SHE is the glamorous, English prima ballerina known the world over for her graceful performances. He is the old man at the centre of one of Glasgow’s most notorious murder cases.

But could Margot Fonteyn and Old Fleming, a suspect in the Sandyford Place Mystery of 1862 really be related?

Susan Taylor, a librarian based in Special Collections at the Mitchell who has been researching the links for months, thinks they are.

“This story demonstrates the truth that life is often more surprising than fiction,” says Susan. “It endorses Margot’s own belief that ‘minor things can become moments of great revelation when encountered for the first time’…”

Susan was researching the Sandyford Place murder for a television programme when she discovered the surprising link. The case is a landmark in Scottish criminal history, because it was the first to use forensic evidence and the first to be investigated exclusively by the new Detective Branch of the Glasgow Police.

Glasgow Times:

In July 1862, John Fleming, a respectable Glasgow accountant, had joined the rest of his family at their country house in Dunoon. The only people left in his town house at 17 Sandyford Place, off Sauchiehall Street, were his 87 year-old former weaver father James (Old Fleming), and 33-year-old servant, Jess McPherson.

When John returned home on the afternoon of Monday, July 7, there was no sign of Jess, and Old Fleming said he had not seen her since Friday evening. The door to her room was locked but, when they eventually gained access, Jess was found inside, lying half-naked in a pool of blood, having been brutally attacked. Old Fleming said he knew nothing of the murder. Police considered him the main suspect, however, and he was arrested.

Glasgow Times:

On July 13, “acting on information received”, suspicion moved to Jessie McLachlan, Jess’s friend and previously a servant in the Fleming household. Some items of silverware had been stolen from the house and Jessie was found to have taken these to a pawnbroker’s shop the day after the murder. Jessie was arrested and Old Fleming was released, to testify against her.

Jessie claimed Old Fleming had attacked her friend because she threatened to tell his son the old man had tried to take advantage of her – she said she found him attacking her with a meat cleaver. In fear for her own life, she agreed to tell no-one what she had witnessed and fled.

Jessie was sentenced to hang, but an outcry from the public, most of whom believed Old Fleming to be the real murderer, led to a stay of execution and life imprisonment. She was eventually released from prison in 1877 and emigrated to America to be reunited with her son (who had only been three years old at the time of the murder).

“It is a fascinating story, one all Glaswegians know,” says Susan. “But in researching the Fleming family I learned that two years after the trial, Old Fleming’s 21-year-old granddaughter, Annie, married 42 year-old Dublin jeweller and widower, William Acheson, in Dunoon.

“Old Fleming possibly attended the wedding – he was to die at the house six months later.

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William and Annie had a daughter, Evelyn Maud Acheson, who had an affair with Antônio Gonçalves Fontes, a Brazilian merchant, which resulted in the birth of a daughter, Hilda Fontes in Derbyshire, in early 1895.

“The records revealed that, not long after her college enrolment, on June 1915, Hilda was married to Felix Hookham, in Lewisham in Kent,” says Susan. “The Hookhams had two children, a son named Felix and a daughter named, Margaret Evelyn - perhaps in honour of her grandmother.”

Glasgow Times:

At this point, says Susan, a totally unexpected realisation hit her.

“Margaret Evelyn Hookham, born 1919 in Surrey, was later known in her professional life as Margot Fonteyn….” she smiles. “I was gobsmacked. By my calculations, Old Fleming was Margot Fonteyn’s third great-grandfather.

“I checked an obituary for Margot in the New York Times and her entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and, although the biographical information in these did not extend further back than her grandparents, I knew that I was potentially on to something.

“I created a new family tree starting with Margot this time rather than with James Fleming, so that I could check what I had found from a different perspective. It seemed too incredible to be true, so I asked a colleague to double check…and it all checked out.”

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Susan adds: “It all rather begs the question of whether Margot herself knew about her less-than-illustrious ancestor. There is still much to research – I have become slightly obsessed with it, in fact, and I’d like to approach the Fonteyn family.”

The Mitchell runs a regular Square Mile of Murder event, inspired by the Jack House book of the same name, in which participants are encouraged to research the old crimes.

“The Sandyford Place murder is one of those unsolved mysteries that’s still talked about today,” says Susan. “Discovering a link with one of the most famous ballerinas in the world adds an extra dimension. I can’t wait to share it at the next Square Mile of Murder event....”