Get involved: send your pictures, video, news and views by texting WO to 80360, or email us
On a Dark and Stormy Night…
The murders of two gamekeepers at Aldbury in 1891
Appearing in the Domesday Book as ‘Aldeberie’, modern day Aldbury, nestling in the lee of the Chilterns below Ashridge, near Tring, is largely unchanged from the days when straw-plaiting provided a living for many of its residents. The medieval stocks and whipping post still stand by the duckpond, the old, timber-framed houses remain, as does the 18th century Greyhound public house which, on a grim December day in 1881, became part of a tragic chain of events, when the peace of the village was shattered by a double-murder.
It all took place in a wood known as Aldbury Nowers, near Stocks, a large country house situated half a mile from the village. Like so many gruesome murders in those days, the issue was over poaching, a serious crime. Indeed, there had been a time when poaching a capital offence.
The Stocks ‘shooting rights’ had been let to Joseph Williams of Nearby Pendley, who employed two gamekeepers to patrol the estate to catch poachers. They were James Double, head keeper, and his deputy William Puddephatt, 37 years. The men took it in turns to patrol, always with a helper, Joseph Crawley, 42, a night watchman, also in Joseph Williams’ employ. Puddephatt had a well-earned reputation as a strong, muscular character, ‘equalled by few’, a man who possessed courage. He lived at nearby Stocks Cottage. Crawley had been a farm labourer. He was a native of Great Gaddesden, and he too lived in the village.
On a dark, windy Saturday night, 12th December, 1891, Puddephatt, whose turn it was, and Crawley, set off on patrol, sadly without another man who would have joined them: Alfred Pike, a coachman, was a willing party, but his employer had been invited out to dine and needed his carriage – and coachman.
Puddephatt and Crawley were armed with stout sticks, nothing more. One can imagine the situation: the wind howling through the wood, black clouds making the night a particularly dark one, save for the occasional glimpse of the moon – ideal conditions for poachers, who, familiar with the terrain, could make their way unseen and unheard, and would be able to shoot game without risk of detection.
Despite this, it seems certain that Puddephatt and Crawley detected poachers, for that night they did not return. At eleven o’clock the following day their bodies were discovered in a ploughed field at the far side of the wood behind Stocks House, the residence of the widow of Richard Bright, M.P., by James Double and a gardener named Willmore, who had gone searching for them. They had been battered about the head and lain for hours in the rain and their own blood. The bodies were conveyed on carts to the Greyhound pub in Aldbury to await an inquest.
The discovery of the murdered men makes harrowing reading. As Double and Willmore emerged from the wood on their search, they came across the body of Joseph Crawley lying in a pool of blood. The back of his head was crushed, as though from a massive blow when he had been fleeing his assailants, probably caused by the barrel of a gun which had broken off and was lying close by.
Not far off lay the body of William Puddephatt. He was lying on his back with head and face injuries and an arm outstretched, ‘as if for help’. Willmore went off to Tring where Sergeant Page was informed of the tragedy, whilst Double returned to Aldbury to arrange transport of the bodies to the Greyhound and where the village bobby, PC Best, was informed of the tragedy. Dr Quesne also attended.
This was a shocking crime. Here, as Christmas loomed in this tiny community, two men going about their lawful duties were brutally slain, their wives widowed. Puddephatt had five children, Crawley seven.
In fact, the murders had been committed about 200 yards within the county of Buckinghamshire, so two police forces were involved: Bucks County, who had charge of the criminal investigation – indeed Captain Drake, the Chief Constable of Buckinghamshire, rode out on horseback to the scene of the crime – and Hertfordshire, who had the bodies and in whose territory the murdered men had lived and, as it happens, the three men responsible for the crime.
