It will be 169 years, this November, since the Stanfield Hall murders were committed by James Blomfield Rush and to which so much interest was directed once his arrest was made, the trial called and the sentenced carried out on Saturday,21 April 1849. Over the years since, much has been written and many accounts recycled by and for those who have been and remain interested in Norfolk history. What follows is for those who are unfamiliar with the story and those who, in the past, may have undertaken a tour of Norwich Castle but who failed to take any notice of the Tour Guide!
Stanfield Hall is a large and ancient mansion situated near Wymondham and about 10 miles south-west of Norwich in the county of Norfolk. The Hall and Estate was held by Earl Warren in the 11th Century and by 1249 the Prior of Wymondham who had his house and chapel there. In the 14th Century Stanfield Hall came to the Bigods, then to the Appleyards in the 15th Century and to the Flowerdews in the 16th Century. The Hall later came into the hands of the Jermys who, by way of two separate branches of the family, also owned, for a time at least, Gunton Hall, near Aylsham and Bayfield Hall, near Holt in the same County. It was the Bayfield Jermys who provided the route to the murders of 1848 by way of the ‘known’ last in their line – a William Jermy. It was his association in 1751 with a ‘wiley’ lawyer by the name of Issac Preston who saw to it that the Stanfield Hall Estate passed from the Jermys to the Prestons family once the Jermy line was extinct. By 1791 the Estate was firmly in the hands of the Prestons – a long line of long established gentry with their main seat at Beeston St Lawrence north-east of Norwich, near Wroxham.
Further Background leading up to the Murders
Let us recap. and elaborate on the above statement by just going back to just around the year of 1735 and with one member – William Jermy. He married Elizabeth Richardson, the sole heiress to the Stanfield Hall Estate; she died in 1750, leaving William a childless but wealthy widower. He was the last and only surviving male of his (Bayfield) branch of the Jermy family and whilst not having any children nor surviving siblings, he did have two or three first cousins, of whom one would have been expected to be heir to his considerable estate. However, it seems that not only was William a notoriously feckless man by nature he was also not a well man when his wife died in 1750 and it was at this point when a Isaac Preston (1711-1768) came on to the scene; a lawyer by profession and Sub-Steward of Yarmouth.
Issac not only managed to ‘befriend’ William but also managed to take on all his legal affairs as family solicitor. Not only that, but within about twelve months, certainly by 1752 Issac even managed to persuade William to marry his sister Frances (nee Preston); however, soon after the wedding William passed away. In his Will, unsurprisingly drafted by Isaac, William gave Frances a life interest in his Estate but thereafter, with no more Jermys apparently alive, the Estate would be allowed to pass to certain named members of their Preston family. There was, however, a most significant proviso to this in the Will – that in the event that none of these named Prestons outlived William’s sister, nor had male issue themselves, then the Estate would go to ‘the male person with the name Jermy nearest related in blood to me (William) and to his heirs forever’. This caveate effectively denied inheritance to William’s first cousins or their heirs. On the evidence, it could justifiably be said that the Will was not only suspect but that Issac, through his legal ‘manouvers’ had precipitated a chain of events which would end in the murder of two of his descendents at Stanfield Hall, near Wymondham, on 28th November 1848.
Whilst William’s ‘proviso’ was seen as a very remote possibility, it nevertheless worried Issac Preston. He could not, even as a lawyer, remove what must have been William’s explicit wish; but he could, and did, remove two possible claimants first by tracing them and then buying both out for what turned out to be a ‘paltry sum’ of £20, thus securing the inheritance in favour of his own ‘Preston’ descendants. Doubtless, neither of these two ‘casualties’ had any idea of what they were signing away!
As events turned out, the two named Prestons in the Will died before Frances, leaving no offspring. When she died in 1791 with no heirs it was left for a ‘Jacob’ of a more distant Preston branch to step forward to claim the Estate for himself. His evidence was supported by the Affidavits signed by the two relatives of William Jermy and disposed of by Issac Preston which proved that they had sold over their interests. Since there was nobody to object, Jacob’s claim was accepted and Stanfield Hall went to the Preston family. The legality of all this was to be disputed two generations later by two members of the Jermy family who claimed to be the rightful owners of the Estate (see below). Jacob Preston died in 1796.
The Rev. George Preston – and Beyond! (Take note of the names in Bold!)
