A young woman is attacked in the carriage of a train by a muscle-bound “madman” who was seemingly back-from-the-dead. She tries to escape by climbing out of the moving train and is rescued by a sword wielding hero.
It was a cool Saturday evening in late August 1887 when Catherine Scragg, a young school teacher in Shrewsbury, was travelling home from a holiday in Hanley, Stoke-On-Trent.
The train left at 6.40pm and on the whole it was an uneventful journey with a change at Stafford. Catherine filled the time by reading a copy of Tit-Bits, a weekly magazine full of dramatic, sensational, and amusing stories…until that is, when the train pulled into Wellington.
The other passengers got off and she was left alone in the 3rd class carriage. A rough looking, muscular man, walked in and Catherine was instantly uneasy. She put her head down – pretending to read her magazine.
“This train is not going to stop until it gets to Shrewsbury – 11 miles” he said.
A feeling of horror then crept in as he took the seat next to her and said “I’m going to see my wife – there’s no harm in that is there?” With that he put his arms around her waist. Terrified she threatened to call for help and he mocked her; “call for help will you?!”
She didn’t know it of course but his name was George Grice – a notoriously violent man who just 12 months beforehand had been declared legally dead.
He punched her hard in the face – blood splattering everywhere.
Grabbing her by the throat with his ‘iron fists’ he tried to wrestle her to the floor and pull up her clothes – but Catherine, on her knees, fought back with ‘superhuman’ strength and managed to fight her way to the carriage door. In the neighbouring compartment Mr Alexander Graham, a barrister from Dogpole Chambers, heard the commotion and looked out of his window. He saw a bloodied Miss Scragg opening the door and screaming for help. She climbed out of the train which was still moving rapidly – her torn dress flapping in the wind. Her hat blew off as they raced through Upton Manga.
She stood on the step clinging to the side of the train with her arm gripping the inside of the carriage door window. Grice followed, also climbing out, and he grabbed her and tried to push her off. Catherine was about to jump but saw Mr Graham shouting out of the window telling her to hold tight. She held firm and shuffled along the outside footplate. Our hero barrister reached out and clasped her wrist pulling her along and into his carriage through the window. Bewildered and on the verge of collapse he sat her down.
The attacker clambered along the footboard towards them. Grice poked his head in through carriage window out of the wind. Mr Graham had a walking stick. He grabbed the top of it and pulled – revealing a narrow sword which he swished in Grice’s face and yelled at him to get back. The train was running late and so going faster than usual as it headed towards the station. After a couple of minutes Grice edged back along the footplate to the scene of his attack. As the train pulled in, he looked towards Shrewsbury and prepared to jump.
He launched himself onto the start of the Abbey Forgate platform. He tried to run as his feet hit the floor but he was going too fast and ploughed face first into the corner of a platelayers hut. The train pulled in and came to a halt. It was 8.05pm and Mr Graham called for help. The inspector and a Dr Rope who were on the train came to assist. They saw Scragg covered in blood, bruised, swollen and very agitated. Inspector Baxter checked out the neighbouring cabin and saw the bloodied mess that was left and a splattered copy of Tit-Bits.
The police searched the area and could see streaks of blood stretching along the outside of the train where the chase had taken place. Further along the platform they found Grice. He was lying face down about 6 feet away from the track. They rolled him over, felt a pulse and heard him groan. His trousers were unbuttoned.
Who was Grice?
Grice was taken to the hospital where he recovered overnight and was then arrested the following morning for assault and attempted murder. A full investigation into this outrageous crime and its perpetrator was underway.
Detective Sergeant Morris discovered that Grice was a puddler (a specific role in ironworking) from Tipton who’d been working at the Castle Ironworks at Hadley. Further investigation revealed that some years earlier he’d been a long term inmate at Staffordshire Asylum where he’d stayed for 4 – 5 years. After he came out he joined the army and was sent to India but got the fever and was sent home and discharged. He joined up again but was kicked out when they discovered who he was. Following this he spent his time tramping around the country doing odd jobs and was considered an ‘eccentric character’ by the people who met him.
Then in a strange twist in 1886, just 12 months before the train attack, he was declared legally dead. He’d been working at an Ironworks in Abercarn, Monmouthshire, when he suddenly disappeared from his lodgings. Days later a man’s body was found by one of the pits. He’d suffocated from the surrounding ash fumes. At the coroner’s inquest the body was identified as George Grice by his landlady and fellow lodgers and was buried as such.
Grice’s family were also told of what had happened…so it must have come as a total shock when weeks later he turned up at their home in Tipton very much alive and well!
He moved to Wellington and in the days before the attack he lodged at a house on High Street while he worked at Hadley. He didn’t make many friends and was known to steal food from the boys who also worked at the Ironworks. But he decided the work was too hard and told a colleague he wanted to quit.
On the evening of the assault he’d gone into the Station Hotel at Wellington and entered the billiard room. But the landlord saw him and he was kicked out for being ‘rough looking’. Outside he started repeatedly kicking the smoking room door in temper but was warned to stop. In a foul mood, and his mental state in question, he then boarded the Euston Express when it pulled into the station opposite. He stepped aboard, found his victim, and committed the “Brutal Outrage”.
The story made headlines and front pages across the country – and such was the interest in the case that a huge crowd gathered at the Shirehall for the final court hearing in November. Grice stood in the dock with a horse hair rug draped around his shoulders – he gazed vacantly at the barrister’s table as the charges were read out. He paid no attention when the court was told that he was on trial for Unlawfully Assaulting Miss Scragg with intent to rape.
At two previous court hearings in September and October Grice had denied all knowledge of what had happened.
Scragg a teacher at St Michaels School in Shrewsbury had stood in the witness box and described how Grice had attacked her – punching her in face, grabbing her, throwing her to the floor and trying to strangle her. She explained how she’d fought back and escaped by climbing out of the train and clambering along the outside.
Alexander Graham, the barrister had also given evidence – and said how he’d heard Catherine’s screams and seen her bloodied face and neck and she clung the side of the train as it raced through the countryside. He recalled how once he pulled her to safety into his carriage he drew his sword and threatened her attacker before he jumped from the train. The station master, inspector and doctor all gave evidence piecing together everything that had happened leaving the court in no doubt about the events of that day – and that the man in the dock, Grice, was the man who’d committed the awful crime.
When it was Grice’s turn to defend himself and the charge was put to him that he’d tried to ravish his victim against her will – he simply said he knew nothing about it. When asked if he had any witnesses he said yes, and called “God” to the stand. A doctor’s report was ordered.
At the final hearing in November the Grand Jury was gathered. They were being asked, not if he’d committed the crime, but if he was fit to stand trial. Dr Strange told them “he is insane” and explained that Grice knew he was being charged with something but had no idea what.
He was declared unfit to plead and detained at her Majesties pleasure.
This wasn’t the end of the matter however and the judge, Mr Salwey, forwarded the case to the Home Secretary, Henry Matthews who brought it up in parliament and it sparked a national debate over whether woman only carriages should be introduced. With a view to improve safety on the railways the judge also made recommendations that the ticket collectors must take strict care that no men were allowed to hop onto trains at the last moment when woman were present.
He also commented that in the future girls must “really take care of themselves” and not enter a carriage where there were no other females.
In conclusion he said the sympathy of the court was entirely with the young girl and he praised Miss Scragg for her bravery and “heroic defence” in the face of such an awful and brutal attack.
TO HEAR THE FULL STORY AS BROADCAST ON BBC RADIO SHROPSHIRE LISTEN TO THE PODCAST
Shropshire Family History Society