Honingham Hall – A Brief Background History: The small village of Honingham, together with the site of its former Hall, is situated in the English county of Norfolk and located 8 miles to the west of Norwich, along the A47 trunk road. The Hall itself was originally commissioned by Sir Thomas Richardson, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench in 1605. After passing down the Richardson family it was bought by Richard Baylie, President of St John’s College, Oxford, in about 1650 and was then acquired by William Townsend, Member of Parliament for Great Yarmouth in about 1735, before passing down the Townsend family. In 1887 it was inherited by Ailwyn Fellowes, 1st Baron Ailwyn and in 1924 by Ronald Fellowes, 2nd Baron Ailwyn who sold it in 1935.
The Hall was then bought by Sir Eric Teichman, a diplomat who, at the age of 60 years, retired there. At some point during World War II he allowed a large section of the Hall to become a Barnardo’s home, retaining a substantial section of it for himself, his wife, their cook and a small retinue of staff. He must have anticipated a peaceful retirement but, ironically, after so many dangers and difficulties faced on his past travels, Sir Eric died in December 1944 from a bullet to the head. It was fired by an American soldier who was stationed at the nearby US Airforce base; he was caught, along with a fellow soldier, poaching on Sir Eric’s estate. Sir Eric was buried in the St Andrew’s Churchyard where his grave may still be seen. The house closed as a Barnardo’s home in December 1966 and was demolished shortly afterwards.
Sir Eric Teichman: He, the victim of this unfortunate crime, had been a British diplomat and orientalist who was educated at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University. At the time of his death, Sir Eric was serving as adviser to the British Embassy at Chungking.
Teichman had been described as “one of British diplomacy’s dashing characters”, flamboyantly enigmatic and explorer-cum-special agent some claimed; he had embarked on a number of “special missions” and “fact-finding journeys” throughout Central Asia, as early as before World War I. In 1943 he began on what would be his final foreign journey from Chongqing. After caravanning as far as Lanzhou, his truck continued along the outer Silk Road, across the Tarim basin, and over the Pamir Mountains to New Delhi. From there he flew back to England where, only a few days later he met his death.
The Perpetrators, Murder and its consequences : It was on Sunday 3 December 1944 when Private George E. Smith, aged 28 years, of Pittsburgh and Private Leonard S. Wijpacha of Detroit, USA, took a pair of M-1 Carbines from the armoury on their base with the intention of ‘going hunting‘ as they would have described it. Hunting for what with such powerful rifles? The two soldiers were probably the last people on earth to have given this a thought as they set out. It was early afternoon as the two entered Sir Eric’s Teichman’s estate at Honingham and were to pass close by the house as they scanned the trees and undergrowth thereabouts fpr their prey.
It can only be imagined what Sir Eric Teichman was doing inside. Lunch was over and quiet would have descended on the big house. It was quite probable that he sat before a cosy fire, more than content with life. But all this certainly changed from the moment he heard the sound of shots outside. It is more than reasonable to suppose that this disturbance would have annoyed him and, being the sort of character he was, he would have gruffly risen from his armchair, mindful of going out to stop this “damned poaching.” As he left the Hall, he told his wife that he had heard some shots in the nearby wood and was going to investigate!
At the moment when Sir Eric was storming out of the Hall towards the sound of gunfire, Smith and Wijpacha were positioned behind two adjacent trees, taking pot shots at one particular squirrel which was jumping from branch to branch trying not to be the next casualty. The two poachers were almost facing each other when Smith noticed ‘this old man’ approaching from behind Wijpacha, calling out “Wait a minute… what are your names?” That was the moment when Smith shot Sir Eric through his right cheek, with the bullet exiting by way of the left shoulder-blade, shattering his jaw on the way through. If Sir Eric had been more upright, his height would have been nearer 6ft, but he was stooped at an angle of about 30 degrees as the result of an old injury caused long ago through a riding accident. Nevertheless, when he was shot, he fell on to one of his arms and seemingly died quickly through shock and a haemorrhage from the bullet wound. The next action of the two soldiers was telling – neither went over to the body but instead made a hasty departure back to base,
Being winter, night fell early and when Sir Eric had still not returned a worried Lady Ellen organised a search party to comb the grounds. It turned out to be a long search in the dark and quite late when they found the master, huddled in bracken some 300 yards from the house. Thereafter, events moved quickly, the police were called, the bullet extracted and confirmed as one fired from a .38 carbine; then the local American airfield was sealed off, and within a very short time Smith and Wijpacha were arrested. The swiftness of their arrest would not have been surprising when it was later revealed that Smith himself had been court-marshalled eight times previously; he must have been high on the list of suspects! He almost immediately confessed with the words “I shot him”, but then retracted this at his trial, arguing that it had been made under duress.
Both Smith and Wijpacha were subsequently court-martialled at USAAF Attlebridge, which commenced on 8 January 1945, and lasted five days due to the repeated hospitalisation of Smith. As part of the preparations for the trial, Smith had been subjected to an earlier psychiatric examination from Major Thomas March of the US Hospital at Wymondham College in Norfolk.
It was sometime close to 9 and 10 January 1945 when The Times newspaper reported on the arrests, Smith’s formal charge of the murder of Sir Eric Teichman and his ninth court-marshal! Amongst many other items of detail, the newspaper highlighted Smith’s statement in which it was revealed that he:
“was single and had joined the army in 1942; to date, he had been court-martialled eight times. With regard to the alleged shooting, Smith said that another soldier had asked him to go hunting through the woods. “Some of us had been drinking beer…. I drank about 15 coffee cups of beer; we saw a lot of blackbirds around and we shot some of them. We went up into the woods. I saw a squirrel, and fired one clip of 15 shots. One of us said ‘There’s an old man’. I think I saw him first and made that remark. I don’t remember the old man saying anything to me, nor do I remember saying anything to him. I raised my gun to my side, pointed it at the old man and fired one shot. I saw the man fall.”
By the 12 January 1945 The Times had again followed the story up with a report on Smith’s mental condition at the time, an examination which had been conducted by a Major L Alexander, a specialist in neurology and psychiatry, attached to a United States Army hospital in England. Alexander said that Smith’s [mental] condition could not be successfully faked. In his opinion, [Smith] was suffering from:
“a constitutional psychopathic condition, emotional instability, and an explosive, primitive, sadistic aggressiveness…… His mental deficiency was border-line, and his mental age was about nine years…… His condition was a mentally defective homicidal degenerate…. and Smith acted almost on automatic impulse.”
The Times also reported, from within the report’s findings, a revealing set of statistics about the United States Army. In a reply to a question, Major Alexander said that:
“…….the average mental age of the Army in the last war [WWI] was 12 – That figure was artificial as it excluded Officers and N.C.O’s. The average age now [WW2] was between 13 and 14. The vast majority of enlisted men was in the 14 group.”
Major Alexander went on to say that Smith knew it was wrong to kill, and that:
“a psychopath such as he fell into the group which the law regarded as sane. In his opinion, Smith “should be removed from society” for the rest of his life! This apparently final remark was followed by a statement from a Dr John Vincent Morris, of the Little Plumstead Hall Institution, Norwich, a specialist in mental diseases. He said that Smith was an anti-social type, who deliberately refused to conform to army rules and orders……Smith showed no signs of emotion or regret about the shooting and spoke about it “as a man talked of killing a rabbit.” It was Dr Morris’s opinion that Smith fired the shot irrespective of consequences, because possibly “Sir Eric interfered with his [Smith] pleasure, and he acted under an uncontrollable impulse.”
The outcome was innevitable, Smith was convicted and received the ultimate death penalty; his companion, Private Wijpacha charged with being an accessory to murder, was not sentenced to death. It followed that Smith was imprisoned at Shepton Mallet Prison in Dorset to await execution. But why a British prison in the south of England?
Between mid-1942 and September 1945 part of Shepton Mallet Prison was taken over by the American government for use as a military prison and as the place of execution for American servicemen convicted under the provisions of the Visiting Forces Act (1942) which allowed for American Military justice to be enacted on British soil. It was staffed entirely by American military personnel during this period when a total of 18 American servicemen were executed at the prison – sixteen were hanged and two were shot by a firing squad. Of those executed, nine were convicted of murder, six of rape, and three of other crimes which carried the death penalty. To enable these executions to take place a new brick-built extension had been added to one of the prison’s wings; it was a structure that looked totally out of place against the weathered stone walls of the old prison building. Inside, a new British style gallows was installed on the first floor of the building and two cells within the main building converted into a condemned cell. Hangman Thomas William Pierrepoint conducted most of these executions, assisted by his nephew, Albert Pierrepoint.
It so happened that Private George Smith’s appeals against the death penalty were denied and he was hanged at within the ‘Execution Shed’ at Shepton Mallet Prison on 8 May 1945, (VE Day), despite requests for clemency, including one from Lady Teichman. It was Thomas Pierrepoint, assisted by Herbert Morris, who carried out this execution. It took 22 minutes of ‘suspension’ before Smith was pronounced dead.
(The former ‘execution shed’ at Shepton Mallet Prison where Private George Smith was hanged. Photos: Wikipedia.)
Afterwards, he was temporary buried at Brookwood American cemetery; that was until 1949 when his remains, along with every other WW2 executed American servicemen, was moved to Plot E in Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in France; Smith’s grave is number 52 in row 3. At this point, a fuller explanation as to why executed American servicemen were buried in France is necessary.
Initially, the remains of American prisoners executed at Shepton Mallet were, as a matter of course, interred in unmarked graves at “Plot X” in Brookwood American Cemetery – also known as the London Necropolis. But in 1949 all eighteen bodies were exhumed. With the exception of the remains of David Cobb which were repatriated to his hometown, the remaining 17 were reburied in ‘Plot E’ at Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial in France – a private section intended for the “dishonoured dead”. The cemetery is home to the remains of 96 American military prisoners, all of whom were executed by hanging or firing squad. Significantly, no US flag is permitted to fly over the section of the cemetery where they lie, and those beneath the soil lie with their backs turned to the main cemetery on the other side of the road. Their final resting place has been described as a “house of shame” and a “perfect anti-memorial”.
As for Sir Eric Teichman, he was buried in the churchyard of St Andrew’s Church at Honingham; his grave being in the corner plot, directly in line with the now-demolished Honingham Hall. His widow, Lady Ellen Teichman, was buried in the same grave in 1969. The memorial there to the Teichman’s carries no mention to 3 December 1944 – or the murder!
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Saturday, the 18 July 1807 in Attleborough’s White Horse public house on London Road, next to a track named Whitehorse Lane. Inside, it was no different from any other Saturday; the regulars occupied their chosen places and the air was again thick with tobacco smoke. Samuel Alden had a pint in his hand; this was probably not his first of the day, and would certainly not be his last – or so he and his colleagues must have anticipated. Samuel’s wife, Martha, was with him and might have thought otherwise. The time was around about mid-morning, shortly after the pub had opened its doors for the day.
Queen’s Square, Attleborough, Norfolk
Queen’s Square, Attleborough, Norfolk.
Samuel’s neighbour, Edmund Draper, walked in and joined the couple as any good neighbour would do. Martha, clearly preoccupied with other thoughts, chose that moment to leave; her excuse was to say that she was going home with her child. We will never know the true reason; was she was allowing her husband space to chat ‘man to man’, did she feel uncomfortable in her neighbour’s company; or had there been an icy atmosphere between husband and wife that morning? Subsequent events may well suggest that the latter applied!
The fact of the matter was that as soon as Martha had stepped outside the two men moved away from the bar and sat more comfortably to continue both their drinking and conversation; that went on until almost mid-day. Then they both departed, but not before Draper had taken the opportunity to briefly chat with the wife of the publican; he then accompanied Samuel Alden to his house before moving on in the direction of Thetford to his own home, seeing no one else on the road as he went.
Draper was clearly quite sober, having been in the White Horse for only a short spell; however, Alden was rather ‘fresh’, for his walking showed signs of a slight stagger along the way. Despite the hampered pace of the two mens’ journey they, surprisingly perhaps. managed to catch-up with Martha; the circumstances of her delay seems not to have be broached and the trio arrived at the Alden’s cottage as one. That was the last time Draper saw his drinking companion and his wife, accompanied by their seven-year-old son, together. He was to say later, after the news had broken, that at no time in his presence had ill words passed between Samuel and Martha.
On the following morning of Sunday, 19 July 1807, a Charles Hill, also of Attleborough, rose very early; it would have been between 2.00 and 3.00 am – very early indeed. He was going to see his daughter who worked at Shelfanger Hall, some ten miles away; so, such an early start was necessary. It was somewhat wet that morning and he decided to take the turnpike road in the direction of Thetford. On the way he also had to pass the Alden’s cottage, which was barely a quarter of a mile from his own home. As he approached, he saw that the door of the cottage was open; Martha was standing within a few yards of it, apparently doing nothing in particular – or so he thought. She did, as it happened, say to traveller from Attleborough that she “could not think what smart young man it was who was coming down the common”; to which Hill replied: “Martha, what the devil are you up to at this time of the morning?”
Her excuse, if that’s what it was, was to say that she had been down to the pit in her garden for some water; her garden was not attached to the cottage but on the opposite side of the road. Beyond this, Martha did appear to ramble along the lines that she had not been long home from Attleborough where she had been at the White Horse with her husband and Edmund Draper; they all came home together during the day – but her husband had gone back again! Martha then said that her husband had a brother who was going to Essex, and that he swore that he would go with his brother. Hill thought this strange in light of the fact that Samuel Alden had contracted himself to harvest with Mr Parson that year – to which Martha agreed, adding “If he go to Essex, he won’t come back to harvest… I know he will never come back, and if he has got a job, he never will settle to it”! In hindsight, was she looking for an alibi for what would, inevitably, emerge as his sudden and unexpected disappearance? It was a question for the future; something that was absent from Hill’s mind as he continued on his way, and Martha went indoors.
The rest of that day of the 19th must have dragged for Martha; then, as it began to close and evening approached, matters took an even stranger twist. Mary Orvice, a friend of Martha, found the latter on her doorstep; this in itself was not entirely unexpected for both visited each other’s cottages quite frequently. What was totally unexpected was that an agitated Martha asked Mary to return with her to her cottage; Martha did not give a reason why, but waited until both women were inside a closed front door of Martha’s cottage.
“I have killed my husband” said Martha as she led Mary into the main bedroom; she showed Mary the body of Samuel lying on the bed, quite, quite dead! The deceased was still clothed in a shirt and slop, although both heavily stained with blood from horrible wounds to his face – and it was said later that the victim’s head had almost been severed from the body. Clearly, the weapon had been what one could only describe as ‘substantial and lethal’; it was lying on the floor beside the bed. Mary could not help noticing it – along with the blood that stained it. Whether or not it was the shock of her seeing a blood-stained body and weapon, but Mary Orvice was about to plunged herself into deep water so to speak!
Martha produced a common corn sack, and asked Mary to hold it open whilst she prised her husband’s corpse into it; she then dragged the laden sack from the bedroom, through the passage and kitchen and out of the house; fortunately, Samuel Alden had been a small statured man and light in weight. Mary Orvice followed, with both women crossing the road outside the cottage and walking through Martha’s garden to the far side – to a surrounding ditch. There the sack, with its contents, were left, but not before Martha had thrown some mould over it. Mary then left Martha with the excuse that she had an errand to make in Larling; but that was a good seven miles away and the evening was drawing in!
It is not known if Martha slept well that night, or what she did the following day, but that evening, being Monday 20 July and between nine and ten o’clock, Mary was again at Martha’s cottage. She saw Martha removed the sack, in which the body of her husband was held and, once again, dragged it to a water-filled pit on the common which lay beside a place called Wright’s Plantation; Mary tailed behind. On arrival at the pit, Martha emptied the contents of the sack into it and left, ensuring that she took the sack with her.
On Tuesday morning, the 21st, Mary again went to the Martha’s cottage and assisted in cleaning those parts of the bedroom where to assault took place. Firstly, the top coverings and sheets were removed for washing. Then, taking warm water Mary washed and scraped the wall next the bed, followed by the cleaning of the floor. Whilst all this was going on, Martha repeatedly bade Mary to be sure “not to say a word about the matter; for, if she did, she (now an assessory) would certainly be hanged.” However, such was Mary’s confused state upon having help her friend, that she did mention the story to her father that same evening after returning home.
From that moment, matters came to a head. Word got back to the authorities during the following morning, Wednesday the 22 July, – a body had been found! Edward Rush came on to the scene and was ordered by the Constable of Attleborough Parish, to search Martha Alden’s cottage. In a dark corner of one of the rooms he found a bill-hook, on which there appeared to be the remnants of blood on its handle and blade; it would appear that the bill-hook had been washed.
