that the case should be officially considered with a view of conceding this prisoner’s release in the near future, as I consider that there are ample grounds in the prisoner’s favour (illegible). It is a case of some public compassion and one which calls for a full official explanation stating publicly the reasons why his freedom is still denied him. So hoping to be the recipient of information, as to whether you are disposed to modify the present official decision with regard to this important (illegible) with your official direction.
I beg to be your most humble and obedient servant,
PORTLAND PRISON AUGUST 1907
I have the pleasure of answering your most kind and ever welcome letter, which I received the fifth of June last and I must thank you for such a kind and sympathetic letter. And I must say that it is most kind of you to take such an interest in everything concerning my Dear Mother and me. It shows that you must have a kind heart, most people only think of themselves. And of all the millions in England who know what I have suffered, you are the only one besides Mr Howell who has come forward to see if nothing cannot be done for me. I told my Dear Mother that I thought that Mr Howell had some object in view when he came forward. I asked my mother if she knew that he was one of His Majesty’s legal advisers and she told me that she did not. It looks very funny that a gentleman like him should come forward and do what he has done and then to stop all at once. He must have had some pressure put on him by someone to drop the case. Because when he visited me he promised to do so much for me and he promised to get the Under Secretary to come and see me and since last March he has done nothing. His wife wrote and told my Mother that he would come down and see her in the summer. Dear Sir, I know by your kind letters that I have a friend in you and that you at least will not go back on your word. My Dear Mother told me of all your kindness to her when she visited me.
Now Dear Sir, I must tell you of the nice visit which I received from my Dear Mother. I think I told you in my last letter that the Directors had granted one hour visit and also allowed me to shake hands with my Dear Mother. We had such a nice visit by the Governor’s recommendation. My Dear Mother can tell you that we were allowed to to be in a room together and to talk freely together. As I was passing by the window, I heard my Dear Mother say here he comes and the first thing I did was to cast my arms around my mother’s neck and kiss her before I could speak a word. It was so good to see her again and to know that she was looking so well. She looks more like sixty than seventy six years of age. I was so very pleased to see her again. I hope, please God that I may soon be released from prison so that I may have a few years home with her before it pleases Almighty God to take her to Himself. There could be no pleasure greater than that for me. Dear Mother has no one but me and I have no one but her. I told my Dear Mother what to do, the same as I told you in your last letter that I should. And I know, Dear Sir, that you will help her to do it. It is the same as you did in October last and I told her to keep on until they do it for her. Will you kindly ask Mr Farmer to tell my Dear Mother about the appeal that she should make. I am glad that the reporters did not know that my Dear Mother was at Portland until she had got home. The newspaper people tell such lies that one can not trust them at all. Please to thank your Dear Mother and sisters for their kindness in remembering and sympathising with my Dear Mother and me. It is most kind of you all to do what you have for me and mine and I am sure that Almighty God will remember it. And I am afraid that he will also remember all those who had a hand in keeping me in prison all these years. He delivered me from a creuel death which no other could have done. They can say what they like about the scaffold would not work. He told me in a dream that I should not be hung. The scaffold could not have told me that some are gone to Almighty God to give an account for what they have done and others have got to go some day when it pleases Him. The few years of our life are soon passed, the only thing that I hope that there is a just God so that I can get justice in heaven if not on Earth. Dear Sir, I must thank you again for all your kindness. Please God I shall write to you and my Dear Mother on the seventeenth of this month. I hope please God that you are in good health.
From Your Most Obedient and Humble Servant
John Lee. L150
PORTLAND PRISON, 15 AUGUST 1907
I have the pleasure of writing to you again. I hope these will find you all in good health. Sir, I wrote a letter to you and my Dear Mother on the second inst. I do not know whether it was sent first to you or my Mother, as I have neither heard from my Dear Mother or yourself. I do not know whether either of you have received it yet. When I write to my Mother and do not get the answer in eight or nine days, I get very anxious about her, though she was looking so well at the time of (her) visit. You see Dear Sir, your Dear Mother and mine has outlived the usual span alloted to persons seventy six years of age. I hope please God to hear from you both soon. If my Dear Mother is well, will you please tell me if she has spoken to you about what I asked her, when she visited me at Portland Prison. I saw on the letter that you sent her, that Mr Farmert s name was in it. If you write or see Mr Farmer, kindly ask him what about the appeal. Kindly tender my thanks to your Dear Mother & sisters for all their kindnesses in remembering my Dear Mother and me. Sir, I must thank you for all you your kindness and sympathy and the trouble you have taken in my case.
