Shearsby, Tuesday 25 August 1840: Disgraceful attack on four Irish labourers

Trouble was already brewing between the resident agricultural labourers of Shearsby and the visiting Irish by the late Summer of 1840. On Thursday 20 August Thomas Wilson brought a case before the Lutterworth Petty Sessions asking the magistrates to bind some unnamed defendants to ‘keep the peace to all Irishmen that might come to England’.

The following week the magistrate J. A. Arnold, Esq., then presiding over the Lutterworth Petty Sessions, heard that this peace had been already broken in what was reported as a disgraceful attack upon four Irish labourers.

It was Andrew Wilson, a Shearsby farmer, who made the complaint against John Elliott and Thomas Botterill for willfully and maliciously breaking two of his barn doors and two gates. Despite the prejudice perceived to have existed for some time among the local labourers against Irish reapers, Wilson had allowed four reapers to sleep in his barn about half a mile away from his house. One of this group, Thomas Hands, stated that he had been awakened at sometime in the night by several people calling out “Are there any Irishmen here?” and demanding admittance. but the Irishmen refused to open the doors “till they had lost their lives”. At this the defendants said that they should lose their lives then and began a violent attack on the barn doors. Finding that they could not force open the doors they ran to the nearby field gates and broke them down so that they could use the bars as levers. They managed to lift the lower parts of the doors from their hinges and tried again to enter, but were repulsed by the Irish inside, one on each side of the door and armed with forks.

Foiled in this attack, they then began to throw stones at the barn and kept this up for three to four hours, accompanied with the uttering of dreadful threats. Negotiation was their next ploy: “they called to the Irish and told them they were their own masters, and if they would come out they (defendants) would see them safe four miles along the Leicester road, and if they would promise not to come back to this part of the country again no harm should be done to them”. The Irish replied that they just wanted a night’s sleep and would go elsewhere of their own accord next morning and never come back, but that they would not come out of the barn just then, for fear their lives would be sacrificed.

At that point the Rapid coach came by, placing this whole incident somewhere along the Turnpike Road from Leicester to Welford (and onward south to London, about 80 miles south). The besieged Irish called out to the passengers for assistance and at this their attackers disappeared. The Irishmen then made it safely to the house of Mr. Wilson, reaching him a three in the morning.

It was 20 year old Thomas Wilson who was roused and had to deal with the disturbance. He listened to Hands and his account of what had happened and then went with the Irishmen back into the village. There they were able to identify John Elliott and Thomas Botterill, and to the best of Hands’ belief: Samuel Dyson, Daniel Billingham, Robert Wesson and Richard Simons.

At the Petty Sessions, William Fretter said that all of that group had been in his house that night and had drunk a good quantity of beer (which he had needed to bring over especially from Gilmorton, three miles away). When had they left at nine o’clock, he described them as ‘rather mellow’.

Mr. Marsh, the solicitor defending John Elliott and Thomas Botterill, called George Billingham. Elliott had been in his company at Fretter’s until nine o’clock, after which they had returned to the Shearsby, but had not passed within 150 yards of the barn in question. When they reached the village they had gone to Botterill’s house and stayed there until sometime between 11 and 12, after which he had gone home. Mary Billingham corroborated his statement and Jane Botterill, Thomas’ wife, swore that her husband had gone to bed when Elliott left, not leaving the house again until he went to work the next day.

The magistrate was unimpressed by these alibis and fined Elliott and Botterill £1. 7s. 6d., adding that he thought it was a most disgraceful assault. The Shearsby labourers involved do not come out of this story looking well. The trigger for their actions had been the presence of Irish reapers in a largely sheep-grazing parish (and consequently few opportunities for supplementary wages at harvest tine) to which alcoholic beverages had been copiously added. However, framework knitters work long hours and need their wits about them to avoid losing fingers to their machines. Their drinking during the working week may be an indicator of the effects of the economic downturn of the 1840’s, making them workless and wageless knitters.

Thomas Willson was the son of Andrew and Alice Willson and was christened on 3 January 1819 at Shearsby. In the 1841 Census he was found in Knaptoft Fields with his parents and siblings: Arthur, Eliza and Cornelia. Andrew Wilson (christened 1 January 1778 at Shearsby) had married Alice Waples of Husbands Bosworth on 31 Oct 1816.

