Murder on the Watling Street

Road travel was quite unsafe in the 18th century. Apart from accidents, there was the ever present risk of robbery. Despite the romance of legend, highway robbery was a thuggish activity, as these reports show.

Northampton Mercury October 1st 1774

On Thursday last, about six in the Morning, was found in the High Road between Shenly and Stony Stratford by two Men going to Work, the Body of one James Wills, a poor industrious Man, most barbarously murdered. He belongs to Woolverton, near Stony Stratford, and had been to a Statute held near Fenny Stratford selling Nuts and Cakes. His head was so terribly beat and bruised by a Slate  of a Stake Rail, that on moving him his Brains dropp’d out. He has left a Wife and seven children. Diligent Search is making after the Murderers.

Northampton Mercury 2nd March 1778

Dennis Ryan, charged on the Oath of Thomas Kelly, with having beat him on the Turnpike-Road, between Shenly and Stony-Stratford, and robbing him of one Guinea, ten Shillings, a few Halfpence, two Farthings and a thread Purse. 

Northampton Mercury Monday 18th August 1783

Last Monday evening, between Nine and Ten o’Clock, as William Haddon of Pisford in this County was travelling between Stony-Stratford and Brickhill in Buckinghamshire, with a Team, he was knock’d down by two Men, who beat him in a cruel Manner, and rifled his Pockets of 8 Guineas and a Half in Gold, between 3 and 4 Pounds in Silver, and his Watch – Makers Name Hemmen.

Newspaper notes from the 18th Century

Here’s a selection of newspaper reports from the later part of the 18th century wen the Northampton Mercury began to publish. This collection is a miscellany of odd notes which show that in many ways human behaviour does not change, although our understanding of it does.

Northampton Mercury Saturday June 23rd 1798

The Malpas family were quite prosperous in Stony Stratford at this time, owning several properties and businesses on the Market Square. This advertisement was placed several times in the paper by William Malpas, presumably to cover himself. I guess there must have been some family quarrel and Joseph had stormed out. there was obviously some worry that young Joseph might collect on a few of his fathers debts to provide himself with some finance.

The Customers of WM. MALPAS of STONY STRATFORD, Bucks, Wine and Brandy Merchant, likewise Pin-maker, are desired not to pay any Money to the Account of the said Wm. MALPAS, to his Son, JOSEPH WILLIAM MALPAS, who has been used to receive for his Father; the said Joseph William Malpas having absconded from his Parents yesterday without Notice.
Dted Stony-Stratford, June 15th, 1798.

Northampton Mercury Saturday 5th April 1788

I assume John Cox was young and probably got carried away with the brilliance of this prank one night. He may not have been alone (moving gates single-handed would be hard) but he seems to have been the one to answer for it. He may have come from a respectable family and his father saw to it and paid the attorney Stamp Garrard to come up with a mechanism that kept his son from a criminal record.

8th MARCH 1788
WHEREAS I JOHN COX, of the Parish of Calverton, in the County of Bucks, Higler, did, in the Night of the 29th Day of January last, take several Gates from the Posts of the neighbouring Fields, and wantonly and mischievously set them up, in the middle of the High Road, leading from Stony-Stratford to Fenny-Stratford in the said County of Bucks, without considering how much I endangered the Lives of Passengers, and the InjurybI might have occasioned to the Horse and Carriages traveling the Road, by this wicked Proceeding, and for which a Prosecition has been commenced against me; but the same has been withdrawn, on my acknowledging the Improprirty of my Conduct. – Now I do hereby most humbly beg Pardon of the Public, for the indiscreet Part I have acted, and hope this full Acknowledgement of my Offence, may prevail on the Humanity of my Prosecutors and the Public, to pardon me, and to believe, that I will not only never againnbe guilty of such wanton and wicked Acts myself, but as far as lies in my Power, most zealously prevent the Commission of them by others.
Witnesses to the Signing by the said John Cox;
Stamp Garrard, Stony Stratford
William Etheridge.

Northampton Mercury Monday 30th March 1772

Arsonists about?

WHEREAS on Saturday evening the 14th. of March, about eight o’clock, a FIRE broke out on the Thatch of a house untenanted in Stony-Stratford, Bucks; and as there is the greatest Reason to believe the said House was wilfully set on Fire, whoever can or will discover the Person or Persons that actually did set Fire to the said House, shall, on Conviction thereof, be paid TEN GUINEAS, by Abraham Chapman, of Stony-Stratford aforesaid, Agent to the Sun Fire Office.

