Murder at Kippax Hall

Granville William Wheeler Medhurst was born c.1765 at Kippax, the son of Thomas Medhurst, Esquire. In 1787 he married Sarah Jennings at St Mary’s in Lewisham, Kent. The new Mrs Medhurst was described as a dutiful wife and tender mother, and one of the most amiable of women. Living at the stately Kippax Hall a few miles from Pontefract in West Yorkshire, life seemed good; Mr Medhurst was reported to have £7,000 per annum. It was later reported that eight children were born to the couple, and that five of these were living on the fatal night of 3rd/4th May 1800.

Pontefract Castle; Alexander Keirincx; Pontefract Museum

Under the veneer of their gilded life, there was a problem. Although it seems to have been kept largely from the servants for some time, Medhurst was becoming deranged and anxious. He was convinced people were coming to take him away and that his loving wife was plotting to poison him. Mrs Sarah Medhurst was certainly fully aware of the condition of her husband, even to the extent of contemplating taking the children and leaving him for some time. If only she had…

During the early spring of 1800 the servants too had become aware of the state of mind of their master. He had appeared in turn sullen, deranged, anxious and withdrawn. On the evening of Saturday 3rd May 1800 Medhurst entreated his servants to retire early for the night. Some, like the cook and nursery maid, slept at Kippax Hall, others had their own home in the nearby village. Thomas Spinke was one who slept in the village, and he recounted how his master said he wished his family to go to bed early and wanted the house to be quiet. The house was to be far from quiet however.

The cook, Ann Dickinson, protested about retiring early; she had not finished her duties and a small fire still burnt in the kitchen hearth. Along with the nursery-maid Ann Tyson she slept in the children’s nursery which had a connecting door to Mrs and Mrs Medhurst’s rooms. There was a bit of a fuss and the children began to cry; Mr Medhurst said he could smell burning, that he was to be poisoned, and peered from the windows convinced there was someone at the gates who was coming for him. His wife decided to sleep with her daughters in the nursery as Medhurst proposed to sleep with a drawn sword and two pistols under his pillow and the women locked the connecting door.

All was quiet for a time and then they were disturbed by Mr Medhurst demanding the door be opened or he would shoot his way through it. Still fully dressed and with his sword in one hand and a pistol in the other, he entered the nursery and demanded the nursery-maid confess to him, waving his sword above her head and finally rapping her skull with the hilt. His wife cried, “My dear, don’t kill your servant, kill me, if you take any one’s life, take mine”. Medhurst gave his wife a knife with which to protect herself and promised not to hurt her. Tenderly he touched his wife and said “you won’t hurt me”, to which she replied “no, let us go to bed”. The cook saw her master unload his pistols and then everyone retired, the trusting lady of the house bidding her servants, “God bless you” as she left them to go with her husband.

A Trusty Maid; George H. Hay; Hospitalfield Arts

Thomas Spinke returned to Kippax Hall around half past six o’clock the following morning and was in the stable when the two eldest Medhurst children came to find him, crying and asking him to come to the house. Creeping upstairs into the Medhurst’s bedroom he saw his mistress lying on the bed, her feet hanging down. Spinke knew not if she was dead or alive but watched as the master of the house appeared from behind a curtain, still fully dressed and carrying in his hand a drawn sword, ‘bloody, fresh, and wet’. Driving Spinke from the room, Medhurst locked the door.

Thomas Spinke took the children away from the house, with their father crying out to them from an upper window. The eldest boy shouted back, “you villain, you have killed my mama, and if I had a pistol I would shoot you through the head’”. Medhurst replied “you are mistaken, I have not hurt your mama”.

A constable was sent for as well as the Pontefract volunteers, but with the master of the house armed, dangerous and roaming the upper floor there was a stand-off which lasted some time before one of the volunteers, a brave man, managed to find a way in (there were two doors to the Medhurst’s bedroom suite, and only one had been locked) creep up behind Medhurst and disarm him.

An inquest was taken at the hall on the body of Mrs Medhurst, and a charge of wilful murder was laid against her husband, Granville William Wheeler Medhurst. Sarah Medhurst was buried at Kippax on the 6th May 1800.

