Exactly 160 years ago, a Rowley man lay imprisoned in Stafford Gaol, awaiting his trial for Wilful Murder, at the Lent Quarter Sessions. William Howe was a model prisoner, apparently unmoved by the ordeal which lay before him or the bloody event which preceded his arrest by the famous Bow Street Runners - Harry Adkins and Sam Taunton who were called in by the Stourbridge magistrates to trace the murderer of Benjamin Robins, a farmer from Dunsley Bank - near The Stewponey - in December 1812.
Their enquiries revealed William Howe to be a singular individual, who might well be described as a "Highwayman Without a Horse" - for he possessed all the other accoutrements of a "gentleman of the road" - but lacked a steed!
A long, dark, riding coat, tri-corn hat, a fine pair of pistols and riding-boots, cast him in the "Dick Turpin" image and, maybe, on that dark and snowy winter's night, on the bleak heath between Stourbridge and Kinver, he was intent upon robbing some traveller of the wherewithal, at least, to buy himself a horse. December 18th 1812 was Market Day in Stourbridge and many "fat" farmers would be wending their way home with gold jingling in their pockets...
For some time previously, Howe, who was a carpenter by trade had been in the employ of the Marchioness of Downshire - on her estate at Ombersley, Worcester. He was later described by fellow workers as "a bit of a dandy" who liked nothing better than to "dress up like the gentry" and was particularly proud of a fawn-skin waistcoat which was to figure in his trial. He was a short, thick-set man, in his early thirties, with an eye for the ladies and a habit of living well beyond his means.
It came out in evidence at his trial, that he disappeared from Ombersley on December 15th and returned briefly to collect his belongings on the 22nd - a point made much of by the prosecution. We move now to Stourbridge on December 18th - Market Day and the town was teeming with people of all descriptions. Farmers came in from the neighbouring area. Benjamin Robins of Dunsley Bank - about three miles from Stourbridge - was one of them!
William Howe, was in town also, that day, bent on another kind of business entirely - seeking a fat goose to pluck for Christmas! He had lunch at the "Nags Head," where landlord Perrins remembered him well for the elegant fawn-skin waistcoat he wore, and the manner in which his eyes continually roved around the room. Heavy snow fell throughout the day. At 4 pm it was beginning to get dark and many of those who had come to market began to quit the town.
Thomas Bates, a Compton farmer, left the town on horseback at about 5pm to cross the heath on a homeward journey which took him past the Gigg Mill and onto Dunsley Road. As he cantered alongside Mr Hill's park, he noticed a man standing under the hedge, whom he later identified as Howe. He stated that Howe stared hard at him with a most menacing expression.
"I never saw a more evil pair of eyes in my life," he remarked when giving evidence - and then described how he spurred his horse to a gallop. He passed within a few feet of Howe and got a clear look at his face.
Another witness, Edward Cox, a Dunsley farmer, described how he saw Benjamin Robins walking home from market, up Fir Tree Hill (now Gibbet Lane) at about 5.15 pm and another man (whom he identified as Howe) walking about two or three hundred yards behind Robins at a great pace. He was struck by the "pursuer's" fierce expression. It was snowing hard at the time.
There were no witnesses to the crime itself but from the available evidence it appears obvious that Howe caught up with Robins on Fir Tree Hill, about half a mile from his home, shot him in the back from close range and took his money and valuables - leaving the farmer lying in a gory pool of blood which seeped into the snowy hillside.
However, Benjamin Robins was a strong man. Far from being dead, as his assailant thought, he managed to stagger home, almost unconscious and very weak from loss of blood. Stourbridge surgeons, Isaac Downing and John Causer Jnr., were swiftly called to the farm. They were to testify at Howe's trial...
"Mr Robins was shot in the back from close range. The bullet was taken from the right-hand side of his body, after passing almost through it - 15 ins from where it had entered."
Dr Causer attended the wounded man constantly until his death ten days later - on December 28th.
On the evening of December 18th the news spread around Stourbridge. Testimony at the trial proved that Howe spent most of that night in the "Nags Head." Landlord Perrins, his wife and daughter all attested that when news of the attack was carried to the tavern and it was said that Robins was shot and robbed but expected to live - Howe calmly remarked, "In that case, the villain was not very good at his work."
At this time no suspicion was attached to him. The Stourbridge magistrates immediately conferred and decided to send for Bow Street Runners to investigate the crime. Ace detectives Harry Adkins and Sam Taunton arrived in town and worked like beavers. Various local people came forward and gradually the Bow Street men pieced together a picture of the suspect. They traced him to Ombersley, found that he had returned there on December 22nd, packed his belongings and left in a hired Worcester gig. Their enquiries revealed that a man answering Howe's description, but calling himself John Wood, had arranged for two boxes to be despatched to...The Castle and Falcon, Aldersgate Street, London - "to be called for"...
