Buried at the crossroads: William Birt, 1791

William Birt was supposed to be the first person to be hanged on the gatehouse roof of the new Gloucester Prison, which opened in the summer of 1791. However, having been found guilty of murder and condemned to death at the Gloucestershire Assizes in August 1791, he decided not to wait for the executioner, and took his own life in the condemned cell.

The charge of murder against Birt was far from being a straightforward case. Birt was a carpenter, 26 years of age, who lived in Tewkesbury. He had been ‘walking out’ with Sarah Powell, who was a servant maid in the household of a Tewkesbury family. In the spring of 1791, Sarah had discovered that she was pregnant, and William had given her a powder to take, in the hope of inducing a miscarriage. Unfortunately, the powder caused the death of both mother and child.

Sarah Powell had lingered on for eleven days after taking the powder, and so she was able to tell her doctor who had given her the substance and why. After Sarah’s death, William Birt was committed to Tewkesbury Gaol at first, then was removed by habeus corpus to Gloucester, to await trial at the Assizes. This was in April 1791, before the new prison opened, so he was held in the old gaol in Gloucester Castle, where the conditions were terrible. In the last week of July, although the building works were not entirely completed, the new prison was judged to be fit for occupation, and the prisoners were moved from the crumbling old castle keep into their new quarters, where everyone had their own cell in which to sleep. Birt was held in the gaol section of the prison to await his trial, which took place on Friday, 12 August.

Newspaper reports on the trial were not sympathetic to Birt. They said that he had ‘deluded the Deceased under a Promise of Marriage’. When she told him she was pregnant, he gave her a small quantity of a powder, telling her it would do her no harm, but rather would do her good, as he had taken twice as much in the past. Back at her home, she had taken the powder with some sugar, after which she was ‘seized with violent vomitings’, and after lying in agony for eleven days, she died.

It was clear that William Birt had never intended that Sarah Powell should die, so it might have been thought that he would have faced a charge of manslaughter rather than murder. However, the judge explained that, ‘having recommended to her a Medicine to procure abortion, and death ensuing, he was considered as guilty of Murder’. According to a well known principle of English Law, the judge said, ‘where Death ensues in consequence of an illegal Act, Malice is implied, and the offence, with its consequences, is deemed Murder’. Abortion was an illegal act, so Birt was considered to be guilty of murder. The judge added that although Sarah Powell ‘might be an Accomplice with him in the guilty Design’, her account of how Birt had encouraged her to take the powder was enough to ‘fix the crime upon the Man’. The source of the powder had not been discovered, nor exactly what it contained, but the surgeon who attended Sarah Powell was sure it was poisonous and had caused her death.

Birt was said to have remained calm during the trial and when receiving the death sentence, but when he was taken from the Bar, ‘his Confidence forsook him, and he fainted away in the Pen, and as he was conducting away from the Court, he dropped down again in a Fit’. That evening, when he arrived back at the prison, Birt was conducted to a condemned cell to await his execution, which was to take place on the following Monday, 15 August. As he was taken to the cell, he was said to have ‘wrung his hands as in the utmost Misery and Despair’. Next morning, when his cell door was unlocked, he was found hanging and dead. The prison surgeon made a brief note of the incident in his journal: ’13 Aug 1791. William Birt meant to hang on 15 August but hanged himself in cell.’

A Coroner’s Inquest was held later that day. It was said that Birt’s body had been ‘quite cold’ when the cell door had been opened. He had twisted the sheet of his bed and fastened it to the bars of the window, then tied the other end in a running knot round his neck, before throwing himself from his bedstead. The inquest jury returned a verdict of felo de se. This translates roughly as ‘felon of himself’, and the verdict had great significance, as it meant that Birt’s body was ordered to undergo the traditional fate of suicides who were judged to have been of sound mind at the time they took their own lives, which was to be buried at a crossroads, without any Christian service. The Gloucester Journal of 18 August 1791 reported that on that same Saturday, Birt’s body “was buried in a cross road, near Tewkesbury’. The treatment of the bodies of those buried at crossroads varied, but they were supposed to be ‘desecrated’ in some way, such as having a stake put through their body. The newspapers gave no details of what had happened in Birt’s case.

The authorities were keen not to disclose the exact burial places of suicides, so no details were given of the site of Birt’s burial. However, Bennett’s History of Tewkesbury, published in 1830, gives some useful information on the subject:

‘The corpse was sent by order of the coroner, to the parish officers at Tewkesbury, and buried in the cross-road at the entrance into the lane which leads to the Lodge, near the House of Industry’.

The House of Industry, later Tewkesbury Workhouse, was south of the town, on Gloucester Road. An examination of a map of Tewkesbury from 1835 shows that the most likely place of burial is in the area with the lane leading to the Lodge (now Lincoln Green Lane) on the left and a lane to the right just before the House of Industry (which now leads to the cemetery).

 

Tewkesburydetail1835

Detail from a map of Tewkesbury, from Samuel Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of England 1835. (via GENMAPS website). The ‘House’ is the House of Industry. The burial took place at the crossroads just below that.

 

The reason for burying suicides at crossroads has never been completely clear. The practice took place from at least medieval times, when crossroads were believed to be ‘otherworldly’, God-forsaken, places. (There is an interesting article about the subject here: www.oddlyhistorical.com/2015/09/27/crossroads-suicide-burials.) Whatever the reasons for the practice, it ceased with the passing of the Burial of Suicide Act of 1823. However, taking one’s own life continued to be a criminal act until 1961.

 

Sources

Gloucester Journal, 11 April 1791, 18 August 1791

Bennett’s History of Tewkesbury, 1830, p.214, note (via archive.org)

Gloucestershire Archives:

Gaol Calendars, Easter 1791 (Q/SG1)

Gloucester County Gaol, Surgeon’s Journal, 13 Aug 1791 (Q/Gc32/1)

“A Profane Burial: Why the English Buried Suicides at Crossroads”, 27 Sept 2015, on http://www.oddlyhistorical.com. (Link in the main text above.)

