“The Home Secretary has issued orders for the execution of Bucknell, convicted at the late Somerset Assizes of the brutal murder of his aged grandfather and grandmother, at Creech St Michael’s, to take place at Taunton Gaol, on Thursday morning next, the 26th instant.
“The wretched criminal, it is said, appears extremely callous, and to have no conception of the enormity of his guilt.
“He is respectful to the reverend chaplain, but seems rather to tolerate than wish for his spiritual consolation and assistance.”
Liverpool Mercury, 23 August 1858
21-year-old John Baker Bucknell was executed at Taunton on 26 August. He had been convicted of housebreaking in March 1857 and given a 10 month gaol sentence.
The following year, he was convicted of murdering innkeeper John Bucknell, aged 72, and his wife Betsy, 74. He was described by the Taunton Courier of 11 August 1858 as an “unfortunate young man”.
Look at a criminal broadside from the 19th century. There are the drawings – generic depictions of people hanging, of gaols, of crowds, together with more personalised portraits of the murderer, or the victim.
There is the text – the melodramatic, overly detailed, story of the crime, the penitence of the murderer before he or she is dropped into oblivion.
These are the forerunner of the tabloid newspaper; designed to be bought, read, thrown away.
But now they are in museums, sold in auctions, a historical artefact. The individuals that are written about in these broadsides are somehow lost to us in the present. They are abstract, viewed from a historical distance, fictionalised by their broadside-producing contemporaries.
I own a broadside – and admit to being fascinated by the stories they tell and how they tell them. But can I build a picture of real people, living ordinary lives, from the dramatised story presented on this sheet of paper?
My broadside is from 1841. It relates to the execution of Robert Blakesley after being found guilty of the murder of James Burdon in the City of London.
It’s not the only broadside produced about Blakesley; the British Library has written about one it holds, which was produced prior to Blakesley’s trial, at his first committal hearing. That broadside assumed his guilty even though he had not yet been tried.
Blakesley was found guilty of stabbing James Burdon, landlord of the King’s Head in Eastcheap. He was depicted as mentally ill, a man who regularly abused and assaulted his wife.
The British Library states that Blakesley had tried to stab his wife; when challenged by Burdon, his brother-in-law, after “months of marital strife”, he stabbed him. Burdon died; Sarah Blakesley miscarried her baby, it was said, and died some time later.
Blakesley had been arrested in September 1841, was tried at the Old Bailey on 25 October 1841 and executed on 15 November.
Yet on the night of 6 June 1841, when the census was taken, a more domestic, peaceful scene was suggested.
At Eastcheap, James Burdon, aged 35, was listed as the head of his household. He was living with his wife Eliza, and their four-year-old son James. Also with the Burdons were Eliza’s widowed mother, Ann Adkins, and her sister Sarah, still unmarried and aged 25.
Also at the premises was Robert Blakesley, listed as a 25-year-old cattle dealer (he was actually 27, the 1841 census often rounding up or down to the nearest five years).
Robert was accepted as part of the Adkins family, and he married Sarah exactly three weeks after the census was taken – at St Stephen Walbrook church on 27 June 1841. Their witnesses were James and Eliza Burdon.
Robert and Sarah were only married for three months before the murder occurred.
Eliza Burdon gave evidence at Blakesley’s trial. She painted a similarly domestic scene to the census; on the evening of 21 September 1841, a Tuesday, she had been in the King’s Head bar with her sister Sarah. James Burdon was fast asleep at the end of the bar, his back against the window.
At 10.05pm, Blakesley walked in, “sprang” at Sarah and stabbed her in her right side, saying, “My wife or her life”, before turning around and stabbing James to death while he slept*.
The cosy domestic scene in the family pub was subverted by this sudden, unexpected, act of violence committed by one who had only recently been welcomed into this family environment.
Worse still, he had killed a man who was sleeping peacefully at the end of a long day working to maintain that family.
