From our archives: Spotlight on Kidsgrove – The Avenue Villa Murders

On October 2nd, 1911, people living in North Staffordshire and South Cheshire were shocked when they read in the Sentinel that widow Mrs Mary Weir, her four-year-old daughter, Margaret, and her maid, 17-year-old Mary Hambleton, had been murdered by a burglar.

The victims lived at Avenue Villa, a large detached house in Liverpool Road, Kidsgrove which stood in its own grounds overlooking the Victoria Hall and the cemetery. Surrounded by trees, the secluded villa was approached by a long, winding drive. At about ten o’clock in the morning, Mrs Eliza Stanfield, who lived opposite, was looking out of her window and saw a man walking up the drive towards the house.

Two hours later, Mrs Weir’s eight-year-old daughter, Jennie, came home from school for dinner. She saw an empty cash box lying on the floor in the hall. Going upstairs, Jennie found the three bodies lying on the floor in pools of blood. They had all been stunned by blows to the head before being stabbed four or five times by a chisel or a stiletto, a short dagger with a tapering blade.

The cash box belonged to William Lehr, a German civil engineer who was erecting a battery of German designed Carl Still coke ovens at Birchenwood Colliery. William had been living with the Weirs for eight days when the murders were committed. The burglar took £30 in gold sovereigns and silver coins from a drawer in William’s bedroom where he kept the cash box and a leather bag containing £15. The bag was missing and suspicion fell on Karl Kramer, a German construction worker at Birchenwood, who had helped William to move his possessions into Avenue Villa a few days previously.

Karl Kramer

A keen cyclist, Karl Kramer, who was 28 years old, had been an infantryman in the German army. He cycled all the way from Wakefield to The Potteries looking for work. On September 14th, 1911, he came to Kidsgrove, where German workers were building a battery of 72 Carl Still coke ovens at Birchenwood Colliery. William gave him a job, and he found lodgings with Esther Shufflebotham, an elderly woman who kept a shop in Goldenhill.

Kramer left Birchenwood on Wednesday, September 27th, after a row with William, and two days later walked out of his lodgings owing Mrs Shufflebotham eleven shillings (55p) rent. Everyone thought Kramer had left the district. He hadn’t. On the morning of Monday, October 2nd, Kramer cycled from Red Bull to Kidsgrove. Leaving his bicycle at a stonemason’s yard near the Harecastle Hotel, he walked into town. When he returned about an hour later to collect his bike Kramer seemed agitated and anxious to get away quickly.

A nationwide manhunt

When the murders were discovered, Staffordshire Police organised a nationwide manhunt for Kramer. A watch was kept on ports in case he tried to get back to Germany. His description was given to the newspapers, and the public was asked to help find a 5 foot 7 inches tall German in his early 30s, with-nut brown hair and a bristly moustache who was “last seen” wearing a green striped peaked cap, a dark green suit and black shoes.

On leaving Kidsgrove, Kramer cycled to Macclesfield. He stopped for a drink at the Bleeding Wolf, an old coaching inn on the A34 at Hall Green, and kept going outside to see if anyone was following him. By two o’clock Kramer had arrived in Macclesfield. He went to a hairdresser, where barber Samuel Rider shaved him and took off his moustache. When he left the hairdressers, Kramer went to Macclesfield Station and caught a train to Leeds.

Kramer still had his bike with him when the train arrived in Leeds at about five o’clock. The first thing he did was to purchased a rolled gold chain from a jeweller. When he realised that his suit was bloodstained, Kramer went to a tailor’s shop and bought the first ready to wear suit of clothes that the assistant showed him. It needed altering, and he left the shop while the alterations were made. Kramer collected the suit two hours later. He paid for it with silver coins and purchased a hat. Kramer changed into his new suit and left the shop carrying the bloodstained suit in a box, which one of the assistants had given him.

Later, he booked a room for the night at the Phoenix Temperance Hotel, paying four shillings (20p) for bed and breakfast.

Before going to bed, Kramer went to a public-house, the Prince of Wale, and started to buy drinks for everyone in the smoke room. He purchased several rounds and paid for them with gold and silver coins taken out of a leather bag which he kept in his hip pocket.

A woman, Dora Goldstone, approached Kramer. He bought her a drink and asked if she would like to dance. While they were dancing, Goldstone put her hands in his pocket and stole the leather bag which contained £27. She left the public-house and shared the money with two men who followed her out. When he realised the money was missing, Kramer reported the theft to the police saying his name was John Reuter.

The following day, Kramer made his way to York, where he offered to sell his bicycle to George King, a cycle dealer. King was suspicious. He believed it had been stolen and called the police. Kramer told them his name was Alfred Woltman and said he had travelled by bicycle and train from London to York looking for work. The police believed him, and King bought the cycle for fifteen shillings (75p).

Arrest and trial

Kramer left York the next morning and went to Bentley, a small mining village near Doncaster. Saying he was a fitter from Glasgow who had come to work at a local colliery, Kramer found lodgings at William Bradshaw’s fish and chip shop. That evening, Bradshaw read a report of the murders in his newspaper, which gave a description of the wanted man. Realising that his lodger was the murderer, Bradshaw informed the police and Kramer was arrested. He said his name was Ainfred Woltmann and when charged replied, “Me no understand.” The West Riding Constabulary, who had made the arrest, handed him over to Staffordshire Police, and he was brought back to Kidsgrove, where bloodstains were found on his underclothes.

On Saturday, October 7th, Kramer was remanded in custody by the Magistrates and taken to Stafford Prison. A few days later, an inquest was held at the Victoria Hall, Kidsgrove into the deaths of Mary Weir, her daughter Margaret and the maid Mary Hambleton. The jury said they had been wilfully murdered by Kramer and the Coroner committed him to Stafford Assizes to stand trial for murder.

While he was awaiting trial, the prison authorities discovered that Kramer was mentally ill. He became withdrawn and lost interest in everything. On Tuesday, November 14th, two prison officers carried him into the dock at Stafford Assizes and placed his seemingly lifeless body on a chair. He sat on the chair with his head in his hands while the court clerk read the indictment.

Kramer remained silent when the clerk asked him whether he pleaded guilty or not guilty.

Two doctors told the court that Kramer was insane and unable to understand the proceedings. The jury accepted their evidence and found that he was unfit to plead, and the judge, Mr Justice Pickford, ordered him to be detained in custody during His Majesty’s pleasure. Kramer was taken back to Stafford Prison and shortly afterwards transferred to the criminal lunatic asylum at Broadmoor.

Copyright Betty Cooper 2010

First posted on 19 August 2010