Map of Tewkesbury 1835 from GENMAPS (http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~genmaps/index.html)

© Jill Evans 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Dursley Election Riot, 1867

electoraldistricts

Electoral Districts, Gloucestershire, 1835. From Samuel Lewis, Topographical Dictionary of England, 1835. (www.ancestryimages.com)

 

The parliamentary constituency of West Gloucestershire had been created by the Great Reform Act of 1832. The constituency was represented by two members of parliament. In 1867, the West Gloucestershire representatives were Sir John Rolt, a Conservative, and Robert Kingscote, a Liberal. In that year, Sir John Rolt gave up his seat when he became a judge, so a by-election was declared. The Liberal candidate for the vacant seat was quickly announced as Mr Charles Paget Fitzharding Berkeley, second son of Lord Fitzharding of Berkeley Castle. The Conservatives took a long time in declaring their candidate. It had been expected that Sir George Jenkinson, 11th Baronet of Walcot and Hawkesbury, would be nominated. Sir George lived at Eastwood House, in Falfield, Gloucestershire, and he had been the High Sheriff of Gloucestershire in 1862. However, for reasons not made public, the eventual Conservative candidate was Colonel Edward Arthur Somerset, a cousin of the Duke of Somerset.

The market town of Dursley was the place where the hustings for West Gloucestershire elections took place. On 31 July 1867, the candidates, their supporters and crowds of people gathered to hear the declaration of the results. Sir George Jenkinson came to Dursley to support Somerset on the hustings, bringing with him his wife and  children, and other guests, including the Honorable George Charles Grantley Fitzharding Berkeley, commonly known as Grantley Berkeley. Grantley Berkeley was the uncle of Charles Berkeley, the Liberal candidate,  but he had not come to support his nephew. Despite having been a Liberal MP in the same seat from 1837 to 1857, he was now supporting the Conservative candidate, Colonel Somerset. His appearance on the hustings alongside Somerset and Sir George Jenkinson led to hissing and cries of ‘turncoat!’ from Liberal supporters, who made up the majority of the crowd. The Gloucester Journal reported that the proceedings were very disorderly, and the presence of Grantley Berkeley appeared to be the principal cause of the unrest, coupled with the officiousness of Sir George Jenkinson, who ‘made himself conspicuous by obtruding himself on the notice of those assembled, bandying words with the crowd, and gesturing like a Merry Andrew’.*

When the High Sheriff declared that the Conservative candidate had won the election by 96 votes, there were cheers from the Conservative supporters, and jeers and cries of ‘bribery’ from the Liberals. Somerset gave a speech, and there was uproar when he thanked Sir George Jenkinson.  In his speech, Charles Berkeley, the losing candidate, congratulated Colonel Somerset, then made a pointed reference to people who had promised to support him but then hadn’t done so. Grantley Berkeley tried to reply, but his voice was drowned out by booing, and then fighting broke out in the crowd. Grantley Berkeley persisted in trying to speak, shouting that the troublemakers were ‘no more fit to enjoy the franchise than a pack of wild beasts’. He continued to shout at the top of his voice while the crowd booed, but when sticks began to  be thrown, he retreated from the hustings. Jenkinson remained for a while longer, berating and taunting the spectators.

A little while later, Sir George Jenkinson decided it was time to leave Dursley. As he and his family got into their carriage, they were heckled and missiles were thrown at them. The police surrounded the carriage as its occupants were pelted with rotten eggs, offal, horse-dung, turf and sticks, and a sheep’s head was thrown repeatedly back and forth over their heads.

Following this riotous behaviour, five people were arrested and appeared at a special Petty Sessions which was held at Dursley on 10 August. The Gloucester Journal reported that the proceedings “created a great deal of excitement in Dursley, and the court was thronged”. There were six magistrates on the bench and the hearing lasted eight hours. A large number of constables were present in the town, in case of any further disturbances. Gloucester solicitor Mr Taynton represented the prosecutors, while Mr Gaisford of Berkeley appeared for the defendants.

Henry Woodward, Andrew Kilmister, William Dean and Richard Lacy, along with Rowland Hill, described as “a boy”, were charged by Superintendent Griffin of the Gloucestershire Constabulary, that they did, “with divers other evil-disposed persons, to the number of ten or more, on the 31st July 1867, at the parish of Dursley, in the county of Gloucester, unlawfully and riotously assemble and gather together to disturb the peace of our Lady the Queen, and that, being then and there so assembled and gathered together, they did unlawfully and riotously make an assault upon one Sir George Jenkinson, Bart, and the Hon. G.F. Berkeley, and others, to the great disturbances and terror of the liege subjects of her Majesty the Queen then and there being”.

Mr Taynton stated that he had been instructed to prosecute by the Chief Constable of the Gloucestershire Police, who wanted brought to justice all the persons who could be proved to have taken part in this “very scandalous outrage”. The magistrates might decide the defendants had not been guilty of committing a riot, but he prayed that in that case they would be sent for trial on charges of tumultuous and unlawful assembly.

Police Sergeant Monk of Dursley was the first witness. He had been on duty on 31 July, the day when the High Sheriff officially declared the result of the poll in the recent election. There were about four hundred to five hundred people assembled near the Bell and Castle Inn, and their conduct had been riotous and noisy. Monk saw Sir George Jenkinson’s carriage being brought out from the yard of the Bell and Castle Inn, when it was time for him to leave. Sir George came through the crowd with some ladies towards the carriage. He was struck on the back by an egg. As the party got into the carriage, more eggs were thrown. The police surrounded the carriage to protect the occupants. He saw a sheep’s head being passed over the carriage, but he did not see any missiles hit anyone in the carriage. The eggs passed over the ladies’ heads, but one struck the back of the box were Sir George was seated. He had heard the name “Grantley” uttered most by the crowd. Monk identified Henry Woodward and Andrew Kilmister as part of the mob. When the carriage left, it had been followed by the crowd for a few hundred yards, who threw stones and anything else they could find. The crowd dispersed once the carriage had gone.

