A Foul Murder on the Cotswold Hills, 1902

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

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

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

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

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


Illustrated Police News, 23 August 1902

Gloucestershire Echo, 16 August and 30 August1902

© Jill Evans 2017



Murder on the River Severn, 1818

On 3 November 1818, three men set off from Woolaston  together in a boat, making their way down the River Severn to Bristol. The three were William Burton and William Syms, and the owner of the boat, named Hurd. After transacting some business in Bristol for a few days, the men had intended to go  home, but the weather was bad, so they spent a night at a public house in Pill.  Syms had plenty of money to buy drinks, and was seen to put three five pound notes in his left breeches pocket. Burton was broke, but managed to down eleven pints of beer.

On the following morning, Hurd decided to stay behind to carry out some more business,  and Burton and Syms set off for home. They were seen in the boat together, leaving Pill, but only Burton arrived back at Woolaston. When Burton was questioned about the whereabouts of Syms, he gave contradictory answers, first saying that he had stayed behind at Pill, then that he had asked to be dropped off at Eastern Point, and had spoken about going to America. It was noticed that Burton, an ex-sailor who was always short of money, now had plenty to spend.

About a fortnight after Burton came home alone, the body of William Syms was found floating in the river, about twenty miles up stream from Woolaston. His skull was fractured and the left pocket of his breeches was turned inside out. Burton was taken into custody and questioned. He said a sailor he knew in Bristol had lent him £8, but it was proved that he had come home with far more money than that. Burton was committed to Gloucester Gaol on 22 November, to await trial. William Syms was buried in the parish church at Alvington, near Woolaston, on 1 December 1818. He was twenty-four years old.



St Andrew’s Parish church, Alvington. Burial place of William Syms. (www.geograph.org.uk. Copyright Stuart Wilding, 2006. Licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.)

The trial of William Burton took place on 6 April 1819, at the Gloucestershire Assizes. The prosecution called twenty-three witnesses to give evidence; the defence called none, but cross-examined all of the prosecution witnesses. Despite this, the jury took only five minutes to find Burton guilty of the murder of William Syms. The judge sentenced him to be hanged, after which his body was to be delivered for dissection.

In the condemned cell at Gloucester Prison, William Burton persisted in claiming his innocence. On the morning of his execution, which took place on 8 April, two days after his trial, he barricaded himself inside his cell and the prison officials had to break through the wall of the neighbouring cell to get him out. He was hanged on the roof of the prison gatehouse.


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

Original information from the Gloucester Journal.

Photograph: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/154422









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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A note on the New Inn:

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



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

© Jill Evans 2016



A Poisoner Gibbeted at Cheltenham, 1777

'Two Gentlemen Regarding the Gibbets with Satisfaction', from The Newgate Calendar. (www.exclassics.com)

‘Two Gentlemen Regarding the Gibbets with Satisfaction’, from The Newgate Calendar. (www.exclassics.com)

In the year 1776, Cheltenham was a fashionable spa town, visited by ladies and gentlemen from all over the country. Among those visiting in September of that year were Captain William Pierce A’Court and his wife Katherine, whose family seat was at Heytesbury in Wiltshire. Accompanying the couple were their three daughters and four servants, including footman Joseph Armstrong. Thirty-year-old Armstrong had been hired by Captain A’Court shortly before the visit to Cheltenham. Mrs A’Court took an immediate dislike to the new servant, and when valuables began to go missing from the household, she was sure that he was responsible. She told her husband that she would like Armstrong to be dismissed.

Not long after their arrival in Cheltenham, Mrs A’Court started to feel ill, and her symptoms persisted and increased over the course of ten days, until she died in a state of agony, on 23 September. She was 32 years old. A post mortem examination showed that “her bowels were found mortified”, and Captain A’Court, suspecting that Armstrong might have had a part to play in his wife’s demise, had his belongings searched. In the footman’s chest, he found some of the family’s missing valuables, plus two empty arsenic papers. By this time, Armstrong had left Cheltenham in a hurry. A pursuit began, and he was followed along the London Road, until eventually he was discovered in some woodland, hiding up a tree.

