Home > Joseph Wilson Hollyer
Joseph Wilson Hollyer was born on 25th November 1847 at 32 Limekiln Street in Dover, the 11th child from a total of 14 of Joseph Hollyer and his wife Amelia Perring (née Mannings). As is documented elsewhere, Joseph was a Herald Painter, a skill he specialised in after being apprenticed as a Coach Builder.
In the spring of 1851, when Joseph Wilson was just 3 years old, the family moved from Dover and their Kent roots to Kennington, London. On the 18th September 1851, Joseph Wilson was baptised at St Marks Church, Kennington, along with 5 of his siblings who somehow had not been baptized in Dover.
The move to London was no doubt to motivated by work and Joseph's work gradually changed from Herald Painting to that of Glass Artist. This work exploited the then recent development of the technique of etching glass by using Hydrofluoric Acid. This sort of decorated glass became very popular for windows and dividing screens in public houses. Three of Joseph's sons joined him in taking up this trade: George (my Gt Gt Grandfather), Joseph Wilson and Charles Greig.
Joseph Wilson married in 1875 to Ellen Emily Linsell, the daughter of a piano maker. Not long after the birth of their first child, Ernest Wilson Hollyer in 1876, the family moved to Birmingham, presumably, like his father to look for more work opportunities. Four more children were born in Birmingham but they then moved south again and settled in Chiswick, where their last two children were born, although the last born, Ethel Violet died at the age of 3. By 1891, the family were living in Hammersmith. A few years later, it seems that the family moved to the Old Kent Road, Hatcham.
When I started this One-Name Study, I didn't pay too much attention to Joseph Wilson Hollyer, since Margaret Wilbourn, who had done a lot of research on the Hollyers, was a direct descendant of Joseph Wilson Hollyer and I assumed had uncovered most things relating to his life. But I had been given his death certificate which shows that he died on 27th September 1899 at Wimbledon Cottage Hospital from "Shock from poisoning by hydrofluoric acid, taken by misadventure". This certainly seemed a horrific end, as hydrofluoric acid is one of the strongest of all acids. Because it can etch glass, it cannot be kept in glass bottles but has to be kept in special rubber bottles. It has a devastating effect on human flesh. But I took 'misadventure' to mean an accident. How could this be? Anyone working daily with the substance would know how careful one has to be. What I didn't immediately connect with this incident was some notes from John Umney-Gray's research which read:
"William P. Hollyer, artist, who had his picture the Gold Fish Bowl hung in the Royal Academy. Mother said she thinks it was not Will who was the artist, but Bill. Uncle Will - mother remembers him dying. He drank some poison for a wager and never recovered."
This confused me, since the nicknames 'Bill' and 'Will' are both diminutives of William and the artist uncle was clearly William Perring Hollyer, the animal artist. When I bought his death certificate from 1922 it was clear that he died of natural causes not from poisoning and I failed to make the link with Joseph Wilson. It was only in more recent times, after contact with Sherry Le Gros, another descendant of Joseph Wilson Hollyer that I realised that 'Will' was Joseph Wilson Hollyer, the nickname coming from his middle name Wilson. As an aside, it is worth noting that that he gave his eldest son Ernest the middle name Wilson too - but where did this name come from? I don't know of any Wilson family connected with this Hollyer line. His father, Joseph Hollyer the Herald Painter, was baptised as Joseph, married as Joseph and died as Joseph, and yet on 2 occasions on the birth certificates of son Joseph Wilson and daughter Martha Louise he quoted his own name as Joseph Wilson Hollyer, adding yet more confusion to the name's origin. I did note that the minister who baptised him in 1809 was called Wilson, but I have not found any other connection.
So back to Joseph Wilson Hollyer's death. His death was so odd that it featured in The Times, which reported the inquest proceedings as follows:
2nd October 1899
At the St George's Hall, Wimbledon, on Saturday evening, Mr A. Braxton Hicks held an inquiry with reference to the death of JOSEPH WILSON HOLLYER, aged 51 years, a sign-writer and glass-embosser. Ellen Hollyer, the widow, gave evidence of identification, and said the deceased in his business used hydrofluoric acid, which on account of its great strength, was kept in an India rubber bottle. Other evidence was given which showed that the deceased produced an India rubber bottle full of the acid in a public house, and, having mixed some in a glass, put it to his lips and apparently drank of it. He afterwards became very ill and died in the Wimbledon Hospital, where he said he took the acid for a bit of foolery. The jury gave a verdict of "Death by misadventure."
