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,, 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”.


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)


Metropolitan Magazine on

Forest of Dean Family History Trust:

Lists of executions on

Gloucestershire Archives Genealogical Database via

Gloucestershire Parish Records on

Picture of Bull Lane with permission of

© Jill Evans








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

“An Execution at the Debtor’s Door of Newgate”, from The Newgate Calendar (

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.


The trial of William Probert, 7 Apr 1825, can be viewed here:

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,

© Jill Evans 2015

A Family Business: Brothers Hanged Together in Gloucestershire, 1730-1830

A Double Execution. Woodcut from Hindley's "Curiosities of Street Literature" (1871), p.372. (Accessed via Google Books)

A Double Execution. Woodcut from Hindley’s “Curiosities of Street Literature” (1871), p.372. (Accessed via Google Books)

Recently I was looking through my lists of people who were hanged in Gloucestershire from 1730 on, and it struck me that there were a number of brothers who were found guilty of committing crimes together, and in consequence were executed together. A few other men who were hanged together shared a surname, and although press reports did not state whether or not they were brothers, it seems likely that they were.

22 August 1735, Nathaniel and Jonathan Willis were hanged at Over, near Gloucester, for committing highway robbery. I have been unable to find a newspaper report of their execution, so cannot confirm that they were siblings.

John and Abraham Wood were executed at Over, for highway robbery. A newspaper report described them as “two gipsies”, who had robbed Henry Lovel of 40 shillings in silver and 16 pence in halfpennies. Again, there was no confirmation that the pair were brothers.

The following have all been confirmed as being brothers:

26 March 1741, Thomas and Francis Cook were hanged at Over. They had been found guilty of “assaulting, beating and abusing in a barbarous manner Roger Rogers, a Carrier, on the Highway”, and taking from him 8s 6d and a pair of scissors, and from his horse, six Cheshire cheeses, a goose and several other things.

6 April 1757, Robert and Richard Colwell were hanged at Over, for housebreaking. At the scaffold, Robert Colwell, the elder sibling, confessed that he had committed the crime for which he had been condemned, and others besides, but he insisted that his brother was innocent. The only crime Richard could think to confess was that he had once stolen some potatoes. A  report on the execution, circulated to newspapers around the country, commented that Richard Colwell might be considered innocent of the crime for which he hanged, but when he and his brother were apprehended, he had swallowed a guinea, part of the loot from the robbery, which “came from him” after he was brought to gaol. He confessed to this and said he would have swallowed more if there had been time. “These are circumstances not much in his favour”, the reporter suggested.

30 July 1784, Henry and Thomas Dunsden were executed for murder. They were hanged at Over, then their bodies were hung in chains near Wychwood Forest in Oxfordshire, where their crime had been committed. The Dunsden brothers were notorious highwaymen, part of a gang operating in the area around Burford in Oxfordshire. There had been three brothers, Thomas, Richard and Henry (Tom, Dick and Harry), but Richard had disappeared some time before, possibly dying after having his arm hacked off by one of his siblings in order to escape from capture during a botched robbery. The downfall of Tom and Harry was the result of a drinking session at Capp’s Lodge public house, on the edge of Wychwood Forest. Stories vary as to what exactly happened, but the night ended with Henry Dunsden shooting a waiter, William Harding, who later died of his wounds. On the morning of their execution Henry acknowledged that his life of crime had led to his sorry end, but he stated that his brother was far less to blame, and tried to keep Tom’s spirits up to the last. As they were being tied up, Henry said to his brother, who was lame in one leg, “Come Tom, you have but one leg; but you have very little time to stand.” It is unclear why the Dunsden brothers were tried and executed in Gloucestershire, when their crime was committed in Oxfordshire.

2 May 1801, William and James Jones were hanged at Gloucester County Prison, for burglary. The brothers came from Eastleach Turville, two of the nine children of William and James Jones. They were tried at the Gloucestershire Assizes in April 1801, and found guilty of breaking into a house in Eastleach Turville and stealing goods with a total value of five pounds. They were buried together in the graveyard of Eastleach Turville Parish Church on 6 May. William was 28 years old and James was 22. The burial register noted that they had been hanged at Gloucester for housebreaking.

24 April 1813, Thomas Edwards and Edward Edwards (also known as Edward Rees) were hanged at Gloucester Prison, along with their brother-in-law James Bailey, for a highway robbery near Northleach. They came from Monmouthshire and had been committing crimes together for years. Thomas Edwards had escaped from a prison hulk at Woolwich in September 1811, and Edward Edwards had deserted from the Glamorgan Militia in January 1812. The two brothers and Bailey had than got together again and continued with their “family business”. After their execution, their bodies were delivered to their friends for burial.