Blakesley’s own family were called on to testify at his trial. His father James, a respectable cloth factor based in the City, and a member of the Blackwell Hall, stated that his son had been brought up in his “establishment”, but that after a serious illness when aged about five, he had suffered from fits and been anti-social, struggling to make friends and interact with people.
Robert was sent away to school at the age of eight. The saddest part of his father’s testimony was his description of going to watch his son at school, through a blind in the schoolmaster’s room:
“I was sent for by the schoolmaster, to see how my son would stand by the wall when the other children were at play. I looked through the blind, and I saw him stand there for, I think, half an hour, while the children were all frolicsome and at play together.”
It conjures up an image of a lonely boy, different from others his age, and unable to connect with them.
His father removed him from school at the age of 13, to come and work for him; but Robert disappeared frequently, and when he returned seemed not to know where he had been, or what he had done.
His father explained:
“I have seen him agitated, some scores of times, his eyes starting and his lips quivering, and I have said, ‘Halloo, Robert! What are you about?’ He has looked and said, ‘Oh papa! Nothing particular.'”
This was a man whose older brother, on whose the family’s hopes rested, had died at the age of 20. He had the pressure of his parents now on him, and seems unable to cope with it. Yet his father clearly loved him very much, and refused to get him sent to an asylum because he did not think his son was “vicious”.
His sudden attack on his wife and his brother-in-law were an extension of his disappearances and fits of insensibility at home. Somewhere in there was still the lonely boy wondering how to fit in and always remaining on the outside.
He destroyed the family who had let him join them, and destroyed the hopes of his loving father in the process.
Yet the criminal broadsides produced after his death, and the carrying out of the death sentence, do not let the 21st century reader picture Robert as a three-dimensional man – the 27-year-old with a long history of emotional problems who, another witness said, was “on terms of the greatest affection with every member” of his family.
For a bit of insight into Robert’s complex character, other historical sources have to be studied and compared. His father’s shocked, but loving, testimony at his son’s trial, and the domesticity presented in the census return, conjures up a real man, rather than a criminal caricature.
* The British Library refers to Sarah dying of her wounds several weeks after James Burdon’s death. Although the Old Bailey states that she was stabbed in her side, and she did not appear as a witness, neither can I find evidence for her death.
Agnes, aged 27, was appearing in the Divorce Court, seeking the end of her marriage on the grounds that her husband already had a wife living.
She had married just two years earlier, to a 39-year-old baronet named Greville Louis John Temple – the couple marrying on 8 March 1897 at St Peter’s, Pimlico.
However, a year later, in August 1898, a court case was heard in New York. A woman named Estelle Wassall was seeking a divorce – from Greville Louis John Temple.
Estelle had married Greville Temple in 1895, but three years later, he had confessed to her that he had since married Agnes in London.
Agnes too sought a divorce, filing the papers on 3 March 1899. Greville Temple failed to appear at the Central Criminal Court to defend himself, and Agnes was duly awarded a decree nisi.
Why did Greville fail to defend himself? There was good reason. On 20 June 1898, Greville had been convicted of bigamy at the Central Criminal Court, after Estelle’s case had been heard in the States.
Greville was given a harsh punishment – he was sentenced to five years’ penal servitude (at a time when others convicted of the same offence were more likely to receive six months).
He was therefore already in prison when Agnes sought the divorce from him, his conviction providing her with a clear-cut case.
It also turned out that in addition to being a bit of a cad when it came to marriage, the bigamist was also anything but a baronet. The grand Greville Louis John Temple was actually William Woodman Runcieman, a chancer from Chelsea.
Born there in 1858, he was the son of a Welsh commercial traveller, and named for his father, his middle name being his mother’s maiden name.
He spent his early childhood in Ewell in Surrey, before being sent to stay with his uncle, an army schoolmaster, at the Royal Military Asylum of Children of Soldiers in the Regular Army, back in Chelsea. He was educated there, under his uncle’s supervision.
Runcieman is not to be found in the 1881 census; the next time he appears in the archives is in April 1889.
