April 2012: Southampton
Venue: Southampton Park Hotel
Organiser: Kate Stacey
Report by Kate Ellis
It’s that time of year again. Birds build their nests, lambs gambol in fields, flowers grow… and crime writers flock together for their annual conference. Released after a long lonely winter surgically attached to our computers, on 20 April we seized the opportunity to enjoy each other’s company, have a drink or three and listen to some intriguing talks.
This year, thanks to the sterling efforts of the wonderful Kate Stacey, we gathered at the Southampton Park Hotel which overlooks a pleasant park with the Sea City Museum visible in the distance. Taking a few steps outside the hotel, it was even possible to see massive cruise liners anchored in the distance, towering over their surroundings. However, we stayed on dry land for the weekend and when we arrived at the hotel on Friday afternoon we gathered in the bar and greeted old friends and new before proceeding in a (moderately) dignified manner to the SeaCity Museum where we were welcomed warmly to Southampton by the Mayor. The museum itself was well worth exploring. Southampton is heavily involved in the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic as she departed from the port on her fatal maiden voyage. Many of the Titanic’s crew came from Southampton and the Museum’s exhibitions reflect the city’s close links with the tragedy.
After returning from the Mayor’s reception we gathered for a pleasant and leisurely dinner, giving us all a chance to catch up with friends and colleagues. And after breakfast the next morning we were treated to some fascinating talks.
First of all Annia Cherryson spoke on a subject close to my own heart, archaeology. Her talk was entitled ‘He shall be slain and buried in unconsecrated ground’. Annia had been involved in the excavation at a Victorian dairy built on the site of an Anglo Saxon cemetery near Winchester, an excavation which turned up something rather peculiar. Most of the Anglo Saxon skeletons discovered in the cemetery had been decapitated and the experts concluded that they belonged to victims of execution. She gave us a thought provoking account of crime and punishment in Anglo Saxon England and the beliefs and burial practices of the inhabitants of Wessex before the Normal conquest. There was also the grisly suggestion that the victims’ heads were displayed on wooden stakes. Now there’s an idea for a crime novel!
It was Pauline Rowson who introduced our next speakers, PC Kerry Murray and PC Matt Gransden of Hampshire Police’s Marine Unit. The Marine Unit started in 1947 as the Southampton City Docks Police with only one vessel. Now it is responsible for covering 260 miles of coastline and has three launches, one at Portsmouth, one at Southampton and one on the Isle of Wight, as well as RIBS capable of 50 knots for faster response. The Unit also has an ROV submarine for examining hulls of vessels and the government is investing in new boats including a twelve metre catamaran which can be used as a floating incident room.
The Solent is one of the busiest waterways in the world with over a million commercial and naval shipping movements a year and over ten million pleasure craft movements. Much of the work of the Marine Unit is counter terrorism and they operate under the umbrella of Special Branch. Ships, oil refineries and dockyards are prime targets for terrorists but the Unit also has to tackle other marine wrongdoings from drug smuggling to boat theft. With Cowes Week to police as well as cruise ship events, the Marine Unit provide an invaluable service and it was great to hear about its work from two of its highly trained officers.
After coffee we heard from former police officer and local historian, Jim Brown, about some of Southampton’s most notorious murders. His talk began with the interesting fact that under the Merchant Shipping Acts anyone committing murder anywhere in the world on board a UK registered ship is subject to UK law, something I was unaware of but will certainly bear in mind for future books. One particularly notable case was the murder of film star Gay Gibson on board a British ship, the Durban Castle. The ship was sailing from South Africa and was off the coast of Portuguese Guinea when steward, James Camb murdered her and disposed of her body by pushing it through the porthole of her cabin. He was caught and tried for her murder in Southampton.
Following lunch some people visited Mottisfont, a nearby National Trust Property, while others took the opportunity to explore Southampton. Then, in the evening we gathered again for a very eventful AGM followed by an excellent dinner after which Joe Bates spoke about his experiences of being kidnapped on the island of New Guinea.
Sunday morning began with a fascinating talk by Joan Lock about the first London bombings. In 1884 a respectable looking man deposited a ‘fiendish device’ at Victoria Station in London which went on to explode. Joan traced the bombing back to the Fenian Brotherhood which had its roots in the USA (and even attempted to invade Canada). These ‘dynamitards’, as they were known, based themselves in Paris, popped across the Channel to plant their bombs before fleeing back to France. There were many attacks on the British mainland and, interestingly, one of the investigating officers was Inspector Frederick Abberline who was later in charge of the Jack the Ripper investigation, a man who lived through ‘Interesting Times’.
Robert Richardson’s quiz this year produced a crop of witty answers. Members were asked to come up with a suitable motto to set beneath the CWA’s Crossed Daggers logo.
Our final speaker was our fellow CWA member, Felix Francis who talked about how he is ‘carrying on the family business’ by continuing the work of his esteemed father, Dick Francis. He gave us many insights into Dick’s life and career, both in horse racing and writing (including sharing his father’s theory about the famous and mysterious Devon Lock incident). In 2005 when Dick had retired, his backlist was out of print – I know, unbelievable, isn’t it – so his agent proposed that an established author write a follow up. That was when Felix (who was then a teacher but had been long involved in his father’s work) volunteered to take over and Under Orders (a new Dick Francis book written by Felix) was published in 2006. Felix now writes under his own name and has just finished his seventh novel.
Then, disappointingly, it was time to go home. Many thanks to Kate Stacey for organising the conference so brilliantly… and I look forward to seeing everybody again next year.
By Robert Richardson
Forget the Grand National, the Southampton Conference Competition Handicap was the race of the year, with a cliff-hanger finish. At the off, the challenge was to come up with a motto for the CWA; in a packed field, there were many outstanding runners and riders.
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