At the Norfolk Assizes, held in Norwich, at the Shirehall in late July 1807, and before Sir Nash Grose when Martha Alden was:
“capitally indicted for the wilful murder of her husband, Samuel Alden, of Attleborough, Norfolk when every circumstance of this attrocious act was corroborated”.
Judge Grose outlined the case by stating that while the man was asleep in bed his wife, with a bill-hook, inflicted terrible wounds on his head, face, and throat. With the assistance of a girl, named Mary Orvice, the prisoner then, on the 19th inst. deposited the body in a dry ditch in the garden; on the 20th, they carried it in a corn sack to the common and “shot” it into a water-filled pit, where it was subsequently discovered. Martha Alden was to offer little or no defence against the charge.
Witness, Edmund Draper was called and confirmed his meeting with victim in the White Horse and their return home, repeating that he was perfectly sober at the time, whilst the deceased was not. Draper also said that he had stayed at the Alden’s for less than three minutes, during which time he noticed that there was a larger fire than usual, for that time of the year, burning in the hearth. He also confirmed that the deceased was in perfectly good health, and that no ill words had passed between the deceased and the prisoner whilst in his presence. Draper also described the Alden’s cottage as having a kitchen and bedroom on the same ground floor and separated from each other by a small, narrow passage.
Witness Sarah Leeder, widow, of Attleborough, followed to state that on Monday night, 20 July, the prisoner came to her house to borrow a spade; the reason: “a neighbour’s sow had broken into her garden and rooted up her potatoes, and she needed to make good.” This witness then went on to describe that on the following evening of Tuesday the 21st, at about eleven o’clock, she went to the common to look for some ducks she had missed. She found them in a small pit which was alongside another larger size pit next to Wright’s Plantation. In this greater pit, or pond, she saw something lying which attracted her attention; she went to the edge of the pond and touched it with a stick, upon which it sank and rose again. The place was shaded from the moon’s glow and she could not make out what it was; so, went home for the night. However, the next morning, Wednesday the 22nd, the witness returned once more to the pit and again touched the substance with a stick, which still lay almost covered with water. It was then that she saw “the two hands of a man appear…… with the arms of a shirt stained with blood.”
A later newspaper report stated that:
“She [the witness] instantly concluded that a murdered man had been thrown in there, and called to a lad to go and acquaint the neighbourhood with the circumstances, and went back in great alarm to her own house. In a quarter of an hour she returned again to the pond, and found that in her absence the body had been taken out. She then knew it to be the body of Samuel Alden. His face was dreadfully chopped, and his head cut very nearly off. The body was put into a cart and carried to the house of the deceased. The witness afterwards went to look for her spade, and found it standing by the side of a hole, which she described as looking like a grave, dug in the ditch which surrounded Alden’s garden. She further stated that this hole was open, not very deep, and that she saw blood lying near it.”
Witness, Edward Rush, told the court that on Wednesday morning of the 22nd July, and by order of the Constable of Attleborough Parish, he searched the prisoner’s residence. In a dark chamber he found a bill-hook, which on examination appeared to have blood on its handle, and also on the blade, but looked as if it had been washed. He also confirmed the statement of a preceding witness as to the state of the bedroom in the house of the deceased, and described its dimensions to be about seven feet by ten.
Mary Orvice followed as the principal witness. She stated that she had been acquainted with the prisoner for some time, and had frequently been at her house. She described her visits to the prisoner’s cottage on and following Sunday the 19th. She stated that the prisoner slept that night at the father’s father’s house. The witness then confirmed that the prisoner bade her to be sure not to say a word about the matter; for, if she did, she (the witness) would certainly be hanged. Upon being questioned to that effect by the Judge, this witness also confirmed that she had told the story to her father on the Tuesday night, but to nobody else.
The learned Judge, Justice Grose, then summed up the evidence in the usual full and able manner expected from judges. However, on the subject of Mary Orvice’s testimony, he remarked that it certainly came under great suspicion as being that of an accessory to the attempted concealment of the murder. Viewing it in that light, and taking it separately later, he received the situation with extreme caution. He further stated that “if it should be found, in most material facts, to agree with and corroborate the successive statements of the other witnesses whose declarations did not labour under those disadvantages, the Jury were then to give it due weight and avail themselves of the information which it threw on the transaction.”
With regard to the principal case, the jury consulted for a very short time before finding Martha Alden GUILTY! The learned judge then proceeded to pass upon her the awful sentence of the law; which was, that on Friday she should be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution, there to be hanged by the neck till she was dead – and her body afterwards to be dissected. It was at this point that Martha fully confessed her crime for which she was to suffer. She had indeed attacked her husband, who was comatose after his visit to the White Horse in Attleborough, because he had threatened to beat her during an earlier argument. She also acknowledged and pleaded that her friend, Mary Orvice, had no concern whatever in the murder, but only assisted, at her request, in putting the body of her husband into the sack.
On Friday, 31st of July 1807, at twelve o’clock, Mary Alden, such an unhappy woman, was drawn on a hurdle and executed on Castle Hill in Norwich for the murder of her husband at their cottage near Attleborough and:
“in the presence of an immense concourse of spectators she behaved at the fatal tree with the decency becoming of her awful situation.”
In the aftermath of her execution, Martha Alden’s cottage was destroyed by neighbours.
There is today, overlooking Norwich, a gem of a place which is free of urbanisation – although it is completely surrounded by roads, traffic, concrete and bricks. It is an area where there is freedom for trees, bracken, brambles, grass and weeds to grow, freedom for feet to ramble and for dogs to do what they normally do when let off the lead. This place once formed part of a much greater expanse of heathland that extended from the north-eastern bank of the River Wensum at Norwich, towards the villages of Salhouse and Rackheath way out into the County. It was once a large area maintained by grazing, but without such husbandry the trees grew tall and thick to produce woodland, now much frequented by walkers. Today, this area covers a mere 200 acres but is much appreciated by Norwich people as a welcome piece of open space. It is an island of green, known today as Mousehold Heath but in far off days there was a section of it that was called Thorpe Wood.
Within it, Long Valley makes one feel that Norwich is far away and that the only exciting thing that would happen below the deciduous canopy of Mousehold is for Robert Kett to emerge with the city’s authorities in hot pursuit. The wood’s deciduous canopy also does more than cushion objects of our imagination, it muffles the noise of vehicles on those roads that run circles around the area, including that odd little field or two set amongst the trees. It is a wood veined with sand and flint edged pathways that have been cut through ridges by centuries of feet; nice pathways, many of them through birches growing in shallow areas either side. Pick the right one, but avoiding bramble, rough undergrowth, burrs and ticks and you will find the site of a largely forgotten chapel; here the mind can get lost in time for that place is where the ‘St William’s Chapel in the Wood’ once stood.
The Chapel site covers just a small area, towards the edge of present-day Mousehold Heath – a short distance to the south-west of the junction of Gurney Road and Heartsease Lane. It was originally dedicated to St Catherine de Monte, way back in those far off days following the Norman Conquest; at that time, it served as a parochial chapel for the Norwich Cathedral Priory. Later, in fact on the 27 April 1168, it was re-dedicated to honour a new ‘martyr’ on the block – the boy William. Fast forward to some 380 years later and we find that this chapel was amongst those religious establishments dissolved by Henry VIII; and whilst the exact date of its demise is unknown, the last offering was recorded in 1506, and by 1556 the site had been leased out by the Dean as ‘The Chapel-Yard called St William in the Wood’. But that piece of information is something of a distraction for we need to retrace our steps back to March 1144. In that month, a despicable act was said to have taken place at, or near, the site of the chapel – It was Easter and not the best time for a murder – or a place to dump a body!
Get the detail right and the place will be a stark reminder of a disturbing and unpleasant moment that, they say, took place here. But take care; the way history works is not to run through the past in straight lines. As with many stories, and particularly with historical accounts, it is best to visualise them as being twisted flights, criss-crossing through time and place on a journey which runs the risk of turning the past into a ‘foreign country’ – where that which is written is far from factual – and the truth. The St William’s Chapel story may well fit into this category and, as with other historical stories, it doesn’t have one starting point. What we know or think we know about this story, is that parts of it are probably inaccurate, simply twisted by whatever thought or political/religious agenda was in place when the scribes pen was at work. Here we have Thomas of Monmouth to thank!
It is probably a safe thing to say that most people in Norwich are vaguely aware of William of Norwich, helped no doubt by a report in 2004 about 17 skeleton bodies which were found in a medieval well in Norwich, during the development of the Chapelfield Shopping Centre (see Footnote below). That report was clearly written for readers who like Time-Team programmes with their trowel and forensic archaeology. However, these sorts of people may not be aware of all the detail which, in William’s case, seems to suggest to some that he was a victim of a ritualised murder. Further, he was only a young lad of about 12 years of age who was an apprentice skinner and tanner, the first recorded apprentice in English history so they say. We are told that he died somewhere in Norwich on or around 22nd of March 1144 and it was on the 25th March that his body was found, mutilated on the heath close to, if not on the spot where the Chapel stood. Clearly, if he had been murdered elsewhere then his body would probably have been carried to the heath by horse to be disposed of.
Nobody truly knows who did the foul deed, or where, or even why; but, as ever, blame was quickly apportioned by the populace, egged on by the religious authorities and William’s family. Their collective finger pointed directly at the Jews of Norwich who, by the way, were protected by the Sheriff in the King’s name. Now, this is where politics vie with the powers of the church for front row seats, not forgetting that in the 12th century the King was Stephen. He not only had the church to deal with but also his cousin Matilda; they were both grandchildren of William the Conqueror and amongst all the others competing for a dominant position in ‘The Anarchy’ – which, basically, was a rather nasty tribal squabble about who controls England – not forgetting Normandy of course. Add to this the question of the Jews who started to come over in 1066, who had French as their mother language – and settled in Norwich. Big trouble was afoot!
Brother Thomas and his Version of Events: Enter Thomas of Monmouth, a Benedictine monk who resided in the cathedral priory in Norwich, having been “respectably educated” before he first arrived in Norwich around the year 1150. It would appear that very shortly after his arrival in the city Brother Thomas, (we’ll call him that from now on), began his long-winded investigating into the so-called ‘murder’ of the boy William. He began by taking notes in preparation for a narrative about William, and a plea for the boy’s martyrdom that he finally completed more than twenty years later, titled “The Life and Passion of Saint William of Norwich”. This account ended up as a multi-volume series with the final Volume 7 being completed around 1173. The first two volumes details William’s life and sufferings, with the remaining five volumes recounting the miracles the proposed saint was said to have performed after his death. According to E.M. Rose, in his book ‘The Murder of William of Norwich’ “Brother Thomas maintained that William was worthy of veneration and claimed him as an important patron for Norwich Cathedral”. but his claim was based on a writing that was nothing more than a treatise that was “an imaginative, emotional appeal rather than a presentation of forensic evidence”. It is thought that the original manuscript no longer survives, but a unique single contemporary copy resides in the Cambridge University Library.
In his quest, Brother Thomas claims to have set about interviewing as many of the surviving ‘witnesses’ as possible. These included people who he had already identified as being “converted Jews”; they, he would claim, provided him with inside information about events within the Jewish community. According to Brother Thomas, one particular ‘convert’, called Theobald of Cambridge, told him that there was a written prophecy which stated that the Jews would regain control of Israel if they sacrificed a Christian child each year. Every year, Jewish leaders met in Narbonne to decide who would be asked to perform the sacrifice; in 1144, the Jews of Norwich were assigned that task.
Since most information about William’s life and the resulting murder inquiry comes from Brother Thomas, it is difficult to distinguish the facts of the case from the story of martyrdom created around it by Thomas. It was he who devoted himself to the promotion of William to sainthood; even his opening sentence of Volume 1 reflects that both he, and presumably some of his contemporaries, believed that William’s death was preordained:
“The mercy of the divine goodness desiring to display itself to the parts about Norwich, or rather to the whole of England, and to give it in these new times a patron, granted that a boy should be conceived in his mother’s womb without her knowing that he was to be numbered among the illustrious martyrs”.
Was Brother Thomas proud that his adopted city of Norwich should be blessed with a suitable candidate for sainthood, despite the apparent horrible circumstances surrounding the young boy’s death? That’s how it may have been, but Thomas’s final narrative went on to build a case for William’s holiness based on the collected evidence, and arguing that he had been martyred by the Jews in a ‘ritual’ murder.
As things turned out, Brother Thomas was ultimately unsuccessful in getting William of Norwich canonized as a saint; however, but did succeed, for a time at least, in creating a cult around him in Norwich. But right from the outset of his endeavours, Thomas contended that he had received visions from the founding Bishop of Norwich, Herbert de Losinga, who had died in 1119. According to Thomas, Losinga had told him in a vision that William’s body should be moved into the Chapter House of the monastery; however, Thomas had to battle with the sceptical Prior Elias, who was unconvinced of William’s sanctity. The body of William was in fact moved in the same year of Thomas’s arrival in Norwich. That year of 1150 was also the year in which Elias died, and by then the cult of William was established.
Circumstances Leading up to the Murder:
Brother Thomas stated that William had been born on 2 February 1132 and that his parents, Wenstan and Elviva, were a local Anglo-Saxon couple living on the outskirts of Norwich. His father died while William was still very young and it was left to Elviva, who had learned much from her own father, a priest, to educate William. Then, when William was eight years old, he was taken to a skinner, near his home, to learn a trade. Brother Thomas says:
“In a short time, he far surpassed lads of his own age in the crafts aforesaid, and he equalled some who had been his teachers”.
In time, William moved into the city to join the workshop of a prosperous master of the skin, fur and leather trade; an important industry in Norwich, which served the demand for clothing, shoes and bed coverings. Leather was the most hard-wearing fabric available, so leather jerkings, breeches, aprons and caps were the normal wear for most manual workers. It was the custom for young unmarried employees to live with their master, often being obliged to sleep on the shop floor in order to help protect the property from break-ins and thefts. The area that William moved into was the Jewry, to the east of Norwich Castle, which suggests that both Jews and Gentiles were accustomed to working and trading alongside each other.
In his book, Norwich – The Biography, Christopher Reeve writes:
“It could be imagined that William would be well liked by his fellow workers and neighbours, and also by the customers, some of whom would have preferred to deal with him when they brought their orders in for leather goods. If it was true that William had settled in so well then what happened next was all the more shocking……. the Jewish community believed that they would never gain freedom, or be able to return to their homeland unless they made an annual sacrifice of a Christian, so as to mock Christ. Where Thomas got this idea from is not known…….[or] whether or not he himself had a prejudice against Jews. Maybe it was simple malicious gossip from those who might have envied Jewish prosperity in the city”.
Shortly before his murder, William’s mother, Elviva, was approached by a man who claimed to be a cook, working for the Archdeacon of Norwich. He offered William a job in the Archdeacon’s kitchens and paid William’s mother three shillings to let him go. This must have been a very good offer for it came with the opportunity to earn more money and better prospects than if he stayed in the skin trade. William must have been delighted but, it is said, his mother had her doubts and asked her son not to go; however, William was determined and the messenger’s words were compelling to both mother and son, sweetened by a reward of ‘three shillings’ in return for the mother’s agreement. William later visited his aunt in the company of this same man but she was apparently suspicious when she heard the news and told her own daughter to follow William and this messenger after they left. The daughter was able to report that they returned to the area when William worked and went into a house belonging to Eleazar the Jew. This was the last time William was seen alive. It was Holy Tuesday.
According to Brother Thomas, the man who claimed to be a cook had been employed by the Jews to entice William into the house where the sacrifice would occur. There, William was initially treated well, but was then bound, gagged and suspended in a cruciform position in a room where he was tortured and murdered in a manner imitating the Crucifixion of Jesus: the Jews lacerated his head with thorns and pierced his side.
“having shaved his head, they stabbed it with countless thorn points, and made the blood come horribly from the wounds they made……… some of those present judged him to be fixed to a cross in mockery of the Lord’s Passion…………”
Brother Thomas said that the body was concealed until the Good Friday and claimed further that another converted Jew told him that there was an argument over how to dispose of the body afterwards. Nevertheless, two members from amongst those who had tortured William, did place his body in a sack and take it to the best hiding place they could think of – Thorpe Woods on Mousehold Heath. Unfortunately for them, as they entered the wood they met, we are told, Erlward, a Burgess and a citizen of note, who was returning from the church of St Mary Magdalen nearby. He challenged the two men, suspicious that they were up to no good. At this, the two Jews ‘in their terror…… made off at full gallop and rushed into the thick of the wood’.
