Guest author : Naomi Clifford – The Story of Rebecca Hodges

Today we return from our summer break and are delighted to welcome back to ‘All Things Georgian’ one of our previous guest authors, Naomi Clifford, author of the true life Regency mystery, The Disappearance of Maria Glenn.

616ASr+2WoL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_Naomi is presently researching women who went to the gallows in the late Georgian period for her next book. During her research she came across the story of Rebecca Hodges, so we will have you over to Naomi to tell more.

The Georgian justice system, inconsistent, brutal and stacked against the defendant as it was, still had room to accommodate those whose actions were beyond their own control. During my research into the women who were hanged in England and Wales in the late Georgian era, I came across a case which would now probably be prosecuted as stalking.

In 1818 Rebecca Hodges was indicted for setting fire to hayricks at Ward End near Aston and appeared before Judge Garrow at the Warwick Shire Hall. It was a notable case, not because rural arson was especially unusual but because of the long and disturbing history between the accused, Rebecca Hodges, a servant, and Samuel Birch, her former employer.

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A Farmhouse, by William Henry Hunt, courtesy of Yale Center for British Art

One Saturday in 1802, Rebecca left Birch’s farmhouse to fetch water. On her return on Monday, Birch dismissed her for being absent without permission. She decided that she would exact revenge. Over the next seven years, unrecognised because she dressed in men’s clothes, she followed him. On 27 February 1809, having bought a horse pistol and moulded her own bullets (she pressed lead with her fingers), again dressed as a man, she travelled to Ward End, on the way encountering a young lad at the turnpike house of whom she asked several questions about Birch, including whether he had gone to market and what horse he rode. Then she stalked Birch around his farm, hiding in an outbuilding until the moment was right. At around ten o’clock in the evening, she, peered through the kitchen window to check that Birch’s housekeeper and niece Sarah Bradbury had gone up to bed, lifted the latch of his farmhouse, crept up behind him as he slept in a chair and shot him twice, one of the bullets lodging in his head.

Birch did not at first realise that he had been wounded, but his niece and housekeeper Sarah Bradbury, alerted by the gunshot, came downstairs and saw that his head was ‘all over blood’. Mr Vickers, a surgeon in Birmingham, was fetched. He trepanned Birch’s skull and retrieved the bullet. The patient survived but suffered lifelong effects.

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Courtesy of the National Army Museum

Still dressed in male attire and carrying the loaded pistol, Rebecca was arrested in Birmingham, probably for showing some sort of erratic behaviour, and taken to Birmingham Gaol: William Payn, the gaoler, said later that he thought she had ‘broken out of a place of confinement’. He offered to send for her relatives in order to get her properly cared for, but she said it would be no use as she would just be arrested again.

‘For what?’ asked Payn.

‘For shooting a man,’ she replied.

In the courtyard she walked obsessively in a figure of eight and hung her head.

Later, once the connection between her confession and Mr Birch was known, she was brought to the Birmingham police office where she encountered Mr Vickers, the surgeon who had treated Birch. She said, ‘He [Samuel Birch] is not dead, I hope?,’ and when asked whether Birch had ever ill-treated her, replied, ‘No, never.’ She claimed that they had had a romantic relationship and, although she liked Birch very much.

Sir John Bayley, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery by William Holl Sr, after William Russell, stipple engraving, (circa 1808)

Rebecca was tried in front of Judge Bayley. It was clear that she had committed the deed and that there had been a large degree of planning, but the question was whether she was in her right mind. Francis Woodcock, a magistrate living in Worcestershire, told the court that she had lived in his household for three years and had shown symptoms of insanity, talking to herself, going missing, dancing alone in barns and fields and picking up sticks in one place and laying them down in another. He said she was ‘virtuous but harmless’. Her sister also gave evidence, describing her walking without shoes or wearing only one of them, going out with few clothes on and on one occasion trying to hang herself. Justice Bayley thought that she was not in her right mind and told the jury that if they had any doubt they should acquit her, which they did. She was ordered to be incarcerated in Warwick Gaol as a criminal lunatic. In 1816 she was transferred to Bethlehem Hospital in London, where after fourteen months she was discharged, the doctors there declaring her perfectly healthy.

Bethlem Hosptial at St George's Fields 1828

After Rebecca returned to Birmingham in early 1818 she lived a hand-to-mouth existence of casual employment, possibly combined with part-time prostitution. She often got drunk and was locked out of her lodgings. One constant was her resentment of Birch and after writing letters to him, pleading and threatening by turn, she once more travelled to the farm at Ward End intent on revenge. This time she fire to his haystacks, another capital offence.

