On a beautiful clear but chilly Monday in January of 1895 a terrible scene took place on the normally peaceful Weymouth esplanade, one that shocked those out enjoying an afternoon strolling in the crisp days sunshine.
Early that morning two persons ‘of a certain class,’ (according to the magistrate,) had boarded the train from their home town of Springbourne, just outside Bournemouth, they were heading for the delights of Weymouth.
The couple were 63-year-old John Pearce, (alias Leonard Cooper,) a rag and bone man and his lady companion, Sarah Avariss.
Having lived together for 5 years they were in effect common law man and wife, but this was a couple that knew a great deal of domestic violence and anger…
and both were more than partial to downing a few drinks.
Not surprisingly, John had already been before the courts many a time over the years for his drunken behaviour and mistreating his ‘wife.’ He’d also spent time incarcerated for various misdemeanours, but love knew no bounds, Sarah, ever faithful, wrote to him while he was behind bars, professing her undying love.
That fateful January morning in 1895, their drinking had started early, way before they had even boarded their train.
According to Sarah’s own statement given in court, ‘They had whiskey before they started-two noggins each at Springbourne. They brought two with them in bottles in the trains, and had three in the public-house over the bridge at Weymouth, the name of which she did not know. She did not feel the effect of the drink until she got outside.’
Things were just fine and dandy at first, John and Sarah were fast becoming enveloped in that warm alcoholic glow, the one that also has a dark side, just waiting in the wings for a multitude of horrors to be released when fate steps in.
They had found themselves a nice warm and cosy pub just across the town bridge, it had a welcoming crackling fire and the atmosphere inside was jolly.
As the steady stream of strong drink began to really take hold of the couple, fun and affection turned to fights and discord.
When the couple finally left the warmth of the hostelry, (one would assume that they had been asked to leave by mine host,) they staggered their way through the town, trying to find somewhere else that would serve them a drink, but to no avail.
Already well in their cups, they were turned away from pub after pub.
John and Sarah, by now feeling very cold and hungry, brought themselves something to eat, armed with a loaf of bread and cold meats, they walked the streets of the town, John cutting the meal up with his pen knife.
Things were rapidly turning sour between the two…no money left in their pockets, no way to get any more drink, no where to go to get warm.
It was only going to go one way!
A furious argument broke out between John and Sarah, one which was witnessed with shock and horror by many who were also strolling the shops in St Thomas Street that day.
Two of those bystanders who were keeping an eye on the warring couple was 50-year-old local man, James Lowther, a painter, who lived in Wellington Place with his wife and family, and his male companion Chiddock ( or Jarrett, depending on which newspaper report you read!)
As the still fiercely bickering John and Sarah reached the Gloucester Hotel, Lowther and his companion were not far behind still closely observing the fractious pair.
By this time Sarah had had enough, shoving the rest of her uneaten lunch in her pocket, she stormed off, (as best as a drunk can,) and staggered her way down the seafront towards St John’s Church.
By the time she’d reached Brunswick Terrace, John had caught up with her again…and so the vicious row continued.
Sarah, at the end of her by now somewhat short tether, told her quarrelsome lover in no uncertain terms ‘to go about his business as she wanted no more to do with him.’
With that cold dismissal ringing in his ears, an already furious John was tipped over the edge, he put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a knife…and ran it straight into her neck!
Sarah clutched her hand to the wound, blood was pouring between her fingers and soaking into her clothes, she staggered across the road uttering over and over ‘Oh, you have done it!’
Luckily for Sarah the two curious men had followed the quarrelsome couple along the esplanade.
Chiddock ran across the road and shoved John to the ground. With the help of his companion, James Lowther, they quickly disarmed the attacker. Then roughly pulling him to his feet again, one either side holding tightly to his arms, John was told that he was well and truly apprehended, ‘My man, I shall take you into custody.’
All the fight had left John’s body, he simply replied ‘ All right, my boy; I will give myself up. I have done it, and it is a bad job.’
Someone else on the spot that day who was quick to react to the horrific and bloody scene, was young Ramsay Arbuthnot.
Sixteen-year-old Ramsay was visiting Weymouth at the time, he had relatives in the local area. Ramsay, or George Ramsay to give him his full name, was the grandson of Robert Bentley Buckle, who had been the rector at Upwey.
Ramsay whipped his handkerchief from his pocket and placed it over the gaping wound in Sarah’s neck, but still the blood kept squirting through. He shouted to the shocked bystanders for more cloths to press over the wound.
At last he managed to stem the flow of blood, by this time Dr Carter had arrived on scene and between them they moved Sarah to the nearby home of a Mrs East. Here the good doctor performed life-saving surgery on Sarah, he first had to enlarge the hole in her neck to be able to reach the bleeding vessels inside to tie them off before he could stitch up the gaping wound. Once he was satisfied that her life was no longer in danger, a cab was hailed and Sarah was moved to the Royal Hospital where she was cared for by Mr du Boulay over the next few days.
The quick thinking and swift actions of young Ramsay and Dr Carter had saved Sarah’s life, without their intervention she would have literally bled out in mere minutes on Weymouth’s finely gravelled promenade.
The attacker, John, was handed over to P.C. Burt at Weymouth police station, which in those days was within the Guildhall in town. When he was searched several more sharply honed knives were found within his clothing, but very little else.
Still under the influence of alcohol John seemed to show no remorse for what he had done, in fact at one stage he commented quite coldly that ‘it was done in temper, but I meant to do for her.’
When the investigating officer, Detective Day, remarked about the attempted murder weapon, the knife, being razor sharp, John replied rather ominously that he had ‘sharpened it for the purpose.’
John found himself hauled before the local magistrates next day, but as Sarah was not well enough to attend court, he was remanded in Dorchester gaol for a further week.
This John was a very different character, he was sober and in a reflective mood, stating that ‘he was very much obliged to the doctors for saving the woman’s life, for they had not only saved her but him too.’
By the time a contrite John Pearce stood trial at the Dorset County Assizes in the June charged with the attempted murder of his lover, Sarah had already forgiven him.
Like so many victims of domestic abuse throughout time, her evidence changed to deflect the blame away from him and towards herself.
In court Sarah tried to explain away the situation by saying ‘ I did not see him come up. He was cutting his food, and when he got hold of me by my shoulder I turned round, and that is how it was done, I suppose. But I did not feel it. I think he was getting hold of me here (pointing to the collar of her dress) and I gave a turn and did not see anything in his hand. He had cut my food before then.’
John was found guilty and given 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.
The judge had not only taken into account the fact that he had been blind drunk at the time of the attack, but also that ‘punishment to the prisoner would to a certain extent be punishment to her.’
Before he was led away back down the steps to the cells below to start his sentence he asked to be able to speak to his beloved Sarah, he hoped with all his heart that she would wait for him.
As they say…love is blind!