Entries in Murder (2)


Joseph Scott (1835 – 1881) A POOR MURDERED STRANGER?

This is another "clearing my desk" short biography left over from my Ringstead People books. Any additions or corrrections always welcome. I wrote the basis of this some time ago. The brilliant Rushden Heritage site has a modified transcription of the same newspaper article that I originally worked from, and also some follow-up letters. I have used some of this information from the Wellingborough News transcriptions to add to what I have written but I would recommend you also look at the originals on the Rushden Heritage site under "Obituaries".


The story of Joseph Scott is one of those tales that reminds you of old folk songs and tales, or of the murder in Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee, where the village, or some part of it, closed round to protect its own.

In the 1881 Ringstead Census, he is shown as a 41-year-old shoemaker lodging, together with Charles Mayes and William Manning, with the sixty-five-year-old widow, Eliza Bull and her son Julian. Joseph was not local but had been born in Towcester. I have not found him definitely in earlier Censuses but it is complicated by the newspaper account of the Inquest into his death where the Raunds' police constable, Thomas West, is reported as saying that he known of him from his time in Towcester and he was 64 years old.  At his burial his age was given as 46 and I think this may be somewhere near the correct age and the "64" was just a newspaper typo. Thomas West also stated that Joseph had no relatives left in Towcester and in the 1881 Census he is shown as a widower.

Eliza Bull said that he had not drunk for some two months when, on 26th December 1881 he went drinking in the Bakers Arms in Raunds. At some point the landlord, John Cobley, asked him to leave although he could not say that he was drunk and he had not caused any trouble. The Coroner thought that this was odd and one wonders it was the actions of others in the bar towards Joseph was what the landlord thought might lead to trouble. The report of the Inquest imakes clear that he was well known by the local police and pub landlords and that he had a tendency to turn nasty when drunk.

There can be little doubt that Joseph was a drunk and today we would recognize that he was suffering from alcoholism. The Northampton Mercury records many of his appearances in the Wellingborough and Thrapston courts for being drunk and sometimes drunk and disorderly. The dates when he was arrested were: 25th April 1879 at Rushden; 17th September 1879 at Ringstead;;10th March1880 at Ringstead; 4th February 1881 at Ringstead: 1st April 1881 at Raunds; 6th July 1881 at Rushden. These usually resulted in fines with prison sentences in default. At the hearing for the April 1881 offence, however, the Thrapston Magistrates sentenced him to one month's hard labour, "as he had just been liberated from gaol for drunkenness".

This list of appearances in court for drunkemnness starts in 1879 and althouth th4e constable knew him from Towcester I can find no sign of a Joseph Scott being in trouble before that date in Northamptonshire. Perhaps the loss of his wife started his drinking (I have not found her death) or perhaps some of the details he gave to the Census officer were deliberately incorrect.

Joseph was turned out of the Bakers Arms at about 6.15 pm on Boxing Day and it was already dark outside. John Cobley saw Joseph fall down immediately after leaving the pub but also saw him get to his feet up and go on his way. Again, rather oddly the landlord stated that Joseph did not fall down through illness. If he was not drunk and not ill, what was the cause? Later in the inquest Eliza Bull stated that he was subject to falling fits. It may be that Joseph was a drunk but that he also had other health problems.

Much later that evening, at just gone ten o'clock, Thomas Hall, a shoemaker saw Joseph, lying in the street, surrounded by a large crowd of boys and others and one or two in the crowd were pushing him about. Thomas shouted to them not to hurt Joseph. He called to his friend, Bradshaw Harris and, having heard that Joseph was from Ringstead, they agreed to take him part of the way home. 

The two men walked with him up the hill towards Ringstead but, part of the way up the Ringstead Road, Joseph had said that he wanted to lay down. Although the gang of youths was still following them, the men decided to leave Joseph by himself. They were by a field called Butcher's Close which was owned by Mrs. Pentelow They took the locked field gate off its hinges and put Joseph on the ground in the field beside the hedge. They then replaced the gate and thought he would be safe.

The next morning a boot and shoe salesman from Raunds called John Bass was driving past the field in a horse and cart when he noticed a body lying in the ditch beside the road. The ditch was outside the field so Joseph would have had to climb over the gate to reach it. There was, John stated, a "good stream" in the ditch but that Joseph was lying on his back, bearing a little on his right shoulder. The stream was high enough to cover his shoulders but his face was not under water. His face was dirty and his coat and shirt on his right shoulder were torn and his shoulder was bare.

At the Inquest John Crew, a surgeon from Higham Ferrers, stated that he had examined the body in the stables of the Cock Inn where it had been taken.  He said that there was a great deal of dirt around his nose and mouth and he believed he had died of suffocation either from drowning or from his face being pushed into soft wet earth. The Coroner also concluded that Joseph did not fall into the ditch as a result of a fit. In spite of this, the Inquest Jury found that he had fallen into the ditch by accident and had died of exposure. The foreman of the jury, Henry Perkins, did add that, "We believe his death was caused by being treated more like a dog than a human being"

Joseph, aged 46, was buried in St Peter's churchyard in Raunds on the 29th December 1881 (immediately after the Inquest). Letters followed in the local newspapers condemning both his treatment and also the fact that he had been buried without being washed and decently clothed. Others defended the jury's decision and believed that drink was the problem and a proper verdict had been reached. We do know that Joseph had been sentenced to hard labour in the year that he died. What this entailed varied from prison to prison but we do know that in the 1820s a treadmill, and a crank milll for grinding and dressing corn, had been installed at Northampton. This hard, debilitating work on a poor diet broke many men's health and would probably have worsened rather than improved Joseph's health even if it prevented his drunkenness for a time. The County Gaol closed at the start of 1880 and prisoners were then sent to the new prison at The Mounts in Northampton so  further research (again) is needed.

In Ringstead and other local villages many people were incensed about his treatment and the verdict and a letter was sent to the Home Secretary. I have not found that anything happened as a result. Was he a vulnerable man with an underlying illness who was tormented to death by a mob? His landlady stated that he had many falling fits, sometimes two in a night. Was his death even more sinister? Did some of his assailants take their secret guilt to the grave?


1881 Ringstead Census. I have searched for him in various  Northamptonshire Censues but there is not one John Scott who fits the known facts. The name does seem associated with Paulerspury near Towcester but for one reason or another not one seems to be the correct Joseph. I wonder whether he had changed his name.

Northampton Mercury:  Supplement 7th January 1882; Saturday 26th February 1882.

Wellingborough News: 21st January 1882; 28th January 1882. (Transcription by Kay Collins on Rushden Heritage wwebsite.)

National Burial Index for England & Wales Transcription; Northamptonshire Burial Transcriptions (FindMyPast)



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)