A killing on Wetley Moor

A Killing on Wetley Moor.

I knew Wetley Moor from childhood. It was not too far from the council estate that I was bought up on. It was especially good in late summer when you could pick bilberries and play commandos amongst the rocks. Cattle would be grazing on the moors and panic as charging boys forced them to scatter. I used also to like to take a bird recognition book and an old telescope trying to spot the different birds. Once, I saw a buzzard and nearly stepped on the nest of fledgling skylarks. Do boys from the Abbey Hulton still engage in these innocent pleasures on the Moor?

I didn’t realise it then but over 160 years ago Wetley Moor was the scene of a violent death in which my great great great great grandfather Thomas Sherwin would play a significant part. He was born in 1817 and was part of an extended family that lived in the area for at least 150 years before his birth. His great grandfather John Sherwin was born at the beginning of the 18th century, John’s remains lie in St Mary’s Church in Bucknall. Thomas Sherwin’s mother was Susannah Forrester another well known local family. In 1838 Thomas married Sarah Hewitt and at the time that these events had two children James and Enoch. He was clearly a man of some intelligence and could write his name in a beautiful copper plate hand. As his marriage certificate attests. Thomas Sherwin was a collier. Small mines and coal pits existed around the moor. Mining as an activity had flourished from the middle of the 18th century and reached a peak just after the First World War When I was a child in the 60s there was always the fear that there was a mine shaft that could open up on the unwary, whether that be man or beast.

But the focus of the story shifts to the uncle of Thomas Sherwin’s wife. William Hewitt was 60 in June 1841 and a former miner. The newspaper report stated that he lived a mendicant lifestyle. He seemed in a woeful state. The newspaper described him as a “frugal man and disreputable” One of the witnesses at the trial said that shortly before Hewitt’s death the old man was seen carrying a load and looking “clemned”- a dialect word for starving.

He would have been thought old in the context of the early 19th century when the expectation of life for working men would have been very low, not much beyond 60. William Hewitt had got into trouble the previous year when he and his brother were imprisoned at Stafford for stealing fowl. He was in jail in October 1840 and released the following spring. The hovel that Hewitt built on the moor had been pulled down and he was homeless. William Hewitt lived by staying at the homes of people who lived on the moor, or by sleeping rough. He did think of changing his life and at the trial Thomas Sherwin recalled a conversation with Hewitt who told him that he wanted to build a house. He had 16 gold sovereigns and a Mr Perry owed him £22- enough to build something. Hewitt was a miser although everyone knew that he had money. A farmer called Wilshaw saw a drunken Hewitt drop his money on the road in front of him. His aside is reported in the Staffordshire Advertiser in the report of the inquest in June 1841. Wilshaw’s responded to his neighbour’s difficulties with banter.

“What, William, are you going to mend the road with sovereigns?

Wilshaw mentioned this episode to William Simpson, a fellow, according to the newspaper, “of unprepossessing appearance and intemperate habits”. Simpson liked a pint and a couple days before the death of Hewitt complained about having no money and that he was looking for work.

Hewitt’s body was found at 7am on the 19th June 1841 by a man called Holland. Holland was looking at collecting sand for a house that he was building on the Common. The body had been seen the previous evening by a party of young women walking from Lane End. They thought that the old man was drunk. Holland called on Thomas Sherwin who lived nearby and they established that Hewitt was dead. The body was lying on its back in a stone pit. The left arm was folded across the stomach. His head was resting on a rock. There were two deep head wounds and the body, according to Sherwin, was stiff and cold. The left trouser pocket had been cut off, and Hewitt’s purse was missing. In the other pocket were one shilling and sixpence and 4 pence in copper. They called a constable.

A few days afterwards an inquest was held in Hanley when the details of the death of Hewitt were investigated. I get the impression that the examination of the circumstances that led to the man’s death was quite thorough in the short time that was allowed. The Surgeon who examined the body determined that Hewitt was beaten with a stone and that his death was not due to a fall. Constable Allen, the investigating police officer after a search around the quarry found a lump of grit stone about 5 inches across, matted with blood and hair. It was concluded that it was the murder weapon. The cause of death was a fractured skull with two heavy blows to the back of the head. The brain had not been exposed by the attack.