28 April 1827, Mark and John Dyer were hanged at Gloucester Prison for shooting at Thomas Mills. The Dyer brothers were part of the Wickwar Gang, who operated in the south of the county. A number of the gang had been tried at the Gloucestershire Assizes in August 1826, and Thomas Mills had “turned King’s Evidence” – giving evidence against his former colleagues in return for not being prosecuted himself. Two of the gang members were executed as a result, and one of them was Thomas Mills’ own brother, William. In an act of revenge, the Dyer brothers shot through a window at Thomas Mills, but missed him and wounded his wife. After their condemnation, Mark Dyer protested to the court and tried to blame his brother for the crime. When they returned to the prison, both of them told the chaplain that they had another brother who had been responsible for the shooting.

18 April 1829, Matthew and Henry Pinnell were hanged at Gloucester Prison for robbing James Kearsey on the highway, between Rodmarton and Tetbury. After their condemnation, Henry asked the judge to order his body to be delivered up to his mother for burial. The brothers were said to be well-built young men, and there were more women than men in the crowd who came to watch the execution. Some of the spectators asked to touch the bodies after they were dead, presumably in the belief that this would cure some affliction, such as a cancerous growth or a wen in the neck.

It is interesting that in all but one case, these brothers were executed for crimes of theft, in particular highway robbery. If they had been found guilty of committing such offences from the mid-1830s onwards, they would not have died together on the scaffold, but would have been transported (not necessarily to the same place) or imprisoned.


Newspapers: Stamford Mercury, 8 Sept 1737 and 26 March 1741, Oxford Journal, 9 April 1757, 5 June and 7 Aug 1784, Bath Chronicle, 16 April 1829. (All accessed via British Newspaper Archive.)

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

Betty Smith, Tales of Old Gloucestershire (Countryside Books, 1987), Chapter One, “The Highwaymen of Wychwood Forest”.

© Jill Evans 2015

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.



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)

© Jill Evans 2014


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.


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)

© Jill Evans 2014




The last woman burnt at the stake in Gloucestershire.

On  Friday, 13 April 1753, two men and a woman who had been condemned to death at the Gloucestershire Assizes were taken from Gloucester Castle to Over, the execution site for county prisoners. The two men, Walter Crabb and William Webley, had been found guilty of theft, and were hanged. The woman, Anne Williams, had been condemned for murdering her husband. Under English Law, this offence was a form of petty treason, and the punishment for a female who committed this crime was to be burnt at the stake.

The crime of petty treason had been defined in the reign of Edward III, under the terms of the Treason Act, 1351. It applied to a wife who killed her husband, a servant who killed his or her master or mistress, or a clergyman who killed his prelate. Murder in any of these circumstances was regarded as an act of betrayal and disobedience. In the case of marriage, a wife was subordinate to her husband and must obey him, just as the king must be obeyed by his subjects.

While the punishment for men found guilty of petty treason was to be hanged, for women, the punishment was to be burnt at the stake. Females were also burnt if condemned for producing counterfeit coins, which became an act of high treason by the terms of the 1351 Act.

By the time Anne Williams was burnt at the stake, it had become common practice for the hangman to tie a rope around the prisoner’s neck and strangle her, before the flames had reached high enough to burn her alive. The following illustration of Anne’s execution in The Newgate Calendar therefore uses as a certain amount of artistic licence, as it shows her fully conscious and praying.

The execution of Anne Williams, from The Newgate Calendar. (

The execution of Anne Williams, from The Newgate Calendar. (

The first indication that something was amiss in the Williams household is recorded in the Gloucestershire Gaol Calendars, which in the mid-eighteenth century often listed prisoners held in the various houses of correction, as well as in the main county gaol. In October 1750, a certain Giles Swain was committed to Cirencester House of Correction, to await trial at the next county quarter sessions, “William Williams having taken his Corporal Oath that he Goes in Danger of his Life.” Swain presumably was released at the next Quarter Sessions, perhaps on entering recognizances to keep the peace. Then, in June 1752, Anne Williams was admitted to Cirencester House of Correction, being suspected of poisoning her husband, William Williams. Giles Swain was admitted on the same day, also on suspicion of poisoning William Williams. At the Trinity Quarter Sessions, held in July, Anne Williams was ordered to be held for trial at the next assizes, but there was no further mention of Giles Swain.