Christopher Reeve again writes:
“It is said that Erlward did nothing further except continue on his way to his own home in the city. With the coast clear, the two Jews returned and simply hung the sack holding William’s body on a tree and galloped home, still in panic. Aware that there was now a witness to the disposal of the body, the Jewish leaders decided that they needed to obtain the protection of the City Sheriff, John de Caineto, who as the King’s representative, was obliged to act on the Jew’s behalf for they were his source of ready money. In return for a willing bribe offered by the Jews, de Caineto instructed Aelward not to divulge anything he might have seen in Thorpe Wood”.
Unfortunately, in that March of 1144 at least three persons had already discovered William’s mutilated body; one, a peasant, plus two prominent citizens – Lady Legarda and Henry de Sprowston, a forester and keeper of the Bishop’s stables. It seems that Lady Legarda, a Norman aristocratic nun, was the first to come across the cadaver, tangled as it was in the undergrowth and quite near a thoroughfare in Thorpe Woods. We are told that she took no responsibility in informing the authorities, as was required; instead, she quietly said prayers over the corpse before retreating to her convent. Later that day, the peasant also ignored the body, despite being well aware of his responsibility to report the find to the powers-to-be. Then, on 25 March 1144, Holy Saturday, Henry de Sprowston was riding through the woods in the course of his duties as guardian of all that was owned there by his ecclesiastical employers, the Norwich bishop and monks. Possibly to deflect attention from his own illicit activities, the same peasant [apparently] led Henry de Sprowston to the cadaver, but neither person recognised it as anyone they knew; what was clear however was that it was a young boy. The forester, because of his standing, instigated an inquiry into the death and while nothing came out of his investigation, the boy was identified as that of William, the apprentice leatherworker and son of Wenstan and Elviva.
It was noted at the time that William’s injuries suggested a violent death and that the boy appeared to have been gagged with a wooden ‘teasel’ and was wearing just a jacket and shoes. Maybe they speculated that this had been a sexual assault? After consultation with the local priest, it was decided to bury the body two days hence, on Easter Monday; the position of the grave would be where the body was found. In the meantime, some curious folk came to look at the body, a few recognising William. Then, the following day, being Easter Sunday, William’s uncle, brother and cousin arrived to confirm the identity of the dead youth before he was buried, but with proper but minimal ceremony and no elaborate marker. That was on Easter Monday.
Information about William and the resulting homicide inquiry comes only from Brother Thomas’s account which claimed to have pieced together what actually happened during that fateful Holy Week of 1144. Thomas seems to have set out to prove that William had been killed for his faith and therefore deserved to be ordained as a saint. He devoted most of his book not to the crime, but to the evidence for William’s sanctity, including mysterious lights seen around the body itself and miraculous cures affected on local devotees. Thomas admits that some of the clergy, notably the Prior Elias, were opposed to the cult on the grounds that there was little evidence of William’s piety or martyrdom. However, Thomas actively promoted the claims by providing evidence of visions of William and miracles.
As for the Christians of Norwich, they quickly blamed local Jews for the crime, then demanded justice from the local ecclesiastical court. Members of the Jewish community were asked to attend the court and submit to a trial by ordeal, but the local sheriff, John de Chesney, advised them that the ecclesiastical court had no jurisdiction over them, as they were not Christians. He then took the Jews into protection in the castle. After the situation had calmed down, they returned to their homes. In the meantime, William’s body had been moved to the monks’ cemetery. Later, it would be moved to progressively more prestigious places in the Cathedral, being placed in the Chapterhouse in 1150 and close to the High Altar in 1151.
As part of this promotion, images of William, as a martyr, were created for some churches, generally in the vicinity of Norwich. The above image shows a panel of painted oak, depicting both William and Agatha of Sicily, and is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; William is shown holding a hammer and with three nails in his head. The panel was formerly part of a rood screen at the Norwich Church of St John Maddermarket. The screen was commissioned by Ralph Segrym who died in 1472, a merchant who became a Member of Parliament and Mayor of Norwich. Another rood screen in St Mary’s church, Worstead also depicts him holding nails. One in Loddon depicts William being crucified.
As it was, William’s death was never satisfactorily solved and the local authorities would therefore not convict anyone – simply because there was no proof. There the matter apparently rested, that is until a Brother Thomas came along, some six years later, and got caught up in the clergy’s idea of establishing a cult around the death of William with a motive which must have been partly pecuniary. It was William de Turbeville, Bishop of Norwich between 1146 and 174 who encouraged Brother Thomas to write his book as a precursor to the church achieving its aim. It turned out to be an extensive hagiography work; Volume 7 being completed in 1173. Clearly, it was designed to deify the boy and to blame the Norwich Jews for what became Britain’s first ‘Blood Libel’ – the idea that Jews use the blood of the murdered, usually Christian, children in Passover rituals to make bread – no more need be said!
The Aftermath: As a result of the feelings generated by the William ritual murder story and subsequent intervention by the authorities on behalf of the accused, the growing suspicion of collusion between the ruling class and Jews fuelled the general anti-Jewish and anti-King Stephen mood of the population. After Brother Thomas’s version of William’s death circulated a number of other unsolved child murders were attributed to Jewish conspiracies: – This evolved into the so-called Blood Libel.
The horrific death of William of Norwich at the hands of an unknown became an appalling beginning for future propaganda exercises in many other parts of Britain and across Europe which used murdered children by unknowns, some of whom, as with William, became the subject of veneration. Proof of William’s veneration can be found in Norwich Cathedral, in a small chapel less than a stone’s throw from the choir stalls. It’s not an exciting place, wood lined and with a few chairs; seemingly out of place within the Cathedral’s splendour but comfortably near the tombs of old bishops. As someone said elsewhere, this is where the story starts to get really nasty. William is said to be buried here, after being moved several times in the church’s attempt to get William away from Thorpe Wood and nearer the high alter. The answer is all very simple; saints bring pilgrims and pilgrims bring money!
According to Emily M. Rose in her book ‘The Murder of William of Norwich’:
“William of Norwich, in particular, has received a considerable amount of attention, ever since the full text of his story was discovered in a Suffolk parish library at the end of the 19th– century by the antiquarian M. R. James, who edited and published an influential translation with Augustus Jessopp, an honorary canon of Norwich Cathedral. Brother Thomas’s ‘Life and Passion has now been re-translated for a modern readership, including passages that the fastidious Victorian translators passed over.”
In 2004, the remains of 17 bodies were found at the bottom of a medieval well in Norwich. They were discovered during an excavation of a site in the City’s centre, ahead of the construction of Chapelfield Shopping Centre.
According to the scientists, carrying out the investigation, the skeletons dated back to the 12th or 13th Centuries, at a time when Jewish people were facing persecution in Norwich and, indeed, throughout Europe. In their opinion, the most likely explanation for them being down the well were that they were Jewish and probably murdered or forced to commit suicide. Pictures taken at the time of excavation suggested the bodies were thrown down the well together, head first.
Using a combination of DNA analysis, carbon dating and bone chemical studies in their investigation, the team established that eleven of the 17 skeletons were those of children aged between 2 and 15; the remaining six were adult men and women. Out of the total found, seven skeletons were successfully tested and five of them had a DNA sequence suggesting they were likely to be members of a single Jewish family.
A close examination of the adult bones showed fractures caused by the impact of hitting the bottom of the well. But the same damage was not seen on the children’s bones, suggesting they were thrown in after the adults who cushioned the fall of their bodies.
The team had considered the possibility of death by disease but the bone examination also showed no evidence of diseases.
Medieval Jewish History:
1066: The Norman Conquest opens the way to Jewish immigration. The monarchy needs to borrow money and Christians are forbidden to lend money at interest. London, Lincoln and York become centres for substantial Jewish populations.
1100s: Resentment against the Jewish community grows over their perceived wealth and belief they killed Jesus. The “blood libels” – Jews are accused of the ritual murder of Christian children.
1190: Many Jewish people massacred in York. In Norwich they flee to the city’s castle for refuge. Those who stay in their homes are butchered.
1230s: Executions in Norwich after an allegation a Christian child was kidnapped.
1272: Edward I comes to the throne and enforces extra taxes on the Jewish community.
1290: Edward I expels the Jews en masse after devising a new form of royal financing using Christian knights to fill the coffers.
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Location: 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!
Central Characters: 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.
Unfortunate Circumstances: 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.”
Execution: (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.
Footnotes: 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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In my last blogpost, I told the story of Mary Wright from Wighton in Norfolk, who in 1832 consulted Hannah Shorten, a local “cunning woman” or “witch” before she decided to poison her husband William by putting arsenic in a plum cake. Mary was suffering from a pathological jealousy, and it is possible that Shorten encouraged her into her actions (which also accidentally killed Mary’s father) although we have no proof of this and Shorten was not called to appear at Mary’s trial.
Two years later, however, Shorten appeared as a witness at a double murder trial, again featuring poison, at the Norwich Assizes. The deaths occurred in the Burnham Westgate (now known as Burnham Market), which lies a mile from the north Norfolk coast and five miles from Wells-Next-the-Sea. The inhabitants of a row of three terraced cottages in North Street were involved.
Frances (or Fanny) Billing, her husband James and eight children, the youngest of whom was eight, lived in the cottage at one end; Peter Taylor and his wife Mary, who were childless, were in the middle; and Catherine Frarey, her husband Robert and their three children rented rooms above Thomas Wake’s carpenters shop, at the other end.
Washerwoman Fanny was a steady sort, a church-goer who regularly took communion. She was described later by a reporter as a “woman of no ordinary endowments,” the meaning of which is unclear, but the writer also noted her resilience and firmness of purpose, so perhaps it was her character he was commenting on rather than her appearance. Her husband James was an agricultural labourer. Like Mary Wright and her husband, and their neighbours, these were very poor people living as steadily and respectably as they could without benefit of education.
The Billings’ neighbour Peter Taylor was a journeyman shoemaker but he had suffered ill health and now worked as a sometime barber, pub waiter and singer. His wife Mary was a shoebinder. As is often the way with tight-knit groups of people living close by, close relationships can arise, and around 1834 Peter Taylor and Fanny Billing started an affair, which soon became the subject of gossip in their small community. James Billing became aware of it and, enraged when he discovered the two in close conversation out at the shared privy, beat them both. Fanny later had James arrested and bound over to keep the peace at the local Petty Sessions.
Like Fanny Billings, childminder Catherine (Kate) Frary, aged about 46, had once had a good name but there were now rumours about her relationship with a Mr Gridley. She was known to associate with fortune-tellers and witches. Her husband Robert, once a fisherman, was now an agricultural labourer. On 21 February, Elizabeth Southgate, whose baby daughter Harriet was minded by Kate Frary, was told that her child was very ill. At the house, she found her baby in great distress and Robert Frary, who had been ill for two weeks, groaning in agony in his bed. Elizabeth gave Harriet a drink of warm water sweetened with sugar but she expired in the early hours of the following morning. A doctor determined that she died of natural causes.
In the days that followed, Robert Frarey showed no sign of improvement, but his wife Kate and her friend Fanny Billing were seen often together whispering with Hannah Shorten, who arrived on the day of baby Southgate’s funeral.
During this visit Shorten went with Kate Frary to see Fanny Billing, who gave her some pennies and asked her to get some white arsenic to kill mice and rates. There is some question over whether it was Shorten or Billing who went to the pharmacy with Frary, but whoever did the purchasing, the result was that a quantity of arsenic was bought.
Shortly afterwards, Elizabeth Southgate came to enquire about Robert Frary’s health. In court she described Fanny Billing offering her porter, which she had poured into a teacup. Elizabeth saw sediment in it and handed it back saying, “I should not take sugar in porter.” Her suspicions were growing but whether or not she guessed the truth at this stage, it was a wise move. Billing handed the drink to Robert Frary, saying, “Drink it up. It will do you good.” When Northgate returned that evening, Robert was retching violently into a basin, after which he deteriorated quickly and 48 hours later, on 27 February, while Elizabeth was visiting once more, he died. His wife and Fanny Billing were attending him. He was buried shortly afterwards at St Mary’s in Burnham Market.
Gossip must have started immediately. On a trip to Wells with Kate Frary some time after the funeral, Elizabeth Southgate talked to her about the cause of Robert’s demise:
“If I were you, Mrs Frary, I would have my husband taken up [disinterred] and examined, to shut the world’s mouth.”
“Oh, no,” she replied, “I should not like it. Would you?”
“Yes, Mrs Frary, I would like it, for it will be a check on you and your children after you.”
Barely a week after Robert Frary was put in the ground, Fanny Billing was persuading a neighbour to accompany her to buy arsenic, saying it was for a Mrs Webster (who later denied all knowledge). Inspired by the successful despatch of Robert, Fanny and Kate were now determined on a new victim: Mary Taylor, whose husband Peter was having an affair with Fanny.
With the arsenic bought, all that was needed was opportunity. On 12 March, while Mary Taylor was out at work, Billing or Frary or Peter Taylor, or perhaps some of them in combination, poisoned the dumplings and gravy she had left out for the evening’s supper. When Mary fell ill, she had the misfortune to be nursed by Kate Frary. People came and went, and neither Frary nor Billing seem to have been too guarded in what they did nor said while they did so. William Powell, the village blacksmith, stopped by for a haircut and shave. He saw Kate Frary bring in a bowl of gruel and, using the tip of a knife, add to it what looked like powdered sugar. Phoebe Taylor, married to Peter Taylor’s brother, visited to tend to Mary and care for Peter. She saw Fanny Billing take a paper out of her pocket and pour its contents into a teacup, throwing the paper in the fire.
Eventually, with Mary in convulsions, Phoebe Taylor and Kate Frary summoned a doctor. He found that Mary’s pulse was feeble and she died in his presence. A coroner’s inquest was ordered, and Mary Taylor’s body was opened in her own kitchen. Her stomach was taken to the pharmacist in Burnham Market, where it was found to be riddled with arsenic. Next it was taken to Norwich where more tests were conducted by surgeon Richard Griffin, again confirming arsenic. The atmosphere in Burnham Market must have been febrile, when James Billing, who was already on the alert, in an unguarded moment, accepted a cup of tea from his wife. He became very ill, but recovered.
Fanny Billing was arrested on 18 March and taken to Walsingham Gaol. Kate Frary then asked Fanny’s sons to drive her to Salle, “to see a woman there who is something of a witch [not Shorten], that that woman might tie Mr Curtis’s tongue so that he might not question my mother.” Mr Curtis was the gaolkeeper at Walsingham. Fanny’s sons questioned why, if their mother was innocent, Frarey should wish this. The indiscreet comments did not stop. When Peter Taylor was arrested, Frary shouted out to him, “There you go, Peter, hold your own, and they can’t hurt you.” There were numerous other examples.
Kate Frary and Hannah Shorten were also arrested and Robert Frary’s and Harriet Southhgate’s graves opened. Peter Taylor’s house was searched for signs of arsenic. All three suspects, Billing, Frary and Taylor were committed for trial at the Lent Assizes at Norwich, but charges against Shorten did not stick. Taylor escaped when the grand jury chose to “ignore” his indictment as an accessory before the fact.1
In a packed courtroom on 7 August, appearing before Justice Bolland, Frary and Billing were both found guilty of both murders (no discernable traces of arsenic were found in baby Southgate’s body). As he condemned them to death, the judge referred to the women’s “profligate, vicious and abandoned course of life”, full of “guilty lusts”. He urged them towards repentance and sincere contrition and ordered their bodies to be buried within the confines of Norwich Castle. Kate Frary, often agitated, needed support. She went into “strong hysterics” and her shrieks could be heard after she was removed from court. Billing was more stalwart, and showed no emotion as the verdicts and sentence were given.
The womens’ execution on 10 August attracted vast crowds into Norwich from the surrounding villages. All routes leading to the castle were thronged with “persons of various ages and of both sexes (the weaker vessels being the more numerous)”.2 To reduce the distance the women would have to walk to the gallows, the apparatus was moved to the upper end of the bridge, which also had the effect that more people were able to see the action. At 12 noon the great gates opened and the Rev James Brown, prayer book in hand, followed by “the two unfortunate beings”, Frary dressed in mourning for her husband and Billing in a “coloured clothes”, white handkerchiefs covering their faces emerged for their last journey. Billing walked with “a firm step”, but Frary was on the point of fainting and had to be carried up the steps of the scaffold.
The Norfolk Chronicle described the scene:
“It was a sight which no one, but an alien to humanity, could look on unmoved”.