The Magistrate, Job Meigh made frequent interruptions especially about the drinking culture at the time. There was a reference to the chief suspect drinking in a pub in Bucknall, the day after the death of the old man- Sunday 20th June. The pub had been opened at 7 am where beer and gin had been drink for several hours. Meigh did not approve of the “impropriety of disrespecting the Sabbath, by allowing tippling to such an extent on a Sunday; and after giving the landlady of the “Dog and Partridge” a suitable caution, hoped the constable would strictly due his duty.

The jury returned the verdict of “wilful killing” The Police already had a suspect in custody. William Simpson had been apprehended by the authorities. Simpson’s mother who gave evidence at the inquest was hysterical: she recognised that her son faced the prospect, if he was charged with murder, with death by hanging.

Simpson was seen the day of the killing. He lived close by and one witness Thomas Sherwin’s Aunt Mary Sherwin, a woman in her early 40s saw Simpson walking in the direction of Armshead from Washerwall at about 2pm, very close to the old man who was warming himself by a clod fire. George Forrester, the uncle of Thomas Sherwin, passed Simpson on a footpath in the direction of the old quarry where earlier he saw Hewitt.

I have seen a map of 1900 of the area. Wetley Moor is about 80 acres in size and rises to above 800 feet in height. It is a leftover of the Gritstone Edge that runs northwards towards Leek into the Pennine Chain. The area is criss-crossed with stone walls and footpaths. There is a great deal of evidence of mining and quarrying in the area, the landscape is dotted with shafts and stone pits. There are three quarries on the map and a footpath that cuts behind a spot called the “old quarry” and bends towards the trig point of 857 feet and then on Luzlow and Bagnall.

I am assuming that Hewitt was killed at the site of the old quarries; some distance away from being overlooked from nearby houses.

Simpson luck changed radically the day after Hewitt’s death. He had money and was spending it freely. He redeemed a coat that he had in pawn since April with sovereigns and paid off drinking debts. He “went up Hanley” where he met his mother and drank liberally in the New Inn. He paid off the debt he has run up in that pub by asking what his “shot” was. He bought a smock frock for 8 shillings and in the town met a man called Lunn, an old drinking companion and offered to loan him a shilling.

The following morning Simpson met with Thomas Sherwin and roused the landlady of the “Dog and Partridge” in Bucknall. The two men stayed there for a few hours, drinking beer and gin. Simpson ate bread and cheese. Sherwin and Simpson parted company and Simpson slept off the effect of the drink in an empty fodder bin. He was found there by Constable Allen.

Simpson was wearing a waistcoat when he is arrested and detained in Hanley. On examination the Constable noticed a dark stain that could be blood on the left sleeve and asked Simpson how the garment got to be stained. Simpson claimed that he had a nose bleed in the cell although there is no evidence of bleeding in the newly changed bed straw.

Simpson was also asked how he came by the money. He replied that he had worked for it and it was money that he got for “bark peeling past Newcastle”. Bark Peeling was a long-established woodland craft which used the same techniques for centuries. The bark contained a chemical derivative which was used to process animal hides. As proof of his story he produced a receipt although the Constable reported there was a considerable difference between the money that he had received and the recent spending spree.

It looked as if Simpson was doomed.

Justice worked very swiftly in the 19th century and the following month Simpson was on trial for his life at Stafford Assizes. The case was tried by Mr Justice Coltman, an experienced judge he had been trying capital cases for a number of years. Mr Kinnersley and Mr Greaves lead for the prosecution while Simpson defended himself. Reading the trial reports few working men could afford the costs of a defence lawyer and had to rely on their wits in the proceeding that were to follow he was to demonstrate some skill in self advocacy. The odds were stacked against them. The prosecution made great play that the evidence was circumstantial, but put strong arguments why they believed that Simpson was guilty.

The names that gave evidence that day and in the other trials are still common in North Staffordshire, names such as Wilshaw, Matthews, Forrester, Bailey, Holland, Mayer, Machin, Leese, Allen, Fallows, Hewitt and Sherwin.

The only evidence that seemed to help Simpson is witness’s inconsistency over the material and ownership of the purse that Simpson has on him at the time of the arrest, there is an inconclusive attempt to link the purse to Hewitt.