Anne had to wait until April in the following year for her trial, at the Lent Assizes. The trial was reported in the Gloucester Journal, but no details were given of where the family lived, or the reasons for the murder. The evidence against her was that she had sent the servant, Richard Painter, to buy some white mercury. After her husband died, she told Painter that she had given her husband the poison in some “pap”, and in a drink, and he was immediately seized with “violent Vomitings and Purgings.” William Williams sent for his sister and told her that Anne was a wicked woman, and that he had been very well “till after she made him eat some Pap, which (he said) had done his Business for him, and that he should die.” Indeed, he did die, the following morning, “when his body appeared as if mortified.” Anne Williams had little to say for herself and called no-one to speak for her. She was found guilty and sentenced to death, but the sentence was respited for a few days. The Gloucester Journal reported that she “pleaded her Belly, but, a Jury of Matrons being sworn, she was found not quick.” [Meaning she said she was pregnant but on being examined was found not to be.]

On 13 April, Anne Williams was put to death in the manner prescribed for petty treason. Her execution was recorded in the Gloucester Journal, and copied in many other newspapers, even being considered worthy of a paragraph in the Gentleman’s Magazine. It was reported that the two men hanged on the same day behaved well, acknowledging the justice of their sentences and asking for God’s forgiveness, but Anne Williams, “who was burnt at the stake, protested her Innocence of the Fact for which she suffered with a Behaviour quite unbecoming her melancholy Departure.”

Less than a month after Anne Williams died, her reputed lover, Giles Swain, appeared in the Gloucestershire Gaol Calendars again, having been committed on 4 May, for “Stealing a Dragg Chain from a Waggon, the property of the Widow Webb, and a great Coat the property of William Boulton, both which facts he on his Examination Confessed.” He was tried at the Michaelmas Quarter Sessions in September 1753 and sentenced to 7 years transportation. The Gloucester Journal commented, “This Swain is the Person who kept Company with the Woman that was burnt here, at our Lent Assizes, for poisoning her Husband.”

Anne Williams was the last woman in Gloucestershire to be burnt at the stake, but another 19 women in England and Wales endured this punishment after her. 4 of them had been condemned for coining, 2 for murdering their mistresses, and 13 had been found guilty of murdering their husbands. The last woman to be burnt at the stake was Catherine Murphy (also known as Christian Bowman), who died in London in 1789. This form of punishment was abolished in May 1790. The category of petty treason was abolished in 1828.


Gloucestershire Archives, Gaol Calendars (Q/SG1), Epiphany 1750/1, Trinity 1752, Michaelmas 1752, Epiphany 1753 and Trinity 1753.

Gloucester Journal, 10 April 1753, 17 April 1753, 4 Sept 1753.

Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume XXIII, April 1753, ‘Historical Chronicle’, p.198.

Information on petty treason can be found on

The punishment of burning at the stake is discussed on Richard Clark’s site,

© Jill Evans 2014

New thoughts on burial places of prisoners hanged at Gloucester

In my earlier post, “How many prisoners were buried at Gloucester Prison?”, I reported that out of the 121 prisoners who were hanged at Gloucester Prison between 1792 and 1939, 81 of them were executed for offences other than murder, and so were not required by law to be either sent for dissection (up to the 1832 Anatomy Act) or buried in the prison grounds (after 1832). I had found 33 of these 81 prisoners either had their burials recorded in parish registers, or were said to have been collected by friends, leaving 48 people whose fate was unknown.

I now believe that I was being rather naïve in saying that these 48 prisoners were probably buried in a pauper’s grave somewhere. Although there was no requirement by law for hanged prisoners who had not committed murder to be sent for dissection, it seems likely that if no-one came forward to claim a body, it would probably have been quietly sent to the infirmary.

My revised thoughts on this subject arose from a communication from Nikki Bosworth, who sent me a piece she had written about her ancestor Matthew Pinnell, who was hanged alongside his brother Henry in 1829, for highway robbery*. Looking again at newspaper reports on the case, I found an article in the Bath Chronicle of 16 April 1829, which stated that after the judge had sentenced the brothers to death, Henry Pinnell said:

“My lord, I have one favour to ask you, and that is, that you will order my body to be delivered up to my mother.”

This suggests to me that Henry may have been worried that his body would be sent for dissection. He does not appear to have been worried about the fate of his brother’s remains!

*Nikki’s article was printed in Wiltshire Family History Society’s Journal, no.132. You can read it in the comments section on my ABOUT page.

© Jill Evans 2014