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Story behind the headstone Pt 1: genealogical goosebumps

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

As the bullet casing fell from the envelope onto the desk in front of me goosebumps rose up on my arms. I had ordered up a court martial file from the National Archives as part of my research into a World War 1 grave in Coventry’s London Road Cemetery.[1] .

Grave of Yates in London Road Cemetery, Coventry

The grave was innocuous enough: Charles Cleaver Yates, 8th Battalion, Royal Marine Light Infantry died 24 July 1920 on HMS Coventry. I imagined a hearty sailor, bravely facing his doom on the high seas but then, noting the date so far after the end of the war, I thought perhaps he died of a war wound or even the flu. In the end, the truth was more complicated.

The bullet casing had found its way from an Irish coastguard station to the National Archives at Kew. It was removed from a revolver and handed to Head Constable James Mooney when he arrived at Ballyvaughan Coastguard Station in response to reports of a shooting. The date was 7 July 1920. When Mooney arrived, he found a young marine being restrained while another lay wounded on the floor, this man was Charles Cleaver Yates.

Charles was born on 12 February 1896 in Sileby, Leicestershire, the illegitimate son of Beatrice Eveline Yates.[2]

While the headstone says Charles Cleaver Yates, he appears to have used Burdett as his middle name. Cleaver was the name of the man his mother married in 1899 in Leicester.[3] Charles did not live with his mother and her new husband. In both 1901 and 1911 he was living with Beatrice’s parents in Sileby while she lived firstly in Leicester and by 1911 she was living in Coventry with Frederick Cleaver and their five children.[4] [5]

Charles initially took up his grandfather's trade making shoes. On the 1911 census he was working in the pressroom in the shoe trade.[6] When he joined the Royal Marine Light Infantry on 13 October 1914 in Nottingham he gave his occupation as shoe hand. At the time of joining up Charles was 5ft 4 with light brown hair and blue eyes, he had a scar over his left eyebrow.[7]

He served on HMS Lowestoft from 28 August 1915 to 15th January 1918. Following a short period on shore, he was posted to HMS Coventry between 14 March 1918 and 3 May 1920 serving in the Baltic and the Atlantic. He was promoted to Corporal while on Coventry. On his service record his character is recorded as Very Good and his conduct, which was recorded as Superior while a Private, dropped to Satisfactory as a Corporal.

He was posted to the 8th Royal Marine Battalion on 2nd June 1920. The battalion sailed to Cork in HMS Valiant and Warspite before being taken by destroyer to protect coastguard and signal stations around the Irish coast. Yates was posted to Ballyvaughan coastguard station.

On 7 July Yates was shot in front of witnesses by fellow marine Private Cecil George Redvers Helmore who then tried to shoot himself. Yates died 17 days later in Cork Military Hospital. His body was sent to his mother in Coventry and buried in the city's London Road Cemetery.

Cecil George Redvers Helmore was born in Reading to George Henry and Elizabeth Himalaya Helmore on 27 November 1900.[8] Unlike Yates, he was part of a large family, one of eleven children. His father, George was a railway signalman.[9]

At the time of the shooting Helmore was 19 years old, 5ft 7, dark brown eyes and hair and a mole on his left cheek. A railway porter, he had joined up on 29th October 1918 at the age of 17. Too young to serve he had to wait over a year until he was posted to the Chatham Division on 27 November 1919. Like Yates he was assigned to 8th Battalion on 2 June 1920.8 Five weeks later he committed murder.

It took time for a court martial to be convened as the Army and Navy wrangled over who was responsible for the punishment of Helmore. Eventually on 11 February 1921, after seven months on remand Helmore was brought before a Field General Court Martial.

The officers making up the court martial were Lieutenant-Colonel Crofton Bury Vandeleur DSO, Major George Young Russell, who was appointed Judge Advocate, Major Harry Ensor Lane and Major W C Gower.

Captain E Young appeared for the prosecution and Captain N Morrison represented Helmore who was charged with both murder and with a possible lesser charge of manslaughter.

The following account comes from the court martial paperwork that makes up file WO 71/1414 and is composed from witness statements collected in December 1920 prior to the court martial and the statements given at the court martial itself. There was often more detail in the initial statements. The earlier statements were collected in front of Helmore and he was given the opportunity to cross-examine each witness but he only used this right once. The prosecution noted this apparent lack of interest.

