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Tuesday, May 2, 2023

The Ratho Murder

The only known Picture of George Bryce

The Ratho Murder

by C. A. Asbrey  

Thomas Tod and his Family at Clerwood House 1906

A wealthy merchant built Clerwood House on twenty-six acres of land for his family, and it was a grand affair. The conditions of the feu stipulated that any dwelling house erected on this land must cost a minimum of £1,000 sterling with Coach house, Stables, Lodge, and offices extra. To put that in perspective, the average dwelling house cost roughly £75 to build, so the house alone was more than thirteen times as extravagant than an average four bedroomed house. 

It was still under construction when the Tod family moved in 1864, bringing their staff with them, and it's likely that their need to move into an uncompleted house was precipitated by a brutal murder in their previous home in Ratho. That house, then known as Ratho Villa, but later changed its name to Kirtonhill, still stands, and when I started as a young police constable, it was on my first beat.

An Aerial View of the Scene of the initial Attack

George Bryce was born in the village of Ratho, just to the west of Edinburgh, one of fourteen children. His father ran the local inn. He was described as dark-haired, heavy set, and none-too bright, with a reputation for drunkenness and fighting. A very poor scholar, the family were later to point to a history of feeble-mindedness in the mother's family to seek a defence of insanity. Bryce also had a history of disappearing for days, with no explanation of where he'd been or what he'd been doing. When he returned from these trips, he was dishevelled and haggard, as though he'd been on a bender. Dr. James Craig, the local doctor, said that Bryce was addicted to alcohol, and had been consulted by the Mr. Bryce senior about his son's drinking. He was locally referred to as 'Daft Geordie', and was known to be a soft touch for spending all his money entertaining others in bars. The carter had been paying court to a local cook, Isobel Brown, for several months, but one of her friends, Jeanie Seaton, had warned the young woman of her paramour's bad reputation and had finished with him. And his reputation was appalling. Mrs. Tod had already warned against allowing visitations to the house by such drunken persons, and he had been banned from the house. The trial transcript notes numerous testimonies from local men who had been threatened by Bryce, armed with a knife, on the least provocation—both sober and drunk.

It's clear that Bryce had some kind of learning difficulty, and had problems in processing his emotions. The tales recounted by family and locals of finding him 'taking a walk to himself 'in Gogar Woods for days on end show that he often withdrew, with or without alcohol. It is possible that he used drink as a way to escape obsessive and intrusive thoughts. James Meikle, the station-master at Gogar, stated that Bryce appeared to have a speech impediment, and that may have impacted his self-esteem. However, Professor Laycock described Bryce's speech as 'thick and indistinct,' but in glorious Victorian style declared that to be 'often the case among persons of low organisation'. Laycock did not consider Bryce to be of 'sound senses'. Meikle also describes annoying behaviour that displayed a startling lack of insight and empathy, while others describe capricious irresponsibility for his horse, having left it tied up so long that it was taken away to be cared for by the men at the local quarry. 

George Bryce was furious with the woman who had destroyed his relationship by labelling him a 'drunken blackguard.' He had gone on another drunken escapade, not returning home on Thursday 14th April, but was put to bed by his father on the evening of Friday 15th April having passed out through drink.

George was up and about at six o'clock in the morning, and was seen loitering in the yard of his father's house, which was a pub, for about an hour. His uncle saw him crossing the canal bridge around seven o'clock, and asked where he was going. George replied, "To the station." William Binnie, a local joiner, also saw him. They discussed a new building in the local doctor's garden, a 'photographic house', and Binnie noted that Bryce was sober and rational. He also noted that Bryce was wearing his light shoes, which indicated that he was not working that day, as working men wore boots. Bryce then turned towards the Tod Villa, and Binnie knew no more until after the murder.

Illustration from a 1934 story about the case in the Illustrated Police News

It's clear that many people had the same opinion of him. It's also clear that the lady of the house had held that view strongly enough to ban him, and similar callers from the house. What isn't clear is why only one woman should be singled out to be responsible for the view held widely, one held even by his own familyeven if she had repeated it to others. But hold her responsible, he did, and all his revenge was focussed on her.