After the ropes were adjusted, hooded and holding each other by the hand, the friends dropped and were “launched into eternity”. Frary was “much convulsed” but Billing’s neck broke and she suffered less. The crowd was silent.
Peter Taylor, who escaped trial, was among the spectators but was forced to flee when the crowd turned on him. He managed to make it his home village of Whissonsett but he was not safe. Before their executions, the women had made fulsome confessions, implicating him, if not of being directly involved at least of knowing what they were doing. The investigation was reopened and on 29 August, scarcely three weeks after Frary and Billing had been executed, he was committed for trial as an accessory before the fact to his wife’s murder. He was found guilty and, insisting on his innocence to the last (which meant that he was denied the sacrament), in “a state of the greatest prostration of strength, both mental and corporeal,” on 23 April 1836 was executed at Norwich Castle.
Serial poisoning is generally a solitary crime, characterised by subterfuge and secret triumph over the victims. It is not often conducted in pairs or trios, which makes Billing and Frary (with or without Peter Taylor) so unusual. It is noteworthy that they were unable to keep quiet at the appropriate times and talked unguardedly, raising suspicion and indeed certainty of what they were doing. Even if they had other victims, and there was plenty of speculation that they did, they were, in the end, singularly unsuccessful in getting away with their crimes undetected, precisely because they could not keep their mouths shut.
Billing and Frary were also unusual because they were women. Although they committed the murders at the start of a run of female poisoners, which culminated in the so-called poisoning panic of the 1840s, and despite the general feeling that poisoning was a female crime, the truth is that poisoning is more likely to be committed by men. When the victim is female, the perpetrator is significantly more likely to be male; when the victim is male, the poisoner is equally likely to be male or female.
Perhaps the perception of poisoning as a female crime arose from the fact that when women did choose to murder, which was rare enough in itself, poisoning was often their weapon of choice. Female murderers did not often use brute force to kill their victims (unless, of course, those victims were smaller and weaker: children and newborn babies). Women tended to deliver their killer blows using the medium that was most available and most effective: food, laced with poison, generally arsenic. Perhaps that accounts for the poisoning panic: as the judge at Frary and Billing’s trials said, poison;
“was one of the worst acts that can be resorted to, because it is impossible to be guarded against such a determination, which is but too often carried into effect, when no one is present to observe it but the eye of God.”
There must have been numerous cases in history where women’s efforts to drastically change their lives by ending someone else’s (most often their husband’s) by putting arsenic in their food went entirely undetected because these women had cooler heads and operated on their own. Frary and Billing were astonishingly obvious. Perhaps they encouraged by Shorten and her like to think that what they were doing had magical qualities or that their friends and neighbours trusted them so much that they would not begin to suspect them. In a world where justice was so unreliable it was fairly certain that their detection and punishment would follow.
Stuff of Dreams theatre company toured with a play, written by Cordelia Spence and Tim Lane, based on Frary and Billing. Watch the trailer: nice and atmospheric.
Postscript: Hannah Shorten is found, aged 80, in the 1851 census, living in Wells and described as a pauper.
James Billing, the only spouse to survive, died in 1871, aged 84, in Alderbury, Wiltshire.
Much of the detail of the case was given in the Norfolk Chronicle, 15 August 1835.
This is a convoluted story, of two sets of murders in a small area of Norfolk within a couple of years. The killings had several unusual factors: one was that the murderers were female; another was that one set of deaths involved a murderous duo, of female friends rather than lovers (although the plot involves the lover of one of them); another was that the murderers used poison, argued to be the female murderers’ weapon of choice (we’ll come to that in Part 2); and finally, a ‘witch’, the same ‘witch’, played a role in both narratives.
Part 1: Mary Ann Wright
We’ll start with the story of Mary Ann Wright (née Darby), who was born in 1803 in the tiny north Norfolk village of Wighton, which lies between Walsingham to the south and Wells Next the Sea to the North. In 1829, aged 26, she married William Wright, a 34-year-old “teamerman”, whose job was to deliver carts of grain pulled by five horses. (1)
Mary and William lived in Wighton, with Mary’s father Richard Darby. They were poor, illiterate people and they lived physically tough lives, but village life was close-knit and stable. Everyone knew everyone else.
The couple had children but it difficult to say with certainty how many. There are records for Samuel, born in 1829, but reports of Mary’s trial mention two children.
It was well known that Mary suffered poor mental health. She had been affected both by the death in March 1832 of Samuel, at the age of three, (2) and another child. One person said in court that Mary was “never in her right mind” after the birth of her last child, so postpartum psychosis is a possibility. It was also assumed by her neighbours that a heredity factor played a part: her mother had spent 18 months in the asylum. Her neighbours noted that she had been behaving oddly, for example setting fire to the tablecloth and the chairs in her house.
Mary’s illness appears to have manifested itself as pathological jealousy. She told a friend that she would “stick a knife in him [William]” if he gave part of the fish he had just bought to her perceived rival and told another that she would not mind “running a knife” through him or “doing his business in some other way.” After she was arrested, magistrates heard evidence that she had made previous attempts on his life and on her own. (3)
Mary’s threats, and even her efforts, to kill William were brushed off at the time. No one could envisage what happened next. Mary was becoming increasingly desperate and had visited the local “cunning woman”, Hannah Shorten, at Wells, a walk of some two and a half miles. Shorten, whose services would have included casting love spells, creating charms and telling fortunes, made her living by offering magic to people for whom the Church’s teachings had little appeal. Many in poor rural societies preferred the power of folk remedies and curses; they must have seemed more direct ways to reach, and destroy, your enemies than prayer. One of Shorten’s methods for achieving your desires was to burn arsenic with salt. Whether she encouraged Mary to use arsenic in other ways, or whether Mary misinterpreted her advice, is not known.
Arsenic was a cheap poison used commonly for the killing of vermin. Thruppence (3d) would buy you three ounces, but you only needed enough to cover the tip of a knife to kill someone. It looked innocuous and could be hidden in flour or bread, or cakes. It was also tasteless but could produce a burning sensation after it was ingested. If you were intent on murder, the challenge was to acquire and administer it without attracting suspicion. As the symptoms of arsenic poisoning sometimes resembled gastroenteritis, it is likely that many poisoners “got away with it”. Vomiting, diarrhoea and inflammation of the stomach and bowels were easily mistaken for signs of cholera.
Mary appears to have planned the murder carefully. She asked Sarah Hastings to come with her on a shopping trip to Wells Next the Sea and told her that the local rat catcher had asked her to get some arsenic. Unfortunately, during the journey she quizzed Sarah on how much it would take to kill a person, something Hastings later described in court. While the women were in Wells Mary also bought currants. She said she was planning to make a plum cake. (4)
A few days later, on the morning of Saturday 1 December, William Wright rose early. He had been instructed by his employer to take a load of corn to Cley, just over 10 miles from Wighton. Mary gave him two plum cakes for the journey. After preparing the waggon with the help of Richard Darby, his father-in-law, and before he started out on the road, they repaired to a public house for a pot of beer and to eat the cakes. Richard returned home and William went on towards Cley with another farm worker, William Hales. He seemed fine at first but later became so ill and was in such agony, lying on sacks on the floor and unable to move, that he could not make the return journey. Instead, Hales took the team back to Wighton and Wright was carried to a public house where Charles Buck, the local surgeon, examined him. Mary was sent for. William finally expired on Sunday night, less than 48 hours after eating the cakes. Everyone, except Mary of course, blamed cholera and was terrified. (5)
When Mary returned to Wighton, she found that her father had also died. (6) The trouble with poison, especially in food, is that you could not be sure the wrong people will consume it. Both men were buried at Wighton Church on 4 December 1832.
It was a chance remark by Sarah Hastings that Mary had recently bought arsenic which led to suspicion falling on her. Four days after the funerals, the bodies were dug up and examined by Charles Buck in the chancel of Wighton Church; the stomachs were sent to Mr Bell, a chemist at Wells, who found they contained raisins from the plum cake. Bell used four separate tests to establish that they also contained arsenic.
Mary was arrested 16 miles from Wighton, at Oulton, and appeared at a special sitting of local magistrates. She was hardly able to speak and remained almost completely silent thereafter. Shortly afterwards, she was committed to Walsingham Prison for trial at the Lent Assizes.
A decision was made to prosecute her only for the murder of her husband, possibly because it was felt that she had not intended the death of her father. The Norfolk Chronicle (7) reported that she had made a full confession before she left Walsingham for Norwich Castle but she nevertheless pleaded not guilty to murder at her trial before Judge Baron Bolland. Witnesses from Wighton testified to William Wright’s sudden illness and Mary’s expedition to buy arsenic; Charles Buck described William’s death and Mr Bell his chemical tests. Mr Crosse, a surgeon from Norwich, declared that Hannah Shorten was not called as a witness.
……child bearing is apt to produce insanity [but] insanity from child bearing is mostly temporary.
Mary was found guilty and condemned to death, her body to be buried in the precincts of Norwich Castle. She then had what was described as an “hysteric fit” after which she declared she was pregnant. After some delay, Bolland assembled a panel of 12 matrons to examine Mary and after an hour they returned to court to declare that she was not with child. Perhaps prompted by Mary’s vehemence, Bolland then asked the opinion of three “eminent accoucheurs”, including Mr Crosse, who declared that Mary was indeed expecting a child. Five months later, on 11 July, Mary gave birth to a girl, Elizabeth. (8) and Mary would not have been surprised to learn that her execution was then scheduled, for 17 August. (9) However, at some point before this date, her sentence was commuted to transportation for life.
Mary did not reach Australia. She died in Norwich Castle in November. Cause of death: “by the visitation of God”, (10) meaning no one knew why she died. Did a brain tumour or other natural disease affect her personality and eventually cause her death? Was her death a suicide? Or perhaps the double loss of her babies, combined with postpartum psychosis, caused some aberration of mind that lead to extreme jealousy and destructive behaviour. We cannot know. The newspaper reports of her trial imply that a kind of medical defence was made but this was not spelled out and it was not strong enough to save her from a death sentence.
“Goodnight Blog: I haven’t posted here in a very long time. I’d say the life of this blog (as in, my desire to attend to it) has run its course. A fresh start is in order. Eventually, I’m going to pull this down and archive the interesting bits somewhere. This gave me joy when it needed to. For that I’m glad. But I don’t need it anymore. Thank you.”
This is a pity, for without knowing where ‘the interesting bits’ will go, much may well be lost – despite good intentions. The following blog of Seann’s is a case in point and, because it has a connection with Norfolk, it has been rescued before it is too late and the body text re-published here. Full credit remains with Seann McAnally and is confirmed in this Blog.
Seann’s own blog is the first contribution below, followed by further information on the principal named ‘Thurtells’ who played such a part in the defunctional nature of this 19th century family and the problems that this ‘defunctionality’ – [extinct] brought about.
1. History’s Jackass: John Thurtell.
John Thurtell (rhymes with “turtle”) was known to his friends and family as “Jack.” That’s appropriate, as few Jackasses of History approach the level of jackassery John Thurtell achieved in his short, tragic life. About the only thing he did right was die without (much) drama. He was a confidence man and a murderer. If you’re going to be one of those, make sure you’re good at it, or, like Thurtell, you’ll end up at the end of a rope.
Thurtell was born on 21 December 1794 into a wealthy family in the English town of Norwich. His father, Thomas Thurtell, was a prominent merchant and city councellor who also served as mayor of Norwich in 1828. Thurtell shared his father’s ambition, but lacked his skill. Rather than apply himself to his studies, he was mad for competitive sports, mainly horse racing and prize-fighting (boxing). After one too many tussles, his father decided a career in the navy would do young Thurtell good, so at age 15, with a freshly purchased commission, he joined Company 99 of the Royal Navy and set out on the HMS Adamant – which promptly sailed to The Firth of Forth in Scotland, and docked for a few years. Other than raising hell in local taverns and insulting the Scots, it appears Thurtell and his crew mates spent their time doing pretty much nothing. When the fleet got a new commander, Thurtell was disciplined and discharged by Rear Admiral William Otway for some misconduct. We don’t know what he did, but they didn’t kick you out of the Royal Navy on a whim. Record-keeping slip-ups ensured Thurtell found another berth on the HMS Bellona, despite not technically being in the Navy. The only action the HMS Bellona saw during Thurtell’s service was a convoy trip to St. Helena and back.
Of course, when Thurtell proudly returned home in 1814, he told his friends and family about his gallant action as he stormed the port of San Sebastian on the north coast of Spain. Naval records prove that his stories of action on the Bellona were baloney. It was docked at the Isle of Wight during the battle, and merely cruised past San Sebastian several days after hostilities had died down. 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. Nevertheless, folks around Norwich were impressed with the tales of derring-do that surrounded the popular mayor’s son.
Thurtell’s father arranged for local merchants to extend credit to his son to set up business with his friend Giddens as manufacturers of bombazine, a fancy twilled silk dress fabric that was popular at the time. However, Thurtell soon turned back to his old obsession with prize-fighting. He made friends with a boxer from London who’d moved to Norwich to seek easier pickings. His tales encouraged Thurtell to make regular visits to London, where he frequented disreputable taverns and gambling houses devoted to betting on horse races, prize fights, and other sporting events. At this time, Thurtell impressed his contemporaries, one of whom described him as “a man of integrity.”
Thurtell’s jackassery was soon exposed, however. While Giddens plugged away managing the bombazine business, Thurtell was often absent from Norwich, and was chronically short of funds. The partners soon became delinquent in payments to their creditors, to the embarrassment of Thurtell’s father. When a London mercantile firm purchased several thousand pounds(£), a huge sum at the time, worth of silk, the gallant Thurtell offered to travel to London (alone) to collect the payment. Lo and behold!, he returned without the money, saying he’d been ambushed and robbed by footpads. He helpfully displayed some bruises and a small cut on his head as evidence. His creditors, however, were quite vocal about not believing him. His father’s influence ensured Thurtell was not charged with a crime, but his reputation in Norwich plummeted, as did that of the over-trusting and innocent Giddens. Their partnership went bankrupt in 1821 – see *Footnote below.
It was a bad year for the Thurtell family – his brother Thomas had attempted the simple life of a gentleman farmer, but found it not so simple. Owing £4000 in debt, he soon followed his big brother into bankruptcy (though he owed half of that to his father, so his credit was better than Thurtell’s). He blamed his failure on excessive taxation and sub-standard seeds.
The two brothers fled to London, their bankruptcy cases still not discharged by the court in Norwich. The two launched various schemes and enterprises, usually under Tom’s name but with Thurtell as the mastermind (if you can call it that) and active agent. Jack came up with a plan to get both he and Tom out of trouble by exploiting the Act of Relief for Insolvent Debtors, recently passed by Parliament. Thurtell believed there was a loophole. Tom was, of course, the Guinea pig. Thurtell lent his brother 17 pounds, and, as arranged, Tom defaulted on the loan. Thurtell then had Tom thrown into King’s Bench prison for debt. They banked on this expediting Tom’s original bankruptcy case and having it forgiven. This was a staggering mistake, as Thurtell missed some of the finer points of the Act. He let Tom languish in prison for 14 long months before finally withdrawing the complaint. Tom appears to have left London immediately after being released, but this didn’t stop Thurtell from continuing to do business under his brother’s name.
Thurtell took out a lease on a tavern called, appropriately, The Cock (in Tom’s name). He immediately sold off the contents of the basement (which did not belong to him). He also purchased a warehouse in both he and Tom’s name. Using proceeds from the sale of the stuff in the basement, Thurtell made a down payment to finance hundreds of pounds (£) of bombazine. He stored it in the warehouse and took out an insurance policy on it all for some £2000. He spent a few more pounds making alterations to the warehouse so that no one could see inside. Then, under cover of darkness, he transferred the silk to another location and sold it for cash, making a huge immediate profit (since he’d mostly paid with credit). Then, surprise! The warehouse mysteriously burned down – Thurtell’s remodeling job ensured the night watch didn’t see the fire until it was too late.
But the local constable was suspicious. There were no tell-tale remains of silk in the warehouse, and the remodeling obviously served no purpose other than to hide the interior. The county fire office refused to pay the insurance claim. Thurtell, in Tom’s name, sued the office and won, but the director of the fire office still refused to pay the claim, and in fact used his contacts to procure an indictment against Thurtell and the hapless Tom for conspiracy to defraud the insurance company. This would eventually come back to bite Tom, although Thurtell, as we’ll see, managed to avoid conviction by dying first.
