From Morris dancing to murder: Chipping Campden, 1772

Before Gloucester’s new county prison opened in 1791, most prisoners who were condemned to death at Gloucestershire’s Assizes were hanged just outside Gloucester, at the village of Over. Some murderers, though, were hanged and gibbeted near the place where their crime had been committed. This happened in 1772, when William Keeley was found guilty of murdering Joseph Dyer, on a road near Chipping Campden. It was arranged that he would be hanged near the scene of the crime, then placed in a gibbet afterwards, where his body would be left to rot.

On Sunday, 24 May 1772, Joseph Dyer, who was a gardener and nurseryman, living just outside the town of Chipping Campden, walked several miles in order to collect some money which he was owed. On his way back, now ten pounds richer, he decided that as it was lunchtime, he would stop off at the Fish Inn, on Broadway Hill. He tried to pay for his drink with a 36 shilling piece, but the landlord did not have enough change, and as he knew Dyer, he told him to pay next time he was passing. After finishing his drink, Dyer set off for home. An hour later, he was found lying dead in the road at Campden Hill, about a quarter of a mile from his house, with his throat cut, his head badly bruised, one of his ears nearly torn off and some of his teeth beaten out. The teeth were found in his hat, which lay near him. Also near his body was an unfolded piece of paper, which it was thought had been wrapped round his money.

A girl came forward to say that a labourer named William Keeley had passed her on the road where Dyer was found, shortly after the murder was believed to have taken place, and she had noticed that there was blood on his breeches. Keeley (also spelt in newspapers as Kealy or Kelly) was quickly apprehended. He denied any involvement at first, but later admitted to attacking Dyer, saying that he and another man named Tracy had beaten him to the ground, in order to rob him. Doubting Tracy’s involvement, Keeley’s parents begged him to tell the truth, and he then admitted that the other man had nothing to do with the crime. However, as he was being escorted to Gloucester Castle to await trial, Keeley told a constable that although Tracy had not been involved, he had indeed had an accomplice, named James Warner.

On Saturday, 13 June 1772, the Oxford Journal published an update on the case, and commented:

“It seems that Keeley is a famous Morrice dancer, and on Sunday morning before the fact was committed, he was teaching a set of fellows to dance. Warner used to play on the tabor and pipe to the dancers. It is to be hoped the Justices will suppress such nurseries of idleness and drunkenness as morrice-dancings have generally proved.”

In late August, William Keeley stood trial at the Gloucestershire Assizes for the murder of Joseph Dyer. He was found guilty, and was sentenced to be hanged and gibbeted  near the place where the murder was committed. There was no mention in the newspapers of the fate of James Warner, which no doubt means he was either acquitted, or was not tried at all.

On Friday, 28 September, William Keeley was taken to Chipping Campden to be executed. He walked to Campden Hill, accompanied by officials and by the curate of Chipping Campden Church. He had persisted in denying the murder, but as he approached the spot where the attack had taken place, he finally confessed that he alone had killed Dyer, and that want of money was the motive. He said he had overtaken Dyer on the way back to Campden, and walked with him some way. Noticing a hedge stake lying on the road, he picked it up, and it was then that the thought of murdering Dyer came into his head. As his intended victim climbed over a stile, Keeley knocked him down with the stake, then hit him again as he lay in the road. Strangely, he said he could not bear to search the dead body for money, and ran away.

Keeley was met near the place of execution by his parents, and there they said their goodbyes. Reaching his destination, he found thousands of people waiting to watch him die. After he had prayed and addressed the spectators, warning them against breaking the Sabbath, the executioner put a little straw in his hand, and one of the officials told him to drop the straw when he was ready. Keeley asked the official if he thought God Almighty was ready for him. Soon after, he gave the signal.

After he was dead, Keeley’s body was hung in chains on a thirty-foot high gibbet, to act as a dreadful reminder of the awful penalty for committing murder and, perhaps, to warn the locals of the perils of taking up Morris dancing.

Source: Oxford Journal, 30 May, 6 June, 13 June, 29 August and 5 September 1772.

© Jill Evans 2013

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