A postman shot at Christmas: Chedworth, 1924

IPN1Jan1925

Sketches of the Chedworth shooting in the Illustrated Police News, 1 Jan 1925, via British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk). The victim was originally named as George Gardner, later corrected to William. The ‘Mrs Gardner’ who came to his aid was probably his wife, not his mother.

 

On the morning of 24 December 1924, postman William Gardner left his house in Lower Chedworth to go to work at his usual time of seven o’clock. As he turned to close his front door, a gun shot rang out and Gardner fell to the ground. Mrs Gardner and neighbours who had heard the gunshot came outside and went to the aid of the wounded man. He was taken to Cirencester Memorial Hospital, with severe injuries to his face, and other wounds on his body.

The assailant was quickly identified as being another postman, Frederick Broad, who had resigned from his job the previous day. Just before the shooting, a man named Arthurs had met Broad going towards Gardener’s house, dressed in his post office uniform. Arthurs thought he saw Broad throw something into the long grass beside the path. He wished him ‘good morning’ and Broad muttered a reply. After they had passed each other, Arthurs looked back and saw Broad retracing his steps, as if going to retrieve something he had hidden.

The police were called and Superintendent Wyman of Northleach station was informed. Wyman soon arrived in Chedworth and headed a search party which set off to hunt for Broad. He was tracked past a farm and along a lane to Chedworth Woods, but then the trail was lost. However, in the meantime, a railway ganger had come across Broad’s mangled body lying next to the railway line, about three hundred yards from a tunnel and not far from the Roman villa. A double-barrelled shotgun lay nearby. His remains were taken to Chedworth railway station.

On the following day, an inquest was opened by Mr Morton Ball, the Stroud coroner, at Chedworth Police Station. At this time, a jury was sworn in and evidence was taken from William John Broad, the deceased man’s brother, who had identified the body. He stated that his brother was a single man, 24 years of age. His general state of health had been good physically, but he had been ‘somewhat strange at times’ and had been seeing a doctor. He had served in the Army during the late conflict, and was demobilised in the usual way at the end of the war. The inquest then was adjourned until 1 January. Meanwhile, William Gardner continued to be cared for at Cirencester Memorial Hospital, where his condition was said to be ‘fairly satisfactory’. His jaw had been shot away, but there were hopes for his recovery.

Between Christmas and New Year, the local press investigated the background to the incident and spoke to some Chedworth residents. It was reported that Broad had lately developed ‘several peculiarities’ and had been very upset about some changes made at his work. The postal rounds at Chedworth had been altered recently, and Broad had been given a new, shorter route, which meant he was paid slightly less money. His former round had been taken over by William Gardner, a colleague of many years service, and Broad had become convinced that the older man held some responsibility for the changes. He had resigned with immediate effect on the day before the shooting and another Chedworth man named Percy Mabberley had been appointed to take over his job in the sudden emergency.

As speculation grew that Broad must have done something wrong to have his round changed, the Cheltenham Postmaster made a statement in which made it clear that there was nothing personal in the alteration of the rounds. ‘No report whatever had reached me of any unsatisfactory working on the part of Broad which would lead to his being changed from one duty to another. Whatever action has been taken is not the outcome of any complaint about duty. The fact of the matter is we have reorganised the whole of the postal service in the district in connection with the motor work.’

On 1 January 1925, the inquest into the death of Frederick Broad was resumed, at the YMCA Hut, Chedworth. The first witness called was the father of the deceased, William Trotman Broad, a mason, living in Chedworth. He stated that at half past six on the morning of December 23rd, his son opened his bedroom door and said he was going to assist Mr Mabberley (his replacement) in bringing in the mail. He was dressed in his postal uniform. Broad senior advised his son to remain at home, go downstairs and light the fire. When he came downstairs, his son had gone. At breakfast the deceased’s mother heard the report of a gun, and looking up at their gun rack, he saw that Fred’s gun was missing.

Peter James Morse, an engine driver in the employ of the Great Western Railway, and living in Cheltenham, stated that on 23 December he was the driver of the train leaving Andover Junction at 8 am. He pulled up at Chedworth, and on leaving the station, also on reaching the tunnel, sounded the whistle. On coming out of the tunnel and on entering the cutting he thought the engine struck a small stone. He did not see a man on the line, but later was told that he had probably knocked someone down. He inspected the engine and found no evidence of a collision, but he was afterwards told that there were some marks on one of the coaches.

James Buttle, a ganger of Withington, employed by the Great Western Railway, stated that on the morning of December 23rd he was walking along the line from Withington in the direction of Chedworth Tunnel. He saw a passing train and some distance on he discovered the arm and hand of a man lying in the six-foot way. About 800 yards further on, he found the body of the deceased lying in the four-foot way, and terribly mutilated. Death must have been instantaneous. The witness added that there was no public crossing or footway near where the body was found.

In summing up, the Coroner said it was perfectly clear that the deceased was killed by a passing train. What the jury had to ask themselves was: Did he deliberately place himself on the line; and if so, they had further to consider the state of his mind at the time. The jury returned a verdict of suicide whilst of unsound mind, and expressed their sympathy with the parents and relatives in their sad bereavement.

The funeral of Frederick Broad was held on the afternoon of Saturday, 3 January, at Chedworth Church. There were only a few private mourners, but about twelve parishioners came to the service. The parents were ‘too ill’ to attend.

 

Sources

Cheltenham Chronicle, 27 Dec 1924 and 3 Jan 1925

Illustrated Police News, 1 Jan 1925

Gloucester Journal, 3 Jan 1925

All accessed on http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

 

©Jill Evans 2017

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Buried at the crossroads: William Birt, 1791

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tewkesburydetail1835

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

 

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

 

Sources

Gloucester Journal, 11 April 1791, 18 August 1791

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

Gloucestershire Archives:

Gaol Calendars, Easter 1791 (Q/SG1)

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

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

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

© Jill Evans 2017