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.

Sources:

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.

Sources:

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

 

The Bull Lane Murder (Gloucester, 1741): Historical fact or fiction?

A tragic story  about a murder in Gloucester and the terrible miscarriage of justice which followed has been related many times over the years. It appears in four books that I have on my shelves: Tales of Old Gloucestershire by Betty Smith, Haunted Gloucester, by Eileen Fry and Rosemary Harvey,  A Grim Almanac of Gloucestershire, by Robin Brooks, and Paranormal Gloucester, by Lyn Cinderey.

The story goes that an elderly lady called Dame Eleanor Bunt (variations give her name as Blunt, and say she was a Miss, not a Dame) lived in Bull Lane, Gloucester, with a young servant girl named Mary Palmer, who came from Littledean in the Forest of Dean. On the night of 19 September 1741, Eleanor Bunt was robbed and murdered.  As there was no sign of a forced entry and a bloody handprint was  found on Mary Palmer’s bedroom door, the maid was the only suspect. A Miss Jones, who was jealous of Mary’s relationship with a local young man, Henry Sims, gave evidence that she had overheard the couple discussing the £50 Mary was to inherit from Dame Eleanor’s will and their plans to set up a shop in Littledean. Mary Palmer was committed to jail, and at her trial, she was sentenced to death for murdering her mistress. She was hanged three days later in Gloucester Prison and buried in the prison grounds.

Two years later, a gang-member from Cirencester was sentenced to death for offences including robbery and murder. Before his execution, he confessed to the prison governor that his gang had killed Dame Eleanor Bunt. The news got out and there was a public outcry. The authorities had Mary’s remains removed from the prison grounds and her coffin was carried through the streets of Gloucester with great ceremony, to be interred in one of the city’s churchyards under a handsome tomb.

When I was researching my book, Gloucester Murder & Crime, I was keen to include this case, and set about researching the story of Mary Palmer. There were a number of details in the story which didn’t seem quite right to someone who had been researching crime in Gloucestershire for many years:

  • If Mary Palmer had been condemned for murdering her mistress, this would have been petty treason, and the punishment for a woman was to be burned at the stake.
  • Executions did not take place within prison grounds at that time. It was considered very important that justice was seen to be done by the public. Also bodies of executed criminals were not commonly buried in the prison grounds. In this particular case, the  murder took place in Gloucester city, therefore Mary would have gone to the City Gaol, which at that time was in the Northgate, where there would have been no grounds in which to bury her.
  • The Cirencester prisoner was said to have confessed to the governor. The Gloucester prisons did not have governors then, only gaolers, and confessions would have been made to the chaplain.

Still, stories get embellished over time, and I remained hopeful of finding the historical evidence behind the tale. I was a little worried by the fact that when researching Hanged at Gloucester, I had already gone through all the hangings in the Gloucester area from 1731 onwards, and had not come across a Mary Palmer, but thought that even if the execution had not been reported, the murder surely had been. I was encouraged that the author of A Grim Almanac of Gloucestershire had quoted a passage from the Gloucester Journal concerning the crime.

So, I set off for Gloucestershire Archives and started looking at copies of the Gloucester Journal in September and October 1741. A thorough search revealed that there was no mention of a murder in Bull Lane. This was surprising, as the local newspapers loved a “horrid murder” as much then as they do now. I then moved on to the reports of the next Assizes, which took place in March 1742. These revealed that a city prisoner was condemned at these Assizes. His name was James Matthews, and he was hanged at the city gallows on 6 April 1742. He was the first person to be hanged within the city for 37 years. There was no mention of Mary Palmer.

The only evidence I did find that matched the story was that two robbers from Cirencester were sentenced to death at the Gloucestershire Assizes in March 1743/4 (1744 in the modern calendar). One of the men died in the condemned cell while awaiting execution. If he confessed anything before dying, it was not revealed in the Gloucester Journal at the time. The other offender, named Thomas Cambray, was hanged and gibbeted at Cirencester, near the scene of his crime. He would not even confess to having committed the crime he was hanged for, let alone any earlier offences.

To briefly cover everything else I tried to find any historical evidence:

I wondered if the murder and hanging might have happened somewhere other than Gloucester, so I looked on John Clark’s website, capitalpunishmentuk.org, which has lists of everyone executed in England and Wales from 1735. No Mary Palmer was found.

