By Haydn Brown.
It was a vicious murder that worked its way into 19th century national imagination and also crept into later fiction. Many authors wrote about the crime and the man who perpetrated it. Sir Walter Scott became fascinated by him and even visited the scene of his crime. George Burrows was said to have been at his execution, but certainly wrote about him afterwards as editor of ‘Notable Trials’ when he wrote his personal account of the man’s execution. Scholarly crime studies also made a feature of the man, his background and the reasons for what was a murder, and a gruesome one at that! These studies began to filter through long after the actual gallows, on which the man swung, had long become an exhibit at Madame Tussauds. The murderer’s name was John Thurtell.
John Thurtell is a well-documented person of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, with numerous biographies and studies about him in various forms of print which were published in both the United Kingdom and abroad. His was a short and wretched life where many of the opportunities that were offered to him, or came to him by chance, were wasted and he was best known for his personal brand of criminality. Unfortunately, and despite Thurtell being an intelligent ‘hard’ man, he quickly became a compulsive gambler and seemed to have had no trouble in thriving on the trappings of shady deals and illegal prize-fights which he promoted – and in which he sometimes took part.
Born on 21st December, 1794, Thurtell had every opportunity to make the most of his life in times when to be poor probably meant hardship and deprivation. His parents were financially quite well off in their home at Harford Bridges, which is still just a handful of miles south of Norwich, in the County of Norfolk. It was there where his father Alderman Thomas Thurtell, a prominent merchant and city councellor – who also served as mayor of Norwich in 1828, celebrated the birth of baby John, his first son and the first in an ultimate line of several other children. As thrilled as the father must have been with the baby’s arrival, young John was to become his mother’s favourite child. This may have been one of the reasons why, as a child, John was not sent away for his schooling. A second reason may have been that young John, being an unruly child, had to be kept well within sight at all times when awake and active. Apparently, as John grew older, he became ‘not averse to tying canisters to dog’s tails’ – as George Burrow once put it.
Thurtell was certainly not a scholar and when he eventually went to school in Norwich, he remained permanently poor at both spelling and English Grammar. However, he must have shared the family’s social asperations at least, for he lacked the skills for much else. The truth was that he never applied himself to his studies and always seemed pre-occupied with competitive sports, mainly horse racing and prize-fighting (boxing). It was only after too many tussles for his family’s liking that his father decided that maybe a career in the navy would do young Thurtell good. So, at the age of 15 years, and with a freshly purchased commission by way of his father, John Thurtell joined Company 99 of the Marines as a second lieutenant and set out on 8 May 1809 to Chatham where he undertook a period of training before joining the HMS Adamant, a 50-gun Portland-class fourth rate warship which had just completed its final voyage after a thirty-year career as a fighting ship in the Royal Navy; it had served in the American War of Independence, the French Revolutionary Wars, and the Napoleonic Wars.
During the month that Thurtell joined HMS Adamant, the ship was in the process of being fitted out as a ‘receiving ship’ which would be used, in harbour, to house newly recruited (also ‘impressed’) sailors before they were assigned to a ship’s crew. In the Royal Navy, the use of impressment to collect sailors resulted in the problem of preventing escapees. A receiving ship was part of the solution, for it was difficult to get off such a ship without being detected, and most seamen of the era did not know how to swim! Receiving ships, such as Adamant, were typically older vessels that could still be kept afloat, but were obsolete or no longer battle-worthy.
At the same time as Thurtell was being indoctrinated into his naval role, HMS Adamant was recommissioned under Captain John Sykes and in August 1809, presumably with Thurtell as part of its crew, took part in the ‘Scheldt Operation’ which was aimed at sealing the mouth of the Scheldt to prevent the port of Antwerp from being used as a base against the British Fleet. The primary aim of the whole campaign was to destroy the French fleet thought to be in Flushing whilst providing a diversion for the hard-pressed Austrians. Captain Matthew Buckle took command of HMS Adamant for this operation and was still in post two years later when Rear-Admiral William Albany Otway (not Robert Waller Otway as mentioned in other works – he came to Leith later) adopted the ship as his flagship.
