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Saturday, 25 June 2011


The death of Catherine Castle, young daughter of my 4x great uncle Michael, triggered an aggrieved, gossipy letter from her cousin Charles, to his sister Julia. Writing on the day of the funeral and will-reading, 28th December 1834, he speculated that there had been much skullduggery, with undue influence exerted on Catherine over her choice of legatees.

Charles Castle (1813-1886)
amateur crime reporter

It’s good juicy stuff for a family historian, and I almost overlooked a short paragraph in the letter in which Charles broke off from outrage to report on local news from the family’s home city, Bristol. “There has been a horrid murder discovered in Bristol committed by the poisoning of an old woman in Trinity Street; but however you will see a better account in the newspapers than I can give you.”

It was a sensational case, a crime committed in 1833 which only came to light in 1834 and which would not be resolved until 1835. The ghoulish details were published in at least eleven broadsides at the time including

THE EXECUTION OF MRS BURDOCK, Aged 34 Years, Convicted at the Bristol Assizes, of the Wilful Murder of Mrs Clara Ann Smith, an elderly Lady, Lodging at her house No 17, Trinity Street, Bristol, and who was Executed upon the New Drop, Bristol Gaol, this day (Wednesday,) April 15th 1835. With 2 woodcuts, one showing the hanging, the other a portrait of Mrs Burdock. Published by John Bonnor, Printer, Nicholas Steps, Bristol.

60-year old Mrs Smith was a wealthy widow who disliked banks and stocks, and kept her wealth in the room in which she lodged – up to £3000 in jewellery and cash, including more than 600 sovereigns (worth a pound apiece). Mrs Wade her landlady (who remarried after Mrs Smith’s death, to become Mrs Burdock) took to making Mrs Smith a bedtime bowl of gruel, in which unfortunately one of the ingredients was arsenic. In due course, on 28th October 1833, after much abdominal pain and vomiting of blood, poor old Clara Ann Smith died and her fortune disappeared.

What made the crime less than perfect was the presence on the night Clara died of Mary Ann Allan, a sixteen-year old servant engaged by Mrs Wade (who you’d think would want as few witnesses as possible) to warm Mrs Smith’s bed by sleeping in it with her. Not only did Mrs Wade hire Mary Ann, but she paid her six shillings and told her not to mention the death to anyone. 

It was only a year later in Autumn 1834 that Mary Ann and Charlotte Thomas, another girl hired by Mrs Wade, began to compare notes and find their suspicions raised. Rumours began to circulate, and it was noticed that Mrs Wade, by now Mrs Burdock, was living rather larger since Mrs Smith’s death than before it.

Clara Ann Smith’s body was exhumed on 22nd December 1834 and an inquest carried out on 1st January 1835 in the Ship Inn. Her stomach was significantly better preserved than the rest of her, and the cause proved on examination to be the remarkably high level of sulphate of arsenic inside it. (Tests were carried out by Dr William Herapath, a pioneer of such forensic use of medicine in crime-busting; he was also, in 1847, the first man to use ether as an anaesthetic in an operation in Bristol, only a few weeks after its first use in London.)

Bristol was abuzz with the story, and the thrill of suspicion and criminal conspiracy might explain why the Castles were so ready to believe that their cousin's will had been tampered with. Julia Castle wasn’t the only person to be written to about the murder; James Surrage, a medical student from Bristol studying in Paris got a letter on 1st January 1835 from his surgeon father back home with all the fascinating forensic details!

The ruins of Bristol New Gaol, built in 1820.
A trapdoor was built into the top of one of the towers
above which a gibbet was erected for public hangings.

Mrs Burdock was convicted on 2nd January 1835 of the willful murder of Mrs Smith and her public hanging on 15th April that year was attended by a crowd 50,000 strong. Her tombstone was displayed for a while later in the century in the Bristol Antiquities Room of the city’s museum, as an illustration of her notoriety. Unfortunately her crime resulted in at least one copycat murder. Almost exactly a year after Mrs Burdock’s hanging, on 20th April 1836, twenty-three year old Sophia Edney met the same fate, having read about the landlady’s crime in the newspaper and been inspired to poison John Edney, her husband.

