Houseboat Fire, 17th May 1956, East Creek, South Benfleet

What really happened?

By Robert Hallmann

It had everything for a good thriller:

The death of twin boys ... Two burning houseboats ... A fire raiser? ... Poison pen letters? ... Accusations ... Lovers ... Scandal

Photo:Police and Scotland yard experts investigating the charred timbers of the houseboat Windmill in Benfleet Creek. Twins Colin and Reginald Wright (seen inset with their mother) died when fire broke out on the craft in the early hours of Thursday.

Police and Scotland yard experts investigating the charred timbers of the houseboat Windmill in Benfleet Creek. Twins Colin and Reginald Wright (seen inset with their mother) died when fire broke out on the craft in the early hours of Thursday.

From a microfiche

Two women, including the boys' mother, were accused and when the case came to court it made national news. On 24th May 1956 the Southend Standard reported: 'MYSTERY OF TWINS' DEATH IN BENFLEET HOUSEBOAT BLAZE. Handwriting test to track writer of poison pen letters?' The scene of the crime was a houseboat called Windmill.

The Southend Standard was a weekly paper. A week earlier on Thursday the 17th May it had carried a similar story: 'MYSTERIOUS FIRE BLAZES ON EMPTY HOUSEBOAT. Earlier, widow had asked to be locked on board.' At that time the news was of a boat called Buchra, belonging to the twins' mother.

Photo:Canvey Fire Brigade (taken 1948): George Blackwell, Harry George, Ken Macquarie, Johnny & Harry Whitcomb, Arthur Edwards, unknown, Bill Hall, unknown

Canvey Fire Brigade (taken 1948): George Blackwell, Harry George, Ken Macquarie, Johnny & Harry Whitcomb, Arthur Edwards, unknown, Bill Hall, unknown

Thanks to Carol

According to the news report, soon after 3 a.m. on Tuesday, 15th May 1956, 'the bridge-keeper at Canvey Bridge, Mr J. Thurgood, saw flames leaping from one of the craft in the East Creek. He found the converted landing craft Buchra, owned by Mrs. Violet (Vicci) Wright, ablaze and called Hadleigh and Canvey Fire Brigades.' The boat was unoccupied, as Mrs. Wright, 'mother of three years old twin boys' was staying with Mrs. Grace Richardson on another boat, the Windmill, further down the creek. Mr. Wright had died four weeks earlier.
Vicci Wright had been repainting the Buchra, but there had been anonymous letters and she had at first asked Mrs. Richardson to lock her in her own boat for the night, the first time in four weeks, which would have been with an outside padlock.  Later she had changed her mind. That night the Buchra caught fire.

A week later the Southend Standard carried the news of the twins' death:

'Forty-eight hours after the Buchra was burned out in the early hours of Tuesday morning last week, another houseboat, the Windmill, further down the creek, was gutted by a second fire. On the Windmill Mrs. Wright was staying with her twins at the invitation of Mrs. Grace Richardson. Mrs. Wright, Mrs. Richardson, and her three children escaped: Mrs. Wright's twins, three-years-old Colin and Reggie, were killed.'

Photo:Benfleet Downs Keepers House

Benfleet Downs Keepers House

Jim Gray

This second fire had been reported by the keeper of Benfleet Downs, Mr. E.J. Tylor in the early hours of Thursday morning, when he called the fire brigade. Another witness, Mr. Cecil White, passing in a staff train, reported a heap of rags he had seen burning on the deck.

Mrs. Wright was taken to Southend General Hospital and treated for burns. Mrs. Richardson with daughter Ann (17), son Douglas (16) and daughter Beryl (2 - the Times made her 11 years old) lost everything in the fire and moved at first to Westcliff, where they 'were provided with clothes by the W.V.S. and Red Cross'.

Following a post-mortem, the twins were buried in Benfleet churchyard on Thursday morning by the Vicar, Rev. Leslie Rooney, 'who baptised the babies'. On Friday a Scotland Yard scientist, Dr Ian Holden, examined the boats. He took away wrecked oil stoves and charred wood from the Windmill, 'a house built upon the non-floating hull of a barge'.