The Rev George Preston succeeded his brother Jacob in 1796 and moved into Stanfield Hall, along with his wife and 12 year old son Isaac Preston, he set about re-building much of the Hall. It was also around this time that he and his wife also had one further son, whom they christened ‘William Jermy Preston’, apparently giving a token gesture to the requirement in the Will of his older ancester – the said William Jermy (above):
“anyone inheriting his estate must bear the name Jermy, assume the Jermy Arms and Crest and never sell his library of old books”.
It seems that George Preston only complied with part of William’s stipulation for the maintenance of the Jermy name; neither he nor his eldest son Isaac Preston altered their names to Jermy. Further to this, when the re-building work was completed, George had his own ‘Preston’ arms placed over the front door. – not the Jermy arms. As for William’s stipulation that no one should sell his library of books – well, more of that later!
George Preston and his family went on to live at Stanfield Hall for an untroubled 40 years and it was in the early days of this period that a James Blomfield Rush came into the story as George Preston’s Bailiff. Both men had strong personalities but, surprisingly perhaps, they got on well together – at least on the face of it! Curiously perhaps George Preston met Rush’s asperation to run his own farms by granting him three leases at favourable rents. This and their overall willingness to work amiably together also poises the question of whether Rush ‘had something on George’, perhaps he knew something of George’s family antecedents and the circumstances in which the Prestons came to occupy Stanfield Hall? The harmony, if that is what it was, might also suggest that there was a degree of nervousness on George’s part that someone else outside the Prestons had knowledge of its history. Certainly something or other was to fuel future conflicts between Rush and the Preston family. Whatever the facts, the relationship that both seemed to enjoy and which both made use of would changed for the worst after George Preston died in 1837.
George’s 50 year old son, now Isaac Preston Snr, barrister, chief judge of Norwich and equally strong minded as his father, took over Stanfield Hall in 1837 and moved in, together with his son Isaac Preston Jnr and his daughter. From that point onwards, a more abrasive relationship existed between Issac Preston Snr. and Rush, coupled with the continuing family nervousness regarding the William Jermy’s Will (see above!). This was no more evident than when Issac Snr, maybe just to be on the safe side, had inserted the name Jermy into both his and his son’s full name to comply with that Will. The two Prestons were now to be known as Isaac Jermy Preston Snr. and Issac Jermy Preston Jnr. the former controlling an Estate which consisted of the large moated Hall along with its extensive grounds, a home farm as well as many other farms and cottages spread over 20 parishes. He was, without question, very well-off but this did not prevent him from rescinding the leases previously negotiated between James Blomfield Rush and George his father and granting new leases at a higher rent. This, unquestionably, created ill feeling between the two men.
Then, in the June of 1838, Isaac Preston Snr decided to re-furbish Stanfield Hall and auction off his father’s old furniture, etc to pay for the work – including the old books that had belonged to William Jermy some 140 years back! On the day of the auction and during the afternoon, two unknown men from London appeared upstairs and looked over the books then asked to speak to Isaac Preston Snr; their names were John Larner and his ‘legal adviser’ a Daniel Wingfield. This meeting between Isaac Preston and John Larner would, in time, turn out to have dire consequences. Larner’s opening words took Issac Preston Snr. completely by surprise; for he had:
“Come to take possession of his family’s property” – that is, Stanfield Hall and all its estate – he being “the true heir-at-law”!
Issac had never heard of John Larner. It was, after all, almost 50 years since Frances had died and 140 years since William Jermy had done the same – his Will having long since remained a dormant artefact. Nevertheless, Larner quickly informed him that the Will had expressly forbade the sale of William Jermy’s library, as well as requiring any who inherited the Estate to bear the Jermy arms and to change their name to Jermy; neither of which the Preston’s had done at the appropriate time. Larner seemed so well versed with William Jermy’s Will and its contents that Issac needed to bluff his way out of their presence to allow him to regroup his thoughts and plan some sort of action to counter this unexpected threat. Being a trained lawyer, Issac quickly told the two uninvited visitors to leave his premises immediately and to pursue any such claim through the Courts in the more usual way. Both John Larner and Daniel Wingfield refused so Issac had the police escort them off the property.