A search on Ancestry‘s Gloucestershire Parish records did not come up with any burial of an Eleanor Blunt or Bunt. No will of an Eleanor Bunt or Blunt was proved in Gloucestershire, according to the Gloucestershire Archives’ Probate Indexes.

A search for a baptism of Mary Palmer in Littledean on the Forest of Dean Family History Trust website came up blank. Apart from a Mary Palmer buried there in 1711, the only Palmer’s in Littledean’s registers were in the nineteenth century.

Unfortunately, the lack of any historical evidence meant I had to abandon the idea of including this tale in my book.

Recently, the story was mentioned on a Facebook page, and I had a look at the case again. Going back to A Grim Almanac of Gloucestershire, it occurred to me that the quotation from the Gloucester Journal used very flowery language  for an eighteenth century newspaper report: “The deep spreading stain on the sheet and counterpane showed she had perished by the hand of a murderer.” The quotation was not dated, and I wondered if the story had been told in the newspaper at a later date. This suspicion was strengthened when I realised that the same quotation is given in Tales of Old Gloucestershire, and the author says it came from a “later edition of the Cheltenham Examiner“. On the British Newspaper Archive website, I searched the Gloucester Journal for the name Mary Palmer at any date and – BINGO! – there she was, in the issue dated 14 January  1843, on page 4, in a section entitled “Literary Notices.” The story was told in full, under the title, “The Bullace-Street Murder”, and it’s source was given at the end as “Metropolitan“.

The Metropolitan Magazine, A Monthly Journal of Literature, Science and Fine Arts, was published in London, between 1831 and 1850. Some old volumes have been put on the Google Books site, and luckily, Volume 36, for January to April 1843, is available to read. The story, “The Bullace Street Murder”, appears as No IX  in a series called “Curiosities of Legal Experience, By a Solicitor.” The author states that he (it is probable that the writer was male) was told this story while he was attending Gloucester Assizes in his professional capacity. There are a number of problems in his narrative. Most importantly, he states that Bull Lane was formerly known as Bullace Street, but I have never heard of it being given this name – only Gore Lane. He specifies the day and month of the murder, but doesn’t give a year, saying only that it happened during the reign of George II (1727-1760). I would guess that the year of 1741 given in modern versions of the story was deduced from the fact that the Cirencester man was hanged in 1743/4.

I searched Google Books for any other stories in the series “Curiosities of Legal Experience” by this “solicitor”. The only one I found was the first in the series, published in Volume 24  of the Metropolitan Magazine (1839). This one, called “The Skeleton of Lincoln’s Inn”, told the story of a man named Harry Sheppard (from the Forest of Dean, like Mary Palmer) who was condemned to death at the Old Bailey in 1780, but escaped from Newgate Prison thanks to the Gordon Riots, which broke out just before his execution was to take place. The date of his trial is given as Friday, June 2, 1780. A look at the Old Bailey Online website reveals that no trials took place at all on that day.

In conclusion, all of the evidence – or rather lack of it – has led me to believe that the tragic story of Mary Palmer is the work of someone with a great imagination, who could take one historical fact (like an execution in Cirencester) and weave a story around it. His piece of fiction was repeated in a local newspaper and adopted in an even later time by someone as being a true story. There is, of course, a very slight possibility that the story is true, but that it happened at a much earlier period than the author of “The Bullace Street Murder” suggests. Whatever the truth is, I would suggest that this tale in future should be called , “The Legend of the Bull Lane Murder”.

Sources:

Gloucester Journal, Sept 1741-April 1742, 13 Jan 1843

Metropolitan Magazine, Volume XXXVI, January 1843, pp. 89-98, “The Bullace Street Murder”. Volume XXIV, March 1839, “The Skeleton of Lincoln’s Inn”.