I must conclude Dear Sir,
from your most obedient and humble servant,
17 AUGUST 1907
582 KINGS ROAD
I received your letter this morning, I cannot think why Mrs Caunter don’t answer your letter as she was anxious for me to make it known to someone in London to get Justice done to John Lee. But there was one thing she mentioned, it was that the old wood chopper’s family lived near her at Torquay and she was afraid they would do her an injury if she told what she knew. I believe she told me that she was cook at Miss Keyse, she must not go back from what she told me and my daughter or what I have told you. I can swear to, I would go down and see her if I could afford it. I hope she will own up to what she said as it will be very unpleasant for me. Would you advise me to write to her on the subject, if so, please send me her address back, which is on the postcard, if you say not to, I will not do so. I am sir
PS. I may tell you that I have been at Chelsea Railway station as attendant Ladies Rooms for fourteen and a half years.
To Stephen Bryan PORTLAND PRISON, 26 SEPTEMBER 1907
I have been informed that you have written to me. And I have applied for your letter on the 19th September but I have not received it yet. It is such a long time since I have heard from you. Your last letter that I received was the 3rd June before my Dear Mother’s visit. But I know that you have done and are doing your utmost for me. My Dear Mother told me in her last letter that you have petitioned to His Majesty King Edward again. I asked my Dear Mother when she visited me and to keep on until she got (3 words illegible). It appears that His Majesty’s answer to her petition, though Lord knows he was not very gracious, and that the answer was one which my Dear Mother took to heart and it made her ill. I told her keep on petitioning like the Widow and the unjust Judge. My Dear Mother told me what you were going to do for me now that His majesty’s answer was not favourable and I cannot thank you enough for all the trouble you have taken in interceding for me, both to His majesty and Mr Gladstone. You know what is best Dear Sir, better than I can tell you what to do.
My Dear Mother also told me that a Lady from London had written to you about me and that you had sent her letters to Mr Gladstone. She did not know the Lady’s name. The late Governor Major Briscoe read me a little of a letter that you sent him on the twentieth of August last about Lord Knowles* answer. Dear Sir, I want to ask you if you cannot manage with my Dear Mother to write your letters on the same paper (next six lines censored)
I shall be very thankful when I get a letter from you Sir. I hope that your Dear Mother and sisters and yourself are in good health. I must thank you all fQr all your kindnesses to my Dear Mother and myself. Mr Howell has written to me at the same time that you did but I have not received his letter neither, so that I do not know the contents of either yours or his. Dear Sir, I wish to remain your most humble and obedient servant.
L150 John Lee
*Sir Lees Knowles, Baronet 1903, MP for Salford West 1886-1906
18 NOVEMBER 1907
682 KINGS ROAD
Do you mind telling me if the case of John Lee has fell through. You will please excuse me but I feel interested in the case as after what I was told, I pity the poor fellow.
I am yours truly,
(Mrs) Emma Balkwill
22 NOVEMBER 1907
682 KINGS ROAD
In answer to yours of this morning I thank you so very much. I have not written or heard from Mrs Caunter since I first wrote to you and I am sorry to hear that Mrs Lee has written to me and I not having the pleasure of receiving her letter. No letter has been to my house from Mrs Lee. Poor woman, I can feel for her as I have sons of my own. My eldest being forty-three of age. I hope the time will soon be that she will have him (her son) with her.
I am sir, yours truly,
3 TOWN COTTAGES,
Dear Mr Bryan,
I have the pleasure of informing you that I was released from Portland Prison on the morning of the 18th Dec. And I arrived home to my Dear Mother about 4pm. And I have taken the first opportunity of letting you know the good news. I could not answer your letters or write to you as the authorities would not allow me to give you any news. My Dear Mother wishes to be kindly remembered to you and your Dear Mother and sisters. And both me and my Dear Mother thank you very much for all your kindnesses both to her and myself. Please to excuse this short letter and I will write more soon. It was quite a surprise to my Dear Mother when me and the officer came to the door. They would not let me tell my Dear Mother that I was coming home.
