The “Longtown Harriers” – A tragic affair in Herefordshire
The Hereford Times of the 21st and 28th of January 1893 reported in detail on events in Clodock in early January of that year that led to the death of a local man and to charges of manslaughter being laid against a number of local residents. [Copies of the full original articles can be found in the microfilms of past editions of the Hereford Times held in the Reference section of Hereford Public Library]. The 28th January edition summarises how the matter was reported more widely in a London newspaper [not named] as follows:
“Down Hereford way humour seems to be in a highly developed condition among the natives. It is not the modern humour that they cultivate – the Hereford men prefer to go nearer the origin of jocularity. And to show you that I speak the truth, I place the following story at your disposal.
Five men had attended a funeral, which had degenerated into a drunken orgie [sic]. Upon returning home they appear to have determined to play a practical joke upon their neighbours. One man is reported to have been thrown into the river Monnow, and to have narrowly escaped being drowned. Another is said to have fled from his tormentors and to have taken refuge in a public house. Here his pursuers satisfied their sense of humour by taking down from the rack a side of bacon and thrusting it upon the fire. A labourer named Prosser is said to have been aroused from sleep by a clamour at his door, and to have escaped at the back of the premises just as the front door was broken in. He was chased across country and apparently overtaken and brutally treated. His dead body was found beside the road on Friday morning. Another account gives what is perhaps more vivid details of the jest. The deceased was discovered suspended by his shirt, waistcoat and braces (being in a partially dressed condition) from palings about three quarters of a mile from his own cottage. He was quite dead when found. The prints of the deceased’s naked feet were traced back from the palings a distance of about a mile, and in proximity to them were the foot-marks of five other persons. Now this occurred in Christian England, though one might imagine from the details the deed had been perpetrated in Borneo. In the classic words of Robert Martin, ‘Faith, we never know what we’ll be up to next’.”
The Hereford Times article notes that “It has given the parish a bad reputation. Wits at market ordinaries make playful reference to ‘Longtown Harriers’ when Clodock men put in an appearance.”
In the original reports on the 21st January 1893 the Hereford Times reporter gives details of the events under lurid headlines, a transcription of part of which follows below:
TRAGIC AFFAIR IN HEREFORDSHIRE
A DESPERATE RACE FOR LIFE
FEARFUL DEATH FROM EXPOSURE
A NUDE CORPSE HANGING ON A GATE
ARREST OF SIX MEN
“Surely no more sensational story ever found its way into a work of fiction than the melancholy tragedy enacted in the parish of Clodock late on Thursday night or in the early hours of Friday morning last week. Information reached the offices of the Hereford Times early on Friday that the dead body of a man had been found at Clodock under very suspicious circumstances, and we at once gave publicity to the meagre particulars to hand; but owing to the lack of railway and telegraphic facilities to that remote village, full reliable information could not be obtained even in time for our later editions. The difficulty of obtaining authentic information owing to the remote situation of the village naturally gave rise to numerous rumours of an exaggerated character. Among the reports in circulation was one that a particularly brutal murder had been committed and that the body of the victim had been tied to a hedge by the alleged murderers, after having been thrown into an adjacent river. As later information was obtained these reports were found to contain but a modicum of truth. Though the tragedy which we deeply regret to record is charged with many exceedingly painful incidents, disclosing a by no means acceptable view of the state of rural society, it is happily not surrounded by the results of unbridled savagery…
…The inhabitants [of Clodock], who are principally engaged in agricultural pursuits, possess the reputation, rightly or wrongly, of being a singularly clannish class. So much so indeed that the police engaged in the work of collecting evidence find themselves considerably handicapped by the reticence of those who are suspected to know a great deal more than they are feel disposed to divulge. It has also been said, but what foundation there is for the statement it is impossible to say, that total abstinence from intoxicating liquors is not one of the cardinal virtues of the parish, and that the occasion of a funeral is often-times recognised as a season of evening festivity at the public houses, a funeral, it has been alleged, being almost as good as a fair to the publicans.