They headed for the metropolis but when they arrived, the two boxes had already been collected. They were traced to a poor lodging house. Howe was absent but the Bow Street men opened them. One contained carpenters tools. The other was more fruitful - a pistol, gunpowder and three bullets were found wrapped in a fawn-skin waistcoat!
Adkins and Taunton concealed themselves and waited for Howe to return. He did so, next morning. They questioned him regarding the murder but he denied having any knowledge of the crime. However they arrested him and transferred him to Stourbridge. On being examined by the local magistrates, Howe admitted that he had been in Stourbridge on the day in question but was not concerned in the crime, nor had he ever seen Mr Robins.
"My heart is innocent," he stated and appeared calm and untroubled. The magistrates were impressed by the evidence gathered by the Bow Street detectives and decided to charge Howe with Wilful Murder and send him to Stafford Gaol to await the Lent Assizes - March 16th 1813.
Whilst at Stafford, Howe was visited by his wife. He managed to smuggle a letter to her, which implored her to "search a rick at Stourbridge." The letter was intercepted. The location of the "rick" was clearly stated and upon searching, a nephew of the murdered man discovered a pistol and three bullets. The pistol was the exact fellow to the one found by the Bow Street men, in Howe's box at the London lodging house.
Howe still protested his innocence but the evidence was mounting against him.
The trial opened on March 16th 1813, before Mr Justice Bayley, Mr Jarvis prosecuted and the defendant was represented by Mr Campbell.
The charge was read by Mr J. Pugh (Clerk of Assize).
"You are charged with the Wilful Murder of Mr Benjamin Robins, by shooting him in the back with a pistol loaded with gunpowder, and a leaden bullet, thereby giving him a mortal wound of the depth of 4in and the breadth of 1/2in, of which he languished from the 18th of December last, until the 28th, and then died at the parish of Kinfare (Kinver) in the county of Stafford"...
Howe continued to protest his innocence and was ably defended by Mr Campbell but the prosecution held a winning hand. A Mr Powers was brought from Warwick, where he had a pawnbroking business, and identified Howe as a man who had pledged a watch with him on December 21st. The watch was proved to be the one stolen from Mr Robins. And so it went on - the case against the accused becoming stronger and stronger. The jury retired for only seven minutes before bringing in a verdict of "Guilty" - the sentence to be carried out within 48 hours...
In passing the sentence, Mr Justice Bayley, said...
"That you be taken from hence to the place from whence you came and that on the 18th day of this month you be taken to the place of execution, there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that after you are dead, you be cut down and your body be given to be dissected and afterwards anatomised..."
Howe took the verdict calmly, although it gave him less than 48 hours to live. The Stourbridge magistrates at once applied for the body "to be hung in chains near the spot where the murder was committed" - instead of being dissected and anatomised. Their request was granted and at noon on March 18th 1813 the following notice was posted in the town.
"Information is just received from Stafford that the body of the Criminal Murderer, William Howe, will be removed from the County Gaol at Stafford this day. The irons in which he is to be suspended being previously fixed upon the body. It is expected he will arrive in Stourbridge tomorrow."
It was reported that Howe had confessed from the scaffold minutes before he was hanged - that he acknowledged himself a murderer and a thief and warned others not to follow his example.
At the head of a great procession, his body was conveyed to the scene of the murder, where it was suspended in an iron cage until it decomposed - a dire warning to other would-be murderers.
Fir Tree Hill was re-named Gibbet Lane and the adjoining woodland called Gibbet Wood - as they still appear on maps today. In 1903 a skeleton was unearthed near the spot with a rusty dagger mouldering in its rib-cage. Was it that of William Howe, staked through the heart, after the manner of the period, to keep his spirit securely beneath ground?
The story that Will Howe's ghost haunted Gibbet Wood quickly gained strength in the area. One version tells of three local youths who had been "on the spree" and went along to where Howe's body was hanging and began to throw stones at it.
"Will Howe - how bist thee?" one asked.
"Cold and clammy," replied the corpse. Their reaction is not recorded. Much later, during the 1940's a local woman was walking in Gibbet Lane on a clear, moonlit night. She became aware of a man following swiftly behind her. He made no sound and although the moonlight was bright, cast no shadow as he overtook her. She reported that his neck seemed long and stretched - and his head swayed from side to side - as if broken. The figure disappeared on reaching the spot where Will Howe's creaking corpse had hung in chains more than a century before.
The lane which skirts Gibbet Wood is still a pretty "creepy" track, especially at night. Bugle reporters recently visited the scene of the crime but are unable to report any ghostly visitations.
Maybe, Will Howe, has at last gone to his long rest...or maybe...well, who knows?