Monday, 28 November 2016

A Cleveland link to a Dublin matricide in 1936?

A new story.

I've recently been contacted by researchers working on the fascinating business I outline below.  It seems almost certain that the main protagonists were related to the Weatherills of Hollin Top Farm, near Danby, and the Browns of Staithes and they wondered if I knew anything of the people involved.
I didn't!  Perhaps one of my readers does?  Do let me know!

On 23 May 1936, a 20 year old man called Edward Francis Allen Preston Ball was convicted in Dublin of the brutal murder of his mother.  He was found guilty but insane, and sentenced to an indefinite stay in the Dundrum Lunatic Asylum.

The national press had been entranced by the story and it was covered by every provincial newspaper.

It began with the finding of Mrs Ball's bloodstained car "at the top of a precipice overlooking the sea near Shankhill, Co Dublin" [Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 18 May 1936].  Mrs Ball lived in a fashionable area, was of independent means, and was the wife of Dr Charles Preston Ball, a Dublin nerve specialist, from whom she had been separated for some years.

Her body could not be found, though they searched with aeroplanes, row-boats and grappling apparatus according to a report in the Irish News.  In the meantime, her house was watched by the police and, five days later, her younger son, Edward, was arrested.  The police were satisfied that he had killed his mother with a hatchet before disposing of the body.

He pleaded not guilty at his trial, his rather unlikely defence being that he had come home to find that his mother had committed suicide by cutting her throat with a safety razor blade and that he had decided to hide the suicide by disposing of her body in the sea.

Witnesses told of the poor relations between mother and son and to his failure to settle down to any proper occupation after finishing school.

His father told the court of his late wife's mental illness.  She had begun to show signs of mental instability after Edward's birth and had become terribly neurotic, "She would meet patients at the door and tell them not to come in and see him, and get friends to ring him up and send him on wild goose chases into the country." But at the same time, she had carried on writing him affectionate letters until the time of her death.  [Derby Daily Telegraph, 22 May 1936].  He thought perhaps his son's mental state was inherited from her.

There had been some disagreement the day before between two expert witnesses, pathologists engaged by the opposing sides, over whether or not hair had been chopped or cut off the dead woman's head.  Dr Ball was naturally very anxious that the court took the view that his son was insane - the alternative would, of course, have led to the death penalty.

Mr Justice Hanna spoke in his summing up (widely reported in the press on 23 May) of the "months, even years" that the boy had suffered "under the disposition of his mother towards him."  In the end, he had found it intolerable (it had been suggested that the crisis came when Mrs Ball would not give him £60 to go on tour with the theatrical company for which he was an unpaid extra) and "suddenly something snapped".
"It might be," said the Judge, "that Mrs Ball, outside her own home, was bright, cheery and charming, and that she was not the same inside her home ... The position of the boy was very pathetic.  He was drifting about like flotsam on the sea."  
Pointing out that adolescent insanity was a rare disorder, the judge said that he disliked very much using the word 'insanity'.  The terms 'sane' and 'insane' were relics of the time when people thought that the sane and the insane were like black and white, in two separate compartments.  Modern science had shown that that was not so.
"There is a twilight of the mind, just as there is a twilight between day and night."  
Unsurprisingly, the jury returned the verdict of guilty, but insane.

In normal circumstances, he would not have got anything due to him under his mother's Will, but the press was fascinated to discover that this would not be the case - his insanity prevented him from being debarred.  So when he was released from the asylum 14 years later, he had something to live on.

This was a major news story at the time, but now is really only remembered because it features in A Classical Education, a short and fascinating book by the historian, Richard Cobb. 

For years, Cobb had been making a party piece of his connection with his old schoolfriend, Edward Ball.  He knew the strange boy very well, and had known - and very thoroughly disliked - his mother. Over the years, his anecdotes had become much embellished.  The entrancing power of the prose distracts the reader from this most successfully and there is no easy way of finding out which parts are true.  (For example, Cobb says that Ball insisted at his trial that the murder had been premeditated.  And did the Irish police really suspect Cobb of inciting the murder?  And Mrs Ball try to sue him for libel?).  The title of the book comes from their shared time at Shrewsbury School and from something Cobb quotes Edward as saying when they finally met again after his release.  His classical education had meant that he had no idea that if one wanted to wash blood from an axe, it was important to use cold , not hot, water:
"What a pity that we went to a classical school!"

The question is: Who was Mrs Ball?

Newspapers say little of her family background - beyond the fact that she was of independent means - and don't even appear to be sure of her name.  She is called, variously, Lavena, Vena and Vera.

But it now seems very likely that she was in fact Lavinia Weatherill, and the granddaughter of Edward Theaker Weatherill.  He was born at Hollin Top Farm, near Danby in 1820, married a Staithes girl, Lavinia Brown, and was buried at Hinderwell in 1905.

Edward & Lavinia's son John married Margaret Mackenzie of Dublin.  Richard Weatherill (1844-1923) recorded that John & Margaret's children included Lavinia Brown Weatherill, who married Dr P Ball, and had John Charles Preston (Edward's older brother).

This exactly matches the unfortunate Mrs Ball - described by Richard Cobb as "slothful, unimaginative, uneducated, ignorant, feckless, sloppily dishonest ... changeable, untruthful, untidy ..."

As you can see, he really didn't like her.


  1. No family history links to me but a fascinating story! I've just ordered Richard Cobb's book.

  2. And it's a fascinating book! Beautiful prose. But I couldn't help wishing I could put a full account of the trial alongside it, to see what he had decided to keep, and what to alter. The review of Cobb's book (when it came out in 1985) in the London Review of Books by Julian Barnes says:
    "When Cobb’s book was extracted in the Observer a few weeks ago, the former manager of the Dublin Gate Theatre wrote to propose an additional trigger for the crime. At the time of the murder Edward had a walk-on part at the Gate as an organ-grinder in Crime and Punishment, so every evening would watch Micheal MacLiammoir as Raskolnikov fall to his knees and confess: ‘It was I killed the old woman and her sister with an axe.’ A front-of-house photograph showing Edward reacting to this confession was swiftly removed when they heard that the organ-grinder had gone home and imitated art."
    And I couldn't help thinking that my own reaction to Edward & his mother (words came to mind such as sociopath? post-natal psychosis? dysfunctional relationships? etc) was flatter and less rich than the strange surreal world that Cobb conjures up from his youth!

  3. The Crime and Punishment link sounds quite possible to me. And, his mother's state of mind apart, Edward, at 20, was at the age when serious psychotic symptoms most commonly first appear.
    I look forward to reading the book and, possibly, exploring more of Richard Cobb's writing. Thank you for this post!

  4. Thank you for the information here and the linked site with Vera's ancestry.

    I was born in the same house as Edward (40 Upr. Fitzwilliam St., Dublin) and lived relatively near the area where he dumped the body.