In the same 1841 Census there was a 60-year-old Thomas Botterill, working as a carrier, in the first house surveyed in Church Street,  Shearsby. John Elliott was recorded as a 25-year-old butcher living in Hill Street, next door to Richard Simons, a 28-year-old Stocking Frame Knitter. Samuel Dyson (25, Agricultural labourer) lived farther up Hill Street. A 3-year-old Eliza Billingham was staying in the house that day, indicating a Dyson-Billingham connection. In fact Daniel Billingham had married a Mary Dyson in Shearsby on 30 January 1837. Robert Weston (28) was recorded living in Mill Street with a wife and two children and working as a Stocking Frame Knitter. There was a William Fretter born in 1814 in Mowsley, something that again points to the action taking place uphill from the village of Shearsby.

The Monthly Chronicle commented later in 1840 that “A greater importation of Irish labourers has taken place this year for the harvest than the oldest inhabitant of Liverpool can remember, in expectation of gaining employment in the Northern, Midland and Southern districts. In this, however, they have been egregiously disappointed… we have seen scores of these poor fellows with blistered feet and scarcely able to crawl… not having obtained a single day’s work in Lancashire, Nottinghamshire or Leicestershire, through all which counties they had in vain ‘padded the hoof’.

Leicestershire Mercury (Leicester, England), Saturday, August 29, 1840; pg. 3

Coventry Standard (Coventry, England), Friday, September 4, 1840

Image taken from page 155 of ‘Sunlight and Shade. Being poems and pictures of life and nature. Illustrations by F. Barnard, etc

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Shearsby lane, Saturday 30 April 1842: As much or more right to the land

Thomas Read (junior), Samuel Robinson and Jane Botterill were brought before the magistrates at the County Office, on 30 April 1842, charged with committing wilful damage on certain property in Shearsby-lane, belonging to Mr. John Clarke. Just who owned the waste land along the lane was disputed between the defendants, and others who had laid out gardens there, and Mr. Clarke of Peatling Hall. When Mr. Clarke’s men disturbed the gardens and began building a wall the Shearsby residents reacted by pulling it down and throwing the bricks down a nearby well.

The bench (W. Heyrick, J. King and J. Grundy, Esqrs., and the Rev. J.P. Newby) considered that in this case they had no power to adjudicate, being limited by legislation passed in the 24th section of an act passed in the 7th and 8th years of George IV. The defendants had committed the damage under the fair and reasonable supposition that they had as much or more right to the land than Mr. Clarke. A further charge of assault was also dropped against them as it arose from the same incident and it appeared that an unnecessary degree of violence had not been used.

A similar incident had been dealt with a week or two back involving land on the Belgrave lane.

The Leicester Chronicle: or, Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser (Leicester, England), Saturday, May 07, 1842; pg. [1];
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Leicester, 10 March 1838: The Triplets and the Imposter

“IMPOSITION EXTRAORDINARY. – The wife of Thomas Weston, of Shearsby, having lately presented to her liege lord three children at one birth, a sad Saddington butcher, named John Peberdy, resolved to profit by the “dispensation”, however hardly it might bear upon the husband of the prolific lady; and forthwith he came to Leicester, and canvassed the pockets of the charitable as “the father of the three children born at Shearsby!” He is a dark-complexioned man, wears crape on his hat; and is dressed in a black waistcoat, and a light coat.”

The Leicester Chronicle: or, Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser (Leicester, England), Saturday, March 10, 1838

The imposter, John Peberdy was, perhaps relying on his victims remembering an earlier report in the newspaper about the wife of a poor man named Weston being delivered of three children back in February. All the children, with the mother, were reported to be doing ‘as well as can be expected’. The newspaper had hoped that “her benevolent neighbours will bestow that assistance that her situation requires”.

On 7 June 1841 the census taker found Thomas and Elizabeth Weston residing in Crown Bank, Shearsby with children Thomas (6), William (4) and Charles (2). William was the surviving member of the triplets born three years previously. Thomas had something in common with his rival, John Perberdy, in that they were both butchers. A further link can be found in man living next door at the Crown Public House and working for Thomas’s father, also Thomas Weston. This was Thomas Peberdy (15), who could well have been the child christened in Saddington on 29 August 1827 and the son of John Peberdy.

Back in the 1830s, when faced with fraudulent claims of this kind the towns-folk of Leicester and villagers of Shearsby did not withdraw their compassion or look to technological solutions to protect themselves. Rather it was with a sense of community that they shared details of who to watch out for, down to the detail of the crape ribbon in the hat, so that no-one would be taken in unawares.

