The Butcher and the Highwayman 1744

As in any district as old as ours, there have been several shocking murders, though thankfully few and far between. Just as now, those committed within the last hundred and fifty years have all been subject to intense media interest and speculation.

These events took place in 1744. Here is part of a letter written by the Quaker, Richard How II of The Old House, Aspley Guise. He was writing to his friend, William Tomlinson in London, and he was 17 at the time of writing:

..“one G. Hall, a butcher of Cranfield (about 6 or 7 miles from hence) going homeward from Woburn market on Friday night, about 7 or 8 o’clock in the evening, was knocked off his horse by a footpad (between Woburn and this place) with whom he engaged and could have mastered, but the footpad finding himself overpowered, drew out a knife. The other seeing something shine, though it being dark he could not distinguish what it was, however suspecting it, told him that provided he would not hurt him, he would readily deliver his money, but the villain not satisfied with that, stabbed him several times.

For the butcher having a calves pluck in his apron, the stabs did not reach through at first, but his cheek was cut down so that it lay upon his shoulder. He received a slight wound in his belly which was found by probing to be 3-4 inches long

This wound, I am told, was mortal, as it took out all the blood, the footpad then robbed him of £7 and made off. The poor man, thus wounded, made shift to crawl to a gardener’s house at some distance, where a surgeon was sent for who dressed his wound, notwithstanding which he died the next day at Woburn whither they had removed him. He said that he could not swear to the man who murdered him, however one of this town was taken on suspicion and carried before a Justice who is Knight for the Shire of Bucks, named Lowndes, who neither committed or acquitted him, but left that to the coroner, who sat on the body two or three days after the man’s death.

When the suspected person was ordered to touch the corpse (as people hereabout have a great notion as a body will bleed if touched by a murderer) which he did and stroked the face without effect. Then he was directed to touch the wound on the belly, when a person, with some violence, pressed his hand upon it, which may easily be imagined did occasion its seemingly rising when the hand was taken away, whereupon some said it blubbered and thought that a great evidence of the person’s guilt. One of the jurymen in particular was so much surprised at it that he was near swooning. The coroner’s inquest brought it in ‘Wilful Murder’ and have committed the man to Bedford Gaol.

The stories concerning him (who is sure to be a loose, disorderly fellow) are various and even contradictory. Some, ’tis said, being ready to swear they saw him in the lane looking for his hat just after the man was wounded, others that he was at Woburn at that time and about an hour before and afterwards, and so drunk as to fall down at almost every step. Some say he borrowed a knife that night, whether they would infer he designed something like it, others say he was too cowardly to have made such an attempt.

Before the man died, the accused was persuaded to go to see him, but would not, and afterwards went to a town at a small distance and told the people he had been with the man, who had cleared him. He was besides caught on several different stories, which I don’t wonder at. Even if he be innocent, it is enough, I should think to drive a person distracted to be suspected of such a crime or at least to put one in such confusion as not to know what one says, especially one who hardly does so at any time.

There have been some others suspected but have cleared themselves. Thus we are quite ignorant of the truth, but it is pretty generally believed here that the person committed, whose name is William Turvey, is guiltless, but at Woburn, they seem mostly of the contrary opinion. It is to be remarked that the market bell which used to be rung at 8 o’clock, when the tradesfolk leave work, was that night rung at about 7 by contrivance of some who wanted to be at liberty sooner than usual, which has occasioned disputes about the time, and rendered it hereby more difficult to be certain. One thing I observe is that when the surgeon came to dress the mans wounds the night he received them, he seemed almost stupefied and felt no pain, but only a faintness and desire of sleep supposed to be caused by the vast effusion of blood, but the next day, his pain was excessive till he died. These are the chief particulars I can learn about this dreadful affair.”

A rather gruesome event in our local history and one which deserves a little investigation. George Hall was born in November 1713, and came from a family of butchers, as his father and at least one of his brothers were in the same trade. But the Halls weren’t lily-white themselves, as a report in the Northants Mercury in 1725 states that George’s father William had been arrested for housebreaking and the theft of a silver tobacco stopper, a silk hanky and other items from Thomas Sawell of Salford. However, he escaped from the Cranfield constable, Henry Maine, and a two guinea reward was offered for his recapture. (About £200 today) William was described as:

A thick set man, 5′ 10″, dark brown hair and fair complexion. Large legs, and turns toes inwards when he walks and had on light coloured clothes.” History does not record if they ever caught up with him!

Getting back to George Hall, he married Mary Gregory in 1736, and fathered at least three children before his untimely death. A son, William, who died aged 11 in 1748, a daughter Elizabeth, and another son, John, who was born in July of 1744, the year of his father’s murder, and was later to become a bricklayer in Woburn. George paid 2 shillings window tax in 1744, for his house with 9 windows. This was one of the smaller houses so taxed in Cranfield that year.