He was convicted at the Oxfordshire Easter Quarter Sessions of obtaining an endorsement to a cheque by false pretences – with an additional charge of larceny not proceeded with – and was sentenced to five years’ penal servitude.
He served his sentence in Dorset, at Her Majesty’s Convict Prison in Portland, where he was listed as a convict in 1891.
Therefore, when he was convicted of bigamy, his earlier conviction was considered and he was given a harsher sentence as a previous offender.
Agnes’s decree nisi granted on 12 June 1899 and the final decree on 22 January 1900.
She may have had reason to want to divorce Runcieman quickly, for as soon as the final decree was issued, she married again.
Conned by a man who said he was a baronet, Agnes’s second husband made no such claims.
Meanwhile, William Runcieman continued to live a life not suitable for a baronet – this time, in the confines of Dartmoor prison.
Sources: The Era, 17 June 1899; Old Bailey Online, trial of William Woodman Runcieman, bigamy, 20 June 1898 (t-18980620-426). 1871 census, 1891 census, 1901 census and Oxfordshire Quarter Sessions register (Easter sessions, 1889) via Ancestry.
The former policeman, Samuel Stephens, who was now working as a labourer, accused Conliffe Mill proprietor Mr Dollard of having a goat that Stephens swore had been stolen from him some three years earlier.
Magistrate Captain Cottingham noted that the case had been held over from a previous day in order for someone to be called to prove the age of the goat.
Stephens stated that his goat was around seven years old, whereas Dollard argued that HIS goat was only four.
In evidence, Stephens told the magistrate that in mid 1836, three goats had been stolen from him, and that he had received information that they had been stolen by a man and woman who lived in Spring Gardens.
When he had tracked down the couple, the woman said the goat was hers; but when asked where she had got it from, she burst into tears, and said she had bought it from a man in Dalkey about five weeks earlier.
Stephens said he was sure it was his goat; it had a white face, black neck and white sides.
The case got somewhat derailed by the defendant’s counsel’s curiosity about why Stephens had left the police.
“Did you like the service?”
“Did the service like you?”
“Certainly it did.”
“Then if you liked the service, and the service was equally fond of you, what was the cause of your leaving it and becoming a labourer?”
“I left it to go to a gentleman.”
“Will you swear you were not dismissed?”
“I left the police to go to a gentleman, I tell you.”
“Come, Sir, by virtue of your oath, were you not dismissed from the police?”
Stephens appealed to Captain Cottingham,
“Am I bound to answer the question?”
The defendant’s counsel, Mr Cantwell, then asked,
“Now, again, I ask you, and you must answer the question, were you not dismissed from the police?”
“Yes, I was.”
Further examination revealed that Stephens had been dismissed from the police for assaulted a man on the Naas Road.
His reputation for honesty somewhat damaged, he then detailed how he had bought the goats some three years before their theft.
One of the goats had been a kid then, and Stephens had paid half a crown for him. That was the goat he swore that Dollard had taken.
Mr Cantwell asked,
“Did you know the goat by any other marks than those you have described?”
An exasperated Stephens responded,
“Oh, it’s all a humbug! The goat is mine!”
“I quite agree with you that it is a humbug,” Cantwell replied.
A witness was then called, Laurence Brangan, who had given a kid to a Miss Connolly – and he thought this was the same goat that Dollard now had.
Then a Mr McLoghen was called, who said he was the man who had given a kid to Laurence Brangan, who had then given it to Miss Connolly… But he could not say that this goat was the same as that kid.
“Why, this gentleman’s evidence is of no value to anyone!” spluttered the magistrate. “He is not able to prove the identity!”
McLoghen was recalled. “Is it four or three years since you gave the kid to Mr Brangan?” asked the magistrate.
McLoghen was vague. “It is either three or four years since I gave it, but I cannot say which.”
Mr Cantwell complained that McLoghen was being given harder questions than Stephens had. McLoghen suddenly got his memory back, and said that the goat had been given three years earlier, not four.
Then Thomas Connelly of Dalkey was called, to state that Miss Connolly, his sister, had given him a goat the previous winter to keep on his land until the summer.