Captain Kennedy, C.B. (a former governor of Vancouver Island) was another witness. He had been one of Sir George Jenkinson’s party. He had seen stones, eggs, sticks, bones and offal being thrown at the occupants of the carriage. He had caught Lacey with a bag of eggs, and handed him over to the police. Lady Jenkinson and Miss Jenkinson had blood on their faces. The former lady’s face was cut, but the blood on Miss Jenkinson’s face was from being struck by a piece of offal. Kennedy’s wife had been hit by two apples.

Police Constable Gough stated that he had seen Rowland Hill, the boy, pick up the sheep’s head and throw it at the carriage. He also saw William Dean in the crowd, shouting and pushing. Another constable identified Henry Woodward as being the chief culprit. He had seen the other defendants in the crowd, but hadn’t witnessed them doing anything. Woodward had thrown things at the carriages of Sir George Jenkinson and Colonel Somerset.

Having heard all the evidence, the magistrates declared that “a most disgraceful riot” had been committed, and all the defendants except William Dean were committed for trial at the next county Assizes.

After this, Sir George Jenkinson appeared to answer a charge that on the day of the election, he assaulted one Thomas Ward, by striking him with his whip as he drove past him, on his way into Dursley. Sir George was hissed as he entered the courtroom. Ward, described as a labourer and a corporal in the Militia, stated that on 31 July, he was standing at the Kingshill turnpike with others, dressed in yellow, the colour of the Liberal supporters. As Sir George Jenkinson drove his carriage past at a trot, he stood up and brought his whip down on him. He would have been cut across the face if he hadn’t managed to turn his back.

Another witness said that the crowd standing at the turnpike had not been hostile, and only shouted “Yellow forever” as each carriage drove past. There was also a suggestion from Mr Gaisford that Sir George had, in a vulgar gesture, lifted his coat-tails and slapped his “nether-ends” in the direction of the crowd. In his defence, Sir George said that the crowd at the turnpike had rushed his carriage and frightened the horses. He said that Ward had confronted him in an inn at Dursley and demanded money, or else he would accuse him of assault. The bench decided to fine Sir George Jenkinson 40 shillings for assaulting Ward.

The four defendants who were sent for trial on charges of rioting did not have to wait long for their case to be heard, as the Gloucestershire Assizes began soon afterwards.  The charge against them was of riotous assembly and assault against Sir George Jenkinson, Bart, the Hon. Grantley Berkeley, and others. The judge, Mr Shee, in his opening statement, suggested that if the committing magistrates had been afforded more time to reflect, they might have decided that it would have been better to fine the defendants, rather than having them sent for trial at the Assizes.

Opening the prosecution case, it was submitted that the assault on Sir George and his party had been premeditated, because rotten eggs in brown paper bags had been brought in to Dursley from elsewhere. The evidence given at the Dursley Petty Sessions was then repeated. After hearing the case against Rowland Hill (who was about thirteen years old), the prosecution withdrew the charge against him, because he was “only a boy”. The judge said the boy should never have appeared in the dock at all.

Sir George Jenkinson, Lady Jenkinson and their eldest daughter, Miss Emily Frances Jenkinson, all appeared as witnesses.  Lady Jenkinson stated that she had been hit on the temple by a hard green apple, which caused severe bruising. Her daughter Emily had been struck several times by stones and offal, and her little boy had been cut below one of his eyes and was still in bed recovering.

Sir George Jenkinson was given a thorough grilling by the defence counsel, Mr James. He denied having enraged the crowd, said he didn’t recall hitting Ward with his whip, but did admit that he had tried to hit someone else, but had missed. He emphatically denied having lifted up his coat tails and slapped his bottom, in a vulgar gesture. Several Dursley residents appeared to give good character references to the defendants. In his summing up, Mr James castigated Jenkinson, as the prosecutor of the case, for allowing Rowland Hill, a child, to be held in custody for six days and nights before the trial. He also criticised him for taking ladies and children to the election hustings, when he knew such occasions were always rowdy. James was applauded when he sat down.

After consulting together for three minutes, the jury found the remaining defendants not guilty. The trial had lasted nearly five hours.

Detail from An Election Squib

Detail from “An Election Squib” by George Cruickshank, 1841 (www.ancestryimages.com)

 

A note on Sir George Jenkinson

Sir George Samuel Jenkinson was the 11th Baronet of Walcot, Oxfordshire and Hawkesbury, Gloucestershire. He was the son of the Bishop of St David’s and a first cousin once removed of one-time Prime Minister Robert Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool. He had succeeded his uncle as Baronet in 1855. He had been the High Sheriff of Gloucestershire in 1862. He unsuccessfully contested the seat for Wiltshire North in 1865 and of Nottingham in 1866. During these election campaigns, he had gained a reputation for being boastful and bumptious, but was said to be popular with landed proprietors and tenant farmers. In 1868, he finally succeeded in becoming a member of parliament,  being elected as the representative for Wiltshire North. He stayed in that  seat until 1880. He died at his home, Eastwood House in Falfield, on 19 January 1892, and was buried in Falfield Parish Church.

Although his behaviour at the Dursley election caused him to be viewed as an arrogant “toff”, his obituary in the Gloucestershire Chronicle on 23 January 1892 showed a different side to his character. On succeeding to the Eastwood Estates, it said, he had built the present church, vicarage and schools in Falfield, almost entirely at his own expense. He was ‘of a most liberal and generous disposition’, and supported all the local institutions, was generous to the poor and was a large employer of local labour, who was ‘widely and deservedly respected’. Perhaps the passing of twenty-five years had mellowed his character.

*I have no idea what this means.

