“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”.
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
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.
“I was a witness of the execution at Horsemonger-lane…The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it, faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks and language, of the assembled spectators…
“When the day dawned, thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians and vagabonds of every kind, flocked onto the ground, with every variety of offensive and foul behaviour.
“Fightings, faintings, whistling, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general entertainment.
“Nothing that ingenuity could devise to be done in this city, in the same compass of time, could work such ruin as one public execution, and I stand astounded and appalled by the wickedness it exhibits.”
Charles Dickens, 18 November 1849
Not a crime story, but I liked this Valentine’s story from 1871, so thought I’d share it:
“On the evening before St Valentine’s Day, there was an immense increase of labour in the inland branch of the Post Office, which was met partly by the employment of an extra number of men and partly by extra exertion of the regular hands, who were paid an additional shilling for coming an hour earlier than their usual time.
“The ordinary force of 350 sorters was made up to 500, by the enlistment of men who were off duty in their own right, and of others from the Dead Letter Office.
“The number of valentines despatched on Monday evening from the General Post Office was 250,000 more were received the same night and on the morning of St Valentine’s Day, for despatch by the day mails.”
The Derby Mercury, 22 February 1871 (who in turn had lifted their story from the Globe).
This is part two of my retelling of the Hall Green Tragedy of 1895. For part one, see here.
It was not until the day after the deaths that the bodies were identified, after police found an address in Edward’s pocket.
His wife was brought to formally identify the bodies as those of her husband and her eldest daughter by her first husband. It was noted that ‘the distress and horror of the poor woman were most painful to witness’.
Carrie’s body was initially taken to the local pub, the Mermaid Inn, on Stratford Road, but later, both her body and that of Edward Birch were removed to the undertakers. Here, scandal ensued.
The undertaker unscrupulously allowed spectators to view the bodies on payment of a penny each admission fee.
The result was that his premises were ‘crowded with morbid sightseers’ all weekend, with women seen shaking their fists in Edward Birch’s dead face and shouting ‘May you go straight to hell!’.
The negative publicity this resulted in led to the undertaker promising to donate all money paid to Mrs Birch, but this did not lessen the views of other locals that this had been an ‘unedifying’, ‘repulsive’, spectacle.
Carrie’s inquest was held first, at the Mermaid Inn, with AH Hebbert, deputy coroner for North Worcestershire, presiding. Here, the verdict of wilful murder against Edward Birch was recorded, despite the couple appearing to have made a pact together to die.
The deputy coroner summed up by saying, ‘the extraordinary part of the case was that the girl consented to die’ but that if two persons agreed to kill themselves, but one of them survived, the survivor would be guilty of murder.
The jury expressed ‘strong dissatisfaction’ with how the bodies had been ‘housed’ – and the subsequent scandal – and ‘hoped it would not be long before a proper police-station, mortuary and ambulance’ was provided in Sparkhill.
Meanwhile, a search had been carried out in the family home, and police found several letters written by Birch. One read:
“E Birch, 59 Upper Highgate Street, Highgate, Birmingham. Nov 8th 1894. This is to shew that I will not be bested I worned her 12 mounths ago she dou in May 5th 1894 what she ourt not to… she as deceived me agin & when I get in drink it plays on my mind and I make the best of myself Ive taken her out & to places of amusement and then she will be after the men & in September last I give hir lef to go Sunday school and church if she be in by 9 and then she goes of with to fellers in the Ram till after 10 at night round the Mosley fields coaved with muck and paint… She is not my own child and this is the reason when I tell hir about it the mouther takes hir part and incurges hir in it. So this is the end of it.”
The next letter, sent to his parents in Wolverhampton on 5 January, stated:
“Dont put yourself about me of what you see and hear, I care for nothing as they ave brought it all on themselves. Emmer knows what I sed about genney when I was out of work being with that grieves till 1 o’clock in the morning as I keept from starving so long in 1893. So this makes to I have to keep of other mens kids and Calley is as bad…and have soon put her in trouble and this is the way out of it the Job is worse for me than hir as I shall go throw the same and no it tell the fokes to have mutch to say of this afair on either sides to envest into ther own life and they will no dout find soom black spots that will take a robbing out.”
An inquest on Edward Birch was held on 15 January at the Victoria Courts in Birmingham, before city coroner Oliver Pemberton. Here, Mrs Birch repeated the evidence that she had given at her daughter’s inquest, detailing the ‘painful relationship’ between her relatives.
At a small china teacup, which had the words ‘A present from Birmingham’ inscribed in gold round it, being produced, she burst into sobs – ‘it was given to me by my daughter on my 32nd birthday.’
Carrie’s younger sister Lilly, then aged around eight, then had to give evidence, followed by two of Birch’s colleagues at Messrs Lowe’s iron foundry in Upper Trinity Street. They noted that although quiet and intelligent as a worker, he was something of a drinker, and had been summoned before the courts recently for not sending one of his children to school.
The coroner stated that the dead man had ‘turned from the conduct of the parent and behaved in a manner almost impossible to describe.’ He went further; Birch was a ‘profoundly wicked man’, and he encouraged the jury to return a verdict of felo de se – that Birch had ‘feloniously, wilfully, and of malice aforethought did kill and murder himself’. The jury duly did so.
The funeral of Carrie Jones took place at Yardley Cemetery on the Monday morning. The funeral procession left her mother’s house at 59 Upper Highgate Street at 9.30am with the service taking place at 11am.
How did Mrs Birch cope with this double betrayal by her husband and daughter, followed by the double deaths and the publicity the events received?
