An artist’s impression of the Swift Ditch lock and the Waterturnpike House
Photo by Mark Johnstone Davies, used by courtesy of the Enviromment Agency
In 1787 an elderly man, walking home from the Abingdon Michaelmas fair with money in his pocket, was robbed and murdered after leaving the Waterturnpike public house near the lock at the entrance to the Swift Ditch, the channel of the Thames that by-passed Abingdon.
It was more than two years before rumours among the bargemen reached the ears of the authorities in Oxford but, eventually, four men were identified as the likely culprits. Evidence emerged of a wide-ranging semi-criminal network, largely cemented by marriage alliances, which ensured secrecy and mutual support in a culture of chronic petty thieving from the barges that could also extend to burglary, poaching, horse-theft, and even murder. These activities benefitted from the complicity of higher-placed individuals such as the landlord of the Chequer Inn in East St Helen Street, which was where plots were hatched and booty disposed of. The landlord himself, scion of one of Abingdon’s leading families but probably irretrievably addicted to the bottle, was one of the three men hanged for the murder – the fourth got off.
Most of the people who are featured in other articles on these web pages were members of the Abingdon social élite of their time. They left records of their doings, wrote letters, took or granted leases, and made wills. People of a lower station are more difficult to write about. Most often, the only traces they left behind them were when they found themselves in trouble with the law. The historical interest of the Waterturnpike murder is not that of the act itself, but the glimpse it gives us of a large underclass that lived on the margins of what their betters regarded as criminality and sometimes strayed well beyond them.
When the Oxfordshire Coroner, William Johnson, examined the body of David Charteris on 11 October 1787, he was in no doubt about the cause of death. Charteris, an elderly linen trader from Toot Baldon, had been discovered in a ditch on the edge of the Harcourt family’s Nuneham estate with his pockets emptied and ‘his head cut in a most shocking manner’. The cause, Johnson concluded, was that he had been ‘wilfully and feloniously killed and murdered’ by some ‘evil disposed person or persons unknown, not having the fear of God before their eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil’.
The ‘horrid deed’, as Jackson’s Oxford Journal and the Reading Mercury & Oxford Gazette described it that same week, had been committed as Charteris walked home from Abingdon’s annual Michaelmas Fair. Paperwork retained by the local magistrate, Christopher Willoughby (c.1749–1808) of Marsh Baldon, reveals much about the murdered man’s last moments as well as a selective insight into the investigation that followed.
From witness statements, it was deduced that the attack had occurred within a few minutes of Charteris leaving the Waterturnpike public house. This was situated by an old lock (hence the name) on what was then the main navigation channel of the Thames, the Swift Ditch, which enabled boats to by-pass Abingdon. Attention focussed on the obvious likely culprits: other customers in the pub. But as in all the best murder mysteries, the obvious was not the actual, and the tipplers in the Waterturnpike House who had both the most obvious motive and the presumed opportunity that Michaelmas Fair evening turned out also to have convincing alibis.
Indeed, it was nearly two and a half years before any further evidence was forthcoming. But in March 1790, a coincidence of unguarded conversations and an unrelated arrest brought four Abingdon men into the frame, both for the murder and for a string of local thefts. These men were a sack-weaver called Richard Kilby (1764?–?); a Thames bargeman, John Castle (1759?–1790); a labourer, Giles Freeman Covington (1767–91); and a former publican, Charles Evans Shury (1747–90).
Nothing too surprising there: exactly the sort of lowly occupations that one might expect of individuals prepared to kill a vulnerable old man for even the small change in his pocket. But when one looks into the backgrounds of these four Abingdon men, two at least are cast in a rather different light. The registers of Abingdon’s two churches, St Helen’s and St Nicolas (combined with Abingdon Borough’s Poll Rolls, Poor Rate Lists and Minute Books), provide some clues about the personalities of these historical miscreants to set against the one-sided contemporary pronouncements of judges, magistrates and newspapermen. The context in which they lived becomes clearer, some very human pressures and frailties are revealed, and something of their characters and motives can be surmised. And what emerges is rather different from that instinctive assumption of ruthless, avaricious villainy.