Robin Brooks, A Grim Almanac of Gloucestershire (Sutton, 2004)

Betty Smith, Tales of Old Gloucestershire (Countryside Books, 1987)

Eileen Fry and Rosemary Harvey, Haunted Gloucester (Tempus, 2004)

Lyn Cinderey, Paranormal Gloucester (Amberley, 2009)

Websites:

Metropolitan Magazine on https://books.google.com

Forest of Dean Family History Trust: http://www.forest-of-dean.net

Lists of executions on http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org

Gloucestershire Archives Genealogical Database via http://www.gloucestershire.gov.uk/archives/article/107703/Archives-Homepage

Gloucestershire Parish Records on http://www.ancestry.co.uk

Picture of Bull Lane with permission of http://www.visit-gloucestershire.co.uk/old-gloucester

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Run to the Hills (with Police in Hot Pursuit): Gloucester, 1913

Birdliphill

Birdlip Hill. (Copyright of Andy Dolman and licensed for reuse Under Creative Commons Licence, via http://www.geograph.org.uk)

On Saturday, 13 September 1913, the Gloucester Journal reported on an exciting chase following a prisoner’s escape from custody at Gloucester Police Station. Alfred Llewellyn had been arrested on the previous Wednesday, on suspicion of obtaining money by false pretences. He was held in police cells overnight, then the following morning was allowed out into the corridor to exercise. His guard left him alone for a brief time and when he returned, found that his prisoner was missing. Llewellyn had apparently got out through a door with a faulty lock onto the parade ground, then had gone through a shed on to Severn Road and into the docks.

A search for the escaped prisoner ensued and his description was circulated. Somebody saw him without his coat or hat, and later he was sighted wearing a new cap and a dungaree jacket, of the type worn by sailors. Llewellyn was traced through Tredworth Road along by the cemetery, back over the Horton Road Railway to Wotton Hill, but then the trail ran cold. It later transpired that this was because he had boarded a tramcar, alighting at the Hucclecote terminus. From there he proceeded through Brockworth, then made his way up Birdlip Hill.

The police had begun the pursuit on their bicycles, but had to discard them once the prisoner moved into open countryside, avoiding roads or tracks. However, a Gloucester man was assisting in the hunt by searching for the missing man on his motorbike. He encountered Llewellyn at the top of Birdlip Hill. A tussle ensued, from which the escapee emerged triumphant, and he made off once again.

A large force of police by now had arrived in the vicinity of Birdlip, accompanied by many members of the public, who were no doubt encouraged by the offer of a one pound reward for capturing the prisoner. Llewellyn was followed through some wooded land down to the bottom of Birdlip Hill. From there, he made his way across country towards Crickley Hill and then to Shurdington Hill, where he walked into a farmyard. The farmer recognised the prisoner from his description, but did not challenge him. Instead, he invited him to join him in a game of draughts, while a message was sent to nearby Bentham, and a policeman made his way to the farm. When PC Bull arrived, he found that Llewellyn had gone, having become suspicious. Bull searched the vicinity and found his quarry in one of the farm’s fields. He arrested Llewellyn, who at 11.30pm was escorted back to Gloucester.

The Gloucester Journal reported that a story had come out that while Llewellyn was passing through Brockworth, there had been a collision between two motor vehicles outside the Cross Hands Inn. He had helped to take one of the cars to the village blacksmith to be repaired, before going into the inn. While he was there, a police constable came in to ask if anyone had seen the missing man, giving a description of him. Nobody in the bar could remember seeing the man, but after the policeman had left, it was noticed that Llewellyn did fit the description, so he quickly left.

It was stated that the money Llewellyn used to buy his new cap and coat (and presumably his tram ticket) had been concealed under a bandage he had round a cut on his arm. It was also rumoured that shortly after his escape, the prisoner had gone into a public house on Bristol Road, where a police constable challenged him as answering the description of the wanted man. Llewellyn said that he lived just across the road and suggested the policeman go over there and ask, if he was suspicious. The constable did so and of course found that the story was false, but on his return to the pub, the suspect was gone.

Alfred Llewellyn, of no fixed abode, but from the Cardiff area, appeared at Gloucester City Police Court on the morning after his recapture. He was charged with obtaining five pounds by false pretences on September 10th, from George Long of the Robinhood Inn, Bristol Road. There was a second charge of obtaining ten shillings by false pretences from George MacIntyre Wright of the White Swan Inn. In the first case, Llewellyn had spun a yarn about knowing Long’s recently deceased father, and leaving an envelope supposedly containing his engineering certificates, worth £50, he said, as security for borrowing five pounds. The landlord became suspicious after Llewellyn left, and finding he had been duped, contacted the police. Llewellyn had been arrested at the GWR Station, where he had boarded a train bound for Cheltenham.  He was committed for trial at the next Assizes, but caused much amusement in court by saying that he might not appear.