York Castle showing the gaol buildings and courthouse to the left. English Heritage
York Castle showing the gaol buildings and courthouse to the left.
English Heritage

When the case came to trial, Medhurst’s defence was insanity and this was corroborated by experts and witnesses. He was therefore acquitted of murder but ordered to be confined in the gaol at York Castle. There he remained until the 26th November 1802 when he was given over to the care of Dr Thomas Monro of Brook House, upper Clapton (a man accused of ‘wanting in humanity’ towards his patients) and a committee established to manage his estate at Kippax during until his son was of age. It was this committee who petitioned to have Wheeler removed from Brook House to a ‘House for the reception of Lunatics’ in Middle Mall, Hammersmith. A warrant for his removal was provided in the summer of 1816.

Brook House © The Trustees of the British Museum
Brook House
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Granville William Wheeler Medhurst lived to 77 years of age and, when he died in 1840, was confined in Moorcroft House at Hillingdon near Uxbridge in Middlesex, a lunatic asylum which was run by Dr James Stillwell until his death the year before. In his old age he had suffered from rheumatism and was allowed to take supervised trips to the seaside for so that the air and sea bathing might prove beneficial. He was buried in the churchyard of St John the Baptist in Hillingdon, and his fortune devolved to his grandson, Francis Hastings Medhurst.

But there is yet one more twist to this tale. When Medhurst died, his grandson was in prison, convicted of the manslaughter of a schoolfellow, Joseph Alsop. On 9th March 1839, at Dr Frederick Sturmer’s school, the Rectory House Academy at Hayes, young Medhurst had accused another pupil, Dalison, of breaking the glass of his watch. When Alsop leapt to Dalison’s defence a scuffle ensued which ended with young Medhurst taking a clasp-knife from his pocket, opening it and stabbing Alsop in his stomach. Although not instantly fatal, within just a few days Alsop was dead.

Francis Hastings Medhurst was accused, as his grandfather had been before him, of wilful murder and taken to Newgate. The charge was transmuted to one of manslaughter for which he was found guilty and sentenced to three years imprisonment in a house of correction.

Sources:

Hereford Journal, 14th May 1800

Hampshire Chronicle, 19th May 1800

Leeds Intelligencer, 4th August 1800

The Annual Register of World Events: A Review of the Year, vol. 82, 1841

The Newgate Calendar

Findmypast criminal records

Header image:

Photograph of Kippax Park House, Lost Heritage

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A gypsy named James Venus

The Boss family, notorious gypsy horse thieves and dealers, plied their dubious trade across throughout Norfolk and Suffolk, into Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire and further afield into Yorkshire.

The family used various aliases, including Heron (Hearne) and Jones.  The best known was Riley Boss who had three wives, Charlotte Hammond, Lucy Boswell and Shurensi (sometimes Susannah) Smith.  Also of the travelling party was Riley’s reputed half-brother, James Venus, who had taken for a wife Trinity Boswell (sister of Elijah Boswell, a notorious rogue) along with her children by George Boyling, her previous husband.

James Venus and Riley Boss had a sister named Clara.  In the latter half of the 1820s, the party met Samuel Roberts (1763-1848) of Park Grange in Sheffield, the son of a local manufacturer.  It is likely that this was during the summer of 1827.  James and Trinity Venus had baptised a son, named Newcombe Venus, in Bowdon Cheshire on the 22nd April 1827 as James and Traineth Venus of Dunham (a neighbouring village) with James’s occupation being described as cutler, a traditional gypsy occupation; he would have travelled with a grinding machine sharpening blades.

Gypsy Camp by James Edward Meadows (1826-1888)
Gypsy Camp by James Edward Meadows (1826-1888)

In the summer of 1827, the party were on their way back to Lincolnshire where young Newcombe Venus was buried at Mablethorpe on the 5th August 1827, the burial register recording him as the son of James and Trinity Venus, gypsies, aged about nine months.  At some point between these two dates, whilst travelling from Cheshire to Lincolnshire via the Sheffield road, the gypsy party met with Samuel Roberts.  In his own words:

In taking my accustomed ride into the country, I met with a tribe, or rather family, of Gypsies, consisting, as I then supposed, of the father, mother, and five children; it, however, proved, that the older of the children, a girl apparently about thirteen, was an orphan, and sister to the man, though probably nearly twenty years younger than he.  I saw them several times and at length asked the man if he would have any objections to leaving his sister with my family, at any rate till he called again, which I understood to be in about eight days . . . The man said his name was James Vanis.  His sister’s Clara Vanis.  I have since heard that it was Hearn and not Vanis.