That being done Isaac, who was sufficiently impressed and worried with Larner’s claim and knowledge of the Will, immediately halted the auction of the books and, within a very short time afterwards also replaced the ‘Preston’ arms over the door with those of ‘Jermy’. He then applied to have his family’s surname legally changed from Preston to Jermy and this was announced in the official London Gazette in August that year – 1838. Henceforth, he would be known as Isaac Jermy, Esq and his son as Isaac Jermy Jermy, Gent; thus explaining the form in which their names were to appear in the newspapers after the murders – still some 10 years into the future.
There remained but one more anomally to be resolved and that was the possibility that, if challenged again, Issac may not be able to prove his legal right to Stanfield Hall. In order to counter this, he devised a plan to gain an official legal title to the Estate in his new name. However, this would entail making an arrangement with Rush whereby Issac would sell Stanfield Hall to Rush for £1000 and then buy it back for the same amount, thus giving Issac a legal Bill of Purchase and proving his legal ownership of the Hall. In return, Issac would offer to loan Rush the money to buy Potash Farm, despite the fact
that Rush had upsurped him with its purchase! Isaac had wished to buy Potash Farm for himself but when he sent Rush to buy it for him with orders to bid up to £3500 (based on a valuation from Rush), Rush put in his own bid of £3750 and secured the property – much to Issac’s annoyance. However, preventing any future claims for the Stanfield Estate and keeping Rush on board with his plan was more important to Issac; to this end he managed to persuade Rush to fall in with his scheme, knowing that Rush had no money to complete the purchase of Potash Farm; neither was he able to handle money or his affairs very well. Issac’s ploy worked for Rush agreed to buy and re-sell the Hall, to accept Issac’s £5000 loan and its repayment, with interest, ten years hence on the 30 November 1848. Issac then bought the Hall back again within the year and secured a Bill of Purchase. All quite neat but all rather suspect!
The Siege of Stanfield Hall – 1838
During the brief period when James Blomfield Rush owned Stanfield Hall John Larner, who couldn’t afford to go to law on his claim for it, decided to proceed more aggressively by occupying the Hall despite the fact that Rush had installed some new tenants there. On the 24 Sept 1838, Larner and his friends evicted them and occupied the Hall for several hours before the Militia were called out to removed them and take them to the prison in Norwich castle. There they were charged with riotous tumult and assembly and bound over to appear at the Spring Assizes in March 1839 where they received the lesser suspended sentence for simple riot of 3 months hard labour on the understanding that they would make no further claims on the estate – something that Isaac Preston Snr was, no doubt, relieved about. Threatened with transportation to the colonies if they disobeyed the sentence, John Larner and his friend returned to London and were to keep a low profile thereafter. By 1840, Isaac and his family had moved back into the Hall and for most of the next 10 years continued to live at Stanfield Hall without further concern about John Larner. However, James Blomfield Rush was another matter!
Rush was still the Preston’s bailiff but, increasingly, was becoming more of a problem. He had made certain agreements with Isaac Jermy Snr. concerning land that he promised to farm efficiently but reneged on this, resulting in Isaac eventually taking him to court in 1847. By July 1848, Rush had been made bankrupt; moreover, repayment of his loan for Potash Farm was due shortly and he had little or no money. Rush became desperate; then he remembered the claim made by John Larner some 10 years before and arranged to meet him in London where he was also introduced to his cousin, a Thomas Jermy! This was a name which at least pointed towards some basis for John Larner’s claim for Stanfield Hall back in 1838; the fact that Larner’s mother and Thomas Jermy’s father were brother and sister – and were both born with the surname Jermy. Rush attempted a clumsy plot wherein Larner and Thomas, with their known sense of injustice over losing the Estate, as they saw it, would be suspected of the murder that he was planning.
Rush promised that he could put both men in possession of ‘their’ property; however, he first had to hire a literate secretary which turned out to be an Emily Sanford from London; who, without her clear knowledge of what Rush was up to, drew up a number of what turned out to be forged documents, allegedly designed to switch ownership of the Stanfield properties to John Larner and Thomas Jermy. But these forgeries were simply a device to convince both of them that they had to return to Norfolk at least once so that they would be seen seeking their property again. This was crucial to Rush’s plot to implicate both Larner and Jermy, both of whom did travel to Norfolk in early November 1848. Rush then forged a number of handwritten Notes, allegedly signed by the cousin Thomas Jermy, which he was not to see.