The culprits were quickly identified, not surprising perhaps in a small community and in times when few travelled about. Two renowned poachers, Frederick Eggleton and Charles Rayner, and Walter Smith, had been seen on the night in question, drinking in a number of local hostelries – the Britannia in Tring, the Red House at New Mill and another by the canal, the Bulbourne Arms. They had made their way to the Greyhound for a supper of bread, cheese and beer, where they had been spotted by Puddephatt who had made it his business to see if any suspicious characters were about on such a dark night. It is said that Puddephatt said to the men, ‘We’ll meet again’, implying he knew fine well they would be poaching that night. It seems he was to be proved right – and soon.
On discovery of the murders, the hue and cry went up. Smith, a labourer, was quickly arrested. He denied complicity, saying he had gone straight home from the Greyhound on the night in question, even saying ‘goodnight’ to PC Best. Perhaps he did, but this would not have ruled him out from meeting up again with the others. It seems Eggleton and Rayner called on him, on the Sunday, probably to flee with them, but his wife said he was still in bed! So they fled alone.
A reward of £100 was put on the heads of Eggleton and Rayner who, after being spotted in Tring and again near Wendover where they were seen ‘acting in a furtive manner’ by a farmer, were arrested at Slough, by PC Payne. The circumstances surrounding their detention are bizarre, to say the least.
They told PC Payne they had been to Denham, where they had sold a knife in a public house, and bought herring with the proceeds. Men on the run, needing money to buy food, perhaps. Then, they said, they had read of the murders in the newspapers, and seeing that the descriptions of the suspects matched their own they had fled in fear of apprehension. They had hid at Long Farm, from which, when they emerged, they walked straight into the arms of PC Payne who promptly arrested them and charged them with the murders then and there.
Then, incredibly, it emerged they had been arrested earlier at Oxford, where police had let them go as they did not think they matched the suspects’ descriptions. Having done so they had changed their minds, and the constable was sent to get them, whereupon they ran off! Undaunted, the constable caught a pony and pursued them, but the pony wasn’t up to it and they escaped. But now, at Slough, they were in custody. They were taken to Aylesbury prison.
Their sudden disappearance, no doubt, sparked certainty that they were guilty, which would not have helped their cause at the ensuing trial. Rayner had served twelve years as a soldier, so perhaps he was well acquainted with the rules of staying at large and looking after himself.
It was established that Smith was the man in possession of the gun on the night of the murder, and that he had thrown the broken stock into the canal. It was recovered by police. He admitted being in company with the others, including when they attacked the two gamekeepers, but insisted he left before murder was done. But all three admitted they had encountered the gamekeepers in the wood that night. In his statement Smith said:
‘We all three went to Aldbury Nowers wood in search of game, on the 12th night of December. Rayner had the first shot and missed. I had the next and killed a hen bird then Puddephatt and Crawley came to us and us three started off, but they flew in at us and Crawley said “You bastard, I will kill you” and we fought outside the wood. We all five fought in the field for half an hour and we started to go but Puddephatt said “Come on Joe, we can take them”, and Crawley said “Knock the bastards down”. There was a great struggle…’
‘The men were alive when I left,’ said Smith, whose evidence appears to have been accepted, perhaps to cement a conviction against the others. He was sentenced to 20 years hard labour. Eggleton and Rayner, not surprisingly, were convicted of murder. The judge, in keeping with the tradition of the time, donned his black cap and passed the only sentence he could. There were moves to have them spared the noose, as between them they had three wives and fourteen children, who would all fall on the parish if they were executed.
The cause was furthered by a writer, Mary Humphry Ward who by chance visited Aldbury, and when she was invited to a party at a country guest house she tried to persuade one of the guests, the Home Secretary no less, to grant a reprieve. It did no good. They were hanged on 17th March, 1892, and Ms Ward, who moved to Stocks that summer, 1892, wrote a novel, ‘Marcella’, about the story. When, in 1894, a woman drowned herself in the village well, she wrote a novel about that too, ‘The Story of Bessie Costrell’.
After serving eighteen years of his incarceration, Smith, on his deathbed, reputedly confessed to murdering both men. Murder victims Puddephatt and Crawley, and Mary Humphry Ward, are all buried in the churchyard at Aldbury.