It was on 16 July 1811 when Thurtell was disciplined and discharged from HMS Adamant by Rear Admiral William Albany Otway for misconduct. Beyond this point, real evidence of Thurtell’s immediate life and naval career is non-existent, and therefore some assumptions must be made. For instance, it can be assumed that his discharge was not absolute, for he went on to find another berth with HMS Bellona (another aging ship of the line) on 11 November 1811; just in time to be involved with the ship’s blockade of Dutch ports before a convoy trip to St Helena and back by September 1813 when she returned to the Basque Roads, but was back on blockade duty off Cherbourg by October of that year. From all this, it is clear that Thurtell’s service in the Navy was confined to two old ships which were fit only for blockading duties and not for any degree of real action.
But Thurtell was prone to boasting to his friends and family about his involvement in sea battles; how he stormed the port of San Sebastian on the north coast of Spain for instance. However, Naval records indicate that this and other stories of action on the HMS Bellona were untrue; Bellona was docked at the Isle of Wight on 1 August 1813 when San Sebastian fell and the ship merely cruised past San Sebastian several days after hostilities had ended. He also told a story of how the Bellona captured a brig of war; it was, in fact, an unarmed merchant schooner that surrendered without a fight. By June 1814 there were no further opportunities for his ‘heroism’; this was the month when he resigned his commission and returned to Norwich. Being permanently ashore from this point did not, apparently, curtail his story-telling; and he always seemed to have a good audience around him, particularly in and around the Haymarket public houses in Norwich. It is said that folks there were greatly impressed with his tales of derring-do.
This growing attraction of his to frequent public house brought further interest in the world of boxing, and this was to be fuelled in 1818 by the landlord of ‘The Anchor’ in Lobster Lane, who was none other than Ned ‘Flatnose’ Painter who famously defeated Tom Spring in the August of that year. But three years before all this happened, in fact shortly after Thurtell’s 21st birthday on 21 December, Thomas Thurtell had set his son up in a bombazine business, alongside a designated partner by the name of John Giddons – or was it Giddings? – some accounts refer to the partner being John’s Brother, Thomas Thurtell; maybe it was all three?. No matter; the situation of being backed and supported by his wealthy and respectable parents was a wonderful opportunity for John Thurtell; also having been placed in the booming bombazine manufacturing and selling trade and with a young Quaker girl on his arm – what could possibly go wrong with his life? Plenty it would seem!
Inherent weaknesses with the partnership included the fact that John Thurtell did not like hard work, or show any trace of faithful endeavour towards the business; instead, he preferred frequenting Norwich taverns, and participating in or promoting boxing matches, even making numerous journeys to London in pursuit of the sport – and, inevitably, falling in with the ‘underworld’ fraternity who frequented such pastimes; maybe even, falling foul of ‘The Fancy’ – those professional crooks and gamblers who, seemingly, merged effectively into the the semi-illicit sport of amateur boxing at the time. Frequently, underworld elements and gentlemen of so-called genteel society mixed in a sport that during the early 19th century was officially illegal; however, it was widely celebrated and openly advertised without much fear of police intervention. At the same time, boxing — with its brutality, fatalities and associations with unsavoury characters, had ample potential for morals to be expressed. ‘The Fancy’, said a judge in 1803,
“draws industrious people away from the subject of their industry; and when great multitudes are so collected, they are likely enough to be engaged in broils. It affords an opportunity for people of the most mischievous disposition to assemble, under the colour of seeing this exhibition, and to do a great deal of mischief; in short, it is a practice that is extremely injurious in every respect and must be repressed.”
It would seem the these ‘gentlemen’ were far better at the game than the likes of John Thurtell, who was seen by them as a country ‘yokel’, despite being the son of an Alderman and having successfully promoted a big fight at North Walsham on the 17 July 1820. That one event was probably the only moment when Thurtell’s standing with ‘The Fancy’, as a backer and partial promoter, was at its highest.