Most of his money slipped through his fingers in the gambling dens. Thurtell fled The Cock and the mountain of unpaid bills he’d racked up running it and went into hiding under an assumed name at another tavern. During this time, his friend Joseph Hunt wrote that Thurtell “suffered from an observable disintegration of his personality.” He spent much time drinking and brooding on his ill-fortune, and writing lists of grievances against all those he’d imagined had wronged him. Chief among them was William Weare, a notorious but non-violent underworld figure who seems to have started as a waiter, then moved to professional gambling. Thurtell had, in his depression, lost £300 to Weare, and it rankled to the point of obsession. He refused to pay, and spread rumours that Weare had only won by cheating. He said because of Weare, it he’d become a laughing-stock.
In October 1823, Thurtell decided on a way to avoid paying Weare the £300 he owed him. Feigning reconciliation and vowing to clear the debt, Thurtell invited Weare for a weekend in the country at the cottage of a friend, Bill Probert. However, Thurtell had enlisted Probert and another crony, Joseph Hunt, to murder Weare (how, we’ll never know, but the two were also debt-ridden ne’er-do-wells – think of them as assistant jackasses). The plan was that Thurtell would hire a gig (a gentleman’s carriage) and drive to the village of Radlett. Probert and Hunt were to follow along, catch up, and then the three would kill Weare. But the assistants got cold feet, and delayed for hours debating whether they should go through with it.
Eventually they decided to go along, but by the time they caught up with Thurtell, he’d already killed Weare – and made a real mess of it, too. Once dusk fell, Thurtell turned into a dark lane near Probert’s cottage, produced a pistol from a matched set, and shot Weare in the face. This failed to kill him. The poor bastard managed to escape from the carriage, but did not get far stumbling into the darkness. Thurtell chased him and caught Weare when he tripped over a root. Thurtell drew a knife and slit Weare’s throat from ear to ear, then, for some reason, bashed Weare in the head repeatedly with his pistol, until Weare’s brains were dashed all over the ground. Thurtell hid the pistol and the knife in a nearby hedge. Then, when Probert and Hunt arrived, they helped him throw the body into a pond on Probert’s property – after searching it and looting it, of course. The trio then went to Probert’s cottage, where Thurtell presented Mrs. Probert with a gold chain he’d taken off Weare’s corpse. They all stayed up late into the night singing over rounds of grog.
The next day, Thurtell went to retrieve the murder weapons – but he couldn’t find them. Nervous, the men waited for dark, fished Weare’s body out of the pond, and dumped it in another pond by the road to the village of Elstree. Meanwhile, a road maintenance crew found the pistol and knife, and saw the brains and blood, and notified authorities. It wasn’t long before they showed up looking for Thurtell – whether they were skilled investigators or not is moot. Thurtell, jackass that he was, made it easy for them. All of Weare’s friends knew he’d planned to spend the weekend with Thurtell. When he didn’t show up at his regular haunts the following Monday, they reported it. The horse Thurtell had hired to pull the gig had rare and distinctive coloration – all gray, with a white face. Several witnesses on the road remembered seeing it, and Thurtell and Weare, riding along on the day of the murder. When the authorities questioned Thurtell, they found the other pistol from the matched set, which was, of course, identical to one of the murder weapons.
At this, Probert and Hunt immediately turned King’s Evidence against Thurtell and told everything. All charges were dropped against Probert, but Hunt, who initially lied to investigators about helping to hide the body, was banished to Australia (where, settling in Botany Bay, he married, had two children, and became a pillar of the community). Thurtell proclaimed his innocence throughout his arrest, confinement, and trial. He attempted to delay the trial by calling witnesses who he knew to be absent from London. This tactic didn’t work. He was convicted of Weare’s murder and hanged on 9 January 1824. Meanwhile, Hunt sold his story to the newspapers, and the lurid details of the crime ensured a major media circus at the execution. Oddly, Thurtell seems to have died well, without any blubbering or begging. On the scaffold, he admitted to the murder, said justice had been done, and then, in a classic jackass move, instead of asking for forgiveness, announced in a loud, steady voice: “I forgive the world!” His body was dissected and studied (common with criminals at the time) and today his skeleton is still on display at the Anatomical Museum of Edinburgh University.
Later that year, his brother Tom was convicted in the warehouse insurance fraud scheme, even though his only crime was to let Thurtell write his name on the paperwork. He, too, was hanged.
Thurtell became something of a celebrity after his death as the subject of penny dreadfuls and cautionary tales about the dangers of young gentlemen coming to London and getting involved in the vice of underworld gambling. But it seems clear that Thurtell’s jackassery began long before his gambling days, and we must conclude that he is, indeed, one of the true Jackasses of History.
This Footnote to Seann’s story (above) comes from Meeres, F., ‘A History of Norwich, Phillimore, 1998: “On the 22nd January 1821, John Thurtell advertised that he had been in Chapel Field, Norwich at 9pm when three men had knocked him down and robbed him of £1,508. The cash was in his pocket-book “In notes, 13 of which were of the Bank of England, value £100 each and the name “John Thurtell” is endorsed on them”. A reward of £100 was offered to whoever might give information “which may lead to the apprehension and conviction of the persons concerned in this robbery”. It sounded an incredible sum of money to be carrying and before long it was discovered to be a scam. Thurtell’s bombazine firm had been declared bankrupt and he was hoping to enjoy a public subscription.”
2. Others Of The Thurtell Family.
The following is based on the reseach done by Susan T. Miller, plus information received by her from the Norwich Public Library on the records of the Thurtell family. According to her research, Thomas Thurtell (father and later Mayor of Norwich) was born to John and Anne Thurtell (below) in 1765, baptised on July 21, 1765, at St. Julians Church, Norwich, and died April 8, 1846, aged 81. He married, in Blundeston, Suffolk, on September 25, 1787 to Susannah Browne, who was born in 1764 and died in 1848.
Purely as an aside – Susannah’s sister, Anne Browne, married Thomas’ brother, John Thurtell and Anne’s brother, Robert Browne, married Thomas’s sister, Sarah Thurtell, in a triple wedding ceremony at the Church of St. Mary in Blundeston, Suffolk in 1787.
Thomas Thurtell (our notorious killer’s father), Susannah his wife, and a daughter are buried in the new church at Lakenham with two of their other children buried in the churchyard of Lakenham Old Church. Thomas’s residence was Harford Hall farm, Ipswich Road by Harford Bridge in Lakenham Parish. We are told that he farmed this property under Southwell, landlord, and died there. However, property records for the farm apparently show that Thomas, described as ‘Esquire’, only occupied it as leassee between 1811 and 1819, so perhaps the rest of the time there was some other arrangement?
According to the family’s researchers, the convicted killer John Thurtell’s father, Thomas Thurtell, was an extremely tempetuous, violent, and unforgiving character. His treatment of his family was often tyrannical, and it was felt that much of the son’s criminal behaviour was his responsibility. However, he refused to pay the lawyer’s expenses in connection with John’s trial for murder; he also deprived another son of his promised marriage settlement and legacy. Thomas Thurtell’s mayoralty was said to be ‘extremely tempestuous and his critics vocal’. Nevertheless, he was a “highly respected and opulent merchant of Norwich” and three times Mayor of Norwich. He was also a prominent member of the Whig party in Norwich and became a member of the Common Council in 1812, Alderman in 1815, Sheriff in 1815, and Mayor in 1828 (elected by the Court of Aldermen after two inconclusive popular votes). He was again Mayor in 1829 when the Old Fye Bridge was built – as indicated on a brass tablet which was uncovered in 1932 when the bridge was widened.
It must be noteworthy that Thomas Thurtell was chosen as Mayor even after the trial and execution of his son John Thurtell on 9 January 1824, whom his father disowned. Thomas senior had done his best to set his two sons, Thomas and John, up in business in 1814 and, with his help, the two boys purchased and manufactured silks and bombasin for him. Later they became involved in something underhanded that Thomas senior knew nothing about. Nevertheless, he appears to have survived this and other scandals, related to his sons, with an undiminished reputation; and the dreadful legal troubles of his sons must have caused much grief. However, in the obituary on his death it is stated that he was universally esteemed as an honest and upright man.
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Folklore stories have long drifted in and out of print, meaning that each generation, particularly those who could neither read nor write, relied on other tongues to tell tales; there must also have been a hope that these tales would be remembered and passed on to future generations. As part of this process, and to generate and maintain the interest of liseners, these stories were often elaborated and embellished; an essential part of the spoken tradition which wanted to perpetuate whatever fact, or possible moral, that lay behind each tale. The following story is just one example where detail must have been given such treatment over time, appearing in print in as many and varied versions as any tale passed on verbally – maybe past chroniclers, authors and story-telling bards have a lot to answer for!
But we have to go with what we have, so the question is ‘How much of a story is fact and how much is fiction’, remembering that all legends have a degree of truth in them; However, one thing is certain – we will never know. The only thing the reader can do is to pick through content and decide where a degree of licence may have been applied and where facts possibly rest – and we all have opinions and pet theories.
This story is about the beginnings of Erpingham Gate, a great Norwich gateway which takes the visitor from Tombland into the Cathedral Close, and visa versa; a Gate which is also the best way of taking the visitor directly towards the main entrance to Norwich Cathedral. But enough of that, this story is more about the person who, it was said, paid for the Gate’s construction, Sir Thomas Erpingham – and about whom a legend, myth – whatever you might like to call it – found root around the time of 1422 when the Gate was built. Since then, there have been those who say that Sir Thomas was a generous patron, and based on the one legacy that can still be seen and admired – his entrance gate to Norwich Cathedral, then clearly he might well have been the most generouse of men. But there was more than one side to him which will be revealed as this tale unfolds. First, however, some facts, background and opinions, as they are generally believed:
Sir Thomas Erpingham was born in 1357 in the Norfolk village of Erpingham, some 17 miles north of Norwich. His family had been in the village since the Norman Conquest and were part of the local gentry who came to be the holders of the manor in the early thirteenth century, taking the place name of Erpingham as their surname. After the death of his father, Sir Thomas went into the service of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and fought alongside Gaunt’s son (Henry Bolingbroke) across Europe and the Middle East. Bolingbroke later became King Henry IV and Sir Thomas was made his chamberlain. In 1400 Sir Thomas became a Knight of the Garter and received many estates in Norfolk and Suffolk. He used his position at court to promote the interests of Norwich and in 1404, the King gave Norwich its new charter, making it the County and City of Norwich.
Sir Thomas went on to have an impressive military and political career beyond the confines of Norfolk. He was a staunch supporter of the Lancastrian dynasty and part of Henry V’s inner circle, he was instrumental in the king’s political and military successes. In 1415, Sir Thomas went with Henry V to Agincourt where he is thought to have been in charge of the archers, riding out in front of the English lines giving the order to strike the French. Sir Thomas became a hero to many and was immortalised in Shakespeare’s Henry V, where one Act takes us through the English and French camps on the eve of the battle, portrayed as a steadfast and loyal ‘old hero’. However, whilst he was considered ‘good’ in Shakespeare’s play, we are told that he also had ‘another side’.
Erpingham was a man who, so they say, beat a monk from St Benet’s senseless after chasing him on horseback to just outside Thetford; then he mocked the Lord as he had the monk Hung, Drawn and Quartered…….. it has also been said that he helped Henry overthrow Richard II which, at any other time and situation, was enough to see the man excommunicated. If that was not enough, Erpingham was said to have practiced ‘chevauchée’ in France (pillage and probably rape – something that was a bit of a fashion in those days), so maybe he would have had little or no compunction about killing a monk. Further to this, there was a piece of folklore that grew amongst the populace following the completion of the Gate. Its theme depicted the process of Sir Thomas paying for the building of the Erpingham Gate as an act of personal penance – for a seedy episode during his life maybe?
Erpingham’s legend, of which we speak, makes reference to the fact that Sir Thomas more than disliked Henry le Dispenser, Bishop of Norwich; both, it appears, had been at each other’s throats for years. One reason must have been that Bishop Despenser, along with the Abbot of St Benet’s Abbey, had long tried to seize more and more land for themselves – and at one point they did ‘eye’ the lands belonging to Erpingham. Not only that but Despenser, a most currupt character by present-day standards, had also been siphoning funds from the cathedral to build his own castle at North Elmham, capped only by his being accused of treason on several occasions. In his dispute with Erpingham, Despenser attempted to lodge accusations of heresy against the knight, on the basis that Sir Thomas be friendship and supported John Wycliff and the Lollardy movement. One thing Despenser loved doing was burning Lollards!
In return, Sir Thomas Erpingham strove to turn the City of Norwich against the Bishop, and did manage to persuade the City’s authorities to endorse a list of accusations against Despenser. Clearly in the other camp, it was the Bishop who sympathised with the deposed Richard II and became implicated in a rebellion against Henry IV; as it was, the house of Despenser had a long-standing enmity with the House of Lancaster – and ultimately Sir Thomas. It followed that when King Richard II was disposed, Bishop Henry le Despenser was disgraced. Added to this was the fact that it was Sir Thomas Erpingham who, when in exile with Henry Bolingbroke, helped this future Henry IV to secure the throne, whilst capturing Richard and offering ‘advice’ that, because Richard was a possible threat, he should be removed! Henry IV eventually stripped all his civic powers including cathedral finance from Despenser and handed it all to Thomas.With the Bishop of Norwich disgraced, Erpingham became even more influential in Norfolk.
It was the result of these acts that established a serious breach of trust between Erpingham and Bishop le Despenser, the repercussions of which may have been felt by both Sir Thomas and the Church beyond the year of 1406 when Despenser died. We do not know! However, if this legend ever found root beyond Dispenser and the next two Bishops of Norwich – Alexander Tottington (1407 to 1413) and Richard Courteney (1413 to 1415) – then it must have been with John Wakering (or Wakeryng) who was Bishop of Norwich from 1415 and until 1425. It was during this period in office when the Erpingham Gate was built. So, was any sort of reconciliation between the Church and Sir Thomas settled during Wakering’s period in charge?
Whenever it was, if the wound was ever to be healed then Sir Thomas needed to make some sort of financial gesture to the Church – because that was what they liked! As things turned out, it was said that he came up with a two-pronged solution that, with God’s help, would satisfy both the Church and his belief that heaven awaited those who donated generously to the church; he also must have hoped that his earthly bones would eventually be laid to rest in the Cathedral when his time came. They say that this was the basis on which Sir Thomas Erpingham built his Gate. When Sir Thomas did die in 1428, his bones were indeed buried in the north side of the Chancel (or presbytery) of the Cathedral, along with his two wives.
That was one version of the legend; but it would seem that the populace much preferred another version of the legend that tells quite a different story – and with much less historical content. This one goes along the lines of having a Friar in the opening scene – we’ll call him Brother John for the purpose of this version – who clearly lusts after Sir Thomas Erpingham’s wife, Joan. We do not know which Joan the tale refers to; both of Thomas’s wifes carried the same name for he married a Joan, daughter of Sir William Clopton of Clopton, Suffolk, then married a second Joan, daughter of Sir Richard Walton sometime around 1411. No matter, for this legend tells us that during Mass, Brother John slipped a note into Joan’s hand. Curiousity alone dictated that she would read it at the first opportunty, her subsequent blushes apparently telling Sir Thomas all he needed to know of the note’s content. But, being a faithful wife, she still insisted that her husband read it word for word, knowing that he would take matters into his own hands and take steps to remove the problem that lurked beneath a religious habit!
Sir Thomas did just that – and so cunningly; first by noting the time and place suggested by Brother John for his meeting with Joan, both perfect for his plans. The meeting would take place at dusk when disguise was so much easier, and the place would be a quiet spot by the River Wensum – a short but convenient walk away from the Cathedral, Whitefriars Priory and the busy part of the City. We of course, do not know if this friar came from the Blackfriar fraternity, or that of the Whitefriars which stood next to the Cathedral in Pockthorpe with the River Wensum in between. Sir Thomas decided to dress in one of his wife’s more favoured dresses before leaving with his faithful servant to the ‘trysting’ rendezvous which some believed was downstream from the rear of Whitefriars and just short of Cow Tower – again, we cannot be certain.
Once there, Sir Thomas, now further disguised with a silk scarf tied over his head, stood beneath a tree at the water’s edge and gazed across the water to the bank opposite; waiting, but at the same time listening intently for sounds of any movement behind him.
In the meantime, his servant concealed both himself and Thomas’s horse under cover a short distance away. It was not long before (alias) ‘Lady Erpingham’ heard advancing footsteps behind him and then felt stumpy fingers begin to move over his hip. “Thank you for coming – my love”. Brother John got no further with his obvious intentions for, almost in a single movement, Sir Thomas reached for a metal object hidden beneath the waist of the dress, swung round and struck Brother John firmly on the side of his bald head. The Friar fell first on his knees and then face downwards towards the river-edge reeds. He was dead.