But in June 1838, McLoghen’s sister had asked Connolly to give the goat to Dollard’s wife as a present, and the goat was duly sent there.
Mr Cantwell believed that this convoluted evidence of multiple ownership made the case clear; but Cottingham, the magistrate, understandably remained confused. Again, he commented that he would like someone to tell him how old the goat was.
Now, for some reason, Stephens called a witness, called Larkin, ostensibly to prove that three years ago, Stephens had owned three goats.
Unfortunately for Stephens, though, Larkin, on being examined, couldn’t describe any of the goats to the magistrate.
And then, “a great deal of time” was spent “endeavouring to get somebody who could judge the age of a goat” – but nobody could be found.
Captain Cottingham, by now at the end of his – ahem – tether, announced his intention to dismiss the case. “I believe that Stephens is under the conscientious impression that the goat is his property, but it must be a mistake on his part.”
Stephens was not prepared to let this lie. “Oh! It is no mistake!” he exclaimed. “The goat is mine!”
The case looked like it would now have no speedy resolution, with both sides continuing to lock horns (sorry) over the age of a goat.
Source: Freeman’s Journal, Dublin, 19 September 1839
This tantalisingly brief piece in the Preston Guardian of 14 March 1846 caught my attention as I was searching for something else.
The relative lack of detail made me wonder if it was a fictional piece – the Victorian press were not strangers to making up the odd story, or embellishing the basics of a true one to make a better piece.
A woman gnawing her baby to death? Surely not.
But then I searched a bit more, and realised that this was, sadly, only too true (although a few parts of the Preston Guardian‘s story are incorrect, or based on later events).
It was a tale of poverty, and of a woman driven literally mad by the effects of childbirth.
Mary Ann Dinah King, the woman in question, was a mother of three. She was born in December 1822 at Union Street in Lambeth, the daughter of Joseph Lyons, a hawker, and his wife Amelia.
On 16 March 1841, aged 18, she married John King at St Mary’s in Lambeth. She had not been known to have any mental issues until she gave birth to her first child, and, within a short period of time, had become pregnant with twins.
By the beginning of 1846, Mary Ann was living at her parents’ house on Chester Street in Kennington – her husband absent or dead.
On 24 January 1846, she gave birth there, to a boy and a girl, both healthy. She named them James and Catherine Mary Ann. All three appeared to be doing well, until the evening of 31 January.
Mary Ann had been in bed at her parents’ house that night, when she suddenly started up, grabbed the little boy, and beat him around the head.
Her mother, Amelia Lyons, ran to her, but by the time she got to the baby, Mary Ann had started to bite at his face. Blood was pouring from little James’s head.
Amelia screamed for her husband, Joseph, who ran up to the room, but by this point, Mary Ann had chewed through James’s nose and cheek. She was leaning on her son, her mouth still attached to his face, and would not let go until her father pinched her nose tightly and she had to breathe.
James was covered in blood. Mary Ann’s face and mouth were smeared with it. The shock and horror that Mary Ann’s parents – little James’s grandparents – must have felt is clear.
Amazingly, James survived for nearly a month, gradually becoming weak and exhausted, before dying on 25 February.
A coroner’s inquest was held at the Fountain Tavern on Walworth Road in Kennington at the beginning of March, where the coroner, William Carter, and 14 local householders gathered to hear the horrifying story.
The householders returned a verdict of wilful murder against Mary Ann. She, meanwhile, had, since the attack, been committed to the lunatic ward of the parish workhouse*.
She was indicted for trial at the Central Criminal Court, but when her case was held on 2 April, the jury found that she was clearly unfit to plead, being of unsound mind.
The brief details of Mary Ann’s case, taken from the Old Bailey Proceedings.
What happened to Mary Ann afterwards? It does not appear that she regained her senses; her actions were those of a woman who had lost contact with reality and it is hard to see how she could come back from that awful night.
- Details found via Free BMD, Ancestry.co.uk, Preston Guardian and The Era.
