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Forum Home > The Ultimate Crime. > John Shakespeare's Murder. 1885.

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John Shakespeare, Norton Canes, Heath Hayes, Cannock.

I am indebted to Mike Shakespeare, for the story that appears below. It's not often that during a family research project you stumble across something interesting. Its exciting when you do, but doubly so when it happens twice, and you find the paperwork to prove it all. Thanks Mike for the use of the story, and for the picture, which can be seen in the " Criminal Intent Album ".

Act 1. The sin of the Father.

Life in the towns was hard in the early part of the 19th century, but it could be just as hard in some rural areas as well. Work was always scarce, and when a position with real worth came up, there were no shortage of takers, and no shortage of dirty tricks either. Take the job of a Gamekeeper for instance, it needed skills that only experience of country life could produce, over a long period of training. Thats why many of these positions, tended to be passed from father to son, after long and faithful service to the Landowner. The old saying goes, set a thief to catch a thief, and it's the same with Gamekeepers, most of whom, in the past, had been poachers. Some of them however, never actually stopped being poachers, indeed, some of them got very greedy and robbed the Lord of the Manor blind. Not that the estate owners didn't know about the pilfering of a few rabbits, a little perk of the job for being out in all weathers. As long as there was plenty to hunt, when his Lordship organised a shooting party, all would be well, but at times, and with several Gamekeepers needed to control a large Estate, the owners steward would be hard pressed to know what they were all up to. The Gamekeepers knew though, and at times, it could get very nasty.

James Shakespeare,  was born around Himley, near Dudley, in 1789. He married in Wolverhampton in 1810, and by 1816, he was in the employ of William Ward, Lord Dudley. The Baron employed several Gamekeepers, he had a large Estate covering Himley, Baggeridge Woods, Kingswinford, Pensnett chase, and as far south as Cradley. Together with a cottage and some guns, James Shakespeare was given charge of the extensive Baggeridge Woods, where most of the Pheasant Poults were raised. Over the years, James must have become aware that all was not well on his Lordships Estate, poaching was at a high level, and whats more, he knew who was doing it. Most Gamekeepers kept a dog, they were useful for flushing out game, finding straying birds, tracking foxes, and snffing out the presence of poachers. For the same reasons, poachers also kept dogs, and a few Gamekeepers laid poison to shall we say " level the odds " a bit. This may be exactly what James Shakepeare may have done on the evening of 12th July, 1824, and unfortunately, he was seen. William Rolison, a man with a few dubious friends, and of course a dog, claimed he saw Shakespeare drop poisoned bait by a gatepost at his property, and his wife claimed that she had seen him feed something to the dog, as he passed behind their cottage. The dog took sick and died on the 14th. The matter wa reported to Lord Wards steward, who, as his employer was abroad, instigated an inquiry. The dead dogs stomach was opened, found to contain poison, and so some of the bait that had been found, was fed to another dog. ( although a completely heartless thing to do, there were no proper tests available )  It died within a few hours. Conclusive proof you might think, but the poison in the bait had acted far quicker than on Rolisons dog, so was it the same type of poison? There was, it appeared, some jealousy and bad feelings between the Gamekeepers, as another keeper, Joseph Reeves had put forward his son for the post that went to Shakespeare. Words may have been exchanged between Shakespeare and the nearby Box family, who worked on the Estate, and who were now accused of cutting down Lord Wards Trees, and selling them for profit. They were, along with Rolison, if James Shakespeare is to be believed, also the Estates biggest poachers, which surely the steward must have known as well. Now you would have thought, that poisoning a dog would have involved bringing in the local Constable, but no, this was all dealt with by Lord Dudleys Lawyers, who, after evaluating the evidence and rejecting an apeal from Shakespeare, recommended he be dismissed. And so he was, after all, he had, in all likelihood, if you believe the statements, poisoned that poor dog.