The recipient of the legend is led to believe that it was never Sir Thomas’s intention to kill his victim, but only to give him a heavy lesson which he would never forget – such was his anger……..“How do we get rid of this lecher” he eventually asked his servant, who had come to his master’s assistance immediately he saw the Friar hit the ground. His reply was quick and straight forward. “He has no blood showing, just a dent my Lord. The best we can do is to return him to the Priory grounds”. With the help of Thomas’s horse they took the body the short distance to the Priory’s boundary wall. There, the two men lifted it over the wall and propped Brother John up in a sitting position – as if the Friar was asleep.
The corpse had not been there long, after Sir Thomas, servant and horse had quietly departed, when another Friar, in this instance a Brother Richard who was a very pious man, noticed Brother John – apparantly asleep when he should have been at prayers! Seeing this known womaniser lazely avoiding his religious duties caused Richard to pick up a stone and throw it in the direction of John. It so happened, that his aim was good, too good in fact; the stone hit the side of Brother John’s head, causing him to keel over, once again hitting the ground. Believing that he had actually killed Brother John and in doing so sinned, Richard took a further step towards further weakness; he lifted the body and rolled it over the wall where it fell to lay outside the Priory boundary. He then quietly called on the services of his own pony and left the Whitefriars and what he thought was his crime scene.
Now it so happened that Sir Thomas Erpingham’s personal servant again rode past the Whitefriar’s outer wall on an errand for his master. He could not help noticing, with some puzzlement, the body lying on the wrong side of the wall from where he and Sir Thomas had first left it. Maybe it was a degree of panic, if not a cool calculated decision, that caused the servant to climb down from his horse and replace his elevated position with that of the corpse which by then was stiff with rigor mortis. He managed to get former John into an upright position, his feet into the stirrups and his wrists tied to the reins before firmly slapping the horse’s rump into a gallop.
As for Brother Richard, he thought that he had left his unfortunate experience behind him as he too rode out of Norwich, all be it at a much slower pace. But then he heard the sound of galloping hooves approaching towards him from the rear. He instictively turned his head to see the ‘gastly figure’ of Brother John approaching fast on a horse. When alongside Richard’s pony it pulled up causing the dead friar to fall off to beneath the ponty’s feet. Richard was absolutely terrified – feeling the guilt of what he thought he had done. It was nothing less than divine intervention he thought and decided, there and then, that he must confess! He immediately turned his pony and made his way back to the Bishop and told him all that he knew.
Inevitably perhaps, Friar Richard was sentenced to be hanged for his apparent sins, but as he stood on the gallows, praying for forgiveness and waiting for the immident drop into oblivion if not heaven, Sir Thomas came on to the scene and forced his way through a crowd eager to witness what was a public strangulation. He shouted “Hangman – stop!” as he climbed the scaffold steps, removing the implements of execution and then descending the steps with the Friar. Sir Thomas, the most powerful knight in Norfolk at the time, sought out the Bishop and did not hesitate to kneel before him to admit that he, Thomas, was the one who had killed Friar John. He told the Bishop of circumstances surrounding the Mass and his thoughts and planning which led up to the murder along that part of the River Wensum which runs past Whitefriars, towards Cow Tower, Bishops Bridge and beyond. The Bishop listened, then contemplated and decided that the act of this killing was manslaughter…….the sentence was not to be death for such a distinguished person of the County, but one of a penance which Sir Thomas had to agree to if he was ever to be forgiven and find his place in heaven. What was agreed was for him to pay the costs of building what was to become known as the Erpingham Gate.
FOOTNOTE: The Erpingham Gate was erected between 1420 and 1435, in a style which matches the west front of the cathedral itself. The exterior of the gate has a small statue of Sir Thomas above, although this was apparently only put in place in the 17th century – some speculate that it came from Sir Thomas’s tomb in the Cathedral’s Presbytery. The interior side of the Gate also displays the Erpingham coat of arms. There are no less than 24 Christian Saints carved in the archway – 12 male and 12 female – a nice example of equal treatment some 600 years before the Equality Act. (Would this have had anything to do with the fact that Sir Thomas had two wives?).
About the time when the Erpingham Gate was being built, other work associated with the rebuilding of the church of the Dominican Friars and a new East window for the church of the Augustinian Friars was taking place. History does suggest that Sir Thomas donated even more of his money to projects such as these. What is not clear is whether, or not Sir Thomas, following his death in 1428 ever left any of his funds to William Alnwick, who was the Bishop of Norwich between 1426 and 1436. This Bishop continued with further enhancements within the Cathedral precincts by altering and improving the Cathedral itself – as well as his Palace!
We are told that much of the rebuilding of the Dominican friary in Norwich was financed by Sir Thomas Erpingham and his son Robert, who became a friar there. The gate that bears his name is thought to have been built at his cost, a gift to the cathedral, circa 1420. The upper portion, surrounding the canopy within which Sir Thomas’s statue is recessed and faced with flint in Norfolk style. Below it, surrounding the Perpendicular arch, the outward face of the gateway is highly decorated with figures of saints. The turrets on the buttresses at either side also bear sculptures, as well as the heraldic devices of Erpingham and the families of his two wives, and each turret is topped by the statue of a priest. The word yenk (“think”) is engraved at various places on the gateway, and is a request for viewers to remember (and say a prayer for) the donor.
The date of the building of the gate is not known for certain, but it must have taken place after his second marriage (1411). The style suggests the 1420s, and it seems likely the gate would have been given at a time when Erpingham’s thoughts were turning to his death and afterlife – by this time he would have been in his sixties. There were certainly stories that he built the gate as a penance for a sin he had committed – different versions suggest a homicide, his role in the disgrace of Bishop Despenser, his support of heretics – or even gratitude for surviving Agincourt; but there is no real foundation for any of these. If anything, the highly decorated gate is an assertion of orthodoxy at a time when Lollardy was posing a challenge to the established order and at a time when Sir Thomas might have been concerned with his spiritual future.
Erpingham died in 1428 and was buried inside Norwich cathedral, in a tomb built in advance, alongside his two wives; a chantry was established there in his name. His testament did not forget the city in whose affairs he had always shown an interest. He left sums of money to the cathedral and the Prior and monks there, as well as to the church of St. Martin at Palace; his armour too he left to the cathedral. He also bequeathed money to the sisters and poor inmates of St. Giles’ hospital, Bishopgate, and lesser sums to prisoners in the gaols of Norwich castle and the city Guildhall, as well as to hermits within the city.
The construction of the gate may have been an act intended to win favour from the Cathedral in which he hoped to be buried, to win favour from God, and to establish a memorial to himself. The armour in which he is depicted in the statue may have been that which was bequeathed to the cathedral. Although his Will makes no reference to the gate, it is possible he commissioned it shortly before his death, with the work finished posthumously by his executors, or it may even have been entirely a project of his executors. His testament focused on pious and charitable bequests and left the rest of his worldly goods to his executors’ disposition – they may have felt the gateway a suitable application of that wealth, and certainly it has stood the test of time. It has been argued that his statue is not the right size for its niche and may have been moved there from his tomb, replacing some other statue on a religious theme.
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No one wants to admit it but we are all interested in murder so another chance to revisit this ‘old chestnut’ of a story – the Red Barn Murder. By now, few can plead ignorant of it, one of the most famous murder cases of 19th century England. It took place on Saturday 18th May 1827 in the Suffolk village of Polstead, not far south from my County of Norfolk.
In essence, it was a fairly tawdry tragedy, but it did have a number of features, including supernatural elements that rendered it sensational at the time and even fascinating in this present day. The circumstances not only made a great impact on the Victorians by way of topical news but also on the melodramatic plots that were subsequently injected into stage dramas. Not only that, but the tale was to have ramifications in popular culture, how murders were subsequently reported, and even how elements ‘enriched’ the English language. That being said, what follows is not intended to be a full account of the case or the characters involved; it is simply a summary – and another viewpoint! To start with, let’s just introduce the two principal characters and leave everyone else to reveal themselves as the following narrative unfolds:
William Corder: William Corder was born in 1803, the third son of a yeoman farmer. He lived in Polstead in the County of Suffolk. His father and three brothers all died within the space of 18 months, leaving William and his mother to run the farm.
Corder was about 5ft 4 inches tall, slender, well-muscled, with a fair complexion and freackles. He was very short-sighted yet, apparently, an excellent shot. In the best authenticated likeness he looks rather studious. As a child he spent five years at a respectable boarding school at Hadleigh. Though bright, he was not well liked by others. He was nicknamed “Foxey”, perhaps because he was prone to stealing and lying. In Polstead, he was generally known as ‘Bill’. He did not get on well with his father or brothers, but was quite attached to his mother. Despite being considered kind, humane and good tempered, Corder was said to have been reserved and chirlish. He absorbed gossip and took pleasure in keeping information to himself. His father despaired of him.
One of the curious things about Corder’s life was that he never seemed to have enough money. But, Corder was from an affluent “middle class” home, his father was dead and since his brother’s death he was heir to the farm which was extensive – locally, the Corders were important people. Yet he hinted time and time again about trouble at home with his surviving family, and while it is clear that he doted on his mother, she seemed to have been unwilling to surrender any financial control to him. She was clearly very attached to him and almost certainly took his side in any family squabbles. Certainly Corder, being a flamboyant dresser with expensive tastes, seemed to have been unwilling to seek any money from this obvious source.
Maria Marten: Maria Marten was born on 24th July 1801, the daughter of Polstead mole-catcher Thomas Marten and his wife, Grace. Maria was a quiet and intelligent child. She received an education and, unusually for a country girl at the time, she could read and write well. Following her mother’s death Maria, aged 9 years, took on the role of ‘mother’ very seriously but still managed to continue educating herself. One comentator observed of Maria (Having been blessed with a very retentive memory and her mind deeply embued with a desire to acquire useful knowledge, there is every reason to believe that, if she had received proper tuition, she would have made an accomplished woman” (Curtis, 1828. p41).
At the age of 17 years, Maria became involved with Thomas Corder, William Corder’s second oldest brother. Thomas as a passably good-looking young man and was to vist Maria frequently at her cottage. At Thomas’s wish, their courtship was largely carried out in secret – Maria was not his equal in social status. Thomas fathered Maria’s first child, but his visits became increasingly infrequent as her pregnancy progressed. He did not marry her and provided little financial support; the child died young. Maria, now a ‘fallen woman’, next had an affair with a certain Peter Matthews – referred to as ‘Mr P.’ in the following narrative since he serves no role in the forthcoming tragedy. However, Peter Matthews was a well-respected gentleman with relatives in Polstead. He was aware of Maria’s past but, by him, she had a son, Thomas Henry, the only one of her children to survive, Again, there was no marriage; however, Matthews provided a regular allowance for the upkeep of his child.
Maria next took up with the leading character in this story, William Corder. His father and brothers were dead. He was wealthy. He was young. He would have made a good catch and it would appear that Maria loved him. Despite her mother’s disapproval of the relationship, Maria was to press William to marry her, but whilst frequently promising marriage, Corder always found an excuse to delay a wedding. Nevertheless, by him, she had a third child but it was weak and died within a month. The pair pretended to take it to Sudbury for burial but probably buried it in a field. Six weeks after the birth, Maria disappeared; it appears that her anxiety to marry had sealed her fate. Two months short of her 26th birthday, Maria was dead.
Now, Imagine the scene, it is a Saturday and the date is 18th May 1827. We are told that William Corder, a son of a prosperous Suffolk family, set out to elope with Maria Marten, a village beauty of humble origin. The two. apparently, walked separately through the night to a barn, later to become the infamous ‘Red Barn’ which stood on Corder’s property. Maria was first dressed in male clothing to avoid local notice but on arrival at the barn changed into female attire. It was whilst she was in the process of changing that she met her death and was buried by Corder within the barn.
The tale goes on to relate that Corder not only remained in the little village of Polstead, but also informed Maria’s parents that he and Maria were to wed by Special Licence, but to avoid her arrest he had sent her to stay with friends near Yarmouth in Norfolk. She was also unable to write herself because of an injury to her hand. Sometime later Corder left for London and wrote to Maria’s father saying that he and Maria were now married and living on the Isle of Wight; Corder also stated that they were very happy and requested that the father burn some letters, claiming they were hiding from a Mr P – his identity already revealed above and serves no further purpose here. We also know that Corder was a liar and inconsistent in what he told others, particularly in the village during his visits there; such as whether or not he was indeed married and where Maria was residing during the year before the her body was discovered.
The Background to the Crime: All the sensation masks details of the story which may have a bearing on what really happened on that fateful night. First point, Maria Marten was mother of two illegitimate children by a local dignitary, a very wealthy gentleman, referred to as Mr P at the Inquest. As such she was open to arrest for the crime of bastardy, that is giving birth to illegitimate children. In fact no attempt was made to arrest her, because the children were not, it seems, “a burden on the parish” and because the father made a generous provision of £5 a quarter for their upkeep.
A year before the murder William Corder became intimately acquainted with Maria, who he had presumably known for some time because they both lived in what was a very small village, and he and Maria went off to live in ‘sin’ in Sudbury. While there she gave birth to another child, this one fathered by Corder, where, again, bastardy charges could have followed. They were not and the couple returned to Polstead, where the baby died. Corder removed the body, having placed it in a box and told villagers the child had been buried in Sudbury; in fact Corder buried the child in an undisclosed field – the body was never recovered.
Maria and Corden were to remain lovers, despite the gulf in their social position, which was nowhere as great as that between Maria and her former lover, the anonymous ‘Mr P’. Apparently, his family also disapproved on the same grounds. As it was, Corder’s father was dead, several of his siblings had died in the last few years of TB, and his elder brother had died in a skating accident, drowning when he plunged through the ice on the village pond. His mother had suffered an immense amount of grief and now William Corder was heir and helping to run the farm.
Yet, Corder still did not have control of the money and when a letter to Maria from Mr P was intercepted by Corder, he apparently stole the £5 maintenance for the child which was contained inside. Maria now had a problem; she argued publicly with Corder – who could hang for the theft — and she had no way to protect herself from the long deferred bastardy charges, should they be brought. However if Corder married her and claimed the children as his, they would be legitimate, and the problem would go away.
The Night of the Murder: Twice they had prepared to elope, but Corder backed out each time, leaving Maria increasingly depressed and unhappy. Her home life also appears to have been troubled by the moral condemnation from her younger sister, who regarded Maria as a ‘tart’, and had been particularly scathing about her dress sense. The death of her baby also affected Maria greatly, to say nothing of her health problems and Corder telling her that she was about to be arrested for bastardy, no doubt using this to frighten and control her. On the fateful night he assured her that she was about to be taken in to custody, so she dressed in his clothes and for the third time set out to elope and marry Corder. They would leave through separate doors of the Marten’s cottage, walk to the Red Barn where, being out of sight of any villagers, she would change and they would make off to marry by Licence, thus avoiding the necessity for banns to be read.
Of course, Corder was lying. There was no intention on the part of the authorities to apprehend Maria, so what followed appears straightforward enough with Maria changing out of Corder’s clothes into her own at the moment when she was shot in the head and possibly stabbed twice with Corder’s sword before being strangled with her neckerchief. Her body was placed in a sack, and buried there in the Red Barn.
About an hour after they had left the Marten’s cottage, Corder had gone to a cottage close to the barn and borrowed a spade. Sometime later Maria’s younger brother claimed he saw him walking across a field carrying a pickaxe. Corder was to claim that the boy was mistaken and that the person he saw was one of his agricultural labourers who had been grubbing up trees, and who, by the way, also wore a velveteen coat. The ‘same coat’ part was true, but at Corder’s trial, the labourer denied ever carrying a pickaxe that year as far as he could recall.
Concealing the Crime: The Red Barn: Corder buried the body just one and a half feet under the floor of the barn, and then cleaned up the blood. From that day on he carried the key, and when the harvest was brought in he personally supervised the laying of the crop over the spot where Maria was buried. With Corder holding the key it became difficult for anyone to enter, though presumably he must have somehow provided access to his farmhands, unless the hay was stored very long term. He was in the village for months before taking off to “be with Maria” purportedly in the Isle of Wight! Actually, he was to in London, about which more will be said shortly. For the next eleven months or so, Maria would remain buried in the Red Barn.
