By Haydn Brown.
In 1853, Tittleshall-cum-Godwick, to give the parish its correct name, still remained in Central Norfolk, about 5 miles south of the market town of Fakenham and about the same north-west of East Dereham. Godwick itself was once a separate and ancient parish, standing north-east of Tittleshall, but way back in 1630, both Godwick and Wellingham were consolidated with that of Tittleshall. By 1853 the joint benefices were valued at around £871 per annum, with the Earl of Leicester its patron and the Reverend Kenelam Hy Digby B.A, the Rector, supported by the Reverend Robert Sayers, the curate. The parish tithes were set at £681 and it held a Glebe, the size of which was 58 acres, 3 roods, and 8 perch.
Tittleshall itself was, and still is, compact and set around a three-way junction of lanes leading to Fakenham, Stanfield and Litcham. In 1853 it was considered “a well-built village” of some 615 inhabitants, 124 houses and 3360 acres of land, which included 300 acres of “woods and waste”, nearly all owned by the Earl of Leicester. Those who lived and worked in Tittleshall included every skill that one would expect in a mid-19th Century rural village – from a blacksmith, miller, bricklayer, wheelwright, cooper, baker, saddler and tailor. There were three butchers, eight farmers, two shoemakers, two shopkeepers, plus James Best, a Carrier who plied his services to and from Norwich on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and between Lynn on Mondays and Thursdays.
In 1853, Tittleshall was not the place where anyone would expect a murder to be committed!
William Thompson (convicted murderer): lived and worked in the parish; he was around 21 years of age and a labourer, chiefly employed as a tree-feller. It would appear that neither he not his father, with whom William lived, were what might be termed up-right members of the community. There is no record of the son being baptised in the church of St Marys, although there were a number of ‘Thompsons’ living around who had been baptised there in the past; the menfolk were all, except one, labourers. Whatever, William got up to did included owing money to others – and this must have been a problem for him.
Lorenz Beha (victim): was, at an earlier time a German Catholic immigrant from Baden-Baden who had settled in St Stephen’s Plain, Norwich, opening a business there and building up to employing two assistants. He was a watchmaker and dealer in jewellery by profession who occasionally travelled throughout Norfolk selling his goods and taking orders for future deliveries. Whenever he travelled, he usually carried his goods in a bag which was tied to the end of a stick that rested on his shoulders. When he was away from his business, he trusted his two assistants to take care of everything back in Norwich.
For an account of what happened, both on Friday, 25 November 1853 and subsequently, we have to rely on the many newspapers accounts which were published in both local and national broadsheets at the time, such was the interest whipped up by the Press. For this account, we take The Leader Newspaper, 26th November 1853, Page 8 and The Household Narrative of 1853 – both almost identical:
It would seem that on that particular Friday in November, Lorenz Beha set out on another of his regular visits to the Tittleshall area; maybe this time to deliver the product of a previous order, probably to collect money owed either as a full payment, or as a further instalment on a watch or piece of jewellery then in the hands of the customer. His trusted account book would be tucked into an inside pocket as he gave instructions to his assistant; then a last-minute check on the contents of his bag and a glance at the weather to judge what it was likely to do over the next few hours or so. When he left, he would not have known that he would not return to his shop in St Stephens.
His means of transport to his first call at Wellingham is not known, but the weather must have been kind for he decided to walk from there to Tittleshall, which was barely two miles distance and not far from Fakenham. This need to walk may have been a habit of his and, undoubtedly, he was a familiar sight in the area with his stick and suspended bag over his shoulder with its contents of jewellery, plus gold and silver watches secured inside. At about one o ‘ clock in the day, he was about mid-way and approaching a plantation; we know this because he was seen by two labourers, the Roper brothers, who were ploughing in an adjoining field. Maybe neither acknowledged the other for both parties could well have been preoccupied with the job in hand; they toiled and he kept walking. From later information obtained from Beha’s assistants back in Norwich, their employer would have been carrying about £30 in cash at the time, usually carried in a double purse which accompanied a few more watches which he was accustomed to carry in his jacket pockets. At this point the story cuts out and for a time we know nothing.
The plantation mentioned above stretched across both sides of the road with one side of the plantation ending at Tittleshall Common. It was certainly after one o’clock, but before three when several persons passed along the road at this spot on their way to Dereham Market; all of them, it seems, observed a quantity of blood in the middle of the road. However, having no suspicion of a murder having been committed, certainly in the middle of the day and on a spot so frequently used, they continued their journey without stopping. It was left to John Robinson, a butcher living in Tittleshall, who at 3.30pm, and having walked from Wellingham, reached the same spot where his attention was directed to the same quantity of blood on the road. He noticed that some portion of the blood had been partially covered by dirt and sand scraped from the road as if to conceal its presence.
