For Whom the Bell Tolls

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The site of the Old Tollgate Cottage, near Orgreave. Razed to the ground, now, as much as was 25, Cromwell Street in Gloucester or 5, College Close in Soham. An inspection of a few square feet of the field in which it once stood soon yield some russet chunks of locally-fired brick, pieces of the Rosemary roofing tiles so typical of the area, and some broken pieces of crock once part of jars and kitchenware. Note the stand of trees to the rear right of the picture which are also visible in the press photograph of the cottage contemporary to the murder.

I inhabit – for the time being – a small rural hamlet strung just off the A513, and equidistant between two enduringly olde worlde villages, a few miles north of Lichfield in Staffordshire.  It’s the sort of quiet place that Torment and Violence would choose to pass by, heading for the hustle and bustle elsewhere, along with the generations of mules, ponies, cycles, and latterly, motor traffic, that have travelled along what is the old turnpiked road linking Rugeley to Tamworth. But this cannot be true! As any half-interested TV viewer of one of Miss Marple’s  investigations into torrid crime must be aware, turbulent human passions and and acts of brutality occur everywhere men live, and their drama is most sharply defined in the most tranquil of natural environments, such as the flattish, innocuous-looking holly-and-hawthorn bordered fields, slow streams and and little copses that are features of this stretch of the Trent Valley.

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The Old Tollgate Cottage, twixt Alrewas and Kings Bromley. From a contemporary press photograph.

One dull October week in 1937, the roadway near Orgreave, between Alrewas and Kings Bromley was periodically thronged, according to the local press, by “morbid sightseers and motorists.” who were stopping by to contemplate the Old Tollgate Cottage, the recent scene of the tragic death of Alice Maude Morris at the hand of her husband Leslie. The lattice windows of the brick-built single storey dwelling in its “small but pretty” garden had been boarded up. Behind them, in the darkness, the table remained partly set for a meal, although there was smashed crockery on the tiled floor, and a large, sticky pool of drying blood near the hearth. It was towards lunchtime on Tuesday 19th October when Albert Dunn, the manager of the Singer sewing machine shop in Tamworth Street Lichfield, was cycling towards Alrewas. As he passed the Tollgate Cottage he was alarmed to have his attention attracted by two distressed little girls,  screaming and waving their arms at him.  Leslie Morris, their father, was emerging from the side door of the cottage as Mr Dunn entered to see what the matter was, and he found the body of a woman on the floor of the living room, profusely bleeding from several severe head wounds.  A bloodied flat iron lay on the floor nearby. Leslie Morris came back in to the cottage behind Mr Dunn, and knelt down beside his dead wife in a heart rending state of confusion and remorse for what he had done.  Mr Dunn heard him murmuring “Oh my dear, my dear! What is the matter, my dear?” , his face bending tenderly towards her poor broken head.  Within the luxuriant tresses of hair that crowned Alice Maude’s somewhat ordinary-looking face, there nestled an envelope.

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Joan Frances Morris, and Pearl Morris, from a contemporary press photograph. They must be old ladies now. I hope that the tragic events of their childhood did not blight their entire life.

Then as now, the Tipper family occupied Lupin Farm, Orgreave, the nearest other habitation to the relatively isolated Tollgate Cottage, and the resourceful Mr Dunn crossed the quiet road to the farm hand in hand with the unfortunate children, 12 year old Joan and 8 year old Pearl, to place them temporarily into Mrs Tipper’s care, before turning his attention to summoning the police to deal with the situation, including the capture of Mr Morris, who was now making his way slowly and distractedly on foot towards Kings Bromley. A Rugeley miner, also cycling along this stretch was soon on hand to help in this endeavour. Who were this Morris family, the neighbours asked each other? They were not natives of Orgreave. William Cliffe, a farm worker who had been living alone as  the tenant of the Tollhouse Cottage, had engaged a lady housekeeper to look after him, they had been led to assume, when Mrs Morris had moved in the week before, bringing her daughters with her from her native Cheshire, via the “workers’ train” that was then able to halt at Alrewas Railway Station. If darker gossip about the exact nature of their relationship had been aired over a pint in the Royal Oak in Bromley or one of the several hostelries that served the small population of Alrewas and the more numerous travellers passing through, then it would later prove to be well founded. Murder “at Orgreave”. That was how the incident was headlined in the Lichfield Mercury that Friday.  It was their job to make a sensation of their news stories.  Their readership would have made the mental connection, even without the reminder that the editor included in the reporting, with the nationally notorious murders carried out by Tommy Bond in a cottage in Orgreave some 40 years previously, within living memory of many local people. In fact, the Tollgate Cottage was positioned a little beyond the Alrewas/Bromley parish boundary formed by the winding Bourne Brook that crosses under the road between the two “Lupin” Farms, and was more correctly described in other newspapers as having an address of Kings Bromley. During her brief sojourns in Staffordshire, was Alice told that the narrow stream near her friend’s cottage was called the Bourne Brook?  If so, she would have remembered, because Bourne had been her maiden name.

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Alice Maude Morris, nee Bourne, from a contemporary press photograph.

