The shocking case of Rachel Parsons, the wealthy heiress who was battered to death at her home in Newmarket
Wealthy, reclusive, eccentric or forgotten feminist pioneer.
In the nine years Rachel Parsons had homes in Newmarket and nearby Cowlinge those who knew of her would certainly have gone with the former. It was only after she was bludgeoned to death in a killing which shocked the country that the truth about her remarkable life began to emerge.
At the time she was murdered in July 1956 she was numbered among the wealthiest people in Britain.
On the death of her parents, Sir Charles Parsons, the inventor of the steam turbine, in 1931, and his wife Katharine, two years later, Rachel, their sole heir had inherited the family fortune, around £840,000.
From an early age Rachel had had an aptitude for engineering and science, a talent fostered by her family including her mother, herself an engineer and champion of women’s rights.
The family’s wealth meant Rachel was able to receive the very best education, culminating in three years at Roedean, one of the few schools at the time which taught science to girls, after which she attended Newnham College, Cambridge, where she was one of the first three women to study mechanical sciences. But by virtue of her sex she was barred from taking her degree.
On the outbreak of war in 1914 she replaced her brother, Tommy, who joined the Royal Field Artillery and was later killed, as a director at the family’s engineering factory in Newcastle upon Tyne which manufactured steam turbines for electricity generation and marine engines, as well as searchlights and other optical munitions.
There she was in charge of a growing cohort of women workers and, after joining the training department of the Ministry of Munitions, she guided women in factories all over the country, helping them as they learned to do everything from making searchlights, periscopes, and viewfinders to installing electrical wiring on battleships and assembling aircraft.
With her mother she co-founded the Women’s Engineering Society and together after the war they continued to promote women’s employment rights. Having seen how effectively women had worked in engineering when they had to during the war, mother and daughter were angry that many of them had their jobs taken away when the men returned from the front under the terms of the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act 1919. In a speech, the outspoken Lady Parsons deplored the way that women had been required to produce the ‘implements of war and destruction’ but then be denied ‘the privilege of fashioning the munitions of peace’.
No doubt inspired by her mother, a few years later Rachel got herself elected to the London County Council, representing Finsbury for the Municipal Reform Party.
She was one of the first three women admitted to the Royal Institution of Naval Architects and, from 1921, she became a lifelong member of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. She also held a Master Mariner’s Certificate and sailed the Atlantic aboard Mauretania, a record-breaking passenger liner driven by steam turbines invented by her father.
In the years between the wars Rachel also gained a reputation for the gatherings she hosted for London’s elite at the large homes she owned, first in Portman Square and later Grosvenor Square.
Aged 55 she had one last try at entering the national political arena when she put herself forward for selection as the Conservative candidate for Newcastle in 1940.
Her bid failed and from that moment it seemed Rachel’s life, once so organised and focused, began to lose direction.
The woman who moved to Suffolk in 1947, first to Branches Park, in Cowlinge, appeared very different to the celebrated London society hostess.
Living in just a few rooms of the large country mansion, her perceived eccentricities soon became the topic of conversation across Newmarket.
From the few guests who visited Branches Park came stories of its rooms being used to store animal feed and potatoes. Expensive cars had been left to deteriorate and Rachel’s seeming inability to keep her staff meant the mansion too had fallen into a state of disrepair.
The rather dischevelled figure, who invariably wore a Victorian-style hat, shabby coat and down at heel shoes, often caked with mud, was becoming something of a Miss Havisham figure, slowly turning the mansion into her own version of Dickens’ grim Satis House.
The state of the property was brought to the attention of the local authority and she was fined on more than one occasion for failing to comply with orders to carry out repairs.
It was all a far cry from those glamorous London days when, with her flame-red hair, and often festooned in furs and jewels, Rachel might once have imagined herself a goddess of the silver screen.
She did love the cinema and after being banned from driving in 1953 relied on a driver or taxis for her regular visits to the pictures in Newmarket which she would attend three or four times a week.
Rachel’s mother was a keen horsewoman and her daughter inherited her love of horses. Having been a regular at Royal Ascot she started investing in her own string of racehorses.
But this was a venture in which she wanted to play an active role and had very definite ideas about how she thought her horses should be trained. Not surprisingly her relationship with her trainers was often turbulent and she went through quite a number. One can only imagine the conversations she would have had with the likes of Sam Armstrong, one of those trainers, who was not known for his gentile manner.
Despite all this she was a successful owner and her Le Dieu d’Or was one of the most consistent horses of the 1954 season, never finishing outside the first three.
