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The Theft of Prayer Books from Wilshamstead Church

The church from the south-east March 2012
The church from the south-east March 2012

The Quarter Sessions archive provides a bizarre case involving the church dating from 1832 [QSR1832/4/5/16]. William Cooper, a servant to the Rev. Frederick Pawsey, the vicar at Wilshamstead stated that on Tuesday 9th October, having heard that a prayer book with his name written in it was at Houghton Conquest, he went with the vicar to the church to see if it was the prayer book he had left upon his usual seat in the church after evening service on Sunday. The book was not there. He examined the church with his master and found many of the pew doors open [clearly these were the old design of inclosed or "box" pews] and in those pews there were no books. He examined the church doors and windows and saw that the casement in the window of the south side of the church, next to the porch, was torn open. A pane of glass close to the catch was broken out. The door under the porch was unbolted but closed. It was usually bolted inside. On Wednesday morning he went to Houghton Conquest and examined some of the books in the custody of a publican. Amongst them he found his own prayer book which he had left in his seat at Wilshamstead church on Sunday afternoon. He had written his own name into the book.

William Seabrook was publican of the Royal Oak public house in Houghton Conquest. He stated that between 2pm and 3pm on 9th October Humphrey Adams came into his house and ordered some beer. After Adams had sat a little while, he saw the prisoner draw four books, two prayer books and two psalm books from under his smock frock. He said he had found them in the grass at the side of the road between Bedford and Wilshamstead. He then delivered them to the company present who read from the books as to where they could have come from. One of the company proposed to Adams that he should leave the books with Seabrook, who could give them back to their owners, in return for a pot of beer. The Adams agreed to do so. Seabrook took the books and Adams then went away and he saw no more of him. The next morning William Cooper came and Seabrook showed him the books. Cooper identified one of them as his own prayer book.

Sophia Dix was the wife of James, a beer seller at Houghton Conquest. She knew Adams. On 9th October between 1pm and 2pm he came to her house and asked her to give him some water. She told him she would and he pulled out the prayer book and asked her to buy it. He said she could pay him in beer. She refused to buy it and then Adams asked sixpence for it. She asked him if he had come by it honestly and the prisoner said: “Yes as true as God’s in heaven”. Adams then said she might give him threepence and a pint of beer and a pennyworth of tobacco for it. She gave him the threepence, beer and tobacco and he gave her the book. Soon after, Adams went away having first had some bread which he had paid a penny for. A marginal note states that Armstrong, the owner of the book, was allowed to identify it at the trial.

Humphrey Adams simply said in his own defence that he found all the books between Wilshamstead and Bedford, upon the grass by the road side. Not surprisingly, he was convicted and sentenced to six months hard labour [BLARS QGV10/]. The gaol register states that he was 29 years old, 5 feet 3 inches tall, with dark hair and a dark complexion and that he lived in Wilstead. It is interesting that in 1836 a man of the right age, with the same physical description and age, but by then living in Flitwick, was senr to the hulk Justitia before being transported for sheep stealing