The actual barn (a ‘double barn’ in Suffolk terms) would be rapidly pulled down by souvenir seekers. The illustration below is rather misleading – the barn was actually surrounded on three sides by outbuildings, with a courtyard formed by these sheds and a gate some seven feet high at the front.
Supernatural Experience? The Discovery of the Body: ‘Providence – to some it was God – led to the unveiling of the murder’ according to the Inquest. In fact, the events which led to the discovery of the body have been the staple diet of supernatural books ever since because Maria was discovered after her stepmother dreamt of where the body was actually buried. Apparently, she managed to convince her husband, Maria’s father, to investigate. All that we know comes from The Times, April 22nd 1828 which stated that the dream was of Maria murdered and buried in the Red Barn, and that the dream had occurred on three successive nights. Of course, the papers were to make much of this but, between the lines, the argument for anything supernatural being involved was very weak.
It was well known that Maria and Corder had always met (and none but the naive would fail to presume that they made love) in the Red Barn. No sooner had Maria apparently ‘left for Yarmouth’ her parents were suspicious, and that is why they cross-examined Corder after their nine year old son said he saw the latter carrying a pickaxe on the night he was supposedly eloping with Maria. Many times had Maria’s father thought of entering the building to look for any evidence, but he never did because of the difficulty of access and the fact the barn was Mrs Corder’s property. Even after his wife had convinced him to search the barn, he took time to ask permission from Mrs Corder, saying he wanted to look for some of Maria’s clothing which he believed had been left in there. Such deference by farm labourers towards landowners was the norm then and is still not uncommon today.
So it was that Mr Marten, together with a Mr Pryke, and both armed with a spade and a rake set off to the barn and went to the very spot indicated in the dream where they uncovered the remains of Maria, very much decomposed to being mainly skeletal. They fetched others, and during the exhumation of the body it was noted that there was a mark on the wall where a pistol had been discharged. As Corder habitually carried a pair of percussion cap pistols and occasionally fired them into the Marten’s fireplace, his position looked precarious.
So was it a supernatural dream? Well, the bizarre way Maria, who could read and write and was close to her parents, had stopped communicating, the conflicting stories told by Corder, the enquiries badly deflected by Corder from Mr P (still sending faithfully his fiver for Maria) and village gossip all meant that the dream was probably little more than a reflection of the anxiety felt by the stepmother. She may have even made it up to finally make her husband, who had spent eleven months doing nothing, to actually go and check if Maria lay dead under the floor of the Red Barn. The dream caused a sensation at the time, but there is no reason to believe that it was supernormal on the part of Mrs Marten. However, that opinion does not dispel the supernatural. The Red Barn had an unwholesome reputation before the murder. It was so called because it stood on a rise and was stained that colour by the setting sun; apparently, such places were associated in Suffolk folklore with murder and horror. So maybe it is understandable that there would be stories of ghostly tales of crime in and around the Red Barn – now long gone.
William Corder Seeks Marriage Elsewhere: During the eleven months between the murder and the discovery of Maria’s body, Corder was in Polstead before eventually setting off – supposedly to live on the Isle of Wight. In fact he went to London where it has been suggested Corder had a number of criminal associates. What we do know from the Trial was that Corder seems to have enjoyed himself and quite quickly fixed his eyes upon marriage for he took out the following advertisement in The Sunday Times, 25th November 1827:
MATRIMONY — A Private Gentleman, aged twenty-four, entirely independent, whose disposition is not to be exceeded, has lately lost chief of his family by the hand of Providence, which has occasioned discord among the remainder, under circumstances most disagreeable to relate. To any female of respectability, who would study for domestic comforts, and willing to confide her future happiness to one every way qualified to render the marriage state desirable, as the Advertiser is in affluence. Many very happy marriages have taken place through means similar to this now resorted to; and it is hoped no one will answer this though impertinent curiosity; but should this meet the eye of any agreeable Lady who feels desirous of meeting with sociable, tender, kind and sympathising companion, they will find this Advertisement worthy of notice. Honour and secrecy may be relied upon. As some little security against idle applications, it is requisite that letters may be addressed (post paid) A.Z., care of Mr. Foster, stationer, 68 Leadenhall-street, with real name and address, which will meet with most respectful attention.
The advertisement certainly worked for he received over a hundred replies, with two definitely gaining his attention. One was from a mysterious lady who wanted to meet him at a London church. She described herself, and told Corder to wear his arm in a sling and to wear a black handkerchief around his neck and attend a certain service where they would meet. Unfortunately maybe, Corder was delayed and missed the service, arriving after the lady had left. He later discovered that the woman making the enquiries was a lady of some standing and with a large fortune. His plans to contact her again was thwarted when he met the women who would become his wife.
Corder met Miss Moore at an undisclosed public place and they immediately were attracted to each other. The sister of a notable London jeweller, she was clearly dissatisfied with her single status, and three weeks after that first meeting the two were married. While the marriage was only to last eight or so months before Corder was executed, it seems to have been genuinely happy with Mr and Mrs Corder opening a boarding school for girls at Grove House in Ealing Lane, London. It was there, living with his wife and with a few pupils enrolled, that he was to be arrested for murder.
The Arrest: When found, the body it was quickly identified as Maria from missing teeth, clothing, jewellery and a small lump on the neck the corpse. There could only be one suspect and the village constable was sent off to London to find Corder. However The metropolis was outside his jurisdiction and he was obliged to go to a police station where a policeman named Lea was assigned to the case. It took fourteen hours to locate Corder despite having absolutely no idea where he might be, or even if he was in London. But find him they did when police constable Lea entered Corder’s house, pretending that he wished to place one of his daughters at the Corder Finishing School. As soon as Lea had Corder in in the confines of his study, he told him that Maria Marten had been found. Three times Corder denied ever knowing the girl but he was arrested and his sword taken, along with a small black handbag that had once been the property of Maria Marten. Inside were found Corder’s pistols.
Corder was taken back to Suffolk to face the charge of murder with his wife believing that the charge was bigamy. Nevertheless, she was to stand by him until their final parting on the day before his execution. In the meantime, Corder was held over night at the George Inn in Colchester then was transferred in the early hours of the following night to the Cock Inn at Polstead where the inquest on Maria Marten was to be held at ten the next morning.
The Inquest: At the appointed hour, the Cock Inn was full and representatives of the London press who disputed Coroner Weyman’s ruling that the press could not take notes for their newspaper columns. Their accounts of the proceedings would have to be filed from memory. The Coroner also noted that such was the sensational nature of the case that the papers, preachers and puppet shows were ignoring ‘innocent before proven guilty’ and declaring Corder guilty of the murder. Proceedings were then delayed by Corder’s representative who asked if he may come downstairs and witness the testimony; however, the Coroner ruled against him but stated the representative may have the witness statements read to him afterwards. Corder who had descended was forced to return to a room upstairs, while it was determined how Maria had died.
Determination, in fact, proved extremely difficult for Maria appeared to have been shot, stabbed two or three times, and then was perhaps strangled. It was not even possible to decide if she was dead when buried, so burial live was added to the list. In the end there were nine different possibilities as to exactly how she was killed and at his subsequent trial, Corder was charged with all nine to ensure that at least one of them would stick. This legal nicety would seem a bit odd to us today!
The important thing was the Inquest determined that poor Maria had been murdered and Corder was committed to prison at Bury St Edmund to await his trial, while the sensation continued to grow.
The Trial: The trial was held at Bury St Edmunds with Chief Baron Alexander presiding. His orders that no one was to be admitted until he had taken his seat led to absolute chaos outside; once his carriage had arrived, it took an hour and a half for him to gain entrance and much longer for the trial to finally begin. Corder was charged with nine counts of murder and was horrified and clearly outraged to discover that the Coroner Weyland was now the Prosecutor! This meant that the Coroner had already seen all the evidence and cross-examined the witnesses, whereas the Defence had not had access to anything other than the reports of those proceedings.
However the case against Corder was fairly substantial – the last person seen with the victim who had been found buried in his barn with wounds that could have been made by his pistol and sword, not to mention the fact that he had lied for eleven months about her whereabouts. He had taken his sword to be sharpened shortly before the murder and there was no evidence that he had planned to honour a promised marriage; he even appeared to have taken special care to cover up the burial site and, for the first time in his life, kept the barn locked after the murder, along with his endless lies to her family, friends and Mr. P about where she was. Maria was unhappy when she set out on the fatal night, and Corder had been terrorising her with the claim she was about to be arrested for bastardy. Afterwards, when he was supposedly living with her, he had refused to give their address to her parents, claiming the couple were fearful of Mr P – who whatever his moral failings, seemed to have actually done much to support his illegitimate children and support Maria. The picture that emerged from the trial was that Corder was a weak and not very bright schemer, who lied constantly. Yet there was more to the man than this: he had many friends, his new wife was devoted to him and those who came to know him in gaol felt sympathy or even liking for him. He was clever enough to work hard on his defence and, indeed, both his wife and Corder appeared to be convinced that he would be acquitted.
Corder’s Defence: So how did Corder hope to be found innocent? There was little hope of claiming the manner of death was incorrect or try for a technicality since he had been charged on all nine counts! His second course would be to argue that the body was not Maria Marten, but the evidence was such there could have been little doubt that it was. His third strategy was to object to the Coroner being employed as the Prosecutor, to which the Judge was certainly sympathetic, as he was to Corder’s point about being already judged guilty by the press and public long before the trial had began. However, Corder decided on arguing from his best position, namely that Maria Marten had committed suicide and he had merely covered up her death.
According to Corder his pistols had been in Maria’s possession since their time in Sudbury when she took them to have them repaired. The gunsmith testified that a man and a woman had collected them, but others did testify to seeing them in Maria’s possession. In his summing up the judge mentioned Corder “snapping” them at the fire at the Marten’s cottage on the fatal night. If that was correct then Corder certainly had the pistols when he left their house. Despite those pistols being found in Maria’s handbag at Corder’s School, he claimed that she had the pistols on the fateful night.
As they left the house to elope Maria was seen to be crying and as she changed at the barn Corder claimed she had abused him, comparing him unfavourably with Mr. P. Seeing a chance to call off the elopement and wedding, Corder claimed that he had told her that having spoken to him in such a manner before marriage, how would she treat him once they tied the knot?. According to him, he told her that he would not marry her and walked away. As he did so he heard a shot, turned and saw her lying dead, having shot herself in the head with his pistol. He gave no explanation for the second bullet mark on the wall, though she may have fired there first to attract Corder’s attention as he left. Corder stated to the court that he then panicked, concealing the body while he cleaned up the scene and left to borrow a spade. He later returned with a pickaxe to bury poor Maria in the barn. After that he did his best to conceal her fate by telling so many lies.
The greatest problem facing Corder was how to explain the evidence of the neckerchief pulled tight enough to have throttled the girl – he claimed that this must have happened as he dragged her body to the grave. Then how could he account for the wounds, made by a stabbing instrument as confirmed to the court by three surgeons who also attributed such wounds to Corder’s sword. Interestingly, Corder claimed that these marks were made by the spades of those who discovered and dug up the corpse!
Corder’s Fate is Sealed: When instructed, the Jury retired and spent barely an hour of discussion before finding Corder guilty. The Judge, Baron Alexander sentenced him to hang and afterwards be dissected:
“That you be taken back to the prison from whence you came, and that you be taken from thence, on Monday next, to a place of Execution, and that you there be hanged by the Neck until you are Dead; and that your body shall afterwards be dissected and anatomized; and may the Lord God Almighty, of his infinite goodness, have mercy on your soul!
Corder was taken from the court on his way to Bury gaol to await his fate. There he met twice more with is wife, who seemed to have behaved with great courage and dignity, offering him religious literature and pious exhortations. Many clergy and others also sought an interview with him but Corder refused to see them, though he did spend time with the prison chaplain.
Finally, on the morning of his execution, Corder wrote his confession and had it witnessed.
“Bury Jail, August 10, 1828 — Condemned Cell,
Sunday Evening, Half-past Eleven.”
“I acknowledge being guilty of the death of poor Maria Marten, by shooting her with a pistol. The particulars are as follows:– When we left her father’s house we began quarrelling about the burial of the child, she apprehending that the place wherein it was deposited would be found out. The quarrel continued for about three-quarters of an hour upon this and about other subjects. A scuffle ensued, and during the scuffle, and at the time I think that she had hold of me, I took the pistol from the side-pocket of my velveteen jacket and fired. She fell, and died in an instant. I never saw even a struggle. I was overwhelmed with agitation and dismay — the body fell near the front doors on the floor of the barn. A vast quantity of blood issued from the wound, and ran on to the floor and through the crevices. Having determined to bury the body in the barn (about two hours after she was dead), I went and borrowed the spade of Mrs Stowe; but before I went there, I dragged the body from the barn into the chaff-house, and locked up the barn. I returned again to the barn, and began to dig the hole; but the spade being a bad one, and the earth firm and hard, I was obliged to go home for a pick-axe and a better spade, with which I dug the hole, and then buried the body. I think I dragged the body by the handkerchief that was tied round her neck. It was dark when I finished covering up the body. I went the next day and washed the blood from off the barn floor. I declare to Almighty God I had no sharp instrument about me, and that no other wound but the one made by the pistol was inflicted by me. I have been guilty of great idleness, and at times led a dissolute life, but I hope through the mercy of God to be forgiven.
Witness to the signing by the said William Corder,
According to this, his argument with Maria was actually about the burial of their child — Maria was worried that the baby’s body would be uncovered. Why is hard to understand, though many have speculated that Corder had killed the child, though that claim seems to have little evidence to support it. In the barn the couple fell to fighting and while they struggled, Corder pulled out his pistol, fired and Maria fell dead. He then covered up the crime and events proceeded as already described. Whatever the truth, Corder was led out at noon on August 10th, 1828 and hanged in front of an audience of 7,000 plus witnesses on a pasture behind Bury gaol, where he died quickly, his end speeded by the hangman pulling on his legs – a common practice where executions fail to go ‘according to plan’!
After an hour, his body was cut down by John Foxton, the hangman, who, according to his rights, claimed Corder’s trousers and stockings. The body was taken back to the courtroom at Shire Hall, where it was slit open along the abdomen to expose the muscles. The public was allowed to file past until six o’clock when the doors were shut. According to the Norwich and Bury Post, over 5,000 people queued to see the body.
The following day, the dissection and post-mortem were carried out in front of an audience of students from Cambridge University and physicians. A battery was attached to Corder’s limbs to demonstrate the contraction of the muscles, the sternum was opened and the internal organs examined. There was some discussion as to whether the cause of death was suffocation; but, since it was reported that Corder’s chest was seen to rise and fall for several minutes after he had dropped, it was thought probable that pressure on the spinal cord had killed him.
Since the skeleton was to be reassembled after the dissection, it was not possible to examine the brain, so instead the surgeons contented themselves with a phrenological examination of the skull. Corder’s skull was asserted to be profoundly developed in the areas of “secretiveness, acquisitiveness, destructiveness, philoprogenitiveness, and imitativeness” with little evidence of “benevolence or veneration”. The bust of Corder held by Moyse’s Hall Museum in Bury St. Edmunds is an original made by Child of Bungay, Suffolk, as a tool for the study of Corder’s phrenology.
The skeleton was reassembled, exhibited, and used as a teaching aid in the West Suffolk Hospital. Several copies of his death mask were made, a replica of one is held at Moyse’s Hall Museum. Artifacts from the trial and some which were in Corder’s possession are also held at the museum. Corder’s skin was tanned by the surgeon George Creed, and used to bind an account of the murder.
Corder’s skeleton was put on display in the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons of England. In 2004, Corder’s bones were removed from display and cremated
Supernatural Experience?: The Ghost of Corder: One doctor became fascinated by Corder’s skeleton and on leaving his post stole the skull, replacing it with another with a more ordinary history. Shortly after his return however terrible noises were heard and before long he began to see the shadow of a man in his house, a man who had come to reclaim what was his…… Finally, terrified and haunted to the limit of his mind by Corder’s ghost the unfortunate doctor disposed of the curiosity and peace once more reigned – So claimed a book on Suffolk folklore!
A Sensational Case: It turned out that Corder would form the archetype for the “wicked squire” – the murder was just a little too early for tying her to railway tracks for Maria was to be the innocent country maiden of Victorian Melodrama. Certainly, the story was to form the basis for many plays performed by travelling troupes all over the country, performing in barns and thus giving us the word “barnstorming”.
