A woman hanged for poi­son­ing her hus­band. A lit­tle girl drowned in the pond. When BEL MOONEY re­searched the his­tory of her new she dis­cov­ered ...

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LIKE all the best ghost sto­ries, it be­gan with a stranger knock­ing on our door over a year ago. Her name was Mrs Penny Dev­er­ill and she was ask­ing per­mis­sion to take a pho­to­graph of the old farm­house, a corn mill un­til 1904, that my hus­band and I had moved into a few months pre­vi­ously.

Sur­rounded by pack­ing boxes still, and deaf­ened by the sound of car­pen­try, I only halflis­tened to her ex­pla­na­tion that she’d dis­cov­ered that an an­ces­tor was poi­soned by a daugh­ter of the house.

Mrs Dev­er­ill, it tran­spired, had writ­ten a pri­vately-printed nov­el­i­sa­tion of the story and some­times gave talks on the sub­ject to W.I. groups, so wanted the snap. She kindly gave me a copy of her book, but, busy set­tling in to my new abode, I put it to one side.

Yet as the house slowly be­came our home, and we made our own changes but kept old de­tails, some­thing about the story she had told me haunted my thoughts.

I be­gan to won­der about all those who had lived here be­fore me — the ro­mances, the sor­rows, the dra­mas of their lives that had been played out here, with the old stone walls around me their con­stant back­drop.

Even now, I find my imag­i­na­tion con­jur­ing up the daugh­ter in ques­tion, Re­becca Wor­lock, as a lit­tle girl in long pet­ti­coats tod­dling into the room where I’m writ­ing. The beams over my head were prob­a­bly old even then — when the 19th cen­tury was young and Re­becca was care­free and in­no­cent. Be­fore she met her ter­ri­ble end at the gal­lows in 1820.

Does the spirit of Re­becca ever come back to the home where she was born, raised and happy — be­fore be­ing hanged for the mur­der of her hus­band, Mrs Dev­er­ill’s an­ces­tor, ‘with mal­ice afore­thought and at the in­sti­ga­tion of the devil’? And does lit­tle Mary Cater, the daugh­ter of a fam­ily who moved to the house later, who drowned in our mill pond in 1858, still cry for help un­der the shadow of the trees?

Oh yes, the his­tory of your house can af­fect you in more ways than you ex­pect, if you care to un­cover it.

It was an­other house al­to­gether that led me to re­search the his­tory of my cur­rent home. I heard that the cou­ple who bought the won­der­ful, 300year-old (but un­listed) hill farm where I had lived for ten years with my ex-hus­band had fi­nally man­aged to get per­mis­sion to raze it to the ground, to build an ul­tra-mod­ern home.

All that his­tory — the cu­mu­la­tive to­tal of many gen­er­a­tions’ lives im­printed on an­cient stone walls — de­stroyed.

I was heartbroke­n. And an­gry, be­cause I be­lieve we are mere cus­to­di­ans of old build­ings and the land­scape which sur­rounds them.

YOU CAN al­ter them, yes — but have no right to tear them down, just be­cause you can af­ford to. So I vowed to hon­our the his­tory of my present home — half­way be­tween Bath and Bris­tol — by find­ing out as much as I could about its past.

To help, I called on the ser­vices of Me­lanie Backe-Han­son, pro­fes­sional house his­to­rian for the grand old firm of es­tate agents Chester­ton­Hum­berts — who know that old prop­er­ties are given added value when buy­ers know some­thing of the sto­ries they hold.

Me­lanie’s new book gives tips on how to get started, as well as fas­ci­nat­ing case stud­ies, and she treats re­search­ing old houses as an ad­ven­ture, which it cer­tainly is. We met at the Glouces­ter­shire Ar­chives and the first thing she asked was: ‘What do you want to know?’ ‘Ev­ery­thing,’ I replied. But it’s not that easy. There we were, side by side, look­ing at a moun­tain of an­cient doc­u­ments she had ex­tracted from the ar­chives, filled with tiny, crabbed hand­writ­ing.

I started by ask­ing how to find out the names of the four fields we own. Easy! She showed me how to call up the tithe maps, lo­cate where the fields are num­bered and then con­sult the sep­a­rate doc­u­ment, which lists names, own­ers, rents and so on.

I was thrilled to get a re­sult. Now, in­stead of ‘ over there’ we can say ‘ in Home Field’ — just as they al­ways did.

