A tragic story about a murder in Gloucester and the terrible miscarriage of justice which followed has been related many times over the years. It appears in four books that I have on my shelves: Tales of Old Gloucestershire by Betty Smith, Haunted Gloucester, by Eileen Fry and Rosemary Harvey, A Grim Almanac of Gloucestershire, by Robin Brooks, and Paranormal Gloucester, by Lyn Cinderey.
The story goes that an elderly lady called Dame Eleanor Bunt (variations give her name as Blunt, and say she was a Miss, not a Dame) lived in Bull Lane, Gloucester, with a young servant girl named Mary Palmer, who came from Littledean in the Forest of Dean. On the night of 19 September 1741, Eleanor Bunt was robbed and murdered. As there was no sign of a forced entry and a bloody handprint was found on Mary Palmer’s bedroom door, the maid was the only suspect. A Miss Jones, who was jealous of Mary’s relationship with a local young man, Henry Sims, gave evidence that she had overheard the couple discussing the £50 Mary was to inherit from Dame Eleanor’s will and their plans to set up a shop in Littledean. Mary Palmer was committed to jail, and at her trial, she was sentenced to death for murdering her mistress. She was hanged three days later in Gloucester Prison and buried in the prison grounds.
Two years later, a gang-member from Cirencester was sentenced to death for offences including robbery and murder. Before his execution, he confessed to the prison governor that his gang had killed Dame Eleanor Bunt. The news got out and there was a public outcry. The authorities had Mary’s remains removed from the prison grounds and her coffin was carried through the streets of Gloucester with great ceremony, to be interred in one of the city’s churchyards under a handsome tomb.
When I was researching my book, Gloucester Murder & Crime, I was keen to include this case, and set about researching the story of Mary Palmer. There were a number of details in the story which didn’t seem quite right to someone who had been researching crime in Gloucestershire for many years:
- If Mary Palmer had been condemned for murdering her mistress, this would have been petty treason, and the punishment for a woman was to be burned at the stake.
- Executions did not take place within prison grounds at that time. It was considered very important that justice was seen to be done by the public. Also bodies of executed criminals were not commonly buried in the prison grounds. In this particular case, the murder took place in Gloucester city, therefore Mary would have gone to the City Gaol, which at that time was in the Northgate, where there would have been no grounds in which to bury her.
- The Cirencester prisoner was said to have confessed to the governor. The Gloucester prisons did not have governors then, only gaolers, and confessions would have been made to the chaplain.
Still, stories get embellished over time, and I remained hopeful of finding the historical evidence behind the tale. I was a little worried by the fact that when researching Hanged at Gloucester, I had already gone through all the hangings in the Gloucester area from 1731 onwards, and had not come across a Mary Palmer, but thought that even if the execution had not been reported, the murder surely had been. I was encouraged that the author of A Grim Almanac of Gloucestershire had quoted a passage from the Gloucester Journal concerning the crime.
So, I set off for Gloucestershire Archives and started looking at copies of the Gloucester Journal in September and October 1741. A thorough search revealed that there was no mention of a murder in Bull Lane. This was surprising, as the local newspapers loved a “horrid murder” as much then as they do now. I then moved on to the reports of the next Assizes, which took place in March 1742. These revealed that a city prisoner was condemned at these Assizes. His name was James Matthews, and he was hanged at the city gallows on 6 April 1742. He was the first person to be hanged within the city for 37 years. There was no mention of Mary Palmer.
The only evidence I did find that matched the story was that two robbers from Cirencester were sentenced to death at the Gloucestershire Assizes in March 1743/4 (1744 in the modern calendar). One of the men died in the condemned cell while awaiting execution. If he confessed anything before dying, it was not revealed in the Gloucester Journal at the time. The other offender, named Thomas Cambray, was hanged and gibbeted at Cirencester, near the scene of his crime. He would not even confess to having committed the crime he was hanged for, let alone any earlier offences.
To briefly cover everything else I tried to find any historical evidence:
I wondered if the murder and hanging might have happened somewhere other than Gloucester, so I looked on John Clark’s website, capitalpunishmentuk.org, which has lists of everyone executed in England and Wales from 1735. No Mary Palmer was found.
A search on Ancestry‘s Gloucestershire Parish records did not come up with any burial of an Eleanor Blunt or Bunt. No will of an Eleanor Bunt or Blunt was proved in Gloucestershire, according to the Gloucestershire Archives’ Probate Indexes.
