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


A Tarring and Turfing in the Forest of Dean, 1877

"Tarring a Grocer at Lydbrook", from the Illustrated Police News, 1 Sept 1877. (From the British Newspaper Archive. Image copyright The British Library Board. All Rights Reserved.)

“Tarring a Grocer at Lydbrook”, from the Illustrated Police News, 1 Sept 1877. (From the British Newspaper Archive. Image copyright The British Library Board. All Rights Reserved.)

One Monday morning in August 1877, the atmosphere at Littledean Police Court was lightened considerably by the appearance of two “respectable-looking” married women, Sabrina Cole and Susan Phelps, who were accused of assaulting a Lydbrook grocer by pouring tar over him, then pelting him with clods of turf. Another woman, Maria Phelps, was also charged, but did not appear in court. The case was, according to The Citizen newspaper, “of a most amusing character”.

The complainant, James Cook, worked for the Lydbrook Store Company, and would go  round houses to take orders and collect money for goods which had been bought on account. He had become unpopular with the local housewives through persuading them to buy groceries on credit, then demanding payment soon after the goods had been received.

On 23 July, Cook had gone out on his rounds as usual, and while he was inside the house of his second customer, he heard two of the defendants calling in a hostile manner for him to come out. He went to the gate and persuaded them to go away, but while he was visiting his next customer, an invalid who was lying in bed in a downstairs room, the three accused women came inside and caught hold of him. As they tried to drag Cook outside, he clung onto the bedpost, much to the consternation of the poor lady in the bed.  The description of this scene caused outbursts of laughter in the courtroom.

After a struggle, the women got Cook outside, where he was met by a small crowd, one of whom was a boy holding a kettle containing cold tar. One of the Phelps women dipped a brush into the tar and gave Cook a good coating. The other Mrs Phelps then poured the remaining contents of the kettle over his head. To finish, a tar-covered rag was tied round his neck. As he left the scene as quickly as he was able, the women and some boys pelted him with turfs and – according to Cook – with stones.

Sabrina Cole, who had helped to drag the grocer outside, but hadn’t taken part in the tarring, was fined five shillings and costs, while the two Phelps women each had to pay ten shillings and costs. The court also awarded Cook damages of 30 shillings for his ruined clothes, the payment of which was to be shared between the three defendants.

The newspaper reports on the case ended with the women being led away, protesting at their treatment, while their husbands stepped forward to pay their fines. However, it transpired later that one of the men, George Cole, refused to pay, and as a consequence, his wife was sent to Gloucester prison. A few weeks later, Sabrina Cole found herself in court again, this time on a charge of attempting to poison her husband.  This part of the story is told in my next post, Poison in the Pepper Box.


The Citizen, 15 August 1877, Gloucester Journal, 18 August 1877, Illustrated Police News, 1 September 1877 (all via the British Newspaper Archive website).


Plum Duff for the Prisoners: Gloucester Gaol, Christmas 1929

Illustration from Dickens' A Christmas Carol, by S. Eylinge, 1869 (British Library, via Flickr Creative Commons)

Illustration from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, by S. Eylinge, 1869 (British Library, via Flickr Creative Commons)

An article appeared in The Citizen on 17 December 1929, bearing the headline:

Gloucester Gaol’s Xmas

“Lags” Now Making Their Way Home to Prison.

Readers were informed that plum duff, “the poor man’s Christmas pudding”, was to be served on Christmas Day to all the prisoners who were undergoing sentence in Gloucester Gaol. The chief ingredients of the pudding were to be currants, minced apples and raisins, with breadcrumbs “to give it lightness”. In addition there would be extra allowances of roast beef and bread. For those who spent the day in the prison hospital, there would be a dessert of apples and oranges.

A prison official was quoted as saying: “There are scores of old ‘lags’ now at liberty who are thinking out ways and means of spending Christmas with us. You will find them committing some minor offence in order that they may be the guests of His Majesty at Christmas time.”

The official continued: “It is not because we pamper them – we don’t – it is because they find the world unfriendly to them, and they would rather be amongst their own sort. Our special Christmas Day diet, if roughly served, is at least wholesome and appetising, and it is as welcome to them as is roast turkey to folk more fortunately placed.”

A search of the petty sessions proceedings in the Gloucestershire newspapers of December 1929 did not reveal dozens of people committing crimes in order to be in prison for Christmas, but there was one case of a man who wanted to be gaoled for longer than the festive period.

