‘the squire has been foully murdered’: meaning, origin

The phrase (have you heard the news?) the squire, or the squire’s daughter, has been (most) foully murdered satirises the late-Victorian and Edwardian melodrama.

And indeed I have found this phrase used most seriously in the review of The Golden Plough, a melodrama by Paul Merritt, produced at the Adelphi Theatre, London—review published in The Globe and Traveller (London, England) of Monday 13th August 1877:

Though ordinarily one of the most peaceful of spots, the village in which the action passes is not at present without excitement. The late squire has been foully murdered, and no clue to the assassin has been obtained by Middleton, the Bow-street runner, who is on his quest.

 

A LITERARY TOPOS

 

In the following, by ‘Gadfly’, published in the Daily Herald (London, England) of Wednesday 10th August 1921, “conforming to ancient usage” indicates that “the old squire is found foully murdered” is a topos:

The stately homes of England
How beautiful they stand 1
But they must be the devil an’ all when it comes to living in them. […]
[…]
Look at Castle Howard, with its 125 rooms. Now what sort of a place is that for a man? Quite a biggish house, you’ll admit. Sort of house where the housekeeper does the rounds in a Ford car, with a movable crane to lift her bunch of keys. Sort of place where you’ve got to have your breakfast in bed or starve.
Why? Well, by the time the wretched guest has reached the breakfast-room it is time for him to go back and dress for dinner. So the pore dawg has none. Sort of place where news travels so slowly that it catches itself up. That’s the sort of place a dook [= a duke] has to live in.
Fancy yourself sleeping in bedroom No. 125, for example. (Fancy’s about as near as you’ll get, Henry.) The old squire, conforming to ancient usage, is found foully murdered. Well and good.
But before the terrified serving wench, starting from the housekeeper’s room, can reach No. 125 with the sad news, the young squire will have been falsely accused, arrested and tried, transported and on the way back home, with a copy of the “South Star” containing the dying confession of his black-avised cousin Jasper in his pocket. No, a house of that size is enough to put years on a man—let alone a dook.

1 The stately homes of England, / How beautiful they stand! are the opening lines of The Homes of England (1849), by the English poet Felicia Hemans (1793-1835).

This theatrical dialogue was published in The Orkney Herald, and Weekly Advertiser and Gazette for the Northern Counties (Kirkwall, Orkney, Scotland) of Wednesday 8th July 1925:

Stage Hand (suddenly sent on the stage to say a line for a missing actor): “Sad news, sir, sad news! The old squire was found foully murdered last night.”
The Villian [sic]: “’Tis false, thou knave, utterly false.”
Stage Hand: “Orl right, guv’nor. Keep yer ’air on. If yer don’t believe me go an’ ask the bloomin’ stage-manager yerself.”

In this passage from the review of a mystery novel, published in the Birmingham Gazette (Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) of Thursday 10th September 1925, “on traditional lines” shows that “the squire is foully murdered” is a topos:

“The Ippletree Manor Mystery,” by Douglas W. Spurgeon (Ward, Lock, 7s. 6d.) […], is on traditional lines—the squire is foully murdered, a young man is tried and convicted, a smart Scotland Yard man saves him, and unravels the skein.

In the column It Seems to Me, published in The Leeds Mercury (Leeds, Yorkshire, England) of Wednesday 17th March 1926, ‘W.L.A.’ recalled “the old-fashioned melodrama”:

The play would open with a smiling scene, gay perhaps with rustic fun. The beautiful golden meadows beyond the village green spoke of peaceful romance, but we old stagers knew that some black horror must be impending, and, sure enough, a gaping rustic, eyes wide in terror, would rush into the midst of the laughing and dancing throng and exclaim in tones that froze their gaiety, “Have you heard the news? The old Squire has been foully murdered.”

One J. W. McClusky too recalled “the old theatre” in a letter published in the Blyth News (Blyth, Northumberland, England) of Monday 27th September 1948:

Sir,—Can any of your readers remember the act at the old theatre, when the chorus sang, “Why, what’s the news?” one of the actors said, “Why, the old squire’s been foully murdered,” and the chorus replied “What, again?”

 

THE PHRASE IN USE

 

The following from One of our indispensables: the Padre, by E. B. Osborn, published in The Illustrated London News (London, England) of Saturday 16th March 1918, seems to indicate that the phrase was popular among British soldiers during the First World War:

He is almost always a Temporary Chaplain (Fourth Class), and nobody seems to take him seriously—least of all himself. Whatever he is, whatever he does, he is invariably described as a person who only works on Sundays. That is one of the fine, old, crusted Army jokes—as well established, indeed, as the familiar wheezes against his frequent stable-companion, the Doctor; such as the practice of insisting that the letters R.A.M.C. 2 stand for “Rob All My Comrades” or “Rob Any Mother’s Child.” Such little jokes have been a part of military life ever since Roman soldiers nicknamed their Emperor Biberius Nero. Then, again, all the “buzzes” or rumours flying about in a battle-zone are popularly supposed to be evolved from the Padre’s inner consciousness. They are called “Padre’s rumours,” and all his spare time, six days in the seven, is said to be spent in propagating them. Time was when the stock piece of news imputed to him and his kind in the trenches assumed the curious form: “King Ferdinand of Bulgaria has been assassinated and the Squire’s daughter foully murdered.”

2 R.A.M.C. is the abbreviation of Royal Army Medical Corps.

Likewise, E. A. Corbett wrote the following in the review of Songs and Slang of the British Soldier: 1914–18 (London: E. Partridge Limited, at the Scholartis Press, 1930), by John Brophy and Eric Partridge—review published in the Edmonton Journal (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada) of Saturday 16th August 1930:

There is a good review of the book in John O’London’s Weekly by J. B. Priestly [sic] 3, in which he refers to the familiar specimens of barrack-room and camp fooling, many of which had a distinct Shakespearian flavor, as for instance: “Have you heard the news? What news? The squire’s daughter hath been foully murdered” to which the usual reply was a chorus, “What, again!”

3 John Boynton Priestley (1894-1984) was an English author.

The phrase occurs in Our Gang, by “an amateur navvy”, published in the Birmingham Gazette (Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) of Saturday 8th December 1923:

We are a funny crowd—the navvies assembled on this bleak hillside, digging up the turf.
[…]
Have you heard the news?”—that’s Christopher. If you ask “What news?” he yells dramatically, “The old squire’s been foully murdered,” and throws out to an unseen stagehand a demand for “more snow, please.”

Squire murdered by a gamekeeper—from The Illustrated Police News (London, England) of Saturday 27th July 1912:

'squire murdered by a gamekeeper' - The Illustrated Police News (London, England) - 27 July 1912