From this description, we seem to have James and Trinity Venus, together with his sister Clara, the baby Newcombe and three of Trinity’s children from her previous marriage.  Samuel Roberts was a religious man, a keen slavery abolitionist and he published several books, some on the subject of the gypsies and their culture and he was also known as the ‘Pauper’s Advocate’. His reason for wanting Clara to stay with him and his family was to become better acquainted with the language and habits of the gypsy people.  With both James Venus and Clara being agreeable to this she returned to Park Grange with Roberts.  Clara was, from Roberts’ description, a slight, well-formed girl, not strongly gypsy looking and not handsome but strikingly intelligent.

She spent the eight days with the Roberts family and they seem to have been as delighted with her as she was with them, becoming a firm favourite with two of Roberts’ daughters.  She and the Roberts wished to extend the visit but James Venus came at the appointed time and insisted that Clara leave with him immediately. Clara was in tears but agreed to go with her brother, even though Samuel Roberts entreated her to remain.  James Venus had told Samuel Roberts that Clara was needed as his wife and one of the children was ill, but after Clara had quit his house Roberts encountered the wife, Trinity, who told him that she was as well as usual and did not wish for Clara’s return.  No further mention is made of the sickly child but seeing as the infant Newcombe Venus was buried shortly after this, James Venus was probably right to be concerned and to want his sister to help.

Gipsy Encampment by George Morland, c.1790-1795 (c) Walker Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Gipsy Encampment by George Morland, c.1790-1795
(c) Walker Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Victorian gypsiologist, Rev. George Hall (1863-1918), so well known to the Lincolnshire gypsy fraternity, later talked with Clara’s family.  Hall knew her as a full sister to Riley Boss and a half-sister to the slightly shadier James Venus, whose identity has always been unsure.  Indeed, many authorities have decided that James Venus was simply an alias used by Riley Boss and that the two men were one and the same.  George Hall had this to say, referencing the opinion of another, earlier, gypsiologist, George Borrow.

Concerning the dramatic termination of the Sheffield episode, two versions are extant.  According to Mr. Roberts, it is James Vanis, otherwise Hearn, who comes of Clara with a lying pretext on his lips.  In Borrow’s statement it is Ryley who snatches his young sister away in a characteristic spirit of violence.  It is true, the girl had a half-brother named James, yet seeing that Borrow obtained his facts during lengthy conversations with Clara herself, it may be presumed that ‘James Vanis’ was after all only one more of Ryley’s many aliases.

However, it seems unlikely that James Venus was purely an alias; certainly Trinity, after leaving George Boyling and taking up with her second husband, consistently uses the surname Venus, or a variant thereof, as does James during several court appearances for vagrancy and theft, and not once do they use differing forenames or surnames.

The year after this Sheffield episode, in Burton by Lincoln, the name Newcombe was given to a son of Riley Boss and Shurensi (as an adult he would be transported to Australia under the name of Barthey Jones for the crime of horse stealing).

28th September 1828, Burton by Lincoln, baptism of Newcome son of William and Susan Boss, at Burton, gypsey.

A month later James Venus (as James Vanus) was sentenced to a week in prison for the crime of larceny at the Doncaster Sessions, possibly tried alongside an Abraham Herring, but he was back in Lincolnshire in November for the baptism of a child named Aswerly at Upon cum Kexby near Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, the register there recording the parents as James and Trinity Venus, travelling tinker.

Newcombe Boss (aka Newton Boss and Barthey Jones), born in 1828 - photo taken in Tasmania (to where he was transported) c.1896). Image from the Special Collections and Archives at Liverpool University
Newcombe Boss (aka Newton Boss and Barthey Jones), born in 1828 – photo taken in Tasmania (to where he was transported) c.1896).
Image from the Special Collections and Archives at Liverpool University

Riley at least remained in the Lincolnshire area as a double baptism of his children took place at the end of 1832, one which was not all that it seemed.  For Riley had a son named Adness with Shurensi and a daughter named Naomi with Lucy; polygamy was common amongst these people, and it so happened that Riley had two children born within days of each other by two of his wives.  Not wanting to shock the local vicar by proclaiming himself as the father of both children, a relative stood in as the father of Lucy’s daughter. The baptisms took place in the village of Wootton.

