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18/11/2016

The Murder of Dolly Henry

Justine Ashford

The following extract is from a longer piece about the life and death of an artist’s model called Dolly Henry, who sat for several great artists of the early twentieth century, including Augustus John, Laura Knight and Mark Gertler.

 

In September 1914 Dolly returned from Cornwall alone.  Until recently she had been posing for Laura Knight in her garden for a series of portraits.  Among these was Rose and Gold in which Dolly appears an organic part of the garden.  She wears a simple dress with a modest neckline.  The front is patterned as though flowers have crept from the background to nestle on her breast.  Her chin is tilted slightly down and she gazes up, the dimple in her cheek catching the shadow.

At the end of each day after posing for Laura, Dolly would return to nearby Newlyn, where her boyfriend John Currie had taken a studio.  Theirs was a troubled relationship, as the girl told Laura Knight.  He was ten years older and had been married.  Was still married.  Recently the atmosphere with Currie had soured – again – and he had made physical threats.  He had pushed Dolly off her bicycle, said he would throw her over a cliff.  Once he held a razor to her throat and she had the scar to prove it.  Now Dolly fled back to London, leaving abruptly before the full-length portrait that Laura was working on could be completed.  She took an apartment off the Kings Road at 50 Paulton Square in Chelsea, renting from Mrs Vincent who later remembered her as a quiet-living tenant.  The top floor comprised two rooms and a kitchen in the attic above.  The bedrooms, each containing a single bedstead, both opened out onto the landing.

It wasn’t long before Currie tracked Dolly down, having got her London address out of Laura’s husband Harold.  Currie’s mood – ever volatile – had softened, and he and Dolly were on better terms, though there was still tension.  He accused her of posing for lewd photographs, which she denied.  Currie was frequently seen at the Paulton Square address; on Wednesday October 7th the couple was spotted heading for an evening out.  Dolly was very eye-catching, with her gregarious, ‘artistic’ dress and the way she wore her hair in short clusters of curls.  She was a prodigious smoker and drinker, a good-time Irish girl.  People noticed her.  She and Currie returned to Dolly’s flat late that night.  Perhaps unknown to the landlady, Currie stayed over.

At twenty to eight in the morning of Thursday 8th, the residents of 50 Paulton Square were preparing for their day.  Miss Jean Wilson, a nurse, was in her bedroom at the back of the first floor when she heard the sounds of a quarrel, followed by furniture being moved about upstairs and a girl’s voice shouting what sounded like “Mercy, mercy!” Then shots, and a thud.  She opened her door to see Walter Glennie racing up the stairs.  Miss Wilson quickly put on her dressing gown and hurried up to the top floor with Glennie, stepping over several spent cartridge cases lying on the treads.  They were joined by Joseph Hewitt, a masseur who occupied the front room on the ground floor, and by the landlady’s son Louis, who had heard the commotion from his basement bedroom.

Dolly lay on her back on the landing near the stairs, a pink padded dressing gown over her nightdress.  Both were soaked in blood.  Scorch holes in the dressing gown showed where the bullets had entered.  Powder was later discovered on her body, where the gun had been fired at close range. Currie had caught up with her and from a position above, shot her first in the back. Three scars in the wall of the landing attested to the bullets fired, one of which entered her body below her left shoulder. The landlady found one bullet when she was sweeping the carpet on Saturday morning. There was also a bullet wound straight through the nipple of Dolly’s left breast which, the pathologist later said, had been deflected inside her body and exited through her shoulder.  Both bullets had torn through her heart.

Miss Wilson and Walter Glennie carried Dolly into the back bedroom where Miss Wilson had a moment ago been preparing for the day.  Joseph Hewitt ran for a policeman. Carefully, working together, they laid Dolly on the bed but they could do nothing more to help her.  It was obvious she was dying.  Miss Wilson hurried downstairs and met the landlady Mrs Vincent in the passage outside the building, where a crowd was already gathering.  She told Mrs Vincent that Miss Henry had been attacked.  A short distance away, PC Hammond was on his beat when a cyclist stopped and said that shots had been fired at 50 Paulton Square.  The constable immediately made his way to the house, to be told by a lodger that a madman was inside with a gun and that his wife was dead.  Hammond climbed the stairs quickly and found John Currie lying across the doorway of the front room with multiple wounds.  On a chair lay a Webley and Scott automatic pistol.  Hammond crouched down and asked Currie why.  Weakly Currie replied, “I loved the girl,” repeating this several times.  The policeman asked him a second question, to which the reply came, “Why should I tell you?”

