The concept of a Coroner was established shortly after the Norman Conquest of 1066, but the formal office was not established until 1194, with the role and duties evolving considerably over time. When first established, the Coroner was essentially a tax inspector, on the lookout for any revenues that could go to the crown. Suicides presented one such lucrative opportunity, as to take one’s own life was deemed a serious crime, with the penalty being the seizure of the deceased person’s money and property. Over time, the Coroner’s role changed from tax collector to someone charged with determining the cause of death in suspicious or accidental circumstances.
Coroner’s juries would be sworn in very quickly after a death and often convened in a public house, as they were one of the few public spaces available with sufficient room to accommodate the jury, Coroner and any witnesses. If the jury decided there was foul play involved in the death, the case would be referred on to the Assizes. The Nags Head at Great Linford appears to have become the favourite location for inquests into deaths in the Parish, with an outbuilding said to have served as a morgue, but we also find inquests held at The Black Horse, the Wharf Inn and further afield; the apparent rule of thumb being to hold the inquest as close to the location of the incident as possible. Charles Dickens wrote in Bleak House that, “The coroner frequents more public-houses than any man alive.”
The following stories represent a selection of Coroner’s inquests held into deaths of Great Linford residents; they reveal that the village was a dangerous place to live, with accidents, particularly falls, a commonplace occurrence before the establishment of the safety minded society with live in now. The canal was also a dangerous place, not only for accidents, but sadly suicides. The accounts of inquests published in newspapers also provide in their often detailed testimony some of the clearest insights available into the lives of people in the village, often in their own words.
The following stories contain potentially upsetting and graphic details of deaths.
Buried in the highway
On January 26th 1804 an inquest was held, presumably at The Nags Head, into the death by hanging the day before of Daniel Haynes, who was a servant of “Mr. Bacchus.” The Bacchus family were significant figures in the village, having held the licence at the Nags Head throughout most of the first half of the 1800s, though it is not entirely clear if the Mr Bacchus mentioned in the newspaper was the William Bacchus of The Nags Head, or a different branch of the family, possibly headed by a Richard Bacchus.
The story told is a perplexing one, as Daniel appears to have spent the day in good spirits. He had been driving the horses pulling a timber carriage, literally a wheeled conveyance designed specifically for hauling tree timbers and had been, “very merry.” He went into the stable to clean the horses where he was heard to be singing, but then appears to have decided to affix a halter to a beam in the stable and hang himself. The jury returned a verdict of “felo de se”, an archaic legal term that denotes an illegal act of suicide, and the coroner issued a warrant that the body “be buried in the highway”, as a suicide could not be interred in the consecrated grounds of a churchyard.
A very peculiar case
Jane Nichols was 18 years old when on Wednesday April 16th, 1873 she stood by the bank of the canal at Great Linford, and removing her personal possessions and laying them neatly by the side, jumped to her death. She was discovered a little later floating just under the water by a passer-by named George Leach, who with the help of others he had summoned pulled the body from the water. From the evidence produced at the inquest held at The Nags Head on April 18th, it seems that Jane was of sound mind, but the evidence raised as many questions as it did answers; the presiding deputy coroner pronounced it, “a very peculiar case.”
Jane was born at Great Linford in 1855, the daughter of George and Sarah. Her father was a shepherd in the employ of Mr G. Huntley. In 1871, we find the family living in a cottage on the High Street. Jane is a lacemaker, as is her mother, with two brothers listed as agricultural workers. We know from the inquest that Jane was lame and used a crutch, with the implication in the evidence that she had been so afflicted since birth.
The inquest was long and called many witnesses, with a substantial account provided in Croydon’s Weekly News, so we know a great deal of her movements, to whom she spoke and her state of mind in the hours before her death. The first witness was her father, who provided the mysterious detail that on or around the 6th of September, she had been “enticed away” from home, though frustratingly the report does not elaborate on who might have done this or the reasons why, though the obvious thought is that was a romantic motive. Her father stated that she was a sober person and had never threatened to leave home before and her behaviour had always been quite normal, a view supported by the witness Ann Gaskins, who had known Jane since birth; she believed that Jane was on very good terms with her parents and was a cheerful young woman and had never seen anything peculiar about her.
