Buried at the crossroads: William Birt, 1791

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tewkesburydetail1835

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

 

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

 

Sources

Gloucester Journal, 11 April 1791, 18 August 1791

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

Gloucestershire Archives:

Gaol Calendars, Easter 1791 (Q/SG1)

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

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

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

© Jill Evans 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Foul Murder on the Cotswold Hills, 1902

Illustrated Police News, 23 August 1902. (British Newspaper Archive. Image copyright The British Library Board. All Rights reserved.)

On 15 August 1902, at around midday, a shepherd who worked at Saddleworth Farm, between Didmarton and Leighterton, in Gloucestershire, was walking along the road when he noticed a trail of blood and some skid marks, which looked like they had been made by a bicycle pedal. Following the trail, he came across the body of a man hidden in a copse. The police were called, and they found that the man had been shot in the head, from behind. A bicycle was found in a nearby quarry.

The deceased person was quickly identified as Mr John Dudley Scott, who had recently taken up residence at the Priory in Horsley. Scott’s life-long friend, William Williams, had been staying at the Priory for a while.  Scott’s wife and two children were away at the time.  On 14 August, after dinner, the two men went out on a bicycle ride, as they often did in the evening. Williams returned to the Priory alone at about half past eleven, changed his clothes, then went off on his bicycle again.

The police discovered that Williams had cycled to Stroud, where he had caught a train to London. Passing on this information to the Metropolitan Police, Williams was traced to a hotel in Dover Street, Piccadilly. He was found in his room, dead, having shot himself with a revolver. An inquest was held soon afterwards, at Westminster Coroner’s Court, in which his brother gave evidence. He said that William was eccentric and quick-tempered, and he had caused their elderly father (Major Scott of Barton End House, Nailsworth) a great deal of worry. The inquest found that William Williams had committed suicide, while insane.

An inquest was held on the body of John Dudley Scott at Hawkesbury Upton, in Gloucestershire. The verdict reached was that Scott had been unlawfully killed by William Williams. The coroner commented that it was a very sad case, and because of the suicide of Williams, the reasons for his crime would never be known.

Sources:

Illustrated Police News, 23 August 1902

Gloucestershire Echo, 16 August and 30 August1902

© Jill Evans 2017

 

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 Christmas Eve Tragedy: Bourton-on-the-Water, 1880

ipn8jan1881bourton

Sketch of the “Shocking tragedy at Bourton-on-the-Water” in the Illustrated Police News, 8 Jan 1881, via British Newspaper Archive. (Image Copyright The British Library Board. All Rights Reserved)

 

It was Christmas Eve in 1880, and the tap room of the New Inn, Bourton-on-the-Water, was already packed when Thomas Hill and his father David strolled in at a quarter past nine. The Hill family lived at Little Rissington, but twenty-two-year-old Tom had been working in Yorkshire for several years. He had returned home to spend Christmas with his father and stepmother, and it was clear to the other people in the bar that the young man had already been celebrating before coming into the New Inn.

After he and his father had got their drinks, Tom Hill stood in front of the fire, a beer in his hand, and entertained the company by singing a song. He then went over to Edward Hughes, took his cap off him and started to hit him with it. Although this was done in a jocular fashion, it went on a bit too long. Charles Palmer, a native of Bourton who had arrived in the bar a few minutes after the Hills, intervened, telling Tom to stop it, and the pair exchanged heated words.

James Mustoe, the ostler at the New Inn, was helping out behind the bar that night. He went out to fetch some more beer, and on his return he saw Tom Hill in a corner, stripped of his coat and waistcoat and challenging anyone who was willing to fight him, while his father held him back. Palmer was standing close by and it seemed to Mustoe that he would be most likely to get into a fight with Hill, after their argument earlier. He took hold of Palmer and escorted him from the premises. Just as he was doing so, Police Sergeant Sims came in, and he helped Mustoe to remove Hill, who was more belligerent than Palmer, shouting that he could take on any man in Bourton. After the sergeant had gone, David Hill took his son’s clothes out to him, then returned to the tap room. Palmer came back in after about fifteen minutes and as he seemed calm, he was allowed to stay. Thomas Hill also returned to the tap room and asked for another drink, but Mustoe told him he had already had enough, so he left.

Closing time was at ten o’clock, and everyone trooped outside into the cold. Thomas Hill was standing outside the inn, waiting for the others. As the men set off for home, Hill and Palmer got into another argument. They agreed that they didn’t care for each other and would go somewhere quiet, away from the eyes of the law, to settle their differences in a fight. As they walked off together, they were joined by a friend of Palmer’s, Charles Mosson. Hill seemed worried that he was going to be outnumbered, as he said, “Is there two of you?” Mosson replied that this was nothing to do with him. Palmer then said to Hill, “I suppose you want to go to the top of Rissington Hill to have it out, but I’m not going”. He turned towards his home in Bourton, and Hill and Mosson walked with him.