 

Sources

Dictionary of National Biography

Cheltenham Looker-On, 12 Jan 1867

Gloucester Journal, 27 July, 3 August, 10 August, 17 August 1867

Gloucestershire Chronicle, 23 January 1892

© Jill Evans 2017

 

“A man of brutal passions”: A case of attempted murder, Gloucester, 1878

William Scriven was a rag-and-bone man who lived at Dorn’s lodging house, in Gloucester. The house was situated in a passage on the Island, at the bottom of Westgate Street. In the same passage, next door to Dorn’s establishment, there was another lodging house, kept by William Young. On Sunday, 7 April 1878, Scriven had just returned to his lodgings after a pleasant stroll along the Quay, when he heard a commotion outside. Going to the door, he was surprised to see a woman lying on the ground, with a man bent over her, holding her down. He went over to help the woman and, assisted by Young, restrained the assailant and took a razor out of his hand. He and Young then handed over the man and the weapon to the police, while the woman was rushed to the Infirmary.

On the following morning, Joseph Hooper, a labourer, appeared at the Gloucester City Petty Sessions, charged with attempting to murder Elizabeth Brinn, by cutting her throat. Deputy Chief Constable Mr Chipp told the Bench that Brinn’s injuries were not life-threatening, but she was too ill to give evidence at that time, and probably wouldn’t be well enough to do so for a couple of weeks. The magistrates decided to hear the evidence of one of the witnesses, and Scriven was called to describe what had happened. The hearing then was adjourned, and in the meantime, Hooper was remanded in Gloucester Prison.

Illustration of the crime in the Illustrated Police News, 11 May 1878. (via British newspaper Archive.) Image copyright The British Library Board. all Rights Reserved.

Illustration of the crime in the Illustrated Police News, 11 May 1878. (via British Newspaper Archive.) Image copyright The British Library Board. All Rights Reserved.

Elizabeth Brinn finally was able to come to court and give her evidence on 29 April. She said that she and Hooper had lived together as man and wife for about twenty months. They had been lodgers at Young’s house since February. On that Sunday morning, 7th April, she and Hooper had gone out together in the morning for a walk, and went all round the perimeter of the city. At half past twelve, they had gone to a public house, the Mermaid on the Quay, where they stayed until closing time, at half past two. Both were “the worse for beer” when they came out, and they started to quarrel. They had a fight on the Quay and continued to argue on the way back to their lodgings. When they got home, Brinn asked Mr Taylor to have her belongings fetched down, because she was leaving. After that, she went out into the yard, and felt someone grab her from behind and throw her onto the ground. She remembered nothing else until she woke up in hospital.

William Scriven then gave his evidence, followed by William Young. Young said that Hooper and Brinn were habitual drunkards who were always quarrelling and fighting. On that Sunday afternoon, they came into the kitchen and proceeded to have a fight. “The woman appeared to have the best of it”, and he had to pull her off Hooper. He decided to put both of them out of the house. Their few belongings were brought down and they divided their bundle between them, still quarrelling. Brinn went out into the yard, with Hooper behind her. Hooper grabbed her and threw her down into the gutter. Someone in the yard called out, “William, I think he’s cutting her throat”. He ran over and lifted Hooper’s right hand off the woman, and saw he was holding a razor, which Scriven took of him.  They handed Hooper over to two policemen who were coming to attend the scene.

Police Sergeant Maggs was one of the policemen who took charge of Hooper. He stated that when the prisoner was handed over, he was drunk and his hands, face and clothes were smeared with blood. On the following morning, when Hooper was charged, he said he wasn’t aware that he had cut Brinn’s throat, because he had been drunk and “half off his head”.

Joseph Hooper was committed to be tried at the next Assizes, which took place in August 1878. He was charged with feloniously cutting and wounding Elizabeth Brinn, at Gloucester on April 7th, with intent to murder her. Brinn had been bound over to attend, but she was nowhere to be seen, so the trial went ahead without her evidence. As at the initial hearings before the city magistrates, Scriven (now described as a “marine store collector”) and Young were the chief witnesses.

Their evidence was followed by that of Mr Ernest Dyke Bower, house surgeon at the Infirmary, who had attended Elizabeth Brinn on her arrival. The wound was to the right side of her throat and was four to five inches long. The incision was about three quarters of an inch deep and was not a very dangerous wound. She was not unconscious when she was brought in.

In his defence, Hooper said that he was innocent, and that he believed Brinn had done it to herself, in order to get him into trouble. He was, of course, found guilty, but the jury decided that he had not intended to murder Brinn, but rather to inflict grievous bodily harm.

In passing sentence, the judge revealed that Hooper had been convicted in 1866 of cutting a woman’s throat, and had been sentenced to five years’ penal servitude. There were other convictions against him too. He appeared to be a man “of brutal passions who gave way to drink, and then to crime”. He sentenced Hooper to fourteen years’ penal servitude.

More on Joseph Hooper

The Registers of Prisoners admitted to Gloucester Prison,  held at Gloucestershire Archives (and now available on Ancestry.co.uk), are a fascinating source, giving more details on prisoners than appear in newspaper reports. Joseph Hooper was admitted to Gloucester Gaol on remand on 8 April, then as a prisoner awaiting trial at the Assizes on 29 April 1878. He was described as a labourer, who couldn’t read or write, aged 49 years and 10 months. He was five feet and four inches tall, with grey hair and eyes. He had several tattoos. He was a native of Coomb Hill, near Cheltenham, a member of the Church of England, and he was married, but his wife’s whereabouts were unknown. He had been known to Police Superintendent Day for twelve years. He had three previous convictions, including a term of penal servitude. He was transferred to HMP Pentonville on 3 September 1878.

Sources:

Gloucester Journal, 8 April, 15 April, 22 April, 29 April, and 6 Aug 1878.

Illustrated Police News, 11 May 1878.

Gloucester Prison, Registers of Prisoners (Gloucestershire Archives, Q/Gc6/7)

© Jill Evans 2016

“The Horrible Discovery at Gloucester”: New Street, 1883

IPN16June1883

“The Horrible Discovery at Gloucester”, on the front page of the Illustrated Police News, 16 June 1883. (British Newspaper Archive. Image copyright The British Library Board. All Rights Reserved.)

