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 Image copyright Mick Lobb and licensed for re-use under Creative Commons Attribution- Share Alike 2.0 licence.)

The Trouble House Inn, Tetbury (via 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


All from the British Newspaper Archive:

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

© Jill Evans 2015

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

The Mysterious Death of Millicent Dawes: Gloucester, 1871

The Body of Millicent Dawes is found in the canal. Illustrated Police News, 11 Nov 1871, p.1. (British Newspaper Archive. Image copyright of The British Library Board. All Rights Reserved).

The Body of Millicent Dawes is found in the canal. Illustrated Police News, 11 Nov 1871, p.1. (British Newspaper Archive. Image copyright of The British Library Board. All Rights Reserved).

On a Monday morning in October 1871, two employees of the Gloucester and Berkeley Canal Company were at work at Gloucester Docks, trying to close the lower lock-gates. They found that one of the gates would not close properly, and suspecting that something must be obstructing it, one of the men lowered a rake into the water, to see if whatever it was could be shifted. Realising he had caught hold of something, he pulled the rake up and with it came the body of a young woman. Fully dressed and still wearing her bonnet, she had two severe head wounds, one of which looked like it had been caused by a hammer or a similar instrument.

The woman’s body was taken to the Sir Colin Campbell beer house in Llanthony Road, where it was soon identified as being Millicent Dawes, who lodged in Mitre Street, and hadn’t been seen since the previous night. She was about 25 years old and had recently been working as a nurse to a Mrs Franklin, who had just had a baby. The Franklin family also lived in Mitre Street. She had in her pockets 3 shillings and 6 pence in coins, a pair of black kid gloves and a carefully folded religious tract bearing the title, “Thou would’st be saved – Why not tonight?”

A Coroner’s Inquest was opened on Thursday, at the Sir Colin Campbell beer house. The doctors who carried out a post mortem believed Millicent Dawes had not died from drowning, but from the wounds to her head, which had been inflicted before she went into the water. The evidence suggested that there had been foul play, and the search for a culprit commenced.

Ralph Shelton, a worker for the Canal Company, gave evidence that he had been on watch near the lock bridge all of Sunday night, not coming off duty until six o’clock the next morning. He hadn’t seen Millicent Dawes, nor had he heard a splash or anything of that kind. However, just before midnight he had been approached by a man who asked him if he had just heard a splashing sound. Shelton responded that he had not heard anything. The man lingered nearby for a while, then came back to Shelton and asked if there were any lodgings nearby. He then went away. Shelton said the man was neatly dressed, but smelt very strongly of liquor.

Henry Cox, a cab-driver with whom Millicent Dawes had been “keeping company” for several years, was then called. Shelton was asked if this was the man who had spoken to him. He replied that he thought the man had been taller than Cox, and although their voices sounded similar, he couldn’t swear that this was him.

A new suspect was then introduced into the story, when a woman who lived in Mitre Street gave evidence that she had seen Millicent walking with a man on Sunday night. She described him as being rather short, having sandy-coloured whiskers, and wearing a pilot coat and a cap. Asked if Cox was the man she had seen, she said she was sure it wasn’t him.

Henry Cox then gave evidence. He said he had been on “intimate terms” with Millicent for four or five years and she had two children by him, but they had never lived together. He resided with his parents in Victoria Street. He had seen Millicent last on Saturday night, when he met her for a drink in the Booth Hall tap. They left together later that night and walked up Westgate Street to the top of King Street, where he wished her goodnight. They had arranged to meet again on the following night, but he became sick on Sunday afternoon and stayed home. In answer to questions from the Coroner and jury members, Cox said that they had not quarrelled that night and had parted on good terms. He had heard that Millicent had been intimate with another man, and had asked her about it on several occasions, but she always denied it. He added that there had been other people at home with him on Sunday night. Apart from his parents, his sister had been there, and a young man who was courting her, and a cousin.

The proceedings were then adjourned in order to track down the man who had been seen with Millicent Dawes on Sunday night. Henry Cox was advised to find some witnesses who could verify his story.

