IN these days of rolling 24 hour news channels and communication systems that seem to shrink the globe, we are used to hearing about events almost as they happen. Sometimes even as they are happening. But they weren’t too tardy about it back in 1830 either.
When the nation’s press descended on Worcester Guildhall on March 10 for the opening of a court case which was to have legal ramifications across the coming decade, the 19th century media pack included ten top crime reporters from London.
So keen were their editors to be first with the news they hired a team of fast gallopers – express horse riders – to convey the correspondents’ detailed prose down to the capital. In that way, and almost unbelievably, the London Morning Chronicle on the second day of the trial was able to carry an account of the proceeding on the first day right up to five o’clock in the afternoon.
The case before Worcester Assizes became know as the Oddingley Murders and the intense interest in it arose not only because of the characters involved, which included a dead clergyman, a local magistrate and other pillars of society who were alleged to have colluded in the rector’s demise, but also because behind the crime lay a growing discontent with the tithe system, one of the cornerstones of English parish life at the time.
The rector at Oddingley, a village three miles south of Droitwich, was George Parker, whose income came from his tithe, his right to a one-tenth share in everything the parish produced.
At Oddingley, as in most parishes, farmers had switched to paying money annually rather than giving actual produce, but by 1800 there was often a mismatch between whatever long-agreed sum they gave as tithe, and the real value of a tenth of their crops. Parker’s annual income from his tithes was £135, then a respectable amount; but one which had not altered for a long time and when he tried to increase it trouble followed, serious trouble.
In the late afternoon of June 24, 1806 George Parker was found in a meadow in the village dying from a gunshot wound to the stomach. The sound of a shot was heard by two passers-by who entered the field in time to see the gunman running away. From their description he was identified as Richard Heming, a local odd-job man not known to have any connection with the murdered vicar.
A search failed to find Heming, rumours circulated he had fled to America and that would have been the end of the matter. Except 24 years later a skeleton was discovered buried in the corner of a barn on a farm near where the clergyman had been killed. Items found with it strongly suggested the remains were those of Heming.
At the time of his disappearance a farmer named Thomas Clewes held the lease of the farm, so he was arrested. In jail Clewes confessed to having witnessed the death of Heming, describe the murder and named the killers. The confession implicated at least three substantial local farmers in a conspiracy to murder their late rector because of a long-running dispute about tithes. They had paid Richard Heming £50 to commit the crime and then a day later Heming himself had been bludgeoned to death.
The original murder had been a significant local news story but the discovery of the murderer’s skeleton, followed by a confession which dramatically solved a 24-year-old mystery, raised it to national interest. After all, even in Georgian times, clergy were not killed very often. The trial of Clewes, John Barnett and George Banks (the two surviving conspirators his confession had implicated) was confidently expected to result in a triple hanging. That’s why the hacks hot-footed it up from London.
However the case threw up a slew of legal complexities. Under the law at the time, alleged conspirators to a murder could only be tried alongside the alleged killer and that wasn’t going to happen here, because the Rev Parker’s supposed murderer Heming was himself dead.
Also the mastermind of the conspiracy against Parker had been a Captain Evans of Church Farm, Oddingley, a retired army officer and local magistrate, who had since died.
Clewes claimed the day after Parker’s murder Evans had told him he must allow Heming to hide in his barn. Evans then told him to meet up at the barn at 11 o’clock the following night “to do something with him (Heming) to send him off”.
When Clewes arrived Evans entered the barn along with a local ruffian, a farrier called James Taylor, who had with him a heavy club-like instrument known as a blood stick normally used to let blood from horses. In the dim light Evans called out “Get up Heming I have got something for thee”, and as Heming rose into a sitting position Taylor swung the blood stick, smashing his skull into 30 pieces. The corpse was then hastily buried.
The complexities of the case confused the jury, which initially brought in a verdict of “guilty as accessory after the fact” – which was not the charge Clewes faced. Scolded by the judge Mr Justice Littledale, they reconsidered and brought in a verdict of “not guilty of aiding and abetting”: But if there was not enough evidence to convict Clewes, then the two other men implicated solely on his accusation must also be released. Which they were.
So a trial that had seen crowds begin to gather at 6am on both of its two days did not, after all, end in a triple hanging.
However, it did end in a party in the Church of St James, Oddingley, which included the bells being rung, along with drinking and smoking, and finished in a fight. The Rev George Parker, it appeared, was not universally liked by his flock. But a more lasting legacy of the Oddingley Murders came six years later with reform of the noxious tithe laws and that was certainly worth raising a glass to.