 

 

Charles and Adelaide Reece lived at number 66, New Street, Gloucester. Charles was a foreman at a timber yard, while Adelaide worked as a midwife and nurse. The couple had no children. Adelaide was an experienced midwife who had delivered the children of many of her neighbours.

On 28 May 1883, Adelaide attended Mrs Hancock, who also lived in New Street, when she went into labour. Mrs Hancock had lost a baby in child-birth before, and the midwife was given strict instructions to send for a doctor if there were any problems. The labour was a difficult one and the mother lost consciousness before the baby was delivered. When Mrs Hancock woke up, she asked whether the child was a girl or a boy, and Adelaide replied that it was a boy, but it was dead, and she believed it had been born prematurely.

On the morning after attending Mrs Hancock, Adelaide told several neighbours that she she had called a doctor to help with the delivery, but the baby had been born very prematurely and had died. She said that the doctor had told her to put the body, which was far from full-grown, “down the closet”.

About a week later, one of the neighbours with whom Adelaide Reece had discussed Mrs Hancock’s labour spoke to the doctor who was said to have attended, and he emphatically denied having been summoned to New Street on the night in question. This neighbour confronted the midwife, who became very agitated and insisted that she had done nothing wrong.

The neighbour decided to inform the police about Adelaide’s inconsistent story. When Mr and Mrs Hancock were interviewed, they stated that the body of the infant had remained in the house overnight, then Mrs Reece had taken it away. On her return, she said that she had taken the body to the cemetery, and had paid 2 shillings and 6 pence for its burial. This expense had subsequently been added to her fee for acting as midwife and nurse.

When the police went to number 66, New Street to talk to Adelaide Reece, they found that she was missing. The next day they realised that she had been hiding at a neighbour’s house, but when they went round there, she fled out of the back door and was half way over a fence at the bottom of the garden when Police Constable Howse caught up with her.

PC Howse asked her what had happened to the Hancock infant, and she said that she had buried him in her back garden. She took the constable to her house and pointed out the spot where she had buried him. Howse started to dig and about two feet down, he found the body of a male infant, covered with charcoal and quicklime. There was a noticeably unpleasant smell in the garden, so when Mrs Reece had been taken to the police station, PC Howse returned to New Street and dug over the whole plot. Another seven bodies of infants were found, all in various stages of decomposition.

At an inquest into the death of the Hancock child, it was revealed that a post mortem examination had found that he had been alive and at full term when he was born. There were no marks of violence on the body, but he had died of loss of blood, which could have been caused by violence or mistreatment during the birth. Adelaide Reece was arrested on suspicion of murder. Her husband was arrested too, but the charge against him was later dropped, due to lack of evidence.

Adelaide Reece stood trial for murder at the Gloucester Assizes in August 1883. It had been decided that she would only be charged with the murder of the Hancock child. She pleaded not guilty to the charge. The case created a great sensation with many members of the public trying to get into the viewing gallery at Shire Hall, but no women were allowed in as spectators. The trial was a long and complicated one, with many witnesses called to give evidence. Several of the witnesses, including Mr Hancock, the father of the dead child, stated that Adelaide Reece was a kind and humane woman.

The doctor who had carried out the post mortem on the child, Mr AP Carter, repeated the evidence he had given at the inquest that the infant had died of a haemorrhage, adding that he believed the loss of blood was due to neglect at birth and that the body had been treated in such a way that haemorrhage was almost inevitable. However, when he was cross-examined, he agreed that the treatment of the body might have been accidental, especially in a case where the mother was in a dangerous state and the midwife had lost presence of mind and allowed the child to bleed to death from neglect.

The judge now interposed and said it was time for the prosecution counsel to decide whether it was possible to continue with the charge of murder, or even of manslaughter. The only evidence of death, he said, was through haemorrhage, and there appeared to be no motive for Mrs Reece to have deliberately killed the child or allowed it to die. The prosecution counsel then agreed to drop the murder charge, and a much less serious charge of concealing the birth of a child was substituted.

It was the law according to the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 that the birth of any child, whether it was still-born or died shortly after being born, must be reported to the appropriate authorities. Any person who secretly disposed of the body of a child born in such circumstances, thereby concealing its birth, was guilty of a misdemeanour which could be punished with a maximum sentence of two years in prison. The defence counsel suggested that as there was only a low fence between a field and the garden of number 66, New Street, someone else might have been responsible for burying the bodies of the Hancock child and the others, but inevitably, Adelaide Reece was found guilty of concealing a birth.

Before sentencing her, the judge addressed the prisoner:

“The motives that induced you to conceal the birth of that child and to bury it as you did in your garden are uncertain. That there was some motive, and some very improper motive, no-one can doubt. It is impossible to shut one’s eyes, moreover, to the fact that the bodies of seven other children were found in that garden. Not a word of explanation has been offered by you at any time on that subject. Suggestions have been made, very properly enough, by the counsel in defending you, as to how those bodies may have come there, but as far as you yourself are concerned, from your lips no account has been given as to the way in which those bodies got there. I do not hesitate to say that the case is full of suspicion of a far graver offence than the one of which you have been found guilty by the jury. Several witnesses have spoken as to your character. I can only say that I take very little notice of and attach very little weight to that. It is abundantly clear that you are a very bad woman, and I shall mark my sense of the crime of which you have been convicted by sentencing you to be kept in prison with hard labour for eighteen calendar months.”

Adelaide Reece gave no explanation as to why those small bodies were found in her garden, but it seems very likely that she had buried the Hancock infant herself, then pocketed the money which she had been given to pay for his burial at the cemetery. No doubt she had done this seven times previously, without detection. Her mistake in this case was that she lied about fetching a doctor to help with Mrs Hancock’s labour, and was found out.

Despite the opinion of the judge that Adelaide was a very bad woman, her neighbours in New Street do not appear to have agreed with him. She went back to live with Charles at number 66, New Street after she came out of prison, and she even continued to get work as a midwife. In 1894, she had to give evidence at an inquest on a new-born infant she had delivered. She had arranged for the disposal of the body, and there was some question as to whether she had reported the birth and death correctly, but she was cleared of any suspicion of wrong-doing. Adelaide died on 5 March 1902, aged 61, at her home, in New Street.