All that Simpson said in his defence at the trial is reported in the Staffordshire Advertiser of the 24th July 1841.

I am innocent of the charge as an unborn child; I have no witness here as I know of

The Jury took 10 minutes to reach a verdict and found the defendant “Not Guilty”.

There was astonishment in the crowded court; Mr Justice Coltman was unprepared for such a result. I imagine that he was getting ready to don the black cap and pronounce the death penalty. The affair does not end there, however. Simpson went on a heavy drinking bout in the pubs of Stafford on the night of the acquittal and under the influence ranted and raved.

The people who gave evidence against him were a “damned lot of forsworn witnesses all together and when he got home he will make them stand further”

I am assuming that Simpson felt that he had been conspired against and as the Forrester’s, Hewitt’s and Sherwin’s were all related had plotted against him.

The speech was heard by Constable Thomas Stone of Bagnall who warned Simpson that he had a narrow escape and should think himself very well off. Stone warned that if he continued in that way of threatening witnesses then he would find himself in custody.

This did not deter Simpson.

Well, I will. I will never kill another man, if I had killed him. If Lunn had gone with me to Kingsley Wakes I should have taken the six sovereigns, and should have hanged and nothing will have saved me.

He was rearrested and a trial date fixed for the following March when he was to be tried with manslaughter and larceny.

Thomas Sherwin was not a witness at the 1842 trials. On 31st October 1841 he was killed in a gunpowder explosion in a pit. He died at a pit in Bucknall. The explosion also took the life of a 12 year old boy Walley. The new mines that grew up in the 19th Century depended on men and children to work long hours in often dangerous conditions. Accidents were common.

During the 19th century, on average, 4 miners were killed a day. Thomas Sherwin left a wife and two small boys. The children will not have known their father. Sarah Sherwin remarried Charles Wilshaw in 1853.

The following spring Simpson faced the lesser crimes of manslaughter and robbery. The trial was played out again with little new evidence. The newspaper reported that Simpson questioned the witnesses on the subject of the colour and material of the purse that Hewitt had with considerable shrewdness.

For a second time, Simpson was found not guilty while admitting that he had taken the purse from Hewitt’s corpse. The third trial was a formality and was over in minutes; Simpson was found guilty and transported to Australia for seven years.

The Judge at the trial in passing sentence made the following remark,-

It would ill become me, now that you are convicted of this offence, to comment on the degree of guilt in which you have been involved in the same transaction; this is a matter between you and God.

Transportation of convicts to Australia started in 1787. By 1840 transportation to New South Wales ceased but continued to Tasmania and Western Australia until 1853. Prisoners who received a transportation sentence were not normally allowed to return to the UK. It is estimated that from 1789-1870 over 150,000 Britons forcibly colonised Australia in this way.

Most prisoners receiving a transportation sentence were sent initially to the Prison Hulks in London and served the first part of their sentence in solitary confinement before being assigned to a convict ship and leaving England.

In one sense Simpson was fortunate to get a sentence of 7 years, at the same Assize a man from Penn near Wolverhampton was sentenced to 10 years for stealing a sheep.

Given the evidence how would modern forensic detection have worked? Fingerprint evidence was not introduced until 1900 and DNA was first used in 1986. I imagine that today work would have been done on the blood on the sleeve of Simpson’s waistcoat. The purse would have been examined to see if it contained material linking it to Hewitt. A pathologist would be able to ascertain how and when Hewitt met his death, and how the way the fateful wounds were delivered. Evidence would have been taken over time to try to link Simpson and Hewitt.

This piece began with a death and ends with a death. Thomas Sherwin was not the first or last Sherwin to die as a consequence of mining. Over 40 years after the death of Thomas, 3 other Sherwin’s went underground to die. In October 1889 fire damp at the Mossfield Colliery near Longton took the lives of 64 miners. Three of the miners were Thomas, Charles and Samuel Sherwin, Sam was 16. The father William was also a miner and never went down the pit again. With the compensation from the mining company the father and mother opened a bakery in Werrington. A story has it that a pair of clogs belonging one of the young men was hung over the grave in Caverswall Graveyard.

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