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By John Van der Kiste
The History PressCopyright © 2012 John Van der Kiste
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THE GIBBET ON INKPEN HILL
One of Berkshire's earliest murders took place during the late seventeenth century. Many of the facts are now obscured by the mists of antiquity, but the most commonly given version of events is as follows.
George Broomham, a farmer at West Woodhay, began an affair with Dorothy Newman, a widow who lived at nearby Combe. George was already married, and Martha was a faithful wife, but he had tired of her and fell prey to the charms of Mrs Newman. Divorce in those days was almost unheard of, especially for those outside the nobility who could never even contemplate the expense of such an action. The only way to dispose of an unwanted spouse was by arranging for his or her death, while trying to make it look accidental.
While coming home from work one day, George noticed a wasps' nest, realised that this would help him to commit what he believed would be the perfect crime, and made a mental note of the location. A few days later, husband and wife went to market together, and he mentioned the nest. Martha was keen to see it, so George pulled up his pony and trap, and they got out together to have a look. As they did so, George put on a pair of thick leather gauntlets, saying he needed them to pull the brambles aside on their way. While Martha looked at the nest, he crept up behind her, seized her by the shoulders and forced her head into the nest. Taken by surprise, she did not even scream, and as they were miles away from anywhere or anyone else, there would have been no point in trying to raise the alarm. Martha tried to struggle, but her husband was too strong for her, and it was only a matter of time before she was stung to death.
Feeling satisfied with having stage-managed what appeared to be a dreadful accident, George returned to his cart and proceeded on to market. The next day Martha's body was found, and George had no difficulty in playing the role of a grief-stricken widower.
George came close to getting away with murder, but, according to one source, the next time he visited Dorothy Newman, he told her the full story as they sat in her cottage, and were overheard by her son, who pretended to be asleep. The next day he repeated everything to the authorities, who arrested George and took him to Winchester Gaol.
Another version of the story says that both lovers were involved in the killing of Martha Broomham and that she was in fact beaten to death, probably with a staff. They had believed they were alone, but they were seen by the village idiot, 'Mad Thomas', who went and told the magistrates what he had seen. Yet another version suggests that Robert, the young son of George and Martha, was also killed on the Downs, as his father was determined that nobody would stand in the way of his love affair with Dorothy.
Whatever the truth of the matter, George Broomham was tried and convicted at Winchester Assizes of the wilful murder of his wife on or around 23 February 1676. He was sentenced to be hanged in chains near the site of the murder. Those who say that Dorothy Newman took part in the murder also maintain that she stood in the dock alongside him and shared his fate.
As the murder had been committed on the boundary between the parishes of Combe and Inkpen, there was some dispute as to exactly where the execution should take place, and who would be responsible for making arrangements. The murder scene was on the top of a hill, and there was no nearby tree suitable to provide a gallows, so a gibbet would need to be erected for the purpose. Both parishes said that the spot was outside their boundary, and the other would have to pay for it. The arguments were only brought to an end when the court ruled that a gibbet was to be erected at the site of a Stone-Age long barrow at the top of Inkpen Hill.
From here the body of George Broomham, and perhaps that of his lover, was hung, and left in chains as a deterrent to others until the bones had bleached with age and exposure to sunlight.
Ironically, in view of the trouble the gibbet had caused, it was never to be used again for carrying out a death sentence. Even so, its presence became a much-hallowed local landmark. When the wooden post rotted away it was replaced with a second grisly tourist attraction. The second one was destroyed by lightning, and opportunists removed the fragments as souvenirs. Further gibbets have been erected on the same spot as each one has fallen victim to severe weather or vandalism. Though no real live, or dead, bodies have been suspended from it, a group of American soldiers stationed in the area during the Second World War are said to have dangled an effigy of Adolf Hitler from the crossbar in 1944.CHAPTER 2
MURDER ON MARKET DAY
Jacob Saunders was born around 1700 at Reading. His father, a woolcomber, was liked and respected as an honest and upright citizen, but from his youth young Jacob always had a reputation for bad behaviour. A cheat and thief, he was the scourge of the neighbourhood, and some people blamed his father for not restraining him properly. All attempts to train him for a proper profession were frustrated by his refusal to work. Instead he spent his time hanging around in the street, when not robbing hen roosts or fruit orchards, sometimes on his own and sometimes with others.