Northampton Mercury Monday 23rd September 1776

James Biddel, colourfully described here as “carbuncle-faced”, enlisted (took the King’s shilling) on September 5th and deserted in Stony Stratford on the 20th. I presume that after 15 days he found the military life much less appealing than it must have seemed on the 5th of September.

DESERTED from Captain Hamilton’s Recruiting-Party, belonging to the 14th Regiment of Foot, at Stony-Stratford, Bucks, on the 20th September, 1776, JAMES BIDDEL, aged 27 Years, five Feet seven Inches 3-qrs. High, swarthy Complexion, lank black Hair, Carbuncle-faced, strait and stout made, born in the Parish of Kingston in the County of Somerset, by Trade a Gardener, insisted at Northampton the 5th inst. had on, when he went away, an old dark-ble Coat, brown Waistcoat, dirty linen Breeches, a new pair of Pumps, and a black silk Handkerchief about his Neck.
Whoever secures the above-said Deserter, in any of His Majesty’s Gaols, and gives Notice thereof to Captain Hamilton, or to Messrs Ross and Gray, Agents to the said regiment, in Conduit Street, London, shall receive TWENTY SHILLINGS, over and above what is allow’d by Act of Parliament for apprehending Deserters.

Northampton Mercury Saturday 4th August 1787

This is one of those really sad and tragic stories that seem to occur in any century. In the 18th century this could only be accounted for by fits of madness (“temporary Phrensies”) without any understudying of the causes.

And on Friday 27th, another Inuisition taken at Stony Stratford, in the said County with the same Coroner, on View the Body of (illegible) Reynolds, an Infant about twelve Months old who was drowned by her Mother in a Bucket of Water. It appears that the Mother (Susannah, the Wife of J. Reynolds, of Stony-Stratford, Labourer) is subject to temporary Phrensies, and has not the Use of Reason at certain Periods. – The Jury brought in their Verdict that the Mother was guilty of the wilful Murder of the Infant, and was accordingly committed to His Majesty’s Gaol at Aylesbury.

“He died by the visitation of God.”

Here is a curious report from Northampton Mercury Saturday 19th May 1792.
The Coach and Horses, now a dental clinic at 124 High Street, was an old inn and has probably witnessed many bizarre incidents before this one. I assume that the man died of a heart attack, but 200 years ago they were content to describe it as a “visitation of God.”

On Saturday last, another inquisition was taken at Stony Stratford before the same Coroner, on view the body of William Pearson, a traveller, who died suddenly as he was sitting in the chimney-corner at the coach-and-horses public house in that town. – Verdict, That he died by the visitation of God.

More accidents from the age of horse and carriage

Road travel was still a risky business in the 18th century, as I have noted in other posts.

The Northampton Mercury  of December 8th 1783 reported on this Coroner’s inquest:

On Monday 24th November, an Inquisition was taken at Sony Stratford, Bucks, before James Burham, Gent. His Majesty’s Coroner for the said County. On view the body of James Connelly, a Sailor, one of the Passengers in the Basket of the Liverpool Stage Coach, who, being intoxicated with Liquor, fell out of the Basket, of which Fall he languished about 20 Minutes, and then died. The Jury brought in their Verdict, Accidental Death.

As I remarked in an earlier post, the term “dropping off to sleep” actually originates in such accidents, where a drowsy slumber might catch the seated occupant unawares with a headlong plunge to injury or death.

This report from the Northampton Mercury of Saturday April 19th 1788, describes another, less fateful accident.

On Sunday morning last, about Three o’clock, Banks, the driver of one of the Chester coaches, by a sudden Jolt of the Carriage, was thrown from the Box, near Stony Stratford, by which Accident both his legs were broke. The Horses went on with the Coach through Stony-Stratford and brought it safe to Old-Stratford, notwithstanding they passed a Waggon on the Road, without the Passengers knowing Any Thing of the Accident.

I don’t know when the crash helmet was invented, but in 1790 we were a long way off from such an invention. Deaths from falling off or being tossed off a horse were almost commonplace. This is not the only example.

From the Northampton Mercury 30th October 1790

On Wednesday the 20th instant an Inquisition was taken before James Burham, Gent, his Majesty’s Coroner for the said County, on view the Body of one John Adams, who, as he was retiring home from Stony Stratford visitation, fell from his horse and fractured his skull, of which fracture he languished about two days and then died. Verdict. Accidental Death.