Baron Pollock confirmed they could but reminded them the prosecutor still possessed the right to reply. He courteously replied they would be only too happy to hear his response but they had reached their own conclusion.
Had they found a Southampton lawyer guilty or not guilty over the mysterious death of an elderly shoemaker? It was a drama that gripped the town as the 19th century was drawing to a close.
Charles Mason, 68, perished in a fire at his home in Albion Place. The blaze broke out about midnight on the first floor of the building which contained an office, occupied by solicitor Henry Frederick Watts who raised the alarm, running outside shouting ‘fire’ and ‘police.’
Though far from intense, it must have been difficult to tackle as Superintendent Isaiah Johnson, in charge of the local fire brigade, reported they used a “copious supply” of water to tackle the flames. When Johnson was eventually able to mount the stairs, he discovered Mason, unconscious and in a sitting position behind a partially open door on a second-floor rear room.
With a police officer’s help, they carried the pensioner across the road to the New Inn where a chemist’s assistant, who lived next door, applied ‘restoratives.’ However, his efforts were unsuccessful and a doctor, who arrived within minutes, confirmed he had passed away. Suffocation and not burning was ultimately revealed as the cause of death.
But what puzzled forensic experts was how the fire began and why did Mason not save himself. It had spread quickly and they were unable to pinpoint its seat. Johnson himself described it as “extraordinary.”
Watts was not under suspicion.
When the inquest opened the following day, November 10, 1889, he made a voluntary statement, principally recalling their encounters that evening and exposing Mason’s predilection for drink.
The solicitor explained he had spent the evening in his office, preparing for the next day visit of its walls ‘whitewashers.’ He saw Mason about 8pm but as they exchanged pleasantries, he made a strange remark: “I went a little wrong this morning, sir, and I have been lying down for a few hours.”
Watts attributed the remark to alcohol.
They met again later the same evening and Mason asked if he had a crown coin in his pocket. Watts said he only had some gold but giving him a half-sovereign, advised the shoemaker not to spend it on drink. Mason reassured him it was to be spent on food. The pair parted and Watts went out for a meal. On his return, he invited Mason in for “a drop of whisky” but soon realised he had already been indulging and was drunk.
Watts told jurors he went back to work until 11pm when he discovered Mason sitting in a chair downstairs in a “dazed state.” Afterwards, he went to his room and hearing a noise on the staircase, realised Mason had slipped clutching a smoking paraffin lamp. He put the lamp on the landing and helped Mason up the first flight of stairs where he sat down, saying he could go no further and brushed aside his suggestion he should sleep downstairs.
Watts then left to post some letters, intending to pick up his top hat, bag and sweets for his children he had put in his room, but as soon as he reached Albion Place, he saw a light in a window and rushing inside, was confronted by dense smoke. He shouted to Mason: “Come down at once or you are a dead man” before raising the alarm.
Watts added he often put an inebriated Mason to bed and how the old boy had refused to let him turn out the lamp, adamant he would promptly re-light it if he did. Accordingly, he put it on the stairs and made Mason promise not to touch it once he had gone out.
He could only presume Mason did the opposite of what he had asked and had fallen into his office with the lamp igniting papers which had been left on the floor after the carpets had been removed to await the ‘whitewashers.’ He then tried to fully climb the stairs but was overcome by the drink.
A creditable explanation? At first, it appeared totally sound but after the inquest had been adjourned, police probed the lawyer’s finances and a potential motive for the shoemaker’s death emerged. Debts.
Why did he give Mason a half-sovereign, a sizeable sum at the time? Watts accepted he owed Mason “a small sum” and had given him a promissory note for £180, though he maintained most of it had already been repaid. But he was also overdrawn at the bank, a Chancery order had been issued for him to pay £80, and his office and furniture had been insured for £200.
An analyst declared the fire was of such ferocity it had melted the brass handle of the office safe and badly charred its front because fuel or some combustible material was nearby. Office contents had been damaged by a ‘spiritous inflammable liquid.’ Tests however had failed to reveal any trace of alcohol or spiritous liquid, and the pervading odour was not that of paraffin, but the police believed Mason had died from foul play, a view endorsed by jurors at the inquest’s resumption. On the coroner’s warrant, Watts was committed for trial at Hampshire Assizes on December 18 when the Crown alleged he had used methylated spirits to start the fire.
However, their case crumbled – ironically because of a prosecution witness whose testimony revealed detectives had failed to conduct a thorough investigation into Watts’s background.
Though an auctioneer did value the office contents as a mere £50 -£60, he confirmed the sum of £200 had never been questioned and it covered books and important legal papers. He had known Watts for ten years and the solicitor’s wealthy father-in-law had bought him a house in upmarket Carlton Place for £700. Its contents were similarly valued. If asked, he would have had no objection in advancing him as much as £300 on the furniture’s security.
Finally, another witness revealed his overdraft had been secured by his wife and reduced by instalments to £27.
Defence barrister Mr Bullen reminded jurors a police officer had agreed Watts had valiantly assisted in trying to quell the fire, the promissory note was kept by Mason in an open drawer and Watts could have simply removed it if he had wanted to destroy it, and a Home Office expert was convinced paraffin had started the fire and the heat of the burning wood would have caused the safe door to warp.
Bullen submitted his closing speech with such fervour it brought instant applause and the jury’s request. The prosecutor waived his right of reply, the judge did not sum up and within seconds, Watts was a free man, smiling and nodding to friends as he stepped from the dock.