Jane’s father testified that he believed she had been staying with a brother (actually a half-brother) in Newton Abbott in Devon, though which of several brothers this was is uncertain; no Nichols born in Great Linford appears in a Devon census, though other brothers had scattered about the country, so this does not call into doubt this evidence. George stated that he had received a letter (from whom it is not clear) informing him that his daughter was coming home. Here though we find a discrepancy, for the Buckingham Advertiser newspaper also reported on the case and provides a detail absent in the reporting in Croydon’s Weekly News, that Jane was returning home in disgrace, as she had been caught committing a theft. It also alleges that Jane was sent to Devon by her parents rather than departed by her own choice. It does seem odd that these important allegations (if true) were omitted from the much more detailed story carried by Croydon’s Weekly News, but it might help to explain why Jane then seemed to make great effort to avoid returning to her parents’ home, spending her last night at a friend’s house. An equally valid reason for her reluctance is offered by Ann Gaskins, who testified that she had examined the body and believed Jane to be two or three months pregnant!
The testimony now shifts to Janes’ movements since her arrival back in Great Linford parish. Rosetta Mills, who was probably the Rose Mills aged 15 on the 1871 Great Linford census, told the inquest that Jane had arrived at her house unexpectedly at around noon on the 15th of April. The house according to the Buckingham Advertiser account was near the Great Linford Toll Gate, with the 1871 census putting Rose’s address on the Wolverton Road. She and Rosetta had then visited Newport Pagnell and met two men named as John Walters and Henry Holborough, with the former described as an old sweetheart of Jane. Though all 4 had returned to Rosetta’s house and spent the night there, the testimony from Rosetta and both men was at pains to state they had drunk no beer and had sat up all night talking, principally about Janes’ time in Newton Abbott, and from where we learn the additional detail that she had made a living there as a dressmaker. Walters offered the additional detail that he had heard, though not from Jane, that she had pawned her clothes to afford the train ticket home. She also appeared to be fearful of meeting her father, and wished to stay away, saying to Rosetta, “she should not go home until her mother sent for her.”
While returning from Newport Pagnell earlier in the day, Jane had met Benjamin Elliot, who testified that Jane was his wife’s niece. He had asked her to return to her father to which she had agreed, but on meeting her again by the Toll Gate later that evening, he found her in the company of Rosetta and their two men-friends and determined not to go home. Elliot returned the following morning at about 10am with another concerned relative named William Desborough and called her out of the house, urging her to visit her mother, who was waiting at his house. Jane appeared to agree and both men followed her to the canal bridge by the wharf. Here they left her to proceed alone up the lane to Great Linford, with no apparent sign of despondency on her part. It was the last they would see of her alive.
George Leech offered his evidence next. He had been for a walk, and crossing a stile onto the canal tow path, he saw a women’s jacket and hat on the path close to the bridge. Besides these was a thimble, a halfpenny, a brooch, a pair of ear-rings and a necklace, all placed neatly together, as if carefully arranged rather than dropped in haste. Walking a further 20 yards from the bridge, he saw a woman’s body in the water and a crutch floating, and calling two nearby farm labourers, they retrieved the lifeless girl from the canal. Fetching a cart, they took the body to the Nags Head, an outbuilding of which served as the village mortuary.
The coroner summed up, declaring that he had never seen a more remarkable case, for the deceased seemed to be unafraid of going home and was on good terms with her parents. It appeared to be however a deliberate act of suicide. Having heard the evidence, the jury returned a verdict of Felo de se, (felon of himself.) The coroner’s statement seems however to lack imagination, as Jane’s desire to see her mother first rather than her father, would seem to have all the hallmarks of a desperate girl worried about his reaction to her pregnancy. Sadly, there is no record of her burial at Great Linford, since a suicide would have been viewed as a mortal sin and so she was likely denied an internment in consecrated ground.
