Tuesday, September 8, 2015

A Tale of Hollymans, Somerset, United Kingdom, Part 2

by Glenn N. Holliman

Ardent genealogist of Hollyman lore, Bob Hollyman-Mawson of Wales, continues this lurid tale of crime and extreme justice in 19th Century England concerning his ancestors.  This is the second instalment describing the economy and status of common law in the United Kingdom at that time.  - GNH

Below, Bob on Remembrance Day in 2010.  He is a veteran of the Her Majesty's Royal Navy who served Great Britain on the HMS ALBION, a Royal Marines helicopter aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Guinea, Gibraltar, South Africa, Aden (Yemen) Singapore, Hong Kong in the South China Sea, and the Maldives Islands in the Indian Ocean during the 1960s.


At 3 o'clock a.m. on 31 October 1829, during the reign of His Majesty King George IV, Benjamin Poole, a farmer of Laurel Farm of Ken, Somerset, was woken and informed that his three stacks of wheat-mows (hay-ricks of corn) were ablaze at Shortlands, a nearby field which he farmed.  The fires, taking many hours to extinguish caused damage to the amount of 50 pds.  A considerable sum of money in those days, it is today the equivalent of 3,500 pds ($5,500).

Due to the Napoleonic Wars which ended at Waterloo in 1815 severe depression, starvation and unemployment were still seriously affecting the population of England when the event took place.  Ex-soldiers could still be seen begging for money and food on the streets.  Because of this national privation, authorities had made it a hanging offence for anyone caught and convicted of rick-burning, sheep-stealing or theft of potatoes.

Determined to eradicate these criminal acts their attention was gradually drawn towards the area around Ken, where such villainous activities were rife.

Prior to these haystack fires there had been bad blood between Benjamin Poole and William Wall, the latter being a farmer living in Duck Lane, Ken, with 15 acres
and a cow.  Wall had a cider-house on his property within which a gang of nine sheep and potato-stealers would frequent, get drunk and make merry.

The village of Ken, Somerset in the 19th Century.  Benjamin Poole's Laurel Farm is in the centre (38) and protagonist William Wall lived at Duck Lane, lower right.  Note number 44: Execution Field!

The friction between Wall and Poole had been brought about by Parsons, one of Benjamin's servants, who for whatever reason had contacted the Customs and told them that Wall was selling cider without a licence.

Found guilty, Wall was fined 20 pds equivalent to 1,400 pds today or $2,200.  In addition, Parsons was awarded the same amount as the fine because he was a 'Common Informer'.  Blaming Poole for his servant's actions, and incandescent with rage, Wall decided to take revenge.

William and Mary, his wife, then unwisely made threats against Benjamin Poole within earshot of village bystanders.  Loose talk costs lives, for they were blatantly careless with their wagging tongues.  Wall was born at Ken in about 1795, and married Mary Culliford of Clevedon at Bristol in 1816.

A week after the fires a number of men wheeled a quantity of cider opposite Laurel Farm and stopped. They then, according to Benjamin, "sung a profane song, flung up their hats and gave a cheer...they remained for five minutes.  I was afraid to go out."  It may be surmised that Wall had sent these men to intimidate the Poole family.

Investigations were afterwards carried out which resulted in a number of people being arrested for arson including William Wall, Mary Wall, John Rowley and Richard Clarke.

 Below: Laurel Farm in Somerset around 1900.


"William Wall. Aged 35, Height 5 ft 8.5 inch, Stout persons, fresh complexion, long-shaped face, Brown hair, Hazell eyes, cut on the forefinger of left hand.  Born Ken, Farmer, last resident in Ken, Married, 7 children, Able to read and write.

"Mary Wall. Aged 32, height 5 ft 2 inch, Stout build, Fair complexion, Round faced, Dark brown hair, Grey eyes, Scar on forehead, pock marked, Born Cclevedon, labourer, able to read and write..."

"John Old, Scar on forehead, pock marked, Born Clevedon, labourer...able to read and write..."

"John Rowley. Aged 30, height 5 ft, 5 inch, stout build, Dark Complexion, Oval Faced, Dark Hair, Dark eyes, Black mark on left cheek and cut left eye, freckled in face..."

"Richard Clarke, Aged 19, height 5 ft, 7 inch, stout person, Sallow complextion, Round faced, Dark brown hair, Dark eyes, large full eyes..."

Below: Laurel Farm in 1996.