 

Sources:

Illustrated Police News, 16 June 1883.

The Citizen, 4 June, 22 June, 8 Aug, 9 Aug 1883, 8 March 1902.

Census returns for New Street, Gloucester: 1871, 1881, 1891 and 1901.

© Jill Evans 2016

 

 

Poison in the Pepper Box: The Aftermath of the Tarring Case

Advert for rat poison, in Royal Society of Health Journal, 1814 (Uploaded from Flickr Commons)

Advert for rat poison, in Royal Society of Health Journal, 1814 (Uploaded from Flickr Commons)

In my last post, “A Tarring and Turfing in the Forest of Dean, 1877“, I related the tale of a grocer in Lydbrook who had tar poured over him by three women, who were all fined and ordered to pay costs and damages. One of the women, Sabrina Cole, was sent to Gloucester Prison, because her husband, George Cole, did not pay up. She did not spend long in the gaol because her sister paid her fine, but two weeks later she was back in court, accused of trying to murder her husband by poisoning him.

On 29 August, The Citizen reported that Sabrina Cole had appeared at Coleford Police Station, having been arrested in Woolwich, on a charge of attempting to murder her husband, George Cole, by administering poison. The case was heard in full at Littledean Police Court on Monday, 10 September. The Citizen reminded readers that Sabrina Cole was one of the three “nymphs of the Forest” who had tarred the grocer. Her husband had refused to pay her fine and she had been “marched off to prison at Gloucester.” It was alleged that in retaliation she mixed vermin powder with pepper and put it in his sandwiches.

George Cole was supposed to have given evidence against Sabrina a week earlier, but  he had failed to turn up in court, so the hearing was postponed while he was issued with a warrant to attend. Cole still did not  arrive at the start of the proceedings, so two policemen were sent to find him and eventually he was escorted to the courtroom. On his arrival, Cole said he no longer wanted to give evidence against his wife, but when he was threatened with being charged with perjury, he went ahead.

Cole stated that a week after the tarring incident, he had got up to go to work at the Trafalgar Colliery, and watched Sabrina make him a beef sandwich for his lunch. He saw her sprinkle some seasoning from the pepper box onto the meat. Shortly after eating his lunch at work, he started to feel numbness in his hands and shoulders, and he felt sleepy. On going home, he found his wife had gone and the house was locked up. He had to climb in through a window. After realising that Sabrina had apparently gone away, he took a train to Gloucester, where he asked at the ticket office about her and discovered that she had bought a ticket for Paddington, London. He then went to Gloucester Police Station and spoke to Deputy Chief Constable Chipp. He informed Chipp that Mrs Cole had taken some of his property with her, and also said something about her ordering their little boy to steal something from a shop stall. He was still feeling unwell, but he didn’t say anything about it to Mr Chipp.

After leaving the police station, Cole said he went to a public house and had a pint of beer. Soon afterwards, he started to feel very ill indeed, with pain in his stomach and bowels. He went to another bar and ordered a gin and peppermint, but this failed to ease his discomfort. He wondered whether he might have been poisoned. Two girls in the bar (one called Annie, who he knew, the other a “short, fat, ugly one”, who was a stranger to him) took him to a doctor’s surgery. The doctor gave him a draught, which helped temporarily, but by the time he got the train home, he was feeling terrible. He got off the train at Newnham, and spent the night at the King’s Arms, but couldn’t lie down to sleep.

When he returned to his house in Lydbrook, he looked in the pepper box, because some money had been kept in it, which he found was gone. He noticed some blue grains in amongst the pepper and showed it to a neighbour, who said, “Oh God! That is poison in there.” He then took the pepper box to the police station and asked P.C. French to issue a warrant for his wife’s arrest.

When George Cole was cross-examined by the counsel for the defence, it transpired that once Sabrina had been apprehended at Woolwich and brought back to the Forest of Dean, he had applied for his wife to be released on bail, saying the poisoning may have been an accident. He had also written to Sabrina, asking that they might make it up and live together again.

At this point, the hearing was postponed for another week.

At the next hearing, the County Analyst gave evidence of examining the contents of the pepper box. He found that a small quantity of strychnine, in the form of a few grains of rodent poison, was mixed amongst the pepper.

Mr Albert Pleydell Carter, the doctor who had seen George Cole at his Gloucester surgery, said he was sure Cole was tipsy when he was brought in by a prostitute. The doctor believed Cole had drunk some bad beer, and this had caused his discomfort.  Cole’s symptoms did not match those of strychnine poisoning, because he had been doubled up in pain, whereas someone who had taken strychnine would have muscle spasms and his back would be arching. Also, numbness of limbs and drowsiness were not signs of strychnine poisoning.

When P.C. French was questioned about Sabrina Cole’s arrest, he said that he had found out where she was because she had written a letter to him, giving her address. She had asked a friend to send on some clothes to her, but she hadn’t received them, and her letters had not been answered, so she wanted P.C. French to go and speak to the woman. She also said that she had found a good position in London and would not be returning to Lydbrook. When she was apprehended in Woolwich, Mrs Cole had looked very surprised on reading the warrant, and said she knew nothing about it. The police had been around various chemists in the area, including one at Ross-on-Wye which Sabrina sometimes visited, but there was no record of her buying rodent poison at any of them.

George Cole was cross-examined again. He stated that he had been alone in the house with the pepper box for about ten minutes, before he showed its contents to anyone else. He denied putting the poison into the box himself.

Questioned as to his conduct towards his wife, he said he had gone to Gloucester to fetch Sabrina when she was released from gaol, but denied that he had threatened her during their journey home, although at Ross-on-Wye he had warned her that if he caught her carrying on with other men, he would “warm her noddle.” It was true that he sometimes kept a hatchet under his bed, but this was because it cost 12 shillings and he needed it for his work. He hadn’t threatened her with it, and indeed he could do her more damage with his fists than with that. Asked about a former incident, he said that he had been “in drink” when he “used the poker to her”.