At least anecdotal evidence suggested that Thurtell’s behaviour after this fight remained as bad as ever, and he even caused a fight at another sporting event when he assaulted someone who he accused of being a pickpocket. Maybe his failing business was beginning to play on his mind at moments when he behaved so badly in public. Certainly, within six years of indulging himself elsewhere and not paying due attention to his bombazine business the partnership was swiftly heading towards bankruptcy. By 23 January 1821 Thurtell, it seems, was in an utter mess, but had already planned to go to London to collect a considerable amount of money owed to the bombazine partnership. Much of this money was owed to his creditors, but that was not what was on Thurtell’s mind when he collected it and returned to Norwich, where events took a very ‘mysterious’ turn. He put it about that he had received a note asking him to call on a Mr Bolingbroke who live near Chapelfield. Whilst on his way, an unidentified woman approached him and as they walked along Thurtell was violently attacked and relieved of the £1508. Afterwards he could neither identify the woman or his assailants! It followed that he immediately placed an advertisement in the local Norfolk newspapers; it read:
“£100 Reward: Whereas at about 9 o’clock on the evening of the 22nd inst, Mr John Thurtell was attacked in Chapel Field, Norwich, by three men, knocked down and robbed of a pocket book containing £1,508 in notes, thirteen of which were of the Bank of England, value £100 each, and the name of John Thurtell is endorsed on them. Notice is hereby given that whoever will give information which might lead to the apprehension and conviction of the persons concerned in this robbery, shall be paid the above reward on applying to Mr Thurtell; and any person concerned in the robbery who will give information of his accomplices will receive the reward and a free pardon.”
The total sum involved would seem to be an incredible amount of money to be carrying, and it was quickly established that this little episode was a complete scam and that the so-called wounds he received during the ‘assault’ had been self-inflicted. It became all too clear that Thurtell’s motive was to enjoy a public subscription from the publicity. However, his creditors were never to be impressed or taken in by what had been the latest of Thurtell’s antics and notices of bankruptcy against his and Gidden’s partnership duly appeared, stating that J Giddens and J Thurtell, bombazine manufacturers, dealers and chapmen of Norwich were listed as insolvent, and that Ides, Poole & Greenfield of Gray’s Inn Square had been appointed solicitors. A creditors meeting took place on 15th to 17th March 1821 at the Norfolk Hotel.
Within days of this meeting Thurtell fled to London with a woman named Mary Dobson, whose looks were proving more interesting to him than those of his Quaker girl-friend. They left Norwich, leaving his apparent naïve father as his biggest creditor. By this time John Thurtell was being better known as ‘Jack’ Thurtell, and over the next twelve months or so Jack managed to obtain a licence to run a public house; get his brother, Thomas, imprisoned for a claimed debt of £17 which Jack thought would help discharge his own bankruptcy – that failed but left a bad taste in the mouths of at least his family. Jack also continued with any scam which he thought would bring him money; one involved buying a consignment of bombazine and storing it in a warehouse which he and Thomas had previously had insured for £1900. Jack then made some internal alterations to the warehouse which effectively concealed the inside. He then sold his entire stock for cash, but before it was delivered the warehouse was gutted by fire on the night of 26 January 1823.
The inevitable insurance claim was lodged but when investigators found that there were no traces of bombazine the County Fire Officer refused to settle the claim. Thomas Thurtell, who was clearly a partner in this fraud, not only sued the insurance company but won the case; however, such was the level of suspicion that the insurance company’s Managing Director not only confirmed its refusal to pay out, but threatened to pursue a case of conspiracy to defraud. Jack and Thomas where effectively broke and literally went into hiding, wandering from inn to inn and mixing with the rogues of London. Individuals like William Probert who had married a woman described as ‘physically repellent but financially attractive’, and was thus able to purchase a cottage in Gills Hill Lane, Radlett. Here he lived with his wife, her sister, two children of Thomas Thurtell and a couple of servants. Probert also put his wife’s money to other use, by setting himself up as a wine merchant, a venture that failed around the same time as John Thurtell’s own business ventures collapsed. The two were well matched.
Another rogue was Joseph Hunt, 26 years of age and an illiterate whose only talent was that he could sing. Doubtless there were other such characters in Jack Thurtell’s world of dubious deals and gambling. Then there was 43-year-old William Weare, a gang member and a ‘notorious blackleg’, card sharp, gambler at billiard tables and race horse meetings. He trusted no-one, and kept his considerable fortune about his person, strapped to his chest or secreted within his clothing. He lived in lodgings at Lyons Inn, off the Strand. This had previously been the address of reputable solicitors, which would have made Weare appear ‘respectable’, an image borne out by his appearance, for he was always smartly dressed. He could, and did, fleece many an easy prey and Jack Thurtell, who was considered a novice amongst such ‘sporting people’, was to be Weare’s next victim.