- * One report stated that Mary Ann was in the lunatic ward of Newington workhouse, but she was living at her parents’ house in Kennington, which came under the Lambeth Poor Law Union, rather than the Newington PLU, and so it is possible she was actually sent there.
- Mary Ann’s oldest child, not mentioned by name in press reports, may have been Amelia, born in Lambeth early in 1842.
William Swaine was a Hertfordshire farmer, who had grown accustomed to the help of his young niece around his Stevenage farm.
She had been living with his family since she was two and a half, and he looked on her as his own child. This young girl, Matilda Winters, spent her days looking after the farmhouse whilst her uncle farmed.
Living down the road was the Brown family. Young master Brown lived with his parents, and they all got on well with Farmer Swaine.
The farmer noticed that Brown got on particularly well with Matilda, but thought nothing of it; he supposed “that a man at his time of life was not likely to take advantage of the confidence that was placed in him.”
Unfortunately for William Swaine, his faith was misplaced. Matilda was a good looking girl, who looked younger than her age. Although Brown had known her since she was a child, he now professed the “greatest affection” for her.
At Christmas time in 1867, when Matilda was just 16, Brown seduced her in the farm stable. Her wrote her letters, addressing her as his “dear little sweetheart”, and on Valentine’s Day, 1868, he sent her a romantic poem.
The relationship continued, in secret, until February 1870, when Matilda realised she was pregnant.
She asked Brown was she was to do, and he gave her a prescription for an abortifacent, accompanying her to a chemist in Hitchin, where the prescription was made up – but the “medicine” tasted so horrid that Matilda was unable to drink more than one bottle of it.
Brown asked her for the one unopened bottle back; when she refused and asked why he wanted it, he replied, “it might be useful to some other girl.”
The pregnancy continued. Matilda’s uncle grew suspicious only when she reached seven or eight months pregnant, and when questioning her, she at first refused to say who the father was. Eventually she admitted it was their neighbour – to her uncle’s shock.
Swaine immediately called Brown to him, and told him he knew that Matilda was pregnant. Brown admitted that he had slept with Matilda, but attempted to blacken the young woman’s name, stating that “others had done the same”.
Swaine saaid that the only way for Brown to “restore his niece’s character” was to marry her. Brown refused but said he would be willing to give her an allowance of 10 shillings a week as long as he did not have to live with her.
Swaine, horrified at Brown’s allegations of Matilda’s sexual misconduct with other boys, ordered Brown to leave his house.
Matilda gave birth to her daughter on 15 November 1870. She named her Cecilia Angelina Brown Winters, her child’s second name being her seducer’s surname. Her friends approached Brown and asked him to marry her, as he had previously promised to do, but he continued to refuse.
Accordingly, William Swaine took him to the Hertford Assizes in March 1871, ostensibly to “recover damages for the loss of the services of his niece, on account of her seduction”.
This was as a seduced woman could not bring a case herself – William brought one as Matilda’s de facto father, with this “parent/child” relationship being seen as akin to a master/servant one. This was unlike a breach of promise case, where the injured party was required to bring the action herself.
William sought £2,000 (the equivalent of over £90,000 today) from Brown.
Matilda stood in court and claimed that Brown had bought her presents, including a watch, a locket, and a work-box. She thought he had intended to marry her, and denied that she had ever “been guilty of any impropriety” with some other local boys named in court.
Swaine was told that he could not prove that he had lost Matilda’s services as a result of her seduction, as he had instigated the case before she had given birth.
The Lord Chief Justice then criticised Swaine for bringing a case prematurely, suggesting that the farmer and Brown could have come to “some arrangement” that would have removed the need of further litigation.
But after debate between the defence and the prosecution counsels, Brown stated that he would agree to pay Sweyne compensation of £750 (just under £3,500 today), and the verdict was accordingly recorded.
Four years after the court case, Matilda wed a Luton-born butcher named George Ellerd Davis. George had not had a straightforward start to his sexual life either. He had become a husband at 21, on marrying Phoebe Horley, and a widower at 22.