A search for a baptism of Mary Palmer in Littledean on the Forest of Dean Family History Trust website came up blank. Apart from a Mary Palmer buried there in 1711, the only Palmer’s in Littledean’s registers were in the nineteenth century.
Unfortunately, the lack of any historical evidence meant I had to abandon the idea of including this tale in my book.
Recently, the story was mentioned on a Facebook page, and I had a look at the case again. Going back to A Grim Almanac of Gloucestershire, it occurred to me that the quotation from the Gloucester Journal used very flowery language for an eighteenth century newspaper report: “The deep spreading stain on the sheet and counterpane showed she had perished by the hand of a murderer.” The quotation was not dated, and I wondered if the story had been told in the newspaper at a later date. This suspicion was strengthened when I realised that the same quotation is given in Tales of Old Gloucestershire, and the author says it came from a “later edition of the Cheltenham Examiner“. On the British Newspaper Archive website, I searched the Gloucester Journal for the name Mary Palmer at any date and – BINGO! – there she was, in the issue dated 14 January 1843, on page 4, in a section entitled “Literary Notices.” The story was told in full, under the title, “The Bullace-Street Murder”, and it’s source was given at the end as “Metropolitan“.
The Metropolitan Magazine, A Monthly Journal of Literature, Science and Fine Arts, was published in London, between 1831 and 1850. Some old volumes have been put on the Google Books site, and luckily, Volume 36, for January to April 1843, is available to read. The story, “The Bullace Street Murder”, appears as No IX in a series called “Curiosities of Legal Experience, By a Solicitor.” The author states that he (it is probable that the writer was male) was told this story while he was attending Gloucester Assizes in his professional capacity. There are a number of problems in his narrative. Most importantly, he states that Bull Lane was formerly known as Bullace Street, but I have never heard of it being given this name – only Gore Lane. He specifies the day and month of the murder, but doesn’t give a year, saying only that it happened during the reign of George II (1727-1760). I would guess that the year of 1741 given in modern versions of the story was deduced from the fact that the Cirencester man was hanged in 1743/4.
I searched Google Books for any other stories in the series “Curiosities of Legal Experience” by this “solicitor”. The only one I found was the first in the series, published in Volume 24 of the Metropolitan Magazine (1839). This one, called “The Skeleton of Lincoln’s Inn”, told the story of a man named Harry Sheppard (from the Forest of Dean, like Mary Palmer) who was condemned to death at the Old Bailey in 1780, but escaped from Newgate Prison thanks to the Gordon Riots, which broke out just before his execution was to take place. The date of his trial is given as Friday, June 2, 1780. A look at the Old Bailey Online website reveals that no trials took place at all on that day.
In conclusion, all of the evidence – or rather lack of it – has led me to believe that the tragic story of Mary Palmer is the work of someone with a great imagination, who could take one historical fact (like an execution in Cirencester) and weave a story around it. His piece of fiction was repeated in a local newspaper and adopted in an even later time by someone as being a true story. There is, of course, a very slight possibility that the story is true, but that it happened at a much earlier period than the author of “The Bullace Street Murder” suggests. Whatever the truth is, I would suggest that this tale in future should be called , “The Legend of the Bull Lane Murder”.
Gloucester Journal, Sept 1741-April 1742, 13 Jan 1843
Metropolitan Magazine, Volume XXXVI, January 1843, pp. 89-98, “The Bullace Street Murder”. Volume XXIV, March 1839, “The Skeleton of Lincoln’s Inn”.
Robin Brooks, A Grim Almanac of Gloucestershire (Sutton, 2004)
Betty Smith, Tales of Old Gloucestershire (Countryside Books, 1987)
Eileen Fry and Rosemary Harvey, Haunted Gloucester (Tempus, 2004)
Lyn Cinderey, Paranormal Gloucester (Amberley, 2009)
Metropolitan Magazine on https://books.google.com
Forest of Dean Family History Trust: http://www.forest-of-dean.net
Lists of executions on http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org
Gloucestershire Archives Genealogical Database via http://www.gloucestershire.gov.uk/archives/article/107703/Archives-Homepage
Gloucestershire Parish Records on http://www.ancestry.co.uk
Picture of Bull Lane with permission of http://www.visit-gloucestershire.co.uk/old-gloucester