The inquest was resumed on the following Tuesday, by which time the man who had been seen with Millicent Dawes on Sunday night had come forward. He stated that his name was Samuel James Wilkes and he was captain of the screw yacht Nereid. He had been in Gloucester about a fortnight. He had met Millicent once previous to Sunday, at the house of Captain and Mrs Franklin. He saw her again on the Sunday night, at the same place. They left the house at different times and he hadn’t arranged to meet her, but later that night he came across her in Eastgate Street. They had strolled around town together and had a drink in the Victoria Public House. Returning to Mitre Street, they saw a man standing at the corner, and Millicent left Wilkes to go over and speak to him. She spoke in a low voice, but he heard her telling him to “Go that way”. The man walked off in the direction she had indicated. Millicent came back to Wilkes, shook hands and bade him goodnight. He had then returned to his vessel.

Wilkes was then asked to return to the Nereid to fetch the clothes he was wearing on Sunday night. While he was gone, a witness gave evidence that he had seen Millicent with a “sea-faring man”, drinking together at the Victoria House in Barton Street, on Sunday night. They appeared on very friendly terms and the man was asking her to go on board his ship, but he did not hear whether or not she consented. When Wilkes returned, he was asked whether it was true that he had asked Millicent to go on board with him, but he denied it. He said he had returned to his yacht alone, at about half past eleven. This was confirmed by an engineer on the Nereid, who said he had returned at a quarter to twelve and found the captain was already in his bunk, reading. The canal-worker Shelton was called and asked if Wilkes, now in the clothes he had worn on the night Millicent disappeared, was the man who had spoken to him at around midnight on Sunday. Shelton said he was sure Wilkes was not the man.

Henry Cox was then called, and Wilkes was asked whether this was the man he had seen speaking to Millicent on the corner of Mitre Street. Wilkes said that Cox did not resemble the man in any way. The proceedings were then adjourned once again.

When the inquest resumed on the following Monday, a question was raised as to the time Wilkes had returned to his vessel. Wilkes had said that he was back by half past eleven, and the engineer had confirmed that his captain was already in bed when he came in at a quarter to twelve, but Henry Vaughan, the dock watchman, said he had opened the gates on Commercial Road to let Wilkes in at half past twelve.

Henry Cox was now allowed to produce his witnesses. His sister, described as a respectable girl, said that she was at home on Sunday from four o’clock in the afternoon. She went to bed at about midnight and her brother had retired before her. She didn’t think he could have got up and left the house without her hearing. Her “young man” stated that he was at the house until a quarter past eleven, and Cox was there all the time.

It was now evident that there was no clear suspect in this case. Henry Cox had been considered the most likely culprit, but he apparently had been at his home on Sunday night. He had not been identified as either the man who asked the dock worker about hearing a splash, or the individual who spoke to Millicent at the corner of Mitre Street. As for Wilkes, there was some confusion as to the time at which he had got back to his vessel, but he had not been identified as the man who said he had heard a splash either. With no further evidence to work on, the inquest jury returned a verdict of “Wilful murder against some person or persons unknown”, and no further investigations were made into the murder of Millicent Dawes.



Gloucester Journal, 21 Oct, 28 Oct and 4 Nov 1871.

Illustrated Police News, 11 Nov 1871.

(Both newspapers sourced on the British Newspaper Archive).

© Jill Evans 2015



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

Suspected murder at Gloucester County Lunatic Asylum, 1878

Gloucester County Lunatic Asylum, 1848 (

Gloucester County Lunatic Asylum, 1848 (

On 27 June 1878, Thomas James Webb, an epileptic who was an inmate of the Gloucester County Lunatic Asylum, died. Webb had not been in good health, and it was believed that the primary cause of his death was heart disease, but a few days earlier he had sustained some injuries to his chest, and a post mortem found that he had many broken ribs and a fracture to his breastbone. The Coroner opened an inquest at the asylum on 29 June, which continued over a period of about two weeks.