The Autumn Assizes took place at the end of October 1913. Alfred Llewellyn had not managed to escape during his wait in gaol, and at his trial he pleaded guilty to the two charges against him. Deputy Chief Constable Harrison told the court that having made inquiries about the prisoner, who was 28 years old and described as an engineer, he had found that he was “a worthless man”. The judge said that there was a list of twelve previous offences against him, the last at Cardiff in April 1911. He had been sentenced to three years’ penal servitude on that occasion, and had only just been released from prison on parole when he had committed the offences in Gloucester. Llewellyn was sentenced to nine months in gaol, with hard labour. No mention was made of his escape from custody in September.

Llewellyn’s latest stint in prison did not bring his criminal career to an end. The Birmingham Mail of 9 April 1915 reported that at the Carmarthen Quarter Sessions, one Alfred Llewellyn, a native of Cardiff, had appeared in a bogus naval uniform, and was sentenced to 18 months’ penal servitude with hard labour for obtaining goods and money by false pretences at Llanelli. He had headed the Sunday Church Parade of the 2nd Fourth Welsh there, but the next day his bogus uniform had been detected and he was arrested.

On 5 October 1923, the Yorkshire Post noted that there had been only one prisoner for trial at the Rotherham Quarter Sessions, held on the previous day. Alfred Llewellyn, aged 39, an engineer, pleaded guilty to three charges of obtaining food and money by false pretences. “A remarkable story of the prisoner’s career” was told in court, and he was said to have committed similar offences at places including Weymouth, Cardiff, London, Hull, Bournemouth, Southport, Matlock and Sheffield. Between January 1906 and January 1916 he had spent a total of eight years in prison. Later he had joined the army and in 1919 was serving in Egypt when he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for desertion and false pretences. He was finally discharged from the army for misconduct on 14 August 1923.

Perhaps exhausted from his criminal adventures, Llewellyn asked the judge to give him a sentence of three years’ penal servitude plus five year’s penal detention. The judge replied that by law he couldn’t give him such a long sentence for the crimes he was charged with, and instead he got three years’ penal servitude. There is no record of him trying to escape.

Sources:

Newspapers all on the British Newspaper Archive:

Gloucester Journal, 13  and 20 Sept 1913, 1 Nov 1913

Birmingham Mail, 9 Apr 1915

Yorkshire Post, 5 Oct 1923

The photograph of Birdlip Hill came from www.geograph.org.uk.

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

“An Execution at the Debtor’s Door of Newgate”, from The Newgate Calendar (www.exclassics.com/newgate/ngintro.htm.)

On 7 April 1825, William Probert stood trial at the Old Bailey, charged with stealing a mare from Ruardean, in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire. Probert was a native of the Forest of Dean, and although he had moved away to London years ago, for a couple of months he had been staying with his mother in Lydbrook. The mare was the property of Andrew Meredith, a miller, whose wife was a distant relation of Probert.

Meredith discovered that his horse was missing on the morning of 11th February, and several witnesses said they had seen William Probert riding it in the early hours of that day. The mare was eventually traced to London, where it had just been sold by Probert. The evidence against him was damning, and he was duly sentenced to death.

This looked like just another sorry story of a horse thief being caught and condemned, but there was an unusual amount of interest from the British press in the case, and the statement William Probert read out in his defence gives a clue as to why this was. He said that since “the calamitous event which occurred at Hertford”, public animosity towards him had been kept alive by the press and had reached “every part of England”. He couldn’t find work and every door had been shut against him. He had been driven to commit the crime by “fatal necessity”.

Further investigation revealed that William Probert had become very famous indeed two years earlier, due to his involvement in a murder case in Hertfordshire.

William Probert was baptised at English Bicknor Parish Church in April 1787, the son of Thomas and Jane Probert. Although his family were farmers, Probert decided on a different career path, and obtained a position as a clerk to a wine merchant in London. He did well in the capital and his prospects improved greatly when in December 1813, he married Elizabeth Noyes, the daughter of a brewer and farmer. His bride brought him money and property, and he was able to set himself up in business as a wine merchant. He did well for the first few years, but by 1818 he was getting into financial difficulties, and in 1819 he was declared bankrupt, owing £22,000.

Probert was put into the King’s Bench Prison, where he maintained a comfortable lifestyle, despite all the money he owed to his many creditors. However, he was caught stealing cash from the till of the coffee-room in the prison and was sentenced to six months imprisonment in Brixton House of Correction.