Because she found it difficult to find a trainer to work for her, that year she bought Lansdowne House from Jeremy Tree and moved all her horses to the stables attached to the secluded property. Years later these were bought by trainer Basil Foster and re-named Holland House.
On Monday, July 2, 1956, acting on information received, police went to Lansdowne House where they found Rachel’s body stuffed in a cupboard near the back door. She had suffered severe head injuries, and a post-mortem later revealed her skull had been fractured twice. Officers also found a blood stained iron bar, which would turn out to be the murder weapon.
Less than 24 hours later, a local stable man, 26-year-old Dennis Pratt, who had previously worked for Rachel but had left her employ in May of that year, was arrested and appeared before magistrates at Newmarket’s Lisburn Road court house charged with her ‘wilful’ murder and was remanded in custody. He had been apprehended after trying to sell a pair of binoculars to a jeweller in Cambridge.
In a statement, he said a row had started when he had asked Rachel for two weeks’ holiday money he claimed he had not been paid. Determined to get the cash he had got into the house in the middle of the night and confronted the 71-year- old . “I asked her for my money and she hit me with her handbag,” he said.
“I shouted at her for her to stop,” said Pratt. “I picked up an iron bar. She carried on going for me with her handbag and I carried on with the bar.
He then described how he picked up the body, propping Rachel up and sitting with her holding her head. He dragged her into the pantry and bizarrely left on the light because he said: “She always slept with it on.”
He then took money from Rachel’s handbag and the binoculars from her bedroom before locking the house and going home at around 3am where he calmly had a cup of tea before cycling back three hours to the scene of the crime where he switched off the light and kicked away some blood stained shingle outside the house, throwing the iron bar he had used to kill Rachel on some coke under the stairs.
He then hitch-hiked to Cambridge where he tried to sell the binoculars.
Pratt was tried at the Essex Assizes at Chelmsford in November 1956 before Mr Justice Diplock. Defending was future Attorney General Michael Havers, who said Rachel had called Pratt and his wife ‘guttersnipes’ and asked the jury for a verdict of manslaughter on the grounds of provocation.
Havers conducted a masterclass in victim-blaming, describing Rachel as ‘clearly a bitter and vindictive woman’ while in his summing up the judge said the jury had been given a picture of a women who was ‘strange, unpleasant, quarrelsome and perhaps lonely and uncontrollable’.
They took just two hours and 20 minutes to acquit Pratt of murder but found him guilty of manslaughter. He was jailed for 10 years.
Judge Diplock called the decision merciful, telling Pratt: “You killed an old woman in a most brutal fashion.”
Henrietta Heald, author of Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines,which centres around Rachel and her mother and their efforts to free women domestic drudgery, said: “Rachel was an inspirational woman but the 1950s was a very hostile environment for any woman considered unconventional. Rachel was single, she had no children and stood up for herself. She would have been seen as a threat or uncontrollable, a word used to describe her at the trial. The defence was she had it coming to her. I regard her death as a tragedy.”
Rachel’s cousin, Canon R E Parsons, officiated at her funeral which was held on July 6 at St Mary’s Church. She is buried in Newmarket Cemetery.
Anne Parsons, Countess of Rosse and wife of Rachel’s cousin, paid her own very personal tribute in which she perfectly framed the life and character of a truly remarkable woman.
“The daughter of one of the greatest scientific geniuses that this country has ever produced,she inherited much of her father’s brilliant technical brain and volcanic temperament,” she said.
And she remembered the ‘lovable, headstrong and attractive’ girl, brimming over with enthusiasm and with her father’s desire to achieve and an uncommon ability to grasp mathematics.
However she said that Rachel had had an ‘unusual’ upbringing, in an atmosphere dedicated to and absorbed in science and inventions but mixed with the Victorian restricting decorum that forbade the outlet of a career to such a girl.
“Had she been young today, when full equality in careers for men and women exists, what fields of honour in the world of science might not have been hers, with all eccentricities accepted?”
She said Rachel’s actual achievements, though far from negligible, had somehow failed to match her ambitions.
And she pondered whether things would have been different if Rachel had married and had children something she felt would have ‘surely softened and moulded the thousand jagged abnormalities that crowded so technical a brain’.
But she concluded: “The solitude that was hers through the combination of her intellect and her background denied her such opportunities.
“Frustrated, no doubt, she turned to a life of social conventionalism that neither fitted nor satisfied her; perhaps because she was alone, she handled her life in the end with prejudice and suspicion.”