Doctor Michael Valentine Shanahan was the first witness for the prosecution. He was the doctor at Cork Military hospital when Yates was brought in. He reported that the patient was paralysed from the waist down, he had a gunshot wound to the right side of his neck and there was no sign of an exit wound. He later removed the bullet from close to Yates's spine.

Plan of Ballyvaughan Coast Guard. WO 71/1414. National Archives (Great Britain), Kew,

Lieutenant Edward Charles Mugridge was the next witness. He was the officer in charge of the marines at Ballyvaughan station. He described Helmore as level headed and one of the best men in the group. He said that both Yates and Helmore were often under him for Lewis gun instruction and they always seemed to get on well together. He said he was in Ballyvaughan village when he saw Helmore waiting for provisions, they spoke briefly before Helmore and a Private Taylor set off back to the coastguard station. About an hour later his servant cycled into the village to alert him to trouble at the station. Taking the man’s bicycle, he quickly returned to the station where he found Yates on a bed, clearly in pain and with a bandaged neck. He asked Yates how this came about and Yates replied, "I'm sure I don't know sir - the silly young fool." Helmore was in the guardroom and appeared dazed but able to answer questions rationally. Mugridge asked him why he had shot Yates. Helmore asked "Is he dead?" "No." Mugridge responded, "You also tried to take your own life." and Helmore responded that he had and that he should have loaded more bullets. This exchange was witnessed by Head Constable James Mooney who later praised Mugridge's friendly questioning of Helmore.

The next witness was Private Augustus Andrew Murray who said on the day in question at about 20.45 he was in the kitchen of the coastguard station with Yates and Private Jones, and a police constable. He saw Helmore appear in the door with a revolver in his hand which he pointed at Yates and fired. He heard Yates say that he had been hit. He saw Helmore put the revolver to his own head and heard 2 clicks in quick succession before Private Jones knocked Helmore to the ground and knelt on him. He confirmed that Yates and Helmore had been very friendly up to four days before the shooting but for those four days they had not spoken - he did not know the reason why.

When cross-examined, Murray said that it was more accurate to say that Yates and Helmore avoided each other than that they were on unfriendly terms. They had previously been quite chummy so it was noticeable, but Yates hadn't said anything to him about it. He also said that he had seen Helmore about 20 minutes before the shooting and he seemed cheerful.

Private Percival Henry Chapman Jones testified that he was sitting at the foot of the stairs in the kitchen, quite close to where Yates, Murray and the PC were standing. He heard a shot and when looking round saw Helmore with a revolver pressed against his forehead. He rushed at Helmore and with a punch, knocked him to the ground, keeping him down until an escort arrived. Helmore was knocked out by the punch and when he came round did not put up any struggle. He didn't realise at the time that anyone had been shot. He confirmed that he had seen Helmore about four minutes earlier in the bedroom; Helmore had asked him what was for supper. At this point, Helmore chose to cross-examine the witness and asked "Was I thoroughly sober when I spoke to you?" Jones said he thought Helmore had seemed a bit flush and looked like he had had a drink but appeared sober and rational. Jones was aware that Helmore kept his revolver hanging on his bedstead. Like Murray, Jones was also aware that Helmore and Yates hadn't been on speaking terms for four days. He had heard Yates reprimand Helmore two days before the shooting for returning from the village slightly drunk.

Private Warwick Leslie Burlace was upstairs at the time of the shooting and came down on hearing the shot. He found Helmore on the floor with Jones sitting on him. He picked up a revolver that was lying on the floor a couple of feet away from Helmore. On checking the gun he found nothing in the chamber opposite the striker, to the right the chamber contained a case which had been struck and to the right of this a round which appeared not to have been struck. He too commented on the change in relations between Helmore and Yates saying that Helmore used to give his rum ration to Yates but for the last few days had drunk it himself.

The next witness was Head Constable James Mooney. He said it was a fine clear night when he arrived at the station to find Yates shot in the neck and Helmore restrained by Private Jones. He was handed an empty revolver cartridge that he submitted as evidence to the court. He said that he saw Helmore later in the guardroom and he seemed sober.