On his release, Probert carried on his extravagant way of life, despite being an uncertified bankrupt. He rented a property in Gill-Hill’s Lane, near Elstree in Hertfordshire. His wife, son and other family members stayed at the cottage most of the time, with Probert joining them at weekends, often accompanied by his some of his friends, who liked to gamble, drink copiously, and go shooting.

One Friday evening in October 1823, two such friends, John Thurtell and Joseph Hunt, arranged to go to Gill’s Hill Cottage for the weekend. Thurtell suggested that Probert should drive Hunt there, while he would bring another friend with him separately. What happened that weekend is a long and complicated story, with all the protagonists giving a slightly different version of what occurred, but what is clear is that on the way to Probert’s cottage, John Thurtell murdered his travelling companion, leaving the body lying behind a hedge not far from Gill’s Hill Lane. The murdered man was brought to the cottage and deposited in the fishpond in the garden for the weekend. On the following Monday, the body was removed from the fishpond, placed in a sack, and driven away, to be disposed off elsewhere.

The fact that a murder had been committed was  soon discovered, when a gore-encrusted pistol and pen-knife were found near the place where the crime had taken place. Thurtell and Hunt were identified as having been in the area that weekend, and both were taken into custody in London by a Bow Street officer.  Probert  was arrested later, at Gill’s Hill Cottage. Hunt swiftly confessed to his part in the crime and named the victim as William Weare, a professional gambler who had supposedly swindled Thurtell out of £300.  Hunt took the police to a pond just outside Elstree, where the body of William Weare was recovered.

At the Coroner’s Inquest which followed, Probert swore that he had not known Weare, that he had known nothing about Thurtell’s plan to commit murder, and was horrified when he found out what had happened. He admitted to helping to  hide the body, but said Thurtell had threatened to harm him if he did not. There was some doubt as to how much he had been involved, however. The inquest jury returned a verdict of murder against Thurtell, while Hunt and Probert were charged with being accessories to murder. All of them were committed to Hertford Gaol to await trial.

The story caused a great furore in the British Press and some very scandalous stories began to appear. It was said that Thurtell, Hunt and Probert were part of a gang of con-men who cheated at gambling. Then some newspapers declared that the three had been responsible for the murders of various wealthy men who had gone missing, and that they had a list of people they were planning to kill in the future.

“Portrait and Autograph of William Probert”, in Sussex Advertiser, 17 Nov 1823. (British Newspaper Archive. Image copyright of The British Library Board. All rights reserved.)

In December 1823, the trial of Thurtell, Hunt and Probert began, at the Hertford Assizes. It was at this time that Probert received a stroke of good fortune. The prosecution team wanted to call Probert’s wife as a key witness to the events at Gill’s Hill Cottage, but she could not by law give evidence against her husband. It was therefore decided that Probert should be allowed to turn King’s Evidence, which meant he was not prosecuted himself, in return for giving evidence against his two friends.

The trial did not proceed very far, as on the second day, the defence complained that  there had been so much adverse publicity in the press, including some reports after the trial had begun, that there was no chance that the defendants would receive a fair trial, so the judge agreed to hold a special Assize in January.

The trial began again on 6 January 1824, and lasted two days. Probert gave his evidence against his former friends, and the jury found Thurtell guilty of murder, while Hunt was found guilty as an Accessory before the Fact. The judge sentenced Thurtell to be hanged on Friday, 9th January, and his body to be afterwards dissected. Hunt also was to be hanged and dissected, but no date for his execution was given. He was reprieved a few weeks later and sentence to transportation for life.

After the trial, Probert was set at liberty, but fearing that he might be confronted by one of Thurtell’s friends in town, he asked to spend the night in his cell. On the following day, he collected his wife from the inn where she had been staying during the trial, and they left Hertford, with the blinds pulled down on their carriage.

Rumours concerning Probert continued to appear in the newspapers. Despite his technical acquittal, he was widely regarded as having been more involved in the murder plot than he had admitted. Finding no former friends who would take him in or help him financially, Probert finally resorted to returning to live with his mother and her second husband, Francis James, in the Forest of Dean. Even in his former home, he found that most people shunned him. He visited his distant relation, Mary Meredith, a few times, but Andrew Meredith did not welcome his company. It was under these circumstances that he decided to steal Meredith’s horse.

