Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Visitation of God or manslaughter, the death of John Bradshaw in Eltham in 1837

Rural communities have never been the peaceful idyllic places some would have us believe.

In just a short two decades, the small township of Chorlton-cum-Hardy experienced two murders, a series of daring burglaries and two cases of infanticide.

There were also groups of violent drunks from Manchester who persistently intimidated the local residents and just a mile or so away passengers on packet boats travelling along the Duke’s Canal from Stretford were pelted with stones.

Some of the crimes were opportunistic, others like the poaching of potatoes from the fields on the northern side of Chorlton were organised by gangs who came in from Hulme equipped with wheel barrows and their own sacks.

From the Times February 1 1837
And then because the southern end of the township opened out onto the flood plain and was relatively remote it was perfect for illegal prize fighting which could attract hundreds who if necessary could escape over the Mersey into Cheshire and thereby evade the Lancashire police.

All of which makes me think that the drunken attack on the landlord of the Castle in Eltham High Street in the January of 1837 will not have been an isolated case.  Indeed just a few months later an armed gang of escaped convicts from Woolwich were apprehended trying to make for the woods to the south of Shooters Hill.*

Now there is a danger in elevating two events into a crime wave, but I rather think it is just that we haven’t looked too closely at the newspaper reports or the Quarterly Sessions.

And so back to Mr John Bradshaw, late of the Castle in the High Street and the story of John Foster who came to the assistance of the landlord.

Like so many nice tales of the past its telling emerged from a chance discovery of a newspaper report of the inquest into Mr Bradshaw’s death and the work of my new chum Jean who is a descendant of John Foster.**

The Foster’s ran the smithy in the High Street and were well respected that stories of old Mr Foster were still circulating into the town almost a hundred years after he first arrived from Carlisle.

The Castle in 1909
The story itself is not an unusual one, a drunk by the name of Lucas fell foul of the landlord who ordered him out and in the subsequent scuffle Mr Bradshaw was hit and fell over.

And this was where the young John Foster came into the story attempting to remove Lucas from the pub not once but twice.

In the meantime Mr Bradshaw had died and the medial opinion was his death had been “caused by a sudden fit or a convulsion of the brain, produced by a fall.  His death must have been instantaneous.”***

The inquest was held in Mr Bradshaw’s pub which was a common enough practice, given that after the church the only other public place large enough would have been the school house or a pub.

Now I have come across quite a few inquests from the period and what I always find fascinating is that they provide a rare opportunity to hear ordinary people, many of whom have not left a scrap of written material about themselves or their times.

And so here we have John Foster, along with John Heritage and Mrs Bradshaw speaking directly to us of the event that happened that night.

Nor is that all for in the course of the inquest other people are mentioned all of whom it should be possible to track down.

But most striking is the clash between the coroner and the Jury.  He was satisfied and said so that the death was “by the visitation of God” rather than at the hand of Lucas which conflicted with their verdict “That the death of the deceased was caused by over excitement, produced by the conduct of James Lucas.”

Remarkably the Coroner refused to accept the verdict, directed them to think again and when by a majority they returned the same decision commented “I cannot agree with you that your verdict is a proper one. [and was] bound to order you all to appear at the Criminal Court and take the onion of the learned judge whether I am bound to receive such a verdict, which is in direct opposition to the evidence.”

This is a judgement by the Coroner made all the more odd given one witness reported that it was Lucas’s blow to Mr Bradshaw which had resulted in the fall and subsequent conclusion commented on by the surgeon.

Now unlike other inquests I have written about we do not know who the jurors were and that is a pity because they appear to have been a resolute bunch prepared to stand up to the Coroner.

So much so that the foreman was moved to comment that “If we are obliged to attend without returning our verdict, I am quite at a loss to know what use it is to call jury.  For my part I have come to the determination to return no other verdict.”

All of which makes me feel for these “little men” who were prepared to stand their ground against the professional with all his authority.

Now that could just be the end of the story but not quite.  John Bradshaw was buried in the parish church and there will opportunities to pursue the lives of the others mentioned in the inquest.

And so to Lucas.

From the court records, 1837
A search of the criminal records revealed that a James Lucas aged 51 went before the Kent Assizes on January 30th 1837 for manslaughter and was acquitted.

There is of course a slight mismatch in dates.  The inquest report is dated February 1st and the hearing was the day before.  But given that the Times reported that the inquiry was adjourned until the following evening when the Coroner had consulted a higher authority “as to whether I can receive your verdict” it may well be that the jury was once again ignored.

As it was James Lucas was in Well Hall in 1841, a widow living with his two daughters, Harriet aged 14 and Emmie aged 12.  His given occupation was a sawyer and so now a new search begins, for information on his wife Sarah and perhaps some of the other people named in the inquest who may well have worked with him.

*Convict Chase and Capture, the Times May 8th 1837
**Tragedy at the Castle Inn, Jean Gammons and based on a report in The Times February 1st 1837
***evidence of Mr David King, surgeon

Picture; The Castle Inn from The story of Royal Eltham, R.R.C. Gregory, 1909 and published on The story of Royal Eltham, http://www.gregory.elthamhistory.org.uk/ 

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