Unsolved Murders

Caroline Berry

Age: 34

Sex: female

Date: 14 Feb 1909

Place: Bentinck Row, Shuttlewood, Bolsover

John Wheeldon, Caroline Berry, John Berry and Charles Wheeldon died in an explosion at their home in the early hours.

It was thought that the explosion had originated from their fireplace and that some sort of explosive had got in there.

The jury at the inquest returned a verdict stating that the deceased met their deaths as a result of injuries received through an explosion, but how the explosion originated there was not sufficient evidence to show. They added a rider stating that their opinion was that the explosive had not been contained in the coal which was being burned in the grate.

A Home Office expert from the HM Inspector of Explosives said that he had formed the opinion that whatever had caused the explosion had not been placed in the fire, but at a point where the chimney began. He also said that he didn't think that the material was gun powder but that it was more likely in his opinion any high explosive of the nitro-glycerine order. He said that if such cartridges had been placed in the chimney, they might have gradually warmed up to explosion point when they would have gone off without a detonator.

He added that it was possible that the explosion was caused by a mis-fired shot from the colliery, but that he thought that it was highly improbable unless it had been much larger than a three-ounce shot such as were used at nearby Oxcroft Colliery.

The colliery manager at Oxcroft Colliery said that he didn't think that the explosion had been caused by a mis-spent shot from the colliery finding its way into the coal that had been being burnt in the fire at the time. The colliery manager said that they kept a correct account of all shots fired at the colliery and said that since 1908 no fewer than 10,814 shots had been fired  at Oxcroft Colliery and that of that number only 40 had missed fire.

The colliery manager then went on to say that John Wheeldon had got his last load of coal on 9 February 1909, noting that the place where he got it was filled on 3 February 1909 and that since the last misfire had been on 1 February 1909, it could not have got in with the coals that he had got as all coals supplied to the colliers were tipped on the day they were screened.

The colliery manager then said that he had carried out some interesting experiments since the explosion at the house in which he had placed about half-a-dozen pieces of coal into an improvised brick fireplace and drilled a hole into one of the pieces of coal sufficiently large to take a cartridge of Monebell, an explosive they used. He said however, that when he set fire to it, that the coal remained in the fireplace although it was pulverised, noting that the noise was very slight indeed. He added that he tried that experiment several times with the same result, stating that the force of the explosion merely moved the bricks. However, he said that when he tried the same thing with 20 ounces of Bellite in a grate similar to that at the house in Bentinck Row, he said it blew the bricks 50 yards away and made a similar report to that heard at Bentinck Row.

When the coroner asked the colliery manager whether he thought that it had been a charge of Bellite that had caused the explosion he said that that was his opinion, stating that if it had been gunpowder that he would have needed a barrow full, but he would have only needed about 5lbs of Bellite.

The colliery manager added that he had never known of a misfire not being reported, noting that they were very careful about that at Oxcroft Colliery.

The inquest heard that John Wheeldon had been injured at Oxcroft Colliery some time before and that he had received £175 compensation and that with some of the money he had bought a horse and trap which was his custom to drive out on the weekends. It was heard that he had gone out in it on the Saturday preceding the explosion with some other people to Mansfield, coming back at about 1.30am in the morning. It was heard that of that party were a brother and sister that also lived in Bentinck Row. The sister said that after returning home they went into John Wheeldon's house but later went back to their own house and went to bed. However, the sister said that soon after she retired to bed, she heard a terrific explosion, saying that the noise was so frightful that she thought that the house had fallen. She said that she then went into the street as quickly as possible and said that someone then told her that she was wanted at her sister’s house and that when she got there she saw that the place was in ruins and that John Wheeldon was laying there dead with a piece of iron bed railing sticking through his neck.

The sister said that she then saw Caroline Berry moaning and shrieking in agony, noting that she only lived for a short time. She said that the two children John Berry and Charles Wheeldon were both also dead.

At the inquest, witnesses gave evidence concerning John Wheeldon. A man that had lived at John Wheeldon's house with his son said that John Wheeldon had complained lately of pains in his head owing to the accident he had had two years earlier, but said that he had not seemed strange lately, although he said that he was given to drink although he had not seen him the worse for drink.

