'Her death wasn't an accident or even suicide - it was murder'

THERE were hundreds of mourners at the funeral of Elizabeth Day Silley, among them some of London's most prominent citizens. News of the event occupied a full page in the Kensington Times. The wife of the celebrated architect George Michael Silley, she was descended from Charles II via his illegitimate son, George Swan, and her death at the age of 54 had been an unexpected tragedy. Still wearing her nightdress, she had been found dead in her bath by her daughter Evelyn on Christmas Day 1902.

The pomp and ceremony that would have been expected by London's elite was observed in the public part of the ceremony - a glass carriage drawn by four spectacular horses carried her body to St Barnabas Chapel, Kensington. But mourners would have been shocked by its conclusion.

Out of sight of the crowds, Elizabeth Silley was laid to rest in a common grave at the back of Kensington Hanwell Cemetery, in an unmarked plot owned by the borough that could accommodate up to nine bodies. It was a long way from the traditional ending for a lady of her standing.

Unknown to the gentlemen who shook the grieving widower's hand that day and offered words of comfort, he was hiding a secret that would cast a shadow over the family for decades. Now, more than a century later, the story of betrayal, murder and incest can be told.

IT TOOK Vanessa Goldie-Scot, Elizabeth Silley's great-granddaughter, until this year before she could fill in the significant gaps in her family history. She grew up rubbing shoulders with the establishment in Edinburgh. Her father Tom was a master at Fettes College and rose to become deputy-head during his 40 years of service. He taught Tony Blair and Lord Justice Woolf, and his sons, Hamish and Duncan, were pupils at the school with the Prime Minister.

Goldie-Scot was raised within Fettes and educated at the city's St George's School. She was used to taking tea with the movers and shakers who sat on the college's board over the years, including the current chair, Lord MacLean. The best man at her wedding to James Collins was another judge, Lord Johnston. Her uncle, Sir Thomas Lund, was the architect of Legal Aid, and his daughter Robina was lawyer and adviser to Paul Getty for many years and author of the book The Getty I Knew.

As a teenager, Goldie-Scot met the young Gordon Brown at a social event in Edinburgh. They danced the night away, and Brown insisted on escorting her home. They shared passionate kisses on the way, but he was the perfect gentleman, making quite an impression on her parents. But the Firth of Forth between Edinburgh and Fife was too great an obstacle to overcome at their age, and the pair soon lost touch.

Goldie-Scot was always interested in her family history, but the desire to fully understand her roots grew as she nursed her father during his final months. She realised that he had gone through life knowing very little about his own mother, Evelyn, who had died when he was very young. She learned from him that his brother, Darcy, who at 15 had emigrated to Australia in 1928 as part of an open immigration scheme for Europeans, had been something of a family archivist, and after her father died in June 2002 she resolved to go to see him.

On her arrival, she found that Darcy, just two years younger than her father, was also failing and had gone blind. But knowing of her interest in tracing her roots, he welcomed her with the words, "You've come at last. I've kept everything." Goldie-Scot nursed her uncle until his death the following year, and studied the letters and other documents he had kept. It was through these records that she first learned the startling news that her great-grandmother had drowned in the bath at home on Christmas Day, and that her grandmother had spent years in an asylum. She still could not guess at the scale of the drama that would eventually unfold, but was desperate to learn more. However, the 100-year rule governing the release of papers relating to psychiatric patients meant she had to wait.

Earlier this year, Goldie-Scot, who has now settled in Australia, returned to the UK intent on remaining for six months to thoroughly research the family history. She was lucky to find much of the information she needed on Holloway Sanatorium, the first institute her grandmother entered, at the History Centre in Woking. The old books are kept in cool storage to help preserve the yellowing pages. Goldie-Scot had to wear special gloves, and the books had to be propped on stands to protect their ageing spines. With a mixture of apprehension and excitement, she started to read and began to understand why her father had known so little about his mother.

Evelyn had spent the better part of 12 years in various asylums for the insane. It was while 'on parole' from Edinburgh's Craig House that she found her mother dead in the bath at the family home in Warwick Gardens, Kensington. The fact that it was Christmas Day in 1902 added an extra flourish to the sheer horror. By the April of 1903, Evelyn had been certified again and would remain a psychiatric patient until 1907. Her medical records and her correspondence would remain closed until 2007.

Evelyn was one of four children born to George and Elizabeth Silley, and was the second of their three daughters. Evelyn's records show that her father considered her the outsider. Even as a child, he described her as "self-willed and at times violent-tempered".

Her sisters, Elsie, who was three years older, and Ethel, two years younger, had conformed to their father's expectations and married suitable spouses. Evelyn resisted any suggestion that she should do likewise. Instead she became a student at South Kensington Art School, where, according to her father, she fell under the "bad influence of other students and had to leave owing to her unusual conduct". This amounted to Evelyn attending a dance at which she met a man, Walter Wilson, whom her father described as "a stranger to the family and a fast act". Evelyn, perhaps revelling in her father's disapproval, announced herself engaged to Wilson, a railway manager, but was forbidden from seeing him. There were many confrontations between father and daughter.