Tennant, John F.; Loading the Hay Wagon; Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/loading-the-hay-wagon-18819
Tennant, John F.; Loading the Hay Wagon; Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage

She was soon arrested and the circumstantial evidence against her was overwhelming. Witnesses spoke of a woman wearing a long dark cloak and bonnet; similar clothes were found in her lodgings. A linen draper, called as an expert witness, confirmed that a section of purple spotted scarf found near the fire matched one in her possession. A tinder box that had been discarded on the road contained small pieces of cotton resembling the material of one of her gowns.

Mezzotint of Sir William Garrow, 1810, held in the Harvard Law Library

During the trial Rebecca loudly and repeatedly berated and insulted the witnesses, each time Garrow patiently exhorting her to wait until it was her turn to question them. But despite his instruction to the jury to ‘keep in mind… the dreadful punishment that must necessarily follow a conviction’ they did not even pretend to discuss her possible innocence and within three minutes delivered a guilty verdict. While Rebecca screamed for mercy (‘My Lord, have mercy upon me! … Oh spare my life! Only spare my life, my Lord! I’m innocent! I’m innocent!’) the judge sentenced her to death and warned her not to entertain hopes of a respite.

In law there were four kinds of insanity: perpetual infirmity of mind from birth; the result of sickness, grief or other accident; intermittent (classed as insanity when it manifested and at times of lucidity not so); and a state arising from ‘vicious acts’ such as drunkenness. Rebecca Hodges’ gun attack on Mr Birch may have had been planned well in advance but her erratic behaviour before this  showed that she was not in her right mind and was enough to persuade the judge.

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Courtesy of the Library and Archives, Canada

Rebecca did not go to the gallows. She was respited and her sentence commuted. In 1819 she was transported for life on board the Lord Wellington in the company of two other Warwickshire women, Elizabeth and Rebecca Bamford, who had themselves narrowly avoided execution. They had been deeply involved in the family business of forgery and uttering and their sixty-year-old mother, Ann Bamford, had been hanged the previous year.

Rebecca Hodges Transportation record
Rebecca’s transportation record

In Australia, Rebecca continued to cause concern. She was first placed in the factory at Parmatta, later sent out to work as a domestic servant. Her propensity to go missing landed her in trouble in 1824 and she was punished with another spell at Parmatta. She was described in 1827 as ‘incompetent to any kind of work’. In 1838 she was granted a conditional pardon. Her date of death is unknown.

Sources:

Bury and Norfolk Post, 8 March 180; Northampton Mercury, 25 April 1818.

Willis, W., An Essay on the Rationale of Circumstantial Evidence (1838). London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green and Longmans.

On Insanity: Mr Amos’s Lecture on Medical Jurisprudence. London Medical Gazette, 2 July 1831.

Unknown (1818). Trial of Rebecca Hodges. Warwick: S. Sharp.

Castle Bow, Taunton. Somerset Museums

George Lowman Tuckett

Today, we would like to welcome a return visitor to our blog – Naomi Clifford whose book The Disappearance of Maria Glenn: A True Life Regency Mystery has just been published by Pen and Sword, and we can’t wait to read it.

We will now hand you over to Naomi to introduce you to an intriguing character, George Lowman Tuckett.

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In the middle of a September night in 1817 Maria Glenn, aged 16, vanished from her uncle’s house in Taunton, Somerset. She had been taken by the Bowditches, a local yeoman farming family who wanted to marry her off to the second son. George Lowman Tuckett, Maria’s uncle, immediately suspected that the Bowditches knew that she was the probable future heiress of her grandfather’s valuable sugar plantations in St Vincent.

Maria had spent the summer at their farm just outside Taunton where she and two of her young cousins had been sent to recover from whooping cough. There was ample opportunity for the family to find out what she was worth. Of course, in 1817, once a girl was married, all her possessions, now and in the future, would belong to her husband.

When I was writing the book, I had to build a picture of Tuckett from the bare bones of his biography and from glimpses of him in the lives of other people. Apart from two publications about his niece’s case and one letter in the county archives at Dorchester, he left a surprisingly small footprint. There are no surviving images of him, which is surprising given that he went on to be, if only for a short time, a Lord Chief Justice of Jamaica (but we’ll come to that later).