These plays were hugely popular and even when Corder was on trial there were puppet shows throughout the region and even in London depicting the murder. Not to be upstaged, a camera obscura show was put on in Bury St Edmunds. Such was the effect that the tragedy had on the general public that a nonconformist minister took it upon himself to preach to a crowd of thousands at the actual barn which, by the way, was dismantled by souvenir seekers. In Polstead today there is no trace at all of the gravestone of the unfortunate Maria Marten for it was chipped away by curiosity seekers long ago.
Strange how some people keep things to themselves? William Sheward way back in the mid 19th century was like that……..kept things very much to himself. In fact, this William never, ever breathed a word during those eighteen years about murdering his wife!……….He never even thought to mention that, after he had cut her throat, he chopped her up into convenient sized pieces, thus enabling him to scatter her bits around the streets of Norwich…………would you believe it? Now, this information is not to make light of the matter but to state the facts of the case, which are indeed gruesome to all except the most disensitised of people.
The story is true – and this is not the first time that such words have been uttered on the subject…… and it will not be the last. Versions of this tale have gripped the imagination of people for the last 150 years, ever since the court case and the moment the newspapers-of-the-day sensationalised events. This tale is certainly gruesome in its content, and for that reason it comes with a serious ‘Health Warning’, particularly for anyone with a sensitive disposition – don’t even begin to read it!……. For everyone else, what follows is based on reports of the case and such other sources as have been unearthed. The end result will be a reminder to those who may have already come across this tale, but have forgotten at least some of the details. For those who are completely unaware of William Sheward, turn the page and read on.
Where it all started:
During the early 1830’s, William Sheward lived east of London towards Greenwich, although he had some connection with Richmond Place Walworth. He was aged 24 years, of small stature and employed either as a pawnbroker’s assistant or a tailor of some unknown description – no one seems to be quite certain; but, employed he certainly was.
Whilst in Walworth he met Martha Francis who was much older than he, she being 38 years of age and said to be ‘small with golden curls’ and having been born and brought up in the small Norfolk town of Wymondham. Martha became Sheward’s housekeeper somewhere near Greenwich and was to marry him in London on the 28th October, 1836. For reasons that have never been explained, neither were settled in the great metropolis and within two years of their wedding, in 1838 to be exact, the two uprooted and returned to Wymondham, lodging with Martha’s twin sister, Mary Bunn. Work appeared not to be easy to find for William who was a restless type to say the least; some would say that he was also ‘a quiet and inoffensive man’!
Inevitably this meant that he and Martha would move house and job quite frequently. Their first was from Wymondham to Norwich where there were better choices of employment and one would suppose – better prospects. It was said that, on moving to Norwich, Sheward did find a job as a tailor and lived in Ber Street. Certainly in 1842 he appeared to be well settled there – but not for long however. In fact, it was within a short time afterwards that the couple moved to White Lion Street. It was from there that Sheward tried setting up his own tailoring business but, unsurprisingly perhaps, it failed in 1849 and he was declared bankrupt. From the position of insolvency, he went to work for a Norwich pawnbroker by the name of a Mr Christie with whom he was also to deposit a healthy sum of £400; the presumption here must be that he wanted to keep the money out of the hands of his creditors – and Martha, his wife. Later Sheward was to say:
“In November, 1849, I placed a box of money containing £400 in Mr Christie’s possession, for him to take care of it for me. In the year 1850 and to June, 1851, I drew from that box £150, during which time my wife wanted me to bring the box home. Mr Christie asked me if he might make use of the money. My wife seemed determined to fetch the box herself. I knew he (Mr Christie) could not give it to me”
Martha, was none too pleased and the couple’s long-established pattern of rows were set to continue apace; clearly their marriage was an unhappy affair. Money was certainly one aspect of their problems, but not the only one. The age difference between the two of fourteen years, plus, was clearly another, as seen by Sheward’s constant search for love affairs with younger women. There was also his track record in the employment field which was nothing short of abysmal – but on all fronts he kept trying.
Breaking Point – Then it Happened!
Two further house moves followed, first to Richmond Hill, near to the Southgate Church Alley and then to No.7 Tabernacle Street, which used to be at the western end of Bishopsgate – note this address! Even there, the pattern of their quarrelling continued at seemingly ever-increasing pace; be it about money, William’s multifarious dalliances or jobs. Inevitably, everything came to a head at Tabernacle Street and that was on Sunday, 15th June 1851. Martha could not have picked a worst moment to be involved in yet another confrontation with her husband for the circumstances were all wrong – if only she had realised!
The previous day, Saturday 14th, Sheward was preparing to travel to Great Yarmouth; again, in his own words:
“On the 14th June. Mr Christie asked me to go to Yarmouth to pay £1000 to a Captain of a vessel laden with salt, to enable him to unload on the Monday morning. On the Sunday morning, the 15th, I was going to Yarmouth on the above errand. She (his wife) said “You shall not go, I will go to Mr Christie and get the box of money myself and bring it home”.
It was at this point when William Sheward clearly lost it – and Martha was foolish enough to be standing too close to William as he shaved in preparation for his journey to Yarmouth:
“An altercation occurred when I ran the razor into her throat” (some say it was a pair of sissors – either way) “she never spoke after. I then covered an apron over her head and went to Yarmouth. I came home at night and slept on the sofa downstairs.”
By the next Sunday evening, Sheward had cleaned the house and burned all the blood-stained clothes, both his and those worn on the Saturday morning before. On the Monday he went to work as normal, as a pawnbroker’s assistant, but left off at four o’clock and returned home because in his words “the house began to smell”. He lit a fire in the bedroom and commenced to cut up Martha’s body. This went on until “half-past nine when I took some portions and threw them away, arriving home at half-past ten”. This pattern of activity continued throughout the week during when, and in order to prevent the possibility of neighbours picking up on strange odours, he boiled the parts. Through future common consent, these parts would be judged as crudely cut up, hacked and sawed into small pieces; the head, hands and feet being the only ‘difficult’ parts to find their way into a pot which was kept boiling on the open fire until the job was done. Everything thereafter was cooled, placed in a bucket and, over numerous trips over several days, Martha’s bits were distributed around the streets of Norwich.
The discovery of the first of Martha’s body parts was on the following Saturday, 21 June 1851. Charles Johnson, a thirty-four-year-old wood-dealer and son of a church minister, was walking his dog from Trowse to Lakenham when his dog picked up what he thought was a bone or a piece of carrion on Martineau Lane. On closer inspection back home he saw that it was part of a hand with two fingers clenched over a thumb. Some 200 yards from the spot where the hand was discovered a foot was picked up. Both items found their way to the Police and a further ‘random’ search of the area took place. Back in those days there was no thought of ‘securing the area’ and carrying out a systematic search. The following day, Thomas Dent and his dog came across a piece of pelvis further down the same lane. More body pieces were found over the next five days, including a fibula in a field near Hellesdon Road by a Samuel Moore and a few pieces of flesh by PC John Flaxman. More were found in the same area by a Mr Carter and Mr Cory, also in a field along what is now Heigham Road and at Alder Carr at Trowse Eye, Bull Close and even as close as 300 yards from No7 Tabernacle Street where Sheward lived. When further body parts turned up at places that had already been covered, it was clear that the killer was still making his deliveries around the City!
A John Sales was employed in clearing out the three open sewers, called ‘Cockeys’, in Bishopsgate, which is a continuation of Tabernacle Street where Sheward lived in an area named St Martins-at-Palace in Norwich. A ‘cockey’, by way of explanation, is Norfolk colloquialism for a stream over which (in this case) would have been a large iron grate and provision below for a sink. It was in one of the three sinks along Bishopsgate where John Sales discovered blood and deposits. Mr Charles Walter Sales, senior, “a scavenger of Norwich” helped his son to load the contents on to his cart and deposited the same in Bull Close where, refuse was thrown. Next day Constable John Sturges inspected the waste soil and found yet more bits and pieces, principally a woman’s breast and entrails; he took them away. Back at the station, it was Police Sergeant Edward Peck’s grim task to construct his own jigsaw by trying to put together as many of the discovered parts as was possible.
The search for further remains was continued after the 26th June 1851 when a piece of skin and muscle was discovered on Saturday, 28th, followed by some intestines on the 29th and a hard substance thought to be a thigh-bone and part of a female breast on Monday, 30th. The last discovery was made on Wednesday the 2nd July 1851 when some bones were found. Later, three surgeons examined the remains and seemed to have got everything correct, such as sex and that the perpetrator was neither a surgeon nor butcher. However they did not, at that stage at least, get the age right, opining that the female was between 16 and 26 years. This information was included on a poster issued to the public:
Whilst the inevitable few applications were received about females missing, they were all influenced by the mis-information from the medical profession of an age between 16 and 26 years. No one thought that they would be so far out in their estimations – poor Martha was 54 years of age! On top of all this, a great many theories were expressed in an attempt to explain the macabre discoveries, and the Press created further confusion by making sensational mis-statements in their newspapers. The Times and the local Norwich Mercury did their utmost to sensationalise everything and even ‘pointed the finger’ (please excuse the pun!) at medical students for playing pranks. The medical authorities rose to the bait all too easily and complained bitterly to the newspapers about ‘bringing the medical profession into disrepute’.
Inquiries got nowhere and no one linked Mrs Sheward’s unexpected disappearance with the horrific finds. William Sheward said that his wife had ran off to New Zealand to find a former lover and his plausible story was believed because the couple’s rows were well known amongst their few friends, coupled with the knowledge that apparently, according some unconfirmed comments, Martha too had quite a chequered past – one would suppose that murder was not included! There were also two other more important reasons why nothing was suspected. The police did not link the body parts with Mrs. Sheward, the head was never recovered and the police had no idea that Mrs. Sheward had been murdered.
The year of 1851 continued on its inevitable way – beyond the murder, the continued enquiries, and the Press speculation. To say that Sheward was calm during this time must have been wrong. Being the sort of person he was, as taken from descriptions, other people’s opinions and his own behaviour, he would have been on an extreme edge. Not least when his brother-in-law wanted to tell Martha about an inheritance, but Sheward abruptly brushed him off. Also when Martha’s twin sister, Mary Bunn, died in November 1851, Sheward refused to attend the funeral, adding that ‘he was sure Martha couldn’t either’. Sometime later, he moved out of No 7 Tabernacle Street (now the western end of Bishopsgate) and rented three unfurnished rooms from a John Bird in St Georges, Middle-Street, but within 12 months was thrown out when he was caught with more than one woman in his rooms. One of these women was to become the second Mrs Sheward a few years later. But, for the moment and from the pavement of his former lodgings in St Georges, William Sheward temporarily moved to the Shakespeare Tavern further along St Georges before finding another set of rented rooms in Lower King Street (St Peter Permountergate). It was from here where he carried on in business as a pawnbroker, lending money on goods and plate. It was while he was living in this neighbourhood that Sheward’s drinking was first observed.
Sheward’s restlessness, together with whatever misguided aspirations he may have held, meant that he was destined never to be successful in business. A bankruptcy notice in The Jurist of 4 June 1853 described him as ‘a pawnbroker of Norwich’. True to character, it would seem, Sheward took increased solace in drink and in his quest to cultivate a string of lady friends around Norwich, while keeping up his relationship with the girl found in his previous rooms in John Bird’s house in St Georges. Her name was Charlotte Maria Buck with whom he eventually lived and sired two children, one in 1856 and the other in 1859. It was not until the 13th February 1862 that William Sheward eventually married Charlotte at the Norwich Registry Office in King Street. From then on Charlotte witnessed first-hand Sheward’s journey further downhill, not just with his heavy drinking but also his tendency to talk in his sleep – but, apparently, never to reveal the time in 1851 when he had disposed of his first wife.
Sheward also aged prematurely following his second marriage and began to show early signs of rheumatism and of becoming increasingly consumed with guilt. Almost 18 years passed, during which time Sheward said absolutely nothing then, in 1868, he changed his employment to become the landlord of the Key and Castle tavern at 105 Oak Street, Norwich where he also lived with his family – but not for long however. Over the Christmas of 1868 and towards the New Year Sheward’s depression became so bad that he said he needed to go to London to see his sister; Charlotte thought that would cheer him up. But, then he wrote to her to say that he was ‘in trouble of which you will soon learn’
The Beginning of the End:
On the 1st January 1869 Sheward, apparently the worst for drink, went to Walworth Police Station to confess to the murder and disappearance of Martha Sheward in 1851. He was met by Inspector Davis to whom he said “I want to speak to you; I have a charge to make against myself……It is for the wilful murder of my first wife at Norwich”. When asked if he had given due consideration to the very serious nature of the charge, Sheward added. “I have…. I have kept it for years, but can keep it no longer. I left home on the 29th December intending to destroy my life with the razor I have in my pocket.” He further explained, as he handed the razor to Inspector Davis, that he had intended to commit suicide at the Steamboat, near Chelsea; but, ‘the Almighty would not let me do it’. At that point Sheward broke down sobbing and continued to speak in broken sentences at the end of which he said that the Inspector could take his charge in writing. Inspector Davis noted that Sheward was ‘quite sober‘ as he dictated his confession which he willingly signed before being placed in a cell for the night.
“I, William Sheward of Norwich, charge myself with the wilful murder of my first wife. (Signed) W.S.”
The following morning Sheward said that he stood by his statement, then confirmed that he had killed his wife on the 15th June 1851, then cut up her body – parts of which was still preserved with spirits of wine and stored at the Guildhall, in Norwich. When asked where the body parts had been found, Sheward pleaded:
‘Oh, don’t say any more; it is too horrible to talk about’……I went last night to a house in Richmond Place (Street), Walworth, where I first saw my first wife; that brought it so forcibly to my mind that I was obliged to come to you and give myself up……. they know all about it at Norwich”.
Two days later, Sheward tried to retract his confession but most of the detail submitted seemed to tally with facts obtained from Norwich and he was remanded in custody and placed in Horsemonger Lane Gaol in London.
Then on 7 January 1869, the London magistrates decided to return Sheward to Norwich to face trial. The prisoner and escort party travelled by train and were met at Thorpe Station by a large crown. There Sheward was transferred to a shuttered cab and taken to give a deposition to the magistrates at the City’s Guildhall. After following advice to reserve his defence, he was further charged with murder and committed to the Assizes. Between then and his trial, the police had the difficult task of gathering all the available evidence together. Forensic and medical methods were far more limited than they are today and, because of the time span, many witnesses had either died or had forgotten the circumstances. The police even ripped up the floorboards of No.7 Tabernacle Street but found nothing, and had to pay the owners £3 compensation for the privilege.
Between the 13th and 26th January 1869, Sheward was re-examined by the magistrates followed by his indictment for murder at the Assizes on the 29 March – the day when Martha would have been 72 years of age had she lived. Understandably, the history and publicity surrounding this case ensured that the Court was packed with spectators. It was said at the time that many seemed surprised that such a little old man, crippled with rheumatism, would be capable of committing such a horrible crime. When proceedings began, there were no shortage of tales from witnesses who remembered that they had found bits of flesh and bone; that Martha was controlled by her husband and secluded from the rest of the extended family; and when she vanished he was 39 and she was 54 ‘he being in the prime of life and in the zenith of his passions, she past the heyday of life and passion’. At the end of a two-day trial, it took just one hour and 15 minutes for the Jury to find Sheward Guilty! – to which he responded ‘I have nothing to say’. Following the pronouncement of the death sentence, Sheward was taken to Norwich City Gaol where he spent his remaining days in the infirmary because of his rheumatism in both ankles, there he composed his final confession. On 19th April he saw Charlotte for the last time, prompting him to write a letter to her and their children, asking for forgiveness and apologising for ‘drawing you into all this trouble and affliction’.
His was the first ‘private’ execution in Norwich, to be held behind prison walls and with no members of the public present except for members of the Press. The stipulated execution date was 20th April 1869 when Sheward prayed with Reverend R Wade for an hour before being carried, in fear and agonising rheumatic pain, by Chief Warder Hall and Warder Base to an anti-room to be pinioned by the executioner, William Calcraft. The execution party then continued on to the scaffold where the Executioner carried out his duties – the way he normally carried them out. Calcraft was known for his ‘short drops’ which normally resulted in the majority of his ‘clients’ strangling to death rather than having their necks broken. That day, the Press reported that ‘his struggles were slight and brief’ so, maybe, Calcraft had measured out a little longer rope and Sheward’s neck snapped cleanly. Outside the Prison gates the crowd of 2,000 were there to see the black flag raised, signalling that the execution was done.
William Sheward dropped from life to follow his wife, Martha Sheward into history. One could imagine the impossibility of the two ever being reconciled since she left this earth ‘in little pieces and all over Norwich’ and, without a head! William would never have recognised her. In any case, it is unlikely that he would have said anything!
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