William Probert was executed on 20 June 1825, alongside four other prisoners, outside the debtors’ door of Newgate Prison. He denied having known about the plot to murder William Weare to the very end. He was buried in St Martin’s churchyard. A report in the Hereford Journal said there was a delay in burying him once the small funeral party arrived at the church, because the grave had been prepared in the wrong place and another had to be dug. During the delay, a disorderly mob gathered and called out inappropriate remarks during the service. (Other newspapers made no mention of this “mob”.) None of Probert’s relatives attended at the graveside, but it was said that his mother was seen in the churchyard.

Sources:

The trial of William Probert, 7 Apr 1825, can be viewed here: http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18250407-1-defend87&div=t18250407-1#highlight

Numerous newspaper sources, including:

Morning Post, 5 Nov 1823; 5, 6, 8 Dec 1823; 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 19, 27, 28, 30 Jan 1824, 21 Feb 1825

Morning Chronicle, 10 Nov 1823, 4 Dec 1823; 9 and 31 Jan 1824

Public Ledger and Advertiser, 7 July 1819, 31 Oct 1823

Bristol Mirror, 8 Nov 1823

Hereford Journal, 29 June 1825

Family history details from the Parish Register Records of the Forest of Dean Family History Trust website, www.forest-of-dean.net.

“Was buryed a prisoner from the Castle”: St Nicholas Parish Church, Gloucester, 1558-1785

In a previous life as a professional family history researcher, I used to spend a lot of time searching through the parish registers at Gloucestershire Archives. On one occasion, when I was looking in the burial registers of St Nicholas Parish Church, Gloucester, I noticed that there were a lot of entries where the person buried was described as being “from the Castle”. I didn’t have time then to write down all the entries, so made a note to return to look at them properly one day. Recently, the parish registers for Gloucestershire have been put onto Ancestry, so last week I made use of my annual subscription to thoroughly study the St Nicholas burial registers.

Until the new prison was opened in 1791, the old Gloucester castle was used as the county’s gaol. As well as prisoners waiting to be tried and convicts, it held debtors, people who could not or would not pay fines, and also it was used as the county house of correction, holding people who had committed minor offences (misdemeanours). The castle was included in the parish of St Nicholas, which was a wealthy parish with a large population in the 16th century, when it’s first registers began. The church stands in lower Westgate Street. It had it’s own burial ground, behind the church, from the early 15th century.

St Nicholas Parish Church, Gloucester. Etched by J. Le Keux from a picture by W.H. Bartlett. In "Picturesque Antiquities of the English Cities", by John Britton, 1836.

St Nicholas Parish Church, Gloucester. Etched by J. Le Keux from a picture by W.H. Bartlett. In “Picturesque Antiquities of the English Cities”, by John Britton, 1836.

In total, between 1558 and 1785, I discovered that there were 338 burials which were of people who either were described as being from the Castle, or as prisoners. Not all of those from the Castle were prisoners; staff were included among the burials too, and many entries did not specify.

Breaking down the analysis into separate registers, the first, covering 1558 to 1706, was perhaps the most interesting, giving more detail than in the later volumes. This register held 98 relevant entries. 77 of these were of people from the Castle. Of these, 20 were specifically described as prisoners and 15 as debtors. There were also 4 children of prisoners and 6 members of staff from the Castle. 19 other entries did not mention the Castle and the people were described just as prisoners, and another 2 obviously were prisoners, from the circumstances of their deaths.

I was very interested to see that there were two burials were of executed prisoners in this register:

24 May 1562, John Hawkins, a presoner whoe suffered deathe in the Castell.

25 Feb 1601, one Saint John, a presoner and a gentleman, who was executed for a robberie.

Another man should have been executed but died before his sentence could be carried out:

28 March 1582, Thomas Veysey who should have been executed and dyed in the boothall after his judgement.

And another strange entry which might just refer to an execution, or could indicate an accident or even a murder:

27 Feb 1590 was Buryed one that was killed at the Assizes.

Some other unusual entries in this register were:

21 July 1573, William Jones,  farmer who dyed in the Castell.

25 Aug 1588, One Butler once of the Castell.

23 Oct 1592, Thomas Thomson a papist out of the Castell.

6 Oct 1703, a girl, and 7 Oct 1703, her mother, both from the Castle; They were drown’d.

How I wish there was a newspaper in that era to investigate that last one!

