Murder on the River Severn, 1818

On 3 November 1818, three men set off from Woolaston  together in a boat, making their way down the River Severn to Bristol. The three were William Burton and William Syms, and the owner of the boat, named Hurd. After transacting some business in Bristol for a few days, the men had intended to go  home, but the weather was bad, so they spent a night at a public house in Pill.  Syms had plenty of money to buy drinks, and was seen to put three five pound notes in his left breeches pocket. Burton was broke, but managed to down eleven pints of beer.

On the following morning, Hurd decided to stay behind to carry out some more business,  and Burton and Syms set off for home. They were seen in the boat together, leaving Pill, but only Burton arrived back at Woolaston. When Burton was questioned about the whereabouts of Syms, he gave contradictory answers, first saying that he had stayed behind at Pill, then that he had asked to be dropped off at Eastern Point, and had spoken about going to America. It was noticed that Burton, an ex-sailor who was always short of money, now had plenty to spend.

About a fortnight after Burton came home alone, the body of William Syms was found floating in the river, about twenty miles up stream from Woolaston. His skull was fractured and the left pocket of his breeches was turned inside out. Burton was taken into custody and questioned. He said a sailor he knew in Bristol had lent him £8, but it was proved that he had come home with far more money than that. Burton was committed to Gloucester Gaol on 22 November, to await trial. William Syms was buried in the parish church at Alvington, near Woolaston, on 1 December 1818. He was twenty-four years old.

 

geograph-154422-by-Stuart-Wilding

St Andrew’s Parish church, Alvington. Burial place of William Syms. (www.geograph.org.uk. Copyright Stuart Wilding, 2006. Licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.)

The trial of William Burton took place on 6 April 1819, at the Gloucestershire Assizes. The prosecution called twenty-three witnesses to give evidence; the defence called none, but cross-examined all of the prosecution witnesses. Despite this, the jury took only five minutes to find Burton guilty of the murder of William Syms. The judge sentenced him to be hanged, after which his body was to be delivered for dissection.

In the condemned cell at Gloucester Prison, William Burton persisted in claiming his innocence. On the morning of his execution, which took place on 8 April, two days after his trial, he barricaded himself inside his cell and the prison officials had to break through the wall of the neighbouring cell to get him out. He was hanged on the roof of the prison gatehouse.

Sources

Hanged at Gloucester by Jill Evans (The History Press, 2011).

Original information from the Gloucester Journal.

Photograph: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/154422

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Poisoner Gibbeted at Cheltenham, 1777

'Two Gentlemen Regarding the Gibbets with Satisfaction', from The Newgate Calendar. (www.exclassics.com)

‘Two Gentlemen Regarding the Gibbets with Satisfaction’, from The Newgate Calendar. (www.exclassics.com)

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”.

Transcription of the Monument to Katherine A'Court, in St Mary's Parish, Church, Cheltenham, reproduced in Goding's "Norman's History of Cheltenham".

Transcription of the Monument to Katherine A’Court, in St Mary’s Parish Church, Cheltenham, reproduced in Goding’s “Norman’s History of Cheltenham”, 1863.

 

Sources:

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)

cheltonia.wordpress.com/old-names

R. Bigland, Historical, Monumental and Genealogical Collections, Relative to the County of Gloucester, part 1, ed.  Brain Frith (Bristol and Gloucestershire  Archaeological Society, 1989)

 

Pubs and Crime in Gloucestershire, 1825-1919

When I was researching Gloucester Murder & Crime, it was noticeable how many times public houses and inns played a part in the stories I was working on. I suppose it is not all that surprising, as consumption of too much alcohol no doubt led to violence in the past as much as it does in modern times. Looking again at my first book, Hanged at Gloucester, I found that there were a number of cases where Gloucestershire pubs featured prominently.  I thought it would be interesting to give an outline of those establishments which played a role in Gloucestershire’s crime history.

