Who killed Florence Nightingale Shore? Brutally attacked whilst travelling on the train between Victoria and Bexhill her killer was never caught. Was a man seen by witnesses leaving the train responsible or was the killer someone much closer to Florence the real killer?
On a bitterly cold afternoon on January 12th, 1920, fifty-five-year-old Florence Nightingale Shore made her way to London’s Victoria Station. Accompanied by her close friend Mabel Rogers, who had come to wave her off on her journey, the pair boarded the 3:20 pm train to Hastings at a little after 3 pm.
Mabel sat with her friend a short while and chatted as Florence waited for the departure time to arrive. Just as Mabel got up to leave a male passenger entered the carriage and took a seat. Mabel said her goodbyes to Florence and made her exit.
Two stops were made, first at Lewes and then Polegate. After the stop at Polegate, three workmen made their way onto the train and sat in the carriage in which Florence Nightingale Shore was seated. Now alone in the dimly lit carriage, Florence sat in the corner seat seemingly asleep with a veil covering her face. Fifteen minutes later the train arrived at Bexhill. It was only at this point one of the workers, George Clout, realised something was amiss.
Florence Nightingale Shore had been brutally clubbed on the skull multiple times. What the workmen mistakenly took as a veil in the dimly lit carriage was, in fact, blood soaking the victims face. Despite the horrendous blows she had received Florence was still alive.
Florence was transported to Hastings Hospital. She was soon joined by her friend Mabel Rogers, who rushed from Covent Garden Theatre where she was attending a show to sit by Florence’s bedside. Sadly, four days after the attack and despite the best efforts of the medical staff Florence Nightingale Shore lost her fight for life.
Florence Nightingale Shore
Florence Nightingale Shore wasn’t merely named after her more famous namesake, she was in fact a second cousin and godchild of “The Lady With The Lamp”. Born in Stamford, Lincolnshire on January 9, 1865, she was part of a wealthy family living in Derbyshire.
Like her godmother, Florence Nightingale Shore herself was also an accomplished nurse and during her service in the war, she became highly respected. Florence had served in both the South African War and the First World War. Florence was even scheduled to be awarded the Royal Red Cross at Buckingham Palace in March for her efforts.
She had only been back in England a short while. Florence had spent her time during World War 1 working in France, firstly for the French Red Cross before then serving the Q.A.I.M.N.S.R. Back in England, Florence stayed at Carnforth Lodge, a nurses’ home in Hammersmith, of which her old friend Mabel Rogers was the matron.
On the train carriage in which the vicious attack took place, police found little in the way of evidence to determine the culprit. There were no clear signs of a struggle with the only items out of place been Florence’s glasses, found under her seat, and a newspaper, part of which was on the seat besides Florence and part on the floor. The assailant had taken the valuables Florence had on her, which Mabel Rogers revealed was around three pounds and a couple of items of jewellery. Florence’s train ticket was also missing.
A search for the possible murder weapon was ordered. This was no small task considering the crime took place on a moving train and with no clues to determine at which point Florence Nightingale Shore had been attacked. Three separate forces took part in the search but no weapon was located.
The Man In The Brown Suit
The best lead for the police seemed to be sightings of a man in a brown suit. Mabel Rogers who had seen the man board the same carriage as Florence gave the following description:
- About 28 years old
- Medium brown hair and clean shaven
- Approximately 5 feet 7 inches tall
- Slight build
- Wearing a brown tweed suit with no overcoat or luggage.
The guard on the train, a man named Henry Duck, stated that he had seen a male passenger leaving the train at Lewes from the carriage where Florence Nightingale Shore would later be found. Instead of waiting for his carriage to pull level to the platform or moving up to a compartment already level the man exited by jumping four feet to the ground. Henry Duck shouted over to the mystery man but failed to garner a reply. Although suspicious on paper Henry Duck later stated at the inquest leaving incorrectly was a regular occurrence. The man was described by Henry Duck as follows:
- Athletic build
- Between 26 and 30 years old
- About 5 feet 8 inches tall
- Wearing a dark, drab mackintosh coat and a cap
Although there were several discrepancies in the description of the man Henry Duck saw and the man who was seen by Mabel Rogers police couldn’t rule out them being one and the same.
The Home Office pathologist Dr Spilsbury carried out a full post-mortem and autopsy. Florence Nightingale Shore had been struck on at least three occasions with a heavy, blunt instrument, possibly the butt of a revolver. The impact had left an H shaped wound at the top of the victims head. The blows were struck with enormous force, causing the skull to fracture and the brain to be penetrated. Given the force of the attack and the injuries, it was surprising Florence lived as long as she did after the assault.
Further inspection of the body revealed no evidence that a struggle had taken place. It was also determined that Florence would have been unable to seat herself in the position she was found if standing during her attack meaning Florence was struck where she was found. Finally, despite a rip in her skirt, there was no evidence to suggest Florence had been sexually assaulted. The final cause of death was stated as “Coma due to the fracture of the skull and injury to the brain.”
A Suspect Emerges
The search for Florence Nightingale Shore’s killer focused on the man in the brown suit seen by Mabel Rogers. Despite three different police forces been involved in the investigation, no clear suspect was found, however, that all changed on January 22, ten days after the attack.