The Leicester Chronicle: or, Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser (Leicester, England), Saturday, February 03, 1838

“England and Wales Census, 1851,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 24 July 2016), Thomas Weston, Knaptoft, Leicestershire, England; citing Knaptoft, Leicestershire, England, p. 7, from “1851 England, Scotland and Wales census,” database and images, findmypast ( : n.d.); citing PRO HO 107, The National Archives of the UK, Kew, Surrey.

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Leicester Exchange, 1 November 1834: Thomas Ross takes on the Truck System. Part 3

Court reporter: Regular readers may remember that Thomas Ross, a woolcomber from Shearsby, has appeared before at the Leicester Petty Sessions. His first appearance however did not go well and is perhaps best passed over. The next week he came again and soberly explained his case against his employer, who, it is alleged, was paying his wages partly in coin and partly by sending goods to him. There has been recent legislation passed by the Legislature (The Truck Act of 1831) again outlawing this practice. It is worth keeping in mind that there are two Mr B’s involved in this case: Mr Bankart, who owns the factory and Mr Barsby, his overseer, whose wife owns the shop at which the goods are purchased.

Today’s hearing is before Alderman Cook and Alderman Brown, with Mr. Macauley representing the defendant.

Alderman Cook: Mr Macauley, how do you wish to proceed in answering the charges against Mr Bankart that we heard last week?

Mr. Colin Campbell Macauley: There were one or two objections that I had thought of taking, but I would rather have the case heard on its merits.

Court reporter: Thomas Ross put forward several circumstances concerned with his employment at Mr S.T. Bankart’s factory. He said he had often complained that the provisions he had to purchase were dear, but was never told that he need not go to Barsby’s shop. In fact he was told that he must go there and knew he would get no further work if he did not. On the 18th of October he was due 8s. 4 1/2 d. but the carrier only brought a few pence to him: 7s. 10 1/2d. had been stopped in payment of a bill due to Barsby for goods.

This is the charge against the defendant.

C.C. Macauley: The case has not been made out. My client is charged with paying wages in goods, whereas the only evidence given was that the witness’s wages have not been paid at all. They have been stopped in payment of a debt to the agent through whose hands they have passed.

Town Clerk: I agree: Ross would be better off entering a summons for non-payment of wages. The case should not go forward.

C.C. Macauley: I have no sinister object in stopping this inquiry. The facts are that Mrs Barsby had carried on the shop in Market Street before he had married her, and that the defendant, Mr Bankart had never had an interest in the shop. If Barsby sent goods to Shearsby for Ross that would save him the trip to Leicester and be altogether to Ross’s convenience.

Town Clerk: Such a practice could clearly be injurious to the men working for you, Mr. Bankart. If you are aware of any influence exerted over your men to purchase their goods at Barsby’ shop, then you are morally, if not legally, guilty of a practice which the Legislature intends to abolish. You ought to free your men from any such influence. It makes no odds whether you personally have an interest in Barsby’s shop.

Mr. Samuel T. Bankart: I was not aware that anything like that was going on at my factory.

Town Clerk: Now that you do know, you must exert your power to stop it.

C.C. Macauley: You are, no doubt, aware that Ross has been turned out of employment for embezzling worsted, but my client would re-employ him if he comes to reside in Leicester, where he can keep an eye on him.

Ross:  That charge has to be proved.

Alderman Cook: You had conversation with Mr Bankart respecting the goods?

Ross: Yes.

Alderamn Cook: That contradicts Mr Bankart’s statement.

Town Clerk: Oh, the man’s word is not to be taken in contradiction of Mr. Bankart’s.

Ross: I’ve repeatedly been told by Mr Bankart that I must have the goods or go without work.

Mr Bankart: That is untrue, I never had a word with him on that subject.

C.C. Macauley: Mr Bankart had no knowledge of Ross’s dealings with Barsby. In fact you could say that Barsby was doing Ross a kindness.

Town Clerk: The kindness, I dare say, was not all on one side.

C.C. Macauley: Barsby trusted him for goods whether he had work or not.

Alderman Cook: I think it would be helpful to hear from other witnesses at this point, especially the Shearsby carrier.