Of recent years at any rate the much abused parish has not contributed an overburdened chapter to the criminal annals of the County. Serious crime, at all events, has been practically an unknown quantity. The records of very many years have to be diligently searched before a case of anything like the gravity of the one now engaging official attention is found. One of the first reached is that in which Thomas Watkins and his mother were charged with the murder of John Gwillim at Longtown, for which crime the male prisoner was executed at Hereford on March 23rd 1811. About twenty four years before that, a bailiff’s officer was murderously obstructed in the discharge of his duty in the neighbourhood of Clodock. He was shot at and wounded by a person against whom the writ he was about to serve was directed… [Details of two other murders in the neighbourhood at around the same time are given]
…It is a cause for much thankfulness that the latest tragedy of the parish is devoid of the brutality of some of the former crimes committed within the borders. Certainly the tragedy is serious enough. It casts an unfavourable light upon the life of at least some of the inhabitants, but it would appear to be free from any of those elements which go to form a capital crime. On Thursday last week there was a funeral in Clodock, a farmer’s child being buried, and it would appear that as in other districts remotely situated from active civilisation a funeral is mostly regarded as a kind of holiday, to be followed by a convivial gathering at a public house. Whether or not the attraction was the funeral, it is certain that a number of people, who in the common parlance would be spoken of as respectable, assembled at the Cornewall Arms Inn, so called from the fact that it formerly formed a portion of the Moccas estate, to spend the evening.
The Cornewall Arms Inn is a ramshackle old white-washed cottage. It is occupied by Mr E Townsend, who is a saddler by trade, for which he has a shop near the stables, at the other side of the premises. On the evening in question Mr Townsend was away from home. One side of the inn forms a boundary with the churchyard, overlooking which is the large window of the kitchen where the accused and the deceased, who was a slim young fellow about thirty years old and five feet four in height, had their drink during the few hours previous to the death hunt. The company was a large one and the inn kitchen, the window of which opens into the well-filled churchyard, was full of gaiety. Included in the company were the persons who have been arrested and the man whose death they are charged with having caused in what must be regarded as a wild drunken freak. [It is subsequently reported that they were fuelled by ‘frequent draughts of “rum hot”, which has been described as hot beer mixed with rum’] The deceased, a labouring man called William Prosser, appears to have officiated in the capacity of music provider for the company by the manipulation of a common wind instrument [later reported as a Melodeon]. He left the house early, probably about half past nine o’clock, and appears so far as is known to have gone to the house he occupied by himself on the side of the hill, about three quarters of a mile away. The accused men remained in the house until long after the regular closing time , no doubt being aware that the village constable had gone on duty in a remote part of his district, and in their drunken condition they seem to have decided upon some midnight roistering. They first of all paid attention to the interior of the inn kitchen. A side of bacon and other portions of the carcass of a pig were placed upon the fire. When outside, they seem to have commenced a battle with snowballs, and then to have gone to an adjoining hay loft, where they found in bed a man named John Cross, who is about fifty years of age and who is a mason hailing from Leominster. They took possession of him and unceremoniously rolled him in the snow. But when afterwards asked to relate his experience, he treated the matter with an indifference which suggested a thought that he was accustomed to such attentions on the part of his friends. “Oh, it wasn’t much,” he would say, “they only rolled me in the snow for half an hour or so, and I’m none worse”, though he did receive an injury to one of his feet saying that the disturbers of his rest trod upon it when they entered the room where he was lying down. From Cross they went to the house of a man named Chappell. The reason the revellers selected these two men and the deceased for an exhibition of their affection may probably be explained by the fact that Prosser, the deceased, was under suspicion of having a partiality for the occupants of the fowl houses in the neighbourhood, and that Cross and Chappell were supposed to be his intimate friends. As a fact, Prosser was summoned before the magistrates at Abbeydore, the charge against him being that of the theft of fowls from the premises of Davies, one of the men accused, but the charge was not substantiated and the defendant was discharged.