It im­me­di­ately in­ten­si­fies my sense of be­long­ing. Look­ing at old maps with Me­lanie, I could see how the place worked, when the mill build­ing (now a ro­man­tic ruin) stood op­po­site the house we live in and the di­verted river turned the ten-foot-high wa­ter wheel.

The pros­per­ous peo­ple who owned it for gen­er­a­tions — the Flow­ers — clearly had a sense of sta­tus and owned many acres. I was des­per­ate for ev­i­dence of when the house was built and (af­ter two days of re­search in Glouces­ter and Bris­tol) we found out that some­body recorded ac­counts for the build­ing of a mill in 1603-4, even though the ac­tual doc­u­ments eluded us.

So, be­cause there was only one mill recorded in the Domes­day Book en­try for the vil­lage, peo­ple must surely have been liv­ing on this spot for hun­dreds of years, even if our house is mostly 17th cen­tury.

It all adds up to what the Ro­mans called the ge­nius loci — the spirit of place — the magic which those with no sym­pa­thy for old build­ings can’t un­der­stand.

I han­dled t he old doc­u­ments, painstak­ingly de­ci­pher­ing l egal de­po­si­tions, notes on the height of the weir (still here, now a ruin) and cen­sus names and ages of the house’s in­hab­i­tants — all recorded in spi­dery pen and ink.

More and more, I feel part of a long line of peo­ple who have given birth, grown, played, l oved, quar­relled, en­joyed fam­ily cel­e­bra­tions, sick­ened and died on this patch of lime­stone, with the river run­ning through it. These are all the ghosts of the house and I’m happy to live with them.

But what of Mrs Dev­er­ill’s tale of the mur­der of her great, great, great un­cle? Noth­ing in the ar­chives we con­sulted.

As a bona fide house his­to­rian, natu-

rally Backe-Hansen be­lieves in per­son­ally go­ing to record of­fices when­ever you can. If you’ve never done it be­fore, don’t worry be­cause the knowl­edge­able staff are help­ful — and once you get go­ing it’s like a glo­ri­ous trea­sure hunt.

BUT web-based re­search can be very use­ful, too. And — bingo! — tucked away i n the on­line records of the Har­vard Law School Li­brary I found a record of ‘the trial of Re­becca Wor­lock at the Glouces­ter As­sizes on Mon­day, Au­gust 14th, 1820, for mur­der­ing her hus­band by mix­ing ar­senic with beer.’

A few clicks, then the whirr of the printer — and it’s mine.

The riv­et­ing ac­count of the trial sends me back to the lov­ing­lyre­searched ama­teur book, which I fi­nally read. If only Penny Dev­er­ill hadn’t fic­tion­alised it! Be­cause the ac­tual story con­tains enough drama.

I can eas­ily vi­su­alise the hor­ror on the face of re­spectable and wealthy Mrs Mary Flower, sitting in this house, when she was first in­formed that her daugh­ter Re­becca had been ar­rested for mur­der ... Re­becca’s f ather Lamorock Flower (all the first-born Flower sons had that strange name) had died in 1797 when she was 13 and six years later her mother Mary, aged 40, mar­ried a 25-year-old man — who must have had his eyes on the mill as well as the widow.

It’s im­pos­si­ble to be­lieve that Re­becca ap­proved — es­pe­cially as her young step­fa­ther soon be­came caught up with costly legal dis­putes.

I bet there wasn’t much at­ten­tion paid to the young woman and she wanted to es­cape.

Per­haps that’s why, just four years later, she mar­ried Thomas Wor­lock — who was very much her so­cial in­fe­rior.

She was used to a large com­fort­able house, with a fam­ily in­come from the mill and the vast acres; her new hus­band was the son of a slaugh­ter­man and owned no land at all.

The ill-matched cou­ple moved to a hum­ble cot­tage just over the hill on Old­land Com­mon.

Thir­teen years and three chil­dren later, Re­becca slipped ar­senic into Thomas’s beer, caus­ing him to die in agony. It’s said that he was a vi­o­lent drunk­ard and the mar­riage was al­ways tem­pes­tu­ous.

In her con­fes­sion, just be­fore the gal­lows, she said he had been jeal­ous and ‘re­peat­edly called her the most op­pro­bri­ous ep­i­thets’.

But per­haps she was un­faith­ful — who can know what goes on be­tween a hus­band and wife?

One thing is cer­tain — there’s noth­ing new about un­happy mar­riages. Be­tween 1800 and 1868, of 206 fe­males hanged pub­licly in the Bri­tish Isles 42 met their fate for mur­der­ing their hus­bands.

