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Roberts, William (1767 – 1836) TRAGIC DEATH 

Roberts, William (1767 – 1836)


William Roberts was born in about 1767. He does not show up in Ringstead Registers and it is rumoured that he came from Wales. We first see him in Ringstead when, on 12th October 1788, he married Ann Roberson in the parish church. Ann was soon pregnant and the couple must have looked forward to the beginnings of a happy family life.

Their first child, Lydia, was baptised on 3rd June 1790 but it must have been a difficult birth and, for William, tragedy was to be his companion for some twelve years. Hi wife, Ann, died on 8th June 1790, just five days after the baptism. Some six weeks later Lydia too was buried. William was just twenty-three years old.

He met Elizabeth Jacks, some eight years his senior, and married her on 1st February 1791, just seven months after the death of his wife. Elizabeth too, was quickly pregnant and their first child, John, was baptised on 15th June 1792. He was followed over the next few years by Mary, Samuel and Hannah. 1798 came and went with no recorded incident but then, in January 1799, a terrible tragedy struck the family. Mary was buried on the 6th January and Samuel and Hannah followed just three days later.

What an unhappy few years the young couple had had and only John, the eldest child, remained of their family. As was often the case they had another child and she was baptised “Hannah”, some six months later, in honour of the baby girl that they had recently buried. We do not know what effect all these deaths had on William, nor do we know what caused them, exceptional even in those days when infant deaths were common. In Ringstead another infant had died in the previous December but there was not a spate of other deaths to suggest an epidemic. Perhaps it was a cottage fire. We may never know.

What we do know is that less than two years later William was involved in a dispute. It was on Tuesday 18th August 1801 and the harvest was in full swing. At some point William and another labourer, Matthew Teat, began to row. Whatever the cause of the argument, it soon became heated and burst into violence. Was Elizabeth also there? The harvest field was known as a place of flirting and ribaldry. A line of men with scythes needed to work together in a  rhythmn if they were not to get in each other's way or cause injury. It may be in the heat and toil of the cutting , one of the men, either as a joke of by accident clashed scythes with the other. Whatever the reason, the two men began to strike at each other with their scythes which would have been sharpened like razors to make the work as easy as possible. In The Feast of July, H.E. Bates tells of a similar fight between two brothers in the harvest field. In Bates’s account one knocks the blade from the head of the shaft to use it like a sword. Did the novelist know, through local folklore of this case, over a century earlier, or was it a not uncommon occurrence. In the novel the fight is stopped by the mother coming between them but nobody intervened in the Ringstead field, possibly taken by surprise by the sudden eruption of violence.

We can only surmise at the exact way that the men fought but we do know that the two of them hit out at each other just two or three times with their scythes. This was not two hotheaded youths fighting, for William was about 34 and Matthew was some eight years older. A newspaper reporting the later case stated that: 

Teat, unfortunately received a deep cut across the inside of the lower part of one leg and bled to death in the space of a few minutes.

The nature and place of the injury seems to indicate that the two men were using the whole scythes and not just the blades. Can we imagine William, suddenly distraught, watching his adversary's life blood staining the just cut stubble? Were any final words exchanged as the wounded man lay there, slowly dying?

Matthew Teat was buried two days later, on August 20th1801, in the Ringstead churchyard but the parish register records nothing of how he died. He left a widow, Hannah and four children.

At the inquest, also held on that grim Thursday, by the Coroner, Thomas Marshall, William was charged with feloniously killing and slaying Matthew Teat. He was committed to gaol where, it seems, he had to stay until the Lent Assizes  in Northampton some six months later. Possibly on March 2nd, but certainly before 3rd March 1802, William was found guilty of criminal homicide. Looking through the Northampton Mercury for the months up to the trial one sees the banknote forgers and burglars hung and sheep stealers transported for seven years. It comes as some surprise to see, on Saturday 6th March 1802, that the Mercury sums up the Lent Assizes and briefly lists William's sentence, together with that of another killer.

William Roberts and John Holmir(?), convicted of manslaughter were severally fined one shilling and ordered to be imprisoned in gaol, the former for two and the latter for one calendar month

This seems amazingly lenient, especially when we see it in the context of the other cases. William  had probably been in custody for the five or six months leading up to the trial which would have been taken into account. This was a long period from offence to  trial, for the criminal law was often quick if not always fair. Why was the sentence so lenient? Was it felt that the provocation was extreme, or that it was done in the heat of the moment with both men equally involved? Was it because it was a scrap between two labourers that went wrong? If William had killed a "gentleman" in similar circumstances one suspects that he may have paid with his life? It may be that, along with the other extenuating circumstances, that the history of William was laid before the court and it was felt that he and his wife had suffered enough?

It must have been a difficult winter for Elizabeth without William or much of the harvest money. Unfortunately, the couple's  suffering had not finished with the release of William because a second daughter  'Mary' was buried on 10th August 1804 aged one year old and Thomas, was buried on 24th June 1808 aged just 13 months. Of these later children only William, born on 14th May 1805, lived to be an adult.

Of all the eight children of William that we know of, only three survived into adulthood. The second 'Hannah' married William Barfield on 2nd February 1823. John, their eldest child, married Rebecca. (I have not yet found the marriage) and William married Ann Maria Knight in Raunds in 1828. 

John and Rebecca had three girls before the untimely death of Rebecca, on 13th March 1828, aged just 38. Like his father, John married again, to Alice Page, some two-and-a-half years later and had six further children. One of these was also christened John and he was baptised on 19th May 1833. It is this John’s son, Benjamin Ebenezer Roberts, whose story we have also told.

William died on 3rd April 1836 aged 69 years and Elizabeth died on 2nd May 1838 aged 79 years.

Looking back, at the end of their lives. they must have wondered if they had been cursed, losing almost all their family as infants. It is strange how history is made by such small chances. It was John Roberts, their only son to reach maturity, whose descendant would become the first woman prime minister of England.

The readers must make up their own minds as to what this tells us about the universe.



Ringstead Parish Registers (NRO)

Northampton Mercury 22nd August 1801 and 6th March 1802 (Northampton Record Office) 

Foul Deeds & Suspicious Deaths Around Northampton. Paul Harrison (Wharncliffe Books 2007)

Outrage and Murder! 800 Years of Criminal Homicide and Judicial Execution in Northamptonshire Volume I 1202 - 1851. Cowley, Richard (Monkshood Publishing 2010)

Reader Comments (2)

John Roberts of Ringstead married Rebecca Horsford of Swinehead, Bedfordshire in 1818. In 1821 they had Mary Roberts of whom I am descended. She married Thomas Stains and they had Rebecca who married Thomas Walker. I am therefore from John's first marriage. Enjoyed your articles. Hope this is of help. Carol Jones

April 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCarol Jones

I am descended from John Roberts, who was born from the second marriage to Alice Page. I am 6 generations on from the John Roberts that married Alice Page. Up until 15-20 years ago there were still Roberts living in Ringstead. I don't know if there are any more, but would be very interested to find out.


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