We have had an amazing response from readers following Peter Wreford’s request in last week’s Down Memory Lane for more information about a murder which took place in Chichester almost 80 years ago. Here Mark Howard tells of what his family’s research into the tragedy has revealed.
Mr Wreford’s recollection that his father had to seek new employment following Mr Holt’s murder of his family and subsequent suicide at 61 Orchard Street is entirely correct.
It was indeed Mr Wreford’s father who found the bodies that terrible morning, and he went on therefore to be a key witness at the inquest.
Mr John Holt junior was my great-great-uncle, and the following information is based on research carried out by my uncle, John Howard.
The Holts had been a prominent Chichester family in the early part of the 20th century.
John Holt senior, my great-great-grandfather, having come from humble beginnings, rose to employ many men in the building trade and was twice mayor of Chichester.
Proceedings of the City Council were suspended out of respect when his death was announced in 1922.
Holt senior’s two sons, William and John Holt junior, joined him in the family firm and took over the running of it upon their father’s retirement.
However, they were not the businessmen he was and twice had to be bailed out during the 1920s by their brother-in-law, my great-grandfather, Charles Howard senior, the photographer, then of North Street, latterly of Eastgate Square.
Particularly in the social context of the times, this would probably have been a matter of considerable shame for the brothers, and for their sister, Charles Howard’s wife.
Tragedy struck the Holt family first in December 1931 when the elder of the brothers, William, shot his wife, and then himself at their home.
No motive was obviously apparent. Far worse however was to come.
By February 1935, John Holt junior is reported to have taken to intercepting his postman so that his wife would not find out how dire their financial situation had become; he could no longer by that point afford to pay his worker’s NI stamps and had been taken to court, because of non-payment dating back over 12 months.
Holt appears to have been driven not only to despair but to mental breakdown.
Shortly before the events in Orchard Street, he wrote to his elder son who had already left home to say he had been talking to his father and had agreed to go across and join him, to go back into business as before. His father had, of course, been dead for 13 years.
In this state, on February 23, 1935, Holt murdered his wife and his two young sons in their beds with an axe.
More awful still, the elder boy’s injuries indicated he had tried to fight off his father before succumbing to the same fate as his brother, whose murder he had presumably just witnessed.
Holt then shut himself in the kitchen of the house, and took poison, killing himself.
It was this terrible scene which Mr Wreford’s father discovered the following morning.
A dark piece of Chichester history indeed.