At the inquest, head attendant Samuel Daniels said in evidence that on the night of 22 June, an alarm went off in one of the wards, and he found attendant Henry Collins holding Webb down on his bed. Collins said that Webb had pulled the patient next to him out of bed, and that he had with great difficulty separated the two men. Daniels helped to put Webb back to bed and then left. About 20 minutes later there was another disturbance and returning to the ward, Daniels found three warders now holding down Webb, who was on the floor, in an agitated state. This time a draught was administered to the patient to calm him down, and he was put into another room. On the next day, Dr Mackenzie, the acting superintendent at the asylum, pointed out bruises on Webb’s body, and asked Daniels for an explanation. Daniels had no idea how the injuries had been caused.

Dr Mackenzie stated that he and Mr Packer, the asylum’s medical officer, examined Webb on 23 June, the day after the incident. They both suspected that he had broken ribs. Four days later, Webb had died. Mackenzie believed that the injuries were caused by someone pressing on his chest, possibly by kneeling on it. In answer to a question from the Coroner, he explained that attendants coming to work at the asylum were told how to restrain patients without injuring them.

Mr Packer in evidence gave his opinion that the primary cause of Webb’s death had been heart disease and congestion of the lungs, but his demise had been accelerated by the injuries to his body. Questioned as to how violent inmates were restrained, Packer stated that it was sometimes necessary for attendants to use force to restrain patients. The use of “straight waistcoats” was much discouraged by the lunacy commissioners, and there wasn’t one at the asylum. Although Webb had been an old and feeble patient, it was true that when suffering an epileptic fit, he might have exerted more strength than he normally could. He wouldn’t be surprised if it had taken three attendants to hold him down on the night in question.

A patient named Cooke had been in the same room as Webb on 22 June, and he gave evidence at the inquest. He said that he had seen the attendants and Webb struggling on the floor, and he saw Collins stamp on Webb’s stomach several times, while the others struck him with their fists. George Powell, another patient, said he had heard a great scuffle, but he had shut his eyes and kept quiet throughout the incident.

The evidence of the three attendants who had restrained Webb was heard next. Isaac  Lewis said he had been a night attendant at the asylum for eight months. He had received no instructions as to how to treat patients, but rather he had learned from watching his colleagues. They restrained patients “as best they could.” He asserted that Collins had not stamped on Webb and no-one had struck him. David Rodway had been an attendant at the asylum for two years and three months, and had been at Barnwood (a private asylum) before that. He had received instructions on how to handle patients at Barnwood, but not at the County Asylum. Henry Collins, the other attendant, said he thought Webb’s injuries might have been caused when he fell out of bed.

On 9 July 1878, The Citizen printed an editorial comment on the case, concerning the way in which male attendants were recruited, and the lack of training given to them:

“It is in evidence that men, whose recommendation for the post of attendant is mainly their physique, have been made the guardians and caretakers of the insane, without any special training or instruction in their duties; the natural result being, if the statements of the patients themselves, along with the medical evidence, are to be relied on, a ready application of brute force in a case of supposed or real emergency, suggestive of systematic terrorism and cruelty”.

The inquest hearing resulted in the three attendants, Collins, Rodway and Lewis, being tried at the Gloucester Assizes for murder. At the trial, Mr Packer said in evidence that Webb had two black eyes after the incident, and after his death, was found to have eleven broken ribs – six on one side and five on the other. His breast-bone was broken, and there was a profusion of blood in the chest cavity. Although he had described Webb as feeble, when admitted to the asylum he was classed as a “dangerous lunatic.”

The defence lawyers pointed out that the main case against the three attendants was the evidence of “the lunatic Cooke”, which was contradictory and unreliable. The judge, in his summing up, made clear his sympathy with the three men on trial. He asked the jury how they would feel if they had been in the position of the attendants, trying to restrain a violent man who had just attacked another inmate. The jury huddled together and after “a moment’s consultation” returned a verdict of not guilty.

Three years later, a very similar story was recounted in the newspapers, when Walter Partridge, an inmate at the asylum, died, apparently of natural causes, but was found in a post mortem to have several broken ribs. A very lengthy inquest found that Partridge had been murdered by a person or persons unknown. The case caused a scandal and the Home Secretary became involved, as a consequence of which William Hawkins, a former dock-worker who had become an asylum attendant, was tried on a charge of murdering Walter Partridge. You can read about that case and its outcome in Gloucester Murder & Crime.

© Jill Evans 2013