Town Clerk: In my opinion it would be very desirable that Mr. Bankart should take care that his men are not under any compulsion to go to Barsby’s shop. I can’t help thinking that Mr. Bankart knows more than he is saying about the extent to which this sort of thing occurs, and therefore it may be as well to hear further evidence.

Webster [the Shearsby carrier]: Well, yes, I generally took a written list of the things Ross wanted to Barsby’s shop, though sometimes I was charged with a verbal order only. But I don’t deliver Ross’s work. I only take it as far as the Little Crown and a boy takes it on from there. I do recall Ross complaining to me about being overcharged for the goods.

Alderman Cook: Mr. Barsby, what to do have to say in response to Ross’s assertion that he must take goods from your shop or get no work himself?

Mr Barsby: I know of men who have worked two years or more for Mr. Bankart who have never stepped through the door of my shop.

Alderman Cook: You have brought one of these men with you, I take it?

Mr. Barsby: No.

C.C. Macauley: It would have seemed very unlikely that any such evidence would have been necessary.

Town Clerk: Mr. Bankart, I must say again that it is very important that you take care to see your men are paid their wages in money and are left at liberty to spend it were they choose.

C.C. Macauley: You say that, but we have heard here that Ross has been discharged from his employment for embezzlement. In consequence he has immediately gone to the Avenger of all Wrongs: Mr. Moses Pegg.

Court: Laughter.

Alderman Cook: That seems hardly consistent with the statement that Mr. Bankart is willing to employ him if he comes to reside in Leicester.

Alderman Brown: Alderman Cook, I think you will agree with me that Mr. Macauley is in danger of failing to keep his promise to rest his defence solely on the merits of the case, and is relying instead on procedural failings.

C.C. Macauley: I have no wish to take advantage of any informalities in the case being raised, but can hardly be blamed when the case is failing for lack of evidence. The charge was that wages have been paid in goods, of which no proof has been given. The only fact given in evidence is that a certain amount of the wages has not been paid, but has been detained by an agent in discharge of a debt. The case falls then, not on any informality in the way it is put, but for want of proof.

Alderman Cook: The case is dismissed, for lack of evidence to support it.

Ross: What about my wages?

Court reporter: Ross was told that he could demand the wages due to him up to the 18th of October. Shortly afterwards he came back to the court seeking a summons saying that Mr Bankart has refused to pay him.  But he was sent off by Alderman Cook who said Mr. Bankart was not expected to pay him on the spot and that he must apply at the counting-house as usual.

The Leicester Chronicle: or, Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser (Leicester, England), Saturday, November 08, 1834



Leicester Exchange, 21 October 1834: Thomas Ross takes on the Truck System. Part 1

Thomas Ross was born in Shearsby and christened in the village church on 24 April 1796. He and most of his family worked in the wool trade, usually specifically with worsted, in Leicestershire, with the exception of younger brother George who emigrated to America for a time. Thomas had married Grace Peet of Countesthorpe in September 1815 and in 1834 had two children Grace, aged 10 and James, aged 4.

Moses Stephen Pegg was born in Leicester and christened on 28 May 1794. He was not a mere ‘informer’, he claimed, but an Inspector of Hawker’s Licenses. However, he acknowledged that this was “an Irish sinecure: all work and no pay”. He did receive a share in all the penalties from cases he brought forward, though “not more than paid his expenses and compensated him for the anxiety of mind he suffered in discharge of his duties”. He frequently gets a mention in the court reports of the Leicester Chronicle in the 1830s. A possible relative, Thomas Pegg, lived in Shearsby in 1841.

Bankart & Co. were worsted spinners based in Westbridge, Leicester. They made an appearance in Pigot and co.’s national commercial directory for 1828-9. Samuel T. Bankart was born in 1792 in Leicester and in 1851 was living as ‘a gentleman’ in Gaddesby, Leicestershire. There are memorials to members of the Bankart family in the St. Mary de Castro church in the Leicester Castle precinct.

The Truck Act 1831 was a pioneering piece of British employment law, setting the trend towards later Victorian labour law. Section 3 required that: “The entire amount of the wages earned by.. any artificer.. shall be actually paid to such artificer in the current coin of this realm.” Payment by truck is traditionally seen as an abuse of labour, taking the form of the payment of wages in goods rather than coin. This was a practice prevalent especially in the hand-made nail trade in the Black Country; Framework-knitting in Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire and hand-loom weaving in Gloucestershire (Hilton, 1958). Since the goods taken could be overvalued or be of reduced quality it was unfair individually and as it made wage comparisons impossible it was unfair collectively too. However, it has been argued (Tan, 2006) that a system where credit was extended to workers was mutually beneficial.