A determined suicide
Henry Pittam was an itinerant salesman, who made his living selling oils in the neighbourhood of Great Linford, but it seemed that at the age of 72 he was becoming depressed. On the evening of Wednesday July 1st, 1868, he had been questioned on the Willen Road by Police Constable Charles Riddiford on suspicion of loitering around a property belonging to a Mr Anstee, but had been let on his way toward Great Linford. Henry was next seen at the Black Horse Inn, where he was well known to Charlotte Warren, the landlord’s wife. In her evidence she said that on asking after his wellbeing, Henry had said, “I have been better off”, and after drinking a half pint of beer he had slept overnight at the Inn. He was seen again by Charlotte at about 7.30pm that evening, where she witnessed him sharpen his knife on the bridge and then go along the canal side.
At around 10pm that night, Charles James Hitchen was walking along the canal side with his mother when they heard a splash and saw a man moving in the water. At the Black Horse, Frederick Sykes and Frederick Weetly heard the alarm and rushed to assist, pulling Henry from the water, but he had already passed away. He had slit his throat, leaving a blood stained knife on the bank along with his hat, coat and necktie. The body was identified by Henry’s uncle Samuel and the coroner gave his opinion that as he was not satisfied as to the deceased state of mind, the jury must either return a verdict of Felo de se or an open verdict of “death by drowning.” The coroner advised he was in favour of the latter, so the jury returned a verdict of “found drowned.” Henry was buried at Great Linford on July 4th, 1868. It does seem that the evidence points firmly to a suicide, but perhaps the coroner was minded to avoid that verdict so Charles could receive a Christian burial.
Tragedy at the Rectory
Mary Ann Butler was born in Upper Heywood, Oxfordshire in early September of 1880. Her father George was an Agricultural Labourer and her mother was named Sarah. Sometime around her 14th birthday, she was dispatched to Great Linford to serve as a maid in the Rectory, then the home of the reverend Sidney Herbert Williams, his wife Ellen and their 2 daughters. 17 year old Mary Butler was one of several servants in the house, including a cook. Mary was stepping out with a local boy and appeared not unlike a typical teenager of any age, on the surface a happy girl, if not entirely serious about her duties and because of that occasionally skirting on thin ice with the cook.
So what almost 2 years after her arrival at The Rectory would have driven her on the evening of May 24th, 1897 to apparently choose to take a fatal plunge into the canal? The Coroner’s inquest was held not in Great Linford but at the Forester’s Arms in New Bradwell, as the body was recovered from the canal nearby and conveyed there by the police. Evidence was heard from all the below stairs staff, though conspicuously not the Reverend or his wife. First before the Jury though was the grieving father, who testified that his daughter was a, “lively, industrious girl”, and that, “the letters she sent home seemed to be written in a happy and contented spirit.”
Gertrude Attwood spoke next. She was the cook, and remembered on the evening in question that Mary had cleared away the supper and had seemed quite normal. “She did not worry or fret about anything. She seemed a very jolly girl.” Gertrude further testified that she considered her and Jane good friends, and she had only ever had to correct her on, “trifling things”, though this seems somewhat contradicted by her admission that she had told her that very evening of her intention to report her to the lady of the house, and that she had begun writing a letter to Jane’s mother about her conduct, seeming to imply that something of a more serious nature was going on. Gertrude told the jury that Jane had seen her writing the letter, but did not know it was to her mother. As was apparently normal, Jane had stepped out that evening, but not having returned by about quarter to ten, Gertrude began to think something was amiss and informed Mrs Williams.
Gertrude’s letter was destroyed that evening, which in itself seems an odd thing to do, but a letter that was entered into evidence was one Jane had written to her mother and was discovered unsent, revealing that beneath her jolly exterior was a girl struggling to cope. In the letter, she expresses the desire to “bolt”, and she and the cook had fallen out. Also she wrote, “they worried the life out life out of her” and, “they nearly sent her out of her mind”, though we are not told who “they” are. The letter was not considered a suicide note, but it did also contain the odd, unexplained and unremarked upon statement that her mother was to have her clothes.