In Gloucester:

The Barley Mow in Southgate Street was the scene of a fatal stabbing in 1873. An altercation at closing time between a ship’s carpenter from Gdansk named Otto Moritz and a group of French sailors led to the stabbing of two of the Frenchmen. One of those injured was later found dead. Moritz was tried at the Gloucester Assizes in April 1873, and was found guilty of manslaughter. He was sentenced to ten year’s imprisonment, which he served at Pentonville Prison in London.

In 1875, the Fleece Inn  in Westgate Street was frequented by a well-known hard-man called George Clements. He was a chimney sweep by trade, but also sub-let his house in Union Street to two prostitutes. He was sweet on one of the girls, named Lilly Cooke, and after seeing her at the Fleece Inn drinking with another man in December 1875, he followed her back to the house and stabbed her. Lilly spent several weeks in the infirmary, but she survived. Clements was tried at the Assizes in April 1876. The jury returned a verdict of guilty of wounding with intent to murder. He was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment at Pentonville.

In 1903, William Mould was the landlord of the Duke of Wellington public house in Tredworth Road. His wife, Agnes, had spent some time that year in Gloucester’s Lunatic Asylum, after her new-born child died. Agnes believed that she had killed the child, but an inquest (held at the Lower George, Westgate Street) found that the death was an accident. Agnes was released from the asylum in December, and on Christmas Eve she told her family that she had killed a little boy by pushing him into the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal. A body was found a few days later. In January 1904, Agnes Mould was committed to the Lunatic Asylum once more, without standing trial.

The former Park End Hotel, now converted into apartments (Jill Evans, 2013)

The former Park End Hotel, now converted into apartments (Jill Evans, 2013)

The  Park End Hotel, on the corner of Park End Road and New Street, was visited on the night of 13 September 1919 by a married couple, Matthew and Elizabeth Rodgers, who lived in New Street, and their neighbours, Ernest and Maria Barnes. Mr and Mrs Rodgers had a troubled marriage, largely due to Matthew’s philandering, and the pair had argued that afternoon. After leaving the bar at closing time, Mr and Mrs Barnes were invited to go into the Rodgers’ house to listen to the gramophone. While they were all sitting together in the parlour, Elizabeth Rodgers went behind her husband’s chair and cut his throat with a razor. She stood trial in October 1919 and pleaded not guilty to murdering her husband, on the grounds that she had not planned to commit the crime and had been under great provocation. The jury found her guilty of manslaughter and she was sentenced to fives years’ penal servitude.

In Gloucestershire:

The Tennis Court Inn in Warmley, near Bristol, was the local haunt of some of the notorious Cock Road Gang. One night in November 1824, seven members of the gang, including Mark Whiting and James Caines, were drinking in the Tennis Court Inn when Issac Gorden came in. Gorden had words with James Caines, who threatened to knock his brains out. Not long after closing time, Gorden’s body was found, about 70 yards from the inn. He had suffered a heavy blow to the head and had a stab wound. It was later discovered that he had been hit with a heavy wooden post, used as a clothes prop, which had been taken from the garden of The Tennis Court Inn. Six men were tried for murder at the Gloucester Assizes in April 1825. All were acquitted except Mark Whiting and James Caines, who were hanged.

The Trouble House Inn on the outskirts of Tetbury already had an association with highwaymen and other law-breakers when brothers Matthew and Henry Pinnell called into the bar one afternoon in December 1828. While they were drinking, they saw a farmer, James Kearsey, going down the road on his way to Tetbury market, and Matthew remarked that it would be no sin to take a little from these great farmers. As Kearsey made his way home from the market, he was jumped on by two assailants, who hit him with a stick and robbed him. The Pinnell brothers were soon identified and were tracked down in Salisbury. They were tried in Gloucester in April 1829 and sentenced to death for highway robbery.

The Trouble House Inn, Tetbury (via geograph.org.uk. Image copyright Mick Lobb and licensed for re-use under Creative Commons Attribution- Share Alike 2.0 licence.)