I wish to remain your obedient servant,
1 JANUARY 1908
3 TOWN COTTAGES
Dear Mr Bryan,
In answer to your most kind & ever welcome letter, hoping that you are all quite well. As it (illegible) we are both quite well thank Almighty God for it. We read it in the paper that you sent My Dear Mother (and she) has told me that in a letter she received from you, that you did mention that you had received a letter from Mr Berry the Executioner. That in that letter he did give me an awful character. Would you kindly send me that letter or a copy of the letter in which it was in. And Sir, could you give me the name & date of the newspaper in which the chaplain of Exeter Prison Mr Pitcairn said that I had threatened some persons. And when you wrote to him and asked him about it, he told to look at the newspaper. I shall be very thankful to you if you could send and tell me as I want to clear myself. The miners of Trindon Colliery, 300 in number, have sent me the papers of what Mr Ackers Douglas the Home Secretary said in the House of Commons March 1905, about that I had threatened persons still living and also quite recently. I am going to bring it before the public and let them see how I have been wronged by those who ought to have known better. I have just received another letter which will I hope go far to prove my innocence. If I can get the Lloyds, I will send you one every week. We both wish you all a bright and happy New Year and also a prosperous one.
I wish to remain your most obedient servant
23 JANUARY 1908
I beg to acknowlege receipt of your postcard, which you posted on the 18th ult. I note you request me to return to you, a photo of Mrs Caunter’s house, situated at Torquay, also a postcard which she sent to you. I regret to inform you Dear Mrs Balkwill, that I am unable to do so, for the following reasons, namely, after I received certain letters from you and the above named which referred to John Lee’s case, I promptly sent the same to the Chief Detective Inspector, Criminal Investigations Depart. New Scotland Yard, London, and as you forwarded me the above for the purpose of assisting poor John Lee, it seems strange to me that you want them back now he has been released. I also am aware that you have wrote to him since he has arrived home. Further I desire to acquaint you I have sent John Lee, Mrs Caunter’s address and no doubt she will be found. She will then have an opportunity of saying what she knows about The Babbacombe crime, and if in case you desire to obtain the aforesaid photo & postcard, you must apply to the above named official at Scotland Yard. At the same time I am afraid that they would refuse such an application, you are at liberty to make what you think of this letter.
I beg to remain yours faithfully,
3 MARCH 1908
3 TOWN COTTAGE
To Stephen Bryan Esq.
Your kind and such welcome letter to hand many thanks for it. Both my dear Mother & myself congratulate you and your dear wife Mrs Bryan on your daughter. We hope that both it and its Mother are doing well.
As regards what you saw in the paper about my being engaged, to tell the truth I am writing to a young lady 250 miles away from my home and we may become engaged later on. But I write to dozens of Ladies, Widows and all. It was all over the town that I was marrying a Widow. I only went to Tea once with her, she is a very nice person but still I do not take a fancy yet to Widows. One Widow has wrote and offered me six acres of land and six children and she says marriages are formed in heaven and we are made for one another. I have dozens of sweethearts (aged) from fifteen to forty but my young lady is only 22 years of age. It is wrong about my taking a Tobacconists Shop. I have been offered a job in one with good pay. I do not know whether I shall except it yet or not.
Please to kindly remember my dear Mother and myself to your dear Mother & sisters. I hope that you are all in the best of health
I saw a gentleman last Friday who has travelled with Mr Berry and I showed him the letter Mr Berry wrote to you and he said that Mr Berry never wrote it and that he always spoke very highly of me.
I wish to remain yours truly and ever obedient friend. John Lee.
8 APRIL 1908
Dear Mr Bryan,
Your very kind & welcome letter to hand. Thank you very much for it. And also sending me Mr Norris to read. Mr Bryan, I am sorry to say after reading Mr Norris letter which he has written to you, I shall stop all sales of my photos, Both at Newton Abbot and all the world. Because I do not think that Mr Norris is straight forward. He wrote to me some four weeks ago to know if I would allow him to sell Cabinet size photos of myself. And I wrote back and told him ‘No’. Now I find he has offered to do you Cabinet size for 1 shilling each. That looks very much like underhand work and that sort of thing I detest. I am straight forward myself and like other people to be. I am going in to Mr Norris this morning and stop all sale of my photos. He also says that the copyright belongs to him on his letter to you. But they belong to me, I have paid for them at Stationers Hall. I am sorry that this should have happened because I know you are a straight forward man and I would like to do you a good turn for your great kindness. But I have finished with Mr Norris. And I shall put in an advertisement in tb~e News of the World – any person found selling the photo of John Lee ‘the Man They Could Not Hang’ will be prosecuted after the 11 April, and any persons giving information of the same will be rewarded. I am going and see Mr Norris today and speak very plainly about his conduct. We are very pleased to hear that your wife and child and Mother & sisters are in good health. I have been very ill with the influenza for these last few days. I do not feel very well now, please excuse this short letter. My Dear Mother sends her love to all. Goodbye, God bless you.