Saturday, 18 June 2011


My 3x great grandfather Thomas Castle was a partner with his brother Michael in the Bristol Distillery of which I wrote earlier. Along with their brother Robert they were as a result prominent local citizens whom other prominent local citizens wanted to see in positions of power in the community.

At a time before general suffrage, electorates were small and more or less corrupt clubs of privileged burghers. There was in those days (the start of the nineteenth century) a political practice strange to modern minds, of nominating and even electing people for public office without their consent. Thomas, the younger of the three, was not unusual therefore in refusing to serve when he was elected an alderman of Bristol Corporation on two occasions, in 1812 and 1820. Michael also refused when he was voted in twice, in 1798 and 1806, although he relented when elected for a third time in 1809. He remained a member thereafter until his death in 1821, having also served terms as sheriff and mayor of the city. Robert, the eldest, had that eldest-child sense of responsibility and accepted his election from the start, in 1794. He was sheriff twice and as Mayor of Bristol died in office in 1803.

Michael Castle (1768-1821)
died intestate, a warning to us all!
At least his daughter Catherine didn’t make that mistake.

All this power and influence created enormous wealth in the Castle dynasty. Robert and Thomas had large families whose members inherited their wealth and married with many of the other prominent and powerful Bristol families of the day. Michael however left only one child, a daughter Catherine who died, unmarried, on 11th December 1834, just three weeks after her twenty-second birthday.

Which is where I come in. Having inherited a suitcase full of nineteenth century Castle correspondence, I came across a letter to gladden the heart of any family historian – one dated 28th December 1834 which begins, “I know you are very anxious to hear the result of today’s proceedings, and I am just returned from the reading of the Will.”

The same letter ends with a postscript – “Do not mention to anyone our suspicions of underhand work with respect to poor Kate’s Will, as it is better that it should not come from us; but you shall hear all particulars when you return and then judge for yourself.” In between, Charles Castle (a son of Thomas) writes to his sister Julia in scandalized tones about its terms. He is convinced that “there is some thing not quite right about the Will …, that there has been some undue influence over Kate’s mind. … [We] have suspicions of some others who shall remain nameless.”

This is all based on the fact that Catherine’s mother’s side of the family, the Kiddells, are rather better provided for than her Castle cousins are. He reports that Julia, Charles and their eight surviving siblings, and perhaps also the surviving children of Robert Castle, will share £11,000 – a pretty large bequest in 1834, I would have thought. But Charles goes on to point out that each Kiddell is getting at least £3000 apiece, as are various family retainers and business associates. One Mr Harris, a much disliked associate of Kate’s late father nevertheless described in the will as “the particular friend of my late father,” gets £10,500, almost as much as the whole Castle tribe. Another, the mysteriously named Sea Griffin, gets £30,000. “There is also a small quantity of plate left to Hinton Castle. That is all the Castles get from their sick relation.”

A hearse and four makes quite a statement at a funeral.
(This one is from horse-drawn carriage specialists Absolutely Fabulous)

There was certainly plenty of money floating about. The will reading immediately followed the funeral, which “was conducted on the most expensive scale. Six coaches and four, a chariot and four and a hearse another, and about six private carriages. In the chariot were Dr Carpenter & Mr Ackland; their followed two coaches filled with pall bearers, then the hearse then a coach containing uncle Henry, Hinton, Robt and Michael. Then a coach with Wm & yr humble servant, Sanders & Harris. How the remaining two were filled I do not know. Harris was “sighing like a furnace” the whole way from Stapleton to Brunswick Square, and I understand from Michael and Uncle Henry, who went up at separate times with him to see the Coffin before the procession started, that he was exercising his bellows in the same manner there.”