The prosecution closed and witnesses were called for the defence although there was not much of a defence offered.

The first witness was Dr James Cashman of Cork Lunatic Asylum. He testified that in his opinion Helmore was suffering from temporary impulsive insanity because he had been speaking quite rationally shortly before the shooting. He said that he had recently examined Helmore and found him intelligent and physically fit. Helmore had told him that he had no memory of the attack and that he had been suffering headaches since May.

A medical report by Lt Col William Woodside, Royal Army Medical Corps at Limerick Military Hospital where Yates was first admitted described his injury as well as noting that he appeared to be suffering some redness and pus from his genitals.

The events themselves seemed clear but the motive was a mystery. Helmore did not testify. His statement said that he got on well with his messmates and that he and Yates had been friendly up until a few days before the event, He acknowledged that there had been a slight difference between them but that he never wished him dead. He also maintained that he did not have any memory of the shooting itself; he remembered being in his room having a cigarette and then the next thing he knew he was being restrained on the floor of the sergeant major's room and being told he had shot Yates. He expressed remorse for the death of Yates.

The defence's closing statement did not try to claim innocence on the part of Helmore but instead argued that the court martial did not have the jurisdiction to try him because the Marines were not technically on active service at the time of the shooting.

Helmore was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by hanging. However, the court recommended that the death sentence be commuted on the grounds of his extremely young age, his excellent character and the strain of being imprisoned awaiting trial for 7 months. General Strickland backed this recommendation, however the General Officer Commanding, General Macready, felt that the sentence should stand as young Irishmen were being hung for murder and it would not do for different rules to apply amongst the troops. In the end, after three months of consideration, Helmore’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on 6 May 1921 and he was sent to Maidstone Prison.

This probably would have been the end of it but then in August 1921 a letter arrived at the Admiralty from a London law firm: R Voss & Son asking for copies of the court martial paperwork. They had been instructed by a Lieutenant-Colonel Walter Russell Johnson to look at the case again and make sure that all the facts had been considered.

Was Helmore guilty of murder? Who was the mysterious Walter Russell Johnson and why was he taking an interest in Helmore’s case? Find out in Part 2.

The bullet casing


End Notes

[1] War Office (Great Britain). Field General Courts Martial. HELMORE, C G R. Offence: Murder. 1920-22. WO 71/1414. National Archives (Great Britain), Kew, England. Collection: Judge Advocate General's Office: Courts Martial Proceedings and Board of General Officers' Minutes [2] Baptisms (PR) England. Sileby, Leicestershire. YATES, Charles Burdett. 29 March 1896. Collection: Leicestershire Baptisms. accessed 24 June 2020. [3] Births index (CR) England. RD Leicester. YATES, Beatrice Eveline. Q2 1899. Vol 7a. Page 595. accessed 24 June 2020 [4] Census records. England. Leicester, Leicestershire. 31 March 1901. CLEAVER, Frederick [Head]. RG13. Piece number 2992. Folio 125. Page 3. accessed 24 June 2020. [5] Census records. England. Coventry, Warwickshire. 2 April 1911. CLEAVER, Frederick [Head] RG14PN18561 RG78PN1111 RD390 SD2 ED23 SN140. accessed 24 June 2020. [6] Census records. England. Sileby, Leicestershire. 2 April 1911. YATES, William [Head]. RG14PN19141 RG78PN1146 RD406 SD1 ED6 SN270. accesse3d 24 June 2020 [7] Admiralty (Great Britain). 13 October 1914. YATES, Charles Burdett. Admiralty: Royal Marines: Registers of Service. ADM 159/132/19287. Collection: Royal Marines 1899-1919. accessed 24 June 2020. [8] Admiralty (Great Britain). 29 October 1918. HELMORE, Cecil George Redvers. Admiralty: Royal Marines: Registers of Service. ADM 159/137/22448. Collection: Royal Marines 1899-1919. accessed 24 June 2020. [9] Census records. England. Caversham, Oxfordshire. 2 April 1911. HELMORE, George Henry [Head] RG14PN8057 RG78PN407 RD150 SD2 ED5 SN184. accessed 24 June 2020

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