17 June 2020

William Edwin Surman (1897-1937)

William Edwin Surman

William Surman spent the first fifteen years of his life growing up in the pleasant country town of Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, After leaving school he worked in a local shop. But this wasn't enough. In 1913 he left his family and moved thousands of miles away when he emigrated to a new life working on a farm in Saskatchewan, Canada. A year later the Great War started and he joined the Canadian Army as soon as he was eighteen. 

After being demobbed in 1919, William returned to Tewkesbury to live with his widowed mother Mary and in 1924 married local girl Irene Bennett. They set up home at 47 Barton Street and went on to have two sons, Roy and Alan. William had a secure job with the Tewkesbury Burial Board and worked in Tewkesbury Cemetery. 

In 1932 the family took in a lodger, 43-year-old Charles Edwards. Early the next year Irene found herself pregnant - and the father wasn't William. In October she gave birth to a daughter in discreet, faraway Barrow-in-Furness. They were divorced in 1935 and William was given custody of their two sons. Irene, Charles and their baby daughter moved to Hertfordshire where their family expanded. They don't ever appear to have married.

In 1937 William received the news that he would have to move from his home at 47 Barton Street. Although his landlady offered him alternative housing, and at a lower rent, he felt that none of it was of the right standard for him and his sons.  Although his mother later said he had recovered from the divorce, the loss of his home triggered the rapid onset of severe depression. We can only speculate that it was related to the breakdown of his marriage.

Thursday 16th December was the day for William and his sons to move to the new home he had eventually found in nearby Nelson Street. At 6.30 that morning his wife's sister Elsie Dickenson was woken by a banging on her door and boys' voices shouting. It was her nephews telling her their father had broken a gas pipe in his bedroom and the room was filling with gas. Their father would not get up. When Elsie saw him later that day she asked him about the the gas and he told her that he was feeling "sick" and that the piping had broken when he'd clung on to it. But when Elsie saw the gas piping she didn't believe him. It looked as though it had been cut through. William's first suicide attempt had failed.

She later told the inquest: "He was very funny that morning. I was frightened of him. His eyes were glassy and he seemed strange. He tried to blow out my flashlight. He made me anxious."

His mother helped him with the move. Did she know about his suicide attempt with the gas pipe? She later told the inquest jury "He wasn't normal. He'd stand about and looked dazed and had no energy, so I stayed with him till 11.30 that night. I told him to go to bed and get some rest and I'd help him in the morning. He never suggested doing himself an injury."

The next day, Friday, William went to work as usual and later visited the local Woolworths store to buy a half-pint bottle of Flame disinfectant. He walked back towards the cemetery and in a small lane close by, drank almost whole the bottle. As the contents burned through his stomach and beyond, he rushed to the small pond in Mills Ground, 150 yards from the cemetery, and threw himself in to end his agony.

Because of their age, his two sons were not called as witnesses at the inquest so we don't where they spent the Friday night, but it's most likely that they stayed with their aunt Elsie for at least the next few days, and probably longer.

On Saturday William was reported missing from home and the police made enquiries. The bottle of disinfectant was found in the lane where William had dropped it. On Sunday morning P.C. Masterson and P.C. Horton dragged the pond in Mills Ground and found his body.

At the inquest which followed the jury returned the only possible verdict: "Suicide while the balance of his mind was disturbed".

William's funeral took place on 23rd December when his burial in Tewkesbury Cemetery was preceded by a service in Tewkesbury Baptist Chapel. The Rev. R. J. Reith officiated at both places.

The family mourners were Mrs. M. A. Surman (his mother), Mrs. F. Trinity, Mrs. E. Hallett and Mrs. H. Beecham (his sisters), Mr. H. Hallett (his brother-in-law). Mr. and Mrs. O. Dickenson (his brother-in-law and sister-in-law), and Mr. W. Freeman (a friend).

As the sympathisers assembled at the chapel, the organist, Mr. P. Wilkins, played Tchaikovsky's Chanson Triste  and then Handel's Largo.

The hymns were "Jesu, Lover of my Soul" and "Abide with Me".

William's employers were represented by Alderman G. P. Howell, Councillors H. D. James and W. Walkley, while Messrs. J. J. Whiteley. A. H. Hulbert and H. Green were present on behalf of Tewkesbury Brotherhood. Also present in the chapel were Miss Wilkins, Mr. R. Wilkins, Mrs. W. Smith, Mr. W. E. Workman, Mr. W. Smith and Mrs. Chambers.

The coffin was carried by Messrs. Walker, Robins, Cooke and Hodges. Among the wreaths were those from the Tewkesbury Baptist Church, Tewkesbury Baptist Women's Own, his neighbours, his workmates at the cemetery, and the Tewkesbury Brotherhood.

Roy and Alan, William's sons, moved to live with their father's sister Ethel in Birmingham. They both died in 2001. William's mother continued to live in Tewkesbury and died there in 1956.

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