A rural, country lane in Lincolnshire, between the villages of Drinsey Nook and Saxilby and close to the county border with Nottinghamshire, bears the name of a murderer who was gibbeted there for his crime.
Tom Otter was the culprit: hanged on Saxilby Moor close to the scene of his awful crime, his name still resonates over two hundred years later.
He was a twenty-eight-year-old labouring banker (navvy) from Treswell in Nottinghamshire who had travelled across the border into Lincolnshire seeking work, leaving his young wife and infant daughter behind in Southwell. Described as a stout but handsome man, he stood five feet nine inches in height.
At Eakring in Nottinghamshire on the 22nd November 1804, Tom married Martha Rawlinson; their daughter was born just a month later, baptized at Hockerton near Southwell two days before Christmas.
In Lincolnshire, passing himself off as a widower and using his mother’s maiden name of Temporal, he seduced young Mary Kirkham, a local girl between twenty-one and twenty-four years of age, and got her pregnant. Forced by the parish authorities into marriage, the couple duly obtained a marriage licence and presented themselves, accompanied by the parish constables, at the parish church in South Hykeham to say their vows, Tom Otter naming himself as Thomas Temple [sic], a widower on the marriage licence if not in the marriage register, of St. Mary Wigford in Lincoln. Mary, eight months pregnant at her wedding, was a spinster from North Hykeham.
The marriage took place on Sunday, 3rd November 1805, and that same evening the couple found themselves near to Drinsey Nook, about nine miles distant from South Hykeham, after having stopped at The Sun Inn at Saxilby for a drink and a bite to eat. On the road between Saxilby and Drinsey Nook, Tom brutally murdered his pregnant bride only hours after their wedding, battering her skull with a wooden club and throwing her lifeless body into a ditch close to a bridge passing over the Ox Pasture Drain.
There poor Mary was discovered the next morning, her head almost beaten from her body, with the wooden club and one of her patterns located 40 yards away. She was carried back to The Sun Inn for an inquest to take place, following which she was buried in Saxilby on the 5th November 1805.
The burial register reads:
Nov 5th – Mary Kirkham, alias Temporel, aged 24, found murdered on the Moor. The jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against her husband, Thomas Temporel, or Otter.
Having been observed walking with a wooden club on the day of the murder, Tom was taken up at The Packhorse Inn in Lincoln as the prime suspect and stood trial at the Lincoln Assizes as Thomas Temporell, otherwise Thomas Otter, in March 1806. After a trial lasting five hours he was sentenced to death and to have his body dissected, but this was changed to rule that his body should be hung in chains on Saxilby Moor, at the scene of his crime. Tom had made no defence to the charge of willful murder, but twenty witnesses appeared against him, all giving circumstantial evidence but it appeared so plain and clear that after the five-hour trial the jury took but a few minutes to consider their verdict.
Tom carried himself with indifference at his trial, but on the day of his execution, 14th March 1806, he was measured for the irons in which his body was to rot, and at this point he faltered and approached the gallows adjacent to Lincoln Castle with his head bowed.
The Reverend George Hall, a friend of the gypsies and known as The Gypsy’s Parson, recounted in his book of the same name how his grandfather attended the gibbetting.
[He] was among the crowd of citizens who, starting from Lincoln Castle one March morning in the year 1806, followed the murderer’s corpse until it was hanged in irons on a post thirty feet high on Saxilby Moor. For several days after the event, the vicinity of the gibbet resembled a country fair with drinking booths, ballad singers, Gypsy fiddlers, and fortune-tellers.
The gypsies used to camp close to the gibbet, near Tom Otter’s mouldering bones; the local folk kept their distance from the place after dark and the gypsies knew they would be left in peace. Although it occurred a decade on from the Georgian era, we must recount the birth of one gypsy boy, as given in The Gypsy’s Parson.
Old Tom, whose patronymic was Petulengro, the Gypsy equivalent of Smith, was known as Tom o’ the Gibbet (he was also known as Sneezing Tommy because of his predilection for a pinch of snuff, but we’ll concentrate on the former nickname). His married sister, Ashena Brown, when an elderly lady, told the story to the Gypsy’s Parson.
The old lady, bowed and with long jet black curls, began her tale:
Wonderful fond o’ the County o’ Nottingham was my people. They know’d every stick and stone along the Trentside and in the Shirewood (Sherwood), and many’s the time we’ve stopped at Five Lane Ends nigh Drinsey Nook . . . Ay, and I minds how my daddy used to make teeny horseshoes, knife handles, and netting needles, outen the bits o’ wood he tshin’d (cut) off the gibbet post, and wery good oak it was. Mebbe you’s heard o’ Tom Otter’s post nigh to the woods? Ah, but p’raps you’s never been tell’d that our Tom was born’d under it? The night my mammy were took bad, our tents was a’most blown to bits. The wind banged the old irons agen the post all night long, as I’ve heard her say. And when they wanted to name the boy, they couldn’t think of no other name but Tom, for sure as they tried to get away from it, the name kept coming back again – Tom, Tom, Tom – till it sort o’ dinned itself into their heads. So at last my daddy says, “Let’s call him Tom and done with it,” and i’ time, folks got a-calling him Tom o’ the Gibbet, and it stuck to him, it did.
Her brother, Thomas Smith, was baptized at St. Botolph’s in Saxilby, the same church where poor Mary Kirkham lay buried, on the 1st November 1840, the baptism register recording that the boy, the son of Moses and Eldred (otherwise Eldri) Smith, gypsies, was born in Otter’s Lane.
Ashena Brown carried on her recollection of the gibbet and Tom Otter’s bones.
And whenever uncle and aunt used to pass by Tom Otter’s gibbet, they’d stop and look up at the poor man hanging there, and they allus wuser’d (threw) him a bit o’ hawben (food). They couldn’t let theirselves go by wi’out doing that. And there was a baker from Harby, and whenever he passed by the place he would put a bread loaf on to the pointed end of a long rod and shove it into that part o’ the irons where poor Tom’s head was, and sure enough the bread allus went. The baker got hisself into trouble for doing that, as I’ve heard our old people say.
The gibbet, with what was left of Tom inside, stood in its lonely spot, with only the occasional gypsy camp for company, until 1850, when a gale brought it crashing down.
Stamford Mercury, 8th November 1805
Stamford Mercury, 14th March 1806
Bury and Norwich Post, 19th March 1806
Northampton Mercury, 22nd March 1806
Northampton Mercury, 29th March 1806
The Gypsy’s Parson by the Reverend George Hall
Murder at the Inn: A Criminal History of Britain’s Pubs and Hotels, James Moore