Guilty! Introducing the biggest scoundrel in Victorian Britain

Samuel Dougal was a serial seducer, liar, thief and, finally, murderer. Now a new book charts his inglorious career

It is Easter Monday, 1903, and a vast throng of more than 6,000 people are heading for the wilds of Essex on a bit of a spree. Their destination is Moat Farm near Clavering, the place that's been the talk of the country the past few days. And ahead of them, having already set out their stalls, are the peanut and snack sellers, the owners of ginger beer stands, and eager suppliers of souvenirs and postcards. It promises to be a rollicking day.

What has attracted this great crowd is not the usual run of bank holiday attractions. It is instead the search for Camille Cecile Holland, or rather her body. She has not been seen for four years, and recent events have persuaded the authorities that her remains lie in the farmhouse grounds. The resultant press coverage has ensured this bumper turnout of rubber-neckers.

As it turns out, the straw-boatered crowds are to be denied the thrill of Miss Holland's cadaver being found that bank holiday. But, two weeks later, one of the constabulary's spades struck something firmer than soil, and the search was over. Her body was removed to a barn, an al fresco post-mortem conducted, and a point-blank bullet wound to her head discovered.

So began the final chapter in the utterly dissolute and deceitful life of her murderer and common-law husband, Samuel Herbert Dougal, one of Victorian England's most out-and-out rotters. Justice was swift in those days. Two months after Miss Holland's remains were found, Dougal was put on trial for her murder, was convicted, and, less than four weeks later, swung for it.

His crimes and many misdemeanours have never been told in full before, but now they have, in a new, immensely detailed book, The Moat Farm Mystery, published next month by the History Press. The name on the spine is MW Oldridge, a pseudonym for Mark Ripper, a specialist in such murky matters.

Dougal, late of Her Majesty's Royal Engineers, ought even without hindsight, to have attracted suspicion much earlier than he did. After all, his "wife", the late but very recently disinterred Camille Holland, a lady of 60 not noted for her sense of adventure, had, according to him, taken off for foreign parts one night and never come back. And his ravishing of servant girls – attempted in one case, successful in several others – had long been the talk of the area. Sufficiently so for there to be rumours that he had been seen in one of his farm's meadows training them to ride bicycles in the nude. But Dougal had an abundance of those necessary talents of the true bounder: charm, an ability to convincingly tell lies, and a nose for the vulnerable females who will fall for them.

He also had that useful accessory for the dedicated Victorian seducer: a uniform, having joined the colours of the Royal Engineers aged 19 in 1866. Soon, by all accounts, he was cutting a swathe through Chatham's more impressionable young shop girls – the reason, it is said, why the Army despatched him to the fastness of north Wales. It was here, in 1869, that he married Martha Griffith, and began his convoluted career as a deceiver of women. The frauds, and worse, came later.

It was when he was transferred to Nova Scotia in 1877 that untoward events began to unfold with increasing rapidity. There was talk of him ill-treating his wife and womanising, and then, in 1885, Martha suddenly suffered great pain and was dead before nightfall. She was buried with equal swiftness; a month later Dougal left for England; inside three weeks he returned with a Mary Boyd in tow, and they were soon married, only for Mary to rapidly die, succumbing, said Dougal, to a plate of bad oysters. He had been widowed twice within four months.

A Bessie Stedman acted as his consort for a while, and by 1887, he was back in England, out of the Army, going from job to job, and living – and having children – with a young widow called Marian Paine. It was with her that he went into the licensed trade, taking over the Royston Cross pub in Ware, Hertfordshire. This soon proved too much like hard work, and so, in the summer of 1889, having bumped up the insurance policies, he made two attempts to set fire to it, the second of which was successful, due in no small part to the large quantity of wood, old clothes and paraffin he used. Suspicions were duly aroused, he was arrested, tried for arson, and acquitted for the want of any witnesses.

Marion left him, citing cruelty (and, presumably, potential immolation), and, while he was on a rare burst of honest toil as a surveyor in Dublin, he married Sarah White. Soon he was back in the London area, where he began preying on Miss Emily Booty, a spinster in her fifties. She advanced him money, was persuaded to cash in shares, and he got her to rent a large house near Henley. Such was his hold over her that Sarah and kids arrived, and Miss Booty was soon reduced to acting as skivvy to them all. Eventually, she abandoned the unhappy scene, items of hers were found missing, Dougal was charged with theft, but once again evaded conviction.

He was not so lucky the next time he was in court. He had forged signatures on cheques he stole in Dublin, was discovered, and, in 1895, given 12 months' hard labour at Pentonville. He had no intention of serving his time, made a passable imitation of trying to hang himself, and saw out most of his sentence amid the basket weavers and mutterers of a Surrey asylum. Released, he resumed the life of a womanising chancer.

There was something inevitable about the next development – this plausible rogue who had sampled rather too much of life taking as his definitive victim a woman who had experienced too little of it. For the unscrupulous Dougal, still suave at 54, but incapable of earning an honest living, the moneyed spinster Camille Holland was too choice a target to resist. And she, living with a companion in genteel lodgings in Notting Hill, found unfamiliar yearnings of romance stirred from their long hibernation. She knew nothing of his past, save the spruced-up version he told her, and had soon convinced herself that, at the age of 60, love had at last come knocking.

By 1899 she regarded them as man and wife in all but name, and used a small part of her considerable funds to buy a property with extensive land in Clavering, Essex. They called it Moat Farm. It did not take long for Dougal to resume his old tricks, molesting first one servant girl, and then another, this time so viciously that Miss Holland felt obliged to sleep with the terrified Florence Havies to protect her virtue. And then, on 19 May 1899, just a few months after they moved in, Dougal told Florence he was taking Miss Holland shopping, returned alone, and, when this was queried, said that his "wife" had gone to London.

For the next three years, Dougal posed as local squire, a life he funded by forging letters from Miss Holland which allowed him to plunder her bank account, sell her shares, and get his hands on the deeds of Moat farm. The inquisitive were told that Miss Holland had gone abroad. Meanwhile, Sarah had arrived, posing as his daughter, something which did little to inhibit his seduction of a succession of servants. Bizarrely, three were from the same family, Dougal having his lecherous old way with Eliza, Kate and Georgina Cranwell. It was the birth of a son to Kate, then barely 18, that was his undoing.

Kate began proceedings to get maintenance for her son, and this brought to the attention of authorities rumours of the goings-on at the farm, plus speculation about the absent Miss Holland. Police inquiries got too hot, and, with detectives by now on the trail of his frauds, Dougal was tracked down to the Bank of England, where he was trying to wangle yet more illicit funds. On arrest, his great coat was opened to reveal an astonishing hoard of jewellery – more than 57 items, with enough gold and gems to fill the window of Mappin & Webb. Within days Moat Farm was being searched for Miss Holland, and before the summer was out, Dougal was hanged. Asked on the scaffold if he was a murderer, he just managed to blurt out "Guilty!" before he dropped to his death.

In due course, the property and contents of Moat Farm were sold - which attracted 3,000 busybodies and a few actual vendors. It was the last chance for the voyeur classes to forge a link with the man of whom Nicholas Connell says in the foreword: "Unlike Dr Crippen, who at least had the virtue of good manners, Dougal was a man with no redeeming features whatsoever."

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