In October 1883, Weare, who had been to Doncaster races, returned to town having had a very successful day. He was approached by one of London gang-leaders who further tempted Weare with more ‘easy pickings’. The victim would be Jack Thurtell who had already lost heavily but was given the opportunity to make up his losses by playing a certain person who was considered poor at playing cards. Jack Thurtell thus met William Weare, who duly lost early rounds, conning Jack to play ‘just one more round’ – Weare took Thurtell for £300, and the loser was not pleased at all and conspired to exact revenge on Weare.
Jack Thurtell invited Weare to accompany him and his few friends out into the country around Radlett for a spot of hunting; Weare gladly accepted. In the meantime, Jack Thurtell and Hunt had bought a pair of pistols, a rope and a large sack; also hiring a gig, which would have been ideal for making the trip to Radlett, except that it would be pulled by two greys which were to prove to be a ‘give-away’ when the planned crime had been committed.
On the appointed day, Weare appeared, complete with a gun and a change of clothing; he accompanied John Thurtell in the gig, whilst Probert and Hunt followed in a second gig. Together, the party raced along the Edgware Road, calling into taverns along the way as they settled into their boozy, sporty and ultimately murderous weekend. Entering Radlett, Thurtell went on ahead whilst, it seems, Probert dropped Hunt off, before heading off along Gills Hill Lane after him. What really happened near Probert’s cottage really depends on which story is believed; people’s accounts varied between the inquest and the trial that was to follow. However, one thing was certain; Jack Thurtell was still aboard the gig when he shot Weare in the face before striking him several times with his pistol. If that was not enough, which it wasn’t because his was a ‘grudge’ assassination in which he demanded full revenge; he cut Weare’s throat.
The deed done, Thurtell must have felt that the score was settled – short of disposing of Weare’s body of course. Now, whether or not Probert helped in this matter is not really clear, so speculation must be that Thurtell carried out this task alone; placing Weare’s body into a sack and dumping it under bushes. This was during the early 19th century when Gills Hill Lane was little more than a track, with wild bushes, tree and hedgerows; at approximately three-quarters of a mile long, this overgrown lane was, in those days, referred to as a ‘dismal ravine’. However, Weare’s corpse was not to lay hidden for long by that lane; Probert and Hunt joined Thurtell at the cottage, which lay east of the lane, before all three went to the hidden site and rifled Weare’s pockets. Then, later that evening, after darkness had well and truly fallen, they carried the body to a nearby field, on horseback, where they threw it into a pond. Thurtell, obviously panicking, then went back to the scene of his crime and searched for the two murder weapons, the pistol and the knife – but with no success. Strange therefore that during the very next day two workmen, who were employed to clear the lane, passed the very same spot and not only noticed blood on the ground, but also discovered the bloodstained pistol and knife. These they passed on to their employer, a Mr Nicholls, who later presented them to the Petty Sessions of the Watford Branch which happened to be sitting, in session, at the Essex Arms Inn; it was on Tuesday, 28 October 1823.
According to Pete Goodrum, in his book ‘Five Norwich Lives’ what followed next was that:
“The Magistrate did not praise or thank Nicholls but unsurprisingly admonished him for taking so long to report his story. On seeing that the pistol was covered in blood, human hair and brains, they were galvanised into action. Constable Simmonds of Watford was given the weapons, along with instructions to go straight to London to request a Bow Street Runner to come down immediately. [After 1815, the Runners’ most regular employment was to respond to help requests from prosecutors outside London. These were likely cases in which their skill and experience was thought to be useful in investigating offences in the provinces.”
At the same time as the police were being alerted, rumours were spreading. Firstly, a gunshot was heard by a Mr P. Smith, at nearby Battlers Green. Secondly, a man named Freeman had noticed a gig in Gills Hill Lane with two men on board; and thirdly, it became established that on the day of the murder, Joseph Hunt had sported a beard and moustache – at the time of his arrest just days later he was to be found clean shaven and wearing Weare’s clothes! Then a chanced remark from a farmer that he had ‘heard a shot’ about the time of the killing forced Probert to waste no time in telling his companions; this resulted in all three men racing back to the pond which held Weare’s corpse, retrieving it, placing it into the gig and driving to another pond near Elstree to drown it once more!