Ar­senic, com­monly used as rat poi­son, was the favourite mur­der weapon for wives who wanted to dis­pose of trou­ble­some spouses — which is why women weren’t al­lowed to buy it on their own. But it was easy to take some­body into the drug­gist with you — which is what Re­becca did. She asked a stranger, Mary Jenk­ins, to go with her for ‘two pen­ny­worth of some­thing to poi­son rats with’.

Mary Jenk­ins’s ev­i­dence in court was damn­ing: ‘On leav­ing the shop, the pris­oner told her that it was not to kill rats, but that she had a hell of a fel­low at home, whom she meant to do for.’ The op­por­tu­nity came when Thomas came home tired and thirsty af­ter walk­ing 30 miles that day and sent his old­est child, 13year-old Mary Ann, to the Che­quers Pub­lic House (which is still there) for a jug of beer.

She took the jug, went for the beer — but when she re­turned home, her mother took the jug from her and sent her off to look for her brother and sis­ter. That was the fate­ful mo­ment when Re­becca put the white power into the beer.

They all came to the As­sizes to give ev­i­dence against her — the woman who sold the poi­son, the wit­ness to the pur­chase, the girl who drew the beer, the pub­li­can him­self, the neigh­bour young Mary Ann called when she heard her fa­ther tell her mother ‘you have done for me’ and var­i­ous med­i­cal men.

The court was packed to hear the jury re­turn their ver­dict of guilty af­ter just seven min­utes.

Re­becca Wor­lock’s last words in pub­lic were: ‘Oh my poor chil­dren!’

Two days later she was hanged in front of a huge, rowdy crowd and her body cut down and given (fi­nal hor­ror) for dis­sec­tion.

THE last per­son to speak to her was the vicar of our vil­lage, who (it’s of­fi­cially recorded) ‘brought home with him sev­eral lit­tle presents for her chil­dren which she re­quested he would give to them on his re­turn’.

Won­der­ing what piti­fully f ew pos­ses­sions the con­demned woman might have had to give, I start brood­ing about those chil­dren. Be­cause no­body took care of them.

Two months af­ter their mother’s ex­e­cu­tion, Mary Ann and her lit­tle sis­ter Honor were sent to sep­a­rate or­phan­ages in Lon­don.

The boy, John, re­mained in the vil­lage, re­liant on parish hand­outs and grad­u­ally get­ting into trou­ble with the law.

But where was grand­mother Mary when all this was hap­pen­ing? Sitting in this very house, with her young hus­band, lis­ten­ing to the mill wheel turn­ing as ever — and turn­ing her back in shame.

Didn’t she ever re­call nurs­ing her daugh­ter in the up­stairs room where she was born? Watch­ing her play? It makes me quite an­gry to think about it.

You might ask, what’s the point? But house his­to­rian Me­lanie Backe-Hansen and I agreed (af­ter two days of re­search that could have stretched into weeks) t hat you do be­gin to f eel strangely close to these longdead peo­ple.

You imag­ine what it would have been like to be them. And it makes you feel closer than ever to the place you have all ‘shared’. Af­ter all, when I walk along the edge of the River Boyd, I am look­ing at a land­scape they would have im­me­di­ately recog­nised. That tall Scots Pine by our barn would have been a sapling, but the house and out­build­ings more or less the same. When I stand in one of my favourite spots, gaz­ing at the dark wa­ter of the mill pond, I think of lit­tle Mary who — I found out from some ear­lier re­search — tum­bled i n and drowned.

I feel pity for the griev­ing mother, El­iz­a­beth Cater, who only sur­vived her by two years — af­ter which the stricken fam­ily un­der­stand­ably moved away to Cardiff.

Know­ing such sto­ries is not spooky or mor­bid, but al­lows me to ac­knowl­edge the im­por­tance of those or­di­nary — and ex­tra­or­di­nary — lives.

That’s why I en­cour­age peo­ple to do a lit­tle his­tor­i­cal dig­ging about the house — or street or area — they live in. Who are the ghosts that share your house? You never know — dis­cov­er­ing their names from old records may make you love your home even more.

As I do. So I will call the fields by the an­cient names and my hus­band is restor­ing the old out­build­ings us­ing tra­di­tional lime and oak and we will take great care of the homestead — for the sake of all who were here be­fore us, in this house of spir­its.

HOUSE His­to­ries — The Se­crets Be­hind Your Front Door by Me­lanie Backe-Hansen is pub­lished by The His­tory Press at £16.99.

Foun­da­tions: Bel Mooney traced the his­tory of her farm­house

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