Suddenly, Hill took his hand out of his pocket and struck Palmer a blow, exclaiming, “How do you like that?” Palmer reeled back and fell to the ground. Mosson tried to lift Palmer up and realised that his friend was seriously injured. A local doctor, Mr Alfred Burt, lived just on the other side of the road, and he was called to the scene. He found that Palmer was already dead. Blood was oozing from a wound on his neck. Sergeant Sims was coming back towards the inn when he was told what had happened. He went off to find Tom Hill.

On 26 December, an inquest was held into the death of Charles Palmer, aged 26, who lived with his mother and step-father, Mary and Stephen Betteridge, in Bourton-on-the-Water. The doctor who had attended Palmer outside the New Inn on Christmas Eve had carried out a post mortem that morning. He had found that the deceased had a stab wound on the right side of his neck, about one and a half inches long. The wound was three and a half inches deep, stopping at the spinal column, and dividing the two chief veins in the neck at their point of junction. This was sufficient to cause death within two or three minutes.

Police Sergeant Sims gave evidence of having arrested Thomas Hill at his father’s house. His stepmother asked Hill if he had stabbed Palmer and he said that he had. When she asked him why, he said, “Why, how would anybody help it when he had four or five men round and one excited?” On the way to the police station, he said that he had borrowed a knife from his father to cut some cake, and had forgotten that he was holding it when he took his hand out of his pocket and struck Palmer. The Hill residence was searched on Christmas Day, and a knife was found among some cabbages in an outhouse, which had been cut up for the pigs.

David Hill, Tom’s father, related what had happened in the New Inn on Christmas Eve. He hadn’t seen his son strike Palmer, as he was walking some way ahead of them when it happened. He stated that he had never seen the knife produced in court until Christmas morning, at his home, in the wash house. The knife wasn’t his and his son hadn’t borrowed one from him. His wife told him she had found the knife and had put it in the wash house. At the police station, Tom said this was the knife with which he had struck Palmer. He had left it in his coat pocket the night before.

Having heard all the evidence, the inquest jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against Thomas Hill. He was committed to Gloucester Prison to await trial at the next county assizes, which came around in February 1881.

On the day of Thomas Hill’s trial, which took place on Thursday, 19 February, the court was packed with spectators. Various witnesses who had been at the New Inn that Christmas Eve gave their evidence, including David Hill. He said that his son had been angry because Palmer had mocked his singing. He hadn’t mentioned this at the coroner’s inquest, and none of the other witnesses had said anything about it.

Thomas Hill’s defence counsel asked the jury to return a verdict of manslaughter. He said that his client had received provocation from all those in the inn, and in particular from Palmer, who seemed to have some kind of ill will against him from the start. Because of his drunken state, this had angered Hill more than it might have done if he had been sober. If Palmer was the less drunk of the two, then he was more to blame, in agreeing to fight Hill. When Palmer was joined by his friend Mosson, Hill thought he was going to be attacked, and so defended himself, and although he used a knife, it was unlucky that the blow had hit the deceased’s jugular vein.

The jury retired for about twenty minutes, then returned a verdict of not guilty of murder, but guilty of manslaughter. The judge, before passing sentence, told Hill that the jury had taken a most merciful view of his case, and had relieved him (the judge) of the burden of having to pronounce a death sentence upon him. Hill had committed a “cruel, cowardly and treacherous deed”. The deceased had done nothing worse than showing a disposition to have a “fair, stand-up fight”. He therefore sentenced Thomas Hill to the heaviest penalty he could pronounce in this case, which was penal servitude for life.

 

A note on the New Inn:

The New Inn at Bourton-on-the Water is now called “The Old New Inn”. Bourton’s famous Model Village is situated behind the inn, and was created by a former landlord. More information can be found at www.theoldnewinn.co.uk

 

Sources:

Illustrated Police News, 8 Jan1881; Gloucester Citizen, 1 Jan, 17 Feb and 18 Feb 1881; Gloucester Journal, 1 Jan and 19 Feb 1881. (All via British Newspaper Archive.)

© Jill Evans 2016

 

 

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)

© Jill Evans 2016

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

IPN16June1883

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before sentencing her, the judge addressed the prisoner:

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

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

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

 

Sources:

Illustrated Police News, 16 June 1883.

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

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

© Jill Evans 2016

 

 

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.

© Jill Evans 2016