Understandably, the press reported that she was ‘utterly prostrated, both mentally and physically’, to the extent of being unable to maintain either herself or her six other children, the youngest being only a few months old. In her lowest moments, but the community did not stigmatise her, instead rallying around her.
The jury had stated at Birch’s inquest that they expressed ‘deep sympathy’ for Mrs Birch, and collected money for her from each of the jurors at the end of the inquest. The coroner encouraged all the onlookers at the court to do the same.
Joseph Lock was appointed by the community to collect money on behalf of the Birch family, writing in the press that ‘any sums, however small’ would be welcome to help maintain the family as it would be ‘weeks, probably months’ before Mrs Birch was able to resume family life.
Another man, William L Sheffield, responded in the press that ‘the unfortunate woman Mrs Birch deserves some little help, and I shall be happy to contribute’, and others sent postal orders directly to the newspapers, asking for them to be forwarded on.
Selina Birch survived the ordeal, although life continued to be tough for her. She stayed in the Upper Highgate Street area for the next decade.
She worked as a laundress to maintain her children, and seems to have had at least two illegitimate children following Edward’s death – Jessie was born in 1898 and Lizzie in 1906.
In 1911, living at 6 Beales Buildings, Frank Street, in Balsall Heath, she stated that she was a widow with nine children, of whom two had died.
Significantly, though, despite being a widow, she wrote that her ‘present marriage’ had so far lasted 30 years, suggesting that she still saw Edward Birch very much as her husband.
Selina J Birch died in Birmingham in 1939, shortly before the start of the Second World War, aged 79 – having long outlived her unfaithful husband and naïve daughter.
The Standard, 9 January 1895, p.3; Nottinghamshire Guardian, 12 January 1895, p.8; Birmingham Daily Post, 12 January 1895; The Derby Mercury, 16 Jan 1895; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 20 January 1895; Ancestry, The Genealogist.
I was intrigued to see Justin Pollard‘s feature on the history of Bonfire Night on the BBC History website – and, more particularly, his mention of how Guildford magistrates were targeted by Bonfire Night pranksters in Victorian times. Magistrates being the subject of my PhD, I thought I’d investigate further.
On 21 November 1863, there was a riot in Guildford, resulting in the loss or destruction of a substantial amount of property.
The riot was a result of Bonfire Night celebrations – or rather, as the result of NOT celebrating. It emerged that certain local residents, and particularly one local magistrate, were hostile to residents celebrating the night, and had ordered that the usual demonstrations on 5 November should not take place.
This was a class issue; the press reported that the festivities were normally participated in by ‘certain classes in the town and neighbourhood’, whereas the objectors were ‘gentlemen’.
A troop of soldiers from Aldershot were ordered to come and protect the town; they did so, and the Bonfire Night activities did not take place. Bad feeling, though, rose instead.
The soldiers left Guildford on 19 November, and the townspeople started making plans. This had been predicted; many people had argued that:
‘as soon as the soldiers were withdrawn, the “guys” would come out.” 
At 11.30pm on 21 November, a group of men dressed as Guy Fawkes, carrying fireworks and bludgeons, assembled just outside the town at Stoke’s Fields.
They made their way down the Stoke Road to the houses of Mr Impey and Mr Bowyer, two special constables, and promptly smashed all their windows – a common means in the 17th and 18th centuries of making a political disagreement known, or to intimidate an individual .
The group – which had now become a large ‘mob’ – then marched towards Guildford, comprehensively destroying the exterior of a shop belonging to linen draper Mr Weale. His shop was said to have been targeted because it was situated just yards from where the town’s bonfire had traditionally been lit.
But there was another reason that Weale was targeted. He was probably Joseph Weale, described in the census two years earlier as a silk mercer based on Guildford High Street. Joseph Weale was also a magistrate – and is likely to have had a key role in the original banning of the bonfire.
His shutters, Venetian blinds, were destroyed, as were his plate-glass shop front and upper windows. Fireworks were then fired into the shop, and the damage was estimated at around £200, or around £8,600 today.
65-year-old Henry Piper was next in line. He was the chief magistrate of the borough, as well as being a former town mayor, and was, like Joseph Weale, deemed responsible for the ban on bonfire festivities.
After refusing to pay a ‘bribe’, and pleading to be spared as his wife was recovering from an illness, he found his house on Merrow Road in Stoke treated in a similar way. His front door was smashed in, and all the windows destroyed.
His house was only saved from being burnt to the ground by the speedy actions of his servants and neighbours, who ran round with buckets of water.
Meanwhile, another group, comprising special constables and volunteers, some fro the 24th Surrey Rifles, had assembled, ringing the town hall bell to raise other people to help them.
One constable, by the name of Sutton, was severely beaten by the rioters, although the press implied that it was his own fault for watching whilst the mob attacked Mr Weale’s shop, without doing anything to prevent it.
After the mob had done as much damage as they could to Mr Piper’s house, they dispersed back into the night, throwing their bludgeons and disguises into the street as they ran.
Three days later, none of them had been captured or even identified, although one newspaper argued that as they were ‘very well known’ in the town, they would soon be:
‘brought before the magistrates, and large rewards will be offered for the discovery and conviction of any other ringleaders.’ 
In the meantime, reported the press,
‘Guildford continues in a state of the greatest alarm and excitement.’ 
Even into the 21st century, there has been discussion about whether to ban Bonfire Night celebrations (see here and here, for example) – but the experience of the Surrey magistrates 150-odd years ago shows that it wouldn’t go down very well…
1: The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, 24 November 1863
2: Robert Shoemaker, The London Mob: Violence and Disorder in Eighteenth Century England (A&C Black, 2004), 122
3: The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, 24 November 1863
4: The Leeds Mercury, 24 November 1863