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Crime and Violence in Eaton Bray

This piece is taken from a document drawn up by Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service staff for a lecture or exhibition on Eaton Bray.

Although life in Eaton Bray was probably quiet and peaceful most of the time, the village has had its share of disturbances in the past. Among the husbands and wives whose squabbles came to the attention of the courts were Sarah Fowler and her husband Thomas, who threatened in 1813: “If I once get you into my arms you will never get out alive”. Similarly, John Noah, a labourer, in 1792 declared he would murder his wife and son and “burn her up like a coal”, whereas Thomas Waldock did more than threaten and assaulted his wife Elizabeth with an ash stick in 1785. He was bound over to keep the peace towards her.

Other disagreements could cause trouble. In 1818 Richard Bates of Eaton Bray met Joseph Mead of Northill and as they had “had some trifling misunderstanding a few days previous … held out his hand, asking him to shake hands … Mead immediately struck him violently with a scythe”. Bates was cut several times and as a result was unable to work for a fortnight.

Violent outbursts were not limited to the men of the parish as can be seen in the attitude of Sarah Crawley who threatened to kill a widow, Mary George, in 1733 and in that of Elizabeth, the wife of Joseph Whinnett, a yeoman of Eaton Bray, who used a knife to attack Richard Atkins, a gentleman from Flamstead [Hertfordshire] in 1729. Perhaps, too, there may have been some women party to the anonymous letter which Mr. Macnamara [the Lord of the Manor] received in the summer of 1881. This communication threatened that he would be shot if he took the rent due from his farm tenants and five of his tenants were warned of a similar fate if they paid the money. “Hunger is a sharp thorn” claimed the writers “and revenge is sweet”.

Perhaps poverty was the cause of some of the petty thefts which occurred during the nineteenth century. In 1813 William Osborne, described in one place as of Eaton Bray and in another as of Edlesborough, was caught after stealing a flock bed (mattress) and a pair of sheets. In the next year a labourer called John Faulkner, but known to some as Jonathan Sculthorpe, was also taken to court after stealing two linen shirts which were hanging on the line to dry.

“Robberies by servants were always bad and must be punished severely” claimed the Leighton Buzzard magistrates in 1874. They were hearing the case of William Gadsden of Eaton Bray who worked at Frederick Simmonds’ mill. While delivering flour to customers he had taken out about half a bushel in a sack, removed it from the cart and hidden it in a field. There were several witnesses of his action and he admitted his guilt. The magistrates sentenced him to three months in prison with hard labour. Another labourer from the parish was in trouble in 1875. On 17th May Joseph Foster stole a duck and ten eggs, valued at 3 shillings and sixpence from Mr. Buckmaster’s farm. He probably took the food because he was hungry, for he took the duck home, cooked it and ate some of it. When P. C. Edmunds arrived to search the house soon afterwards, he found the ten eggs and part of the cooked duck. By then the thief had left the village, heading for London. The policeman must have had a good idea of his destination, for he started out in pursuit, caught up with him and apprehended him on the same day at Turnham Green near London.