Sadly Jane’s body was not recovered for a number of days, and had drifted approximately a mile and a quarter from the rectory to a spot called, “Rogues Lane Bridge” before a police constable Govier was alerted and was able with the use of a drag to recover her. Henry Mills, a surgeon of Stantonbury attested that he had examined the body and was convinced of drowning as a cause of death, though he observed that there were a number of injuries to the head that he was confident had occurred after death. This does not seem an unreasonable conclusion, given the time the body was floating in the busy canal; one or more collisions with barges must have been very likely.
Finally the testimony of Frederick West of Newport Pagnell was heard. Frederick was Jane’s boyfriend and stated that he had “been keeping company” with her for 2 months and had last seen her on Sunday night. Frederick offered that she did seem upset and had promised to see him the following Sunday and would give him her photograph. He did however say that the other servants, “got on” to her for going out with him and that Jane had observed that the cook had seen them together that night and would also surely have something to say. Frederick had asked her if she was planning to visit her parents at the Whitsuntide holiday, to which Jane confirmed she had saved a sovereign to pay for the journey.
There is much then that appears strange and contradictory in this account; a young girl who on the surface of things appears to be happy and content, but may in fact be putting on a brave face, a cook who professes great friendship, but writes a letter of complaint to the parents which is destroyed, another letter that professes a desire to flee rather than die, but which seems to be bequeathing the deceased clothing to her mother. The Coroner must have felt the same, as in summing up he pointed out that there was no evidence that Jane had committed suicide. The Jury therefore returned a verdict of “death by drowning”, with the conviction that there was no suspicion of foul play. On the suggestion of the Coroner, they also cleared the cook of any part in the death through any form of persecution.
This case is a tragic one, but provides a fascinating window into the lives of the girls employed to work as servants, or as the famous phrase has it, below stairs. Jane would have had a hard life, up early to ready the house for a busy new day, to bed late after clearing up, and with strict expectations as to her conduct and behaviour. She would have been required to be on hand constantly to attend to the whims of her employees, and would have had an acute sense of her place in the pecking order within the house. Unless the reverend Williams and his wife were particularly forward thinking, they would have required their servants to blend in with the surroundings, to be a vital part of the household, but forever apart from It. It must have been a frightening and acutely intimidating experience for a teenage girl who had likely seldom strayed far from home to be dropped into a this strange and strictly governed new world.
Jane’s body was returned home to be buried at Upper Heywood. As she was not judged a suicide, she was allowed to be buried in the parish churchyard on May 30th, 1897. The burial record has the additional notation of, “by coroner’s warrant.” Of the other key character in this tale, Gertrude Attwood seems to disappear, and by the time of the 1901 census, the Turnbulls had a new cook.
A fall from a horse
Though the details of this case are sparse, it is the earliest record of a Coroner’s inquest found so far for Great Linford, having occurred in 1764. It is also the earliest newspaper story so far found to mention Great Linford, published in the Oxford Journal of Saturday May 5th. All it provides is that an inquisition was held in Great Linford before James Burnham, Gent, his Majesties Coroner for the county, “on View of the body of Thomas Brown, who was accidentally killed by a fall from his horse.” The name Brown does not figure in the history of Great Linford in this period, so we must presume that he was riding through when the accident befell him.
A fall while thatching
In October of 1786, an inquest took place at Bradwell into the death of a John Brown, who was thatching a roof at Great Linford when for reasons not explained, he fell from the roof and received “a violent concussion upon the brain, of which he instantly expired”. The jury returned a verdict of accidental death. This was almost certainly the John Brown, buried at Bradwell on October 14th, 1786, described in the burial record as a “poor man.” We also learn from the newspaper account of the inquest that the county coroner was called James Burnham.
