The savage slaying of a local lawman by Black Country 'badman' - Billy Sugar
Researched and written by Bob Taylor
Oldbury's old "Whimsey Inn" was a favourite haunt of hard-drinking grimy colliers in the last century, many of whom were lawless by nature, having scant regard for authority and the officers who attempted to see justice done. A rougher, tougher fraternity could not have been found in the whole of the Black Country.
On the evening of the last day in March, 1828, however, an incident occurred to cause even the most notorious customer of the "Whimsey" to wince. William Steventon, better known as "Billy Sugar," viciously 'ran through' a persistent officer of the local court, as he had so often threatened to do.
Even his meanest drinking associates, who made no attempt to dissuade Steventon from his deadly deed, viewed the flow of blood from John Horton's punctured liver with churning horror, and more than one felt inclined not to guzzle any more of landlord, Josh Perry's potent brew.
Josh himself, was not only put out by his customers unusual reluctance to drink themselves under his beer-stenched tables, but also by the sickly sight of the crimson stain spreading over his sawdust-strewn taproom floor. It would require some 'mopping up' to erase that evidence of Billy Sugar's callous crime!
John Horton, native of Hales Owen, sergeant of Oldbury Court, and keeper of the local gaol, lay writhing in a crumpled heap at the foot of Josh's bar, his body vainly resisting approaching death, as "Billy Sugar" calmly walked out in to the cold night.
He had often bragged that he would 'butcher' the first lawman who tried to serve on him any of the six or seven warrants that had been issued for his arrest over the previous two years. He was a very dangerous man as the local officers were well aware. None had been able to apprehend him in the past, and they realised the futility of trying to take him single-handed.
Why John Horton, a quiet, diligent husband, father of five children, with another on the way, should have taken it upon himself to attempt to tame Stevenson, without aid, was a mystery - and he had certainly paid a cruel, but expected price for his unwise action. On the morning of April 1st, he gave up his struggle for life, and died in great agony.
A new warrant was immediately issued - this time for the arrest of his killer for wilful murder, and a reward of 30 guineas was offered for information leading to his capture. However, the murderer, sensing that he had really stirred up a 'hornets nest' this time, had not been seen since he had walked out of "The Whimsey," after making the fatal thrust. It later transpired that he had put many miles between himself and Oldbury, in a bid to 'go to ground.'
Families, huddled together in cramped collier cottages that clustered Oldbury Village, talked excitedly of the events that led up to the murderous night. They spoke in awed tones about Steventon's lethal weapon. It was an instrument some twenty inches long, made from part of a sword, ground to the shape of a large carving knife with a sharply honed point. With this weapon he had threatened to, "Cut the arms or legs off any Oldbury Court man who tries to take me in." Now that threat had become red reality!
Steventon was a collier by trade, but his general conduct in Oldbury was such that he was forced to disappear on occasions. During such absences he worked as a boatman, leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves. He belonged to a family, who for generations, had been involved in the worst aspects of blood sports. His late father known as "Wicked Will," organised bull baiting at Rowley Wakes for many years, clashing with the Rev. George Barrs (vicar of Rowley), who was a determined opponent of such practises.
"Wicked Will" had served a term of imprisonment in the early 1800's, for threatening the life of the clergyman during a riot in Rowley Village, and there was a great deal of bad feeling between them. The Rowley cleric was certainly no forgiving soul, as we shall find later in the narrative.
The murderer enjoyed several weeks of freedom following his dastardly crime, as he headed west, through the green hills of Shropshire, and into Wales. On April 23rd, however, he was apprehended in Pontypool, after a violent struggle with four lawmen. He was put into irons and escorted back to Oldbury, where he was charged with murder, and later transferred to Shrewsbury Gaol, to wait trial at the Summer Sessions. This venue was used, due to the fact that in those days, Oldbury was within the parish of Hales Owen, a detached part of Shropshire.
A large crowd gathered around Oldbury Gaol on the occasion of the prisoner's transfer to the Shropshire county town. Struggling madly, he was chained to the horse-drawn wagon that was to convey him to Shrewsbury.
He came to trial in early August, 1828. The court heard how the unfortunate John Horton had approached Steventon in "The Whimsey," and served the warrant for his arrest. Steventon, at first, appeared to be quite passive, and pleaded that he may be allowed to return home to "clean himself up." The officer's prudence deserted him, and he agreed to the request.
When Steventon returned, he was no better cleansed than before, but armed with that vicious blade concealed beneath his coat. As Horton asked if he was now ready to leave with him, he pulled out the knife, placed a hand over the officer's eyes, and ran the blade through his liver, shouting, "Now I'm ready to go with you."
The verdict was a formality, and Steventon was sentenced to be hanged and anatomised on the 11th of that month - on the same day as Joseph Pugh and John Cox, the principals in the "horrible murder at Market Drayton."
On the day of reckoning, the Oldbury man was reported to be more firm than his gallows companions, and the Prison Chaplain had worked 'around the clock' to save the souls of the condemned. He appears to have had some success, for he proclaimed that Steventon had fully admitted his guilt and acknowledged the justice of his sentence, lamenting much on the course of his wasted life, which he mainly attributed to the pursuits of bull baiting and cock fighting, and to the practises of Sabbath-breaking, drunkenness and debauchery.
We leave the description of the events on the execution morning to a contemporary scribe, who wrote.
"The drop was erected at an early hour on Monday morning. On the previous night all three malefactors ate their allowance of bread with much appetite, and drank copious supplies of water. The chaplain, with the Rev. John Richards, had succeeded in bringing the unfortunate men to a satisfactory state of mind. The three were conducted to the place of ignominious exit. They climbed the scaffold calmly, and, at this point, neither addressed a word to the immense multitude before them. However, whilst the ropes were being adjusted they cried out to God for mercy. The bolts were drawn, and they died instantly.
After they had hung for the usual time, the bodies were cut down and permission was given for the hands of the deceased to be drawn over several individuals suffering under the affliction of wens. That operation was performed.
Steventon's body, with that of Pugh, was conveyed to Salop Infirmary for dissection. Cox's went to Market Drayton for a similar purpose. Great interest was aroused by an estimated 5000 persons congregated in front of the prison. All of the positions from which the drop could be viewed were occupied..."
On the following Sunday, Rowley Church was crowded. The congregation included many Oldbury citizens, who well knew the subject of the 'fire and brimstone' sermon that the Rev. George Barrs was about to deliver.
We quote from the Rowley cleric's diary, of August 17th, 1828.
"My text was selected with special reference to the execution, on Monday at Shrewsbury, of William Steventon for the murder of John Horton. My intention was made known, and the church was crowded to suffocation. My object was to show the depraved nature of the man as the source of all sin. The case of the unhappy murderer was delineated.
From his very parentage and childhood, he was addicted to whatever sins depraved nature brought forth - to bull baiting, cock fighting, drunkenness, debauchery and Sabbath-breaking. He mainly attributed his ruin and untimely end to these sins. He was particularly desirous that his brothers and children should be warned against the course of conduct which led to his crime and punishment..."
No doubt the Rev. Barrs thundered out the sermon with a certain relish and personal satisfaction. He saw the demise of "Billy Sugar" as a case of a son following in the tainted footsteps of a sinful father. A perusal of his diary reveals that he felt himself to be a 'divine' messenger of the Lord, and that all who stood against him would inevitably meet a sticky end.