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The Lilley Brothers

One of the most contentious trials in Bedfordshire in the early 19th century was that of Kempston brothers Matthew and William Lilley. They came from an impoverished family, two of nine children of Thomas and Elizabeth. Thomas had had a first wife Mary and after her death married Elizabeth Briggs, who bore him all nine children. In order of birth these children were:

  • Ann, born 1794; she married William Barnford;
  • Samuel, born 1795; he married Rebecca Teedon;
  • John, born 1797; he married a wife named Rachael;
  • Matthew, born 1802; he married Elizabeth Beldam in 1826;
  • Mary, born 1804; she married a man named How;
  • Elizabeth, born 1806; she died in 1826;
  • William, born 1808;
  • West, born 1810; he married a woman named Anne;
  • Joseph, born 1812; he married a woman named Mary;

The brothers’ father Thomas was one of three sons of a man named John, who also had two daughters. John Lilley was a prosperous yeoman farmer. In his will, proved in 1813 [ABP/W1813/16] he is described as a farmer of Kempston. He devised £400 each (many thousands today) to his sons John and William and his daughters Elizabeth Burr and Mary Riseley. His treatment of Thomas is less generous, suggesting that he did not trust him for some reason. He left him the interest (generally 5%) on £400 for his life, the principal to be divided between his children after death. John also left a house and close in Radwell, another house and pightle (small close) of pasture at Moor End Radwell, and three houses, a close, four acres of pasture and twenty acres of arable land at Kempston which he had bought from brewer and later Mayor of Bedford Sir William Long. All this land was divided between his sons John and William and his son-in-law John Burr so, here again, Matthew and William’s father and family missed out.

Before their trial for attempted murder in 1828 Matthew had been to prison twice and William once. In 1820 Matthew had been sentenced to three months for poaching. He was then, aged eighteen, described as five feet eight inches tall with brown hair and a fresh complexion. His behaviour in Bedford’s Old House of Correction (on today’s prison site) was good [QGV10/1]. He was arrested again, for stealing a hat, in 1824 but was acquitted. He had, meanwhile, seen the inside of the County Gaol whilst awaiting trial.

William was sent to the New House of Correction in 1826 for three months for poaching. He was then eighteen and described as five feet seven inches tall, with brown hair, hazel eyes and a sallow complexion. He was a labourer [QGV11/1].

The snappily titled Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette and Cambridge and Hertfordshire Independent Press carried the following account of the brothers’ trial in their edition of 21st March 1829. “MATTHIAS LILLEY, aged 28 and WILLIAM LILLEY, aged 19, were indicted for maliciously shooting at Thomas King, at Bromham, in the night of the 20th November, with intent to murder him. The prisoners were in pursuit of game, and some pheasants were found upon them, and repeated reports of guns had been heard near a wood called Solemn Thrift [later near the site of Bromham Hospital]. Thomas King, an assistant gamekeeper, in company with two others, made up to the spot from whence the reports proceeded, and came up to the two prisoners; a third man was with them; they all ran away; a second time they were overtaken, they again made their escape; a third time they were caught, when Matthias Lilley levelled his gun and discharged its contents at his (King’s) head; he dropped his head down to avoid being wounded, but received a few shots on the top of his head. Each time the prisoners were overtaken, William Lilley, who had not a gun, said “D—n it, give them it” – “let them have it”. The other man had a gun. Kings companions confirmed his evidence. One of them had received a severe injury in his cheek by a scuffle which ensued. A surgeon said that the injury King received appeared as though it had been occasioned by gunshots. The Jury returned a verdict of Guilty, and after a most solemn and affecting address, the Learned Baron passed on both prisoners the awful sentence of death. They were recommended to mercy by Mr Kelly, the counsel for the prosecution, and also by the Jury, and a petition to spare their lives was signed by many respectable inhabitants of Bedford, and presented to the Judge, who consented to reconsider the case but would make no promise”.

This seems a dreadful pre-figurement of the case if Craig and Bentley which did so much to undermine the death sentence in the minds of the public. In 1952 Derek Bentley and Christopher Craig were in the act of burglary when confronted by police. Craig had a gun and Bentley, who was mentally handicapped, reportedly said “Let him have it, Chris”. Craig fired and killed a policeman before both men were arrested. Although Craig fired the shot he escaped the death penalty because he was under the age of eighteen. Bentley was hanged. His cry “let him have it” directly echoed that of William Lilley to his brother Matthew. Did he mean “shoot him” or “give him the gun” and, by implication, surrender? We will never know.