In the case of the bargeman John Castle, the very nature of his profession would have been enough for many at the time to make a premature judgement. With a widespread reputation for anti-social behaviour of all kinds, any bargeman would have found it especially difficult to invoke that cornerstone of English law, a presumption of innocence. Indeed, some of the information revealed by Castle rather substantiated the prejudice, as once he had been arrested, he was persuaded to name many other bargemen who were not averse to the odd bit of pilferage from their clients’ cargoes. But then, he also exposed a comparable number of culpable Abingdon householders willing to accept the resultant stolen booty, and the impression grows with every testimony that very few Abingdon citizens of the 1780s were completely free from temptation! Many of Abingdon’s 4,000 population were at least distantly inter-related, after all, at a time when few people found reason to move far from their place of birth, and it is quite possible that the long time it took to advance the initially well-publicised murder can be explained by a conspiracy of silence. It seems unlikely that no-one at all had suspicions based on more than just hearsay, but the common logic of the time was probably that the benefits of revealing a guilty person to the authorities were unlikely to justify the potential retribution of that person’s many nearby friends or relatives.
When one realises Castle’s family situation at the end of 1787, the bargeman stereotype of an incorrigible, unprincipled ruffian seems less likely. When we learn, for instance, that he had been recently widowed, leaving him with three young children to care for, you can see how desperate times might lead a poor man to desperate measures, putting his children ahead of his honesty. But on the other hand, he did appear perhaps to court trouble, marrying in December 1787 Susannah Goodman (1769–?), the teenaged daughter of another noted Abingdon petty-thief and former bargeman, Henry ‘Cherry’ Goodman (1739–1818). Herein lies another reason why, after that silence of well over two years, the case came to resurface at all – the close-knit inter-family relationships of the traditional boating families.
It happened this way. In March 1790, a notorious horse thief, Thomas Davis alias Smith, commonly known as ‘Oxford Tom’, had been hanged at Oxford, but not before, according to Jackson’s, he had made ‘discoveries that may prove beneficial, and by giving every information in his power’. All four of the Abingdon men associated with the murder had had dealings with Oxford Tom at some point, and so all four suddenly had reason to feel distinctly nervous. Carelessly, a few days after the execution, Castle admitted to some fellow bargemen that he knew a thing or two about the Charteris murder. They were moored up in Goring at the time, but in little more than a week the news had spread rapidly via the cabins of boats, busy wharves, noisy waterside bars and bankside homes to reach the ears of the authorities in Oxford 30 miles upstream. Again, the local registers of births, deaths and marriages are enlightening in explaining how such gossip might travel so very swiftly among people who shared not only the same trades, and the same restricted riverine geography, but also, to a large extent, the same genes.
On the face of it, the labourer Giles Freeman Covington also merits little compassion, even though at 19 he was the youngest of the gang at the time of the murder. He fled first to London on learning of Oxford Tom’s confession, and then joined the Navy, remaining by this stratagem at liberty for a further six months. On his capture in January 1791, the newspapers had no intention of waiting for the formality of a trial to designate him ‘an atrocious offender’. So, another iniquitous, poor man, with a vicious streak? No, not when one looks into his family situation; in fact, rather the opposite.
Covington’s father, Roger (1729–98), had moved to Abingdon from London as a young man. There he raised a family, lived a virtuous and industrious life as a tailor, and assumed the prestigious and responsible civic role of Abingdon’s Bellman in 1780. His eldest three sons benefited from local apprenticeships, and rose to become tradesmen of reasonable prominence in Abingdon; Giles, however, rose ultimately only as far as the gallows above the entrance to Oxford Castle! The parish records hint at a sad yet timeless tale of teenage rebelliousness, shaped by the conditions of the time, yet in some ways as familiar as last week.
In December 1787, just two months after the murder, Giles’ illegitimate daughter was baptised, to the absolute horror of his respectable and respected father, no doubt. Giles married the recently-orphaned mother, Ann Gilkes (1768–91), in February 1789; a short-lived son was born in May 1790, while both were in hiding in London (where numerous Covington relatives still abided); their daughter died of smallpox the following August; and then Ann herself died, in September 1791, only a few months after her husband’s execution. Here is the chronology of a behind-the-scenes domestic tragedy which, with the addition of evidence from the trial and Covington’s own testimonies, adds weight to a view of him as imprudent and impetuous, loving and loyal, but hardly ‘atrocious’.
But the most surprising revelation of character comes with the third member of the gang, Charles Evans Shury. The evident ring leader, Shury was not just any old publican at the time of the murder, but a very prominent citizen from an old-established and prosperous Abingdon family. So prominent and prosperous indeed that his older brother John (1745–1804) could count himself amongst the wealthiest men in the town, having inherited his father’s brewery, and then married the only daughter of a wealthy Oxford innkeeper.
