In 1939 Jack’s suicide was a shock to the town but just what was The Piermaster’s Secret?

For those of us that love a good read and story about an unsolved death, murder and intrigue, especially in your home town of Hastings, Strange Exits From Hastings: A Cornucopia Of Bizarre Deaths Unsolved Murders by Helena Woitczak is a must!

When Darren McCann reviewed it for Hastings In Focus he said: “So well researched with so many intricate details about the suspects, witnesses, locations, murder details and how they used to Police and use ‘forensics’ back in the day.

“There’s a murder or bizarre death in YOUR area and there’s also so much history about what the areas used to be like, with one-time army barracks and huge farms that are now housing estates.

“A great read and a huge well done to the author Helena.”

So here is a taster to whet your appetite for more, let’s find out what Helena found out about…

The Piermaster’s Secret

Eric Mumford was born in Hastings in April 1904, the middle of three children. His grandparents ran a seafront lodging house at Denmark Place; his father was a linotype operator for the Hastings and St Leonards Observer at its printing works in Claremont. Eric grew up at 3 Wellington Terrace, Portland Place, until 1922, when he and his widowed mother moved to 193 Queen’s Road. Ten years later she left Hastings and he rented rooms at 18 Cornwallis Gardens.

From his teens until his death, Eric was employed on the piers, where he acquired the nickname ‘Jack’. He was perfectly suited to the work because his character was a blend of sociability and reliability.

Starting as an attendant at the bowling alley on St Leonards Pier, he rose, over a decade, to be deputy master of Hastings Pier, ‘ever ready with suggestions for improvements, and the ability to help in carrying them out’. 

Hastings Pier had been managed by a master since it opened in 1872. The role carried heavy responsibility, particularly during the 1930s, when its workforce of almost 100 supervised, served and entertained three-quarters of a million people every year.

In 1932, during Jack’s tenure as deputy, the pier celebrated its diamond jubilee, and over the August Bank Holiday weekend its staff had to cope with 60,000 visitors. 

The pier was particularly well patronised by those seeking musical and theatrical entertainment. Since 1931 it had boasted an excellent resident dance orchestra — Alan Green and his ‘boys’ — which had previously topped the bill at the London Palladium, enjoyed a residency at the Royal Opera House, and made 18 recordings.

Alan Green and his boys in the 1930s

In the early days Alan used to say that Piermaster Teddy Down and his deputy Jack deserved to join the band on stage and take a bow, for it was their idea to ‘give the public what they wanted, instead of trying to educate them with highbrow music’.

Although Alan was a decade older than Jack they became best pals. The pier was Jack’s life. Apart from attending functions at his Masonic Lodge, he even spent much of his leisure time there, enjoying musical performances by night and fishing off its seaward end by day.

During sea-angling festivals he was appointed the pier’s honorary chief fishing steward. Clad in a smart, naval-style, double-breasted suit and a white-topped nautical peaked cap encircled with gold braid, Jack cut a dash with his handsome face, manly, upright figure and neatly trimmed, brilliantined hair.

Jack cut a dash with his handsome face, manly, upright figure and neatly trimmed, brilliantined hair.

A charming and well-liked man, he was rarely seen without a broad, toothy grin and a witty comment on his lips. He was on excellent terms with his employers, his colleagues and the public and was even invited to be best man at the wedding of a local policeman. He even liked his boss, calling him his ‘loveable chief’.

The job was not all about appearances and popularity. Jack was also competent and resourceful and displayed courage and a deep sense of duty to protect the public, no matter how reckless. He could not swim, and yet, one day in 1934, after a drunk jumped off the pier, colleagues had to intervene to stop him from launching a rowing boat into the rough sea to rescue him. 

When Teddy Down retired in April 1938, after 45 years with the pier company and 13 as Piermaster, Jack stepped smoothly into the top job. A few weeks later he was deeply saddened to hear that Mr Down, for whom he had ‘the deepest feelings of regard’, had died. 

That summer visitor numbers broke all records, and at weekends the pier was so crowded with people that Jack struggled to get from one end to the other. 

Photos and a drawing of Jack from the Hastings and St Leonards Observer

By then Jack was the most instantly recognisable person in town. On August 6th he became the first ‘local celebrity’ spotlighted in a new People You Know feature in the Hastings and St Leonards Observer. To accompany a sketch of him someone had composed a silly rhyme:

  • Of duties grave and gay or queer,
  • I might have sung a sonnet,
  • But all of you know Hastings Pier,
  • Well, he’s the master on it.’

A war with Germany had been anticipated for years. A local air raid committee had been formed in 1935 and from January 1938 the RAF conducted training exercises involving mock bombing raids.

By October 47,000 gas masks had been distributed and air raid sirens installed all over town. Further precautions and plans were put in place throughout 1939 and from August the seafront illuminations were switched off at night. 

For those in the world of showbiz it was ‘business as usual’. The late summer programme for the White Rock Pavilion included the Fol-de-Rols (featuring Cyril Fletcher and his ‘Odd Odes’), ‘the famous BBC comedian’ Leonard Henry, and Billy Cotton’s Band, lauded as ‘Europe’s greatest’.

On the pier the Revellers concert party was delighting audiences in the theatre every evening and in the pavilion on two afternoons a week with their show Laughter Unlimited. Alan Green’s hardworking dance band performed at 11am daily and at 3pm on five days and also provided the music for dances every night.