Matilda and George lived in various places in Hertfordshire, Middlesex and Bedfordshire, having several sons together.
But there was a twist in this tale. Matilda died in 1898, aged 46. Her widower, George, had, within weeks, remarried.
The speed with which he remarried was one thing. But his choice of wife was even more unexpected – he wed his illegitimate stepdaughter, Cecilia, who was 18 years his junior.
They married on 2 November 1898 in Islington, a place where they had no links, presumably to avoid gossip from those they knew. Yet in 1901, they were living at Moorfield House, Fishers Green – back in Stevenage.
Perhaps they thought nobody there would remember the circumstances of Cecilia’s birth 30 years earlier, but one person would have. William Swaine was still alive and lived in Stevenage for another eight years until he died aged 88.
Cecilia also died, on 18 June 1908, after less than ten years of marriage, and aged only 37. She and her mother Matilda both had children by George Davis; Cecilia’s son Hector was left without a mother at the age of six.
George again lost little time in finding another wife – his fourth – although at least this time, she does not appear to have been a member of the Winters family.
But there appears to have been doubt, after Cecilia’s death, as to whether she and George were even legally married.
Probate was not issued until 21 years after her death, which found her effects to be worth over £2,000. Her name was listed in the probate calendar as “Cecilia Angelina Brown Winters, otherwise Cecilia Davis”.
An 1846 Isle of Man case had argued that marriage between another stepfather and stepfather was “incestuous intercourse”, and stated that canon law prohibited a man from marrying his late wife’s daughter – this was ruled to be “affinity”.
However, in the Isle of Man case, because the man and woman had been lawfully married under licence, the marriage could not be “put aside”.
Cecilia and George had also been married legally, by licence. It seems that when probate was finally granted to George, in 1929, long after he had married for the fourth time, that a similar conclusion was reached as in the 1846 case.
The decision closed the door on one family’s complex relationships – a teenage seduction, illegitimate child, multiple marriages and that contested, secret marriage to a stepchild. Who knew Stevenage’s history was so interesting?!
Sources: The Morning Post, 3 March 1871, page 7, “Promises Broken: Courtship, Class, and Gender in Victorian England” by Ginger S. Frost (University of Virginia Press, 1995), Ancestry.co.uk.
Last month, I visited Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, and it had quite an effect on me.
Unlike many sanitised dark tourism sites, Kilmainham remains a forbidding site.
The first thing to mention about it is the cold. Little effort has been made to bring it into the 21st century with heating, or decent lighting, or any mod cons.
Apart from the museum – which is a fascinating place, well designed and with so much information that you can spend hours there – the place is firmly set in the past.
You can imagine the lives of the prisoners who once spent their days and nights there; the men crammed in their small cells, the women and children bedding down on straw in the corridors, under open, unglazed windows – at the mercy of the Irish weather.
This was once, in the late eighteenth century, home primarily to debtors, who made up over 50 per cent of prisoners. But it was also home to petty thieves, drunks, and prostitutes. Men and women were held together, in spaces designed for far fewer.
Window glass was not brought to the site until the late 1840s – until then, how many people must have died after failing to get adequate warmth within the confines of the gaol?
The prison became home to these poor people, with up to five sharing a cell designed for one. At least, now, they had a roof over their heads and regular food and drink.
Kilmainham is, of course, mainly associated with political prisoners. The instigators of the Easter Rising of 1916 were brought here, and executed in the yard.
Today, a cross marks the spot where all but one of these men faced the firing squad (the other, James Connolly, was so ill, he had to be constrained in a chair and killed near the gate where he had been brought in, unable to walk to the traditional execution spot).
You can only visit Kilmainham as part of a guided tour, and even as part of a group, it feels dark, claustrophobic and intimidating walking its corridors and looking at the cell doors behind which so many prisoners languished.
But for that reason, it is well worth a visit. It brings to life how awful prison life was, up there on Gallows Hill, rather than attempting to be a tourism “experience” with costumed guides and garish souvenirs.