I remain sincerely yours,
9 MAY 1908 ABBOTSKERSWELL
Dear Mr Bryan,
Your Dear Sister’s letter to hand. Please to thank her very much for it. I do hope that you are better. I have been away for three weeks, one in London and two in Brighton and am only just come home. And have taken the first opportunity of answering it. Mr Norris was in a way when I stopped him selling any photos. He should have acted straight forward. He wrote to me and said he had written to the solicitor at Stationers Hall to see if the copyright was mine and I was not to do anything until he had consulted his solicitor. So I went straight to mine and he soon put a stop to Mr Norris and made him destroy the negatives so that he could not take any more photos.
I have a Member of Parliament writing to the Home Secretary about the ticket (of leave), He will soon take it of f now I think. I hope that Mrs Bryan and the baby and your Dear Mother & sisters are in good health. I do hope your arm is better. I do not like those trains when in London or Brighton, I nearly always walk. I like a good walk. I am very pleased to say that both My Dear Mother & myself are in the best of health, thank God for it. The weather has been awful for this time of year. My Mother sends her love to your Dear Mother and sisters and your wife, so I must close for the present. Goodnight, God bless you all.
I remain yours sincerely,
29 MAY 1908 ABBOTSKERSWELL
Dear Mr Bryan,
Your very kind letter to hand. I thank you so very much for it. And am so glad that your hand is better again. And I do hope that Your Dear Mother & sisters & Mrs Bryan & the baby & yourself are in good health and everything’s going on alright. As I am so very pleased to say that we are, both Mother & myself & also Mrs Taylor & Mrs Hallett. I do not hear from Mr Howell now. He wrote and asked some time ago if he could do anything for me. I told him No I did not think he could. I have not heard from Fred Farmer for four months. I have petitioned Mr Gladstone myself as well as the Member of Parliament, but I have not heard from him yet. I suppose that he is very busy now that the Exhibition is at London. I suppose that I must have patience. I am very glad Job was not born in this generation where there is so much red tape used, or else I am afraid he would soon (have) lost his stock of patience. Oh well, everything comes to those who wait.
No, I have never received a letter from the J.P. who you so kindly asked me to send a line. My Dear Mother sends her very best to your Dear Mother & sisters and also Mrs Bryan & yourself. The baby is hardly old enough yet to send love to, but when it is, it will be remembered. I still get a lot of letters from Canada, Australia & New Zealand. I believe Mr Berry has given up lecturing and is keeping a shop in Yorkshire. I would like to see him and tell him what I thought of his conduct. He will never do himself any good. Please to give my kind regards to your Dear Mother & sisters, Mrs Bryan and yourself. I am glad that we are having some Summer, now I will close for the present.
Goodbye, God bless you.
I remain yours very sincerely,
13 JULY 1908 ABBOTSKERSWELL
Dear Mr Bryan,
Your very kind letter to hand. Thank you so very much for it. We were pleased to hear of your hand being better. We also hope that this will find you all in the best of health, your Dear Mother, sisters & your dear wife, child & yourself. I am very pleased to say that my Dear Mother is much better. I myself am in good health. Mrs Taylor & Mrs Hallett also are in good health.
I put an advertisement in the ‘People’ newspaper, also did a young woman who lives in Kent offering a reward for the ‘War cry’ containing the confession of the Babbacombe Murder by the cook upon her deathbed to Major Pearson, a Salvation Army officer about 15 or 16 years ago. Plenty of people write and inform me that it was in the newspapers, but they forget what paper it was. One man in Belfast, Ireland wrote and told me that his sister had got a paper containing the confession, but he could not get at it for a while. I also have a letter from Queens land, Australia. A young woman told me that she read all the confession in the Sunday Sydney Herald. So I wrote and asked her if she could get it for me. I suppose Mr Gladstone will remove my ticket of leave next month. He promised to do so. We have had some very nice weather, but not now, it is changing, we can do with a bit more rain down this part of the country. The potatoes are very small and the corn is so very short. There are hundreds out of work down here. There are over 7,000 in Plymouth out of a population of about 200,000. There are several hundred in our little Newton Abbot. I suppose it is just as bad in your part of the country. I should like to go to Australia if I had my way. There is plenty of work and good wages, 22 to 30 shillings a week and all found in Queens land. My Dear Mother sends her kind love to your Doe~ Mother & sisters, wife & child & yourself. And please to except the same from your humble servant.
Goodnight, God bless you all,
I remain yours very sincerely,