William Hutchinson of Canterbury on 'Staring Tom', riding from Canterbury to London Bridge in 2 hours 25 minutes and 51 seconds on Thursday 6 May 1819

William Hutchinson’s ‘unrivalled piece of horsemanship’, 6 May 1819

On Thursday 6 May 1819, William Hutchinson, a horse dealer from Canterbury in Kent and in consequence of a wager of 600 guineas, set off to prove that he could ride from his home city to London Bridge, a distance of 55½ miles, in three hours or less. What followed was enthusiastically described in the press of the day as ‘one of the greatest, if not unrivalled pieces of horsemanship’, especially when taking into account the hills on the route.

Hutchinson’s attempt began at 3.30am precisely, setting off at a gallop from the Falstaff Inn on St Dunstan’s Street. He changed horses along the way, at Boughton Hill, Beacon Hill, Sittingbourn, Rainham, Chatham Hill, Day’s Hill, Northfleet, Dartford, Welling and lastly, at the Green Man in Blackheath. It was on this last horse that he raced up to and over London Bridge.

West Gate from St Dunstan's, Canterbury by an unknown artist (the Falstaff Inn can be seen just to the left of Westgate, a medieval gatehouse
West Gate from St Dunstan’s, Canterbury by an unknown artist (the Falstaff Inn can be seen just to the left of Westgate, a medieval gatehouse; Canterbury City Council Museums and Galleries

The horses were all the property of either Hutchinson himself, or of his close friends, and some came from the stud of the Wellington coach. At each stop, Hutchinson dismounted himself and was assisted to mount the next horse which, Hutchinson calculated, took up less than 30 seconds at each stage (it must have been the eighteenth-century equivalent of a Formula 1 pit stop today!) The horse which took Hutchinson from Welling to Blackheath was the most troublesome, bolting twice while going down Shooter’s Hill and again on Blackheath, which lost Hutchinson quite a bit of time. Throughout the journey, Hutchinson was accompanied by a horseman on each stage just in case an accident befell him.

On Shooter's Hill by George Scharf.
On Shooter’s Hill by George Scharf. British Library

Two men had travelled to London ahead of Hutchinson and were in place to act as umpires. With their watches, and the watches of two more umpires present at the start of the race in Canterbury, the time was worked out accurately. And, it was found that Hutchinson had comfortably completed his feat within the allotted three hours; in fact, he ran the distance in just 2 hours, 25 minutes and 51 seconds.

William Hutchinson of Canterbury on 'Staring Tom', riding from Canterbury to London Bridge in 2 hours 25 minutes and 51 seconds on Thursday 6 May 1819
William Hutchinson of Canterbury on ‘Staring Tom’, riding from Canterbury to London Bridge in 2 hours 25 minutes and 51 seconds on Thursday 6 May 1819; Canterbury City Council Museums and Galleries

Although Hutchinson bragged that he felt fit enough to return to Canterbury in less than three hours on the same day, he actually returned in more comfort, in the Wellington coach, enjoying a hearty breakfast followed by two mutton chops and a quantity of brandy at the Bricklayer’s Arms on the Kent road.

Later that day, back in Canterbury and at the Rose Inn (where he arrived at 2.45pm), William Hutchinson received the Freedom of the City of Canterbury, ‘in consideration of the extraordinary feat he has this day performed with a faithfulness as honourable to himself, as it is satisfactory to every individual concerned in the match’.

Canterbury, Kent, from St Stephen's, 1819, by James Canterbury Pardon
Canterbury, Kent, from St Stephen’s, 1819, by James Canterbury Pardon; Canterbury City Council Museums and Galleries

Sources:

Sussex Advertiser, 10 May 1819

Kentish Weekly Post or Canterbury Journal, 7 and 11 May 1819

Sold for a pot of beer and a shilling!

On August 10th 1817 the marriage took place between Charles Skinner and Mary Gower, at Speldhurst, Kent, the union of two people in Holy matrimony. This seemingly happy union was to last for the next ten years until John Savage appeared on the scene.

We turn to an account of a court case in the Globe newspaper of July 26th, 1828 which took place at the West Kent Quarter Sessions. Charles Skinner, Mary Skinner and John Savage, of the parish of Tonbridge, were indicted for a misdemeanour. The misdemeanour being:

one of those disgusting transactions which were frequently mentioned in the newspapers, and which by a vulgar error, were imagined to be lawful. It was by many persons supposed that if a man became tired of his wife, he might take her to a public market with a halter round her neck, or (as in the present instance) a handkerchief round her waist, and there publicly sell her. Such proceedings were both illegal and immoral, whether the parties were or were not all agreed. Sometime the wife was sold against her will; but in this case, there was an agreement by all parties before they left the cottage at Speldhurst, in which they all lived.

Matrimony: may the Devil take them that brought you and me together.
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

Charles and Mary had separated in the respect of being husband and wife, but they continued to live under the same roof along with Mary’s new lover, John Savage. The cottage they all lived in belonged to the parish and this unusual living arrangement came to the attention of the officers responsible for the cottage. Charles and Mary were told in no uncertain terms to ‘behave themselves’.

Clearly ‘behaving’ was not an option and they decided upon a different course of action so that they could retain possession of the cottage. So, with that, Charles and Mary went to the tap-room of the George and Dragon public house in Tonbridge. Then, after a while, John Savage appeared in the pub and the drama began. Making sure that people heard, Charles, having tied a silk handkerchief around his wife’s waist, said to Savage, “Will you buy my wife?” Savage replied, “Yes, what will you have for her?” Charles replied, “A shilling and a pot of beer”. Savage agreed to the bargain and Mary was handed over to him with Charles saying to her ‘If you give me that handkerchief I have nothing more to do with you”. She then gave him the handkerchief and they went away.