At the age of twenty Jacob married Elizabeth Grey, a furniture repairer and upholsterer. If his father had hoped that the young man might now settle down and make something of himself, he was soon to be disappointed. Jacob's crimes were about to progress from mere thieving to something much more serious.
One Saturday market day in the autumn of 1722, Mr Blagrave, a farmer who lived just outside Reading, brought a large quantity of corn to sell for about £60. Being an inquisitive soul, Saunders soon found out. He had long kept an eye on the regular market traders, hoping to make some easy money. As a result, he was aware that Blagrave was one of the farmers who tended not to hurry home straight afterwards, but usually stayed behind to have a drink or two and chat with the others, and Jacob decided to shadow him for the rest of the day. True to form, after the close of business Blagrave went to join his friends for a noggin at the Catherine Wheel pub nearby. Jacob kept his distance, but had decided he would follow him home over the fields afterwards. The unsuspecting Blagrave noticed him coming in to sit at the inn, and exchanged a few friendly words with him.
It was approaching midnight when Blagrave left to go home. He walked across the meadows to Caversham, about a mile away, without any suspicion that the man he had struck up a brief conversation with earlier was keeping a discreet but close distance behind him. As they passed through the village Saunders took a large club out of a baker's woodstack, and once they had gone through Caversham he increased his pace till he caught up with Blagrave. Just as the latter was crossing a stile, the younger man struck him on the head, laid him flat on the ground, and continued to beat him with the club until he was sure he was dead. Even then, Jacob was afraid to search through Blagrave's pockets till he had pulled off his own garters and bound his victim hand and foot.
To his disappointment, he found only a shilling and some halfpence in the farmer's jacket and trousers. All he could do in his frustration was to abuse the bruised, mangled and, as he thought, dead body a little more, which he did by beating it again with his club and stamping upon it with his feet. He then went home to bed, not speaking a word of the day's events to his wife, who nevertheless found his behaviour distinctly strange.
Blagrave was not yet dead. He lay, bruised and helpless, until he was found early the next morning by some who recognised him. They carried him back to his house and sent for the surgeons immediately. Though his constitution was very strong and it was thought he might still live for several days, there could be no hope for him. Until his death, a day or two later, he never recovered enough to give any account of his misfortune, which would have been enough to identify the perpetrator.
Yet Saunders had been noticed at the inn at the same time as Blagrave. As both had left at roughly the same time, this was enough to make him a wanted man. That same day a few people in the town decided to watch out for him. Unusually, they saw him going to church, where they thought he looked 'more heavy and dull than usual, though he had always a downward countenance, almost sufficient to have informed people what he was.'
While he was attending divine service a deputation went to the Mayor, told him of their suspicions, and gave him details of everything they had noticed and heard. The Mayor issued a warrant for Saunders' arrest and sent officers to seize him as he came out of church and take him to gaol. A separate warrant was made out for his wife, so that she could also be questioned. She was put into a different cell in the same prison, so they would have no contact and no chance to arrange an alibi for him.
That evening the Mayor and some of his men visited them both. On being questioned for the first time Saunders strongly denied having killed anyone, but his answers seemed rather confused and he convinced nobody. His wife, who evidently saw no reason to become implicated in his misdoings, made no attempt to deny that he had come home unusually late, and somewhat dishevelled. When she was shown the garters with which Blagrave's hands had been bound, she admitted that they belonged to her husband. Both of them were detained in custody pending further questioning.