Just at that moment of deliberation, the sons of the Reverend Digby of St Mary’s, came riding up on ponies along with two ladies in a gig, they being Mrs Digby and Miss Sheppard. The whole party struck up a conversation as their collective attention was fix on the patches of blood. One of the young gentlemen was sharp enough to notice that there was also a small trail of blood leading from the road to the hedge that separated one side of the planation from the road. This triggered John Robinson to also notice that the trail continued through the fence into a ditch where “a horrible spectacle was presented”.
The body of Mr Lorenz Beha was found with his legs towards the hedge and the coat-collar up, as if the corpse had been dragged by his coat-collar through-the fence. Beside the body lay Mr Beha’s box of jewellery unopened, but taken out of the bag; his stick and umbrella and also a large hatchet, such as is used for felling timber. The blade of the hatchet was covered with blood and hair, and it was evidently the weapon by which the unfortunate man had been murdered. The pockets of his trousers had been turned inside out, and rifled; but the account-book was still to be found in Beha’s pocket, along with his waistcoat pocket-watch, still ticking away:
“His head had been nearly severed from his body by a blow at the back of the neck, and there were four deeply-cut wounds across the temples and face, any one of which would have caused death. The right eye was driven inwards to the depth of nearly an inch; indeed, the poor man appeared to have been felled like an ox, and dragged into the ditch.”
The party of ladies and gentlemen returned to Tittleshall, and gave information of the murder to the Rector, who sent a cart to the spot and, with the assistance of the butcher, John Robinson, and two ploughmen who, apparently, were the same as those seeing Beha walk passed earlier, carried the body to the Griffin Inn, in Tittleshall. At no time then, or well into the evening did anyone suspect who the perpetrator of such a crime may have been. It was not until late into the evening, when another of the village butchers, named William Webster, said that when he was driving in his cart to Wellingham, at about one o ‘ clock earlier in the day, he noticed a man in the plantation adjoining the ditch where the body was found. He added that when he passed by the man stooped down as if to hide himself. Webster mentioned all this at Wellingham and as soon as he had heard of the murder; at the time he did not say who he thought the man may have been. However, at ten o’clock that same night, Webster decided to visit the house of John Hooks, a parish constable, and pass on his belief that the man he had seen in the plantation was William Thompson, a labourer, living with his father at Tittleshall, and who was frequently employed in felling timber.
Constables Hooks, together with Constable Moore went immediately to Thompson’s house where they found him in bed; they ordered him to get up rise and dress himself. He did so, but putting on different and ‘sloppy’ [dress in an untidy or casual manner] clothing from those he had worn during the day. The constables found on the bed a pair of trousers, the legs of which, together with the left pocket, were soaked with blood. In the lower room they found a pair of ‘highlows’ [boots], with blood on the lace holes. They asked Thompson for his hatchet, but he could not produce it, and he made no statement as an explanation.
Further evidence came to light as a result of police enquiries. A Mr S. Hermann of Lynn and a friend and former partner of Lorenz Beha went to Tittleshall on the Sunday morning knowing that the latter, in the course of his journey that weekend, intended to take a watch to a person in the village. At first, no watch was found during the initial search of the Thompson’s premises, but in view of the evidence received, a more thorough search was made. During the course of that search the police officers opened the oven door to find several pairs of boots. “Oh, that have been searched before.” said the father of William Thompson. However, the officers persisted and a watch was indeed found behind those boots; this watch had the name L. Beha as watchmaker engraved on its back. Then, in the chimney they found another watch by the same maker. In the water closet they found a canvas bag, or purse, containing a Geneva watch, two £5 notes of the Lynn & Lincolnshire Bank, two sovereigns, four half sovereigns and £1 in silver. In the house were found a bunch of watch keys. As a result of all this evidence, William Thompson was arrested and, because there was no police station nearer than Fakenham, was taken to the Griffin Inn [previously the Golden Wyvern], at Tittleshall, the licensee of which was Elizabeth Bacon.
On the following day Webster identified the prisoner as the same man that he had seen in the plantation just before the murder was committed. Then the Roper brothers, who had been working near the plantation and had seen Lorenz Beha earlier, stated that they also met the prisoner coming from the direction of where the body was found – “he seemed to be in great haste, and perspired profusely.” They had asked that person “what o’clock it was. He pulled out, a hunting-watch from his trousers’ pocket, and he said it was half-past one o’clock.” Further damming evidence which tended to confirm the strong suspicion of Thompson’s guilt was also discovered at his house.
There followed the Trial, Sentence, Confession and Execution of William Thompson, the proceedings of which were summarised and printed by Gifford, Printer & Publisher of St Benedicts, Norwich for distribution amongst the public, such was its interest. It went along the following lines:
William Thompson, 21, was charged with wilful murdering Lorenz Beha of Tittleshall on the 18th of November and stealing from him two £5 bank notes, two sovereigns, twenty shillings, a six pence, a four-penny piece, 3 silver watches of the value of £15, twelve watch-keys, sixteen box keys of the value of 3s and one purse, value 6p. [All the property of Lorenz Beha.]
Mr Evans and Mr Bulver appeared for the prosecution, and Mr Cooper for the defence.