Photo:High Tide at Colvin Bridge - 1950's. See the Houseboats running east along the Creek

High Tide at Colvin Bridge - 1950's. See the Houseboats running east along the Creek

Thanks to the Pattens

Rumours were rife: Was Mr. Reginald Wright's body going to be exhumed, as he had died suddenly beside the creek five weeks earlier? Would a handwriting expert be brought in to try and trace the writer of a number of poison pen letters to Mrs. Vicci Wright? A middle-aged mystery woman in black had been seen 'after lunch on Tuesday', going down the path beside the creek towards the Buchra. 'When she had gone about 200 yards down the path' the grass verge beside the houseboats burst into flames. With that she'd ran back to the road and disappeared. A local businessman was involved, who had something to do with Taxis and always wore a flat cap.

Photo:Houseboats on the east side of Colvin Bridge

Houseboats on the east side of Colvin Bridge

The Police were non-plussed and asked for cooperation from the public. When a Mr William Smith of Northwick Corner, Canvey, 'a friend of Mrs. Wright', left the South Benfleet Police Station after being interviewed, a photographer 'tried to take a picture, and Mr. Smith damaged the man's camera'. (According to later eye witness information, Mr Smith and Vicci Wright were in fact lovers. Mrs Wright has been described as 'a very friendly lady...') Father of the twins was Steve Taylor, though like Mr. Richards he does not seem to have figured in the investigations. When the case came to the Central Criminal Court in London, the Times takes up the story (with some minor alterations - ages of the twins becomes two years and Vicci changes to Vicky).

On 1 November 1956 the Times reported that Mrs. Violet Lavinia Clark, also known as Mrs. Wright, aged 35, housewife, of Thames House, Northwick Corner, Canvey Island, Essex and Mrs. Grace Richardson, aged 47, housewife, of Suttons Hostel, Suttons House, Hornchurch, both pleaded 'not guilty' to the murder of the twins Colin Malcolm Clark and Reginald Melvin Clark.
Mrs Richardson's daughter Ann (18) spent 6 hours in the witness box denying that she or her family ever agreed to set fire to their boat. She stated that Vicky (Mrs. Clark) had 'kept on and on' at them to burn the Windmill, saying: "If you set fire to your boat... Bill (Smith) will have to find a place for me until we go to Australia." She also insisted that her mother had worshipped the twins. Ann Richardson was followed in the witness box by her brother Charles Richardson (16).

Photo:View from the Bridge with Houseboats on the Benfleet Side of the Creek

View from the Bridge with Houseboats on the Benfleet Side of the Creek

Dave Bullock

On Friday, 2 November, the Times reported that witness Mrs. Winifred Gertrude Bowling, a neighbour from houseboat MTB 492, had stated that shortly before the fateful night of 17 May, when the twins died, a man named 'Bill' Smith had suggested that they could 'easily be sold for £100 apiece to the Americans'. After the fire Mrs. Bowling's husband had brought the Richardson family to their own boat and she had attended to a slight burn on Mrs. Richardson's left arm. On the subject of adopting the twins, Mrs. Bowling said: "She (Mrs. Richardson) and her husband were prepared to adopt them, but Mr. Smith and Mrs. Clark would not have it done legally, but only on a scrap of paper and Mr. Richardson would not agree to that."

In evidence the senior scientific officer at the Metropolitan Police laboratory stated he 'could find no indication of any natural origin of the fire'. On the 13th November 1956 Mrs. Richardson was acquitted both of murder and manslaughter. The case continued against Mrs. Clark. In 1949 she had gone to live with a Mr. Reginald Wright and she had changed her name to Wright. Mr. Wright had died last April. When asked by her counsel she insisted she 'took the twins out regularly and taught them to sing, to recite and play the harmonica'.

Photo:View of Canvey from Benfleet Downs with the Colvin Bridge & Houseboats

View of Canvey from Benfleet Downs with the Colvin Bridge & Houseboats

Jim Gray

She had known a man named 'Bill' Smith for ten years, but had never been intimate with him. She denied there was any intention of going to Australia with Smith, or that he had said he was unwilling to take the twins when they went. Where did she go to live after the fire? Following hospital treatment she went to her sister and then she asked Mr. Smith if he had rooms, hence her Canvey Island address. The judge asked: "Was his wife there?" She answered: "Not then."
Mrs. Clark was found not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to three years for each of the twins, the sentences to run concurrently. She was also found not guilty of the charge of arson on a lack of evidence. There was an application for leave to appeal against the sentences, but if that was followed through or what the outcome was we do not know, nor the outcome of subsequent allegations by Mrs. Grace Richardson 'against certain people'.

