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The Murder of a Gamekeeper

Lamb-Spring Wood January 2010
Lamb-Spring Wood January 2010

The Bedfordshire Mercury of 2nd April 1860 reported the death of a gamekeeper in Studham, working for Sir Thomas Seebright, who owned Beechwood Farm, just over the border in Hertfordshire but who also owned land in Studham east of Clements End Road.

The report ran as follows: " Studham: A Fatal Affray with Poachers near Luton. A Gamekeeper Killed - We have just received intelligence of a murder having been committed on Wednesday night last, the 28th March, on the borders of this county, at Studham  about two or three miles from Luton, on the estate of Sir Thomas Seebright, Beechwood, Herts".

"The only intelligence respecting the tragic affair we have been able to obtain is - that three keepers on the estate, named John Seabrook, John Cook and Matthew Burgess, were out on the night in question, and had not been a great while engaged in watching before they found that poachers were out. The particulars of what took place we are not able to give yet; but it appears that there were three poachers, all of whom, we believe, armed with guns. Two of them fired their guns at the keepers. Seabrook was shot dead, and Cook dreadfully wounded in the hand and groin, his thigh being regularly smashed. This dreadful occurrence took place in Lamb-spring Wood, Herts [today's county boundary runs north-south through the wood]. The body of Seabrook was taken to his own house, which is only a short distance from the spot; and Cook was conveyed on Thursday morning to Hemel Hempstead Infirmary. A man of the name of George Cain, of Studham, has been apprehended as being connected with the murderous affair, and at once conveyed to Hemel Hempstead Lock-up. The police, we have heard, are on the track of another".

The following week's paper revealed more: "On Saturday, the 31st March, an inquest was held on the body of John Seabrook, head gamekeeper to Sir Thomas Seebright, Beechwood, Herts, before Frederick Day, Esq., coroner for Hemel Hempstead district".

"A short report of this sad occurrence appeared in our last issue".

"The only witness examined on this occasion was Matthew Burgess, who said: I live at Beechwood brick-kiln, in the parish of Whipsnade, Beds.; I am assistant gamekeeper in the employment of Sir Thomas Seebright; the deceased John Seabrook was also in his employ as head gamekeeper, and had a certificate. On the night of the 28th of March we were out watching; Thomas Cook, who had only been employed two or three days before, was with us. We went out about 9 o'clock, and were obliged to be more vigilant than usual, as poachers had been out every night; we had been some time watching when Cook said he should go home, and started by himself. Seabrook and I were walking together when I thought I heard something like a man creeping through the brambles, and I called Seabrook's attention to it. He went to try and find Cook, but came back without him. I heard the noise gradually going down the wood, and directly after two shots were fired; I said "That is in the Gravel Pits"; and I immediately went and fetched Cook from his house. We went towards the Gravel Pits, where we heard men walking; we listened a short time in the road, and heard another gun go off, which we concluded was in the wood called "Foul Sloughs", and we were making our way there when another shot was fired. We examined the gates near this, and found, through the marks we had placed on them, they had not passed that way. We then went up a riding in the wood, when we heard some parties there. We went following each other, crouching down - Seabrook first and I last. We were just close to where two Ridings cross each other, when I saw three men come into the opening, and we all three made a rush to catch hold of them, when two of them who had guns fired almost together instantly. Seabrook fell dead, and almost at the same moment Cook fell down beside him; not a word being said previous. This was in the game preserves of Sir Thomas Seebright; the wood is in two parishes - Flamstead and Whipsnade. Just where Seabrook fell was about a yard in Flamstead parish. It was about twenty minutes past one when the first shot was fired at the Gravel Pits, and when Seabrook was shot it was as near three as possible of the morning of the 29th March. I saw no more than these men, two of whom had on I believe velveteen jackets. It was very dark. The man that shot Cook after he fired took hold of the gun to strike me with the butt end, but I knocked the gun aside with a club stick I had in my hand; when my blow struck the gun it knocked it against an ash stem, and made a noise as if it had a metal ramrod. One of the poachers then ran by me, and I believe he had neither gun nor stick. The one who had shot Seabrook came near to me, pointed the muzzle of his gun at my breast, and with an oath swore hew would serve me the same; he was proceeding to load his gun, when I ran away and concealed myself. I could see when the man pointed his gun at me that he had large bushy whiskers, and that he was the tallest man of the three, about the height of the deceased. When I ran away to conceal myself, the poacher who had previously run away was just in advance of me, and I struck at him with my stick, but he bobbed his head down and escaped the blow; I then sent my dog after him. At daylight, at that very spot I found the handkerchief now produced lying on the ground. I concealed myself after my dog went in pursuit of the man whom I struck at, when I heard one of the men loading a gun, and I heard a man say to Cook "Is your name Burgess?" Cook said "No". The man said "If it was I would shoot you again". Cook said "Pray don't!"  The man said "Be you hurt much?" Cook said "Yes, I am; and die I must" Just before that I left the place were I was concealed I heard a voice in conversation which I thought was the voice of George Cain, of Studham, whom I know very well, and whose voice I should know from an hundred, as I have known him several years. On a former occasion Cain was prosecuted for night poaching and assaulting Seabrook on 10th May 1867. The assault was Cain's attempting to shoot Seabrook. Since then I have heard Cain say if he could not get work he would poach, and before he would be taken he would wait on us. Soon after he came out of gaol on another occasion he threatened to do me some personal injury. The man that shot Cook was about the height of Cain".