That night Jacob escaped from prison and returned to his father's house, where he was discovered trying to hide. By the time he was interrogated again, he realised it was useless to deny it any longer, confessed to the murder, and told the officers where to find the club with which he had battered Mr Blagrave. They found it at once, and Saunders was committed to the county gaol.
He made one last futile effort to avoid the inevitable. According to criminal law, when two or three people were suspected of any felony or murder, the one that informed on the others would be reprieved from execution. With this in mind, Jacob tried to implicate two other local men of bad reputation whom the community would have believed might have been equally guilty, and swore an affidavit against them before the authorities. Both men were arrested on suspicion of murder and gaoled for several weeks that winter. Nevertheless, they were able to prove their innocence, and after being tried at Reading Assizes in March 1723 they were acquitted.
Two days later Jacob was escorted to Oxford under heavy guard, where he was sentenced to be hung in chains at the spot where he had attacked Blagrave. As this was near Caversham, the villagers asked if his execution could be carried out instead on the heath four miles away at the suitably named Gallows Tree Common, where a tree stood with one arm growing into another, forming the likeness of a gallows. The gibbet was accordingly erected there and on Monday 15 March 1723, Jacob Saunders was executed, and then hung up in irons.CHAPTER 3
THE WHITE HART MURDER
On 30 August 1833, nineteen-year-old George King, an itinerant fruit picker, was working at Court Hill Farm, near Wantage. Early in the evening he finished his bean-cutting duties and stopped for a drink at the Squirrel Inn, Grove Street, on the way back to his lodgings at the White Hart in Newbury Street. The landlady at the latter was forty-year-old Ann Pullen, a widow, who had a daughter aged six and a stepson, James, aged twelve. As he walked in, Mrs Pullen cut him a rasher of bacon, which he put on the end of his knife to cook over the log fire, and she then served him a mug of ale. After his supper, he went out to the yard to use the lavatory, and when he came back she bolted the door for the night.
At this point, he seized his bean cutter, grabbed her, and cut her throat until he had severed her head from her body. Next he took the blade to her apron pocket containing her purse, removed the keys to the inn from her belt, and let himself out of the premises. King headed straight to the Blue Boar, almost directly opposite. His plan was presumably to establish an alibi by posing as an innocent labourer going about his lawful business, prior to returning to his lodgings, and then finding the body of his landlady who had been murdered in his absence. He entered the Blue Boar at about 9.45 p.m., and although it was raining outside, he had his coat doubled up on his arm. This immediately aroused the suspicions of William Betteridge, the landlord, who wondered why the man was not wearing it, and whether he was trying to conceal something.
King went to the bar and ordered a pint of beer, dropping a large amount of cash on the bar and paying a halfpenny for the drink. Betteridge then noticed that although King was carrying the coat over his arm, he was not very wet, and had presumably not been outside for long. Next, King asked if he could have a bed for the night. The landlady told him they had no rooms left, but perhaps he would find one available if he made enquiries from Mrs Pullen at the White Hart opposite. Leaving the bar, he took his beer over to some other patrons at a nearby table and offered it to them as he no longer wanted it. Next he offered to play anybody in the room at skittles, maybe in a half-hearted attempt to ingratiate himself with the regulars. However, Mr Betteridge intended to close shortly and said it was too late for any more games.
There were about five other customers left at this time. One was a young Frenchman, Charles Marriot, employed by a local blacksmith. He was sitting on his own when King went over to him, said he had no shelter for the night, and hoped to find somewhere to stay at Hanney, four miles north of Wantage. If Marriot would agree to accompany King on the journey, he would pay Marriot one shilling, but the latter took one look at King's bean hook and wisely declined the offer. Then King asked if Marriot would help him find another tavern for the night, to which he agreed.