The Petty Sessions were held by the county magistrates in the Assembly Rooms on Hotel in Leicester on Saturdays.

On Tuesday 21 October 1834 it was Moses Pegg taking the initiative in a case against T. Bankart, as owner of Bankart & Co., on a charge of paying one of his workmen, Thomas Ross, in goods rather than cash. He said that Ross had been compelled to take goods from the shop of Bankart’s overlooker Mr. Barsby of Market Street. The Magistrates refused to let the case go forward without evidence that Bankart himself paid his workmen in goods, or that he had an interest in Barsby’s business.

Ross came forward at that point to make his case, but had not got beyond half a dozen words when the magistrates stopped him, asking him to leave the room and return, if he chose, when sober.

He did so the following week.

The Leicester Chronicle: or, Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser (Leicester, England), Saturday, April 07, 1832

The Leicester Chronicle: or, Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser (Leicester, England), Saturday, October 25, 1834

The Leicester Chronicle: or, Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser (Leicester, England), Saturday, November 01, 1834

The Leicester Chronicle: or, Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser (Leicester, England), Saturday, November 08, 1834

“England Births and Christenings, 1538-1975,” database, FamilySearch ( : 30 December 2014), Thos. Ross, 24 Apr 1796; citing SHEARSBY, LEICESTER, ENGLAND, reference ; FHL microfilm 585,287.

Banks, S (2014) Informal Justice in England and Wales, 1760-1914, Boydell & Brewer, Suffolk. p.118.

Truck Act 1831 (1976). The Modern Law Review, 39, pp. 101.

Hilton, G.W. (1958) The Truck Act of 1831. The Economic History Review, 10 (3), pp. 470.

Tan, Elaine S. (2006) Regulating Wages in Kind: Theory and Evidence from Britain. Journal of Law, Economics and  organisation; 22 (2): 442-458. doi: 10.1093/jleo/ewj013

German Town, Philadelphia, 1831: A caution to runaways

George Ross had been placed in charge of the wool-combing and worsted-spinning business in Countesthorpe owned by his father Thomas and brother William Ross. In August 1827 George was found to have disappeared, along with (in all probability) a sizeable part of the funds of the business. William Ross ensured that news of his brother’s flight was put onto the front page of the Leicester Chronicle,  with mention of a handsome reward for any information that would lead to his discovery.

Though his father and uncles all came from Oadby, George had been born in the village of Shearsby and christened in the ancient church of St. Mary Magdalen on 14 November 1800. His father Thomas Ross was born  in 1768 and married his mother Frances Pebberdy in Shearsby on 6 April 1795. William Ross was born in 1772, Neal, born in 1791 and Samuel in 1804. Frances (‘Fanny’) Ross had not lived beyond 40 and died in January 1806. Uncle William Ross had died in February 1825.

No more was heard of George for a long while, and that might have remained the case, had it not been for another Leicestershire runaway: Thomas Shipley. He had been the ‘confidential traveller’ of a Mr. Overton, hosier, and had absconded with a sum of money belonging to his employer. He had, however, been tracked to America, arrested there and compelled to restore the greater part of the missing money. This international legal success had been orchestrated by the Leicester solicitors Messrs. Harris and Payne Johnson. They had sent their man, Bickling, over to America to identify Shipley and with the help of the American Consul brought him to justice. Over £700 had been returned, mostly from Shipley’s account in the Savings Bank. It would have been more, had not Shipley nervously thrown £100 into the sea on leaving England (at least, that’s what he told Bickling).

Not only was this achieved, but Bickling was able to report back on other Leicestershire abscondees. Shipley had been found in the home of Westbury Hill, also apparently from Countesthorpe, who had recently left behind a string of creditors there. He was one of a group of thirty or forty Leicestershire natives in the Philadelphia area alone. Among them were Poole and Jones and a fellow from Shearsby called Ross.

Messrs. Harris and Payne Johnson wanted readers of local newspapers to hear of their success in this matter and to understand that their experience was available for any other clients who had experienced losses in this manner. A piece entitled ‘a caution to runaways’ was printed in the Leicester Chronicle and re-printed in other newspapers in the Midlands.