Evidence was given in the courtroom before the Grand Jury at Wells Assizes, most notable of which was that given by Isaac, brother of John Old. It transpired that although Wall had been on his way to Bristol at the time of the arson attack, both he and his wife had instigated the perpetrators of the offence on their behalf.

Whilst being cross-examined, Isaac said, “I never said to Wall, ‘If thee doesn’t look sharp, thee will have thy house set fire about thy ears ... I never said I would as soon swear false as right, and that taking a false oath was nothing ... I never said I would swear that which would do it ... I never heard of a King’s Evidence in my life, nor pinching, nor of the biggest rogue coming to give evidence against the others.’”

Isaac had previously been arrested and questioned, having been kept separate from the other prisoners. So after breaking down under intense pressure he agreed to a deal for an amnesty and turned  King’s Evidence to save his own life by informing on his friends.

Some of the evidence which was revealed at the trial was quoted as follows:

“I heard Wall say to Rowley and Clarke sometime before, that they were damned fools if they did not do farmer Poole some injury.”

“I have heard Mary Wall say that she would not begrudge £1 to anyone who would set the mows on fire.”

Wall said, “... it would be a good night to set fire to Poole’s mows.”

Rowley said, “We’ll go and do it bye and bye.”
“William Wall said he had bought the brimstone on purpose ...”

“... soon after Wall left for Bristol his wife got some paper and reached the brimstone and Richard Clarke got a spade and put on the fire, and she put the brimstone on the spade. She cut two or three pieces of writing paper and dipped in the brimstone and Richard Clarke dipped some.”

“She got some rags and made tinder and went upstairs and fetched a flint which Richard Clarke took with the matches, and put them into his pocket; and Mary Wall asked him if he wanted a steel but he said he should strike with his knife.”

“It was about three o’ clock, they went towards the mows. I went out in about ten minutes, and before I had gone ten yards I saw the three lights in the direction of the mows.”

“I went back to the house and they all returned. They had been absent for about fifteen minutes. John Rowley said he and Richard Clarke put light to the mows.”

“William Wall came back about eight o’clock the same evening. I was in bed. Rowley came to me and said there was plenty of Tobacco and Cider for any who would have it that night.”

Parsons, the cider-house informant, also gave evidence as did Henry Badman. Parsons told the court that he said to Mary about a week after the fires, “It was a pity those Ricks were set fire to.” In reply she said, “It served Poole right, and it was a pity he was not in one of them!”

Some witnesses were intimidated and possibly bribed by the prosecutors to either invent or embellish their statements to the jury so as to create a rock solid case against the accused.

Before the end of the trial  Benjamin’s relative, possibly his brother, was viciously attacked on a lonely highway in Ken at night by a gang of William Wall’s sympathisers. These thugs relentlessly thrashed him to such an extent with their cudgels that he suffered serious injury.

John Rowley and Richard Clarke also stole two pecks (20 pounds) of potatoes from Joseph Griffin, another of my ancestors; so they were both double-damned for hanging offences.

The Judge, after the Grand Jury found them guilty of arson at Wells Assizes, sentenced William Wall, Richard Clarke and James Rowley to be executed near the scene where their crime was committed. Mary Wall, for inciting to arson, was also sentenced to be hanged.

The Judge, wearing a square black cap, would have said for example:

“Hannah Wall. You will be taken hence to the prison in which you were last confined and from there to a place of execution where you will be hanged by the neck until you are dead and thereafter your body buried within the precincts of the prison and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul". - Bob Hollyman-Mawson

Death for burning hay!  More in the next post by Bob Hollyman-Mawson on by gone days amonst his ancestors in Somerset, United Kingdom....

  For information on Hollimans and allied families, please refer to the 28 March 2015 blog for an inventory of available manuscripts and data on Hollimans and allied families.

Have questions about Holliman family history? You are invited to join the Hollyman Email List at Hollyman-Subscribe@yahoogroups.com and the Hollyman Family Facebook Page located on Facebook at "Hollyman Family". Post your questions and perhaps one of the dozens Holyman cousins on the list will have an answer. For more information contact Tina Peddie at desabla1@yahoo.com, the list and Facebook manager for Hollyman (and all our various spellings!).

We are all on a journey.  Through genealogy we can discover how families better themselves generation to generation.  When we understand the past, we know ourselves more fully and are more generously equipped to travel through our own time and place in the Cosmos. - GNH

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