They walked out of the inn at closing time into the dark, wet night, hurried past the White Hart, and found all the other inns were shut. Marriot must have taken pity on King, or possibly feared that to antagonize this man with his ferocious weapon would be asking for trouble, so he agreed to let him share a space for the night at a nearby stable in Back Street. King paid him 6d for the privilege, and proceeded to make Marriot pay dearly for it with a night of mumbling, thrashing about and threats to hang himself. Marriot was given little chance to sleep properly and must have considered the money well earned by the time morning came. King set off on the road to Hanney, stopping on the way to do some work at Court Farm.
Meanwhile, Ann Pullen's children were about to make the dreadful discovery of her headless body as they came downstairs to the kitchen at the White Hart. James and his friend Tom ran to fetch family and friends, who in turn fetched the police and the local surgeon, Henry Osmond. Word soon spread about what had happened, and villagers came to try and take a look at the macabre scene, while Constable Thomas Jackson attempted to keep them from interfering with the crime scene. Dr Osmond examined the body, and was sure that the beheading had been done by a single powerful blow from a sharp blade, severing the neck at the second vertebra. It had been carried out cleanly, not with an axe or a kitchen knife, but with an instrument with a finely-honed blade like a pea or bean hook, which would cut cleanly through the bone.
The coroner, Edward Cowcher, arrived about noon, after calling for a jury for an immediate inquest into the death. Accompanied by Thomas Goodlake, the county magistrate, they viewed the body and spoke with Dr Osmond. It did not take long for suspicion to fall on King, who had been seen by Tom Gregory as he entered the White Hart at about 9 p.m. the previous night. Others confirmed that between thirty and forty minutes later he was seen in the Blue Boar 'in an agitated state'. Two men were already implicated, King and Marriot, as they had been seen setting off together late the previous night from the Blue Boar.
King was apprehended that morning while he was working in the bean field. Mr Crane, a fellow labourer, asked King where his coat was. King said it was under a bean sheaf in the field where he had been working, and he volunteered to fetch it. Instead Crane went to collect it, and found it covered in blood, with a woman's purse containing 12s and a bent 6d piece inside. This was Ann Pullen's lucky sixpence, which she always carried around with her – though possession of it had sadly not been proof against the worst luck of all. King was formally arrested by Constable James Jones and taken into custody. Marriott was also apprehended as a suspect, but William Betteridge of the Blue Boar explained the connection between the men, and confirmed that they were not partners in crime. Marriot explained that King had offered him 6d to stay with him, and that King 'appeared to be in a fidget and said he was going to hang himself.'
Excerpted from Berkshire Murders by John Van der Kiste. Copyright © 2012 John Van der Kiste. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsAuthor's Note & Acknowledgements,
1. The Gibbet on Inkpen Hill Combe, 1676,
2. Murder on Market Day Caversham, 1722,
3. The White Hart Murder Wantage, 1833,
4. The Fatal Triangle Warfield, 1851,
5. The Mad Great-Uncle Maidenhead, 1852,
6. 'I can't think what I did it for' Wokingham, 1856,
7. 'I don't know what I'm about' Windsor, 1862,
8. Death of the Cook Family Windsor, 1864,
9. Found Drowned Reading, 1864,
10. 'I will do for you' Newbury, 1866,
11. The Policemen and the Poachers Hungerford, 1876,
12. The Butcher's Apprentice Slough, 1881,
13. The Coal Dealer and the Poacher Chalvey, 1888,
14. 'Hoping you will forgive me' Newbury, 1891,
15. Four Shots in the Evening Newbury, 1892,
16. 'Is it for ever, dear heart?' Reading, 1896,
17. The Notorious Mrs Dyer Reading, 1896,
18. 'You must go now, you must go' Eton, 1912,
19. 'They are the cause of this' Gallows Tree Common, near Pangbourne, 1922,
20. 'We cannot face life any longer' Maidenhead, 1929,
21. Death of a Tobacconist Reading, 1929,
22. The Body under the Bedding Maidenhead, 1932,
23. A Pair of Tweezers Winkfield, 1939,
24. 'I did not figure in such a murder' Maidenhead, 1948,
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