By 1851 George Ross was back in Leicester, living in Craven Street with his other uncle, Neale and older brother William, both working as a wool-sorters.

Further research

How does worsted differ from other woollens?

What would George Ross’s life had been like in Philadelphia in the 1830s?


The Sheffield Independent, and Yorkshire and Derbyshire Advertiser (Sheffield, England), Saturday, August 06, 1831; Issue 537

The Leicester Chronicle: or, Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser (Leicester, England), Saturday, August 11, 1827; pg. [1]; Issue 872

Marriage of Thomas Ross and Frances Pebberdy. “England Marriages, 1538–1973 ,” database, FamilySearch ( : 10 December 2014), Thomas Ross and Frances Pebberdy, 06 Apr 1795; citing Shearsby, Leicester, England, reference V3; FHL microfilm 952,297.

Birth of George Ross. “England Births and Christenings, 1538-1975,” database, FamilySearch ( : 30 December 2014), George Ross, 14 Nov 1800; citing SHEARSBY,LEICESTER,ENGLAND, reference ; FHL microfilm 585,287.

Ross in the 1851 Census. “England and Wales Census, 1851,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 24 July 2016), George Ross in household of Neale Ross, St Margarets, Leicestershire, England; citing St Margarets, Leicestershire, England, p. 10, from “1851 England, Scotland and Wales census,” database and images, findmypast ( : n.d.); citing PRO HO 107, The National Archives of the UK, Kew, Surrey.

Leicester Assizes: August 3, 1825. The trial of Hannah Read

Court Reporter: I attend the courts and my reports are circulated in the newspapers of Oxford, Derby, Worcester and elsewhere. My pieces can be curtailed or extended depending on my readers’ taste for the sensational.

Judge: Mr Goulburn.

Mr. Goulburn: Your Honour, I would like to state the facts of this case. The deceased had been a soldier in the late wars, serving in Royal Wagon Train that made such a name for itself during the battle of Waterloo. At the time of his death he was in receipt of a small pension from the Chelsea Hospital. He had been married to the prisoner for between eight and nine years; but in consequence of mutual disagreements they had lived apart for two years before March last. The deceased, however, hearing that his wife had formed an adulterous connection with one Waterfield, by whom she had a child, insisted on her quitting that man, and again living with hm. To this she complied, but at the same time threatening that she would do for her husband. I am obliged to call the attention of the jury to this fact, because the proof of the crime alleged against the prisoner is wholly of a circumstantial nature. Therefore it is necessary in investigating this crime to take into consideration the whole of her conduct before and after the death of her husband.

Judge: Circumstantial?

Mr Goulburn: Yes, Your Honour. To this end I call my first witness, Thomas Read, the brother of the deceased.

Thomas Read: It was back on the sixth of March this year when my brother took his wife to live with him again. She had been living in Sheepshead with a man named Jonathan Waterfield and had had a child, which she did not blush to confess was his. On her return, though, Hannah behaved badly towards James, to the point were I confronted and remonstrated with her, threatening to have her brought here, Your Honour, for her misbehaviour.

Judge: You did, did you?

Thomas Read: On the Monday following, the twenty-first of April, she again left my brother, but I was able find her and bring her back to him. At twelve o’clock that day she sent for her husband to go with her to Foxton to visit her relative ther. It would be a journey of about seven miles. The last time I saw my brother was as he left Shearsby to go with his wife to that place. By six o’clock the same evening Hannah had returned and called for me. She told me that her husband had run away from her mad. When I asked her what she meant by that she said:

Hannah Read: “When we got below Gumley, Jem began to dance and jump about as if he were mad; then he damned and swore, and fell onto the grass, and tore it up with his hands. After that, he jumped up and ran as hard as he could towards Debdale-wharf. I went to the bridge but could only look after him.”

Thomas Read: “Why did you not alarm the people in the neighbourhood?”

Hannah Read: “I was too much frightened to do so.”

Thomas Read: “Hannah, I fear you have pushed my poor brother into the navigation, and have drowned him there.”

Hannah Read: “Good Lord, Master, we were never within a closes’s breadth of the navigation.”

Thomas Read: I then called upon the new constable in the village to keep her in custody while gathered people together to assist me in searching for my brother. The following morning, as I was engaged in dredging the canal, I pulled up my brother’s corpse from a bridge near Foxton. I said to Hannah, who was there with me at the time, that the body appeared to be bruised.