Bryce was seen to hop the low wall to the villa and walk to the back of the building. Once inside he pushed past Isobel Brown, his ex-girlfriend, and proceeded into the house. Witnesses say that he had ascertained that Mr. Tod was not at home. He stormed upstairs, followed by the cook and another servant, looking for Jeanie Seaton. They found Byce on top of her, his hands around her throat, and Mrs. Tod beat him off with an umbrella and told Jeannie to run. She did, as the servants pulled him away from the victim.

She ran to the nearby cottage of Binnie the Joiner, directly opposite seeking refuge, but Mrs. Binnie was at church and nobody was in to help her evade her attack. Bryce leapt the wall, cut her off, and slit her throat in full view of numerous witnesses.

Bryce ran off, but was quickly captured by locals. His crime was so public he had no option but to plead guilty, depending on insanity and feeble-mindedness as defences—both acceptable at the time. 

Nowadays, Bryce would have been considered not merely on whether he was sane or insane at the moment of the crime. He would have had a defence of diminished responsibility due to his poor cognitive functions and low intellect. The old Scottish law term of Dole was an equivalent of mens rea— Latin for guilty mind—explained in 1753 by Chambers Cyclopedia: "Under Dole are comprehended the vices and errors of the will, which are immediately productive of the criminal act, though not premeditated, but the effect of sudden passion. In this respect Dole differs from what the English law calls malice."

The court ruled that Bryce was sane at the time of the murder and the authorities were having none of the excuses put forward on his behalf. Evidence of premeditation came in him establishing that Mr. Tod was not in the house that day, obtaining the razor, and in the various reasoned conversations he had immediately before the murder. They simply did not believe that he had an instant of maniacal excitement, and was perceived as functioning to a sufficient level to be able grasp right from wrong in life in general. It was a world without the nuance of today, and the judge even expressed concern that should he be committed to an insane asylum, that Bryce would be would be back on the streets through the possibility of "subsequent restoration to society." He was sentenced to be hanged.

The only known Picture of George Bryce

Most poor people at that time didn't get photographs taken, and no known pictures of George Bryce were thought to exist, until crime writer posted pictures she came across doing research. A Dr. John Smith, founder of the Edinburgh Dental Dispensary and the Hospital for Sick Children, did drawings of bodies brought into the morgue, and she found them in the records.

Let's take a moment to note a few details here. It's ten in the morning, the pinioning straps lie off to the side, but most of all—the thing I noted right away as being most unusual in a working man in 1860s Scotland— the corpse is wearing shoes with the fashionable square toes of the time, and not boots. Most working men of the period wore boots even to church, but shoes for a carter were likely to be his Sunday Best, if he had any at all. These were probably the same 'light shoes' noted by the witness William Binnie in the precognition statements. They were unusual enough to be noted, and commented on, for that day and time. Did Bryce wear those shoes to be lighter on his feet that day? We'll never know, but it was clearly not his usual footwear for a Saturday morning.

The Bryce family moved to Currie after this, and many emigrated to Canada and America, but those who stayed behind worked hard and did well, running many local businesses. One descendent was dismayed to find that George's uncle had also been hanged for murder in 1844, when a destitute uncle James had robbed and then finished off his brother-in-law. 

If you'd like to look more closely at the medical reports on George Bryce relating to this trial, you can find them here.


“Oh, my goodness.” Beryl Clutterbuck held open the front door. Her blue eyes blinked at Vida, fixating on her top hat. “I’ve never seen a lady dress like you before.” 

Vida smiled. “That’s because I’m not a lady. I’m a doctor. Doesn’t your doctor wear a coat and hat like this?” 

“Oh. There are women doctors? I didn’t know that was allowed.” The older woman’s lips twitched into wide grin. “The hat is just perfect for a doctor, although I’d like to put a flower in it.” She paused. “Or a great big feather. A peacock feather would look lovely.” 

Beryl stepped aside to allow Nat and his oddly-dressed companion to enter. “I’m an adherent of the rational dress movement.” Vida swept into the hall. “Women wear clothes which are far too restrictive. I do the same job as a man, so I will dress in much the same way. I would wear pants, too, but that just causes far too many problems.” 

“Rational dress?” Beryl’s little mouth pursed into a raspberry, as though unfamiliar with either word. “What’s rational about dressing like a man?” 

“Rational dress refers to everything women wear. Surely, you’ve heard of bloomers? They’ve gone out of fashion now, but the union suit has remained with some of us. I’m wearing one now.” 