Thwick-Thwack
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

Mr Pollock, prosecuting, concluded by observing that these people ought to be taught that what they had done was both immoral and illegal, that by their punishment other people might be warned that such transactions could not take place without impunity.

William Hook who was one of the overseers of Speldhurst confirmed that Charles Skinner was a pauper of the parish and that he had resided in the cottage belonging to the parish for three years, but was now in the workhouse because of this transaction. Hook also pointed out that the couple had already been warned at the Monthly Vestry that if he permitted Savage to live in the house, and cohabit with his wife, he must leave the cottage; if he had more room than he wanted, the parish would find somebody to put in it, but apparently Skinner took no notice of this warning.  John Smith the landlord of the George and Dragon was called to give his account of the events of that evening.

He confirmed that on June 2nd that Charles Skinner went in first and ordered a pot of beer and shortly after Savage arrived, the transaction was carried out. He confirmed that there were about four other people present who also witnessed it. Skinner and Savage assumed that this would make it all legal – how wrong they were! As each witness gave their version of events, all were consistent that Skinner had, in fact, sold his wife for a shilling and a pot of beer.

The learned Chairman intimated that there was not enough evidence to support a charge of conspiracy, but that the transaction took place could not be denied.

The defendants were called to give their account of the event. Mary simply laughed and said, “My husband did not wish to go along with my wishes and that was the reason I wished to part”.

Six Weeks after Marriage
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

The learned Chairman, in summing up, observed that this indictment was rather of a novel nature. He did not think the charge of a conspiracy had been proved. These people had been living together in the same house, but in what manner it was not now necessary to inquire; and even it was, a mere rumour was not sufficient to reply upon that point. Besides the count of conspiracy, there were two others, charging the defendants with making the sale, and it appeared that such a sale did take place. The lady certainly did not rate her own value very highly; for a pot of beer and a shilling was the only consideration given for that valuable commodity.

The jury, without hesitation, found all of them guilty. They were each sentenced to serve one months hard labour.

 

Featured Image

Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

The destruction of Speldhurst Church in Kent on the 20th October 1791

On Wednesday the 19th October 1791, the sea off the Kentish coast ‘ran mountains high, without any apparent cause’. Ships hastily made for harbour and lucky that they did for, on the following morning, a tremendous storm hit the south-east of England, with Kent particularly suffering.

On Thursday 20th October, at half past eleven o’clock and amidst high winds, thunder, lightning, hail and rain, a bolt of lightning struck the wooden steeple of Speldhurst Church near Tunbridge Wells in Kent. Some sources say that a ‘ball’ entered the shingled roof, others that lightning struck the weather vane atop the steeple. However it started, almost instantly flames and smoke could be seen.

speldhurst-church-near-tunbridge-wells
Speldhurst Church set on fire by lightning – 20th Oct 1791
Source: © British Library

As the fire was, so far, confined to the steeple, some people who were nearby rushed into the chancel to save the pulpit cushions, the plate and the parish chest. They did not have time to save anything else for the rain and hail stopped and the wind drove the flames onto the church which was soon engulfed in the inferno. Four hours after the lightning had struck, all that remained of the ancient and beautiful church was ruins, with the tombs and headstones which were closest to the doomed building also suffering damage. Bizarrely the font, which was still whole, had been turned upside down.

Amongst the items lost to the fire were the four bells housed in the steeple (they were melted) and the church monuments.

The monuments (one of which was very ancient, belonging to the Waller family, on a large scale, and a most curious piece of workmanship in marble) crumbled to dust.

For Speldhurst villagers William Card and Elizabeth Cole the tragedy was on a very personal level; they were due to marry in the church on the following day. Determined that the wedding should go ahead, a small space was cleared in the rubble by the chancel door and the couple were married there but, it was reported, ‘the bride’s new shoes were completely spoiled’.

Mulready, William; The Wedding Morning; Lady Lever Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-wedding-morning-102616
The Wedding Morning by William Mulready; Lady Lever Art Gallery

It was not just Speldhurst which had suffered, although the village saw the most devastation. In Tunbridge Wells itself the hail broke windows and caused other damage, and a man shooting a mile away from Speldhurst had ‘his gun twisted out of his hand by the lightning’. The church at Rainham near Canterbury was also struck and damage was noted at Newport on the Isle of Wight due to lightning strikes as the storm spread through the south-east of the country. It desisted during Thursday afternoon (although the wind continued to blow), but overnight and into the Friday morning there were further storms.

The Waller family lived at Groombridge manor house in Speldhurst; Sir Richard Waller (who died in 1431) had custody of a French royal hostage for many years. Charles, Duke of Orléans (1394-1465) had been taken prisoner by Waller after the battle of Agincourt in 1415, and both the duke and Waller were benefactors to the church which was destroyed in 1791. The dukes arms, which had been granted to Waller to quarter with his own, were displayed in stone above the porch of the church.

A new church was built (it opened in 1805), but that was demolished in 1870 and a further church now stands on the site. The website of the current church says that ‘remarkably, a few relics of the old church survive, including the coat of arms of the Duke of Orléans over the South door, a sundial and the very weather vane which was [reputedly] struck in 1791’.

 

Header image:

Speldhurst Church, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, Struck by Lightning; British (English Naive) School; Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery

 

Sources:

Hereford Journal, 2nd November 1791

Derby Mercury, 3rd November 1791

St Mary’s, Speldhurst.

The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 3 (1797) via British History Online.