The Trouble House Inn, Tetbury (via geograph.org.uk. Image copyright Mick Lobb and licensed for re-use under Creative Commons Attribution- Share Alike 2.0 licence.)

In September 1836, the body of a woman was found in a lane in Stapleton. She was taken into a nearby inn, the Mason’s Arms, and was recognised by staff as having been in the bar with a younger man shortly before. The next day, a strolling player named Charles Samuel Bartlett came into to the inn and identified the body as being that of his mother-in-law, Mary Lewis. He was recognised as being the young man who had been in the bar with the woman on the day she died. He was arrested and was tried at Gloucester Assizes in April 1837. Mary Lewis had been shot by Bartlett, who had persuaded her to walk with him from Bristol to Winterbourne on some pretext. They had taken a break at Stapleton, where Bartlett took the opportunity to shoot her, but made the grave error of returning to the Mason’s Arms to identify his victim. He was hanged on 15 April 1837.

In the early 1870s, The Early Dawn public house in High Street, Cheltenham was run by Peter and Sarah Gardner. Their eighteen-year-old daughter Emily helped out in the bar. She was being courted by a young man named Frederick Jones, who was very jealous of what he saw as Emily’s friendliness towards other men. On the night of 10 December 1871, Jones and Emily accompanied Emily’s sister back to her lodgings, then set off back to the Early Dawn, but Emily never arrived home. A search party found her dead in a lane, in a pool of blood, with her throat slashed several times. Jones was tried at the Winter Assizes in Gloucester and hanged in January 1872.

All of these stories can be read in greater detail in my books, Hanged at Gloucester (2011) and Gloucester Murder & Crime (2013), both published by The History Press.

 

The Bull Lane Murder (Gloucester, 1741): Historical fact or fiction?

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”.

Sources:

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)

Websites:

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the Forest of Dean to Newgate: William Probert, hanged 1825.

“An Execution at the Debtor’s Door of Newgate”, from The Newgate Calendar (www.exclassics.com/newgate/ngintro.htm.)

On 7 April 1825, William Probert stood trial at the Old Bailey, charged with stealing a mare from Ruardean, in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire. Probert was a native of the Forest of Dean, and although he had moved away to London years ago, for a couple of months he had been staying with his mother in Lydbrook. The mare was the property of Andrew Meredith, a miller, whose wife was a distant relation of Probert.

Meredith discovered that his horse was missing on the morning of 11th February, and several witnesses said they had seen William Probert riding it in the early hours of that day. The mare was eventually traced to London, where it had just been sold by Probert. The evidence against him was damning, and he was duly sentenced to death.

This looked like just another sorry story of a horse thief being caught and condemned, but there was an unusual amount of interest from the British press in the case, and the statement William Probert read out in his defence gives a clue as to why this was. He said that since “the calamitous event which occurred at Hertford”, public animosity towards him had been kept alive by the press and had reached “every part of England”. He couldn’t find work and every door had been shut against him. He had been driven to commit the crime by “fatal necessity”.

Further investigation revealed that William Probert had become very famous indeed two years earlier, due to his involvement in a murder case in Hertfordshire.

William Probert was baptised at English Bicknor Parish Church in April 1787, the son of Thomas and Jane Probert. Although his family were farmers, Probert decided on a different career path, and obtained a position as a clerk to a wine merchant in London. He did well in the capital and his prospects improved greatly when in December 1813, he married Elizabeth Noyes, the daughter of a brewer and farmer. His bride brought him money and property, and he was able to set himself up in business as a wine merchant. He did well for the first few years, but by 1818 he was getting into financial difficulties, and in 1819 he was declared bankrupt, owing £22,000.

Probert was put into the King’s Bench Prison, where he maintained a comfortable lifestyle, despite all the money he owed to his many creditors. However, he was caught stealing cash from the till of the coffee-room in the prison and was sentenced to six months imprisonment in Brixton House of Correction.

