It was Christmas Eve in 1880, and the tap room of the New Inn, Bourton-on-the-Water, was already packed when Thomas Hill and his father David strolled in at a quarter past nine. The Hill family lived at Little Rissington, but twenty-two-year-old Tom had been working in Yorkshire for several years. He had returned home to spend Christmas with his father and stepmother, and it was clear to the other people in the bar that the young man had already been celebrating before coming into the New Inn.
After he and his father had got their drinks, Tom Hill stood in front of the fire, a beer in his hand, and entertained the company by singing a song. He then went over to Edward Hughes, took his cap off him and started to hit him with it. Although this was done in a jocular fashion, it went on a bit too long. Charles Palmer, a native of Bourton who had arrived in the bar a few minutes after the Hills, intervened, telling Tom to stop it, and the pair exchanged heated words.
James Mustoe, the ostler at the New Inn, was helping out behind the bar that night. He went out to fetch some more beer, and on his return he saw Tom Hill in a corner, stripped of his coat and waistcoat and challenging anyone who was willing to fight him, while his father held him back. Palmer was standing close by and it seemed to Mustoe that he would be most likely to get into a fight with Hill, after their argument earlier. He took hold of Palmer and escorted him from the premises. Just as he was doing so, Police Sergeant Sims came in, and he helped Mustoe to remove Hill, who was more belligerent than Palmer, shouting that he could take on any man in Bourton. After the sergeant had gone, David Hill took his son’s clothes out to him, then returned to the tap room. Palmer came back in after about fifteen minutes and as he seemed calm, he was allowed to stay. Thomas Hill also returned to the tap room and asked for another drink, but Mustoe told him he had already had enough, so he left.
Closing time was at ten o’clock, and everyone trooped outside into the cold. Thomas Hill was standing outside the inn, waiting for the others. As the men set off for home, Hill and Palmer got into another argument. They agreed that they didn’t care for each other and would go somewhere quiet, away from the eyes of the law, to settle their differences in a fight. As they walked off together, they were joined by a friend of Palmer’s, Charles Mosson. Hill seemed worried that he was going to be outnumbered, as he said, “Is there two of you?” Mosson replied that this was nothing to do with him. Palmer then said to Hill, “I suppose you want to go to the top of Rissington Hill to have it out, but I’m not going”. He turned towards his home in Bourton, and Hill and Mosson walked with him.
Suddenly, Hill took his hand out of his pocket and struck Palmer a blow, exclaiming, “How do you like that?” Palmer reeled back and fell to the ground. Mosson tried to lift Palmer up and realised that his friend was seriously injured. A local doctor, Mr Alfred Burt, lived just on the other side of the road, and he was called to the scene. He found that Palmer was already dead. Blood was oozing from a wound on his neck. Sergeant Sims was coming back towards the inn when he was told what had happened. He went off to find Tom Hill.
On 26 December, an inquest was held into the death of Charles Palmer, aged 26, who lived with his mother and step-father, Mary and Stephen Betteridge, in Bourton-on-the-Water. The doctor who had attended Palmer outside the New Inn on Christmas Eve had carried out a post mortem that morning. He had found that the deceased had a stab wound on the right side of his neck, about one and a half inches long. The wound was three and a half inches deep, stopping at the spinal column, and dividing the two chief veins in the neck at their point of junction. This was sufficient to cause death within two or three minutes.
Police Sergeant Sims gave evidence of having arrested Thomas Hill at his father’s house. His stepmother asked Hill if he had stabbed Palmer and he said that he had. When she asked him why, he said, “Why, how would anybody help it when he had four or five men round and one excited?” On the way to the police station, he said that he had borrowed a knife from his father to cut some cake, and had forgotten that he was holding it when he took his hand out of his pocket and struck Palmer. The Hill residence was searched on Christmas Day, and a knife was found among some cabbages in an outhouse, which had been cut up for the pigs.
David Hill, Tom’s father, related what had happened in the New Inn on Christmas Eve. He hadn’t seen his son strike Palmer, as he was walking some way ahead of them when it happened. He stated that he had never seen the knife produced in court until Christmas morning, at his home, in the wash house. The knife wasn’t his and his son hadn’t borrowed one from him. His wife told him she had found the knife and had put it in the wash house. At the police station, Tom said this was the knife with which he had struck Palmer. He had left it in his coat pocket the night before.
Having heard all the evidence, the inquest jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against Thomas Hill. He was committed to Gloucester Prison to await trial at the next county assizes, which came around in February 1881.
On the day of Thomas Hill’s trial, which took place on Thursday, 19 February, the court was packed with spectators. Various witnesses who had been at the New Inn that Christmas Eve gave their evidence, including David Hill. He said that his son had been angry because Palmer had mocked his singing. He hadn’t mentioned this at the coroner’s inquest, and none of the other witnesses had said anything about it.
Thomas Hill’s defence counsel asked the jury to return a verdict of manslaughter. He said that his client had received provocation from all those in the inn, and in particular from Palmer, who seemed to have some kind of ill will against him from the start. Because of his drunken state, this had angered Hill more than it might have done if he had been sober. If Palmer was the less drunk of the two, then he was more to blame, in agreeing to fight Hill. When Palmer was joined by his friend Mosson, Hill thought he was going to be attacked, and so defended himself, and although he used a knife, it was unlucky that the blow had hit the deceased’s jugular vein.
The jury retired for about twenty minutes, then returned a verdict of not guilty of murder, but guilty of manslaughter. The judge, before passing sentence, told Hill that the jury had taken a most merciful view of his case, and had relieved him (the judge) of the burden of having to pronounce a death sentence upon him. Hill had committed a “cruel, cowardly and treacherous deed”. The deceased had done nothing worse than showing a disposition to have a “fair, stand-up fight”. He therefore sentenced Thomas Hill to the heaviest penalty he could pronounce in this case, which was penal servitude for life.
A note on the New Inn:
The New Inn at Bourton-on-the Water is now called “The Old New Inn”. Bourton’s famous Model Village is situated behind the inn, and was created by a former landlord. More information can be found at www.theoldnewinn.co.uk
Illustrated Police News, 8 Jan1881; Gloucester Citizen, 1 Jan, 17 Feb and 18 Feb 1881; Gloucester Journal, 1 Jan and 19 Feb 1881. (All via British Newspaper Archive.)