By Haydn Brown.
My name is Joshua Grief. Very, very early on Tuesday 2 July 1861, in the 24th year of our good Queen’s reign, I set out from Norwich. I was on my way to Scole, but by way of a somewhat elongated route which at one stage took me via Beccles and Bungay. My means of conveyance, as with all my other journeys around the county, was on the back of my faithful quarter horse, Turpin, an intelligent friend who like nothing better than being amongst cattle; he preferred that to walking the roads and lanes of Norfolk .
The 2 July was one of thoses days for him; somewhat mundane since I would again be riding from one place to another on business; my business being of a delicate nature and takes me to most parts of East Anglia on a regular basis. Because of the questionable histories of a few of my clients, I prefer not to say what my actual work entails – only to confess, quite modestly, that it leans towards being charitable.
My particular excursion that July day was to include a visit to see a certain Charles Sheldrake whom I had known in the past when he was a mere lad; but who, in more recent times, had lived a questionable existence; this had included a period in prison. I thought it useful therefore for me seek him out, particularly since my destination was Scole which was near to his paternal homestead. This was again, simply a part of me catching up with past associates and a few friends – I having been out of the County of Norfolk and indeed East Anglia for many months since.
This, of course, meant that instead of stopping at The Three Horseshoes in Halesworth for refreshments as I have done in the past, I would continue direct to the White Hart at Scole, where I would not only be guaranteed a good bed for the night but also, a more than generous hearty meal. Of prime importance on this occasion was that the White Hart would be the place where I should pick up information on the whereabouts of young Sheldrake and, hopefully, actually meet him thereafter. The White Hart was also a more suitable place for my horse to be amply refreshed and bedded down, bearing in mind that it would be rather late in the day when we would arrive. Hopefully, there would be no need for me to call on the hotel’s blacksmith to shoe Turpin. However, little did I know when I set out from Norwich that the matter of a meeting with Sheldrake would not turn out as I would have hoped!
It was shortly after my arrival at the White Hart, and whilst I was replenishing my soul with a few sips of ale in the bar, that I saw a ‘well-fingered’ copy of the day’s ‘Beccles & Bungay Weekly News’; it having been left by a well-dressed gentleman who had only just departed, having acknowledged my presence and wished me a safe onward journey. I, of course, picked up the newspaper at the same time as I returned such a well-meaning compliment to the gentleman concerned; it is always best to be amiable to people one does not know.
It was my intention to read only the salient sections of this local ‘thunderer’, but I was taken aback when having reached page 4 I noticed, particularly in columns 3 and 4, reference to a Charles Sheldrake; other detail quickly told me that this was the very person I was hoping to meet! The article, actually titled “Attempted Murder and Suicide”, referred to him and the circumstances at length, which made me think; if a small provincial newspaper could take up so much space and effort on one particular person then I should read every word, despite having to put up with the usual heavy dose of sensationalism habitually favoured by the Press.
In fact, I read the report twice whilst I replenished my glass once, such was my interest – in the story that is! Clearly, Charles Sheldrake would have to be deleted from my list of people to visit; the use of words ‘A Tragedy’, ‘Attempted Murder’ and ‘Suicide’ made that necessary. As I have already said, I once knew young Charles Sheldrake and I must say that his history was always one in which he was one unhappy person. Barely twenty-four years of age, he had finally topped everything by topping himself – some 12 days ago, on the 20 June 1861!
With now no chance of seeing him, I reflected back to January 1853, when I remembered him being only sixteen years of age at the time. Then, he had been committed for trial before the Magistrates at Diss for stealing two guns, the property of Mr John Mallet of that town. At the following Quarter Sessions, at Norwich, he pleaded guilty to the offence which, incidentally, was his second conviction for felony, and in this respect, I could see that he clearly had a particular weakness for guns. The sentence at that time was for him to be transported for ten years; however, I later found out that for four years he had suffered penal servitude at Dartmoor before obtaining a ‘ticket of leave’, which allowed him to come home to his father’s house at Burston, which is close to Scole.
Unfortunately, from then on, Sheldrake bore a branded name but, nevertheless, seemed determined to try an honest life for himself. In this respect, he was fortunate in that a Mr Ringer, of Walcot Green, took notice of him shortly after he first returned. Mr Ringer tried to get Sheldrake employment but, similarly, found the utmost difficulty in that quest; the usual answer he received was that people did not like to employ a man of Sheldrake’s character. So, Mr Ringer, who was also a charitable man, gave the lad an occasional day or two’s work. But things still went very bad with the poor fellow, for I was told that on one occasion he went to Mr Ringer and said that he:
“had not earned more than eighteen pence in a fortnight.”