Next to arrive was Detective Sergeant Garner, who entered the back room that had been Miss Wilson’s bedroom, to see Dolly Henry lying on the bed.  Her pulse was weakening and as Garner stood there, Dolly died.  Garner went upstairs to find John Currie in a shirt and vest, propped upright on the bed and attended by the divisional surgeon, Doctor Haynes.  The room was poorly furnished, a mess.  The bed looked slept in and a man’s grey suit hung over a chair.  Currie was conscious and able to answer Garner’s questions: What was his name? How long had he been there? Who was the girl?  Later, when Currie was taken away, DS Garner found two bullets on the sheet.

At ten minutes to nine Garner was joined in the small bedroom by his superior officer, Detective Inspector Bedford.  First he looked in on Miss Wilson’s room where Dolly Henry lay dead on the bed.  In the upstairs bedroom where Currie sat wounded, DI Bedford began looking at the evidence.  In the pocket of the trousers of the man’s suit he found two live cartridges.  Nearby was a portmanteau and a quantity of paperwork.  Bedford flicked through a chequebook and saw a number of unused cheques, including one made payable to Dorothy Henry for two pounds.  There was also a letter addressed to the girl, which revealed Currie’s disturbed state of mind:

 “I am sending you the machine this evening.  This is my final message to you..You have fully tasted now the bitter joy of seeing me as broken as a man could be….three months of suffering, of doubt about your return, of torture and grief, and then this crazy passion has wasted my strength and broken my will…You are too harsh and too passionate…I have lived with you day by day for these last few years and from the very beginning I created in you the image of my desire.  As the days go on the feeling of all I have lost in you becomes so frightful I cannot breathe…Oh, how I want to forget it all….I still believe the photographs were nude, to your dishonour.”[1]

 A note said that Dolly Henry deserved to die “for her damaging untruths and the ruin of my career.”  Currie referred to her as a “living nuisance, better out of the way”[2].  A third letter, this time to Jessie Currie, added a detail:  “Feeling she has got all she can from me she has taken up with another fellow.”  Dolly’s faithlessness, his brother’s death and the estrangement from his father, plus the not inconsiderable fact of the start of war, all combined with whatever latent weakness Currie had to poison his view of Dolly and of life in general. An ironic twist is that Currie had previously left the gun in Dolly’s possession.  According to her mother, Dolly had taken it because she feared he would use it against her.

Currie was transported by ambulance to the Chelsea Royal Infirmary.  He had shot himself three times, and died a day later, at ten minutes to one on Friday 9th October 1914.  He was 30 years old.  While the shooting had occurred by eight o’clock in the morning on the 8th, Currie was not transferred to hospital until almost midday.  We can only wonder if the police and ambulance crew did not hurry to get medical aid for a man who could only survive in order to be executed.  Aware of this even through his pain, Currie said to the PC put in charge of him at the Infirmary, “I suppose you are mending me up to hang me.”

Dolly was blamed by many of Currie’s friends for their deaths.  The art patron Eddie Marsh who had championed Currie considered her “the very worst kind of mate for an artist, for she was jealous of his work, and seasonally unfaithful into the bargain”, although he conceded that “they were made for one another.”[3]  Currie’s friend Michael Sadler, who visited them in Hampstead, also commented that “she was…jealous of his work”[4] and also “extremely vain and quite empty-headed.” Sadler’s son, commenting years later, wrote, “Dolly drove Currie mad and deprived the world of a genuine artist and a devoted worker.  He was a man who, had circumstances been a little kinder, would have made a great reputation and lived a full and happy life.”[5]

The Paulton Square murder became a cause célèbre. Dolly was depicted  sensationally in the national and local press. According to the Daily Mirror, she ran “screaming from her rooms”[6].  Another report maintained her face had been destroyed by the bullets.  A full-length photograph dominated the Mirror’s front page, in which Dolly appeared sombrely dressed, a tall girl with a strong jaw.   Able to look after herself: not at all an object of pity.

How different from the portrait that Laura Knight painted of Dolly back in Cornwall.  But after all it is the lot of the artist’s model to be viewed in a particular way.  Lovely young girl, victim, perpetrator, whore: Dolly Henry was seen as all of these.  In some ways she could be any of us, for we are all cut up and put back together by those who express their particular view of our character. Like Dolly, we have as many faces as are bestowed on us.

 

 

[1] West London Press, October 16th 1914

[2] ibid

[3] Sir Edward Marsh, A Number of People, p361

[4] M Sadleir, Sir Michael Sadler, p257

[5] D B Haycock, A Crisis of Brilliance, p205

[6] Daily Mirror 10th October 1914

 

Justine Ashford was published in this year’s UEA Creative Writing MA Anthology: Prose and Non-Fiction

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