This account still left a lot of uncertainty as to how he came to swallow his own dangerous acid and the story didn't line up with the family story that he had taken the drink as a wager. So further research was done to locate local papers which had longer reports on the inquest. Two reports gave a more detailed picture:
7th October 1899
DEATH FROM MISADVENTURE
EXTRAORDINARY EFFECT OF HEAVY DRINKING
An almost incredible story was told to the coroner on Saturday afternoon, when the circumstances of the death of Joseph Wilson Hollyer, sign writer and glass embosser, of 31 Canterbury Road, Old Kent Road, Hatcham, were enquired into.
The widow deposed that the deceased, who would have been 51 next month, had at times taken too much to drink, though he never left her in want. He had worked for Mr Guest at Wimbledon for the last few weeks, travelling to and from town daily. When her left home on Wednesday morning she advised him to throw up the job and get something nearer home. She did this because he seemed less steady when away. He replied, 'I think I will.' He used Hydrofluoric - he called it 'fluid' - acid in embossing glass. It was so strong that it was kept in an India rubber bottle - it would eat though glass. He knew it was dangerous, but his remarks form time to time did not show that he thought it poisonous if well diluted. He had for instance said once or twice that 'a drop of this with something else taken medicinally does you good.' Witness replied laughingly that she would not like to take it.
George Guest, of Hartfield Road, said that the deceased had worked for him for a few days. He was very unpunctual and witness had complained of the job he was on being kept hanging about. He habitually drank too much, going out quite frequently during his work. He was a jolly sort of man and the last man he would have suspected of a suicidal tendency. At 3 o'clock on Wednesday afternoon, having finished his work, he fetched his tools away, and he did not see him again.
Henry Richardson, of 3 Handford Row, Wimbledon, said he was employed by Mr Guest as carpenter, and knew the deceased, whom he last saw at 3 o'clock on the afternoon in question, when he came to fetch his things. Witness considered he was then quite sober. At 4.15 witness went to The Prince of Wales for a drink. The deceased was in the bar though they did not speak. He believed Hollyer had had a drink. Presently, Hollyer took his India rubber bottle of acid and poured apparently about half a quartern into a whisky glass. With this he manoeuvred, dropping lighted matches into it. They were, of course, extinguished.
The Coroner: I should think they were. Do you think he was sober then? - Oh, I think so. They he got the matches out and threw them away and poured some water into the glass, which he then shook and put to his mouth. Whether he took any of the liquid I cannot say. Then he put the glass on the bar counter and added more water to it. I cannot say what followed, as having finished my drink and having no suspicion of him, I turned round and went out.
Had you ever seen him acting in this foolish way before? - No. I had known him about three weeks he was a very steady, good tempered, jocular sort of man.
Mary Smith, barmaid at The Prince of Wales, said she was serving when the deceased entered the bar. He was served with stout and mild shortly before 4 o'clock. He was then apparently quite sober. Mr Guest's foreman painter, Earl, came in with him, and they had a drink together. The deceased afterwards asked her for a glass. He said he had some scent in his bag, adding 'No, it is not scent, it is glycerine; if you give me a bottle I will give you some for your hands.'
The Coroner: Well, I hope you won't put this on your hands (laughter). I can't imagine anybody playing with the awful stuff.
Witness, continuing, said that in the meantime she went to serve another customer. On her return Hollyer asked her for a glass, and she gave him one. He then poured about a tablespoonful of liquid from a large bottle into it. She was not near enough to notice whether there were any fumes from it. He then half-filled the glass with water and put it to his mouth, but did not appear to drink any of its contents.
