THE FELTWELL MURDER by Robin Woodruff.
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M y recollections of my great grand father Charles Wilson are very little, I was 9 when he died at the age of 91 years. I recall this very old man, who we children seemed to treat with awe. I never saw him standing he was always reclining on a leather horsehair rolled ended sofa at my aunts house Garden Terrace, Rose Valley, Norwich. The following is an account of the murder of his 2nd wife (his first wife Sarah Ann Wales (Walls)being my great grandmother) Susan Waterhouse, a widow, whom he married (probably) in 1897. After her murder he married again in 1929, a Mrs. Chipperfield. Abraham Ward, the West Norfolk Poet, wrote a poem about these events which can be found here.
No: 6272 James Nichols, executed at Norwich New Prison on 2nd December 1908. The Eastern Daily Press on 12th. October 1908 reported the first news of the murder which had taken place at a lonely house (barn) on Feltwell fen. The victim, 70 year old Susan Wilson, the body had been found by her husband, her head had been hit several times with a large sharp axe.
An inquest was held by Mr. Charles T. Barton, Deputy Coroner for the Duchy of Lancaster, at the Royal Oak Inn, Feltwell, on 14th. October 1908, into the death of Sarah Wilson, 70 year old, wife of Charles Wilson, a travelling umbrella maker, of Ploughman's Drove, Feltwell Fen, who was found dead in her abode on Sunday afternoon 11th. October 1908. James Nichols alias "Tugmutton" was in custody charged with her murder, he was in court in the custody of two Prison Officers from Norwich Prison, he had been brought to Feltwell the previous day for the inquest. The body had also been brought to the inn for the convenience of the jury, it was kept in an outhouse. Mr. T.W.A. Nicholson was Forman of the jury, and Supt. Flint watched on behalf of the police.
The first witness was Charles Wilson, the husband, he said the deceased was 70 years old as near as he could say. He said he left home on the Thursday 8th. October between 8.00am and 9.00am and went to Holme Hale, he stayed there that night, and on Friday went to Dereham Market, he returned to Holme Hale that night. On the Saturday he went to Weasenham and stayed at the Fox and Hounds until 10.00pm and then returned to Holme Hale. He left there at 1 o'clock Sunday afternoon and drove straight home, that is until he got to Feltwell Church, where he saw his son-in-law, he ask him if the old lady was alright, and he replied "yes, I saw her on Saturday afternoon". His son-in-laws name was Arthur Laws. Wilson said he arrived home about ten past four. He then took his mare out of the cart and turned her down the drive, that was the usual thing for him to do. He unpacked his cart and put his things in the shed, he went though the garden to the door of the living and sleeping room, he opened the door and saw his wife lying on the floor with her head broken in. At this stage he broke down. He then continued, he said he only put one foot in the door, and he saw the body of his wife, he did not even put two feet in the door, he turned and rushed up to the village, running and walking, shouting and hallooing like anyone mad which is not to be wondered at. When he reached Mr. Robert Southgate, who gave him some water and said they would get the doctor and the police. He said they had been married for 10 or 11 years. The only people he could remember seeing in the vicinity of the house were two little boys.
Robert Southgate, a farm labourer of Feltwell, said that he saw James Tugmutton at twenty minutes past two on Sunday afternoon, he was near Southgate's house walking on the highway towards the fens, Southgate said to him "Well Jim" and he replied, "Well Bob". He had a little dog with him. They continued on their separate ways, Southgate to chapel and Tugmutton to the fens. Southgate said that on his way home from chapel he met a little boy who was going to fetch a policeman, because he said Mr. Wilson had come up to the village and said someone had done his old lady in. The time was about quarter to four. Southgate then went to see what the matter was, he saw Wilson who said "good God, if the boy won't go I shall have to go" Southgate ask him what the matter was. Wilson said someone killed his wife, and he wanted a policeman and a doctor. Southgate then went for the police and doctor. Southgate then returned to the cottage, he pushed the door open and saw the body lying on the floor, he recognized the body as that of Mrs. Wilson. Her head was cut about terribly he then waited for the doctor and police to arrive. Southgate said he saw Nichols coming down Poppylot bank going towards Feltwell as he was returning from getting the doctor.