The Citizen of 3 December 1929 reported a recent meeting of the Gloucester City Petty Sessions court, presided over by the Mayor, in which James O’Hagan, of no fixed abode, appeared for stealing a pair of boots from the shop of Messrs Cash & Co. in Westgate Street, Gloucester. A policeman stated than when he asked O’Hagan to explain how he had got the boots, he replied, “I pinched them.” When he was charged at the Police Station, O’Hagan had said, “Guilty, my lord.”

Asked by the court if he had anything to say, O’Hagan responded, “I want to go to prison.” He was asked if he would like to say for how long, and he replied, “I don’t mind; the winter, anyhow.” He was sentenced to two months in prison. In a slightly different version of this report, printed in the Cheltenham Chronicle, the Mayor in sentencing him, said, “I am afraid we cannot see you eating your Christmas dinner outside Prison”, to which O’Hagan replied, “Thank you, sir.”

Interestingly, at the same court session, another man of “no fixed abode” appeared, who was also charged with stealing a pair of boots. James Edward Kettle was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment for stealing boots from Messrs Baker and Sons in Westgate Street. Perhaps this particular form of theft was regarded by those in the know as the perfect way to get sent to prison, just in time for Christmas.


Gloucester Citizen, 3 Dec 1929, 17 Dec 1929

Cheltenham Chronicle, 7 Dec 1929

“Don’t thee do that no more, or I’ll shoot thee.” A poaching case, 1833

Gloucestershire’s County Petty Sessions records have numerous examples of people brought before magistrates for poaching offences, but this return from December 1833 is unusually detailed and colourful.

Edwin E. Page, an attorney-at-law from Wick and Abson, was charged with trespassing in search of game in Bean Wood, Wapley and Codrington, on land occupied by Sir C.B. and Captain Codrington. The case was heard at the Petty Sessions court on 27 December 1833, which was held at the Cross Hands Inn, in Old Sodbury. The defendant did not attend, although constable John Fussell assured the Bench that a summons had been handed to Page.

John Evans, a labourer of Wapley and Codrington, deposed that he was in the woods on 7 October, when he saw Mr Edwin Page with a gun and three dogs, and two other men beating for game. The two men ran when they saw Evans, and the accused came out of the wood. Evans put his hand on Page’s chest and told him he was trespassing. Page responded, “Don’t thee do that no more or I’ll shoot thee.” Evans cried, “For God’s sake, don’t shoot me!” He and Page then went to Francis Evans (John Evans’ father), described here as a labourer, but in other cases he is said to be a deputy gamekeeper.

Francis Evans stated that the accused gave his name and address as Charles Slade of Westgate Buildings, Bath, but, Evans said, “he was certain that he had made no mistake in the name as he made a note inside his hat, which he later copied into his memorandum book.” It is unclear from this whether Evans wrote the name down as Slade, or whether he recognised Page and wrote down his correct name.

Page was fined £1, to be paid to the overseer of the poor at Wapley and Codrington, and £1 6s costs to be paid to the informer (James Harrison, gamekeeper to Sir C. B. Codrington). Page was given until 13 January 1834 to pay, or in default he was to serve one calendar month in Horsley House of Correction.

The Poacher, by F. Marryat, 1883. (British Library, on Flickr Commons.)

The Poacher, by F. Marryat, 1883. (British Library, on Flickr Commons.)

It may be that Page was a frequent offender, or at least that indulging in a spot of poaching ran in the family. Another case had been heard at the Old Cross Hands Inn at Old Sodbury on 6 December, when Edwin Page, gentleman, of Pucklechurch, was accused of trespassing on land at Shortwood, occupied by John Haskins. As in the other case, the accused did not appear. A witness who kept pheasants there said that on 4 October 1833, he  saw two men with three dogs on the land. The witness knew one man, and the other identified himself as Edwin Page. When Page was asked if his intention was to kill the witness’s pheasants, he replied that he would if he saw them.

Page was fined 10 shillings, to be paid to the overseer of the poor, and £1 9s. 9d, costs, to be paid to John Haskins, or in default one month in Horsley House of Correction.

I have been unable to find out whether Edwin E. Page and Edwin Page were the same person, or whether they were related. Either way, it seems that this was a case of men of a certain social class who would sometimes trespass on other people’s land in pursuit of game, and were not too concerned if they were caught, as they had no trouble paying the fines given to them.

Sources: The original records are at Gloucestershire Archives, Quarter Sessions Records, Petty Sessions (Q/PC2). On this occasion, I made use of Irene Wyatt’s book, Calendar of Summary Convictions at Petty Sessions, 1781-1837, Gloucestershire Record Series Volume 22, published by The Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, 2008.