But time and events were against Hunt, Thurtell, Thomas (Thurtell’s brother) and Probert, the latter displaying his extreme uneasiness to such an extent that soon the police authorities became interested in him. Magistrate Clutterbuck visited Probert’s cottage, which stood just north of Elstree and found that Probert had packed his bags and was clearly in the process of making his escape. Probert was questioned and revealed that his weekend guests had been Hunt and Thurtell. A subsequent warrant authorised, at first, the arrest of Thurtell’s brother, Thomas, together with Probert; then the investigation was passed over to the London Detective, George Ruthven, apparently a well-known and minor celebrity.
Again, according to Pete Goodrum:
“Events then moved quickly. One of the magistrates, Clutterbuck, having returned home exhausted, was woken by two visitors. They introduced themselves as John Noel, a London solicitor, and a billiard saloon owner called William Rexworthy. Noel claimed that on his way to the theatre in London he had heard from a patrol on the Edgware Road that there had been a murder of an unknown victim in Hertfordshire. Putting two and two together, he had become anxious that the victim might be his client, William Weare. He had heard from Rexworthy that Weare had planned a trip to Hertfordshire to go shooting with somebody called Jack Thurtell. However, Weare had apparently not returned to London. His lodgings were locked and he’d not been seen in any of his regular haunts. Clutterbuck took his visitors straight to the Essex Arms where the hearing was about to commence and where Noel quickly took legal control.”
Meanwhile, Detective Ruthven arrested Hunt at his lodgings in London before finding Thurtell in the Coach and Horses in Conduit Street, again in the city. Finding some items of Thurtell’s clothing blood stained, some exposed parts of his body covered with cuts and bruises and significantly, a pistol in one of his pockets, he too was arrested. Both Hunt and Thurtell were then taken back to the Essex Arms to join Probert and Thomas; from this point onwards the principle of ‘Honour among criminals’ fell by the wayside as Probert and Hunt turned King’s Evidence and pointed the finger at Thurtell, and also revealed the location of Weare’s body. The inquest had been held at the Artichoke public house in Elstree, whose licensee was foreman of the jury. Dr. Ward and Dr. Kendall, of Watford had examined Weare’s corpse and concluded that the cause of death was as a result of severe blows to the skull by a gun, causing pieces of bone to lodge in the brain.
Joseph Hunt, clearly setting out to save his own skin, gave evidence against Thurtell and spun out a story which included a statement saying that Thurtell had bought the pistols for £1 17s 6d., and that he had also enquired about hiring a gig. Incredulously perhaps, Hunt also revealed that the party under suspicion had called at the Artichoke for a drink on the way to Radlett prior to the murder! He then added that, after the murder, Thurtell had admitted killing the man “who robbed me of £300 at Blind Hookey (cards)”, and that he had taken a gold watch from Weare’s body. Hunt then gave an account of the episode of dumping Weare’s body. Concluding his evidence, Hunt gave more damning details which included him previously passing on to his solicitor the fact that he (Hunt) had received Weare’s clothes and had also shaved off his whiskers. Unintentionally amusing was when a juror asked Hunt: “What has become of your whiskers and moustache?” Hunt apparently replied: “You must be able to see I have cut them off!”
It was the court custom at the time to question each person separately, and without them knowing the submissions of others; these submissions were to vary widely. Probert’s version matched Hunt’s, but only in absolving himself of murder; other than that, he frequently contradicted Hunt’s version. He told the court that Thurtell had gone ahead and killed Weare, and that he (Probert) had not been party to it. He agreed he had helped to dispose of the body and that he, together with Hunt, had shared some of the money stolen from Weare by Thurtell.
