There has always been an obsession with murder and for many years, especially during the days of capital punishment it was a mainstay of the popular press. In addition, even before we had a national press it was ‘promoted’, through theatre, ballads, and broadsheets, ‘crime as art’ one could say. Even Dickens one of our great novelists used his experience as court reporter to flesh out his characters.
Lucy Worsley, local educated, Reading and Newbury, is by day the Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, yet probably better known as a prolific writer and television presenter.
As an opener to the talk, she quoted from the eminent essayist, George Orwell. ‘It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war… You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. … the fire is well alight. In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about? Naturally, about a murder.’
Her subjects spanned the centuries and included The Red Barn Murder, the notorious 1827 murder of Maria Marten, shot dead by her lover, William Corder. As with other famous murders such as ‘The Road Hill House Murder’, and ‘The Radcliffe House Murder’ It became the staple of broadsheets and dramas, i.e. ‘penny gaffs, short, theatrical entertainments staged anywhere and a staple of melodramatic thespians. Corder is still with us. One can see his preserved scalp in Bury St Edmunds’ Museum. Lucy has handled it and had an image to prove it.
She also briefly mentioned Reading’s own murderous celebrity, Amelia Dyer, the ‘Baby Farmer’. However, she there was no detail. If you are curious about Dyer, look at local author, Angela Buckley’s recent book on the subject.
Nevertheless, it was not always about the distant past and towards the end of the evening we came back to Orwell’s period with Lucy displaying a rampant passion for the ‘Golden Age’ of Crime Fiction, most notably the author of Dorothy L Sayers
Overall, the presentation, backed by PowerPoint, was a detailed yet brief view of this historical obsession with murder, and both erudite and entertaining. Of course, she is no stranger to this approach if anyone has seen her broadcasts or read any of her books.
She ended the evening by fielding questions from her enthusiastic and appreciative audience, before signing copies of her popular books. If you missed her, there’s a chance of seeing in June at The Goring Gap festival where she will be delivering a talk 'If Walls Could Talk - An Intimate History of Your Home'. Especially if you have ever asked yourself, ‘Why did medieval people sleep sitting up?’ It should be an entertaining talk.
An edited version of this article was originally published in Newbury Weekly News, June 9th 2016