Suffocated from Charcoal Fumes
Sometime in early March of 1869, a 16 year old housemaid named Ellen Hicks found herself chilly on going to bed, and along with another unnamed servant who was a cook, decided to light some charcoal to warm themselves. Little did they know the danger of doing this, as the next morning and not having appeared for work, they were both found insensible in their room, having succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning. The cook recovered, but Ellen was pronounced dead. The tragedy occurred at Maidsmorton in Northamptonshire, but Ellen was the daughter of Thomas Hicks, the gamekeeper to the Uthwatts at Great Linford. She was buried at Maids Morton, where she was born and from where the Hicks family had originated.
Dragged by a horse
Falls from carts and horses was an all too common cause of death, and this example from November 27th, 1889 is a particularly gruesome example. Jesse Gaskins was a resident of Haversham, and having been dispatched to deliver some pigs to Newport Pagnell market was returning home when he lost control of his horse somewhere between the Great Linford “old Toll Gate” and The Black Horse Inn. A Witness described seeing Gaskins riding on the horse, which was pulling a heavy farmer’s cart. Gaskins was seen to have urged the horse on several times by hitting it with a stick, whereupon it broke into a trot. Gaskins had attempted to return to the cart, but he seemed to slip and with one foot tangled in the harness was unable to right himself as the panicked horse broke into a gallop. Helpless, Gaskins was dragged with his head hitting the ground for a quarter of a mile before one of the witnesses was able to bring the horse under control. Gaskins was described as in a pitiful condition, and was conveyed to The Black Horse Inn where he was pronounced dead. The inquest was held at The Black Horse Inn, with the jury returning a verdict of, “Accidental death, caused by the deceased riding on the shafts without reins, and having no control of the horse.”
Left at the helm of a barge
William Chatten was 7 or 8 years old in 1883 when he was left briefly at the helm of a canal barge called The Stafford, but as the coroner’s jury was to hear when they convened on June 4th at The Wharf Inn, Great Linford, a few moments of inattention were all that was required for a tragedy to unfold. It was June 3rd between approximately 3 and 4pm, when according to the testimony of a Boatman named Walter Hancock he noticed something was amiss. He was leading the horse pulling the barge when he noticed that it was drifting off course and shouted back to William to make an adjustment, but receiving no reply he sent another boy to find out if he had gone into the cabin. Told that there was no sign of him, Walter ran back and seeing no sign of movement in the water, jumped in and searched about but could find no sign of William, who could not swim. Drags were used to no avail, and it was not for another two hours that the now lifeless body was recovered. The jury heard that it was unusual for a boy of this age to be left at the helm, but on this occasion his uncle had told him to do so while he got a feed of corn for the horse. Quite where the accident took place is not entirely certain; the account makes reference to a swing bridge about a mile and a half from Great Linford, but it is not entirely clear where this is, or for that matter if the accident occurred precisely within the boundaries of Great Linford parish, though of course the inquest certainly did. The jury returned a verdict of accidentally drowned.
A fall from a load of hay
On the August Bank holiday of August 1st, 1904, an inquest was held at The Nag’s Head into the death of a 63 year old villager named John Jenkins, undoubtedly the same John Jenkin’s who had chased down a burglar who had robbed the house of John Clode in 1889. The account printed in Croydon's Weekly Standard of Saturday August 6th, 1904 of the fall that killed John is a comprehensive one, and not only gives us the details of the accident, but a full list of the participants in the coroner’s inquest, which means we can get a snapshot of the kind of persons likely to be called to jury duty.
The 12 members of the Jury were:
William Souster – Foreman of the jury. Blacksmith
George Rose – Shop keeper
Harry Atkinson – Blacksmith’s Striker
James William Dunkley – Railway labourer
David Limbrey – Glazier at Railway works
George Sapwell – Blacksmith’s Striker at Railway works
Thomas Hobbs – General labourer at Railway works
William Haynes – Agricultural labourer
Joseph Fennimore – Striker Smith’s Shop at Railway works
George Tupper – Domestic Gardener
Albert Riley – Roadman for council
J.G Line - Unidentified
The makeup of the jurors, whilst of course all men, is overwise a strikingly egalitarian one, not packed as one might have imagined with the richer better educated residents of the village, and as seems fitting, would quite likely have included many friends and acquaintances of the deceased.