On that night, at around 10 30 pm, a man attempted to break in and burgle a house on Arlington Road, Eastbourne. His attempts were thwarted by the combined efforts of the households cook, parlourmaid and nursery maid. A brief struggle between the cook, a Mrs Carter, and the man ensued before he managed to escape, dropping his revolver on the way out. He didn’t get far though, as he was soon apprehended on nearby Orchard Road by officers and taken to the Central Police Station.
The criminal was soon identified as William Ernest Clements and he quickly became the prime suspect in the murder of Florence Nightingale Shore. William Ernest Clements was 28 years old and was 5 feet 7 inches tall, he was also slim yet well-built, however, it wasn’t merely the fact Clements fit with the description given by Mabel Rogers of the man in the brown suit that he became a suspect.
William Ernest Clements
When Clements revolver was recovered from Arlington Road it was noted that the butt of the weapon could have caused similar impact blows to those received by Florence Nightingale Shore. A closer look at the gun revealed it had traces of blood on the butt. A search of Clements lodgings also uncovered a bloodstained suit.
Under questioning, William Ernest Clements was unable to account for his whereabouts on the day of the murder or accurately recall what he had been doing in the ten days between the attack and his arrest. However, investigators were unable to prove he was on the train that fateful day. Police had to hope forensics and the help of an eyewitness could aid their case against the suspect.
Mabel Rogers was brought in by investigators in the hope of giving an identification. It wasn’t to be, Mabel was unable to confirm William Ernest Clements was the same man she had seen enter Florence’s carriage. Likewise, questioning of staff members from the train, presumably including Henry Duck the guard who spoke to a man leaving the train at Lewes, failed to garner an identification of the suspect.
Forensics also failed to prove the Webley service revolver belonging to William Ernest Clements was the murder weapon. Testing of the gun found that the blood was human and not animal, however, that was as much information as they could gather. The sample was unable to help prove the blood belonged to Florence Nightingale Shore or was even the same blood group.
Back to square one with no hard proof against the suspect Clements was never charged with the murder. Where the human blood found on the revolver came from was never revealed by Clements.
Whether police believed Clements was responsible for the murder but just didn’t have the evidence or if they ended up excepting his plea of innocence is unknown. The investigation was slow going with little in the way of new leads or suspects after the release of William Ernest Clements. That all changed in November 1920, when investigators were given fresh hope of finally apprehending Florence Nightingale Shore’s killer.
While being cared for at Shirley Warren Infirmary in Southampton, George Leonard Cockle informed staff he wished to make a statement to the police. His wish was granted and on speaking to officers Cockle confessed to the murder of Florence Nightingale Shore.
At first glance, George Leonard Cockle’s story seemed plausible. Cockle described how he had viciously attacked Florence before taking several items including her jewellery and money before leaving the train at Lewes. Unfortunately, investigators soon realized that he hadn’t given them any information that couldn’t be cobbled together from various newspaper reports. A cloud of doubt started to hang over the head of the new suspect’s guilt.
Plans were put in place to have Mabel Rogers identify George Leonard Cockle once he was fit to leave the hospital. The identification was never needed. On November 17th investigators from Scotland Yard confirmed their concerns about Cockle’s confession been false. Cockle was ruled out as a suspect in the murder of Florence Nightingale Shore after discovering that he was treated as a patient at a military hospital in London on the day of the brutal attack.
From all available police reports, it appears George Leonard Cockle was the last known suspect in the murder of Florence Nightingale Shore.
One final name has been put forward. Could the killer of Florence Nightingale Shore have been her closest ally? Did police miss what was in front of them all along? That is certainly the opinion of some who believe Mabel Rogers was the person who attacked Florence.
There are several theories as to the reason Mabel Rogers would carry out such an out of character atrocity. The hypothesis regularly put forward is that Mabel and Florence had been secret lovers before the war and now the war was over Mabel wished to pursue the relationship once more, however, Florence did not share the same feelings. In a fit of rage, Mabel struck her former lover then, on realising what she had done, she did her best to make the scene look like a robbery gone wrong.
It has to be pointed out there is no hard proof that Mabel Rogers and Florence Nightingale Shore were ever lovers. It is also hard to see how exactly Mabel could carry out the brutal attack without been seen at some point. If she had travelled to Lewes then Henry Duck would have seen her like he saw the man. And what of the man? if he wasn’t Florence’s killer why didn’t he come forward to clear his name and point the finger at the woman he must have seen as he made his way to his carriage.
Maybe Mabel attacked Florence at Victoria Station, but this would mean despite attacking her friend in a fit of rage she somehow had the composure to hastily stage the scene as a robbery and quickly make her exit before the train’s departure whilst also covered in blood in daylight. And again what of the man seen by Henry Duck? If Florence was already dead at Victoria why didn’t the man see her when he left the carriage and report his discovery? Although not impossible everything about Mabel been responsible does seem implausible.
Whether Mabel Rogers was responsible for murdering her best friend or was truly grief-stricken and devasted by the heinous attack carried out by a person unknown we will probably never know for sure. The man in the brown suit was almost certainly the killer in the eyes of the police, whether they continued to believe that man was William Ernest Clements is unknown until the police files are ever opened on the case.
Perhaps the killer had even struck before, with the unsolved murder of Mary Money taking place on the same stretch of railway several years earlier. Tragically it is unlikely the truth will ever be known and the murder of Florence Nightingale Shore will always remain unsolved.