When staff at Margate’s Metropole Hotel first saw Sidney Fox he looked every bit the caring compassionate son. Aged 30, he was handsome, smartly dressed and softly spoken, the picture of respectability.
On a bitterly cold October day in 1929, he arrived at the hotel with his frail semi-invalid mother, Rosaline, 63, who found walking difficult due to Parkinson’s disease. It must have warmed the hearts of all who saw him doting on her every need, but behind the philanthropic façade lurked a very different personality.
The pair was travelling back from visiting the Continent and, since arriving in Dover, they had stayed at Folkestone and Canterbury, before deciding on to travel to Margate.
Situated opposite Margate Pier, the Metropole was the town’s premiere hotel. Boasting ‘magnificent sea views’ and being ‘handsomely and comfortably furnished’ it was just the sort of place the Foxes preferred to stay.
The fact they had arrived without any luggage should have caused suspicion but Sidney employed his usual ruse of anxiety at its non-arrival. The reality was that Mrs Fox and her son only had the clothes they were wearing and not much else.
Also, had the staff known that Sidney had only been released from Portsmouth Gaol in March of that year (he served 15 months hard labour for theft, the latest in a long line of criminal misdemeanours), they wouldn’t have allowed him on the premises at all. Such was the fallibility of social misconceptions at that time.
Mrs Fox was given room 66, which had a gas fire, and her son the room next-door.
On 22 October, Sidney travelled alone up to London. Before departing, and despite being strapped-for-cash, he had tipped one of the Metropole’s chambermaids, 7s 6d to keep an eye on his mother.
In the capital, Sidney extended a couple of life insurance policies, saying that his mother and he would be travelling back to their Norfolk farm. Mrs Fox, though, wasn’t happy making the journey without being covered. Two firms refused, clearly sensing something was awry. Two others, however, did agree to his proposal: Cornhill Insurance insuring his mother’s life for £2,000 and Ocean Travel for £1,000. Both would pay-out in the event of ‘violent external death or injury’ and were valid until midnight on 23 October.
After, Sidney spent the night with a male lover, one he hadn’t previously blackmailed for money in order to keep their homosexuality a secret.
In a time when being gay was illegal, Sidney’s crimes only added fuel to the perceived belief that homosexuals were social deviants, lacking moral compunction.
He returned to Margate the following day and resumed his role of the doting son.
At 11.40pm, on 23 October, Sidney frantically raised the alarm, saying that his mother’s room was alight. One of the hotel’s guests rushed up to room 66 and, after two failed attempts, managed to drag Rosaline Fox’s seemingly unconscious body from the smoke-filled room. But it was too late. She was pronounced dead at the scene. Sidney was utterly devastated and had to be consoled by hotel manager’s wife.
The Margate Coroner recorded ‘death by misadventure’. Rosaline had died from smoke inhalation, or so it seemed. The blaze had started by the gas fire, where Mrs Fox had left some clothing to dry. There was also a partially burnt newspaper.
‘Extremely muddy water in this business,’ said one of the insurance firms in a cable to Scotland Yard, who assigned DCI Hambrook to investigate.
Hambrook had come across Fox before, during the Great War – a case of forging cheques. Now he liaised with Margate Police, who quite separately were having their own misgivings. The Home Office asked celebrated pathologist, Sir Bernard Spilsbury, to re-examine the body. He found no evidence of smoke inhalation but did find the faint bruising caused by manual strangulation.
Fox was arrested for murder and tried at the Lewis Assizes in March 1930. He was hanged on 8 April at Maidstone Prison, the last person to be executed there.