Other People

A Cornish mystery

Here’s a story that goes back to November 1912… one that takes place in Newquay, on the Cornish coast, but involves two people with Sheffield connections. This is a mystery that captured the attention of the British people and one that has never been solved.

On Saturday November 23, 1912, Marian Nowill, the wife of Sheffield merchant Sidney Nowell, went missing from the Atlantic Hotel at Newquay, Cornwall.

Nine days later her body was recovered from the sea near the hotel.

Her husband was Sidney Nowill (1851-1920), second son of John Nowill, who had left England when he was 15 years old, to be educated at the Greek College near Constantinople. After being apprenticed to a Scottish merchant he started his own business, later joined by his brother, Stephen, acting as overseas brokers for the family firm of John Nowill and Sons, Sheffield-based knife manufacturers. In time, Sidney Nowill and Co, extended business to other Sheffield firms and opened an office in Athens.

He lived abroad up until his marriage to Marian Foster (born 1877), whom he had known since she was a baby. When they married in 1900 Sidney was twenty-six years older than Marian. The couple settled at Sandygate House, 94 Ivy Hall Road, Sheffield, but Sidney made annual visits to Constantinople and Athens, and to Egypt every three years.

It was while the couple were travelling by boat to Port Said in 1910 that they met James Arthur Delay, a retired Singapore solicitor. The three of them became good friends and Delay was a regular visitor to Sandygate House.

In November 1912, Delay arrived at the Atlantic Hotel in Newquay, later joined by Marian Nowill and her mother. It didn’t take a lot of imagination for other guests to realise that Marian and Delay were involved in a romantic affair. The two played golf each day and spent most evenings together. She was described as a cheerful individual while Delay was often morose, nicknamed by guests as ‘The Singapore Tiger’.

On the night of November 22, they had dinner and talked for a while in the hotel lounge. She retired to bed and was seen at breakfast the following day, guests noticing distinct coolness between Marian and Delay. She appeared to be pre-occupied, very absent-minded, and repeatedly asked hotel reception about train times to London. She told her mother that Delay was “a bad lot,” subsequently accusing him of taking her purse.

In the afternoon, after returning from a walk with Delay she went out again wearing her golfing clothes, promising to return for tea, but was never seen again.

For two days, the lonely coast was beaten by search -parties, the man who was her intimate friend aiding in the quest. Delay was grief -stricken and in the middle of one search tried to throw himself off a cliff but was prevented from doing so by a coastguard.

At 11 o’clock on the Sunday morning Delay posted a letter, to whom it was never determined. In the afternoon he remained in the hotel, very depressed, later going to his room. Late on Monday his door was forced, and Delay was found hanging by braces from the hook in the door.

For more than a week the country was riveted.

Sidney Nowill travelled to Newquay to be close to the search, seemingly oblivious to the tragic liaison between Marian and Delay. There had been reported sightings across the country, but Sidney thought her dead, and nine days later, just as a telegram arrived stating she had been ‘seen’ in Southport, a body was spotted in the sea.

At three o’clock in the afternoon, a local fisherman, Joseph Harris, was looking over cliffs near to the Atlantic Hotel, when he observed the body amidst rocks and foam. The police arrived as did hundreds of people, including Sidney Nowill, while Coastguard Noad descended a rope ladder. He reached the safety of the sand, despite the huge breakers dashing over the rocks, and managed to secure the body that had become wedged. Despite it being dreadfully mangled the body was identified as being Marian Nowill. It had been high water for the previous nine days, and it was presumed that the body had been lodged, only to emerge at the next low water.

It was only afterwards that events took a sinister turn.

During the inquest a coastguard recalled seeing Marian and Delay on their morning walk. “The gentleman would walk a few yards and then take hold of the lady’s hand. She would push him away and appeared to have an altercation.”

We can only speculate as to the cause of the argument.

However, when Delay’s will became public, it revealed that he was in fact married, a situation unknown to his family and friends. He had wooed Mary Leslie Young, convincing her to leave her husband, Edward, a solicitor’s clerk. After marrying her in New York in 1911 she had settled in London, apparently oblivious to her new husband’s double-life. Was it this information that had caused a rift between Marian and Delay?

Even more sensational, was the news that Delay had left £30,000 to Marian Nowill. In time, Sidney Nowill managed to convince the Coroner to record Marian’s death as being on Saturday 23 November, two days before Delay’s suicide, therefore forfeiting any claim to the money.

And this is where the story ends, still a mystery all these years later.

Was Marian alone when out walking that fateful afternoon? Was she pushed? Did James Delay follow her? Why did he take his own life? Was it guilt, or was he simply grief-stricken? Did Sidney know more than he revealed? Or was it all just a terrible accident?

Sidney Nowill returned to Sheffield, immersed himself in business affairs, and in his last three years suffered failing health. He died at Sandygate House in 1920, the newspaper obituaries failing to mention anything about Marian, apparently air-brushed from his life.

Sandygate House still stands, as does the Atlantic Hotel in Newquay.