Hannah Read: “If there are any bruises, he made them himself, for he tumbled down along the towing path as if he were mad.”

Thomas Read: This seemed contrary to what she had told me on the previous evening. She told me afterwards that he had tumbled into the canal, about eighty yards from the bridge, and that she had held his hat out to try to save him.

Mr. Goulburn. Thank you, you may stand down. I now call upon James Alney, the constable at Sheepshead, to tell us what happened when the deceased went there to recover his wife.

James Alney: I went with a man from Shearsby to the house of one Jane Wright. Upon my knocking on the door and asking if Hannah Read and John Waterfield were in the house, Hannah put ther head out of the window and called back inside to Waterfield.

Hannah Read: “O Lord, John, here is Jem come back!”

James Alney: The man from Shearsby insisted on her going back with him.

Hannah Read: “If I do, I won’t live with you; I would sooner murder you.”

James Alney: Then she threw a wooden weaver’s bobbin, as big as my arm, at her husband in the street.

Mr. Goulburn: Mary Gamble.

Mary Gamble: Hannah came to me that Monday, before she and James set off for Foxton, telling me that her husband had insisted on her living with him, but that she was against this and had said:

Hannah Read: “Damn him, I’ll do for him.”

Elizabeth Whitmore: I was there when Mr. Read was endeavouring to persuade his wife to live quietly with him, heard her say:

Hannah Read: “Damn you, I’ll never live with you; I’ll finish you between this and Monday night.”

Ann Robinson: Hannah Read came to my house on the evening when her husband was drowned, and told me that he had run off mad towards Gumley. I told her “You will be guarded until your husband is found, dead or alive. People think you have drowned him; and if you have, you are sure to be hanged.” She said:

Hannah Read: “Nobody saw me drown him; and therefore no one can swear against against me”.

Mr. Goulburn: I call Robert Johnson, boatman.

Robert Johnson: I saw two people on that Monday afternoon near the bridge at Foxton. There was a man wearing a smock-frock, and a woman, who had a child in her arms, wore a red gown. The next day I was helping to drag the canal, and pulled out the body of the dead man. When found, his right hand was still in his breeches pocket. I believe the man we pulled out of the canal was the same as the one I had seen the previous evening.

Mr. Goulburn: Call back witness Read!

Thomas Read: When I saw them leave the village, they were dressed as Johnson described. And the place where Johnson saw them was in the opposite direction to where Hannah said they had been going.

Court Reporter: Another witness proved that that they were dressed in the manner described, and that they were seen near the lock. Then the Coroner Mr. Meredith Esq. was called:

Charles Meredith: I have here an examination of the prisoner..

The Judge: Which I will not hear read. I don’t agree with this practice of taking confessions from people in my gaols and producing them on their trial. Let people speak for themselves, I say. What can you tell about the body you were asked to look at?

Charles Meredith: The deceased met his end by drowning.

Court Reporter: The prisoner, who during the examination of the witnesses she had frequently contradicted their statements and was now called upon for her defence. She roused herself from a sort of stupor into which she had fallen, and in a low voice and wild manner protested that she was wholly innocent of the charge made against her. She described her husband’s conduct to have been frantic, and inexplicable, and that he had left her suddenly and fallen into the river.

The Judge: Members of the Jury, you have heard the testimony of several witness against the prisoner, and yet all the evidence is merely circumstantial. I urge you to consider this evidence with the most scrupulous attention, giving the prisoner the benefit of your doubts, if any should arise, concerning her guilt.

Court Reporter: After deliberating a quarter of an hour, the jury pronounced a verdict of..

Foreman: Guilty.

Court Reporter: The learned judge’s placing the black cap upon his head aroused her again from stupor, but when he addressed her by name she responded by a frantic shriek of melancholy fear and horror. She continually interrupted him by such appeals as:

Hannah Read: Save me! Oh, save me! For God’s sake, do not hang me! Oh save me for the sake of my six children, and my baby of six months old!

The Judge: Execution to take place next Friday morning. Afterwards her body to be taken down and  sent to the Infirmary for the benefit of the anatomists.

Image: Rainbow Bridge by Fred Jackson. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Some rights reserved

Shearsby: April 21, 1825. Hannah Read arrested for the murder of her husband

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)$1i (accessed 13th january 2017)