The two Shury brothers’ early years show striking similarities, such that by the middle of 1773, while still both in their twenties, and with their father dead, they were both widowers (having both married girls with the same surname of White) with motherless daughters to care for. But that is where the similarities ended. John made another advantageous marriage (to the daughter of John Townsend, a prominent Oxford builder) but Charles wed himself to the bottle, it is safe to assume, as alcohol played a part in every one of the many petty crimes which were eventually attributed to him and his gang. Overall in October 1787, the Shury family owned many substantial properties in Abingdon, and Charles ran The Chequer Inn in East St Helen’s St. The pub was the nerve-centre of a criminal underworld, a place where petty thieves – and some not-so-petty, like Oxford Tom – would gather to drink and plot, and return with their spoils for Shury to dispose of. Hardly your typical 18th-century footpad, therefore!
The maxim ‘Crime doesn’t pay’ is as selectively true now as it has always been. Certainly it does seem to have paid for Richard Kilby, the fourth of the men implicated by Oxford Tom – all only for thefts, mind you; it was Castle’s loose tongue which revived the authorities’ interest in the murder, and it was Kilby who sealed the fate of the other three by turning King’s evidence at their trials. In return he was given a new start in a new county. Of all the main characters in this tale, it is Kilby alone who eludes positive identification in the parish registers, partly because there were several men of this name alive at the time, but also perhaps because it is the hallmark of the accomplished informer to leave few traces!
The ‘final exit of Shury and Castle’, in contrast, was very public. Both were hanged in July 1790 above the main gateway into Oxford Castle Gaol. Here the bodies could be exposed to maximum view before being delivered to the ever-keen scalpels of the Oxford University Anatomy School, as the law ordained. A few years earlier and the event would not have been nearly so public. Before 1787, the dilapidated nature of the Castle walls meant the gallows were of necessity placed on the ground. The result was that many executions had a tendency to conclude with the authorities and the relations of the deceased engaged in unseemly and often violent disputes over the corpse. At 33 feet above the ground, the bodies of Shury and Castle inspired no such affray, nor did that of Covington when the judge inevitably chose to believe Kilby’s version of events rather than the young seaman’s in March 1791.
Much credit for this more dignified mode of public execution was due to the youthful governor of Oxford Castle Gaol, Daniel Harris (c.1761–1840). The multiple talents of this intriguingly atypical 18th-century jailer had a bearing not just on the Charteris case but on some of the most significant aspects of Oxford’s broader social and economic development at the time. His skills as a builder facilitated the complete rebuilding of the prison during his tenure as governor (to 1809); he was regularly contracted to undertake a variety of tasks – including the most challenging of all, that of building locks – along a sizeable stretch of the River Thames; and he supervised the completion of the brand new Oxford Canal and the construction of its terminal wharves and warehouses and another lock, using convict labour for all. It is therefore probable that these waterways connections made him the ideal man to act on the incriminatory ‘towpath telegraph’ which John Castle had so imprudently set in motion.
So, crime may just have paid for Kilby, even if it put paid to his former comrades. Yet while his life was spared, he remains a shadowy figure in the story just related, while the others, in death, gained a kind of immortality. There are very few descriptions of ‘ordinary’ people from the past, and those there are tend to be of criminals. Giles Covington, for instance, looked like this in 1790:
five feet nine inches high, very stout and well made, flaxen hair, pale complexion, light grey eyes, long visage, large, long nose, remarkably gruff in speech, mostly wears a blue coat with white metal buttons, white linen waistcoat, brown corduroy breeches, walks very upright, rather swaggering in his gait.
For this description of Covington to have survived is especially poignant, because he survives physically too, in a way. Normally, once the anatomists had completed their work, the remains were returned to be interred within the Castle precincts. This explains the careless arrangement of the skeletons which were discovered during the recent conversion of the site into a hotel, restaurants and heritage complex. It is feasible that John Castle and Charles Shury are among them; Covington definitely is not, as his skeleton remained in public view at the Museum of Oxford, until its recent downsizing.
While it is a subject of debate whether the remains of an identifiable individual should indeed be put on public view, it is perhaps justified in the sense of giving Covington a perpetual means of proclaiming the innocence that he (and the others) always maintained – in a plausibly convincing manner, indeed.
Certainly none of them would have been convicted under modern standards of justice – the man on whose evidence they were executed could easily have been equally, if not more, guilty, after all – and the Abingdon Waterturnpike Murder leaves the impression of a case of 18th-century justice being seen to be done, rather than actually being done.
Mark Johnstone Davies
The source for this article is Mark Davies, The Abingdon Waterturnpike Murder (Oxford, Towpath Press, 2008). For further information, see www.oxfordwaterwalks.co.uk.
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