30th Dec 1832 – Agnes daughter of Ryley and Susannah Bos, of Wootton, a gipsy

30th Dec 1832 – Naomi daughter of Thomas and Lucy Bos, of Wootton, a gipsy

The Vicar then added a note at the bottom of the page of the baptism register, “N.B. I was afterwards informed by report only, after their departure, that the child whom they named Agnes was a boy.  The persons who call themselves Bos are probably Boswells”.  The child was not only a boy but was Adness rather than Agness, but he also, in later life, used the names Isaac and Haggi.

James Venus made a further appearance in the dock, this time in Derbyshire for stealing an ass, along with his stepson Absalom Boyling, the two men were recorded as James Vanass aged 50 and Absalom Vanass aged 16, both gypsies.  James received four months imprisonment.

At Attercliffe, Sheffield, on the 20th February 1844, Trinity Venus, wife of James Venus, brazier, died of typhus fever aged 54 years.  Her death was registered by Hesilla Venus, possibly her daughter Asella by her first husband George Boyling, who had been present at the death; we can find no other trace of Hesilla/Asella.  Trinity’s son Absalom, or ‘Appy Boswell, was known for his ‘Lying Tales’.  Perhaps though there was more truth in them than has yet been supposed?

The Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society Journal (1925) has this on ‘Appy.

Among them was Trenit Boswell, a daughter of the Absolom or Appy Boswell who is famous all over the North Midlands and the northern counties for his Lying Tales, and about whose origin and ‘breedipen’ there has been as deep and seemingly impenetrable a mystery as any in Gypsy genealogy.  Appy himself would declare that he was born at Wickersley, near Rotherham, of respectable gorgio parents, his father being a small farmer and dealer. As a boy he attended Sunday School, where he learned to read and write; after which, he said, his parents apprenticed him to Rogers of Sheffield, ‘to have him put in the way of the grinding business.’ The workmen, however, used him harshly, so he ran away, and ‘listed as a sailor’; and was shipwrecked, and lived for a week at the bottom of the sea — ‘ a beautiful tem in no mistake, only vittles wasn’t to say plentiful there, and it took you all your time to get a bit of fire going.’ Various adventures followed, bringing him back at last to England, where one day he fell in with a widow who had five children, and was so sorry for her that he married her forthwith. But, as will be seen, this is one of Appy’s Munchausen-like efforts, not sober autobiography; and so, having indicated its nature, I must pass it by now, hoping that on some future occasion I may be able to tell it, and one or two more Appy Boswell tales not printed as yet, in something approaching their original form. Here I can only add that Appy once took a sceptical listener to Wickersley, and convinced him of his parents’ residence there, for no sooner had they set down their grinding-barrows in front of the kicema than the door of a house opposite flew open, and a voice inquired : ‘ Is that you, Absolom? Your mother wants to see you. She’s bin took badly, poor old lady.’ This is what Appy said, at all events; and I know of Booths and Claytons nearly related to him who believe that things happened so — by previous arrangement or otherwise.

It seems plausible, having seen Trinity’s death certificate, that the story about his sick mother at Wickersley which is close by Sheffield may have some truth in it after all and relate to Trinity Venus.  Incidentally, Absalom (or ‘Appy) was baptised at Scawby in Lincolnshire in 1821 as the son of George and Trinity Boyling, wandering gypsies.

James Venus was buried at Harewood in Yorkshire, as James Veanas, under coroner’s orders.

Venus - burial

 

Leeds Intelligencer newspaper, 24th Agusut 1850
Leeds Intelligencer newspaper, 24th August 1850

 

Header image: The Gipsy Camp by Walter Tyndale

Not such a typical English summer’s day: a whirlwind hits Scarborough in 1823

Scarborough from the Spa by H.B. Carter (Government Art Collection)
Scarborough from the Spa by H.B. Carter (Government Art Collection)

On Tuesday 24th June 1823 the Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough experienced a sudden and ferocious whirlwind. The weather had been unseasonably cold for at least a fortnight, with a bracing north to north-east wind; in fact, the whole summer that year was one of the coldest known since monthly records began to be kept in 1659. On this day, just before 3 o’clock in the afternoon, a thunderstorm burst from the west, but although the claps of thunder were loud enough to alarm everyone, the accompanying rainstorm was soon over and the lightning did no damage.