Representing the police were P.C’s Clearey and Dickins, and presiding was a solicitor named Mr Webber, the acting deputy for Mr F. T. Tanqueray, Coroner of Ampthill.
After, “the customary viewing of the body” (so almost certainly the deceased had been taken to the mortuary at The Nag’s Head) the first witness was called. This was Harry William Jenkins, the son of the deceased who lived in Wolverton, where he was a lamp maker. Harry confirmed that the body viewed was that of his father, and testified that he had heard of the accident on July 11th, with the accident having occurred on the 9th. On coming to his house in Great Linford, he found his father very ill in bed and without the energy to tell him what had happened, but on returning again on the following Sunday was able to hear an account of the circumstances. John explained to his son that he had been loading hay into carts for Mr Bird and toward the end of the day was atop a cart, the contents of which had not yet been secured in place. Turning to speak to the boy holding the horse, the hay underfoot had shifted and John had fell, striking his head on a wheel. This was largely corroborated by a witness who had been in the field, and confirmed that the fall had happened when John had turned to speak to the farm boy. He did not see him strike the wheel, but rather thought he had fell to the ground head first. The final witness was doctor Wickham, who had attended on the day and found the patient suffering from shock and confusion, but found no sign of obvious injuries such as fractures, dislocation of the spine or paralysis. John had lingered in bed in considerable pain, and in the third week of his convalescence had begun to show signs of pressure on his spinal cord, with the death occurring on the Friday evening of July 29th. The jury returned a verdict of accidental death.
John seemed to have been in good health prior to his accident, but the case is illustrative of the hard manual labour that men of his age were forced to take and the high risk of injury that came with it.
Fell through the ice
January 1918 was a cold month in Great Linford, so much so that the ponds in the park had been frozen over for much of the previous week when 7 year old Douglas Claude Sapwell ventured out onto the ice to play sliding. It was the afternoon of Monday 14th and Douglas had come to the pond after school, but there had been a thaw over the weekend and the thinning ice would not support his weight and he fell through. Whether he was seen to fall in or had shouted out, an attempt was quickly made to rescue him, with help arriving from the Manor in the person of Edward Mead, the 17 year old son of the then current occupier, Charles Walter Mead. Fetching a ladder, Edward had attempted to reach Douglas, but the ice was so thin that Edward also found himself submerged. Despite this setback, he managed with the help of others to get Douglas to the bank, but despite an attempt at artificial respiration from a doctor Wickham, poor Douglas was pronounced dead.
In an odd postscript to this sad tale, a coroner’s jury had been summoned to the Nag’s Head pub on the Wednesday after the tragedy, but after waiting several hours, the Coroner, who was named in newspaper reports as Mr F. W. Tanqueray, was deemed a no show and the Jury were summoned to sit another day. No further report appears to have been made in newspapers, so we are lacking any further information on the sad details of the accident.
A Christmas Tragedy
Sometimes a death seems particularly poignant, and that would certainly seem to be so in the case of 59 year old Agnes Ransley, nee Kemp, who had left Great Linford with her husband to live in Newark, but had returned to the village over Christmas of 1930 to stay for the holidays with her brother at the Wharf Cottage. The opportunity presenting itself, on Christmas Day she had gone to the churchyard to layer flowers on the graves of her parents, Frederick William Kemp and Elizabeth Kemp, nee Grace. There she had stumbled and tripped over a grave stone, spraining her ankle and sustaining other injuries described as of a minor character.
The fall happened on a Wednesday, and The Bucks Herald newspaper tells that after she was attended to by a doctor and nurse, all seemed well. On Saturday January 4th, she had retired to bed in, “very cheerful spirits”, but during the night her sister-in-law had heard strange noises emanating from the guest room, and on investigating found Agnes close to death. The doctor was called again, but she passed away before they could arrive. The doctor diagnosed a blood clot to the heart.