As William R– set off one the six-mile journey to Lutterworth to be sworn in as Shearsby’s constable on the 21st of April 1825, tragic events were starting to unfold that would long be remembered. His first duty that day had, however, been a straight-forward as any he might have hoped for. He re-paid the previous constable, Richard Messanger, for the costs of his earlier journey to Blaby for a meeting about the militia in the county. Richard had performed the job of constable for the past three years and was, no doubt, relieved to be able to hand it on to someone else. William noted that he handed over four shillings and six pence for the expenses on that trip, the same as he himself was to claim for the Swearing-In journey. He carried with him to Lutterworth the shilling required to pay for the oath that would make him officially Shearsby’s constable.
Already that morning, James Read, one of the villagers, had discovered that his troubled and troublesome wife Hannah had gone missing. No-one in the village could recall when this couple had got on and it was only in the previous month that she had been brought back to Shearsby with a new baby in tow. This latest child had been born in Shepshed while Hannah had been living with Jonathan Waterfield. It was in addition to the three children she had with James Read, and two from previous relationships: Ann Packwood, aged about 14; William Packwood, about 12; Elizabeth Read about 9 and born after James and Hannah married in May 1816; and Uriah Read, born May 1820 and Emmanuel, aged 2. Not long after Emmanuel’s birth, James had got into money troubles over a calf he he purchased, but been unable to pay for. James considered it wise to disappear for a bit, at least until he was able to repay this debt.
In his absence, Hannah was able to wander off and found her way to Shepshed, 14 miles north of Leicester. She stayed with a young couple, Jonathan Waterfield and his wife, taking on some of the domestic chores while Jonathan’s wife was in the latter stages of pregnancy. There had been Waterfields living in Shearsby in 1818, when Thomas and Widdow Waterfield, along with Hannah Packwood, were recorded as receiving support in the Overseer’s accounts. Sadly, complications from the birth meant that both mother and child died soon after. Hannah and Jonathan drew closer together after this loss, to the point where Hannah gave birth to Jonathan’s child.
By this time James Read had been able to resolve his money troubles and tracked his wife down in Shepshed. He went with James Alney, the constable at Shepshed to the house where they were staying. As the constable was knocking on the door, Hannah put her head out of the window and called back to Waterfield, “Oh Lord, John, here is Jem come back”. James insisted on her coming with him, but initially Hannah was against the idea, replying “If I do, I won’t live with you; I would sooner murder you”. James Alney later recalled that this accompanied a weaver’s bobbin, “as big as his arm” sailing out of the window.
Nevertheless she did return with her husband to Shearsby, even if she was not happy about it. On her return her neighbours took her husband’s side: “Hannah”, they said “if you will not consent to live with your husband, and sleep with him tonight, we will douse you in water”. But she replied that she would rather have a naked sword run through her than consent to such proposals. Things remained uneasy between Hannah and James.
Her April escape did not go well. Her brother-in-law, Thomas Read, correctly guessed her direction and was able to bring her back before she could get any distance. At mid-day Hannah sent over one of her children with a message for her husband, promising that if he were to accompany her on a visit to her relatives in Foxton, she would live peacefully with him. James agreed to this plan and the last his brother saw of him was as they left the village: James in a smock-frock, hat and carrying a stick, Hannah in a red gown. Their route would take them past the new reservoir at Saddington and along the Leicestershire and Northampton Canal newly cut through the fields around Foxton.
Hannah was back by six o’clock the same day and sent for her brother-in-law with distressing news. Her husband had left her and run away mad: when we got below Gumley, she said, he had begun to dance and jump about as if he were mad; then he damned and swore, and fell on the grass, tearing it up in his hands. She had last seen him running as hard as he could back along the canal towards Debdale Wharf. All Hannah could do, was go to the bridge and watch him go. She had been too frightened, she said, to have called on any of the people nearby for help.
Thomas feared the worst. He said, “Hannah, I fear you have pushed my poor brother into the navigation, and have drowned him”. But she denied it, crying “Good Lord, Master, we were never within a close’s breadth of the navigation”. Thomas called on the constable, now returned from his swearing in at Lutterworth, and asked him to keep her in custody, while he organised people to help him search for his brother.
The constable called on two villagers: Dyson and Bottrill, to guard Hannah for what turned out to be the next three nights and four days, costing him twelve shillings between them, plus seven shillings and three pence ha’penny for their provisions and another four shillings four pence ha’penny paid to Thomas Weston for their ale.
Another villager, Ann Robinson later recalled a conversation with Hannah that evening, where she had warned her: “You will be guarded till your husband is found, dead or alive. People think you have drowned him; and if you have, you are sure to be hanged”. Hannah replied, “Nobody saw me drown him, and therefore nobody can swear against me”.
Next morning the constable hired a horse and cart from Ann’s husband Joseph to convey Hannah to Foxton (costing another six shillings). It was not long before a body was found in the canal by the bridge near Foxton. Thomas Read remarked that his brother’s body appeared bruised. Hannah now claimed that James had tumbled into the canal while madly running away, and that any bruises had been made by her husband himself. She had tried to save him by holding out his hat, but to no effect. This change to her story was not lost on James’ brother.
The constable made other trips to Foxton asking for anyone who could remember seeing anything. Among those there he found Robert Johnson, a boatman, who remembered seeing a man in a smock-frock and a woman in a red gown with a child in her arms. He had helped drag the canal that morning and found the body of the man he recognised, drowned, with his right hand still in his breeches pocket.
- Berrow’s Worcester Journal, 11 August 1825
- Derby Mercury. August 10, 1825
- Jackson’s Oxford Journal, August 13th, 1825
- Ipswich Journal August 13th, 1825
- Shearsby Constable’s Accounts. Leicestershire Record Office.
- Particulars of the trial, execution, and confession of Hannah Read, who suffered at Leicester, on Friday last, for the wilful murder of her husband (1825) https://iiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/drs:4788459$1i (accessed 13th january 2017)