The mysterious disappearance of a sixteen-year-old boy from the slums of Sheffield got the tongues wagging back in July 1925, and it revealed a story that might take some believing today.
Our story begins in February 1911 when a poor woman, called Mrs Minnie Robshaw, kept a little general store at 111 Scotland Street and answered an advertisement asking for a home for a two-year-old child, and, on a payment of £5, a boy was surrendered to her by a woman named Mrs Weatherburn, who kept a boarding house at 22 Catherine Street, Liverpool.
Mrs Weatherburn brought the baby, called William Paley Weatherburn, and handed over the child at Midland Station. Before going away she told Mrs Robshaw that when the baby was twenty-one, he would come into a lot of money.
Shortly after, the baby became ill, and Mrs Robshaw wrote to the mother, but her letter was returned, as the address was unknown.
Thirteen years went by and nothing was heard of the mother.
The first intimation that he was not their legal son came to Willie in a curious way.
A young girl appeared in Sheffield and persuaded the boy to go away with her. She said he was his half-sister. Mrs Robshaw didn’t know where the lad had gone, but after a two-month absence she received a letter from a place unknown: –
“Willie had had a nice holiday now, and we have to get him a new suit and boots, and he has been on a farm at Spotforth and had plenty of good support.”
The boy came back, and the only thing that Mrs Robshaw could learn from him was that he had been on a farm and had been well treated.
He told his foster-mother that he had been to Liverpool and had been across to New Brighton. They had put him on the train for Sheffield without any money and without a ticket.
It appears that Willie was quite happy with Mr and Mrs Robshaw and was said to be the life and soul of the house.
Willie had attended a council school until he was 14, and had then been apprenticed as a painter and decorator.
In July 1925, a friend of Willie’s went into the shop for a penny bar of chocolate. “Where is Willie?” he asked. “What do you want him for?” asked Mrs Robshaw. “A lady at the bottom of the street in a motor-car wants him and has offered me sixpence if I return with him,” answered the boy.
Mrs Robshaw became suspicious, and saying nothing to Willie, went out herself. She noticed that in the car was a well-dressed woman accompanied by a man in a smart brown suit. As she approached, the woman noticed her and immediately drove away. Mrs Robshaw, however, had the presence to take a note of the number plate – KC 8209 – the registration mark for Liverpool.
Mrs Robshaw returned to the shop, and a little later a man came in. She was positive that the man was the same one that was in the car. He asked for Willie, saying that he wanted to take him for a drive. Willie was not in the house and she did not consent to the request, finding out later that Willie had been seen to enter a car a few streets away.
According to neighbours, an expensive limousine car was seen in the vicinity shortly before Willie had gone missing, and a stylish young woman in a black silk cape had visited premises close to where Willie lived, and had exchanged her fashionable hat for one less likely to excite comment, and her smart cloak for an old shawl.
A neighbour also spoke of a pretty golden-haired girl, who had been at the wheel of the motor car, and a well-dressed man who had made certain inquiries about the boy.
After his disappearance, Mrs Robshaw received a letter from Willie which read: –
“Dear Mum and Dad, – I have gone away on my own account. It is for my own good. I will write to you from time to time, but will not come to live with you anymore. Don’t trouble about me, as I shall be brought up as a gentleman, and not have to work for my living. With love, Willie. xxx.”
The address of the letter was in Manchester, but it appeared that the street did not exist.
Now there was a silence and each day his foster-mother wondered if he would ever return.
“I am convinced that it was Mrs Weatherburn who was in the car,” said Mrs Robshaw. “When she brought the baby to me fourteen years ago she told me that many years ago her husband (Percy Weatherburn) went to America, where he had since died. Shortly after he went she took a position with an invalid lady, and it was shortly after this that the child was born.
“After her husband’s death she met a man in Liverpool who said he would marry her if she got rid of the baby. So she advertised for a home for it, and it was her advertisement that I answered.
“So Willie came to us, and we looked upon him as a son, and did everything we could for him. Then he was taken away from us by these fashionable people, and we have heard nothing from him since. I have learned that Mrs Weatherburn had married the man she met in Liverpool. He is, I believe on the Stock exchange there.
“The letter we had from him bore a Manchester address, but the postmark was Portsmouth.”
No time was spared involving the police, and a search was made for Willie which extended to Liverpool, Cleethorpes and Ormskirk, and only ended when the lad was discovered at Formby, the house of his real mother.
The head of the family said in an interview with a Liverpool newspaper, that he was the step-father of the boy. It was stated that the boy had been a long lost son – a statement which Mrs Robshaw flatly contradicted, in as much that the mother knew where the boy was all the time.
“There is no real mystery about this so-called kidnapping,” said his real mother. “We simply decided to have him at home. When I found him, I said, ‘Willie?’ He said, ‘Yes,’ and I then said, ‘I am your mother. Would you like to come home?’ And that is all.”
By now, the story of Willie Robshaw was attracting the attention of newspapers across the nation.
“A story which, were it to be filmed by a cinema producer, would probably establish his reputation as a master of melodrama. It shows how the long-lost son of a wealthy family was discovered, after a 14 year search, living in one of the poorest districts of Sheffield. Now he is home again, with money and everything he could wish for at his command,” reported the Belfast Telegraph.
In August, the story took another twist when Willie returned to Sheffield. He arrived quite unexpectedly late on a Monday night, his dark hair now dyed a golden colour, and was warmly welcomed back by Mr and Mrs Robshaw.
Willie refused to give an account of his exploits, or to discuss the manner of his leaving, other than he had been riding about West Coast places in a motor car, but told his foster parents that he had come back to them of his own free will.
This decision, he said, was reached when, in company with the people from Formby, he visited Manchester. Whilst they were in a hotel, he stated he had slipped away from them and came to Sheffield, where he had been busy attending to his pigeons.
Some corroboration to the story was afforded by Mrs Robshaw receiving a telegram from Formby inquiring if Willie was in Sheffield.
The boy’s mother, at her home in Formby, said the family were proceeding no further in the matter for recovering the boy.
“Apparently he prefers to live his life in Sheffield rather than to accept our offer of being a gentleman and living a gentleman’s life, and he has gone back to it,” she said. “We are not going to trouble anymore.”
Mr R.F. Payne, a well-known Sheffield solicitor, addressed a letter on behalf of Mr and Mrs Ernest Robshaw to the Formby people claiming from them £377 for his maintenance at the rate of ten shillings a week from February 1911, when the Robshaw’s adopted the lad, to July, when he had left to go to Formby. No reply was received.
The Liverpool Echo had also discovered the mystery behind the Liverpool connection.
Willie’s real mother was Lilly Weatherburn, who had married Mr Clement Waring and lived at Rowan Lea, Liverpool Road, at Formby. The “charming, fair-haired” girl who drove the car had been Willie’s sister, Lily Paylor Brown, who had married a well-to-do widower, Walter Brown, a tailor, in November 1924 – he was 64, she was 22 – but he had died in August 1925.
Willie had been home for a week when he left Sheffield for Liverpool again. Mr Robshaw visited the city to determine what was happening and he was told by the boy that he was perfectly happy and promised to write home in about a week.
His foster parents heard nothing from him and at Christmas 1925 Mr Robshaw returned to Liverpool and visited the house where he was told not to make anymore inquiries about his adopted son.
Hearing nothing from Willie, Mr Robshaw made another visit to Liverpool in March 1926 and was told that Willie had returned to Sheffield, and although extensive inquiries were made the lad wasn’t discovered.
And that is where the trail went cold. Whatever happened to Willie?
I suspect that somebody in Sheffield will know how this strange story ended.