Photo:The Creek Today - Looking east towards the new bridge

The Creek Today - Looking east towards the new bridge

Tessa Hallmann

It has been suggested that Vicky Clark actually ventured to Australia, but was turned back at the point of entry, which, as Australian law stood, would have been refused to anyone with a criminal record.

Locally the twin boys were remembered as lovely looking children, about 12 to 15 months old, with lovely dark curly hair and big dark brown eyes. Paraffin was sold at Jack Morling's shop, Attwells (Ironmongers) in Benfleet High Street, but at the time in question a young girl babysitter had made the purchase, not Vicky.

An interesting aspect of the case was the fact that Vicky Wright was represented by one of the greatest female lawyers of the age, Dame Rose Heilbron, who secured the decision of manslaughter, rather than murder. It has been reported that Heilbron succeeded by persuading the jury that 'Wright would not have put her hair in curlers knowing that she would meet the fire brigade'.

Research Robert Hallmann and Karen Bowman, 3 June 2008 [Layout by D.Bullock]

There have been recent developments, when a former Council employee found a newspaper cutting from the time he helped to exhume Reginald Wright in Benfleet churchyard and I've passed our research over to Tom King. It was published in the Evening Echo 10th July 2008.

*Update 18th July 2008*

I've also been contacted from New Zealand by Elyse Featherstone, a great-granddaughter of William (Bill) Smith, as she was researching into the shenanigans of her ancestor. On finishing our research I sent the story to her, though to date there has been no reply. She did, however, earlier give some information on her great-grandfather who had 'known' Vicky for three years before the fire:

'William Smith did not emigrate to Australia, but his son did who was my uncle... The last known traces of him were found in Jaywick, in Clacton on Sea, he had a house keeper who was said to have taken lots of money from him, so I suppose he got his karma. Its said he died around 1974/75 making him 76...'

So he did not emigrate as Tom King states, but she, too, suggests that someone alerted the authorities in Australia, where Vicky Wright was refused entry.  Robert

If you can add any memories, photos or information including the exact position of the Houseboats please leave a comment below, email in, or join us on the Canvey.org forum where this story has been discussed.

This page was added by Robert Hallmann on 13/07/2008.
Comments about this page

I have just been reading about the houseboat fire that resulted in the death of the twins of Mrs Vicci Wright. I remember Mr William Smithe quite well, he was apparently involved in the case. I was very friendly with his eldest son also called Bill. He had a younger son called Noby, who emigrated to Australia, and two daughters Paula and Pam. Mr Smith, wife and sons used to live in the sea front end of Maurice Road in a bungalow called "Treetops", his two daughters used to live in a bungalow a little further down the road almost next to "Fortenes" the grocers stores. He was involed with Vicci Wright for some time. Mrs Smith was always trying to find out if he was with her. Mr Smith was the owner of a cafe on Smallgains corner which is now " The Canvey Club" which i am told is soon to be demolished. Mr Smith moved from Maurice road after having a house built at Northwick Corner roughly about where the ambulance repair yard currently is. It was the only house in that area at the time.

By 'CanveyJoe' via the Canvey.org Forum
On 17/07/2008

Hello Joe/All

First of all let me say the article is wrong, I in fact live in New Zealand with my family.

CanveyJoe, you were correct in everything you said, Paula was my grandmother and she died in 1996 of lung cancer. Aunty Pammy died a year after of the same cause. My Uncle Bryan died, I never met him, but his wife Pat is still alive and living in Norfolk, we went to her second wedding. My Uncle Bill is still alive in Australia, I'm in contact with his daughter Joanne (Joanna) if you want his contact details.

And finally what you may not know is there was another child, the oldest daughter of William named Margaret (Paula's  sister). She died in a fire when she was a child, as you may of guessed fires plague  my family, I don't believe my Great Grandmother ever got over her death.

As for the article, I wish to clear up a few things, on behalf of my great grandmother;

On Friday, 2 November, The Times reported that witness Mrs. Winifred Gertrude Bowling, a neighbour from houseboat MTB 492, had stated that shortly before the fateful night of 17 May, when the twins died, a man named 'Bill' Smith had suggested that they could 'easily be sold for £100 a piece to the Americans'.