The next witness was a 14 years old boy, Percy Banham who lived with his father at Feltwell. He said that at about 2 o'clock on Sunday afternoon he went after the cows, he had 6 year old Percy Godbold with him. They went down Ploughmans Drove to get the cows which were in a field near Poppylot way, they saw James Nichols down the drove, he was about 50 yards away from the Wilson's cottage filling a tub when he saw Nichols go to the cottage and go inside, he then saw Nichols put Mrs. Wilson out of the cottage. Nichols was in the cottage for about five minutes, Mrs. Wilson shrieked out 'Mrs. Webb' she called out three or four times, Nichols then dragged Mrs. Wilson back into the cottage. Banham then went to Middle Drove which is about a quarter of an hours walk away, he was there about a quarter of an hour, he then saw Nichols leave the Wilson's cottage, he left by the little garden gate. Nichols went down the drove towards Poppylot. They then left for home with the cows. Near their home they met Mr. Wilson who was driving his pony and cart, that was the first they had seen Mr. Wilson that day.
Albert Maggs, a farmer of Feltwell fen said that on Sunday afternoon he was feeding his pigs when James Nichols came to the bridge and spoke to him, Nichols said that he thought that Mr. Wilson was murdering his old lady. He said he heard a scream and a 'help murder'. He then heard Wilson say if he could lay his hands on a hatchet he would cut her brains out, the everything went quiet. Nichols said he wanted to go down to Fletchers but was afraid to go anywhere near the Wilson cottage after hearing that. The time was just before four. At that time they saw Wilson running from the cottage saying 'oh dear oh dear'. Nichols said that it looked as if he had done it, he would probably try to blame it on to someone else, Nichols then ask what time it was, and Maggs brother, who had joined them on the bridge, looked at his watch and said it's ten past four. Nichols then left and walked towards Southery. Maggs said Webbs house was about half a mile from the Wilson's, and that the bridge they were on when they say Wilson leaving his cottage was also about half a mile from Wilson's cottage. Nichols appeared to be sober, he didn't appear to be excited, his behavior was normal.
Sara Fletcher, wife of Thomas Fletcher of Methwold said that last Sunday, James Nichols came to her house at about quarter to five, she thought at first it was her husband coming in the door and she looked at the clock, she then saw it was Nichols, he came in and sat down and ask where Tom was. She told him he was seeing to his horses in the yard. Nichols then said that he thought that Wilson had murdered his old woman, he said he heard him hollowing and saying that if he could find a hatchet he would cut her brains out. Nichols then got up and went out side and had a wash. Nichols remarked that the doctor would know how long she had been dead. He then went out to the yard to talk to her husband. He seemed upset and was perspiring, he was also trembling he left after about ten minutes. He had never been to her house before for a wash, he was her cousin.
Thomas Fletcher said that at about a quarter to five on Sunday afternoon, James Nichols came into his masters yard where he was seeing to the horses. He said 'hello Jim' Nichols replied 'hello Tom, what do you think, Charlie Wilson has murdered his wife, I think'. Fletcher asked him why he thought that, Nichols said because he had heard her shrieking and hallowing, Fletcher ask Nichols if he had been there, and if he knew anything about it, Nichols said he didn't. Nichols said he thought about going over to his uncle's, Fletcher advised him not to because that would look as if he was running away from something, Nichols then left saying 'good day Tom'. He then left and went across the meadow on to High Road, he had a dog with him, he looked excited and rather funny, in a way I have never seen him before.
Doctor Archer of Feltwell said that at about a quarter to five he was called to Wilson's cottage to see Mrs. Wilson, who had been murdered. He went though the outhouse into the sitting and bedroom, there on the floor between the sofa, which was placed under the window, and a table was the body of the deceased woman. A fire was just alight in the grate and the water in the kettle was just warm. I examined the body as it lay on the floor and found the old woman was fully dressed, the sleeves of her dress being turned back over the elbows. The right arm was down by the side and the left arm extended at almost right angles to the body. Both hands were clenched. The left side of the head was cut and smashed to pulp, evidently by some sharp heavy instrument. She was lying in a pool of blood which was partly clotted and brains and pieces of bone from the skull were scattered on the floor around the head, the body was warm.
PC Austin Brooks, stationed at Hockwold-cum-Wilton said that at about 5.00 pm on Sunday
he received information that Mrs. Wilson had been murdered. He proceeded at once to
Feltwell, at the same time he sent a messenger to Police Sergeant Wiseman at Methwold, as
a result of those enquires, he met James Nichols on Poppylot Road coming in the direction
of Feltwell village. Nichols had a black and white terrier dog with him. He made a
statement which was written down. He said "about 3.45 pm I was on the bank when I
heard Mrs. Wilson shouting 'murder', I heard Charlie say 'If I can find a chopper, I will
chop your brains out'. In about half a minute all was quiet. I got to Alfred Maggs and
told him what I had heard and I stood
talking to Maggs when Charlie Wilson came running up the drove hallooing 'O'Lord, O'Lord what shall I do' I heard Wilson say 'take that you........'. (Obviously written on a piece of paper and handed to the court). The clothing of Mrs. Wilson was then produced as were the two rugs which were blood stained.