As with Derek Bentley poor William Lilley hanged, together with his brother Matthew. The same newspaper reported the scene, in its edition of 11th April:

“On Saturday last, Matthias Lilley, aged 29 and William Lilley, aged 19, underwent the awful sentence of the law over the lodge in front of our County Gaol, they having been convicted at our Assizes of maliciously shooting at Thomas King, an under-gamekeeper of Bromham, in the night of the 20th November last. About seven o’clock in the morning of the day of execution, all hopes of the arrival of a reprieve having vanished, they gave vent to their grief, which was excessive, and the wringing of their hands, tearing their hair, stamping their feet and their wailings were painful to witness. The worthy Chaplain of the prison, who since their condemnation has been unremitting in his attentions to them, and from whose spiritual instructions they had derived much comfort, arrived about this time; but it was not till about two hours afterwards (when their grief had subsided and they had become more composed) that they could be brought to attend to his humane exhortions – which had the effect of making them more resigned to their fate, and they partook of the holy communion in a becoming manner”.

“A few minutes after 12 o’clock, Matthias Lilley ascended the fatal drop, attended by Mr Warner, the governor of the gaol; as soon as the executioner had completed the awful preparations William Lilley ascended the platform, attended by Mr. Tregenza, the governor of the New House of Correction, whom he had previously known”.

“The demeanour of the former was most becoming his awful situation; he expressed a hope of future happiness, and an unconcern about what might become of his body after death: the latter looked around him on the vast multitude below, and seeing a man who was named Taylor, repeatedly nodded his head: on being asked whether he had anything he wished to say he wept and said he had found the 7th chapter of Job very suitable, and added “give my dying love to all”, repeatedly ejaculated “…the Lord have mercy on my soul” and gave Mr. Tregenza the kiss of peace”.

“Their attendants then withdrew, on which the bolt was withdrawn, and they were launched into eternity: they did not appear to suffer much; and after hanging the usual time their bodies were taken down, placed in two coffins, and delivered to their friends, who had provided a wagon, which conveyed them to Kempston, where they were interred the same evening”.

“The subjects of this melancholy narrative were born and brought up at Kempston, where their ancestors for more than a century occupied a farm; and their relatives have been in respectable circumstances – indeed these young men had always bourne a good character for honesty & industry: and we never heard of any crime being laid to their charge but what was the result of poaching. The game laws have done much towards the demoralising of society, and are denounced by the wise & the good as a disgrace to the country. [We understand that one of the companions of the above unfortunate young men, came to witness their final exit with live pheasants in his pocket, and whilst they were suspending, he actually sold a cock and hen to a person, and delivered them at his house after the execution was over!]”

The public reaction to their deaths seems to have been both sympathetic and angry – sympathetic towards them and angry towards the gamekeeper and the system. The last paragraph above shows us why. The Game Laws were seen as a way of preserving sport for the richest in society at the expense of letting the poorest go hungry. Whether the brothers poached out of need to feed their family, whose circumstances, as we have seen, were not of the best (Matthew had a pregnant wife, a baby and a toddler), or out of a sense of adventure cannot be known.

A folk song of the time stated baldly that the gamekeeper’s assertion that Matthew had shot at him first, rather than in self-defence was “a bloody lie” and there seems to have been a feeling that the keepers were out to “get” these brothers who had both been convicted before and whom they had, perhaps, failed to catch on other occasions.

Of the six brothers only two seem to have escaped the law. West Lilley spent three months in the Old House of Correction in 1827 for poaching [QGV10/1]. He was described, aged seventeen, as five feet four inches tall, with brown hair and a fresh complexion. The other brother, Samuel, did time in 1847 and 1854 for offences other than poaching [QGV10/2; QGV10/3].

Ridgmont Justice of the Peace Thomas Potter McQueen wrote of the case as follows [CRT150/13]: “In January, 1829, there were ninety-six prisoners for trial in Bedford Gaol, of whom seventy-six were able bodied men, in the prime of life, and, chiefly, of good character, who were driven to crime by sheer want, and who would have been valuable subjects, had they been placed in a situation where, by the exercise of their health and strength, they could have earned a subsistence. There were in this number eighteen poachers awaiting trial for the capital offence of using arms in self defence when attacked by game keepers; of these eighteen men, one only was not a parish pauper, and he was the agent of the London poulterers, who, passing under the apparent vocation of a rat catcher, paid these poor creatures more in one night that they could obtain from the overseer for a week’s labour”.

“I conversed with each of these men singly, and made minutes of their mode of life. The two first I mention are the two brothers, the Lilleys, in custody under a charge of firing on, and wounding, a gamekeeper, who endeavoured to apprehend them whilst poaching. They were two remarkably fine young men, and very respectably connected. The elder, twenty-eight years of age, married, with two small children. When I enquired how he could lend himself to such a wretched course of life, the poor fellow replied, “Sir, I had a pregnant wife, with one infant at her knee and another at her breast; I was anxious to obtain work. I offered myself in all directions, but without success; if I went to a distance I was told to go back to my parish, and when I did so I was allowed, - what – for myself, my babes, and a wife in a condition requiring more that common support, and unable to labour, I was allowed seven shillings a week for all; for which I was expected to work on the roads from light to dark, and to pay three guineas a year for the hovel which sheltered us.” The other brother, aged twenty-two, unmarried, received 6d a day. These two me were HANGED at the Spring Assizes”.