On his release, Probert carried on his extravagant way of life, despite being an uncertified bankrupt. He rented a property in Gill-Hill’s Lane, near Elstree in Hertfordshire. His wife, son and other family members stayed at the cottage most of the time, with Probert joining them at weekends, often accompanied by his some of his friends, who liked to gamble, drink copiously, and go shooting.

One Friday evening in October 1823, two such friends, John Thurtell and Joseph Hunt, arranged to go to Gill’s Hill Cottage for the weekend. Thurtell suggested that Probert should drive Hunt there, while he would bring another friend with him separately. What happened that weekend is a long and complicated story, with all the protagonists giving a slightly different version of what occurred, but what is clear is that on the way to Probert’s cottage, John Thurtell murdered his travelling companion, leaving the body lying behind a hedge not far from Gill’s Hill Lane. The murdered man was brought to the cottage and deposited in the fishpond in the garden for the weekend. On the following Monday, the body was removed from the fishpond, placed in a sack, and driven away, to be disposed off elsewhere.

The fact that a murder had been committed was  soon discovered, when a gore-encrusted pistol and pen-knife were found near the place where the crime had taken place. Thurtell and Hunt were identified as having been in the area that weekend, and both were taken into custody in London by a Bow Street officer.  Probert  was arrested later, at Gill’s Hill Cottage. Hunt swiftly confessed to his part in the crime and named the victim as William Weare, a professional gambler who had supposedly swindled Thurtell out of £300.  Hunt took the police to a pond just outside Elstree, where the body of William Weare was recovered.

At the Coroner’s Inquest which followed, Probert swore that he had not known Weare, that he had known nothing about Thurtell’s plan to commit murder, and was horrified when he found out what had happened. He admitted to helping to  hide the body, but said Thurtell had threatened to harm him if he did not. There was some doubt as to how much he had been involved, however. The inquest jury returned a verdict of murder against Thurtell, while Hunt and Probert were charged with being accessories to murder. All of them were committed to Hertford Gaol to await trial.

The story caused a great furore in the British Press and some very scandalous stories began to appear. It was said that Thurtell, Hunt and Probert were part of a gang of con-men who cheated at gambling. Then some newspapers declared that the three had been responsible for the murders of various wealthy men who had gone missing, and that they had a list of people they were planning to kill in the future.

“Portrait and Autograph of William Probert”, in Sussex Advertiser, 17 Nov 1823. (British Newspaper Archive. Image copyright of The British Library Board. All rights reserved.)

In December 1823, the trial of Thurtell, Hunt and Probert began, at the Hertford Assizes. It was at this time that Probert received a stroke of good fortune. The prosecution team wanted to call Probert’s wife as a key witness to the events at Gill’s Hill Cottage, but she could not by law give evidence against her husband. It was therefore decided that Probert should be allowed to turn King’s Evidence, which meant he was not prosecuted himself, in return for giving evidence against his two friends.

The trial did not proceed very far, as on the second day, the defence complained that  there had been so much adverse publicity in the press, including some reports after the trial had begun, that there was no chance that the defendants would receive a fair trial, so the judge agreed to hold a special Assize in January.

The trial began again on 6 January 1824, and lasted two days. Probert gave his evidence against his former friends, and the jury found Thurtell guilty of murder, while Hunt was found guilty as an Accessory before the Fact. The judge sentenced Thurtell to be hanged on Friday, 9th January, and his body to be afterwards dissected. Hunt also was to be hanged and dissected, but no date for his execution was given. He was reprieved a few weeks later and sentence to transportation for life.

After the trial, Probert was set at liberty, but fearing that he might be confronted by one of Thurtell’s friends in town, he asked to spend the night in his cell. On the following day, he collected his wife from the inn where she had been staying during the trial, and they left Hertford, with the blinds pulled down on their carriage.

