“I’ve just murdered my two best friends.” A Cheltenham greengrocer tried for murder, 1894

Job Hartland and Rebecca Anstey married at the parish church of Great Washbourne, Gloucestershire, on 28 March 1859. Their first child, Ellen, was baptised in the same church on 20 November that same year. The family moved to nearby Alderton, where Job worked on the estate of Lord Sudeley. Rebecca, as well as looking after her growing family, did a bit of trade as a hawker. Eventually, she and Job purchased a pony and trap and started travelling to Evesham and Cheltenham to sell fruit and other home-produced goods. Around the middle of the 1880s, the Hartlands moved to Cheltenham, where they opened a greengrocery at number 303, High Street.

By the time they moved to Cheltenham, Rebecca had given birth to a total of eight children, seven of whom were still living. In 1894, only the two youngest children, William, aged 16, and George, aged 13, were still living with their parents, in the accommodation behind and above the shop. Another of the children, Mary, lived with her husband, Charles Spiers, further down High Street.

Unfortunately, the marriage of Job and Rebecca was not without its troubles. Job was prone to bouts of heavy drinking, which had led to several appearances before the magistrates. When he drank he would get into a rage, and although Rebecca had never accused him of violence towards her, he would yell and swear at her to such an extent that she would fear for her safety. While they were living in Alderton, the police sometimes had to warn Job about his behaviour towards his wife. Once they moved to Cheltenham, Rebecca would send for Charles Spiers on those occasions when she feared for her safety.

Job’s drinking bouts were often followed by long periods of abstinence, and in those times the couple lived peacefully together. However, as summer approached its end in 1894, he had taken to drinking again and his behaviour towards Rebecca had deteriorated as a result. Things came to head on the last day of August, when Job found out that Rebecca had some money which she refused to give up to him. That night when she retired to bed, where she slept alone, she put the money under her pillow. In the middle of the night, she woke up and found her husband standing over her, holding a hatchet above her head.

On the following night, after closing the shop, she took William and George with her to the house of her daughter Mary Spiers. She and her boys slept there on Saturday and Sunday night. On Monday morning, Job brought round the key to number 303 and Rebecca decided to go and open up the shop. That evening, she went back to the Spiers’ house for a while, but then returned to the family home to spend the night, against the advise of her son-in-law Charles. She took the precaution of having George sleep next to her, presumably believing this would stop her husband if he felt inclined to attack her.

On Tuesday morning, after hearing rumours that something was amiss, Charles Spiers went to number 303 and with the help of a police constable, burst open the door of shop and made his way upstairs. In a back bedroom, he saw Rebecca and George lying in the bed, looking at first like they were asleep. However, it quickly became apparent that both of them were dead. The throats of mother and son had been severely cut, and their heads appeared to have been struck with a blunt instrument. As the door had been locked on the outside and Job had the only key, he was the sole suspect. A police search began for Job Hartland, who was found lying in drunken stupor in an alley behind the Clarence Hotel.

Job Hartland was carried to Cheltenham Police Station, but he was too drunk to be charged or to appear before the magistrates on that day. On the following morning, Wednesday, 5 September, he was charged with murdering Rebecca and George Hartland. A hearing before magistrates at Cheltenham Police Station was opened, but was quickly adjourned for a week to allow the police to carry out further investigations into the circumstances of the case. A coroner’s inquest began on the same day and after the bodies had been viewed by the jury and identified and Charles Spiers had given evidence of finding the bodies, this too was adjourned.

Job Hartland’s first appearance in court (Cheltenham Chronicle, 15 September 1894, via British Newspaper Archive. Copyright British Library Board)

The inquest, held at Cheltenham Police Court, resumed on the morning of 11th September. Charles Spiers again recounted his entering number 303 with the police constable and finding the bodies of the murder victims. He also described finding a knife on the counter of the shop and a coal hammer in the yard. Asked about the relationship of husband and wife, Spiers said that he had never heard Job make threats against Rebecca’s life, although he did curse and swear at her. Rebecca would usually send for him when that happened and Job would then desist. On the night of Saturday, 1 September, Rebecca had come to his house with the boys and told his wife Mary about the incident with the hatchet. He had begged her not to return to number 303 on the Monday morning, but she said she must for the sake of the business. In answer to a question, Spiers said that Job had taken to sleeping on the sofa in the kitchen, rather than the marital bed.