Ten or fifteen minutes later some people who had ventured back onto the beach were struck by the unusual appearance of the sky: storm clouds were brewing, one heading in from a south-westerly direction, with another, much lower one, scudding in from the north-east. When these two clouds met, they were described as being in:

violent agitation; an upper dense and dark stratum seemed to be pressing a lighter one down to the earth. They were then blended into one dense column, which descended to the ground . . .

Terrace Steps by Thomas Rowlandson, from Poetical Sketches of Scarborough in 1813
Terrace Steps by Thomas Rowlandson, from Poetical Sketches of Scarborough in 1813

The resulting whirlwind, which originated near the village of Falsgrave, sped overland over the turnpike road and, uprooting two large elm trees, passed by some bemused labourers at the waterfall below the terrace on Scarborough’s seafront, then ruined the day of a poor gardener by destroying his cabbage plants in a garden to the left before it passed onto the sands.

Spa Terrace by Thomas Rowlandson, from Poetical Sketches of Scarborough in 1813
Spa Terrace by Thomas Rowlandson, from Poetical Sketches of Scarborough in 1813

On the beach the whirlwind continued its mayhem by dashing a machine which contained a camera-obscura into the sea, smashing it into a hundred pieces. The sand on the beach was whipped up to a height of sixty feet, blinding a man who had decided that the bathing-machine in which he had been sheltering was no longer safe, and who had decided to make a run for it.  It was as well that he had done so for the bathing-machines were now directly in the path of the whirlwind. There were reported to be around forty bathing-machines on the seafront at Scarborough in 1813; these were now tumbled over into the sea, some ending up without their wheels or roofs.

Sea Bathing by Thomas Rowlandson, from Poetical Sketches of Scarborough in 1813
Sea Bathing by Thomas Rowlandson, from Poetical Sketches of Scarborough in 1813

There were two piers at Scarborough, one old and ancient, the other newly built using stones from the nearby White Nabb quarry and there for the security of the harbour. People were now seen running from these piers as quickly as they could. Some vessels were moored between the two piers, and in one, where the occupants were enjoying a glass of wine in a cabin, they were alarmed by a boy rushing down from the deck, shouting:

“The bathing-machines are running into the sea, – many have turned over, and some heels-over-head”.

With that their own vessel broke its anchorage and turned over on its beam-ends ‘to no small destruction of their glasses and Falernian [wine]’. Only the pier saved it from further damage.

Wreck off Scarborough by John Warkup Swift, 1863
Wreck off Scarborough by John Warkup Swift, 1863 (c) Shipley Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The whirlwind was now between the piers and heading for the harbour, the only port between the Humber and Tynemouth where ships of large burden could usually find a safe refuge from the violent easterly gales which often prevailed along the coast. It was not so safe on that day, however, with the column whipping up the water and sending foam and spray to the height of a ship’s topmast – the smaller boats were tipped upside down and broke free from their moorings. At last, the column rose ‘over the battery in rapid volutions, whirled into the clouds, and disappeared‘.

Cornelian Bay by Thomas Rowlandson, from Poetical Sketches of Scarborough, 1813
Cornelian Bay by Thomas Rowlandson, from Poetical Sketches of Scarborough, 1813

Many experienced seamen thought it had been a water-spout, but it left no trace of water when it first passed over the land. The sea had been taken up by the column but in the form of spray and foam.

From an eye-witness account of the destructive column:

It was quite perpendicular, and seemed at first to be thicker at the summit than below, resembling a trumpet. Its density was so great, that many persons thought it was the smoke of some fire on the sands; but the most compared it to the steam from a large brewhouse or steam-engine. The gyrating motion resembled a screw or the Cornu ammonis . . . the noise was very peculiar, and brought many people to their windows to see what was the matter. Some describe it as imitating the roaring of a great wind; some a crackling noise, like a house on fire; a military gentleman [said] it resembled the explosion of a mine underwater; but the majority considered it like the rumbling of heavy carriages.

No great damage seems to have been caused, and no lives were lost, but it was recorded that many small items such as baskets and umbrellas were blown away, never to be seen again.