Nevertheless, young Sheldrake had managed to get married, and was soon the father of young children, leading a sober, steady life. He did, in short, conduct himself respectably.
This brings me back to the tragical ending of what I knew of Sheldrake’s history. What was new to me was the events of the Thursday, 20 June last when the whole affair became quite inexplicable, bearing in mind everything I knew of the lad. I could add nothing to that which I was seeing in the newspaper report before me.
On 20 June 1861 Mr. and Mrs. Ringer, of Walcot Green, near Diss, had left their house in charge of their servant, Susan Garrod; they would be out all day. What they did not know was that Sheldrake, their groom and gardener had been, by degree, running into loose and less sober habits of late. On this occasion, he had brought a bottle of wine and a bottle of brandy to the Ringer’s home, which he had purchased on his master’s credit. He, Susan, together with her visiting female cousin, drank the wine, and the two girls became ill. Only the girl’s statement would say what had actually happened thereafter, but failing to explain the actual deed.
It seemed the cousin had left and Susan simply walked round the garden, during which time Sheldrake had gone inside the house and retrieved his master’s double-barrelled gun. Creeping stealthily out again and round behind some bushes, he fired at the girl from a distance of about twenty yards as she monetarily stood in the orchard. The gun was loaded with small sparrow shot, a large number of which entered her head, face and breast.
Susan’s later statement said that she had run into a shed, closing the door behind her; Sheldrake threatened to break in the door if she did not let him in. However, at length, he went away then, half-an-hour later, Mr and Mrs Ringer came home and found the poor girl covered with blood and in a dangerous state; fortunately, in a day or two, it appeared that young Susan was past the worse and would recover fully.
As for Sheldrake, he was said to have spent the whole of that night, and till noon the next day, hiding with the gun among the hedges in the immediate vicinity of the house and orchard and in sight of the very spot where he had shot the poor girl. The wretched man, it would appear, was clearly anxious, and it seems reasonable – to me at least – to believe that Sheldrake, despite his history and troubles was anxious to get news of Susan’s condition and to get, if possible, a word with his master to explain. But that was not to be; a warrant had quickly been issued for Sheldrake’s immediate arrest.
Sheldrake, sensing arrest, had dissolved further into a nearby wood. There, police constables Boutell and Curson also entered in pursuit. The two quite quickly saw the fugitive crouching down among bushes and cornered him. Both constables then called on Sheldrake to surrender but instead, he raised the gun level with his hip in a threatening manner. Boutell leaped forward, shouting at Sheldrake not to fire; at the same time, the second constable, Curson, and a boy had closed up in support. Unfortunately, before constable Boutell could reach Sheldrake, the fugitive dropped the butt of the gun on to the ground, placed the muzzle in his mouth and pulled the trigger – that was that; he had blewn his brains out!!
I also noticed that the inquest had been held in the Magpie Inn, Walcot-Green, before E. Press, Esq., coroner who, following standards, would have explained the case to the jury, and emphasised that they must confine themselves to an inquiry into Sheldrake’s death – nothing else. He would have directed the jury to view Sheldrake’s body before any evidence was taken.
In the end, the jury returned a verdict of felo de se, in other words ‘suicide’, after which the coroner gave his verdict – clearly influenced by the age-old practice, that:
Suicides had been traditionally buried at a crossroads, sometimes with a stake through their body. This barbaric practice was condemned in Parliament in 1822 after the foreign secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, committed suicide but was buried in Westminster Abbey. An Act passed in 1823 allowed suicides private burial in a churchyard, but only at night and without a Christian service.
The coroner had therefore issued a warrant for the interment of Charles Sheldrake. It had taken place the following Monday evening about half-past eleven o’clock; the body buried under the north wall beside the path, in the unconsecrated portion of St Mary’s Churchyard, Diss – an act without ceremony or Christian burial. Two or three hundred persons had been assembled, but were not allowed within the Churchyard. Sheldrake’s body having been brought from Walcot Green in a cart, and carried to the grave, followed by four or five of his relations.
With a final thought that the burial scene must have been a very solemn and terrible one, I called for another large ale before ascending the hotel’s magnificent staircase to my equally magnificent room. There I rested before changing for what I believed would be a magnificent evening meal. Then, after a good night’s sleep, I would be ready for the next stage of my excursion – to meet up with Charles Sheldrake’s father, John Sheldrake, at Burston. God willing, we will have much to exchange.
Sources: Apart from the details of myself, Joshua Grief, everything relating to Charles Sheldrake is fact and based on a transcript of the inquest held on microfilm by the British Library Newspaper Library and transcribed by Janelle Penney. Equally invaluable was the report which appeared in the Beccles & Bungay Weekly News, Tuesday 2 July 1861, page 4, columns 3 & 4.