Now in the paperwork thats in Mike Shakespeares possesion, theres a line that says that a survey was done on Baggeridge Woods by Joseph Reeves, where it was found to contain barely a quarter of the game that should have been there. Which obviously means, that what James Shakespeare had accused Rolison and the Box's of, was almost certainly true. Also in the notes, is a recommendation from Lord Ward, that Shakespeare should be paid his wages for several months, and kept on the Estate as a labourer, until he had found another suitable position. Hardley the actions of a man who would harbour a poisoner on his Estate was it. He did find another job as a Gamekeeper, in a small village in Staffordshire called Norbury, not far from Gnosall. Strangely enough, Norbury Manor, was owned by George Anson of Shrugborough, Earl of Lichfield, who just happened to be the friend of Lord Dudley. Its not likely, that the old General would have employed a dog poisoner either. The Shakespeare family settled down here, some of his sons also becoming Gamekeepers, including his son John Shakespeare, who is the main character in the second part of this Shakespearian play.

Act 2. The sin against the Son.

Born in 1816, John Shakespeare followed in the footsteps of his father, and became a gamekeeper. Endowed with his fathers knowledge, ( without the alleged dog poisoning of course ) and his possibly rather authoritarian ways, John made steady progress in his chosen career. As a young gamekeeper, he found himself far from home on an estate owned by the Earl of Shrewsbury, at Stapleton, south west of the County capital. Here, he met, and them married, Mary Ann Clayton. It was also here, in 1839, that the first of their 12 children was born, young John, followed by James, and then Mary Ann. According to the 1851 Census, Thomas and David, were born in Windsor, Berkshire, Sarah Jane on the Isle of Wight, in Whippingham, near to Osbourne House, where John was in the employ of Queen Victoria's Consort, Prince Albert. The next one, William appears to have been born back at Shrewsbury, after which John went to work for George Anson of Shrugborough, Earl of Lichfield. Lucy arrived at Colwich, Job at Wellington, Emily at Albrighton, Nathan at Donington, and Robert, Daniel, and Benjamin, all at Gnosall. John Shakespeare then was not only a trusted employee, he was also widely travelled, and had of course worked for the very elite of society. It follows then, that when the time came to retire, his Lordship at Shrugborough, would find him some suitable accomodation, and a few odd jobs to ensure he didn't go short of the sustenance of life. And so it was, that the family moved to Norton Canes, Staffordshire, right on the edge of the old Earls vast estate which encompassed some of Cannock Chase, where he could roam in peace with his gun, and still keep an eye out for that arch-enemy of all landowners and gamekeepers, The Poachers.

You would expect a gamekeeper, even an ex- gamekeeper, to become familar with his new surrounding, which is what old John, now, in 1885, 70 years old did. On the 13th September,1885, on one of his many excursions, he approached a place he was well known at, The Five Ways Inn, in the then tiny village of Heath Hayes. He had with him, his trusty old single barrelled shotgun, and was it would seem, expecting to meet a Labourer from nearby Hednesford, one Jonathon Pickering, with whom he had some business. There are two versions of who was in the Inn when he entered, but the Landlady, Mrs Mills, in an interview, 4 days later, said that all the main characters were already there. Bartholomew Gorman, his young brother Owen, Henry Turnyfield, Francis Donnelly, and Thomas Philips, made up a group of Tinkers/Travellers, who were on the way from Cannock, to Lichfield. Finding trade a little slack around their usual haunts, they had taken to the road, seeking sales elsewhere. Not subject to any confusion though, is that Donelly, clapping eyes on Shakespeare, immediately said " I know you ".  The response came at once, " Yes, and I know you ". And indeed they both did, for Donnelly, 22,  had already had cause to know Sheakespeare, he had been lucky to escape several convictions for poaching. The so called ex-soldier, in truth an out of work pottery printer, hadn't enjoyed the work, prefering to leave his wife and young children in Longton, Stoke-on-Trent, and wander the area stealing. Still, on this occasion, it all seemed to be friendly enough. Overhearing that Shakespeare had a little trouble with his gun, Donnelly offered to have a look and was politely told to leave it alone, it was loaded. He tried to pick it up again, and was told a second time, to leave it alone. Shakespeare learned that Gorman had earlier sold Mrs Mill some potatoes, and he whispered to Pickering that he wouldn't be surprised if they had been stolen enroute from Cannock, nor he added, would he be further surprised, if the men in the bar weren't reponsibly for a break in at an office in Brereton, a short time ealier. Ever the watchful gamekeeper, he took the opportunity, outside the Pub, to question Turnyfield on the subject of poachers, but learning nothing he returned to his seat, asking Turnyfield for his address. At this stage, Donnelly sat beside him, and as soon as he began writing, got up and picked up the gun. He was warned by Gorman, " Put that down you will do some damage ", but Donnelly, either not hearing, or totally bent on what he was going to do, leveled the shotgun at Shakespeare, and then fired it. The noise was deafening, and everyone in the bar, except Donnelly, who ran away, was in a state of abject shock. William Hulme, a local farmer, had the presense of mind to persue Donnelly, who was presently caught, and held, by the local Policemans wife. John Shakespeare was in a terrible condition, most of the left side of his jaw had been blown away in the blast, but amazingly, and in great pain, he was still coherent. " I told him not to touch the gun as it was loaded. He took it out while I was writing. He sat by my side. He fetched the gun and shot me. We had not had any words. " ( an argument ) He asked to be taken home, which may have been his last words, but was quickly conveyed to the local Doctors, where he died 10 minutes later while his wounds were being attended to. Francis Donnelly, now in the hands of the Police, was charged with Wilful Murder, and while John Shakespeare's body was taken to the Crown Hotel, Cannock, he was confined to await his fate.