Did he say anything? - He was talking to one or two customers. He afterwards said it was too strong, and filled the glass to the top with water. He seemed quite sensible. After a little while I turned round and noticed the difference in him: he was very white and clammy, and was sitting down. Earl came in again and looked after him, fetching him some milk.
Bessie Lavis, another barmaid, said she was serving in the bar with the last witness when the deceased came in. He brought a large bottle from the seat and emptying a little of its contents into a glass, which Miss Smith had given him, he filled it with water, saying, 'it is as harmless as the liquor you serve.'
The Coroner: I know, Mr Gould [the landlord] what your liquor is, and must say that is nonsense. It is a foolish thing to say of any licensed victualler.
Henry Earl said that during the short time that the deceased had been employed by Mr Guest he had never given witness any idea that he was likely to commit suicide. On Wednesday afternoon the deceased fetched away his tools and witness went with him to The Prince of Wales, where they had a drink together. He was quite sober. After their 'refresher' witness, who was engaged in the decoration of The Prince of Wales, got on with his work again, leaving the deceased in the bar. At 4.10 he was informed the deceased had been taken queer. Asked what was the matter with him, Hollyer replied 'it is all right, I have taken it a little bit too strong this time. I shall be all right after a bit. I have overdone it this time. Will you get me a drop a milk?' Witness sent for half a pint. After that deceased wished to go to the rear. Witness took him there where he vomited a quantity of stuff of a blood colour.
The Coroner: I understand the effect of taking this acid is that a man vomits up all his mucous membrane. The vomiting was, however, cleared away, so that we cannot analyse it.
Witness said the deceased ridiculed the idea of sending for a doctor. He said 'I have taken it before but it was too strong this time. If I have some more milk it will kill the acid.' I went for more accordingly.
The Coroner said he had never yet heard of anybody taking it. The smallest quantity was enough to kill a person. How he could ask you to believe he had taken this stuff as a quiet pick me up is beyond my imagination.
Witness added that having procured some more milk, he sent for Dr Brabyn, and stayed with the man until he was removed to the hospital.
The Coroner: He never gave you any better explanation than what you have told us today? - No.
James Gould, landlord of the Prince of Wales, said that when he was called to the deceased he was vomiting a fluid of the colour of sarsaparilla.
PC Howlett said he was called to the house about 6 o'clock and found Dr Brabyn in attendance on the deceased. By the doctor's advice he removed the man on the ambulance to the Cottage Hospital, and took possession of his bag, which contained the bottle of acid produced. Hollyer seemed unconscious all the way.
Florence Ayling, nurse at the hospital, said Hollyer was not unconscious when he arrived there, as he spoke. He told Dr Collyns he had taken something - she did not hear what he called it.
Did he say why he took it? - He said it was foolery.
The Coroner: I am inclined to think the same.
Witness added that Hollyer died about an hour later.
Dr Brabyn said the deceased was only half-conscious when he was called to him at 5 o'clock. He was suffering form great collapse, and evidently in much pain. His pulse could not be felt. He muttered that he had taken some acid. With some difficulty witness administered oil and then gave him some milk. His pulse could then be felt very slightly, but he remained in the same comatose condition, and witness ordered his removal to the hospital, when he died the same evening. From the symptoms witness saw during life, the man's death was undoubtedly due to shock caused by taking some irritant poison. He could not believe that the deceased could have taken the acid produced on previous occasions - it was impossible.
The Coroner here stated that he would keep that acid bottle and gets its contents analysed to ascertain the strength of the acid. There was not a case on record of poisoning by this particular acid, which was supposed to be of about the same strength of sulphuric acid, a teaspoonful of which diluted was enough to cause death. He added that for the deceased to have said that the acid was no worse than the beer Mr Gould sold was only stupidity. I suppose, said Mr Hicks, a good many of you have been there. If this acid was no worse than the drink Mr Gould sells it would have done no harm - it would probably have done him good. The deceased seemed to have had no particular trouble except his drunken habits. Of course a man who gets into such habits may suddenly take it into his mind to do away with himself, and take this stuff for that purpose. It may have been that he thought, 'I'll take it [out of bravado], I don't care whether it kills me or not.' There seems to be no evidence as to his intention of in taking it.