THIS IS RUBBISH, WILLIAM (BILL) LIKED HIS WOMEN AND LIKED A DRINK BUT HE WAS NOT AN EVIL MONSTER.

My great Grandmother went through hell and back, she was a wonderful strong loyal lady that did the best she could with what she had. She was the glue that kept our family together, she knew William was cheating on her, but she stuck it out as best she could for the children.

Now we know what we know I hope this can all be put to rest, My family has been through enough...

Elyse Featherstone
Daughter of Anne Featherstone, Granddaughter of Paula Robertson, Great Granddaughter of Anne Smith

[Two seperate submitted comments combined  by D.Bullock]

By Elyse Featherstone
On 02/08/2008

Dear Elyse

Thanks for sending in your comments and I am glad we have been able to give you the opportunity to put this old story straight

By David Bullock
On 02/08/2008

Thankyou David

Best Regards

Elyse

By Elyse Featherstone
On 02/08/2008

Dear Elyse of New Zealand, you did get in touch with a request for information back in the middle of May (elliedramaqueen123). I did e-mail our findings to you direct well before I posted them here, so there would have been ample time for alterations. I went ahead in the absence of a reply. So I am surprised you do not seem to like what we found, after all, things said in Court and reported are not our inventions, nor do they constitute our private opinions - nor did I put all my knowledge into the story. You did say 'any more information would be great...' Sorry to disappoint. Robert

By Robert Hallmann
On 02/08/2008

Mr Hallmann

I recieved no such email, I found your findings very factual, however the comment I brought up was not a fact but an opinion of Mrs. Winifred Gertrude Bowling, a neighbour, and I dont believe for a second that William would have said something as dreadful as that, He was no saint but as I said he was no monster and that's from the people that knew him better than a nosy neighbour.

I'm quite satisfied with the findings of this story, thankyou, hopefully now it can be put to rest, my great grandmother was a very proud women and our family is tired of having its name rubbed through the dirt.

By Elyse Featherstone
On 03/08/2008

Reg Wright was my grandfather I have known about this case ever since i was a child. I have just been reading an article written in the echo secrets in the clinging mud 11th July 1988. It states that Reg had a grown up daughter who put pressure on the police to re examine the corpse. My mother, Reg Wrights daughter, insists to me that as far as she can remember this did not happen. As it was he had not been in contact with his children for a long time. He had 3 daughters and 2 sons

By Bob Cummings
On 20/04/2009

Reginald Wright was my grandfather and I know that my Mum - the youngest of his children - doted on him despite his womanising. None of us possess a photo of him, but I would really like to see a picture of him if anyone out there has one? The only picture my mum ever possessed of him was destroyed by my uncle (obviously also hurt by my Grandfathers misdeads). regards, Tracy Peachey

By Tracy Peachey
On 04/03/2012

Name is Mark Attreed and the house boat in your article was owned by my grandfather. He sold it onto the lady that sadly lost her children in it, I can remember him telling the story to me as a young boy. His name was Ted Kendal. I have a picture of the house boat if anyone is intrested.

By Mark Attreed
On 19/10/2013

We would be interested in the houseboat picture Mark. Either upload it to the site or send it to me by email jan@canveyisland.org and I will post it. Thank you

By Janet Penn
On 19/10/2013

why are people still raking up the past? Bill was not a man to have said anything about selling the twins off. There was an offer made by a rich American but Vicky refused it. Reggie and Colin were 3 years old when they died,they were like any other little boys and loved getting into mischief. And to put the record straight, Bills 'housekeeper' so called did NOT fleece him out of his money.

By val court
On 24/10/2013

This article was done in 2008 Val. With one comment from a family member in 2011 and another in 2012. Not exactly raking up the past.

By Janet Penn
On 25/10/2013

Sorry to go off at a tangent, but I am trying to do my family tree and have been told by a great aunt about a wife and twins that died in a accident in Essex in the 1950's. This is the only thing I have found that resembles what I have been told. Could some one please tell me who the parents of Reginald Wright were so I can prove or otherwise if this is to do with our family or not. Thank you

By Claire Henson
On 25/06/2016

If you're already a registered user of this site, please login using the form on the left-hand side of this page.