A tailor in a high wind by George Cruikshank, 1819 (Lewis Walpole Library)
A tailor in a high wind by George Cruikshank, 1819 (Lewis Walpole Library)

Sources used:

http://www.augustana.edu/SpecialCollections/colorplate/scarborough_images.html

The Monthly Magazine, or, British Register, vol. 57, 1824

York Herald, 28th June 1823

History, Directory & Gazetteer of the County of York by Edward Baines, vol. II, 1823

Poetical Sketches of Scarborough in 1813, illustrated by twenty-one plates of humorous subjects coloured by hand from original designs made upon the spot by J. Green and etched by T. Rowlandson

Header image: Wreck below the Grand Hotel; Robert Ernest Roe; Scarborough Collections

Gervase Thompson – a most unfortunate death (1781)

Swan ferrybridge
The White Swan, Ferrybridge

Gervase Thompson, a tapster at the White Swan inn at Ferrybridge in the West Riding of Yorkshire, suffered a most unfortunate death in the February of 1781.

A gentleman, named as Charles Frederick Vanburgh, Esquire, an officer in the Guards, (and not, as mistakenly reported, a son of Lord V___), was travelling in his carriage with his new wife.  They were returning from a ‘matrimonial excursion’ to Scotland, and stopped at the White Swan, an old coaching inn with grounds stretching down to the river Aire.

After the couple had rested and refreshed themselves, they alighted into their carriage and continued on their journey. When the staff at the White Swan were cleaning up, after their departure, they found that the gentleman had left behind his purse.

The landlord was obviously an honest man for he dispatched Gervase to follow the carriage, and to return the purse.  Gervase, alternately referred to as the under-tapster (bartender) and the bootcatcher (a servant responsible for cleaning the guest’s shoes) saddled a horse and set off in hot pursuit along the London Road.

Gervase Thompson

Although the carriage was travelling fast he soon caught up with it and, in his eagerness to return the purse, he pulled alongside, shouting through the window, “Your purse, your purse, Sir.”

But it was seven o’clock in the evening on that night in early February and so pitch black; the frightened couple inside the carriage didn’t recognize Gervase and, yes, you’ve guessed it! They thought that he was a highwayman, that they were being held up and that he was demanding their purse, not returning it. And so the gentleman let the window down, took aim with his pistol and, in what he thought was self-defense, shot the unfortunate Gervase Thompson dead.

Gervase Thompson 1

The carriage did not stop and had reached Doncaster before they realized the truth of the matter. The gentleman, full of remorse, and his lady were taken to Pontefract where the subsequent coroner’s jury agreed that it was an unfortunate and accidental death.

The lady was overcome and took to her bed, and the gentleman tried to make some small amends by giving five guineas to Gervase Thompson’s wife, Ann, and, when he discovered that she had been left with three young children to provide for (the youngest daughter, named Ann for her mother, had only been baptized on the 2nd November 1780) settled a yearly annuity of ten pounds upon her for the term of her life. Gervase Thompson had married his wife, Ann Tomlinson, in the nearby village of Darrington on the 8th November 1774 and the other two children were Thomas Thompson, baptized in the church of St. Edward the Confessor at Brotherton on the 10th December 1776, and another daughter, Mary, baptized at Darrington with Wentbridge on the 9th January 1778.

Gervase Thompson was buried, on the 6th February 1781, in the churchyard of the nearby church of St. Andrew at Ferry Fryston, where his youngest daughter had been baptized only three months earlier.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Copyright Guy Etchells © 2001

 

Sources:

Ferry Fryston, Brotherton and Darrington with Wentbridge parish registers

The Old Inns of Old England, vol ii, Charles G. Harper, 1906

London Chronicle, 10th February 1781

Leeds Intelligencer, 13th February 1781

Derby Mercury, 16th February 1781

 

The 1791 Great Mail Robberies

On the 4th April 1792 Spence Broughton, formerly a Lincolnshire farmer, swung at York Tyburn for committing highway robbery.

On the 29th January 1791, together with a man named John Oxley or Oxen and with financial backing from a Thomas Shaw of Prospect Row, St. George’s Fields, Spence Broughton robbed the Rotherham to Sheffield mail coach.  Five or six days before the robbery, Shaw had turned up at Oxley’s house in London, No. 1 Francis Street, Tottenham Court Road, and suggested that Oxley, together with Broughton, should hold up the Rotherham Mail.  This being agreed to, Shaw lent the two men ten guineas and they travelled to Nottingham, catching the coach there from the Swan and Two Necks Inn in Lad Lane.  They slept the night at Nottingham and, the next day, set off on foot towards Chesterfield, stopping the second night at Sheffield.