This last exchange led me to do a search further back in the newspapers for any former cases involving George and Sabrina Cole. The poker incident referred to was reported in the Gloucester Journal on 27 December 1873. George Cole had married Sabrina Davies in September 1872. Due to his violence towards her, Sabrina had left George several times, and in September 1873 she went to live with her mother at Longney. George followed her and begged her to come home. When she repeatedly refused, he hit her with a poker, which he had warmed in the fire first. George ran away and the police were called. He was arrested in a brothel in Gloucester. Sabrina was in hospital for weeks. George was tried in December  1873 and sentenced to 18 months hard labour, the judge describing him as a “merciless ruffian”. Other cases of a less serious nature took place in the years following.

After discussing all the evidence, the Littledean Bench dismissed the case. Sabrina Cole’s defence lawyer applied for George Cole to be made to enter into sureties for his good behaviour towards his wife, otherwise there might be “very serious consequences”. Mrs Cole was questioned by the magistrates. She said she was in bodily fear of her husband and she would not return to their home. Cole said he would leave the district to “relieve his wife”. He was called on to enter into sureties, then left the court.

So, what do I think really happened? George Cole was a violent and controlling man, and his wife had left him many times, but he had always persuaded her to go back to him. This time, he found that she had gone to London, so he went to the police in Gloucester and accused her of stealing his property and of forcing their son to commit a crime, in the hope that a warrant would be issued for her arrest. This didn’t happen and while he was in a bar, he drank some bad beer, which gave him a stomach ache. Sometime between then and his return to Lydbrook, he decided to accuse his wife of trying to poison him, in the hope that the police would find her and bring her home. Alone in his house, he found some rodent poison and put some in the pepper box, then showed it to his neighbours and the police. When Sabrina was arrested in London and brought back to the Forest of Dean, he tried to get the case dropped by refusing to give evidence against her, but he was forced to go ahead. Fortunately for Sabrina Cole, George didn’t know exactly what type of poison was in the vermin killer, and his symptoms did not match those of someone who had taken strychnine.

I don’t know whether Sabrina managed to get away from her husband for good, but George was still living in Lydbrook nine months later. In June 1878, he was charged at the Gloucestershire Quarter Sessions with uttering counterfeit coinage. He was sent to Gloucester Prison for twelve months, with hard labour.

Sources:

All from the British Newspaper Archive:

The Citizen, 29 Aug and 18 Sep 1877; Gloucester Journal, 27 Dec 1873, 6, 15 and 22 Sep 1877; Gloucestershire Chronicle, 22 Sep 1877; Western Mail, 12 Sep 1877

© Jill Evans 2015

A Tarring and Turfing in the Forest of Dean, 1877

"Tarring a Grocer at Lydbrook", from the Illustrated Police News, 1 Sept 1877. (From the British Newspaper Archive. Image copyright The British Library Board. All Rights Reserved.)

“Tarring a Grocer at Lydbrook”, from the Illustrated Police News, 1 Sept 1877. (From the British Newspaper Archive. Image copyright The British Library Board. All Rights Reserved.)

One Monday morning in August 1877, the atmosphere at Littledean Police Court was lightened considerably by the appearance of two “respectable-looking” married women, Sabrina Cole and Susan Phelps, who were accused of assaulting a Lydbrook grocer by pouring tar over him, then pelting him with clods of turf. Another woman, Maria Phelps, was also charged, but did not appear in court. The case was, according to The Citizen newspaper, “of a most amusing character”.

The complainant, James Cook, worked for the Lydbrook Store Company, and would go  round houses to take orders and collect money for goods which had been bought on account. He had become unpopular with the local housewives through persuading them to buy groceries on credit, then demanding payment soon after the goods had been received.

On 23 July, Cook had gone out on his rounds as usual, and while he was inside the house of his second customer, he heard two of the defendants calling in a hostile manner for him to come out. He went to the gate and persuaded them to go away, but while he was visiting his next customer, an invalid who was lying in bed in a downstairs room, the three accused women came inside and caught hold of him. As they tried to drag Cook outside, he clung onto the bedpost, much to the consternation of the poor lady in the bed.  The description of this scene caused outbursts of laughter in the courtroom.

After a struggle, the women got Cook outside, where he was met by a small crowd, one of whom was a boy holding a kettle containing cold tar. One of the Phelps women dipped a brush into the tar and gave Cook a good coating. The other Mrs Phelps then poured the remaining contents of the kettle over his head. To finish, a tar-covered rag was tied round his neck. As he left the scene as quickly as he was able, the women and some boys pelted him with turfs and – according to Cook – with stones.

Sabrina Cole, who had helped to drag the grocer outside, but hadn’t taken part in the tarring, was fined five shillings and costs, while the two Phelps women each had to pay ten shillings and costs. The court also awarded Cook damages of 30 shillings for his ruined clothes, the payment of which was to be shared between the three defendants.

The newspaper reports on the case ended with the women being led away, protesting at their treatment, while their husbands stepped forward to pay their fines. However, it transpired later that one of the men, George Cole, refused to pay, and as a consequence, his wife was sent to Gloucester prison. A few weeks later, Sabrina Cole found herself in court again, this time on a charge of attempting to poison her husband.  This part of the story is told in my next post, Poison in the Pepper Box.

Sources:

The Citizen, 15 August 1877, Gloucester Journal, 18 August 1877, Illustrated Police News, 1 September 1877 (all via the British Newspaper Archive website).

© Jill Evans 2015

Run to the Hills (with Police in Hot Pursuit): Gloucester, 1913

Birdliphill

Birdlip Hill. (Copyright of Andy Dolman and licensed for reuse Under Creative Commons Licence, via http://www.geograph.org.uk)

On Saturday, 13 September 1913, the Gloucester Journal reported on an exciting chase following a prisoner’s escape from custody at Gloucester Police Station. Alfred Llewellyn had been arrested on the previous Wednesday, on suspicion of obtaining money by false pretences. He was held in police cells overnight, then the following morning was allowed out into the corridor to exercise. His guard left him alone for a brief time and when he returned, found that his prisoner was missing. Llewellyn had apparently got out through a door with a faulty lock onto the parade ground, then had gone through a shed on to Severn Road and into the docks.