On Sunday evenings at 8pm the band joined forces with the Revellers for a ‘grand double feature’ in the theatre. In July 1939 Jack Mumford and Alan Green were interviewed by the Hastings and St Leonards Observer. They were feeling ‘jubilant’ because they were organising a grand ‘Hastings Night’ to be held at the Royal Opera House in London that autumn.

The Borough Association was financing the scheme, a Hastings song was being composed and a charter train would take locals to London to see the show. Brimming with excitement, the pals expected over 4,000 people to attend and promised that the gala night would ‘blazon the name of Hastings sky-wide’. 

In a radio broadcast on Sunday September 3rd, the news which everyone had long dreaded was finally confirmed: Britain was at war with Germany. That afternoon Jack told his deputy Bill Greenhalf that he could go off duty at 5pm. At 9.30pm he asked Reeves, the night watchman, for the key to the office.

During his shift Reeves did not see Jack again, which was not surprising as the Piermaster went off duty at 10pm. Bill Greenhalf returned to work at 7am. Entering the seaward pavilion he saw a figure in the west wing of the stage, hanging by a noose from a girder 15 feet above the ground.

It looked like a dummy, hanged by someone as a tasteless joke. Perhaps it had a drawing of Hitler’s face stuck on the front of its head. But as he got closer he could not believe his eyes: it was his boss, Jack, and he was dead. 

Helena successfully applied for a pedlars licence to allow her to get out onto the streets of the town to sell her books directly to the public.

Police surgeon Gordon Nesbitt Wood and Police Sergeant Bill Latchem arrived. Latchem cut down the body and the doctor, who by coincidence was Jack’s GP, was able to assess the time of death, which he put at about midnight. They examined the scene. It was clear that Jack had used a nearby bench to reach the girder, tied one end of the rope around it and created a noose at the other end, placed his head through the loop then jumped off the bench.

After being discreetly removed from the pier, Jack’s body was conveyed to the RESH for the post mortem. Coroner Harry Davenport Jones held an inquest that evening. Dr Nesbitt Wood gave the cause of death as ‘syncope’, due to dislocation of the neck by hanging. He was perplexed. Jack’s rare visits to his surgery had been for trivial ailments; he had never suffered from nervous trouble or depression, but was ‘a hearty individual’ who was ‘always cheerful’.

Bill Greenhalf had worked with Jack for a year. When he last saw him, a few hours before his suicide, he was his usual self. Thomas Reeves agreed: Jack was ‘always of a happy disposition’ and Sunday night was no exception. 

Jack left no suicide note, had made no plans or arrangements for his death, had no known entanglements, worries or problems. He had no debts; on the contrary, he lived well within his means and had saved up £149 (worth about £10,000 today), which he left to his mother.

The coroner made vague suggestions: maybe he was worried about the war, or conscription, or the closure of the pier; or perhaps his mind became ‘unbalanced’. The jury returned a verdict of suicide, because it could not have been anything else. 

The funeral was held at the Borough Cemetery on September 7th. Over 100 people attended, including 20 from Abbey Lodge, who dropped sprigs of acacia into his grave. A guard of honour was formed by Freemasons and pier workers. A director of the pier company, Captain A.M. Elliott, paid glowing tribute to Jack, their ‘most admirable Piermaster’ and, unusually, made reference to the bewilderment everyone felt about his manner of death. 
He said: “I must express the deep and sincere regret of the board of directors and the officials at this terrible tragedy. Mr Mumford had been in our employ over 15 years and always gave complete satisfaction. We liked and respected him and we cannot understand what can have induced him to do this rash thing. It is a terrible loss of a first class employee and, to some of us, a good friend.”

Hastings Pier in the 1930s – 100 staff coped with 60,000 visitors over one bank holiday weekend!

The pier remained open to the public for eight months after war was declared. The Revellers finished their run and were followed by a comedy theatre troupe which had audiences rolling in the aisles.

At 45 Alan Green was too old to be conscripted, so his band was able to continue its residency until May 1940, when all performances on the pier were suspended. They played at other venues for the duration of the war. Alan tried to revive the idea of a ‘Hastings Night’ in London but, without Jack’s enthusiasm and energy, the scheme had somehow lost its appeal and he quietly dropped it. 

Was it mere coincidence that Jack took his life just hours after war was declared? As a boy he lived in Hastings throughout the previous conflict, and the town was barely affected. It was suggested that he may have feared conscription, but Jack was no coward, besides, he was 35 and would not be called up for a long while, if at all: the war may have ended before his turn came.

If the pier closed during the war then Jack would have been redeployed then reinstated when it was over. 

Jack must have had a secret; honour and reputation were paramount to men in his position and if he feared that something was about to be exposed which had the power to destroy his good name, suicide may have felt like his only option.

However, after his death no scandal was publicly revealed that might explain the tragic loss of one of the most popular men in Hastings. The case remains as perplexing today as it was back in 1939.

To buy a copy of Strange Exits From Hastings: A Cornucopia Of Bizarre Deaths Unsolved Murders by Helena Woitczak you can…

Go to the website…. and order from there or visit one of the shops stocking the book, they are: Albion Books, Amore Italiano, Bookbuster, The Bookkeeper, Burton St Leonards Society shop, Hare and Hawthorn, Penbuckle’s, Pett Village butcher’s shop, Stella Dore Gallery, Sweet Selections, True Crime Museum and Turn the Tide.

Or look out for Helena in town and stop her and buy one!

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