The prisoner appeared, on the whole, to be careless and indifferent as to the result of the result of the proceedings against him. The following evidence was then adduced.
Harriet Ewing said: I am the wife of Robert Ewing and live in Wellingham. On November 18th I saw Lorenz Beha, he had a carpet-bag with him. He was in the habit of coming to my house once a month. He generally came at noon on Friday’s. He stayed at my house for about five minutes; on leaving my house he went on Tittleshall road; that road led him past Mr Norton’s plantation.
John Robertson: I live at Tittleshall and am a butcher by trade. Tittleshall is about a mile from Wellingham. When near Mr Norton’s Plantation I observe some blood in the road; this was about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. I was the right-side of the road. In the ditch I observed a body and saw more blood I procured the assistance of four persons and soon after this the clergyman, Mr Digby, came up. We examined the body; the face was very much cut. The trousers were turned inside out. There was a box lying by and a bag, the box was locked. A stich lain on the right side of the body, and also an umbrella; we also found a hatchet in the ditch, there was a great deal of blood on it, the body was the body of Mr Lorenz Beha. It was removed to the Griffin public house in Tittleshall.
Mr J Jump, Surgeon: I am a surgeon and live at Litcham. I was shown the body on the evening of the murder. It was shown me as the body of Belia. On the following Monday I examined it minutely.
William Webster: I am a butcher, residing at Tittleshall. I left my home about half-past eleven on the morning of the day of the murder. I passed the place about a quarter to twelve. I saw Thompson near the plantation. He had a slop and a cap on.
Mr Cooper, counsel for the prisoner, then made a very able defence. The jury, after a very brief deliberation, returned a verdict of GUILTY.
The Clerk of the Arraigns: William Thompson you have been found guilty of the wilful murder of Lorenza Belia. What have you to say why sentence of death should not be passed upon you –
The Prisoner’s Defence:
I left my father’s house, Tittleshall, on Friday, November 18th at about half past eleven o’clock in the forenoon and went for a walk up the Wellingham road. When I got up to Mr Riches’ Plantation it was about twelve. I saw a man get up from the bushes in the plantation. He asked me if I knew what time it was; I told him that I thought it was about twelve. I then walked on and saw him either lying or sitting down in the same place. When I got around the corner to Mr Norton’s plantation, which was about one hundred yards from the place where I first saw the man, I got over the fence to ease myself. While I was doing so, William Webster, the butcher, came past, there was a man standing in the ditch by the side of the dead body, he was bent over it. I saw his hand was wet and daubed with blood. I asked him what he was after, ho immediately got out of the ditch and got hold of me round my legs and daubed my trousers with blood; he begged of me not to tell anyone, he said if I did, he would chop me down. I see him take out the purse some money, he then put his hands into his waistcoat pocket he pulled 5 watches, 3 he gave me, I said I would not have them, he said I should, he is a dark person. I never saw him no more till I got to Roper, that is all I can say about it.
The Judge’s Address:
At the time of this trial in 1854 the judge would have been addresses as ‘The Right Honourable Sir James Parke’ As such, he assumed the black cap and proceeded to pass sentence of death:
“Prisoner at the bar, you have been found guilty of wilful murder, upon evidence as clear as conclusive, and decisive as I ever heard in a court of justice – It is now my painful duty to pass the sentence of the court upon you. That you be taken to the place from whence you came, and from thence to the place of execution that you be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that your body shall be buried in the precincts of the prison.”
(Aged 21, William Thompson was executed at Norwich on Saturday, 8 April 1854 for the wilful murder of Lorenz Beha at Tittleshall, Norfolk.)
At an early hour, the space before the Prison was crowded to excess by persons of both sects anxious to witness the execution of the wretched prisoner, which increased to such a degree that a number of people suffered from the pressure. The Sheriff, with their attendants arrived at the prison, they then proceeded to the condemned cell, where they found the Rev Ordinary engaged in prayer with the wretched culprit. After the usual formalities had been observed of demanding the delivery of the body of the prisoner into their custody, he was conducted to the press room where the executioner with his assistants then commenced pinioning his arms. During these awful preparations the unhappy man appeared mentally to suffer severely. All the arrangements having been completed, the prisoner, who then, trembled violently walked with the melancholy procession, preceded by the Rev Ordinary who read aloud and in a distinct tone, the burial service for the dead. Whilst the executioner was adjusting the fatal apparatus of death, the prisoner was deeply absorbed in prayer, the executioner, having drawn the cap over his face, retired from the scaffold and the signal having been given, the bolt was withdrawn and the unhappy man was launched into eternity. He was seen to struggle for a few moments, after which he ceased to exist.
There have been many murders and villainous exploits in this large County over the years and many of them have become internationally renowned. This event is less well known.
William Thompson made a full confession while lying under the sentence of death.
There was once a story that went around to the effect that Lorenz Beha owed William Thompson some money, Hmm?
There is said to be a tree in Wellingham woods, between Wellingham and Tittleshall that has an axe mark on it with a ‘T’ above it and a ‘B’ underneath = ‘T axed B’!
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