The jury, after a brief deliberation in private returned a verdict of Death from Misadventure.
Saturday 7th October 1899
AN OVERDOSE OF ACID.
On Saturday afternoon, Mr. A. Braxton Hicks held an enquiry at St. George's Hall, with reference to the death of Joseph Wilson Hollyer, aged 51, a sign writer and glass embosser, lately residing at 31, Canterbury-road, Old Kent-road, who died under circumstances reported in our last issue.
Ellen Hollyer, the widow, said the deceased had not been steady during the past fortnight. He had no troubles of any kind and had never threatened suicide. Lately he had been working at Wimbledon. In his business be used hydrofluoric acid, which, on account of its great strength, was kept in an india-rubber bottle. She had heard him say that one drop of the acid was good when taken medicinally, but he know it was a deadly poison.
George Guest, sign writer, 61, Hartfield-road and the Broadway, who employed the deceased, said he was a very jolly man, and had never given him the idea of a man who was likely to destroy his life. On Wednesday afternoon be came to witness' place to get his bag, having finished his work there. He well knew the dangerous properties of the acid mentioned.
Henry Richardson, a carpenter in Mr. Guest's employment, stated that he was in the Prince of Wales Hotel, opposite Wimbledon Station, where deceased was. He saw Hollyer pour about half a quartern of the contents of his india-rubber bottle into a glass. Having put some lighted matches into the liquid he added some water to the acid and put the glass to his lips. Then he added more water, and just at that moment witness left the house. He thought nothing of the matter as the deceased seemed to be "fooling about."
Mary Smith, barmaid at the hotel, spoke to serving the deceased with some "stout and mild." He was quite sober. After the deceased and his friend had had their drinks, Hollyer said he had some glycerine in an india-rubber bottle, and asked her for a glass, saying he would give her some for her hands. He poured some out and diluted it with water, afterwards putting it to his mouth. He said it was too strong and added more water. A little later witness noticed that be had turned very white and clammy, and his friend, who had been out and returned, went for some milk.
Bessie Lavis, another barmaid, gave corroborative evidence, and added that before drinking from the glass the deceased said, "This is as harmless as the liquor you sell." He was perfectly sober.
Henry Earl, foreman to Mr. Guest, who was in the hotel with the deceased, also deposed as to his sobriety. Witness left him for some time and upon his return he found that he was ill. He said that he had taken the acid before, but had now taken too strong a dose. He ridiculed the idea of having a doctor and said the milk would kill the acid.
The Coroner said it was difficult to believe that any person could take the smallest dose of this acid, which was so powerful that it would actually eat its way through glass. That was why it was kept in india-rubber bottles.
P.C. Howlett, 413V, said he was called to the hotel and found the deceased there receiving medical attention. He took him to the hospital. He did not speak on the way.
Florence Ayling, a nurse at the Cottage Hospital, said she heard the deceased tell Dr. Collins that be had taken it "for foolery." He died an hour later.
Dr. Brabyn said death was due to hydrofluoric acid poisoning. Witness did not believe that the deceased had ever taken any of the acid before.
By the Jury: He could not say what would be the smallest fatal dose, as there was not a recorded death from hydrofluoric acid poisoning.
The Coroner said he had searched for a case, but was unable to find one. It was well known that a teaspoonful of sulphuric acid, which was not anything like so strong as this would kill. It was an extraordinary case and it was for the jury to determine whether the deceased took the poison for a "bit of foolery" or out of bravado.
The Jury returned a verdict of "Death by misadventure."
Both these reports still leave many unsolved issues. Could the whole thing have been a wager and in a drunken state he accepted it, as the family seemed to believe? If so, it would require a considerable conspiracy amongst all the witnesses in the public house who all reported that he had acted alone. One of the reports says that Joseph was speaking to one or two other customers, but these don't appear to have given evidence at the inquest. Even if it had been a wager, why did he say at the hospital that it had been a "bit of foolery"? Sherry Le Gros says that the family tradition handed down to her was that the family thought it was murder. We shall never know.Back to top