ON a winter’s day in 1899 a well-dressed man from the continent and his beautiful, and somewhat younger, female companion checked into Bury’s luxurious Derby Hotel.

Neither would leave alive.

What led to the couple being in Bury and the mystery of why it was that they should come to such a macabre end has never yet been solved.

However what is certain is that they could have chosen no finer establishment in which to stay for their fateful sojourn.

Built in the 1840s the hotel was a masterpiece of Victorian neo-classical opulence and one component of an extensive complex of civic buildings comprising also of the Derby Hall and Athenaeum.

They were constructed at the instigation of Edward Smith-Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby, and designed by renowned architect Sydney Smirke, who designed numerous London clubs; as well the reading room at the British Museum.

The hall quickly became known as the Town Hall and was home to a magistrates’ court, police station, offices for the Earl’s estate and a large assembly room ­— although, owing to a disagreement between the Earl and local authority, it never housed the borough’s council.

The neighbouring Athenaeum building boasted recreational facilities including a billiard room, library, newsroom and darkroom, and was available for hire by local groups and societies.

In its early decades the building also lived up to its grand epithet, The Bury Athenaeum for the Diffusion on Knowledge, playing a prominent role in education in the borough.

Classes in mathematics, languages, physics and chemistry, machine construction and technical drawing, among other subjects, were provided until funding from Government grants ceased in 1892.

The adjoining Derby Hotel was the very picture of elegance.

More than once Royalty were entertained there and at one time the inn was capable of stabling 15 horses.

However perhaps the most famous residents of the hotel were also its most unfortunate.

One Saturday in January 1899 a middle-aged Belgian gentleman of around 40, accompanied by a fine-dressed woman, very much his junior, arrived in Bury. Registering under false names the couple took a room at the Derby Hotel.

Their stay was neither a long nor happy one as the following day they were discovered dead in their bed having being fatally poisoned with prussic acid in a suspected double suicide.

A letter was found addressed to the coroner, containing enough money to afford a funeral; but with no indication as to either of the tragic couple’s identities.

Although it is likely we will never truly learn the couple’s motivations nor why they should make Bury the location of their deadly rendezvous, one explanation has been offered by the late journalist and writer Geoffrey Moorhouse.

A vital clue was left in the gentleman’s clothing, Mr Moorhouse intimates in his book Hell’s Foundation ­— a name habitually stitched by a tailor into his client’s trousers.

This revealed him to be John Knight, a bachelor from a wealthy family in the Netherlands.

His companion was Marie-Louise Rousseau ­— known to the periodicals of the time as a “beautiful queen of Rotterdam’s underworld”.

With marriage out of the question, Moorhouse surmises that the lovers were driven to a final, desperate act though perhaps the only for them having elected to do so in Bury is that its name chimed with their sorrow.

Over the decades the Derby Hotel played host to far happier events before being demolished in 1965

This came after Athenaeum moved to the former Bury Dispensary building in Moss Street in 1958, and the old premises were demolished.

However Derby Hall still stands today and has been home to The Met theatre and venue since 1979.