At barely 18 years old, Miss Alice Maude Bourne had married Leslie Morris in her home town of Congleton on 1922. Their son, Leslie, a “honeymoon baby” had quickly arrived, followed by daughters Joan and Pearl. Mr. Morris was a mechanic, and Alice, too, had a job.  Their happy, boring, domestic life was to be fatally disrupted by a chance encounter in Congleton with a man called William Cliffe. Alice’s heart raced. She and William had known each other well as young teenagers. This,  neither of them saw fit to disclose to the hapless Leslie as the three began to socialise together, soon leading on to Cliffe lodging with the Morris family when he found himself without a place to live. Leslie Morris grew uncomfortable about this menage a trois, despite protestations of innocence from his wife, and Cliffe found himself a bungalow and smallholding nearby, and moved out.  A couple of minor fracas occurring during this period were later described at Morris’s murder trial.  Mrs Morris’s bicycle had been spied, propped up against Cliffe’s bungalow door on more than one occasion.  Still she denied to her husband that she had been unfaithful to him. Cliffe moved from Cheshire to take a job in Kings Bromley in 1936.  He and Mrs Morris continued to correspond, clandestinely, with him addressing the letters to her place of work.  With a suitable alibi in place, Alice even made a couple of brief visits to the Tollgate Cottage.  It looked like she had now moved out permanently in October 1937 to be with “Her own darling Bill”  yet, when her husband arrived at the cottage to beg her to come home with him,  she didn’t know what to decide. Perhaps she would go back home with him, she thought, when he had turned up on the Saturday before the murder, but in the end she did not. Astonishingly, she and Cliffe continued to convince Leslie Morris that their relationship was that of housekeeper and employer. On Tuesday, neglecting his job, and leaving their eldest child Leslie with his grandparents, Leslie Morris was back, and with Cliffe absent from the cottage, it seemed that he had this time succeeded in his objective, and that the whole family would return to Cheshire, able to put the episode behind them. After all, Cliffe looked as if he had been trying to distance himself from the ardent Mrs Morris by moving away from Congleton.  Cliffe’s character and demeanour later made a poor impression on the court when he was called to give evidence at Morris’s trial.  Was Alice disillusioned with her lover, now that she had moved into his humble Staffordshire cottage, facing a life deprived of the reasonable income her marital household had enjoyed? That fateful Tuesday lunchtime Mr Morris, satisfied that his marriage might be restored, was waiting for his wife to retrieve her stockings and coat from the bedroom of Tollgate Cottage, when he noticed a familiar piece of furniture.  There was the very chest of drawers that Cliffe had hauled with him to the Morris family home when he was their guest, and brought on to the Tollgate Cottage. Morris paused, then opened the drawer in which he remembered Cliffe had stored his correspondence.  He pulled out a couple of letters. In his own faithless wife’s hand he read:

” Love, I am not ‘as you say’, I only wish I were.  It would give me something to remember.  There is time yet.”

She might have been pregnant with Cliffe’s child. His self deception was completely shattered, and as he struggled vicously with his wife to retrieve a second letter which she would not let him read, his fury empowered him to inflict what the Coroner later described as the “extensive injuries” with the flat iron, which killed her. Judge and jury were satisfied that the shock of this sudden revelation was enough to temporarily deprive Morris of his sanity, and mitigate the crime to manslaughter instead of murder, and Morris was sentenced to five years hard labour for his misdemeanour. Today, as in 1937, the Tippers are still farming at Lupin, and the Hills at Orgreave.  Like the Morrises and William Cliffe the latter are originally from our neighbouring county of Cheshire.  In the 1930’s, the youngest of the Hill family were able to safely make their way along the the road to school in Kings Bromley in a pony and trap, and much of the other traffic comprised cyclists – pedalling not for recreation, but out of necessity. Near the site where the Old Tollgate Cottage stood, the road has changed course.  A sharp bend that someone must have deemed dangerous, but which actually had the effect of slowing most traffic down, has been ironed out, and its old surface is used to stockpile highway surfacing.  Of the cottage itself, no trace remains above ground level, bar scattered fragments of rubble and the broken detritus of domestic life. The Bourne Brook still goes babbling through, intersecting the road and dividing the parishes, insouciant.

Adapted from 1920's Ordnance Survey via OldMapsOnline

Adapted from 1920’s Ordnance Survey via OldMapsOnline

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4 Responses to For Whom the Bell Tolls

  1. Rosalind Cooper says:

    Excellent piece, very interesting….it is beginning to seem that your little corner has quite a high murder rate!!!!

  2. Thanks, Ros. It does, doesn’t it! Thanks to my admirable restraint, the body count remains as it is for now!

  3. Amanda Bancroft says:

    Hello, I found this piece very interesting as William Cliffe is my Grandfather. The events of that day never left my grandfather who at the time was in love with Alice (they had been childhood sweethearts)
    Whilst working on my family tree I have researched the event and it became clear nothing was black or white!!!
    All involved at the time had their characters assassinated, most newspapers and the defense paint William to be a ‘rouge’ of poor character who caused this tragedy, whilst others give details of Mr Morris – an ill tempered bully who beat his wife and planned to murder her that day as she had told him she was leaving him.
    This event stayed with my grandfather, who I have very fond memories, forever. He was asked in the early 80’s to recount the event for the village history society. He was unable to do so as revisiting the murder of Alice was intolerable.
    My Grandfather resided in Kings Bromley until he passed away in 1985. He married my grandmother 10 years after the tragedy at Toll Gate cottage. They went on to have 5 children together, one being my Mother who also lives in Kings Bromley.

    • Dear Amanda,

      Thank you very much for this, and for reading the piece. I am very glad to hear that your grandfather, Mr Cliffe, went on to have a happy marriage and a family of his own after the tragedy. Some contemporary newspaper reports, as you have pointed out, do imply a denigration of his character in their ( perennial ) quest for sensation. This must have added to his sorrow at the loss of Alice. They must indeed have had a very close bond – to face the disapproval of their relationship by society, and for him to have accommodated her children. Your comments are a very welcome reminder to me that I may be writing about events in this blog that are still painful to some who might read it, and that it is a responsibility I should always take seriously.

      Very best wishes

      Susan

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