Evelyn hated having no control over her life and resented the fact that she had to be dependent either on her father or a husband. She raged in a journal discovered among her papers, "It is simply beastly to be told I cannot do this, that or the other simply because I am a female and will be talked about. I cannot step out of the house without the neighbours talking.

"I admit I feel a little devil rise up in me and say, 'I will indeed give them something to talk about', so I engaged in a conversation with a policeman today in Hyde Park and it was such a thrill to give him a kiss and create a stir. Uninhibited staring seems to be the order of the day. The street is, of course, buzzing with rumours, and it makes me want to laugh out loud. They can all go to hell as far as I am concerned, and most especially that man who calls himself my father."

Unfortunately for Evelyn, her father didn't go to hell, but used her journal entry as 'proof' of her insanity. He persuaded two of his medical acquaintances to certify her. Without even seeing her, they signed the forms, diagnosing her with 'adolescent insanity' - she was 21 - and she was sent off to Holloway Lunatic Asylum in Virginia Water, Surrey. In a letter to the asylum, Silley explained that his daughter had become unreasonable when told she could no longer see her boyfriend, and he feared a scandal. In 1896, this was enough to deprive a young lady of her liberty. Over the next three years, Evelyn would be in and out of a number of asylums.

However, whether at home during her periods of freedom or staying with relatives, she managed to maintain her rebellion. She would disappear on her bicycle, at times staying away overnight. She took a job in a hospital and caused a stir when she kissed the man who dispensed medicines - which resulted in her being dismissed.

She was certified again and sent back to Holloway in 1899, but her records from that point contain many of her letters. They appear to show that she was of sound mind, but on her father's instructions they were never posted. They also make it clear that she was locked up on his account. Evelyn was still in love with Wilson, and in June 1899 she wrote a touching letter to "My own darling boy", begging him to seek permission to come and visit her.

"I had always felt a strong bond with my grandmother, even though we knew so little about her," says Goldie-Scot. "I knew she had three children, as I did, but that she had died young. My father had this inner sadness throughout his life that was tied to the loss of his mother. To be sitting in the research rooms holding her letters gave me intense satisfaction, but the stories that emerged were heartbreaking."

In a letter written in July 1899 to her older brother Percy, Evelyn says, "I have had an interview with Dr Moore this morning, and he tells me he doesn't know what is the matter with me... He himself doesn't think me insane, but he said my father did. Anyhow, I am sane enough not to come home any more."

An indication that her spirit had not been broken comes in the same letter. "I tell everyone here that my name is Julius Caesar, as I am supposed to be a lunatic and must act up to my vocation... With love to Elsie, Ethel and you, but to no one else, I remain your affectionate sister, Evelyn."

In a letter to "My dear Uncle Dick", dated July 1899, she tells him her father is lying when he claims she has taken leave of her senses. "My father and everyone else concerned are too cowardly to let me write to a solicitor or magistrate to defend myself, as they know they will get the worst of it; and actually he had the cheek to say what an expense it is keeping me here, even casting that in my teeth; his money can go to the devil for all I care."

She adds, "I shall say to everyone I come across the way in which I have been treated is perfectly disgraceful. He is even too cowardly to send any letters I write as they are all sent to him from here - this lunatic asylum. They are doing their best to make me ill here. I have been here over three weeks and have had no exercise, not a single walk, and exercise is what Dr Bradford ordered for me. There is a note up here that we are permitted to see a commissioner of lunacy, and I wrote to one, but my letter evidently never got sent."

Evelyn did see a commissioner soon after, though. Her medical notes record the meeting. "July 25th, patient was today discharged, the C of L being of the opinion that her admission was irregular by reason of the fact that the certificates failed to disclose any indication of insanity observed by the certifiers at the time of examination."

The documents also offered Goldie-Scot tantalising hints at what lay behind Evelyn's troubles. On the second occasion she was certified, she is described as suffering from moral insanity. "Patient talks freely and readily enters into conversation. She admits her previous conduct and gives no reason for her extraordinary behaviour. She admits innumerable flirtations, including that with the Hyde Park policeman, yet says it flippantly with a smile on her face, and can see nothing wrong in such conduct. She speaks in the most vulgar terms about her father, and talks freely on subjects not usually alluded to. Seems to be almost entirely without the usual womanly instincts."

Goldie-Scot says, "The reference to talking in vulgar terms about her father was the first thing that made me really sit bolt upright. Until that point, I was reading the material with fascination. My grandmother's treatment was distressing. I felt sure she was completely sane, yet had years of her life taken away from her. But this was the first thing that really made me feel uneasy and to wonder about the relationships in the family."