George Lowman Tuckett was born in 1771 at Bridgwater in Somerset, the second of his father William’s sons by his first wife Martha Lowman. William was appointed Stamp Act distributor on St Kitts in the West Indies but by 1770 he was back in England, living in Bridgwater, where he was at various times a solicitor, Recorder of the Corporation, Stamp Duty Distributor for Somerset and mayor of Bridgwater.

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Copyright Ken Grainger

In 1789, after boarding at Exeter School George went up to St John’s College, Cambridge. He followed his father into the law, taking his pupillage with the brilliant but notoriously grumpy Vicary Gibbs, who specialised in the laws of evidence.

Vicary Gibbs
Vicary Gibbs

It is not known how Tuckett made the acquaintance of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who lived at Ottery St Mary in Devon, but the two young men were close enough for Tuckett to take action when Coleridge, impoverished and suffering from depression, disappeared from Cambridge University in late 1793. While Coleridge’s family anxiously tried to track him down, it was Tuckett who guessed that he would have told his old Christ’s Hospital school friends where he was. He persuaded them to break their confidence, after which Coleridge, who had joined the Royal Dragoons under the name Silas Tomkyn Comberbache, wrote Tuckett an angry letter criticising his love for truth-telling. It is not known whether they communicated again. Truth-telling was important to Tuckett.

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Tuckett was admitted to the Middle Temple in London in 1796, after which he completed two years’ practice in England. Two years after that, he sailed to Grenada in the West Indies. On 11 July 1800, aged 30, he married his 17-year-old first cousin, Martha Lowman, daughter of his mother’s brother George Lowman, on St Vincent. The following year he was appointed Solicitor-General of Grenada but his career was seriously affected when Martha became ill and they were forced to come to England. With the exception of a couple of years in Jamaica, where Tuckett practised at the bar, they stayed in England for the next two decades, settling initially in Taunton.

While they were living in Taunton, 11-year-old Maria Glenn, Tuckett’s wife’s sister’s daughter (and his own his second cousin – they intermarried quite a lot) joined them. By now George and Martha had five children (they went on to have another), a remarkable achievement given that Martha had an unknown but debilitating illness. Tuckett and Martha adored Maria – she was everything a genteel Regency girl was meant to be. Shy, bashful, obedient and, above all, innocent about men.

St Mary, Taunton
St Mary Magdalen, Taunton

After Maria’s disappearance, in order to build evidence against the family he believed abducted her, Tuckett became a detective. There was no police force to do this work, of course, and although he could have hired an investigator, the work required sensitivity and attention to detail. Also, Tuckett has time on his hands: from what I can tell, his career as a jobbing barrister on the Western circuit was not very taxing.

He travelled extensively around Dorset and to London to interview witnesses and sometimes to conduct an impromptu identity parade. It was his practice to ask someone to describe the person they had seen at a particular time. Then he would present Maria and ask if this was who they meant. When they failed to recognise her, he concluded that Maria had been deliberately impersonated by her enemies. Of course, it’s not a technique that would be acceptable in a court of law now. What happened when the case came to court, and subsequently when the Bowditches sought revenge, is detailed in my book.

He was thorough and determined. He sometimes presented as severe and cold-hearted but underneath he was loving, generous and loyal, with a fundamental commitment to Maria and an acute sense that it was his Christian duty to tell the truth.

Many years later, when Tuckett had managed to resume his West Indian career, he showed the same compassion and adherence to the truth. By 1827, he was appointed Judge of the Vice-Admiralty Court of Jamaica and then in October 1831, with the death of William Anglin Scarlett, the acting Lord Chief Justice of Jamaica. Earl Belmore, the Governor of Jamaica, told Tuckett that it was his intention to appoint him to the post, but after the Christmas rebellion of 1831 (the Baptist War) he was ejected from office and forced to return to London. Although his actions had been approved by the Jamaican Privy Council, Sir Joshua Rowe was given the post of Lord Chief Justice. Tuckett’s brief period of service has all been but forgotten. The Jamaican historical archives have no portrait of him and no information about his role.

It was the end of Tuckett’s legal career and afterwards, he lived in retirement, supporting his four surviving children, none of whom married. Martha died in 1837. On 4 November 1851, he died from heart disease, aged 80, at his home in Ilfracombe, Devon.

If you want to read more, The Disappearance of Maria Glenn: A True Life Regency Mystery is available now from Pen and Sword Books and all good bookshops.

You can also visit Naomi’s excellent website by clicking here.