During his time in Gloucester Gaol, awaiting trial, Armstrong denied that he had played any part in causing the death of his mistress. In March 1777, he appeared at the Gloucestershire Assizes, charged with petty treason, in poisoning his master’s lady, Mrs A’Court. (For a servant to murder his or her master or mistress was classed as petty treason, because it was regarded as akin to a subject murdering his or her sovereign.) It was stated that Armstrong had poisoned Mrs A’Court by adding small quantities of arsenic to her tea and beer. The former footman continued to deny the charge, but after a trial lasting eight hours, he was found guilty. The judge, Mr Baron Perryn, sentenced Armstrong to be hanged and his body dissected. His execution was to take place on 17 March.

On the morning of 17 March 1777, Joseph Armstrong asked the gaoler and other officials to leave him alone in his cell for a few minutes, to pray and compose himself for what was to come. When the gaoler returned, he found that Armstrong was dead. He had managed to hang himself with a leather strap. The authorities, robbed of their public display of justice being administered, decided that instead of being sent for dissection, Armstrong’s body should be hung in chains in or near Cheltenham, as close to the scene of the murder as possible. In this way, Armstrong would still be punished for his crime, and his hanging body would act a deterrent to other potential wrong-doers.

None of the contemporary newspaper reports stated exactly where Armstrong’s body was gibbeted, but the Cheltenham Chronicle of 3 June 1922 recounted the tale of the murderous footman, as told in a book published in 1863: “Norman’s History of Cheltenham“, by John Goding. This account of the murder contains a number of inaccuracies, but it does give some interesting information on where the gibbet was situated.

According to this work, Armstrong’s body was chained up on a hastily-constructed gibbet in an area “a little below North Lodge, late residence of Lord Dunally, called ‘The Marsh’.” This was an open area, north-west of Cheltenham, where fashionable visitors went riding or drove in their carriages. Armstrong was brought from Gloucester on a low, horse-drawn truck, and a crowd watched as the body was suspended in chains upon the gibbet. After an hour, the cross-bar broke from the weight of the chains and the corpse plummeted to the ground. After a repair was made, the body was suspended once again and left there to rot.

The “precise spot” of the gibbet, according to Goding, was “in the by-lane behind Lord Dunally’s residence, leading to the Marle-hill estate, and in almost a direct line with Dunally Street and Henrietta Street, the ancient ‘Fleece-lane’. ” (According to the WordPress site, Cheltonia, a part of Lord Dunally’s former residence, North Lodge, still remains in St Paul’s Road.)

Norman’s History of Cheltenham goes on to say that about twelve months after the body was first gibbeted, it disappeared, and members of the Armstrong family were rumoured to have removed it. However, decades later, when the ground was enclosed, the gibbet posts, which had remained in place for all those years, were removed, and a skeleton was discovered, wrapped in chains, buried a few feet under the ground. Goding states that Armstrong’s skull was bought by a surgeon, Dr Minster, and the skeleton by Dr Newell, another medical man. The main gibbet posts were taken to Clonbrook House and used for gateposts.

As for the body of Katherine A’Court, she was buried in the graveyard of St Mary’s Parish Church, and a handsome marble tablet was erected in the chancel, to her memory. The monumental inscription was transcribed in Norman’s History of Cheltenham (with”William P. A’Court” mistakenly read by the author as “William P.A. Court”). The inscription relates how she died by poison, “Administered by the hands of a Cruelly Wicked Livery Servant Whose Resentment, at being detected in Theft, Prompted him to Perpetrate this horrid and Execrable Crime”.

Transcription of the Monument to Katherine A'Court, in St Mary's Parish, Church, Cheltenham, reproduced in Goding's "Norman's History of Cheltenham".

Transcription of the Monument to Katherine A’Court, in St Mary’s Parish Church, Cheltenham, reproduced in Goding’s “Norman’s History of Cheltenham”, 1863.



Gloucester Journal, 30 Sept 1776, 17 March 1777

Bath Chronicle, 3 Oct 1776

Cheltenham Chronicle, 3 June 1922, p.4

John Goding, Norman’s History of Cheltenham, 1863, pp.179-182 (via http://www.archive.org)


R. Bigland, Historical, Monumental and Genealogical Collections, Relative to the County of Gloucester, part 1, ed.  Brain Frith (Bristol and Gloucestershire  Archaeological Society, 1989)

© Jill Evans 2016

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.


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.

© 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. (www.exclassics.com)

The execution of Anne Williams, from The Newgate Calendar. (www.exclassics.com)

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 www.englishlegalhistory.wordpress.com.

The punishment of burning at the stake is discussed on Richard Clark’s site, www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/burning.html.

© Jill Evans 2014