William Hope was not a character with a blameless record, and so it was perhaps inevitable that he would be the first person on whom blame for Mary’s death would fall.
He was a local – born in Ullingswick in 1833 to agricultural labourer George and his wife Ann, at their house at New Bridge, Ullingswick. He was well-known to the other villagers, evne lodging for a while with Mary and John Bevans.
But although he was known by name, face and family, this did not stop him abusing his neighbours. In 1850, he had broken into Mrs Skerrick’s house in the village, this being before her husband had died. He stole fowls from the house and was duly tried at the Hereford County Sessions of 30 December 1850.
He was found guilty of housbreaking and robbery, and was sentenced on the first offence to a week’s imprisonment, but for the second, was sentenced to be transported for seven years.
He never made it to Australia, but instead was sent to Millbank prison in Pimlico, London, which was designed as a ‘holding’ prison where prisoners would be kept before they were transported.
William, though, served a whole three years of his sentence at Millbank. This was usual by the 1860s, as transportation had greatly reduced, with most people being sentenced in this way simply serving a prison sentence.
He then obtained a ‘ticket-of-leave’ and returned to Herefordshire, but ‘resumed his old habits and associations’.
The press reported that he had since been convicted twice for various misdemeanours, including the use of threatening language, and had been twice imprisoned for 14 days. However, the records of the Trinity Quarter Sessions held at Hereford in July 1861 also show that a William Hope was convicted of assault on that date and sentenced to six months in prison.
By 1861, he had found lodgings with a sawyer, Mr Proper, at Ullingswick, but was dependent on occasional labouring odd jobs to maintain himself. He was well known for his regular drinking in the Ship Inn.
He was a stout, thick-necked, burly man, and the Victorian press, in its usual way, decided that ‘his physiognomy tends to a low estimate of his moral character.’ He was also described as ‘a man of known bad character’.
The press also noted that he had previously been in the army and the Herefordshire Militia, clearly associating his criminal nature with his involvement in the armed forces. [The Bristol Mercury, 18 April 1863].
This was not a new association; as Clive Emsley has noted, the armed forces in England have long had a negative image, being associated with complex images of masculinity relating to aggressiveness, drink and violence [Clive Emsley, ‘Soldier, Sailor, Beggarman, Thief: Crime and the British Armed Services since 1914’, Oxford, 2013, p.11]
In short, William Hope had all the characteristics of a Victorian baddie. He was working-class, a drifter, with a long criminal record. He was just as much a stereotype, as he was depicted in the press, as any Dickensian character.
The final part of the Ullingswick Murder: On trial for rape and murder, will be published tomorrow.