The next register included the burials from 1707 to 1760. This register contained the largest number of relevant entries, totalling 189. All of the burials stated that the person was from the Castle. 30 of those people were described as prisoners and 16 as debtors, but the majority just said “from the Castle”. Sometimes the name of the person buried was not known and their burial entry would read “A prisoner from the Castle”. None of the prisoners were said to have been executed.

More unusual entries in this register include:

19 Dec 1707, John Allison, Tapster at the Castle.

Until June 1783, the keeper was allowed to run a taproom to sell beer in the gaol, hence the employment of a “tapster”.

8 Aug 1709, a Base child from the Castle.

25 March 1741, A Boy from the Castle.

19 March 1742, A Vagrant Girl from the Castle.

St Nicholas Church, in Westgate Street (Jill Evans, 2010).

The next register contained burials from 1760 to 1809. This register held 51 relevant entries, but none after 1785. All of the entries either described the person buried as being “from the Castle”, or just had “Castle” written next to their names. Two people were described as convicts, but none were called prisoners or debtors.  There was one member of staff buried, and one child of a (supposed) prisoner:

31 Aug 1772, Thomas Pritchard, Turnkey at the Castle.

5 Nov 1777, James son of Mary Morgan – Castle.

Another interesting entry was:

13 March 1770, George Webb from the Castle, a Black.

In conclusion, it is evident that many deceased inmates of Gloucester Castle gaol were buried at St Nicholas Church. These burial records do not account for all of those who died at the Castle, though. When Sir George Onesiphorus Paul was campaigning for a new county prison to be built in Gloucester, he gave a speech in August 1783, in which he spoke of outbreaks of gaol fever and smallpox in the Castle during that year, which had resulted in the deaths of 14 prisoners. None of these were buried at St Nicholas. It might be that some had families who took them back to their own parishes, or possibly they went to the Infirmary for dissection, or were disposed of by whatever means was practised in the case of contagious diseases. Also, none of the prisoners who were executed at Over were brought back to St Nicholas for burial, so what became of most of them (that is, those who were not anatomized) is still unknown.

Sources:

The parish registers for St Nicholas, Gloucester, are held at Gloucestershire Archives. The burial registers examined here have reference numbers PFC154/15 IN 1/1, 1/2, and 1/3. I looked at the registers on Ancestry.co.uk.

Herbert, N.M., ed., A History of the County of Gloucester, Volume IV, Gloucester (Victoria County History, 1988).

Whiting, J.R.S., Prison Reform in Gloucestershire, 1776-1820 (1975)

 

 

“Matron Wanted at the County Prison”: Gloucester, 1845-67

Gloucester County Prison held both male and female inmates from its opening in 1791 until the early 1900s, when it became and all-male establishment. In the first set of Prison Rules, published in 1790, there was no mention of a matron or any other female warders being appointed to supervise the women prisoners. However, a matron must have been taken on some time in the first ten years of the new prison’s existence, because on 11 December 1800, it was noted in the journal of the Visiting Justices that it had been discovered that Mrs Kent, the matron, had been smuggling soap out of the prison. Mrs Kent was dismissed by the magistrates at the next meeting of the County Quarter Sessions. In 1808, revised Rules were published, and this time it was stipulated that a salaried Matron should be employed, who would be in charge of the female prisoners and supervise their work in the laundry, as well being responsible for the prison’s linen.

Advertisement in Gloucester Journal, 27 July 1867, courtesy of British Newspaper Archive.

Advertisement in Gloucester Journal, 27 July 1867, courtesy of British Newspaper Archive. (Image copyright of The British Library Board. All rights reserved.)

It became evident whilst researching the female staff at Gloucester Prison that as well as Mrs Kent, a number of matrons were dismissed for breaking the Rules in some way. In fact, between 1845 and 1867, three successive matrons either were sacked or resigned before they could be dismissed.

The first of these matrons was Mrs Susan Peel. In the Visiting Justices’ Journal, an entry dated 18 October 1845 noted that Mrs Peel had been dismissed by the Quarter Sessions, after it had been discovered that she had been getting female prisoners to make caps, shawls and collars, which were sent to London to be sold. The prisoners also had been making shirts for her, and other articles for two other female officers. On 1 November 1845, an advertisement appeared in the Gloucester Journal, for a person to fill the office of matron at the County Prison. It was stipulated that she must be able to write and keep a journal. Her salary would start at fifty pounds per annum.

