This week, I am writing about a notorious murder case that took place in rural Herefordshire in 1862. A post each day this week will look at a specific aspect of the case, taking in sex, the media, policing methods, and debates around public hangings.
On Thursday 23 October 1862, an inquest was held at the Prince of Wales Inn, Hereford, before Nicholas Lanwarne, the county coroner, on the body of 16 year old Mary Corbett.
Described as ‘a remarkable specimen of the ruddy-complexioned damsels of Herefordshire’, Mary was a native of Ullingswick, a small village six miles south of Bromyard in Herefordshire.
Since she was 14, she had been employed as the live-in servant of a local widow named Elizabeth Skerrett, who had found her to be a ‘very good little girl’. Elizabeth was a respected member of the community, who on her husband’s death had taken over his farm, The Gobbets, in the village.
On 20 October, about 8pm, 70-year-old Mrs Skerrett had sent Mary to the Drainers’ Arms, also known as the Half-way House, about 300 yards away, to ask the owner, Mrs Bevan, for some candles, pins and beer.
Mary duly arrived there a few minutes later. Mary Bevan, who was married to drainer John Bevan – presumably the reason why her beershop was known as the Drainers’ Arms – also kept a grocer’s shop, which was attached to her beer house, and knew Mary Corbett from previous errands.
To go to the shop, like any customer, she had to walk through the kitchen, where the beer was sold and supped. There that night were William Hope and John Prosser. The latter was asleep, but Hope, who was already tipsy, asked young Mary if she would like to have some beer with him.
Reports conflict over whether she did have some; one earlier report stated that she replied, “I do not want any tonight,” and left, flurried by the request. A later report stated that she had a quick glass of beer but then left.
On reaching Mrs Skerritt’s house, they realised that she had forgotten to get the candles, and at around 9.30 or 9.45pm – Mrs Skerritt was later confused about the time, as she said her clock was fast – Mary was asked to return to the shop and get the needed three candles.
Mary duly trotted off again, and on reaching Mrs Bevan’s, was again asked by Hope if she would have a drink. Mary refused; Hope ignored her and poured her a glass. Mary again refused to drink, bought the candles, and left the shop, apparently at ‘a bit of a run’, as the night was now dark and stormy. Hope, leaving a half-full jug of beer, got up and left immediately after, without saying anything to. Mrs Bevan.
Mrs Skerrett saw Mary as akin to a daughter; when she did not return home, she waited up for her till four o’clock the next morning – but she never came home.
Earlier that evening, Mrs Skerrett’s son Herbert, who still lived at home, had come home from Bromyard about 7.30pm and, after a spell at home, went off to Mrs Bevan’s about 9.30pm to fetch half a gallon of beer to take back to his mother’s.
Herbert stayed ten minutes, noting the sleeping Prosser and William Hope drinking. He also noted a pail of turnips at the end of the room, with a cord attached to it. On leaving the Half-way House, he saw Mary Corbett on her errand – but she did not say what errand she was on.
That night, Herbert stayed up until 3am. By midnight, worried about Mary, he traversed the hosue with a candle and lantern, to seeing if she was hiding anywhere. He did the same at 2am, but heard and saw nothing.
But someone else DID hear something. Richard Mapp, a labourer, lived about 100 yards from Mrs Bevan’s. He had done to bed about 10pm, and immediately after getting into bed, he heard two screams.
He got out of bed, ran to the window, and heard a female voice, in distress, calling out, “Oh! Oh dear!” He opened the window and listened for about ten minutes, but heard nothing else. It was very windy that night, and he struggled to hear anything other than the wind.
William Hope did not come back to his lodgings that night. Nobody heard anything of him, either, until the next day.
Part 2: Local policing, forensics and the discovery of the body will be published tomorrow.