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The Parish of Steppingley in General

Flitwick Wood seen from Flitwick Road 1st December 2016
Flitwick Wood seen from Flitwick Road 1st December 2016

Bedfordshire Assize records are largely held by The National Archives. However, the brief for the prosecution of Joseph Cooke at the Lent Assizes of 1789 forms part of the Swaffield Archive [SFM2/138]. Cooke was a baker in Steppingley and was charged with the murder of Elizabeth White, a single woman of about twenty five, who lived in Ampthill.

The brief tells us that on 24 November 1788 Cooke passed the house where Elizabeth lived with her two sisters, Mary Gobby and Ann White. A little while after Elizabeth followed him. On her return she told her sister Ann that she had a meeting with Cooke in Flitwick Wood at 9.30 the next morning “to give him his watch”. Then, she seems to have changed her mind saying that she would not go because it was too early in the morning.

On 26th November Cooke went to Elizabeth’s house at 2 pm to fetch his watch and they made an appointment for the Monday following. On the Friday Elizabeth had a conversation with next-door neighbour Martha Dawborn, telling Martha “I have got my rogue in at last”. Apparently Cooke “had made use of so many comical sayings” that it made Elizabeth unhappy and uneasy because “He was not as he used to be and she could not tell the reason of it, and if it was the last word she had to speak on her deathbed, she knew no man but him since her boy was born”. Clearly the two were lovers.

On Monday 1st December Elizabeth got up at 7 am and told her sisters she was going to meet Joseph Cooke. She was seen passing Doolittle Mill about 9 going towards Steppingley and was seen in the riding of Flitwick Wood by  Thomas Cooke a little later.

At noon the following day Elizabeth’s body was found in the riding in Flitwick Wood by James Read and his two young sons. She had several wounds on her head, perhaps from a hammer, and her throat was cut almost from ear to ear. Her cloak and cap had come off, her bonnet was under her head and half-full of blood. Near her body lay a dinner knife (which was clean), the blade of a penknife (which was bloody) and two pieces of her fingers near them. She still had the weekly 1/6 received from the Overseers of the Poor in her pocket, along with another 2½d., a piece of ginger and a thimble.

On 1st December Cooke was seen by his employee James Line at breakfast about 8 am. He then left the house with a hammer in his hand. Joseph Osborn saw him later that morning going up Turner’s lane in Steppingley towards his own house, about 9 am. About 9.45 two of Cooke’s children went to Osborne saying their father wanted to know if he would go to Ampthill Fair. Osborne and Cooke then went off to the fair. They did not return until 9 pm.

William Farrer met Cooke just before 10 am that morning at the east end of Row Tree Close going towards Steppingley Wood Field. The close lay between Steppingley and Flitwick Wood. Thomas Phillips also saw him in the same place at the same time. About 10.15 he was seen coming into Steppingley by Elizabeth Odell. He was then about one hundred yards from his house. His coat was off and he had something under his arm. He looked clean and dry. A similar story was told by Ann Chandler who saw him coming towards Steppingley about fifteen minutes earlier.

On returning home Cooke went to the blacksmith’s shop and stayed there, warming himself in front of the fire. Blacksmith Henry Beechener noticed that his clothes were clean and dry. On reaching home a few minutes later Cooke was very wet and muddy and told people he had fallen in a pond as he stooped to cut some bushes.

Cooke’s family at Steppingley were described as “people of good repute and property and have much influence in the parish”. His charwoman, Sarah Line, gave evidence that Cooke was only absent from home between 9 and 9.30 and that he came back wet and muddy, in contradiction to other witnesses. She at first denied that the knife found by Elizabeth’s body was familiar but later admitted that she had seen similar ones at Cooke’s house. The brief notes coolly: “This Sarah Line is a woman of bad character and reputation, and has seven or eight illegitimate children and is supposed a connection has been between her and the prisoner” in other words, they, too were lovers. A search of Cooke’s house revealed a knife and fork which matched the dinner knife found with Elizabeth’s body. Other witnesses put Cooke out and about that morning including Henry Deacon, Clemanton Robinson, Thomas Deacon and Joseph Seer. Their evidence was regarded as not necessarily helpful to the prosecution.

The coroner found ten wounds on Elizabeth’s head, principally on the left-hand side of her face, five of which appeared “to be dug from the claws of a hammer”. Her jaw and cheekbone were fractured and she had lost three teeth She had tried to defend herself as the ends of the first and second fingers on her left hand were severed and he third finger was fractured. The first and second fingers of her right hand were also cut and her right wrist was bruised. He opined that her head wounds were caused by a hammer and her throat had been cut by a very sharp knife. She was not pregnant.

Interestingly when Cooke was taken to the murder site he seemed to be behaving oddly: There remained a great quantity of blood from the body. They told him that was the spot where this poor girl was murdered; they went round to avoid treading in it, but he trampled upon it and went through with seeming resolution and passion”. On being taken to gaol Cooke remarked to one of the constables: “I did not think the knives would be brought to light”. His frock coat when found, though it had been washed, appeared to be bloody about the lapels. He had bought a penknife at Ampthill fair to replace a knife of which he had lost the blade.

With all this evidence it is not surprising that Joseph Cooke was found guilty at trial. He was duly hanged at Bedford [QSR1789/226]. Elizabeth White was buried on 6 December 1788 at Ampthill. She left a son of about two, parish registers telling us that Humphrey Carte, son of Elizabeth White, was baptised in Ampthill on 4th July 1786.

The Northampton Mercury reported Elizabeth’s murder at some length in its edition of 13 December 1788. It hypothesised that Elizabeth went to meet Cooke in order to blackmail him about their relationship. The paper noted that Cooke: “has a Wife, a very neat decent Woman, and three or four fine Children”.

Cooke’s execution was reported in the edition of 21st March 1789: “On Monday [16th March] the above Joseph Cooke was executed at Bedford, pursuant to his Sentence, and made a full Confession of his Guilt to the Clergyman who attended him, on Sunday Evening. He was taken to the Place of Execution in a Post-Chaise. After hanging the usual Time, his Body was cut down and delivered to the Surgeon’s for Dissection”. He was probably hanged at the spot known as Gallows Corner on Bromham Road.