The Eastbourne Manslaughter

July 12, 2017 Medical

The Eastbourne manslaughter was an 1860 legal case in Eastbourne, England, concerning the death of 15-year-old Reginald Cancellor (some sources give his name as “Chancellor”[1] and his age as 13 or 14[2]) at the hands of his teacher, Thomas Hopley. Hopley used corporal punishment apparently with the intention of overcoming what he perceived as stubbornness on Cancellor’s part, with the result that boy died from the injuries that were caused him. An inquest into Cancellor’s death began when his brother requested an autopsy.

As a result of the inquest Hopley was arrested and charged with manslaughter. He was found guilty at trial and sentenced to four years in prison, although he insisted that his actions were justifiable and that he was not guilty of any crime. The trial was sensationalised by the Victorian press, and incited debate over the use of corporal punishment in schools. After Hopley’s release and subsequent divorce trial, he largely disappeared from the public record.

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The case became an important legal precedent in the United Kingdom for discussions of corporal punishment in schools and reasonable limits on discipline. Background Thomas Hopley, aged 41 at the time of the incident,[3] was a schoolmaster in Eastbourne who ran a private boarding school out of his home at 22 Grand-parade. [4] He was well-educated and from a middle-class family, the son of a Royal Navy surgeon and brother of artist Edward Hopley. His household was fairly well-off, and he and his wife kept several servants. 5][6] Hopley was described by Algernon Charles Swinburne as “a person of high attainments and irreproachable character”. [7] He expressed “utopian” educational ideals that were accepted by many Victorian educational theorists. [5] He wrote pamphlets on education topics[7] which included “Lectures on the Education of Man”, “Help towards the physical, intellectual and moral elevation of all classes of society”, and “Wrongs which cry out for redress” advocating the abolition of child labour. [8] In October 1859,[4] he was offered ? 80 a year (compared to an average annual salary of ? 94 for a male public elementary school teacher in 1860[9]) to teach Reginald Channell Cancellor, a “robust” boy who had been “given up as ineducable”. [10] Reginald was the son of John Henry Cancellor (1799–1860), a court master and a “man of fair position” from Barnes, Surrey. [10][11] The boy had previously been a student at a private school called St. Leonard’s and under a private tutor. [12] He was not a good student, with contemporary sources suggesting he “had water on the brain” and describing him as “stolid and stupid”. 11] Hopley attributed Cancellor’s failure to learn to stubbornness. On 18 April 1860 he asked the boy’s father for permission to use “severe corporal punishment” to obtain compliance,[1] with permission being granted two days later. [13] Hopley did not possess the cane traditionally used to administer corporal punishment to students, so instead he used a skipping rope and a walking stick. [10] [edit] Death Cancellor was found dead in his bedroom on the morning of 22 April. His body was covered, with long stockings over his legs and kidskin gloves on his hands.

The only visible part of the body was his face. A medical man of Hopley’s acquaintance named Roberts pronounced that the boy had died of natural causes. [10] When questioned, Hopley suggested that Cancellor died of heart disease and argued that he should be buried immediately. [11] He wrote to the boy’s father requesting the body’s immediate removal and interment. [5] After viewing his son’s dressed body, Cancellor’s father accepted Roberts’ assertion for cause of death and agreed to the burial. [10]

Rumours began to circulate among the Hopleys’ servants, suggesting that Hopley’s wife had spent the night prior to the body’s discovery cleaning up evidence of her husband’s murder of the boy. [11] Reginald’s older brother, Reverend John Henry Cancellor, Jr. (1834–1900),[10] arrived in Eastbourne from Send, Surrey, on 25 April. He noticed discrepancies in the reports of his brother’s death and requested an autopsy. [5] Hopley asked prominent physician Sir Charles Locock, an “acquaintance” of the Cancellor family and an obstetrician to the Queen, to examine the body and verify death by natural causes; Locock, however, believed that Hopley was esponsible for the death. [10] A complete inquest into Cancellor’s death was initiated. His body was taken for autopsy on 28 April and was found to be covered in blood under the gloves and stockings. His thighs were “reduced to a perfect jelly” and his body was covered in bruises and cuts, including two inch-deep holes in his right leg,[11] deep enough to allow the medical examiner, Robert Willis, to touch the bone underneath.

Willis reported that other than these injuries, the boy was healthy and his internal organs (including the heart) were free of disease. [14] He thus concluded that Cancellor had not died of natural causes, as Hopley had suggested, and noted that the boy had obviously been beaten shortly before his death. [5][14] A female servant named Ellen Fowler, when questioned by investigators, reported that she had heard Cancellor screaming and being beaten from 10 pm until midnight and that, shortly thereafter, he abruptly fell silent. 11] She also noted traces of blood in the house and on Hopley’s candlestick, which was left outside Cancellor’s bedroom, and evidence that Cancellor’s and Hopley’s clothes had been washed soon before the former was pronounced dead. [4] Two other servants testified in the inquiry and gave similar accounts. [15] The inquest was unable to determine Cancellor’s exact cause of death, but noted several inconsistencies in Hopley’s explanation of events. He had failed to summon a doctor immediately and, upon questioning, had given outlandish excuses for his failure to do so.

Hopley attempted to explain away the blood on the candlestick by attributing it to a broken blister on his hand, but did not offer an explanation for Cancellor’s injuries. [4][10] Hopley aroused further suspicion when he asked journalists present at the inquest not to include details of the corporal punishment in their stories, “in order to spare the feelings of the deceased family as of my own”. Indeed, Cancellor’s family was deeply affected by the case, as they had been “disinclined” to see Cancellor beaten; his father died shortly after the inquest of a “broken heart”. [5]


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