William Hartland, aged 16, gave evidence next. He stated that he was an assistant at a tobacconist’s shop in High Street. He lived with his parents and shared a room with his brother George, but on Monday night he had gone to sleep at the house of a friend. He described seeing his father and mother in the kitchen at home on that evening. They seemed as comfortable together as usual and Job was sober. His father usually took a jug to the Royal Oak Inn (where Job stabled his pony) to fetch a half-pint of beer and his mother said he should go and fetch the beer now if he was going, so they could all get to bed. William set off for his friend’s house and he saw his father walking some distance behind him, then going into the Royal Oak. The next morning, just after seven, he went home but found the door locked and no-one responded to his knocking. He went to the Royal Oak to see if his father was there and could give him the door key, but there was no sign of him and after knocking at number 303 again and getting no response, he had to go to work.

In response to questions, William said he had never heard his father threaten his mother and he couldn’t remember if his mother had ever slept out of the house before. His father was in the habit of drinking heavily every night, but he couldn’t say he ever got drunk.

Superintendent McRae, who had been called to the house after the bodies were found, recounted his examination of the scene. As well as blood being found on the knife and hammer, there were blood stains spattered in various places. The brick floor near the pump in the back kitchen was damp, as if it had been recently washed and there were spots of blood on the handle. In the bedroom where the bodies were found, McRae had discovered £4 (10 shillings in silver and the rest in gold) tied up in a handkerchief.

When Job Hartland was arrested, he had the house key in his pocket. Some of his clothing was damp, suggesting a recent attempt to wash it, and still there were a few blood spots on them. McRae stated that when Hartland was found, he was foaming at the mouth and it was feared that he had taken poison, but a doctor who examined him at the police station found that he was only extremely drunk. When Hartland was charged with murder the following day, he responded, “I shan’t want to say nothing. I done it, and I can’t help it. I can’t think how I done it.” This was written down in a statement and Hartland signed it.

The doctor who had examined the bodies of Rebecca and George at the scene said that when he first looked at them at about 10am, he judged that they had been dead for around five hours. He examined them more closely at 11.30am. George, as well as having had his throat cut, had received a severe blow to the head and his skull was fractured. Rebecca had also been struck several times. It appeared that her throat had been cut before she was struck with the hammer, as there were cuts on her fingers which suggested she had tried to defend herself by grasping the blade of the knife. The doctor had also examined Job Hartland at the police station and he believed he was suffering from chronic alcoholism.

Next to give evidence was Mrs Ellen Edwards, who lived opposite the Hartland’s. She said that on Monday afternoon, Job Hartland had come outside and spent some time sharpening a large knife on the kerbstone. Later she saw him using the knife to trim vegetables. She believed Hartland had been drinking heavily for the past week, but he had seemed more sober over the weekend.

Miss Clara Smith, the barmaid at the Royal Oak, confirmed that Job Hartland had come in for his usual jug of beer on the Monday night. She said that he already had visited the bar twice that day, at 9.30 in the morning then about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. He drank a half pint of beer on both occasions. He did not appear to be drunk when he came in on Monday night.

Next to give evidence was Robert Franklin, a postman who had known Job Hartland for several years. Franklin described meeting Hartland in Church Street at about 7.30 on the morning of Tuesday, 4th September. Hartland came up to him and held out his hand, saying, “Goodbye Postman, I am going from here to another town.” Franklin wished him success and started to walk away, but Hartland called him back and asked if there were any letters for him, then added that if there were any for anyone else at number 303, there was no use in delivering them, as they were all dead. Franklin thought he was joking and replied, “Go on you old fool; none of your game”, but Hartland said, “I’ll tell you the truth. I am the only one that slept in that house last night that is alive.” Hartland then went into the Eight Bells public house. Franklin did not believe Hartland was drunk, but rather befuddled from heavy drinking the night before.

The barmaid of the Clarence Hotel was next in the witness box. She stated that Job Hartland had come into the bar at about 8.30 on the Tuesday morning. He asked for a brandy and said “I have just murdered my two best friends”. Like the postman, she thought he was joking, but he told her she would read it all in the papers that evening. He put his head on the counter and seemed to doze off for a few seconds, until she told him he would have to leave, and he went out of the back door.

Having heard all the evidence, the inquest jury returned a verdict that Job Hartland was guilty of murdering his wife and son. In the afternoon, the court hearing was re-opened. Job Hartland attended and looked much better than he had on his first appearance a week earlier. All the witnesses repeated the evidence they had given at the inquest. When Superintendent McRae read out Hartland’s brief confession, the prisoner burst into tears. The magistrates ordered Hartland to be committed to Gloucester Gaol to await trial at the next county assizes.