Charles and Julia’s father Thomas had died seven years earlier, presumably leaving similar legacies in favour of his own nearest and dearest instead of his brother Michael’s. So I’d say Charles and Julia didn’t have too much to complain about. But there’s nothing like a will for stirring a family up, I’ve found! And in the midst of Charles’s trouble-making, even he is forced to admit that “as far as regards myself I am very well satisfied. It is I think more than we had reason to expect.”

At one point in the letter Charles breaks off from legacy gossip to pass on a snippet of shocking Bristol news. Its nature may explain the readiness of the Castle cousins to believe in skullduggery concerning Kate Castle’s will. More in my next blog!

Saturday, 11 June 2011


Call me romantic or call me nosey, I often find myself wondering how my ancestral couples met – how any two strands of my family tree bumped into each other and became one. In the case of two of my great grandparents for example, what connection was there between William Salter the London-based employee of Gurney & Co, shorthand writers to the Houses of Parliament, and Jane Reyner the daughter of a Midlands cotton mill magnate?

Jane Salter née Reyner, and
William Henry Gurney Salter,
in 1920, 50 years after they got married

The answer, I thought, was the old boy network. I found out that William Salter had exactly the same education as his future brother-in-law, Frederick Reyner. They were both at Amersham Hall, an “Academy for the Sons of Liberal Gentlemen” (by which they meant non-conformist gentlemen); and then both at University College London, the university established by non-conformist gentlemen to give their sons the further education they were barred from at England’s other universities. (William’s grandfather, and perhaps Frederick’s too, had bought shares in its foundation.) Naturally I put two and two together and assumed they were classroom friends.

Unfortunately William was Frederick’s senior by fourteen years. When Frederick was graduating at UCL in June 1869, William had been working at Gurneys for nine years. He and Jane were probably already engaged – they got married the following year – but if William did meet Jane through Frederick, it wasn’t as school or university chums. (Jane, two years older than Frederick, was still twelve years younger than William.)

William’s path at Gurney’s was mapped out. In 1872 he would become head of the firm, following his uncle, grandfather, great grandfather and great great grandfather in the position. Frederick’s future too was assured. Reyner’s Mill in Ashton under Lyne was a large concern, employing (in 1871) 1319 men and women. Frederick’s father took control of the business in 1871 (following the death of Frederick’s uncles), and Frederick and his brother Joseph helped with the running. They ran it together after their father’s death in 1877; and when Joseph died at the age of only 49 in 1891, Frederick was left in sole charge.

The Ashton-under-Lyne Working Men’s Co-operative Society
founded in 1857 by a group of overlookers and weavers
at Reyner’s Mill (pic from
Their first joint purchase was a chest of tea
which was sold among the members.

Frederick, an important local employer, was in due course invited to sit on the bench as a magistrate, where he discharged his responsibilities as a pillar of the community. With such a large workforce, he must have known some of the defendants brought before him. Some of his sittings are recorded in issues of the Ashton Reporter newspaper, and some of the cases are more serious than others. Here’s one from the edition of Saturday 10th October 1903:

THE TRIALS OF A LODGING-HOUSE. — Before the Ashton County Court Justices on Wednesday, Matilda Barlow was charged with being drunk and disorderly at Bardsley on the 18th of September. Matilda, in a confidential tone, told the magistrates that “she had gone down a bit in the world, you know, and she wanted to rise, but she was now living in a lodging-house, and — well, their worships knew what life in a lodging-house was.” — (Laughter.) “Now,” she said in a wheedling tone, “will your worships treat me leniently? You can bind me over for as much as you like.” — (Laughter.)

The Magistrates’ Clerk: You do not seem to know what being bound over means. You have been up before. Mrs Holt, the court missionary, stated that prisoner had a bit of money, but seemed to spend it all in drink. — A constable: She has a bit of property that brings in about 7s a week. — Prisoner, who had been reciting her troubles to Superintendent Hewitt during the evidence, vehemently broke in saying that she would attend chapel while she was in a lodging-house. — (Laughter.) — She was fined 5s 6d for costs.

