• Nicola

Story behind the headstone Pt 2: I wished to be free of him...

Updated: Jul 15

When we left Helmore he was in prison and a Colonel Walter Russell Johnson had enquired about the case. Who was he and why was he getting involved? The first part of that question is straightforward: Lieutenant Colonel Walter Russell Johnson was 32 years old, the son of Sir Walter Johnson. He had joined the Army in 1906 and served with the Essex Regiment during the war.


Walter Russell Johnson © IWM (HU 123734)

Johnson had a difficult time in the army. In 1916, he was sent back to England from the front after his commanding officer deemed him unfit to command. He was back serving in command of a battalion in 1918 and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1919 for bravery while attached to 9th Battalion Essex Regiment:

For conspicuous gallantry and good leadership during the attack on Epehy on September 18th, 1918. When the companies of his battalion had lost direction owing to the darkness and smoke he reorganised and moved them to a flank while the enemy were still in Epehy. Later he rallied two companies of another battalion which had become disorganised owing to one of our tanks, which had lost its bearings firing on them. Throughout he has shown great energy and ability to command.

In November 1918, he felt he was passed over for promotion and unsuccessfully appealed to the King to be reinstated. After the war he was a Staff Colonel in Russia and then Military Secretary to the High Commissioner of Mesopotamia in Baghdad. He had arrived back in England on 26 July 1921.[1]

The reason for Johnson involving himself in Helmore’s case is less obvious. The reason given by Voss & Co was that Helmore had served under him and was well known to him.[2] However, I can find no evidence of this. Helmore was 13 when the war broke out, so it is unlikely that he joined the army in the period between August 1914 and October 1918 when he joined the Marines. Perhaps he lied about his age and illegally joined up, ending up in the Essex Regiment under Johnson? If so, he must have served for quite a period of time for Johnson to feel obliged to get so involved in his case; arranging a lawyer, hunting down witnesses. I have tried to locate some evidence of a connection between them or their families but have been unable to do so.


Johnson said he had received a letter from Helmore in 1920 with a full statement of events and he had advised him to tell the Prisoner's Friend (the officer appointed to defend him) so that the facts could be laid before the court. Johnson heard nothing more and assumed all was well. It was only when he returned to England that he found out the result of the trial from Helmore’s parents. They had spent a great deal of their savings in their efforts to help their son but with the arrival of Lt Col Johnson they decided to leave it in his hands. Voss said Lt Col Johnson was anxious to help due to his personal knowledge of the prisoner and his excellence of character. Johnson visited Helmore in Maidstone Prison and realised that the court had not heard the true facts behind the case.


In October 1921 Voss & Son provided the Admiralty with Helmore's full statement. There were several points they wanted to bring to the attention of the Admiralty:

  1. Helmore was not told that Yates was dead until November 1920 so had no idea that he was being charged with murder which accounts for his apparent indifference to the trial preparation.

  2. Helmore did not tell the Prisoner's Friend the facts because he did not want them getting into the press and therefore to his parents who still remain unaware of the real events.

  3. Johnson had advised Helmore to tell the court everything and thought that he had done so.

In his statement Helmore told how he first met Yates when the battalion was formed in May 1920 and they became friendly. About a fortnight after arriving in Ireland Yates started to talk to Helmore about a "certain topic" and Helmore found his suggestions and overtures repulsive. He refused to have anything to do with him. Yates however was persistent, telling Helmore that he wanted him more than he wanted anybody before and that he had always been able to get a good time onboard ship. He pestered Helmore for days. Eventually Helmore gave in and so they went for a "stroll in the village and several times in the country after - I had never done this before". A short time afterwards Helmore said that he realised that what he was doing was wrong and resolved to have nothing more to do with Yates. Yates did not take this well and continued to suggest a walk to Helmore right up to 3 days before the shooting. On this occasion when Helmore refused and tried to leave the room Yates took hold of him and there was a struggle, furniture was overturned, some of the other men came down to see what all the trouble was but neither Helmore nor Yates would say. After this he felt that some of the other men were a bit aloof with him. Also he felt that Yates picked on him, giving him more than his share of work and calling him a fool in front of another marine. On the day of the shooting Helmore described going down to the village for supplies with another man and having a few drinks. On getting back to the station Helmore says he sat in his room and realised what a dreadful thing it was that had happened between himself and Yates and that he was 'completely ruined'. He wished to be free of him. His revolver was on the bedstead. Of the event itself he remembered standing in the doorway and then being on the floor. He remembered being charged with shooting with intent to kill and attempted suicide. He said that he wrote to his commanding officer to ask about Yates was but did not find out he had died until much later.


Voss pointed out the following points:

  1. The familiarity noted by witnesses supported Helmore's story. The struggle referred to in his statement that made such a noise that people came to investigate should be possible to verify.

  2. The condition of Yates's person, which was sworn not to be venereal disease, was an indicator of Yates's habits

  3. Yates was asked why the shooting had happened and refused to provide an explanation.

  4. Corporal Yates behaviour on board his previous ships where he had indulged in these malpractices could be verified.

  5. That having regard to the prisoner's youth and previous good character when he realised fully the effect of such a set of circumstances eg his submission to the malpractices of the Corporal, it produced a period during which he temporarily could not be responsible for his actions.

Voss submitted that had the full facts been known at the court martial Helmore would have been found guilty of manslaughter only on the grounds of justifiable homicide.