PC Brooks continued saying that with Sergeant Wiseman at about half past nine they went to the Cock Public hose at Feltwell and saw James Nichols in the kitchen with some other people, they called him outside into the yard and Sgt. Wiseman informed him that Mrs. Wilson had been found murdered that afternoon at her house and that from enquiries made he would be charged with willfully murdering her. Nichols was cautioned in the usual way and he replied 'I am not guilty, I will go with you anyway when I am not guilty'. He then said 'you know what I told you on the road',. At that time Nichols was under the influence of drink. He was conveyed to the lock up at Methwold. The next morning his clothes wee examined; spots of blood were found on his coat, vest and trousers. The clothes were examined by the two arresting policemen (forensic laboratories were not invented at this time). There was also a quantity of blood on his boots. All these items were produced. Nichols was taken before two Magistrates and remanded in custody.
The Jury returned a verdict of willful murder and Nichols was committed for trial on the Coroner's warrant.
The trial took place at the Shirehall, Norwich on 27th October 1908. The Judge was Mr. Justice Grantham, Mr. Theobald Mathew and Mr. G H B Kenrick prosecuted on behalf of the Treasury. Mr. Gerald Dobson, instructed by Mr. A E Bracey, defended at the request of the Judge (dock brief). The evidence for the prosecution was the same as that given to the Coroner's Court. Each witness was cross examined by the defence but the evidence was virtually unchallenged. The trial had started at the commencement of the Court that day, all the witnesses had given evidence and the prosecution had summed up. At four minutes to four, the defence summed up. Mr. Dobson suggested to the Jury that it would be wrong for the to accept the evidence of the small boy without extreme caution. He said, 'It would be highly dangerous to hang a man on such evidence'. The Judge in his summing up, said it was a very serious case indeed, because on the verdict of the Jury depended the fate and very life of the prisoner. They heard a very eloquent appeal by learned council, who had been instructed by him (the Judge), to defend the prisoner and he had said everything that anyone could say to put forward any doubt. Learned council had said, and said truly, that there was no evidence of motive on the part of the prisoner, but that it was his duty to tell them strongly that the question of motive was a very misleading factor in all these cases. He said, the prisoner's false statements and his conduct were clear enough at any rate to justify any Jury in saying they could not find any loopholes of doubt in the case. If they forgot the boys evidence and the falsehoods of the prisoner, they might have some doubt but he saw no reason to doubt the boys story.'
The Jury left the Court room at 3 minutes past 5 to consider their verdict. They returned at 23 minutes past 5, when in answer to the Clerk of the Assize, the forman said, 'we find the prisoner guilty'.
The Judge wearing the black cap said to the prisoner, 'James Nichols, the Jury have
unanimously arrived at the only verdict which was possible for the to come to. I am quite
sure that every one who has heard the evidence in this case has no doubt but that the case
is absolutely clear and has been brought home to you. It will be a terrible end for you,
but looking at your past career, it is only the end that was likely to result for a
man who has lived the life you have. I find that in 1896 you were found guilty of unlawful
wounding, in 1897, you were found guilty of rape, in 1901 I find you were guilty of
attempted rape and beside that you have been convicted 22 times for game trespass and
kindred offences. But even that is not all. If it had not been
that it was necessary for the Jury to try you on this painful case, you would have been charged before them or another Jury for rape committed last June, with reference to which the evidence was just as clear as we have listened to today. As I have said before, we Judges particularly are most anxious to always let out prisoners on bail, when they have some time to wait for trial, especially in all cases where the character is not bad or where there is no probability of the prisoner making off. We always think that Magistrates would exercise a little discretion in letting prisoners out on bail. We have to thank the Magistrates in this case for letting a man out on bail with such a character and you have to thank them for being at the present time sentenced to death. If you had not been kept in prison, as you ought to have been, you could not have committed this crime. Looking at your past kindly, however, I think the evil day was only postponed. You have lived an unruly life and you have been a terror to the neighbourhood and you are now meeting your just deserts. I have only to pass the sentence of death. The prisoner who faced the death sentence without a tremor, smiled as he was escorted from the dock.
He was executed by M A Peirrepoint on 2nd December 1908 at Norwich New Prison aged 35 years.
Feltwell Murder - a poem by Abraham Ward.