A Horrid Deed The Life and Death of Joe the Quilter

It’s always a pleasure to welcome new guest authors to All Things Georgian and today I’d like to welcome Robert N. Smith who tells us more about the day to day life in the north of England during the Georgian era and his analysis of the truly shocking murder of an elderly man in his home, in his latest, absolutely fascinating book, ‘A Horrid Deed‘.

Robert earned his PhD in History from the University of Georgia and also holds a master’s degree in History and his undergraduate degree was in Classics and Mediaeval History from the University of Edinburgh.

Robert’s interest in crime developed through his research into the death penalty in the United States of America, which led to his book ‘An Evil Day in Georgia‘ that was nominated for several awards.

A Horrid Deed is Robert’s fourth book and one that takes him back to a few miles from where he was born in Hexham, Northumberland. He now lives with his wife and two chinchillas in the west of Scotland.

On the morning of 7 January 1826, a small gathering of people stood outside the cottage where Joseph Hedley, ‘Joe the Quilter’, had lived since the time of the American Rebellion. Concern etched their faces as they chatted and glanced around at their dreary surroundings. The recent snow had drained the landscape of its colour, leaving a few patches of green along the hedges and brown ruts in the lane where wagons had passed by. Along with the usual small-talk of country neighbours who had not seen each other in a while, they discussed how the reclusive man who lived in the cottage often left home for days at a time, so they probably had little need to worry about this latest absence. But this time felt different, and they sensed something was amiss; no one had seen or heard from Hedley for five days, not the local farmer’s wife who gave him food and milk when he called round, or his labourer friend who raised the alarm about the missing man. A pair of well-worn clogs discarded in a drift of snow on the other side of the lane opposite the cottage door heightened their sense of unease.”

Four days before the strange gathering, Joseph Hedley had answered a knock on the door of his isolated little cottage along a country lane near Hexham, Northumberland. He was never seen alive again.

The group that assembled the following Saturday broke in and found his mangled body discarded in a dark corner. An inquest was held, a policeman arrived from Newcastle-upon-Tyne to conduct an investigation, a reward of 100 guineas was offered for information leading to the capture of Hedley’s murderer, and the newspapers ran with the story for weeks. But despite rumours and conjecture, no one was ever convicted of the crime. Joe the Quilter’s murder remains officially unsolved.

But who was Joseph Hedley, how did he live, and why was he killed? In A Horrid Deed, I have tried to answer those questions while providing a flavour of what that world was like in the places we rarely see in history books.

Part I surveys the life of Joseph Hedley. Known as Joe the Quilter for his craftsmanship, Hedley lived in relative anonymity in the backwaters of Northumberland during a momentous period in history. Born in the wake of the Jacobite Rebellions, Hedley’s life followed the rhythms of childhood, apprenticeship, marriage, work, then inevitable decline. As he worked away on his quilts, the world underwent momentous changes, much of it with Britain at its centre. Indeed, this was the period of Britain’s true emergence onto the world stage as its empire stretched across the horizons in all directions. Yet even someone as isolated could feel the impact of that empire, from his cup of tea in the morning to the cotton he used on his quilts.

Quieter upheavals occurred closer to home in rural economics, industrial and urban development, and social change. This was the era of the Bloody Code, widespread Enclosures of farmland, Parish relief and Poor Houses, poachers and smugglers, industrial unrest, and the paranoia over fears of a French invasion.

Even the environment emphasized the vulnerability of the poor and unprotected as winter storms created havoc down the Tyne Valley where Hedley and his aging wife cowered in their cottage. Despite his skills as a quiltmaker, Hedley found himself at the wrong end of the emerging class system, dying in abject poverty, though his killer perhaps suspected otherwise.

Part II examines the crime. Hedley’s murder stood out for its brutality in brutal era. This assault on a frail, old man shocked England and still resonates. Authorities suspected a botched robbery committed by two assailants who believed Hedley was a wealthy man, but the investigators had very little tools at hand to track down the killers. Through a careful reconstruction of the crime (aided by the recreation of Hedley’s cottage at Beamish Museum), and deploying methods unavailable at the time, I argue that the answer lay under investigator’s noses all along and identify a suspect who had the means, motive, and opportunity to commit this “horrid deed”.

You can find out more about  Joe the Quilter in Robert’s book, which is available from Guardbridge Books and other book retailer.

All images used are courtesy of Beamish Museum

 

3 thoughts on “A Horrid Deed The Life and Death of Joe the Quilter

  1. pennyhampson2

    I’m definitely intrigued and will be adding this to my TBR pile! Did the majority of murders go unsolved during this period? Without the benefit of forensics or a very obvious suspect, it must have been difficult to find the culprit(s).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Robert Neil Smith

    Hi Penny,
    Thanks for asking. Then, as now, most murders would have been committed by someone known to the victim or in the heat of the moment, so they were easily solved. Other murders might be attributed to a criminal caught in the course of another act, such as highway robbers. Mysteries such as the murder of Joe the Quilter were rare. I should also note that murders in general were not that common during this era, which might be surprising given the times. I speculate on a possible reason for that in the book.
    Robert

    Liked by 2 people

    1. pennyhampson2

      Thanks for your comprehensive answer to my question, Robert. Yes, I am surprised at the fact that murders were not a common event in this era; I think that the general perception is that this was a time of violence and general lawlessness. I suppose that we forget that the laws of the land were far more restrictive and the penalties more severe than they are today.

      Liked by 1 person

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