The JAG's response was to reopen the investigation and plans were made to re-question witnesses and press them regarding any intimacy between Yates and Helmore. Yates’ medical history was to be re-examined although it was noted that this was unlikely to show evidence of an ‘addiction to unnatural crime’ as he would not have been allowed to remain in the service had this been suspected.


A further medical statement was made stating that the discharge observed from Yates' genitals was normal in a case of spinal injury and not evidence of an 'unnatural crime'. The original witnesses were re-questioned and while able to confirm that the incident with the overturned furniture had happened they had no reason to suspect anything more.


The investigating officer noted that he felt that the idea that Helmore killed Yates because he was angry at his seduction and unable to find a way to break off the immoral relationship was likely. However as there was so little evidence to corroborate his statement the Admiralty’s response to Voss in February 1922 was that they could not support the conclusion of justifiable homicide and they therefore would not consider a reduction in sentence. Voss refused to accept this.


In July 1922, Voss & Co called the Admiralty to ask permission to question another messmate of Helmore's called Smith that Lt Col Johnson had tracked down. The Admiralty asked for details of who this man was so they could decide whether they should question him themselves. Voss responded that if the man was at Chatham they would take his statement but if at Plymouth then the Navy could do it.

Royal Marine Barracks, Chatham from an old postcard

On 8th September, Voss wrote to the Admiralty with Smith’s statement. J W Smith was a reluctant witness but a key one. He stated that he first met Yates in Leicester in 1919, they met up a few times after that casually and did not meet again until they were both at Chatham. He describes seeing Yates and Helmore frequently talking together sitting on Helmore's bed when they were in Chatham. He said that Yates did not associate with any other private in the way he did with Helmore. Other men noticed this as well and commented ‘here comes Yates with his winger’. He noticed that sometimes when Helmore and Yates were talking alone Helmore would blush. Once in Ireland he observed Yates and Helmore walking together. He was only based at the Coastguard Station in Ballyvaughn for a fortnight and left about a week before the shooting. When he heard about the shooting and it was said that Helmore and Yates had quarrelled about a girl he didn't believe it as neither of them, to his knowledge, went out with girls. He said it was only then he thought the friendship between Helmore and Yates was more than an ordinary friendship.


This statement was a double-edged sword for Helmore’s case. It appeared to corroborate the story that Yates’ interest in Helmore was ‘unnatural’ and therefore confirmed the likelihood of there being sexual intimacy between the two but, as noted in a comment by the Royal Marines Adjutant, “assuming for the sake of argument that their relations were irregular at Chatham, this assumption tends to discredit the view that Helmore shot Yates owing to a sudden revulsion of feeling”.


Voss wanted to know whether the Admiralty would follow up with Smith but the Admiralty felt there was little point as it was not likely to be able to prove that Yates was the instigator or that his attentions were unwelcome. It was decided that Helmore’s sentence would be reviewed after he had served five years. Assuming good behaviour this meant he should have been released in around 1926. There is no note on the court martial paperwork to confirm the date he was eventually released.


In Helmore’s version of events, he was a heterosexual man who had killed his abuser. However, living in a time when homosexuality was illegal it was really the only defence he could have given that would not have got himself into even more trouble. An examination of his later life gives some clue as to the truth of this assertion.


In September 1939 Helmore was living with a Diana Carter Campbell, a 34 year old divorcee and an Anthony Leslie Smith at Smith's house, Wadfield in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire. Smith was only 39 but gave his occupation as being a retired solicitor. Helmore's occupation was given as General Manager for a theatrical agent.[3]


Helmore travelled a great deal. In the 1950s he appears on passenger lists travelling first class to and from New Zealand and Madeira.[4] He gave his address as Cameron House, Puckane, Nenagh. Anthony Leslie Smith's name is also on some of those passenger lists with the same home address. It looks like Helmore and Smith were together until Helmore’s death on 9 November 1974 in Ireland.[5]


That was 35 years after they appeared together on the 1939 National Register. There is no documentary proof that explicitly proves they were in a relationship. There wouldn't be after all, same-sex sexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967 but it was 1993 before Ireland followed suit. When he died Helmore left everything to Smith.


So how does the fact that Helmore appears to have been gay, impact on the possible motive for the shooting? While Helmore may not have been a straight man forced into acts that were unnatural to him that does not preclude the possibility that he was abused by Yates and saw shooting him as the only way out. Yates was after all the elder of the pair and he also outranked Helmore. Perhaps he used this to coerce the younger man. However much we try to figure out what the reasons behind the shooting were there were only two people who really knew the truth and they are no longer around to share their stories.

End notes

[1] War Office (Great Britain). Officer’s Service record. Major Walter Russell Johnson. Ref: WO 374/59846. The National Archives, Kew, England. [2] 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 https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C4431600 [3] 1939 Register. England. Cheltenham RD. LESLIE-SMITH, Anthony. 29 September 1939. Ref: RG101/5086G/002/3. www.findmypast.co.uk: accessed 3 July 2020 [4] Board of Trade (Great Britain) Passenger list for Venus arriving at Plymouth England. 21 February 1956. HELMORE, Cecil G R. Class: BT26; Piece: 1350. Collection: UK and Ireland, Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960. www.ancestry.co.uk: accessed 3 July 2020 [5] Testamentary records. England.2 April 1975. HELMORE, Cecil George Robert. Principal Probate Registry. Calendar of the Grants of Probate and Letters of Administration. Collection: England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1995. www.ancestry.co.uk: accessed 3 July 2020

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