Goodies and Baddies: Crime and Punishment in the Archives

on Tuesday, 05 May 2015. Posted in Archives, Crime

Crime and punishment is always a popular topic for research in the archives, and can reveal some interesting insights into life in the past. For more detail about the kinds of sources available and what they can tell you, see our guidance:

Murder and felony:

‘Wiltshire Murders’ by Nicola Sly (AAA.343) in our local studies collection describes an unpleasant case of the murder of Judith Pearce. It tells of Edward Buckland, a gypsy who had been begging and odd-jobbing around the area of Seagry for many years. Judith Pearce had been known to give him the odd crust, but one evening, refused his request to come into her cottage to warm himself by the fire. Later that evening the thatched roof of Judith’s cottage caught fire. The fire was extinguished without too much damage, but it was widely believed to have been deliberately started by Buckland, who swiftly left the area.

Later in the year, Judith and her grand-daughter Elizabeth were woken by the sounds of someone trying to enter the cottage. They barred the kitchen door, but the intruder attempted to break through with a hatchet. Judith and Elizabeth succeeded in breaking through the lathe wall of the cottage into the garden, but were pursued by the assailant. Elizabeth managed to escape and ran to relatives for help. Sadly by the time they returned Judith Pearce was dead. Nothing from the house was stolen, suggesting it was likely to be a personal grudge.

Edward Buckland, having recently returned to the area, was apprehended close to the scene the following morning, tried at the Lent Assizes in Salisbury, 1821 where he was found guilty and sentenced to death.

‘I am damned if I killed the old woman’

Records of Assize trials are held at the National Archives in Kew, and Buckland does not appear in the calendar of prisoner. However, the fact of his trial is recorded in the criminal register, viewable on Ancestry, along with the guilty verdict.

The Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette March 22nd 1821 provides a detailed account of the trial and account of the murder.

Following the prosecution, conducted by Mr Mereweather, Edward Buckland was allowed to speak for his own defence. Judge: ‘now is the time for you to enter on your defence; whatever you have to say, say it now’:

"I’ll swear upon ten thousand books that I never killed the woman – I wish a thousand swords were run through my body if ever I killed that woman – May I be damned for ever lasting if I had anything to do with the hatchet”

The jury returned a guilty verdict in less than one minute. The judge passed sentence on Edward Buckland ‘You appear to have lived a wretched life; let me exhort you for the few hours you have left to live to break of your sins by repentance; seek that mercy from your Creator which you refused your fellow creature; - and it may be that you will obtain it’.

Edward Buckland to the last insisted on his innocence ‘I hope gentlemen that you won’t take my life; upon my soul, I did not kill the old woman’.

According to Sly the trial and verdict was compromised in several ways. The Bath Herald printed an anonymous poem describing the attack, and which assumed the guilt of Edward Buckland and could have predisposed the jury to their guilty verdict. Elizabeth Cottle, Judith’s grand-daughter positively identified Edward Buckland as the attacker, despite previously describing it has hard to see clearly in the dark. The trial report records the evidence of a William Greenwood of Christian Malford who identified the hatchet supposedly used in the attack as one offered to him in exchange for potatoes by the prisoner. The fact of the Mr Greenwood’s illiteracy could have brought his identification of the hatchet as belonging to the prisoner, based on letters on the handle, into doubt.

Despite these flaws in the evidence against Edward Buckland, he was executed on March 17th in Devizes Market Place.

“Wearing apparel seems to be a favourite object of yours”

In the Wiltshire Archaeological Magazine (WAM), Vol. 57, p84-85, Ben Worthington gives a list of sentences handed out to prisoners tried in at the Wiltshire Lent Assizes in 1825, copied from a printed sheet which was found stuck inside a small chest bought at an auction in 1956.

The list reveals the wide variety of punishment for very similar crimes. The sentences vary from the death penalty given to Elizabeth Smith, 19, for stealing a gown at Preshute, to the 7 years given to William Hayward for stealing bread and cheese at Wroughton, to the death penalty for J. Moss for stealing cheese at Luckington. Ann Stone, 14, was given one month for stealing a cotton shawl at Bradford, and Sarah Vincent, 21, was given six weeks for stealing 2 half-crows and 3 shoe brushes at Bradford, while William Maltman, 18, was given the death penalty for stealing a watch at Winsley.

The calendar of prisoners might help explain the apparent discrepancies in punishment awarded. It becomes clear that some of the prisoners have had previous stints in prison, and that this increased the severity of their later sentences.

We find that William Maltman is recorded in the calendar of prisoners 12 times between 1821 and 1825. The first case brought against him is in the Marlborough Quarter Sessions, 1821, where he is accused of stealing a black cloth coat, and cotton waistcoat from the house of John Goodwin in Bradford. The marginal notes in the calendar record that he is to be confined to the House of Correction in Devizes for two years hard labour. Previous to the death sentence given at the Lent Assizes 1825 he seems to have been a repeat offender for larceny – perhaps this had a bearing on the severity of his sentence?

Indeed, in the report of his final trial in the Wiltshire and Devizes Gazette, where he is accused of stealing a watch and ‘wearing apparel’ from the house of Jane Bowles, the judge is quoted as saying:

Wearing apparel seems to be a favourite object of yours – In October 1821 you committed a robbery of similar description… you were again apprehended for the same offence, and are today found guilty. Let sentence of death be recorded; I may probably interpose between the executioner of the law, but should the royal mercy be extended, it will only be on condition that you are rendered incapable of committing any more crimes in this country”.

Elizabeth Smith, despite being given the death penalty for stealing a gown from the house of Richard Brown in Preshute, does not appear in the immediately preceding years to 1825 in the calendar of prisoners. Looking at the trial report published in the newspaper reveals that she was in fact sentenced to transportation for life. The judge does refer to a previous sentence of 14 years transportation that, due to her youth, was commuted to the Penitentiary, but that upon her release, she had returned immediately to her old practices. It seems re-offending was given short shrift.

Naomi Sackett, Records Assistant


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