On the day of the robbery they set out on the Rotherham Road, and were passed by the Mail heading towards Sheffield.  They intended to rob it on the return journey and so lay in wait for it on Attercliffe Common.  Spence Broughton had brought a smock frock as a disguise and he took off his coat, threw on the smock frock and an old little hat.  He then took a gate off an adjacent field and told Oxley he would lead the Mail cart and the Post Boy in charge of it into that field.   Oxley was directed to take Broughton’s coat and wait in another field.

Broughton, dressed as a labouring rustic, flagged down the Mail and then put his plan into action.  The Post Boy was not physically hurt, just frightened, and after he had bound him securely Broughton took the post and went to find Oxley.  The two men set off, on foot, for Mansfield, just over the Yorkshire border into Nottinghamshire.  Disappointingly for the two men, the only thing of value in the Mail was a bill for £123 drawn from Paris on the banking house of Minet and Fector and the rest of the mail was thrown into a brook.  At Mansfield they parted company and Oxley took the bill to London and cashed it.

post boy
St. James’s Chronicle, 1st February 1791.
(Proving the date of the robbery as 29th January 1791 and not the 9th February as it is sometimes given.)

 Shaw then suggested another robbery, to again be carried out by Broughton and Oxley, this time on the Aylesbury Mail.  On the 28th May 1791, this robbery was executed but nothing of value was taken and Shaw was left complaining that, as he had funded the venture, he was £14 out of pocket.

To repay Shaw, it was now proposed to rob the Cambridge Mail at Bourne Bridge.  Again, Shaw backed the enterprise financially.  Oxley recounted that they used the same ruse as with the Rotherham Mail, Broughton donning his smock frock and Oxley hiding a little way distant, but Shaw, who had some female connections with Broughton, deposed that it was actually Oxley who had carried out the heist on this occasion, the smock frock Broughton had brought as a disguise being too small for him, necessitating Oxley to wear it.

The Cambridge Post Boy could not see his attackers, it was too dark for that, but he remembered that the man who had bound him had been tall and well built.  Broughton stood 6 feet and one inch in height; although he was not related to the well-known boxer of the time, Jack Broughton, who had died a couple of years earlier, he was mentioned to be of a similar build.  The boy therefore identified Broughton as his attacker rather than the smaller Oxley.

The Cambridge Mail yielded bank notes, it was later estimated that perhaps even to the value of five or ten thousand pounds, but not all could be passed.  Some were burnt and some needed identifying marks to be erased from them before they could be used.

Within months all three men had been arrested.  They were captured when John Oxley and a woman handed over £10 notes from the Cambridge robbery at a silversmiths in Cheapside.  The note proving to be from the robbery, the silversmiths shop boy saw Oxley a day or two later and tracked him to a public house where he alerted a constable.  Oxley claimed he had been given the notes by Thomas Shaw and, while he was being questioned, the officers duly made their way to Shaw’s house.  There they waited for Shaw to come home but the first man to appear at the door was Spence Broughton himself who made a run for it when he saw that the game was up.  When he was caught his pockets were found to be stuffed with bank notes.

Thomas Shaw turned King’s Evidence and evaded trial (although the Morning Post newspaper thought him the most culpable of the three) and put all the guilt onto Oxley, trying to exonerate Broughton and himself; Oxley pointed the finger squarely at the other two before escaping the gaol he was being held in (Clerkenwell Bridewell) and the subsequent trial.

John Oxley
Newcastle Courant, 17th December 1791.

With the help of some smugglers at Folkestone in Kent he was soon reported to be on his way to America, escaping justice.  Spence Broughton alone then was left to face the music and he was moved from the Cambridgeshire gaol he had been held in to Newgate before being taken to York for trial.  It was reported that on his arrival at the York Castle gaol he gave £50 to the gaoler for liberty to walk with the debtors.  On the 24th March, 1792, he was found guilty and sentenced to hang, and was told his body would be gibbeted afterwards.