The scene in Cheltenham Police Court (details as above image)

On Friday, 7th September, Rebecca and George Hartland were buried together in a grave at Cheltenham Burial Ground. Crowds gathered outside number 303, from where the procession left, and lined the route to the cemetery. About two weeks later, all the household goods and shop fittings belonging to number 303 High Street were sold on the premises. It was clear that Job Hartland would not be returning to the family home.

The trial of Job Hartland took place at the Shire Hall, Gloucester, in November 1894. Job Hartland was brought into court on 20 November to give his plea to the charge of having wilfully murdered Rebecca and George Hartland. He pleaded guilty. He had no defence counsel and the Judge, Justice Matthew, asked if he would like him to appoint one for him. Hartland said yes and Mr Harrington took up the role. After a brief discussion, Hartland withdrew his guilty plea. The trial took place the following day. Job Hartland was brought the short distance from the gaol to the court in a Black Maria. Immense crowds watched his arrival and many were unsuccessful in getting a seat in the courtroom.

The witnesses who had appeared at the inquest and the court hearing in September mostly repeated there evidence. Two new witnesses also appeared. Robert Butcher, landlord of the Golden Heart, stated that Hartland had come in at about 7am and had some whisky and coffee. He looked as if he had been drinking the night before. Before that, Hartland had visited the Nelson Inn. The landlord there stated that Hartland had come in at about 6.45 and asked for some whisky. When asked why he was having whisky rather than his usual brandy, Hartland replied that he hardly knew what he was about. He said that something dreadful had happened and there was more blood in his house than ever came out of a pig. (This statement caused a sensation in court.) The landlord had told him not to talk so foolishly and advised him to go for a long walk. Hartland wanted to shake hands and he did so to get rid of him. He believed Hartland was “going a bit wrong in the head”.

Part of the case put for Hartland was that he was suffering from delirium tremens, which might have caused a type of madness. If the jury believed that Hartland had been in this condition, they could find him guilty of manslaughter. The prison doctor was called to the witness box, and stated that Hartland hadn’t shown symptoms of delirium tremens when he examined him, but that he was certainly “a man accustomed to hard drinking.” In summing up its case, the defence counsel declared that surely only a madman could have inflicted such terrible injuries on his own wife and son.

In his summing up, the judge said the jury had to decide if Hartland knew what he was doing when he killed Rebecca and George. If so, it didn’t matter whether or not he was drunk at the time. The jury retired for about an hour then returned a verdict of guilty, with a recommendation to mercy, “on account of the low type of such a man as the prisoner”. The judge said he would forward their recommendation to the Home Secretary, but he didn’t think there was much hope of a reprieve. He then sentenced Job Hartland to death.

The execution of Job Hartland was scheduled to take place on Thursday, 13 December, but a week before that, news came through that the Home Secretary had commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. The reason appeared to be a belief that when he killed Rebecca and George, Job was out of his mind due to his constant drinking. He was transferred to Exeter Prison on 21 January 1895, where he spent a time in solitary confinement, before being moved to Portland Prison in Dorset.

In December 1896, some newspapers reported that Job Hartland had died at Wormwood Scrubs. The place given was incorrect, but he had indeed died, in circumstances which revealed a strange twist of fate, given his escape from the noose two years earlier. A report on the inquest held after his death in Portland Prison appeared in the Western Gazette on 25 December 1896. A prison warder had taken Hartland his breakfast on the morning of 20 December, then shortly afterwards heard a heavy thud. On returning to Hartland’s cell, he found him lying on the floor, dead. The prison doctor believed Hartland had a fit and fell from his seat. In the fall, somehow he had dislocated his neck.

Sources:

Newspapers (all viewed on http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)

Cheltenham Chronicle, 15 Sept 1894,

Cheltenham Examiner, 5 Sept, 8 Sept, 12 Sept, 29 Sept, 28 Nov 1894

Gloucester Citizen, 7 Dec 1894

Gloucester Journal, 8 Sept 1894, 21 Jan 1895

Gloucestershire Chronicle, 24 Nov 1894

Western Gazette, 25 December 1896

Other Records (viewed on http://www.ancestry.co.uk)

Gloucestershire Prison Records, Gloucester County Prison, Nominal Prison Register, 1893-5

Parish Registers, Great Washbourne Marriages, 1754-1938

Census Records: 1861, Great Washbourne, Gloucestershire; 1871 and 1881, Alderton, Gloucestershire; 1891, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

(c) Jill Evans 2021

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