Rumours concerning Probert continued to appear in the newspapers. Despite his technical acquittal, he was widely regarded as having been more involved in the murder plot than he had admitted. Finding no former friends who would take him in or help him financially, Probert finally resorted to returning to live with his mother and her second husband, Francis James, in the Forest of Dean. Even in his former home, he found that most people shunned him. He visited his distant relation, Mary Meredith, a few times, but Andrew Meredith did not welcome his company. It was under these circumstances that he decided to steal Meredith’s horse.

William Probert was executed on 20 June 1825, alongside four other prisoners, outside the debtors’ door of Newgate Prison. He denied having known about the plot to murder William Weare to the very end. He was buried in St Martin’s churchyard. A report in the Hereford Journal said there was a delay in burying him once the small funeral party arrived at the church, because the grave had been prepared in the wrong place and another had to be dug. During the delay, a disorderly mob gathered and called out inappropriate remarks during the service. (Other newspapers made no mention of this “mob”.) None of Probert’s relatives attended at the graveside, but it was said that his mother was seen in the churchyard.

Sources:

The trial of William Probert, 7 Apr 1825, can be viewed here: http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18250407-1-defend87&div=t18250407-1#highlight

Numerous newspaper sources, including:

Morning Post, 5 Nov 1823; 5, 6, 8 Dec 1823; 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 19, 27, 28, 30 Jan 1824, 21 Feb 1825

Morning Chronicle, 10 Nov 1823, 4 Dec 1823; 9 and 31 Jan 1824

Public Ledger and Advertiser, 7 July 1819, 31 Oct 1823

Bristol Mirror, 8 Nov 1823

Hereford Journal, 29 June 1825

Family history details from the Parish Register Records of the Forest of Dean Family History Trust website, www.forest-of-dean.net.

The last woman in England hanged for arson: Charlotte Long of North Nibley, 1833

Hay-making, from Birket Foster's 'Pictures of English Landscape', 1863 (Internet Archive Book Image)

Hay-making, from Birket Foster’s ‘Pictures of English Landscape’, 1863 (Internet Archive Book Image)

On the night of 25 July 1833, the hay-ricks of three farmers in North Nibley were set on fire. Each blaze was quickly extinguished and no great damage was done, but it was suspected that an arsonist had been at work, and the culprit was soon detected.

Charlotte Long was a native of North Nibley, born Charlotte Bendall in 1799. In March 1819, she married John Long, and the couple had two children. In August 1829, John Long got into trouble with the law and was tried at the Summer Assizes in Gloucester, charged with stealing bacon. He was found guilty and sentenced to seven years’ transportation. Charlotte remained in North Nibley with her children, until in April 1833, it came to the attention of the parish authorities that she was pregnant. As the child was clearly not her husband’s, it was thought likely that she would become a burden on the parish rates when the child was born, so she was questioned as to her place of legal settlement, and it was decided that this was Alkington, near Berkeley. (I have been unable to find out why Alkington was chosen. It may have been the birth place of John Long, or he and Charlotte may have lived there for a while.) A magistrate ordered that she should be removed to Alkington, and she was sent on her way, escorted by North Nibley’s parish officer, Henry Excell. By July of the same year, she had returned to North Nibley, now with an infant son.

Soon after the arson incident, a woman called Betsey Burford stated that it was Charlotte Long who was the culprit. Henry Excell subsequently went to Charlotte’s home with a warrant to arrest her, on charges of setting fire to hay-ricks belonging to Jesse Organ, Thomas Gilman and James Nicholls. When Excell told her that Betsey Burford had sworn that Charlotte was responsible for causing the fires, she replied, “Betsey Burford has dug a ditch for me, and I shall fall into it”. She protested that Burford had put her up to committing the crime.

On 9 August, Charlotte Long was committed to Gloucester Gaol. She took her breast-feeding infant into the prison with her. Betsey Burford had also been committed to gaol, charged with  having “procured, counselled, commanded and abetted” Charlotte Long to commit arson. The assizes were already underway at Gloucester, and Charlotte’s trial took place the next day, before judge Baron Gurney. Betsey Burford was not tried alongside her, however, because she had “turned King’s Evidence”, meaning she had agreed to give evidence against Charlotte in return for not being prosecuted.

In court, Charlotte appeared in the dock with her baby in her arms, but as he began to cry, she handed him over to her sister. Burford said that Charlotte Long had told her that she was going to set fire to the hay-ricks of Henry Excell, in revenge for him removing her to Alkington. She had gone to Excell’s field, but then the thought struck her, “that if she set his ricks on fire, she should be found out, because she said to him when he removed her, that she would serve him out when she came back, and if he bit her finger she would bite his thumb.” So, she had decided to set fire to the ricks of a few other people first. Henry Excell was then called and said that when he took Charlotte to Alkington, she had made no threats in his hearing.

Because Charlotte Long had admitted to setting fire to the hay-ricks, the jury had to find her guilty, but after delivering their verdict, the foreman of the jury added, “We beg leave most strongly to recommend the prisoner to mercy, because we think she must have been set on as a tool of some other person”. Two of the victims of her crime also asked the judge to show mercy, but Baron Gurney replied, “I am sorry that I cannot attend to these recommendations. I have considered the matter very much. There were three ricks fired all on the same night. The prisoner is not a young girl, and I find that her husband has been transported.”

Unfortunately for Charlotte Long, setting fire to hay-ricks had been made a capital offence under the Black Act of 1723. In more recent times, agricultural riots had made landowners fearful for their property and the courts were determined to treat incidents of criminal damage severely. At this assizes, another arsonist, Thomas Gaskins of Deerhurst, had also been found guilty, and he was brought up to stand beside Charlotte in the dock as both were sentenced. If Charlotte hadn’t had her character tainted (in the judge’s eyes), firstly by being married to a criminal, and secondly by giving birth to an illegitimate child, her life might have been spared, and Gaskins left to be made an example of, but Gurney sentenced them both to death.

The Gloucester Journal commented, “The impressive effect of the Judge’s sentencing was heightened by the loud and frequent interruptions of the female prisoner crying for mercy, and she was removed from the bar in a most pitiable state.”

Other newspapers gave an even more dramatic description: “During the passing of the sentence a most distressing scene occurred. The female prisoner was crying and begging for mercy, almost every person present was in tears, and the learned baron himself was so overcome that at the conclusion of the address to the prisoners his voice evidently faltered, and as soon as the fatal sentence had been passed, the female prisoner dropped on the floor and was carried out of court moaning most dreadfully.”

Although the judge had told Gaskins and Long that there was little hope of their sentences being commuted, petitions on behalf of both of them were sent to the Home Office, but no reprieves were issued. Charlotte Long’s infant son had remained in the care of his aunt, who had him baptised and named William at Dursley Parish Church on 24 August. Unfortunately, the Dursley Parish Registers reveal that William was buried four days later. According to newspaper reports, when Charlotte was told that her child was dead, she said she was glad, because she would see him soon in heaven.

Charlotte Long was executed alongside Thomas Gaskins on the roof of the prison gatehouse on Saturday, 31 August 1833. On 3 September, she was buried in the churchyard of St Martin’s Parish Church, North Nibley – the same church where she had been baptised and married.

Charlotte Long was the last woman to be hanged in England for committing arson. The last man to be hanged in England for the same offence was Daniel Chase, who died at Ilchester, Somerset, on 31 August 1836. Most forms of arson were removed from the list of capital crimes in 1837.

 

Sources:

Jill Evans, Hanged at Gloucester (The History Press, 2011)

Gloucester Journal, 17 August, 21 August, 7 September 1833

Gloucestershire Chronicle, 17 August 1833

Bristol Mercury, 17 August, 7 September 1833

Gloucestershire Archives:

County Gaol Registers, Summer 1833 (Q/Gc5/4)

Poor Law Records: North Nibley, Removal Orders, 4 April 1833 (P230 OV 3/2/157)

Parish Records: North Nibley Parish Registers: Baptisms, 1799; Marriages, 1819 and Burials, 1833 (P230)

Parish Records: Dursley Parish Registers, Baptisms and Burials, 1833 (P124)

 

 

John Parker: hanged 1813; skull sold 2014

Recently (16-21 May 2014), it has been reported in the media that the skull of convict John Parker, who was hanged at Gloucester in 1813, was sold at an auction house in Billingshurst, West Sussex, for £2,000. As John Parker’s story is included in my book, Hanged at Gloucester, I thought I would write a short piece about him here.

John Parker was from Langney, near Chippenham, in Wiltshire. In the Gloucester Gaol Calendars, his age is given as 30, but newspaper reports say he was 36 or 37. He was committed to Gloucester Gaol on 25 June 1813, along with three other men – Thomas Rodway, Joseph Bath and William Webb. The four were charged with breaking into the dwelling house of Elizabeth Grey at Clifton, Bristol, and stealing silver spoons, a damask tablecloth, two shirts, and various other items.

Parker, Rodway, Bath and Webb were tried at the Gloucestershire Summer Assizes, held in late August 1813. Joseph Bath, who was the youngest at 22 years old, was found not guilty. The other three were found guilty and condemned to death, but William Webb, aged 26, was reprieved. This left Parker and Rodway for execution. Thomas Rodway was either 36 (according to Gaol Registers) or 30 (in newspapers), and from Bristol. He had a previous conviction, having been sentenced to transportation at the Easter Quarter Sessions in Bristol in 1805, for stealing lead. He wasn’t sent to Australia, but instead served his sentence on a prison hulk at Portsmouth.

Once Parker and Rodway had been sentenced and were back in gaol, waiting in the condemned cells until the day of their executions came, the prison chaplain began paying them frequent visits. It was one of the duties of the chaplain to try to persuade condemned criminals to confess that they were guilty of the crime for which they were to suffer, and also to ask about any other offences they might have committed. In this case, it was known that Parker and Rodway were members of a very large gang which had been terrorising the area around Bristol, and the chaplain made frequent visits to the two men, during which he endeavoured to get information out of them concerning their crimes and the names of their associates. The Gloucester Journal reported that “much useful information” had been obtained, but the chaplain recorded in his prison journal that Parker and Rodway had divulged little of any use.

John Parker and Thomas Rodway were hanged together on the roof of the prison lodge, on 11 September 1813. What happened to their bodies afterwards is not recorded. As they had not committed murder, there was no legal requirement for them to be sent to be anatomised, but it appears now that this is what happened to Parker, at least. A report on the “This Is Wiltshire” website (link below) states that John Parker’s skull had been partially cut away to serve as an anatomical specimen.

John Parker’s skull was auctioned at Summer Place Auctions in Billingshurst, West Sussex, on 20 May 2014, with an estimate of £2,000 to £3,000. The auction house had stated that there was one person who was seriously interested in buying it, and it sold for £2,000. It is to be hoped that whoever bought this “curiosity” remembers that he or she now owns part of a fellow human being.

Sources:

This is Wiltshire, 16 May 2014, “Executed Chippenham burglar’s skull up for auction.”

BBC News Wiltshire, 21 May 2014, “Hanged thief’s skull sells for £2k.”

Jill Evans, Hanged at Gloucester (The History Press, 2011)

Gloucester Journal, 30 Aug 1813 and 13 Sept 1813

Gloucestershire Archives:

County Gaol Calendars, Q/SG2, Trinity 1813 (Prisoners for Summer Assizes)

County Gaol, Chaplain’s Journal, Aug-Sept 1813 (Q/Gc31/1)