Evelyn's periods of freedom were short. After returning home in February 1900, she formed another attachment that incurred her father's wrath, becoming 'engaged' to the friend of an Oxford undergraduate. She ran away from home and was discovered in the young man's garden. He brought her home and she was committed again in May.

She was released some months later, at the insistence of the commissioners, but after she ran away to Edinburgh her father decided to send her to Craig House, an asylum in the city, agreeing to pay two guineas a week to keep her there. Out on parole in December 1902, Evelyn was to endure the devastating loss of her mother, exacerbated by the shock of finding her dead in the bath. It wasn't long before she was back in Craig House.

Evelyn's transfer to Scotland would eventually prove her salvation, for it was here that she met Thomas Goldie-Scot. One of the foremost gynaecologists and surgeons of the day - his career is profiled on the Royal College of Surgeons website - he had moved into the field of mental health. He met and fell in love with Evelyn, which must have caused a stir. In 1907 she was freed and they married the following year, when Evelyn was 32. But her story would not be happy ever after. She bore three children, but died in childbirth, still a young woman. Unlike her own mother, though, Evelyn was loved and given a decent burial. Her husband even bought two lairs, no doubt intending to rejoin her in death, but the needs of his young family led him to take another wife and the second plot remains empty.

Goldie-Scot has now chosen this as her own final resting-place. She says, "When I think back to Evelyn, the grandmother I never knew, what stands out most in my mind is the way she was so completely ignored, her poignant letters left unsent. It has been such a privilege to find them and read them and feel her pain through the generations."

But her research was not yet finished. The funeral of her great-grandmother and the discovery that she lay in a pauper's grave left many questions unanswered. Goldie-Scot had noted with interest that while the Kensington Times and the death certificate recorded the death as accidental, Evelyn's medical notes, which relied heavily on information from her father, described her mother's demise as suicide. Goldie-Scot says, "The death certificate says, 'Found dead syncope from suffocation while in a bath into which she had fallen. Accidental.'

"I tried to imagine the circumstances in which a healthy 54-year-old woman would fall into the bath and drown, and it didn't seem real. Suicide was a possibility, but how many people would manage to drown themselves in a bath? This uncertainty, coupled with what I learned about the funeral and her burial in a common grave, led me to suspect foul play. But what was the motive? And after more than a century, how could I ever find out?"

The answers finally emerged from other branches of the family. "Because my grandmother died young and my grandfather remarried, my father and his brothers became rather isolated from other branches of the family," she says. "They grew up not knowing the story that was such a key to their lives, but it transpired that the actions of my great-grandfather were not such a mystery among others in the extended family."

Goldie-Scot tracked down distant relatives she had never met, and a cousin, Melanie Richardson, was to confirm her worst fears. "I arranged to visit her, this grand old lady in her 70s whom I'd never met. She was a generation closer to those events than me, and I resolved to tread warily. I asked if she had any idea why my great-grandmother might have been buried in a common grave. Quick as a flash she said, 'Well, it was murder, wasn't it? Best way to make sure the body was never dug up.' I was stunned at the simplicity and certainty of her answer.

"Her father had told her years before. Evelyn's sister Elsie had been haunted by their mother's death and by her sister's treatment and had spoken quite openly of both to her family. She suffered so much heartache because she was never able to meet Evelyn's children."

Goldie-Scot then asked how her great-grandmother had died. "She was held down in the bath by her husband," came the answer. "It was very clever of him," Richardson told her. "You see, by picking Christmas Day he was sure to have people around, and he deliberately sent Evelyn up to find her. Evelyn was very outspoken, and she had told her mother and sisters all sorts of things about her father - there had been incest - to explain her problems and her running away.

"This was his way of saying, 'Look what happens if you talk. It will be you or your sisters next.' Elsie felt so bad that Evelyn suffered the burden of being locked away and keeping quiet after that, because she finally understood that her father really could get away with murder."

This revelation left Goldie-Scot with mixed feelings - satisfaction at getting to the truth, tempered by sorrow at the sad life of her grandmother and the unjust fate of her great-grandmother. She says, "The story was made more real by not reading it from yellowing documents in a library, but hearing it direct from a family member who had always known. Finally, I felt relief that my father had gone through life without this knowledge."

George Silley's unusual funeral arrangements may well have been giving a signal to those who knew where his wife was to be buried that the 'accidental' death was in fact suicide. But in the last few days, Goldie-Scot has unearthed evidence that suggests it was not only family members who knew his dark secret.

Elizabeth Silley was buried unceremoniously near a railway line at the very back of Kensington Hanwell Cemetery, in grave number 32 of section 54. The grave was never marked, and it took Goldie-Scot some time to find it. But a memorial does exist. A stained-glass window that remains in St Barnabas Chapel was erected by her friends in her memory. It depicts St Cecilia, who was sentenced by the Roman emperor to be stifled to death in her own bathroom. Coincidence? Or a pointed condemnation of the man who got away with murder?

• Vanessa Goldie-Scot is currently writing a book about her quest to understand her family history

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