A search for the escaped prisoner ensued and his description was circulated. Somebody saw him without his coat or hat, and later he was sighted wearing a new cap and a dungaree jacket, of the type worn by sailors. Llewellyn was traced through Tredworth Road along by the cemetery, back over the Horton Road Railway to Wotton Hill, but then the trail ran cold. It later transpired that this was because he had boarded a tramcar, alighting at the Hucclecote terminus. From there he proceeded through Brockworth, then made his way up Birdlip Hill.

The police had begun the pursuit on their bicycles, but had to discard them once the prisoner moved into open countryside, avoiding roads or tracks. However, a Gloucester man was assisting in the hunt by searching for the missing man on his motorbike. He encountered Llewellyn at the top of Birdlip Hill. A tussle ensued, from which the escapee emerged triumphant, and he made off once again.

A large force of police by now had arrived in the vicinity of Birdlip, accompanied by many members of the public, who were no doubt encouraged by the offer of a one pound reward for capturing the prisoner. Llewellyn was followed through some wooded land down to the bottom of Birdlip Hill. From there, he made his way across country towards Crickley Hill and then to Shurdington Hill, where he walked into a farmyard. The farmer recognised the prisoner from his description, but did not challenge him. Instead, he invited him to join him in a game of draughts, while a message was sent to nearby Bentham, and a policeman made his way to the farm. When PC Bull arrived, he found that Llewellyn had gone, having become suspicious. Bull searched the vicinity and found his quarry in one of the farm’s fields. He arrested Llewellyn, who at 11.30pm was escorted back to Gloucester.

The Gloucester Journal reported that a story had come out that while Llewellyn was passing through Brockworth, there had been a collision between two motor vehicles outside the Cross Hands Inn. He had helped to take one of the cars to the village blacksmith to be repaired, before going into the inn. While he was there, a police constable came in to ask if anyone had seen the missing man, giving a description of him. Nobody in the bar could remember seeing the man, but after the policeman had left, it was noticed that Llewellyn did fit the description, so he quickly left.

It was stated that the money Llewellyn used to buy his new cap and coat (and presumably his tram ticket) had been concealed under a bandage he had round a cut on his arm. It was also rumoured that shortly after his escape, the prisoner had gone into a public house on Bristol Road, where a police constable challenged him as answering the description of the wanted man. Llewellyn said that he lived just across the road and suggested the policeman go over there and ask, if he was suspicious. The constable did so and of course found that the story was false, but on his return to the pub, the suspect was gone.

Alfred Llewellyn, of no fixed abode, but from the Cardiff area, appeared at Gloucester City Police Court on the morning after his recapture. He was charged with obtaining five pounds by false pretences on September 10th, from George Long of the Robinhood Inn, Bristol Road. There was a second charge of obtaining ten shillings by false pretences from George MacIntyre Wright of the White Swan Inn. In the first case, Llewellyn had spun a yarn about knowing Long’s recently deceased father, and leaving an envelope supposedly containing his engineering certificates, worth £50, he said, as security for borrowing five pounds. The landlord became suspicious after Llewellyn left, and finding he had been duped, contacted the police. Llewellyn had been arrested at the GWR Station, where he had boarded a train bound for Cheltenham.  He was committed for trial at the next Assizes, but caused much amusement in court by saying that he might not appear.

The Autumn Assizes took place at the end of October 1913. Alfred Llewellyn had not managed to escape during his wait in gaol, and at his trial he pleaded guilty to the two charges against him. Deputy Chief Constable Harrison told the court that having made inquiries about the prisoner, who was 28 years old and described as an engineer, he had found that he was “a worthless man”. The judge said that there was a list of twelve previous offences against him, the last at Cardiff in April 1911. He had been sentenced to three years’ penal servitude on that occasion, and had only just been released from prison on parole when he had committed the offences in Gloucester. Llewellyn was sentenced to nine months in gaol, with hard labour. No mention was made of his escape from custody in September.

Llewellyn’s latest stint in prison did not bring his criminal career to an end. The Birmingham Mail of 9 April 1915 reported that at the Carmarthen Quarter Sessions, one Alfred Llewellyn, a native of Cardiff, had appeared in a bogus naval uniform, and was sentenced to 18 months’ penal servitude with hard labour for obtaining goods and money by false pretences at Llanelli. He had headed the Sunday Church Parade of the 2nd Fourth Welsh there, but the next day his bogus uniform had been detected and he was arrested.

On 5 October 1923, the Yorkshire Post noted that there had been only one prisoner for trial at the Rotherham Quarter Sessions, held on the previous day. Alfred Llewellyn, aged 39, an engineer, pleaded guilty to three charges of obtaining food and money by false pretences. “A remarkable story of the prisoner’s career” was told in court, and he was said to have committed similar offences at places including Weymouth, Cardiff, London, Hull, Bournemouth, Southport, Matlock and Sheffield. Between January 1906 and January 1916 he had spent a total of eight years in prison. Later he had joined the army and in 1919 was serving in Egypt when he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for desertion and false pretences. He was finally discharged from the army for misconduct on 14 August 1923.

Perhaps exhausted from his criminal adventures, Llewellyn asked the judge to give him a sentence of three years’ penal servitude plus five year’s penal detention. The judge replied that by law he couldn’t give him such a long sentence for the crimes he was charged with, and instead he got three years’ penal servitude. There is no record of him trying to escape.

Sources:

Newspapers all on the British Newspaper Archive:

Gloucester Journal, 13  and 20 Sept 1913, 1 Nov 1913

Birmingham Mail, 9 Apr 1915

Yorkshire Post, 5 Oct 1923

The photograph of Birdlip Hill came from www.geograph.org.uk.

© Jill Evans 2015