by Julius Falconer
...‘This is madness,’ Constance said. ‘You’d never get away with it, for a start. And for another thing, how can you both sit here calmly discussing the murder of your own father and grandfather? It’s grotesque, that’s what it is.’ Ignoring his mother’s outburst, Fletcher continued.
‘I’ve come up with quite a few cases of murders on farms dressed up to look like accidents. Here’s one. In July 1648, at the height of the civil war, Sir Thomas Fairfax came to Ossett, near Wakefield in Yorkshire, to attack Thornhill Hall, which had been occupied and fortified by Royalists under Captain Thomas Paulden. He used the farm buildings adjacent to the hall as cover for his cannon, allowed some of the retainers to leave and then began to bombard the main house. All of a sudden, the Parliamentarian powder-store blew up and took not just the farm-buildings but the hall as well with it. It transpired later that one of his former farm-hands, frightened that Sir Henry Savile, the owner, would surrender and survive, deliberately threw a torch into the powder-store. There was some story of revenge for losing his job.
‘Here’s another. In September 1793, a man called George Powell was run over by a cart drawn by two horses near the gate leading from the Stafford Turnpike Road up to Oxley Farm House. This is just outside Wolverhampton. The driver of the cart was a farmer called Jennings, and Jennings immediately put the injured man on his cart and made for the Three Tuns public house to get help - or so he said. Unfortunately Powell didn’t survive his injuries. Jennings’ story was that he was driving along the road when Powell leapt into his path without looking and that he, Jennings, didn’t have a chance of stopping his pair. Now although the accident happened in the manor of Oxley, the man died in the manor of Bushbury next door, and so the matter came up before the coroner of the manor of Bushbury. He ruled that Powell’s death was an accident, and he ordered Jennings to forfeit the horse and cart as a deodand to the lord of his own manor: value, ten pounds. What the coroner didn’t know, and apparently never found out, was that Jennings owed Powell money.
‘Here’s yet another. John Girling was one of five farmers recorded in White’s History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Norfolk of 1845 for the parish of Earlham, two miles west of the city but now part of Norwich itself. Girling had opened a marl-pit on part of his farm, and two men, Charles Chamberlain and Thomas Bacon, were working there when part of the pit collapsed and Chamberlain was killed. There was an inquest, of course, and Bacon testified that, noticing an imminent fall, he shouted to his mate to climb out before it was too late. Either Chamberlain didn’t hear him or he was too slow, but the wall collapsed, and there was nothing Bacon could do to prevent it. Unfortunately for him, Girling gave evidence that Bacon had been carrying on with Chamberlain’s wife, and the coroner ruled that, in the circumstances, Bacon’s testimony could not be regarded as reliable. So there you are.’
‘This is all nonsense,’ commented Constance acidly. ‘On your own admission, Fletcher, all these three “accidents”, as you call them, were plain murder, and the facts came out, or you couldn’t be telling us about them now. Nobody got away with murder, so what good is it to you two? You’re crazy even to think about it.’
‘No, mum, I know that, but it just takes a bit more than in these three cases to make the accident look more plausible. Folk were less sophisticated in those days and I suppose thought that, because justice was rudimentary, they’d get away with less than perfect schemes. Isn’t it worth a few minutes’ thought if it’s going to save the Court from ruin?’