Mrs Peel’s replacement was Mrs Mary Bedwell. This matron seems to have carried out her duties to the satisfaction of the officials, but ten years after her appointment, she was obliged to resign, due to an incident involving her under-matron. The goings-on at the prison were discussed in detail at the Easter meeting of the County Quarter Sessions, held in March 1855.  It transpired that a few months earlier, a female debtor had been brought to Gloucester Prison from Bristol, by a Sheriff’s Officer. They arrived at about nine o’clock in the evening, and the lodge-keeper took them to the under-matron, who was on duty that night. Unfortunately, the under-matron, named Wigmore, fell down drunk in front of the sheriff’s officer and several other people, and had to be taken to her apartment, while another officer took charge of the debtor.

When the matron heard of her subordinate’s behaviour, she decided to make light of it and told the governor that Wigmore had been “fresh” that night. The prison chaplain and surgeon also became acquainted with what had happened, but the Visiting Justices were not informed. Unfortunately, the matter was mentioned by the Sheriff’s Officer at the Bristol Council House, and word got back to the Gloucester Magistrates. At a subsequent inquiry, Wigmore said she had got caught in the rain while shopping and had taken a drop of gin to warm herself up and ward off a chill. As she was not accustomed to drinking spirits, she had felt the effects of the alcohol later on. Mrs Bedwell stated that she had just wanted to preserve the reputation of her subordinate, and to retain the services of an otherwise efficient officer. The inquiry resulted in Wigmore being suspended and Mrs Bedwell resigned, saying she was suffering from an increasingly debilitating illness.

The Quarter Sessions confirmed the dismissal of Wigmore, and also censured the governor, chaplain and medical officer for not informing the Visiting Justices of what had occurred. There was also criticism of the lodge-keeper and a male industrial officer named Coates, who, it now was revealed, had been in Wigmore’s apartment when she was returned there in a drunken state. Coates had stated at the inquiry that he had been returning something he had borrowed from her.

At the next meeting of the County Quarter Sessions, held in July 1855, a memorial from the former matron, Mary Bedwell, was read out to the magistrates. She requested that she might be awarded a retirement pension, “in consideration of the helpless debility to which she had been reduced by assiduously attending to her duties between nine and ten years in an artificially heated atmosphere, with frequent changes to cold draughts, and being now wholly without resources for the future.” The Chairman of the Quarter Sessions said that he could not recommend that any favourable notice be taken of the memorial, and the subject was dropped.

The next matron was Miss Ellen Gillett, who was appointed in March 1855. She had been the deputy superintendent of the female department of Brixton Prison before coming to Gloucester. Twelve years went by peacefully, but in July 1867, another notice appeared in the Gloucester Journal, advertising for a new matron at the prison. Her salary would be £75 per year, and she would have unfurnished apartments in the prison, with fuel and light.

At the next Quarter Sessions meeting, held in October 1867, it was revealed that a charge had been brought against Miss Gillett by the Inspector of Prisons, and she “had been called upon for an explanation of certain irregularities at the female prison.” Details were not given, except that the matter involved “the disposal of some articles”. Miss Gillett and the under-matron had resigned as a result. It was stated that although the charge against her had been the immediate cause of her resignation, the matron had been in a very nervous state for some time, due to over-attention to her duties and lack of relaxation time.

Miss Gillett was replaced by Mrs Renwick, who only stayed in the position of matron at Gloucester Prison for one year. She did not leave under a cloud, however, as her resignation was due to her moving to Brixton Prison as Deputy Superintendent. Her successor (whose name I have not been able to discover) stayed for five years before resigning, then from 1873, Miss Marshall took on the position of matron. She stayed in the post for twenty years, then resigned and soon afterwards got married. Unlike the unfortunate Mrs Bedwell, Miss Marshall was awarded a pension.

 

Sources:

Gloucester Journal, 1 Nov 1845; 10 Feb, 24 March, 7 July 1855; 27 July, 19 Oct 1867, 20 June 1868; 4 Jan, 18 Oct 1873; 7 Jan, 8 Apr 1893.

Gloucestershire Archives, Quarter Sessions, Gloucester County Prison, Visiting Justices Journals, 11 Dec 1800 (Q/Gc1/1) and 18 Oct 1845 (Q/Gc1/5).

J.R.S. Whiting, Prison Reform in Gloucestershire, 1776-1820 (Phillimore, 1975).