The cottage occupied by Edwin Chappell is behind the inn, and overlooking the river Monnow, a narrow road or pathway separating the garden gate from the water. Chappell is about 55 years of age, and a jobbing carpenter and wheelwright. His wife was away at the time. He says that he had a rough-and-tumble with his persecutors, and upset at least one of them, who had to fetch his hat from the river. His feet, legs and arms were cut and contused in several places. On reaching the house occupied by Chappell, the men violently attacked it. They broke the windows and burst the door open. Admittance to the house gained, they rushed upstairs and entered the room where Chappell had laid himself down to rest. One of the men, who with two others can be identified by Chappell, struck a match and lighted the candle. The others seized the victim, who was bundled downstairs and dragged or carried without any clothing other than that in which he was sleeping, to the river Monnow, in the waters of which they deposited his body and left him to regain his bed the best way he could. Chappell does not seem to have suffered any after-effects of his midnight baptism, but what his sufferings were in being taken from a warm bed , exposed to the keen frosty air without any clothing, and then plunged into a river, may possibly be sufficiently imagined. The place where he was immersed was shallow, and Chappell getting out made tracks for home, which he reached in safety.
From the river bank the men went to the house occupied by Prosser. It had been occupied by him alone since his parents removed to another parish. It is about three quarters of a mile from the village, the direction to it from there being across the footbridge over the river and along a steep and winding road cut through marl and rock, past a couple of cottages and the Lower Hunthouse farm. The cottage in which the deceased resided is only about fifty yards above the farmhouse just mentioned and is known as Hunthouse cottage. It is a good roomy cottage with some sheds at the back, and overlooks a valley at the foot of a long range of the Black Mountains. Behind it is an upland orchard leading onto another hill. The larger window on the ground floor is that of the living room. When visited by the writer, the furniture and utensils still remained as when left by the deceased, before he retired to the room immediately above. The furniture is of a primitive description, and the disordered condition of the place was thoroughly suggestive of a bachelor labourer’s life. There was an armful of wood, thick branches of apple tree cut into lengths, near the fire grate, across which was a quantity burnt through the centre. On the fender was the deceased’s pair of strong boots, his red handkerchief and a pair of long woollen socks being hung in the fireplace to dry. A towel was lying on the rough bench, tea things, knives, tobacco pipe and an old hat are on the deal table, two candlesticks and some tin boxes on the mantelshelf, and a few small jugs hanging on the wall. Near the fireplace there was also a box made with wire netting into a cage, in which the deceased kept his ferret. Outside in the pigscot was a long pliable pole with which the windows are supposed to have been broken, and behind in the shed was a formidable axe with which the window sashes might have been broken. The central panes of glass in the bedroom window appeared to have been smashed by means of a piece of rock flung at it. Not two whole panes are left in it. The surface of the ground is of a rough hilly character, wild with rocks, cuttings and watercourses, and covered with hard patches of snow. A short distance up the hill is the farmhouse of Mr Evans [subsequently reported as the Garn], and it is said that young Evans heard the shouts of a man, but by the time he had come down to see what was the matter, the parties had disappeared.
As stated above, the men smashed the windows but it does not appear that they entered the house, as the door was found intact when the place was visited by the police. Possibly the action taken by the inmate rendered the bursting open of the door unnecessary. That he was alarmed by the knockings and the threatenings of the men outside is evident from the fact that, according to a statement of one of the prisoners when arrested, he sought to escape from maltreatment by jumping from one of the windows and taking flight. He would appear to have put on his waistcoat, and to have attempted to get into his trousers, for the braces were afterwards found upon him, though the trousers were not; but fearing that his attackers would be upon him before he accomplished that act, he made for the window and jumped out, carrying the trousers with him. Once on the ground, he set off across snow-covered country. He had not gone far before he lost possession of his trousers, which were afterwards found in a field, and he ran on covered only by his waistcoat and shirt. The men followed him, their footmarks, as well as the prints of naked feet, having been traced for a considerable distance from the house where the chase started. Prosser directed his steps to a house occupied by a friend. He loudly knocked at the door and he was immediately answered from an upper window by the occupier of the house. He implored protection in the house, alleging that five men were after him to murder him. The occupier at once promised to admit him, and told him to seek shelter in the stable until he could come down to open the door. Prosser replied that he could not, for his pursuers were upon him, and once more started off to escape the violence they had threatened him. At this time, another inmate, looking out of the window, saw five men running towards the house. Prosser ran on until he reached two houses not many yards from the Cornewall Arms Inn, and almost immediately opposite the churchyard. The occupant of one of the houses is a labourer named William Wood, with whom Prosser was on friendly terms. He seems to have made for Wood’s house in the hope of seeking protection from his pursuers, but what followed can only be conjectured, as no extraordinary commotion was heard during the night by the inmates of the houses. It is surmised that Prosser was in the act of opening the wooden gate which is in the railings in front of the house, and that he fell from exhaustion. In falling his shirt and waistcoat caught in the top of the gate and, hanging to the gate, he died from exposure to the cold. [The] deceased seems to have made an effort after falling to release his clothing from the top of the gate, for when the body was found early on Friday morning, the right hand had hold of the clothing at the back of the head.