The coroner then asked the man how much John Wheeldon would drink and the man said 'a pint or two', and the coroner asked if he had a gallon or two which caused laughter, and the man said 'no', and added that he had never seen John Wheeldon 'fresh' and that he had never heard him threaten to blow up the place. The coroner asked the man what time the explosion was and the man said that at about 1.45am John Wheeldon and Caroline Berry returned home and that thy then immediately asked him to put the pony away as it was cold. He said that he did not think that John Wheeldon was the worse for drink and said that he seemed friendly and it didn't seem that he had quarrelled with anybody. He said that they then all had a drink all round from a bottle of beer and that he then went to bed, his son following after him, noting that that was at about 2.15am. He said that they left the others sitting around the fire. He added that he had never known John Wheeldon to keep explosives in the house and added that it wasn't easy for anyone employed at the colliery to get explosives, noting that they were always carefully locked up. He said that the others came to bed about five minutes later, in the front room where the explosion was. He noted that there was another three-year-old boy asleep in the back room. He said that his room was above John Wheeldon's room but said that he heard no poking immediately preceding the report. He said that there were loud bangs, the two or three bangs following each other. He said that he didn't know where the noise came from but said that the place was shaken, and he thought that the roof was coming in. He added that he didn't hear any fizzing before the bangs came and said that after he stayed in bed until all was quiet again. He said that some bricks fell on his bed and that one grazed his boy's face and that he then heard Caroline Berry groaning downstairs.

The man said that he dressed and went downstairs about ten minutes after the explosion, but didn't go into the room. He said that he stood at the door and could just see Caroline Berry, and noted that there was no fire. He said that Caroline Berry was lying on the floor near the dressing table and that he could see another body on the side of the bed. He said that John Wheeldon was himself there, lying in a kneeling position with his hands on the bed and that the iron bedstead was doubled up. The man added that when he had been upstairs, he had heard Caroline Berry shout out, 'Oh, help me, save the children'. He said that he had asked her what the cause of the accident was and said that she had replied, 'I don't know. I only saw some sparks come from the fire'.

When the doctor examined the bodies, he said that he felt that Caroline Berry had been standing up holding the baby at the time facing the explosion stating that her wounds were so placed that they could not have been inflicted if she had been in any other position. He said that she had a large scalp wound and a great number of other wounds of various sizes as though being struck by blunt instruments that had in many cases carried her clothing into the wounds. He said that John Wheeldon's right eye was completely blown out and that there was a hole leading into his brain. He said that John Wheeldon's right forearm and hand were also shattered and at the inquest he produced a box containing a number of pieces of iron that he said were from the fire grate that he had found in John Wheeldon, some in the bottom of his wounds under his collar bone that he had needed a knife to get out. He said that John Berry had a large open fracture in the region of his left temple and that the baby had a similar temple injury. The doctor noted that a curious thing about the baby was the charring on its face which he said was covered as though with a black mask which would not come off, even with scraping and added that it was the sort of mark that followed an explosion if the person injured was close to where the explosion had occurred. However, another person at the inquest noted that the marks might have been made by very fine coal dust being forcefully driven against the baby's face. The doctor also noted that another remarkable feature about the affair was that all the wounds to the people were to the front of their bodies.

However, other witnesses at the inquest gave evidence stating that John Wheeldon had spoken of blowing things up. A collier from Skegby said that he had been employed at Tibshelt Colliery and had known John Wheeldon for three years and that he used to work with him at the Oxcroft Colliery screens and occasionally went out driving with him. He said that when John Wheeldon had been the worse for drink, and sometimes when sober, he had said that he would have 'a blowing up job some of these days'. However, the man said that John Wheeldon never said how he would blow them up.

It was also heard that Caroline Berry had another daughter living with them who was not John Wheeldon's child and that John Wheeldon didn't like it and it was heard that John Wheeldon had said that he would have a clearing out among them, noting that he didn't think that there was a need for both Caroline Berry and a grown up girl being about the house.

The collier from Skegby said that he thought that John Wheeldon might have had some explosives from the colliery from before he met with his accident two years earlier and said that he had heard John Wheeldon say that it would not 'take him very long to blow the ---- row up', meaning the houses where he lived. The collier from Skegby said that he responded to that by telling him not to talk such rubbish and added that he thought that John Wheeldon was a very queer and funny tempered man and said that he could not keep away from the drink at the weekend.

The collier said that when he heard the explosion he was in bed and said that he remarked to his wife, 'It is a Bentinck earthquake' which caused laughter at the inquest. He also said that he had often heard John Wheeldon and Caroline Berry quarrelling. He also said that he had known John Wheeldon to have explosives and said that one time when they were on the screens John Wheeldon had found a tin that had had about two or three pounds of explosives in it and said that they didn't report it and said that he thought that John Wheeldon took possession of it. He said that he thought that John Wheeldon had thrown away the tin and put the explosives in his pocket and told him that he was going to give it to someone employed at the pit.

However, it was next that the colliery manager gave his evidence and dispelled the theory that the explosion had been caused by mis-spent shot.

The inquest concluded without determining how the explosion was caused.

see www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

see Sheffield Daily Telegraph - Friday 26 February 1909, p7