John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee

The John Lee story has been so well documented, this is a précis of the tales and records of the time.

John Henry George Lee was born in Abbotskerswell 15 August 1864.  In 1879 had joined the Navy but was discharged due to ill health.  He gained work as a servant in Torquay, but was found guilty of theft from his employer and was imprisoned for six months in Exeter prison.  He was released in January 1884 and given employment by Emma Keyse at The Glen, who was keen to give him another chance.  She in fact had employed him for a little while before he joined the Navy, so she was showing a great deal of compassion for him, following his bad record.

Emma Anne Whitehead Keyse, the owner of The Glen, was a 68 yr old spinster; she was born in Edmonton London in 1816.  Emma lived at The Glen with 4 servants, one of whom was John Lee, a handyman.  Elizabeth Harris, the cook, who had asked Emma a few months earlier to give her half-brother John Lee a chance.  Lastly Jane and Eliza Neck the Maids, they were sisters who had been with her for over 40 years.  Along with Isambard Kingdom Brunel she prevented the gas works being built on Babbicombe beach, it went to Hollicombe near Paignton.

The Glen had been in her family for about 70 years, her father Thomas Keyse having bought it shortly before he died in 1820.  Her Mother then married a Mr Whitehead and they lived there and brought up a family, Emma accepted as his own.

The Murder, the Trial and Beyond

On the night of14th November 1884, it is said, the servants retired to their rooms as usual.  Between 3 and 4 the cook awoke smelling smoke and rushed into the maids’ room to waken them.  Eliza Neck went into Miss Keyse’ room to wake her, the room was on fire but her bed was empty.  As the servants came down the blazing staircase they could see that both the Drawing and Dining rooms are ablaze.  John Lee appeared in the hall from his room off the larder/scullery in the kitchen, Mr Gaskin at the Cary Arms is called to raise the alarm. Eliza Neck goes into the Dining room where she finds Miss Keyse lying on the floor.

What a horrific sight!  She was on fire, wood shavings and newspapers smelling of paraffin around her charred body.  Her eyes starting out of their sockets, her throat had been cut, almost hacking her head off.  There were blows to the head.  Her right foot and one hand completely burnt.  Doctor Chilcote’s report makes gory but worthwhile reading, it is available in the newspapers of the time and on line.  He discovered blood in the hall possibly where the blows to the head occurred.  These would have killed her.  Her body then appears to have been dragged into the Dining Room where her throat was cut.

John Lee was charged of murder at St Marychurch Town Hall, sent to Exeter Assizes, found guilty and was sentenced to hang at Exeter on the 23rd February 1885 where he famously survived three execution attempts at the gallows, thereafter he forever became known as “The Man They Could Not Hang”.

After serving a life sentence he was released from Portland Prison on the 18th December 1907 and on the 22 January 1909 he married Jessie Augusta Bulled at Newton Abbot in Devon, England.

In the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin, about twenty five yards or metres along the path from the lychgate on the right, can be found a part of a headstone in remembrance of Elizabeth Whitehead and Emma Keyse.

Elizabeth Whitehead and Emma Keyes


……… read more on The Glen and John Lee.

Here is an account by author Charles George Harper, published in 1907:-

“Babbacombe – the real Babbacombe of the beach, not the strange new thing on the cliff-top – is the tiniest of places, with the “Cary Arms” inn, a little stone fishing-pier, a few boats, a fortuitous concourse of lobster-pots, a windlass or two, and a general air of being a natural growth, as indeed it is.

It seems remote from the evil passions of the world, but for all that seeming, it was the scene of a dreadful tragedy in 1884, when Miss Keyse, an elderly lady who lived in a picturesquely thatched cottage on the very margin of the beach, was murdered by John Lee, her manservant.

He was a young footman, a native of Kingskerswell. The motive was said to have been revenge for the reduction of his wages by sixpence a week. The whole thing is sordid, and one had rather not mention it at all; only the notoriety of the case compels.

Lee saturated the rooms with petroleum and set fire to the house, in the hope of concealing the evidence of his crime, but fortunately the fire was extinguished before it had made sufficient progress, and the marks on the body were discovered and Lee arrested.

He was tried, found guilty, sentenced to death, and actually brought to the scaffold at Exeter Gaol; but there the strange and unparalleled circumstances occurred which saved him from execution and condemned him to lifelong imprisonment instead.

Three several times the trap-door on which the condemned man stood refused to fall when the bolt was drawn, although each time, when he was led away, and it was tried, it worked properly. After the third attempt, it was decided, in the interest of the official spectators and of the wretched criminal himself, to prolong the harrowing scene no longer, and Lee was removed to his cell and a report sent to the Home Secretary who first respited him and then commuted the sentence to imprisonment for life.”