As for poor Jack Thurtell, he simply dug a hole from which he failed to extricate himself; particularly on the question of the pistol found on his person when he was arrested. He had, at first denied that he ever owned a pistol, until he was reminded that such a weapon had been found on him; also, that the second of the matching pair had been found ‘within yards’ of the murder spot. Thurtell must have realised that the game was up for him and that it was clear that the three men had obviously lured Weare to Probert’s cottage because Jack intended to murder him. Events at the Hearing was progressing irrevocably to wards a proper Trial. The court returned a verdict of ‘wilful murder’ and committed the prisoners to Hertford gaol to await such a trial, that was set for 6 January 1824 at Hertford.
Languishing in prison for over three months, the three men continued to protest their innocence. Plenty of accusations and counter-accusations were voiced, all designed to set the blame elsewhere. Outside, most of the country who were interested in following the case were fed by Newspapers and broadsheets which peddled the grisliest details of what was becoming a sensational case; and no report failed to mention Jack Thurtell’s fall from grace as a ‘son of Alderman Thurtell of Norwich.’
When the trial commenced on 6 January 1824 it quickly became clear that it was a complicated case, requiring a considerable amount of legal talent to enable a conclusion. To assist in this, legal trickery was employed and this included granting immunity to Probert on condition that he appeared as a witness against Thurtell. Neither he nor Hunt, whose neck was on the line, did Thurtell any favours. It was Thurtell who was allowed to conduct his own defence and appeared to be doing quite well, until he made a big mistake by talking too long and in the process did himself no favours. At the end, the judge summed up, the jury retired only to return with a guilty verdict for both Hunt and Thurtell. The inevitable sentence was that the two men would hang; however, on the eve of their executions, Hunt’s sentence was commuted to transportation. As for Probert, he was only to remain alive and well for barely a year and a half; he died on the gallows in June 1825.
When Thurtell took the short walk to the rope, on 9 January 1824, he was in chains but dressed smart, as was his nature. Soldiers, armed with staves separated him and his execution party from the estimated 15,000 spectators who were there to see the spectacle; many removed their hats. Now, the last words describing this scene are left to those of Richard Clarke:
“James Foxen, the hangman, arrived from London on the Thursday and made the usual preparations. Thurtell dressed for the occasion and was described as being “elegantly attired in a brown great coat with a black velvet collar, light breeches and gaiters, and a fashionable waistcoat with gilt buttons.” A little before 12 noon on Friday, the 9th of January 1824, Foxen pinioned Thurtell’s hands in front of him with handcuffs and he was then led from his cell to the accompaniment of the tolling prison bell and the prison chaplain reading the burial service. A few moments earlier he had confessed his guilt to the chaplain. He mounted the 5 steps slowly but steadily and positioned himself on the trap. Here Foxen removed his cravat and loosened his collar. When Thurtell had finished praying, Foxen drew the white cotton cap over his head and placed the noose around his neck. The Governor of Hertford Gaol and the Chief Warder both shook hands with him before Foxen adjusted the noose. Wilson said, “Good bye Mr. Thurtell, may God Almighty bless you” to which Thurtell replied, “God bless you, Mr. Wilson, God bless you.” At two minutes past midday on the signal from Mr. Nicholson, the Under Sheriff, Foxen drew the bolts and Thurtell dropped into the box like structure with a crash…….by the standards of the day, Thurtell died easily and was not seen to struggle. After hanging the customary hour, his body was taken down and sent to London for dissection in Surgeon’s Hall in accordance with his sentence.”
Great sensation was caused in Norwich by the trial and execution of John Thurtell, at Hertford. The execution took place on 9 January 1824, and on the 24th the Norfolk Chronicle published a letter received by Mr. Alderman Thomas Thurtell, of Norwich, the father of the deceased; it came from Mr. Robert Sutton, High Sheriff of Hertfordshire, in which the writer commiserated with Thomas Thurtell in his great affliction. In the same paper was another letter addressed by Mr. N. Bolingbroke, of Norwich, to the High Sheriff of Hertfordshire, in which he wrote:
“It may appear to some that he (the father) has not acted with sufficient kindness of feeling towards his unhappy son; but you may be assured, Sir, that there was no part of his conduct which could not be satisfactorily explained. He has generally acted under the advice of Mr. Unthank, a respectable solicitor in this city, my own, and others. There are many actions in a man’s life of which no correct opinion can be formed without a knowledge of the motives by which such have been influenced.”
Goodrum, P., ‘Five Norwich Lives’, Published by Mousehold Press 2014.
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