George must have had a good day at the market to be bringing home £7 in gold. Perhaps he was employed to butcher the meat on the spot, for the buyers who wanted smaller packages to carry home. The ‘calves pluck’ he was carrying in his apron is another name for the offal, and could have been leftovers he had saved for his own family’s table that night.

Woburn has held a charter for a market since 1242. Where the Town Hall Antiques centre is now, once stood the Market Hall. It was a three-storey building, erected in 1737 for meetings, concerts and as a location for the local Petty Sessions to be held. It is likely that this is exactly where George spent his last day, as it is recorded that there were iron fittings along the cloister aisle down the side of the hall, especially for butchers to hang their meat from. This building was demolished in 1830. The bell mentioned was a curfew bell that was rung at 8 p.m. and 4 a.m., and its use continued up until at least 1832.

Whether he was travelling the main Woburn Road through to what was Hogstye End, or if he had turned off along Horsepool Lane to Aspley Guise, we cannot tell. The main road was, of course, a toll road at this time. The Hockliffe to Woburn Turnpike was opened in 1706, and was the first in Bedfordshire. It was extended through to Newport Pagnell in 1728. George would have paid a penny to ride his horse, laden or unladen, along it. The road was well used, as in 1744, the yearly total of tolls and fines was £220. (Over £25,000 today) Cruikshank’s cartoon of the stagecoach stuck in the sand and the passengers having to push it on this road, comes from 1796, about fifty years later than this incident, so the road was likely to have been even worse. This was long before any attempt at a cutting was made, and the road was still going over the top of the Sand Hills, which was quite a steep climb.

The Northants Mercury reported the crime in its issue of November 26th, saying the attack had taken place on Nov. 23rd, with a very similar report to the description that Richard How II used. Perhaps he had got his details from this report. The major difference is that the piece says the surgeon has dressed the wound “which would have been fatal” if the calves pluck had not been in George’s apron. So the news of George’s death had not caught up with the news of the attack. There is also a description that the villain was “a short man in a light coloured coat”, and would have been very bloody and muddy.

If William Turvey had been seen falling down drunk in Woburn that evening, he would have had at least 18 pubs to choose from. From those, three are still trading today; The Bell, The George (now The Inn at Woburn), and the Red Cow, (now The Royal Oak), although all have been almost completely rebuilt.

A follow-up mention in the Northants Mercury on the 3rd December says that William Turby (Note the different spelling), a miller’s servant, was committed to Bedford Gaol, and would be held until the next district Assizes at Bedford. These were held every six months, and the next was due on 14th March, 1745. There used to be a mill standing near Weathercock Close, where one of the golf clubs tees now is. William possibly worked there.

The county prison would not have been a pleasant place to be. Indeed, the jailer himself was bound over to keep the peace in 1737, for the “Severe and cruel usage of a prisoner“! The jailer was not paid for his work, and survived as an innkeeper of the public house next door to the jail, and by selling food to his inmates. Those who could not afford this service, and were not provided for by their family or friends, were left to beg through the gratings at the front of the prison from passers-by. Whipping of prisoners was common, and those convicted of even some trivial crimes could expect to be transported to America, although male convicts could chose to enlist in the army instead, which may not have been much of an improvement at that time!

The Knight of the Shire mentioned, Lowndes, was Richard Lowndes, who lived in Winslow. He was also a Buckinghamshire MP in 1742. It was a descendant of this Lowndes who was left a great deal of land around Wavendon and area, by a friend Mr Selby, on condition that he changed his family name, thus establishing the Selby-Lowndes family estate in this district.

Getting back to William Turvey, languishing in Bedford Gaol, he has proved harder to trace. Turvey was a known family name in Aspley Guise and Woburn at that time, and Richard does say in his letter, “of this place” so presumably he was indeed a local man. A William Turvey had been baptising his children at Woburn between 1722 and 1733, and a daughter of a William and Mary Turvey was buried at Aspley in 1735. It might have been easier to research him if there were some details of his sentencing but…

…when it came to trial, with Lord Chief Justice Willes and Justice Burnett presiding over the Assize cases, the jury found William “not guilty” on all three charges; those of the murder of George Hall, the same charge as brought by the Coroner’s inquisition, and for robbing George Hall on the King’s Highway of goods and monies to the value of £7.3s.6d. (Which would equate to about £825 today.) One can only image the horror William faced in being forced to touch the body, and have it bleed because someone pushed his hand down sharply, then spending 10 weeks in Bedford jail. He possibly never recovered from it. Or perhaps you may consider him guilty, and lucky to have “got off.”

So when someone next tells you that they’ve seen a short man in a light coat, splattered with blood, running down the Woburn Road, jangling some coins, don’t dismiss them as having spent too long in the local hostelries. This crime remains unsolved!


Page last updated Jan. 2019.