On the evening of November 28th 1848, just two days before the due date when Issac’s loan to Rush of £5000, plus interest, had to be repaid, Isaac and his family, including the younger Isaac and his wife, were having dinner at the Hall. It was Isaac Snr’s known habit after dinner to step out onto the porch for a little evening air. Being November, it was rather dark on the porch so that he did not notice what appeared to be a strangely dressed person hiding in the shadows there. Suddenly, two shots rang out and Isaac Snr fell to the ground, mortally wounded. The others in the party rushed out of the dining room and into the hall to be greeted by the same disguised person who had entered the house and shot the father. The intruder shot three more times, killing Isaac Jnr and wounding his mother and a servant and then ran off into the night but not before dropping two hand-written notes on to the Hall floor and also in the garden. One of the other servants later said that he thought he recognised the profile of the murderer in the odd costume, with a false beard and wig, as that of James Blomfield Rush, the family’s bailiff, but it was difficult to be certain. The police eventually arrived from Norwich, listened to the servant’s and other accounts of what had happened, and also examined the Notes which were found in the Hall and in the grounds outside, supposingly dropped by the murderer. They all read:
However, the police decided to arrest Rush the next morning and charge him with the murders for his record and reputation was now not good. He had a history of increasingly arguing with Issac Jermy and reneged on loans and agreements with him. What other reason did the police need!
This double murder was, of course, reported in both the local and national press, some papers running two or three editions on the story each day which covered new elements as and when they were revealed. Readers did not however read about the murders of the two Isaac Prestons, Snr and Jnr, but those of Isaac Jermy, Esq, and of his son Isaac Jermy Jermy, Gent.
Rush was immediately placed in prison where he pleaded his innocence and tried to make out that some mystery man had approached him a few days before and that it was him who must have done the evil deed.
James Blomfield Rush’s Trial began on 29 Mar 1849 and took 6 days. An early witness called was the above Thomas Jermy aged 67, then a gardening labourer living in south London. He was simply asked: “Can you write?” and he answered even more briefly was “No Sir”. From his reply it was obvious that he could not have signed the Notes allegedly claiming the Stanfield Hall Estate.
However, the major prosecution witness was the same Emily Sanford who had, unwitingly, aided Rush draw up forged documents and later moved in with him as his mistress earlier that autumn; Rush’s own wife, like his parents, having all previously died in suspicious circumstances, with Rush gaining financially in each case. She spoke of his movements the night of the murders and also about the various documents he had her write out and countersign, etc. in London. Rush tried to defend himself, rather than employ a lawyer, and proceeded to give a long rambling speech full of irrelevancies as he cross-examined all the witnesses. This fooled no one and he was eventually found guilty of ‘wilful murder’ after the jury had been out for barely 10 minutes. He was sentenced to be “hanged by the neck until dead” at Norwich Castle and to be buried within its precincts’. The judges remarks were exceptionally severe – saying to him:
“It is a matter of perfect indifference to society at large what your conduct maybe during the few days remaining to you”, being as you are an object of unmitigated abhorrence to everyone”.
James Blomfield Rush was hanged two weeks later, on the 21 April 1849 and a wax death mask was displayed in Madam Tussaud’s for many years after.
Footnote: Because Isaac Jermy Snr died moments before his son, the Stanfield Estate passed briefly to the Isaac Jermy Jnr. and then, on his death, to his infant daughter. The remaining family soon moved out of Stanfield Hall, wanting never to reside there again. When the daughter was of age, she married into another Norfolk landowning family – the Gwyns and her husband thus inherited the estate. Interestingly, all subsequent Gwyns included the name Jermy in their son’s names – still fearing claims maybe? They were of course quite unrelated to the ancient Jermy family. The Estate was gradually sold off and the Hall was later owned by a local farmer and then by a retired doctor. It was then purchased by a local business man. So, as we’ve now seen, Stanfield Hall was once the notorious focal point of a tragic ‘ménage a trois’ – between Isaac Jermy Jermy, nee Preston Snr, John Larner and James Blomfield Rush – arising out of William Jermy’s controversial Will, and the earlier lawyer, Isaac Preston’s scheming predelictions.
John Larner and Thomas Jermy both died later in the 19th Century without making any further claims. But John Larner’s grandsons did seek publicity in national newspapers on two occasions in the 1920s about the alleged fraud. But no proof was ever forthcoming from the Oxfordshire family concerning their alleged descent from the last, or one of the last of the Jermys – John Jermy, the illiterate day-labourer of Gt Yarmouth, allegedly bought off for a mere £20 by Isaac Preston, William Jermy’s family solicitor.