The semi-detached cottages [subsequently named as Ashtree cottages] on the front gate of one of which the deceased’s body was found leaning, are situated at the entrance turn to the village, and immediately opposite Clodock church. In fact, the poor fellow during the few moments before his death might have looked at the tree under which he was destined to be buried. The discovery was made by Wood about half past seven o’clock in the morning. Information was given to the police, and the body was removed to the Cornewall Arms Inn, where a superficial examination showed that the legs were covered with scratches and wounds, such as would naturally be produced by a naked man running through fields and crossing fences on a dark night. One side of the head was badly injured. It appeared to have been battered, but whether from blows or falls it is not very easy to say. One of the kneecaps appeared to have been knocked or kicked out of place, and there were other injuries of a superficial character about the body. The inquest on the body was opened on Saturday afternoon by Mr T Llanwarne, and evidence of identification and the finding of the body having been given, the inquiry was adjourned, the coroner ordering a post-mortem examination to be made. On the same day three of the men charged with having caused Prosser’s death were brought before the magistrates, and remanded until Monday, bail being allowed. The two other men in custody were remanded on Monday.
On Tuesday another arrest was made, so that there are now six persons charged with having caused the death of Prosser. The name of the accused is Charles Lewis, a farmer’s son, about seventeen years of age. It appears that he told another person that he was with the five men already in custody during the attack on Prosser’s house. Information reached the police that he had made the statement, and he was at once arrested, and the following day admitted to bail. At the resumed inquiry before the coroner, the proceedings will be watched by Mr EL Wallis and Mr Frank James on behalf of the accused. The body of the deceased was buried in the churchyard on Tuesday. The officiating clergyman was the Rev G.V. Collison, the vicar of the parish. The grave was dug just within the boundary wall of the churchyard, immediately opposite the gate to which the body was found hanging, and about fifteen or sixteen yards from the spot where it was found.
We understand that Messrs. Corner & Co., solicitors, Hereford, have been instructed by the Solicitor to the Treasury to conduct the prosecution.
At a special police court for the Abbeydore petty sessional division – held at the Shirehall, Hereford, on Saturday, before Mr H.H. Wood (in the chair) and Capt. Freke Lewis – William Davies, 34, miller, Clodock; Leonard Miles, 32, farmer, Longtown; and John Williams, 21, farmer’s son, Longtown, were charged by Supt. Smith that on January 12th, in the parish of Clodock, they did feloniously by assault and exposure to the cold, cause the death of William Prosser, labourer. Superintendent Smith deposed…” [etc.]
The Hereford Times account continues with further details, witness statements and reported evidence at the Magisterial proceedings and the adjourned inquest, and it was reported that Walter Griffiths [whose right name was said to be Boucher] and Thomas Jones [said to be at the Hunthouse farm], labourers, were also charged at the Abbeydore police court with having caused the death of Prosser. It is also reported that Charles Lewis of the Cwm farm, Walterstone was apprehended and charged with a similar offence.
The Hereford Times of January 28th 1893 subsequently reports very extensively on the inquest and magisterial proceedings, including what appear to be verbatim transcripts of court proceedings and evidence given. A variety of pictures and sketches of the various locations is included in the article.
Follow the links below to view photographs of a selection of contemporary press cuttings about this affair: