- Strange Exits from Hastings
- Vol 2
- by Helena Wojtczak,
- published by Hastings Press, 2021
The first volume of Helena Wojtczak’s Strange Exits from Hastings was a best seller with some local experts telling her they think it might be the biggest selling local history book ever!
The book was on sale at various outlets around the town, and beyond, and of course Helena did a great deal of her own marketing; first she got her Pedlar’s licence and then she loaded up her mobility scooter and got out on to the streets of the town making sure that everyone who wanted one could buy a copy of her book.
Not one to rest on her laurels Helena is back with volume two of Strange Exits and here is a taste of what you can expect.
Frank Charles Jerry Smale was a lucky boy: as soon as he turned 14 he landed a dream job working as an assistant to a photographer. His dad was only a labourer and had no trade to teach him, and Mr H.A. Boyd was giving him the opportunity to train for a profession. He’d be working in a shop at 37 George Street alongside the boss’s teenage son, Harry Leonard Gifford Boyd, known simply as Gifford.
Frank was an exceedingly cheerful lad, a practical joker and amateur comedian and the shop offered great potential for some brilliant pranks. An opportunity presented itself when he genuinely slipped and fell down some stairs. As he hit the floor he decided not to get up but to lie still and play dead, in order to frighten Gifford, just for a lark. It worked a treat, scared the living daylights out of him! Frank cracked up laughing at Gifford for falling for it. The four-and-a-half-year age gap really showed: Gifford was a young man of 20 embarking on a profession; Frank was still a child, as his so-called ‘jokes’ amply demonstrated.
Local rumour had it that in 1902 a man had hanged himself in that very shop. Frank, who also had a taste for the macabre, derived great satisfaction from relating this chilling tale to anyone who would listen, including his mother, and watching them squirm. On Saturday November 20th 1937 Frank asked his mother to press a clean shirt for him as he would be going out on the town that evening. At work in the afternoon he chopped up some wood for the stove and, as he swept up, Gifford told him he was popping out and would not be long. Frank realised it was the perfect time to pull his Best Prank Ever. It was all planned and he had waited for the opportunity to put it into practice. Gifford would get the shock of his life and it would provide a hilarious and entertaining tale with which to regale his mates later on.
When Gifford returned at about 4.30 he called out to Frank but received no reply. Wanting the boy to make a pot of tea, he went through to the back room to seek him out. Something above his head caught his attention and he looked up to see Frank larking about again: this time he was pretending to be ‘The Hanged Man’ from the story he had been going on about. Frank had mocked up the gruesome suicide by tying a washing line to a staple in the roof beams of the loft. There was a trap door in the first storey floor and he planned to create maximum horror by having his feet dangling through it, so when Gifford returned they would initially be the only thing he saw.
Gifford sighed when he saw Frank’s tasteless joke, but as his gaze lingered on his workmate he realised that the lad was not supporting himself in any way: he really was hanging by his neck! He flew up the stairs and, while supporting Frank’s weight with one hand, cut the washing line just above the noose with the other. He laid him on the floor and discovered to his immense relief that he was still breathing. The silly prank had somehow gone horribly wrong. Thank goodness he got back when he did, in time to save the stupid boy’s life.
Luckily Sergeant Dewey arrived quickly. He helped Gifford carry Frank down to the shop, from where he was taken by ambulance to the Royal East Sussex Hospital. Newly qualified house surgeon Dr Annie Ross gave Frank heart stimulants and oxygen, but nothing she did could restore him to consciousness. At 2pm the next day he died, three months before his 16th birthday.
The inquest was held at the town hall by Harry Davenport Jones. To assist the jury Police Sergeant Dewey produced a sketch to illustrate the loft and the trap door. Dr Ross gave the cause of death as asphyxia.
November 25th was a sad day in Bembrook Road. Frank’s neighbours congregated outside his home at no.119 to watch the funeral cortège leave. Frank was laid to rest in the Borough Cemetery. Young Gifford went on to have a successful career in photography. It is a great shame that, because of a prank, Frank Smale missed out being a part of that.
In 1952 Gifford advertised for two trainees, a boy and a girl aged about 15, to join the business. Doubtless he remembered with a tear in his eye an earlier trainee, also 15 years of age, who threw away not only his career but his very life, just to play a joke on him.
Despite a painstaking search of the local papers between 1897 and 1907 (the decade surrounding 1902) I found no mention of anyone hanging themselves in any building in George Street.
How to get hold of a copy
Available direct from the author via www.hastingspress.co.uk/se2.html
- Penbuckle’s Delicatessen, High Street.
- Sweet Selections, Robertson Street.
- The Old Butcher Shop, Pett.
- Order via ‘click and collect’ from the Book-Keeper, King’s Road or Book Busters, Queen’s Road.
- Also on Ebay and Amazon.
- When lockdown ends it will be in stock at all the local museums and bookshops.