Strange Exits from Hastings
A Cornucopia of Bizarre Deaths and Unsolved Murders
By Helena Wojtczak
Review by Elly Gibson
What comes to mind when you think about Hastings? The famous battle of 1066 which left King Harold with an arrow in his eye? Or the best of British seaside, with the town’s amusement arcades, pier and glorious choice of fish and chip shops?
I certainly doubt it would be an 18-year-old soldier, gored to death by a grumpy goat at the local barracks in 1804. Or poor Charlie Wordsworth, killed by a galvanised zinc vegetable strainer while he stepped out on the seafront with his sweetheart a century later in 1900.
But these are the stories that really bring a town to life and give it its beating heart. And in Strange Exits from Hastings Helena Wojtczak has collected more than 30 such bizarre tales of unsolved murders, unlikely accidents and unforeseen acts of self-destruction.
The personal histories of these unfortunate and forgotten souls have been researched with diligence and care by the author. And the accounts are presented alongside newspaper cuttings and photographs of East Sussex from the period – which helps ground them in reality when some seem more than a little improbable.
The reader observes desperate men and women driven to end their lives in increasingly unusual fashions, sees murderers commit their crimes, sits with the jury in court cases, hears testimonies from witnesses, and walks alongside Wojtczak as she tries to get to the bottom of some of the previously unsolved cases within the book’s pages.
Readers… will enjoy the references to local landmarks, but this has something to offer everyone
Wojtczak clearly has a passion for the past, as fans of her previous works will no doubt already know. She represents those without a voice, face or name. Those whose fates may have been known at the time, but who have since then and until now been lost to history.
From the brutally battered middle-aged cook and the elderly tobacconist found lying in a pool of blood in his shop, to the 15-year-old who takes his passion for acting and adventure too far and the ‘American Blondin’ whose promise of ‘high wire’ exploits delivers more literally than he would have imagined, the stories are unique and intriguing.
What cuts through them all is Wojtczak’s genuine compassion for her subjects. It would have been easy to sensationalise these seemingly far-fetched accounts, but there’s a gentle humility, tenderness and even kindness in the way the stories are presented.
And this is more than just a collection of stories. The book acts as a social commentary to a Hastings past over a period spanning some 150 years. From large families crammed into tiny two-room cottages, to wealthy new arrivals in the luxury villas on West Hill Road, the accounts are set against a backdrop of what life was like at the time for those at both ends of the social scale in a constantly evolving and developing seaside town.
It’s a very easy read to dip in and out of – although I confess I inhaled it in just one sitting. The characters are so fascinating they tumble out of the pages and jostle for position in the forefront of your mind. Readers familiar with the area will enjoy the references to local landmarks, but this has something to offer everyone with an interest in unusual histories.
Who knew how many improbable ways there are to dispatch someone to their grave?! After reading this, I for one will be hoping I avoid death by lift shaft or polar bear. And I might walk a little bit further away from the headland next time I tackle the cliffs at Fairlight!
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