Thanks to the Rhodes Family for their painstaking work of transcribing the Ashton Reporter.

Saturday, 4 June 2011


I was writing here a while back about George Vernon the actor, born George Verrall, and made some poor jokes about the profusion, and confusion, of George Verralls in that branch of my family tree. But the Georges were part of an orderly line of Verralls who were prominent citizens of the Sussex town of Lewes, in their capacity as auctioneers.

Verralls were auctioneers for five generations

It was George Verrall (1716-1801), brother of William Verrall the chef, who founded the auction house. It remained a family business until at least his great great grandsons’ generation. From George it passed to his son, also George (1750-1825), and son George passed it on to his son, Plumer Verrall. To quote from the recent bulletin (no. 10, 6 May 2011) of the Lewes History Society, “Lewes auctioneer Plumer Verrall sold anything he was asked to – estates, individual houses, business stock in trade, wine, investments, standing timber and crops, livestock, farm equipment and furniture. He sold whole households, or individual items such as beds, chairs and pianos. He and his son often bought and sold items in the sales on their own account.”

The bulletin mentions an occasion on 10th November 1838 when Plumer snapped up a valuable property within the precincts of Lewes Castle when the bidding stalled. Not only did he pick up a bargain, but he sold off the contents at auction a few weeks later for a tidy sum. I suppose it is one of the perks of being the auctioneer! Clearly no one thought any the worse of him for it, and on 21st March 1842 he was presented with a gold auctioneers’ hammer, “to commemorate the triumph of integrity.”

One of the reasons for the high regard in which he was held was an extraordinary event six years earlier. The winter of 1836-37 was exceptionally harsh. Snow began falling heavily in the south east of England on Christmas Eve 1836 and continued for several days. On 27th December a large overhanging cornice of snow on the steep chalk cliffs behind the town of Lewes, sculpted by the high winds of the blizzard, gave way and crashed down onto a row of houses below.

The Lewes Avalanche (unknown artist)
a painting now hanging in the Anne of Cleves House Museum 
in the town

Seven houses were destroyed and eight lives lost, although a further seven people were pulled from the avalanche and survived. The Lewes Avalanche of 1836 remains the worst such natural disaster in British history. A pub named the Snowdrop Inn, built soon afterwards on the site of the demolished houses, still stands and trades under that name. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Plumer Verrall was one of several prominent figures in the town to establish a fund in support of survivors and the families of the deceased. His charitable generosity must have earned hm widespread respect.

The Snowdrop Inn, Lewes,
beneath the chalk cliffs from which the snow fell

Plumer’s son William Richard Verrall (born in 1812, the only boy of nine children) took over the family business, by now known as Verrall & Son, when Plumer died in 1852. Richard acknowledged in advertisements “the very extensive patronage his Great-grandfather, Grandfather, Father and Himself had enjoyed for upwards of a century, and trusted by punctuality, perseverance, and prompt settlement of accounts to maintain the high position of his predecessors.” Sadly it was not to be. On 27th May 1855, Richard was found near the locks of the Ouse Navigation, drowned, with his throat cut.

The business passed to Richard’s cousin John Verrall (1805-1874) brother of George Verrall/Vernon the actor. John's son John Marcus Verrall (1839-1895) inherited the golden hammer and the family business. But when JMV died unmarried aged only 56, I think it was the end of the line for the Verrall auction house. But not for the hammer of for Verrall auctioneers. The hammer passed to JMV's brother George Henry Verrall (1848-1911). 

George was a remarkable man, of whom I will write in a future article. Both brothers were very much involved in the sport of kings, in several capacities including Clerk of the Course at Lewes and elsewhere. Maintaining a tradition begun by Plumer Verrall of striking a golden blow only when lots fetched a thousand guineas or more, George is reputed to have used the golden hammer for horses sold in the ring at Newmarket. I don’t know where the hammer is now!
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