Act 3, The Epilogue.

There now followed, what could only be described as " a bit of a farce ". Having arrested and charged Francis Donnelly with wilful murder, they could only look on in dismay, as the Coroner's Jury bought in a charge of Manslaughter. The family of John Shakespeare, ( one of whose sons attacked Donnelly )  must have smiled with some relief, when Donnelly was put up in front of the Magistrates, and they duly reversed the charge, back to one of  Wilful Murder. They though, did not have the final say, that word went to the Grand Jury at Stafford, who, having reviewed the witness statements, decided there was simply not enough evidence to convict a man of murder, and promptly reduced the charge back to manslaughter. There was so much confusion between the witness's, about whether or not Donnelly had been warned that the gun was loaded, and the fact that no harsh words or threats had been spoken, that Donnelly was aquitted. The rest of the motley crew, who had been charged with being accessories to the crime, had all been discharged by the Magistrates previously. So John Shakespeare was buried, without Justice being seen to be done, and no closure for his grieving family. But why?

I wonder, what possesed the gamekeeper, to take into a Public House, a fully loaded Shotgun. Was he expecting trouble? Did he know that group would already be there, having followed them, or had he been given some tip off about poaching. Perhaps, having spent a lifetime in his trade, when he came to retirement, he simply couldn't disconnect himself from the job. The same with the firearm, he had handled them all his working life, never, as far as is known, had any accidents occured, so why walk around with one loaded and ready for use. More to the point, why have a loaded gun on this perticular trip, for what looks like a quiet lunch time drink. Then we have the ex-Irish soldier and alleged thief, Donnelly. He wasn't deaf, although its a fair bet he couldn't read or write, so did he really not hear the warning, that the gun was loaded. Levelling the gun was one thing, but to fire it, it had to cocked, and although Shakespeare may have indeed entered the Pub with it loaded, I can't believe he would have propped it against the seat fully cocked as well. That's not what you would expect  from a man with so much experience. Dying men have been known to put the blame on someone else, but in this case, I think his last words were true, and in that case, Francis Donnelly got away with murder. Seeing his friends name written down, and believing that would later lead to him being identified and implicated in a crime, he snatched the opportunity to kill two birds with the one stone, so to speak. Its all of course, a very long time ago, anger has long since gone, consigned to the shadowy world of the dead, far beyond the grave. maybe in another place, they are friends, just as they appeared on that fateful day in September,1885.

" If we shadows have offended

Think but this, and all is mended.

That you have but slumber'd here

While these visions did appear "

( William Shakespeare;  " A Midsummer nights dream " )


A wonderful thing is work, I could watch it all day.  ( See my Blog entry )

October 23, 2012 at 4:32 PM Flag Quote & Reply

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Posts: 1413

Just to show how far things had moved on since 1885, there is a story in " More Ghastly Murders ", from just 8 years later. This time, both the coroners and trial Jury took an entirely different view of a similar shooting, not far away in Norton Canes, where John Shakespeare had lived. I wonder if the killing of poor John, had any effect on the outcome of the slaying of William Masfen, again by a poacher using a gun. If it had, John Shakespeare hadn't died in vain.


A wonderful thing is work, I could watch it all day.  ( See my Blog entry )

October 28, 2012 at 4:50 PM Flag Quote & Reply

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