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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

The capture of a highwayman: Daniel Neale, 1763

highwayman

“The King’s Highway”, from Magazine of Art, 1881 (via http://www.ancestry-images.com)

On a night in June 1763, a highwayman rode out to work on the roads between Bath and Tetbury.  He found his first victims at Lansdown, on the outskirts of Bath. A woman returning home from selling butter at Bath market was robbed of her day’s takings, then a collier had three shillings and six pence stolen from him by the man on horseback, who afterwards rode off towards the Monument to Sir Bevil Grenville.

The highwayman found his next victim at Toghill Turnpike, where he came across a  gentleman’s servant who was just paying the keeper in order to pass. The robber ordered the keeper to go inside and shut the door, warning him that otherwise he would blow his brains out, and saying that he would receive the gentleman’s payment. He then relieved the servant of a considerable sum of money.

Continuing on the road towards Tetbury, the highwayman overtook another gentleman’s servant, but instead of robbing him, he travelled with him to Petty France, where they fed their horses and took refreshments in an inn, before setting out together again. However, when they reached a parting point in the road, the highwayman suddenly pointed a pistol at the other man’s chest and demanded his money and watch. The highwayman rode off down the road towards Gloucester and the servant returned to the inn and asked the landlord to help him pursue the robber. The two men set off together and got within 200 yards of the highwayman, but he jumped his horse over a stone wall and got away.

This was not the end of the highwayman’s adventures that night. He next encountered a man described as a pig-killer of Wickwar, who kept the Sign of the Crown public house there. The robber demanded the man’s money and he replied that he only had four shillings and six pence on him. The highwayman then wanted the man’s pocket watch. The man refusing to hand it over, the robber tried to snatch it from him, but the chain snapped, leaving him holding only the chain and seal. Snarling that the man was an “obstinate dog”, he drew his pistol from under his coat and fired, lodging five slugs into his victim’s right breast. While some newspaper reports said the man had died as a result of his wounds, the Bath Chronicle stated that he was still alive, but not expected to recover.

Whether or not the highwayman wore a handkerchief around his face when committing his crimes was not reported, but during his time spent at the inn in Petty France, the landlord had got a good look at him and was able to give a detailed description. He was described as being a short young man, much pitted with smallpox, who was wearing a brown Surtout coat. He was “well-mounted” on a dark-brown horse which was blind in one eye. It was also said that his saddle had one new stirrup and one old.

The highwayman probably lay low for a few weeks after his prolific night of robberies, but at the end of July, it was reported that Mr Samuel Rudder, the well-known printer and bookseller of Cirencester, had been robbed of three guineas and his watch, not far from the town, by “a single highwayman, well-mounted”. On the same morning, several other people were robbed by the same man. At about noon on that same day, a man rode up to a blacksmith’s shop in Chalford Bottom to have his horse shod. While he was waiting, several people on seeing him thought he answered the description given of the man who had shot someone on the Bath Road about three weeks before. He was seized, and in his pockets were found a brace of pistols loaded with stones and bits of lead, and about eight guineas in money. He was taken to a magistrate, who committed him to the care of the constable, who took him to the George Inn at Bisley, to be held there until he could be taken to Gloucester Gaol.

The sensation of a highwayman being taken into custody attracted a crowd, which followed the constable and robber to the George Inn. One of the men who had been robbed that morning went into the room where the highwayman was eating his supper, and declared that this was the man who had robbed him. The robber asked him if he would swear to that, and when the man replied that he would, he took the knife with which he was eating his supper and cut his own throat with it. He did not succeed in killing himself, but was too ill to be taken to Gloucester Gaol immediately, so was kept under the care of the Bisley constable until he recovered.

In the meantime, the newspapers announced that the miscreant was named Daniel Neale, and he was a cloth-worker, living at Frome in Somerset. The mare he rode was the property of the landlord of the Black Swan at Frome Field, but it wasn’t stolen; Neale had hired the mare on several occasions. He had lately shown watches and considerable sums of money to his workmates, telling them that if they would hearken to him they might get a deal of money with much more ease than working at their business. Neale was from Gloucestershire, but had lived at Frome for some time and had married a local girl, who kept a shop there. It was believed that he had committed many robberies between Cirencester, Malmesbury and Tetbury.

In August, the County Assizes began in Gloucester, and Daniel Neale had recovered enough to take his trial. He was charged with robbing Mr Rudder, of Cirencester, Printer, and another person. (The pig-killer from Wickwar must have lived, otherwise Neale would have been on a murder charge.) He was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. The Gloucester Journal reported that Neale had said that he had taken to highway robbery a few weeks before Easter, with accomplices, whose names he did not disclose, but said they lived near Frome. They “took to the Highway” in order to supply themselves with “Cash for the Cockpit and the Alehouse”.  They had committed many robberies and had also cut cloth from Clothiers Racks. They had formed a grand scheme, which was to have been carried out as soon as good horses, pistols, etc, could be procured. In order to avoid accurate descriptions being given, they had planned to meet every night and exchange clothes and horses.

Some accounts of the executions of highwaymen portray them as heroes who go bravely to the gallows, swaggering and welcoming death. Daniel Neale did not meet his end in such a way. He was executed at Over, near Gloucester, on 26 August 1763, alongside a thief called Richard Johnson. The Gloucester Journal reported that Neale, “expressed Terror at the Approach of Death, and seemed to think his Sins had been too great to be expiated by so short a Repentance, and prolonged the Moment in which he was to be turned off to the very last”.

 

Sources

Gloucester Journal, 1, 15, 22 and 29 August 1763 (at Gloucestershire Archives)

Bath Chronicle, 7 July, 4 Aug, 1 Sept 1763; Derby Mercury, 29 July, 12 Aug 1763; Oxford Journal, 9, 30 July 1763 (British Newspaper Archive)

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.