"Superintendent Coulter said he had five other witnesses present. But the coroner said he thought before the case proceeded further it would be advisable to adjourn the inquest until Cook was sufficiently recovered to give evidence. The further hearing was then adjourned until Saturday April 14th".

"Sir Thomas Seebright and Rev. J. B. Bingham were present during the proceedings".

"The police, who have been most active in the affair, have six men in custody supposed to be connected with this affair, viz: - George Cain, Studham; Henry Bliss alias Bligh, Totternhoe; Charles Lines alias Buckingham, Saint Albans; Daniel Putnam and Alfred Simmonds of Dagnall; and a man named Cutler, of Whipsnade".

"We hear that Cook's wounds are daily improving, and it is expected that at the next hearing he will be able to be present and give evidence".

Two weeks later the newspaper recorded the close of the inquest: "The adjourned inquest touching the death of John Seabrook was held on Saturday, April 14th, at two in the afternoon, at the house of Mr. David McCulloch, farm bailiff, before Frederick Day, esq., coroner"

"It will be recollected that Seabrook was shot dead on the morning of March 29th, in a wood called Foul Sloughs. The evidence taken this day was the same as that given before the magistrates at Hemel Hempstead, on Wednesday th 4th and Saturday the 7th inst, and which we have given at some length, together with the evidence of Burgess as given before the coroner at the first enquiry. There were several main witnesses examined, after which George Cain and Alfred Bliss were committed for trial on the coroner's warrant for the murder of John Seabrook. It is still a doubtful matter whether the crime was committed in Herts or Beds, the keepers being in the county of Beds when they were shot at, and Seabrook fell with his head in Herts and his feet in Beds".

The 1851 census may have details on some of the participants:

  • George Cain lived in the Hertfordshire portion of Studham, on the Common and was then 14. He had been born in Studham and was an agricultural labourer. He was living with his father William, a carrier and landowner, mother Ann and siblings John, William, Charles, Mary Ann, Henry, Amy, Mary and Jesse.
  • Alfred Bliss was one year old in 1851 but Henry Bliss (as recorded by Bedfordshire Mercury of 9th April) was living in Totternhoe and was 19, a labourer who had been born in the village and lived in Lower End. He was living with a 66 year old relative, Sarah, a straw plaiter who had been born in Eaton Bray. This seems to be the man involved as transportation records [see below] show the Henry Bliss transported for the crime was 30 in 1861.
  • Also living in Totternhoe was a John Seabrook, also 19, and a labourer. He had been born in Totternhoe and was living with his parents, James and Sarah and his siblings James, Betsey and Jessey, also in Lower End.  He may, or may not, have been the same man as the one who was killed.

Having read this article David Cain, a relative of George, contacted Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service with the products of his research. He had been told the story by his grandfather who said that it was decided to hold the trial at Hertford because Seabrook's heart lay on the Hertfordshire side of the border.

David's research determined that the trial took place at the County Assizes in Hertford on 10th July 1860. Cain and Bliss were convicted as was another man, James Norwood. A fourth man, William Hawkins, turned Queen's Evidence and was discharged. Clearly Norwood and Hawkins were also members of the poaching party but were not involved in the fatal shooting, Norwood being sentences to one year's imprisonment. Cain and Bliss were found guilty and each sentenced to fourteen years transportation. They were transported rather than hanged because it could not be ascertained who had fired the fatal shot.

Both men were transported on a vessel named Lincelles which sailed on 5th October 1861 from portland [Dorset], arriving at the Swan Penal Colony in Freemantle, Western Australia, on 28th January 1862. George Cain was described as being 5 feet 6 inches tall with brown hair and a fair complexion, he left a wife and three children behind in Studham. He died three and a half years after arriving in Australia, on 10th August 1865 in the prison infirmary, the records show his next of kin as his father, William Cain of Studham.