“Union suit?” asked Beryl as Nat groaned in the background. 

“Yes. Combination underwear.” Vida propped her hands on her hips, betraying a thicker waist than Mrs. Clutterbuck. “Corsetry is the work of the devil. It constricts the organs, the breathing, and is there to serve no purpose other than male titillation. I have no time for it.” 

Beryl gasped before whispering in theatrical horror. “You don’t wear a corset? Isn’t that indecent?” 

“Of course not. I’m a professional woman. I’m not here to attract men. I’m here to do a job of work.” 

“My Charles always said that professional women were the worst at dressing provocatively, but I suppose it depends on the profession. Speaking of which, Catherine French is here to see you, Mr. Dunvegan.” Beryl led the way to the drawing room. “You are welcome, anyway. I do hope you can help poor Abigail, Mrs. Doctor. She’s so depilated.” 

“She’s what?” 

“You know, floppy, no energy.” 

“Oh, debilitated.” 

Beryl nodded. “Yes. That’s what I said.” 

“Depilated means she had her hair removed.” 

“Oh, no. That would be silly. She has beautiful hair. Why would she do that?” Beryl opened the door. 

Vida darted a look at Nat who shrugged and whispered in her ear. “I did tell you that Mrs. Clutterbuck’s unusual. She means well. She speaks without thinking.” 

A young woman with glistening brown hair stood as they entered the room. Vida noted that her hazel eyes fixed immediately on Nat. 

“Mr. Dunvegan.” She trilled in delight. “I came to see how your wife is today.” 

“This is Mrs. France,” said Beryl in flat, bored tones. “She’s here a lot now.” 

“Call me Catherine.” The visitor extended her hand. “I try to help wherever I can. Such tragic events demand that a neighbor should step in, don’t you think?” 

“Yet, you are in the lounge. Not even in the kitchen,” said Vida, raising her eyebrows. “What kind of help?” 

“Well, moral support.” 

“Well, I’m here now. You can get back to your husband.” Vida removed her hat to reveal short curly hair. “Thank you for your support.” 

“She doesn’t have a husband,” said Beryl. “She’s a widow.” 

Vida nodded. “I’m sorry for your loss. You aren’t wearing black. I take it he died some time ago.” 

“A year in February,” Catherine replied. “He was ill for some time. Sadly, it wasn’t unexpected.” 

“Just over a year?” Vida’s brows arched. “You’ve slighted the mourning early?” 

The young woman’s chin tilted in challenge. “Why, yes. Life goes on. My Rodney would have wanted it that way. He was full of life.” 

“He was full of whiskey.” Beryl chuckled. “He was rarely sober. It was the drink that took him. Poor Catherine had a lot to put up with, but I suppose his money robbed her trials of their sting.” 

“I loved him. He had a kind heart.” Catherine sniffed. “He found great joy in life.” 

“He certainly did. He never stopped celebrating,” said Beryl. “I remember your wedding. He could barely stand upright. You were a beautiful bride, though. All dressed in white organdie. Very vaginal.” 

Catherine’s eyes widened. “I think you mean virginal.” 

Vida grinned, her grey eyes twinkling like polished steel as she looked Catherine up and down. “I think we all know what she means. Now, I must get up and see Abigail.” She paused, slapping away Catherine’s hand which had ventured over to Nat’s lapel to pick away a piece of lint. “He’s a married man, young woman, and his wife is my dearest friend. If you think for one second that your machinations are beyond me, you are sadly mistaken.” 

“I was only—”

“I know what you were only doing. You were leaving, Mrs. French.” Vida glowered at Nat. “And I’m ashamed of you, allowing this.” 

His jaw dropped open. “I haven’t done a thing.” 

“Good. Keep it that way.” Vida strode over to the door. “Show me up, Mr. Dunvegan. Lovely to meet you, Mrs. French. We don’t need your help any longer.”

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  1. Very interesting excerpt, showing lots of tensions and illuminating character.
    I'd not heard of 'dole' as a legal term. Fascinating blog. Bryce sounds a very sad, disturbed, violent man.

    1. Thanks, Lindsay. Scots law is full of unusual terms. Yes, he seemed to have a very low IQ, and little in the way of impulse control. But he was VERY violent, and his history of threats indicate that it was only matter of time before he hurt someone. A tragic case indeed.