On the scaffold Spence Broughton proclaimed his innocence and said that although he had intended to rob the Rotherham mail he was in fact six miles distant when the robbery took place, and that he was only guilty of receiving his share of the booty.  It made not a jot of difference though, he was duly hung on the York Tyburn gallows (the same on which Dick Turpin swung many decades earlier) and then his body carted back up to Attercliffe Common on the outskirts of Sheffield, the site of the robbery, where his decomposing remains hung in the gibbet for many years.

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Attercliffe Common, showing the gibbet on the right.

Spence Broughton was 45 years of age when he robbed the mail coach, but his earlier life had been one of respectability and good bearing.  He had been born in 1744 in the Lincolnshire village of Horbling, a few miles from Sleaford to a farmer named John Broughton and his wife Anne.  John Broughton had been married before but his first wife and daughter, both named Mary, had died. It is known that Spence had one sister, who was living at the time of his arrest and running an inn on the South road, and this is probably Frances, daughter of John Broughton, who was baptised at Sleaford on the 16th October 1741.

Three years later, on the 19th December 1744, Spence was baptised at Horbling.

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On the 9th October 1770, at Folkingham in Lincolnshire, he had married Frances Graves or Greaves, by licence.

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 She is sometimes mentioned as bringing a fortune to the marriage and was quite possibly the daughter of a prosperous local farmer.  Three children were born to the couple, a son named Spence for his father in 1771, another son, Greaves, in 1773, both baptised in Horbling, and a daughter, named Frances for her mother and Spence’s sister, in 1777.   By the time little Frances was born Spence Broughton was tenant of a farm in Martin, Lincolnshire, leased from Mr. King, Esquire, and Frances was baptised at the nearby church of Timberland.

It was after this that Broughton started to keep bad company, gambling and attending the races and cockings.  He was asked by his long-suffering wife to leave their home as he had run up debts she was struggling to pay, and he accordingly did.  He made his way to Lambeth where he took some lodgings and lived with a woman named Eliza as his wife.  He penned a letter to Eliza just before his death, reconciled to his fate but hating the thought of his body being gibbeted rather than decently buried, and in this letter he refers to his children and asks Eliza to see to their education.  He can’t be referring to his children by Frances as they were no longer young, and it appears that he had a second family by Eliza.

After his execution, Spence Broughton’s widow possibly married again, to a James Carter.  Her eldest son, Spence Broughton junior, became a successful surgeon in Leicester.

A postscript to this article belongs to John Oxley, reputed to have made his way to America. Reports surfaced that he finally met his end in the January of 1793, found frozen to death in a barn on Loxley Moor near Sheffield, although the body was never properly identified.  The clothes the man was found dressed in matched those Oxley had last been seen in though and he had marks around his ankles as though he had been manacled; he had been wandering in the area for some weeks and, it was said, had made the journey across the moor to visit the mouldering bones of his old friend, suspended in the gibbet. But then, in May, 1798, reports surfaced in the newspapers naming, ‘Oxley, the supposed accomplice of Spence Broughton, who was executed at York some time back for robbing the mail passed through Stamford, as a deserter from the 34th regiment.’  This was then countered a few days later with the following information.

A man, calling himself John Oxley, now in the Savoy, as a deserter from one of His Majesty’s regiments, and who asserted himself to be the famous mail robber of that name, turns out to be the same man who imposed the like story on the Magistrates at Northton, about a year and an half since.

So, was it John Oxley, hiding in full view of the authorities, or an imposter with the same name?  This man had in fact been questioned by Richard Ford, Esquire, at Bow Street in December 1796 after being taken into custody in Northamptonshire, but had obviously not been believed and released if he was at large in the May of 1798, even though on that occasion it was reported that he had confessed to being the same man who had been concerned in robbing the Rotherham Mail and who had broken out of Clerkenwell Bridewell.  Not for want of trying, it appears that if this was the same John Oxley, then he couldn’t talk himself into standing trial.

 

Sources used not already referenced:

St. James’s Chronicle, 1st February 1791, London Chronicle, 13th October 1791, Morning Post and Daily Advertiser, 18th October 1791, Derby Mercury, 27th October 1791, Stamford Mercury, 4th November 1791, Norfolk Chronicle, 11th February 1792, Caledonian Mercury, 31st March 1792, Stamford Mercury, 13th April 1792, Derby Mercury, 26th April 1792, Oracle and Public Advertiser, 16th December 1796, London Packet, 11th May 1798 and Criminal Chronlogy of York Castle by William Knipe, 1867.