In the year 1776, Cheltenham was a fashionable spa town, visited by ladies and gentlemen from all over the country. Among those visiting in September of that year were Captain William Pierce A’Court and his wife Katherine, whose family seat was at Heytesbury in Wiltshire. Accompanying the couple were their three daughters and four servants, including footman Joseph Armstrong. Thirty-year-old Armstrong had been hired by Captain A’Court shortly before the visit to Cheltenham. Mrs A’Court took an immediate dislike to the new servant, and when valuables began to go missing from the household, she was sure that he was responsible. She told her husband that she would like Armstrong to be dismissed.
Not long after their arrival in Cheltenham, Mrs A’Court started to feel ill, and her symptoms persisted and increased over the course of ten days, until she died in a state of agony, on 23 September. She was 32 years old. A post mortem examination showed that “her bowels were found mortified”, and Captain A’Court, suspecting that Armstrong might have had a part to play in his wife’s demise, had his belongings searched. In the footman’s chest, he found some of the family’s missing valuables, plus two empty arsenic papers. By this time, Armstrong had left Cheltenham in a hurry. A pursuit began, and he was followed along the London Road, until eventually he was discovered in some woodland, hiding up a tree.
During his time in Gloucester Gaol, awaiting trial, Armstrong denied that he had played any part in causing the death of his mistress. In March 1777, he appeared at the Gloucestershire Assizes, charged with petty treason, in poisoning his master’s lady, Mrs A’Court. (For a servant to murder his or her master or mistress was classed as petty treason, because it was regarded as akin to a subject murdering his or her sovereign.) It was stated that Armstrong had poisoned Mrs A’Court by adding small quantities of arsenic to her tea and beer. The former footman continued to deny the charge, but after a trial lasting eight hours, he was found guilty. The judge, Mr Baron Perryn, sentenced Armstrong to be hanged and his body dissected. His execution was to take place on 17 March.
On the morning of 17 March 1777, Joseph Armstrong asked the gaoler and other officials to leave him alone in his cell for a few minutes, to pray and compose himself for what was to come. When the gaoler returned, he found that Armstrong was dead. He had managed to hang himself with a leather strap. The authorities, robbed of their public display of justice being administered, decided that instead of being sent for dissection, Armstrong’s body should be hung in chains in or near Cheltenham, as close to the scene of the murder as possible. In this way, Armstrong would still be punished for his crime, and his hanging body would act a deterrent to other potential wrong-doers.
None of the contemporary newspaper reports stated exactly where Armstrong’s body was gibbeted, but the Cheltenham Chronicle of 3 June 1922 recounted the tale of the murderous footman, as told in a book published in 1863: “Norman’s History of Cheltenham“, by John Goding. This account of the murder contains a number of inaccuracies, but it does give some interesting information on where the gibbet was situated.
According to this work, Armstrong’s body was chained up on a hastily-constructed gibbet in an area “a little below North Lodge, late residence of Lord Dunally, called ‘The Marsh’.” This was an open area, north-west of Cheltenham, where fashionable visitors went riding or drove in their carriages. Armstrong was brought from Gloucester on a low, horse-drawn truck, and a crowd watched as the body was suspended in chains upon the gibbet. After an hour, the cross-bar broke from the weight of the chains and the corpse plummeted to the ground. After a repair was made, the body was suspended once again and left there to rot.
The “precise spot” of the gibbet, according to Goding, was “in the by-lane behind Lord Dunally’s residence, leading to the Marle-hill estate, and in almost a direct line with Dunally Street and Henrietta Street, the ancient ‘Fleece-lane’. ” (According to the WordPress site, Cheltonia, a part of Lord Dunally’s former residence, North Lodge, still remains in St Paul’s Road.)
Norman’s History of Cheltenham goes on to say that about twelve months after the body was first gibbeted, it disappeared, and members of the Armstrong family were rumoured to have removed it. However, decades later, when the ground was enclosed, the gibbet posts, which had remained in place for all those years, were removed, and a skeleton was discovered, wrapped in chains, buried a few feet under the ground. Goding states that Armstrong’s skull was bought by a surgeon, Dr Minster, and the skeleton by Dr Newell, another medical man. The main gibbet posts were taken to Clonbrook House and used for gateposts.
As for the body of Katherine A’Court, she was buried in the graveyard of St Mary’s Parish Church, and a handsome marble tablet was erected in the chancel, to her memory. The monumental inscription was transcribed in Norman’s History of Cheltenham (with”William P. A’Court” mistakenly read by the author as “William P.A. Court”). The inscription relates how she died by poison, “Administered by the hands of a Cruelly Wicked Livery Servant Whose Resentment, at being detected in Theft, Prompted him to Perpetrate this horrid and Execrable Crime”.
Gloucester Journal, 30 Sept 1776, 17 March 1777
Bath Chronicle, 3 Oct 1776
Cheltenham Chronicle, 3 June 1922, p.4
John Goding, Norman’s History of Cheltenham, 1863, pp.179-182 (via http://www.archive.org)
R. Bigland, Historical, Monumental and Genealogical Collections, Relative to the County of Gloucester, part 1, ed. Brain Frith (Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, 1989)
© Jill Evans 2016