The nineteenth century ‘common carrier‘ was often entrusted with considerable sums of money as he or she made their way from village to village, collecting goods and taking orders. As a result they occasionally became the target of robbers, though most went well-armed with at least a stout cudgel and usually survived any such attempt. In 1837 however, Westmorland was rocked by the murder of a carrier, a murder which went unsolved in spite of a long-drawn out investigation and legal proceedings and a substantial reward being offered.
The carrier in question was Thomas Hunter, who lived at a remote farmstead called Archer Hill which lies just south of the modern A685 about 3 miles east of Tebay.
The ‘Horrible Murder’ was reported in all its gory details in the Westmorland Gazette (apologies for the blurry quality of the image). The story was repeated in newspapers the length and breadth of the country and more than 50 years later was still occasionally brought up as a terrible example of an unsolved crime.
Local historian Heather Ballantyne has written a summary of the tragic events described above along with a transcription of the newspaper report of the abortive trial of the suspect held in 1838 in Appleby assizes. She has kindly allowed us to share them both here:
Murder on Tebay Fell (or the Orton Murder) by Heather Ballantyne
One Saturday in 1837 in the quiet parish of Orton on the fell near Tebay the crime of murder was committed. It was the 18th November and the local carrier, Thomas Hunter aged 32 years, was on his way home to Archer Hill, Nr. Tebay, from Kendal when he was killed and robbed of his money. Thomas Hunter was a butter dealer and acted as a common carrier between his own neighbourhood and the market town of Kendal. He was a steady and industrious man and was known to frequently be entrusted with large sums of money and this fact doubtless tempted his murderers to commit this appalling crime. He was in the habit of leaving home on the Friday morning and returning from Kendal on the Saturday evening.
He had left Kendal at about 2.30pm that day with another carrier and made calls at various houses and farms on his way. When they reached the Cross Keys in Tebay the men went their own separate ways with Thomas Hunter, horse and cart heading towards Gaisgill and Longdale to his home in Archer Hill.
At home his young wife Mary, just 21 years old, their three children, Mary still a baby under a year old, Robert 2 years old and John 4 years old and his widowed father were waiting for him.
Also waiting for him was John Beck at Cotegill who had been expecting a parcel to come from Kendal. By now it was dark and at about 9.30pm when Hunter’s cart should have been passing Cotegill, John Beck heard a gun fire but thought it was probably poachers. In the quiet of the night cart wheels could be heard but no carrier arrived. John Beck went outside to see if he could find out what was happening where he found the horse and cart at the side of the track but no sign of Thomas Hunter. Beck ran back to get his neighbour, William Robson, and together they returned to look for the carrier. In a lane leading down to the River Lune they found his body with his whip in one hand and his lamp in the other. The back of his head had been blown off with part being found in one field and the remainder in another and his money stolen.
Kendal Police were informed and two people, William Wills, a poacher, and John Sisson, a hawker, were arrested.
It came to light that Thomas Hunter had suspected for some weeks that he was being followed. A few weeks earlier he had told his wife that he had been frightened by a man with a gun wearing a white coloured shooting jacket whom, he believed, was going to rob him. He had, for that reason, appointed a man to meet him on the last lonely stretch home but this man had left his service a few weeks earlier.
Suspicion for this murder fell on a man called John Wills who had absconded from his home at Tebay and who was traced to Witherslack where he was arrested. There was insufficient evidence and he was acquitted. The following year a Samuel Lennox was tried on hearsay evidence of one David Little of Low Hesket but these accusations were a fabrication and Lennox was discharged.
This is a murder that has not been solved. Sisson was discharged and no evidence was available against Wills. The authorities offered a reward of £100 for information which would lead to the arrest of the murderer but this was not claimed.
Extract from the THE KENDAL MERCURY AND WESTMORLAND ADVERTISER
Dated Saturday, February 24, 1838
The commission for the holding of the Assizes for County of Westmorland opened on Saturday last, at Appleby, and on Sunday the Judges (Mr Justice Coleridge and Mr Justice Patteson) proceeded, according to usual custom, to the church of St. Lawrence, where an impressive and appropriate sermon was preached by the Rev. Threlkeld of Milburn, from the 5th Chapter and 9th Verse of the gospel of St. Matthew.
On Monday the learned Judges proceeded from their lodgings, Appleby Castle, and entered the Court House at eleven o’clock, when the business commenced.
Mr Justice Coleridge presided in the Criminal, and Mr Justice Patteson in the Nisi Prius Court.
This court was thronged to excess, strong interest having been excited in the public mind by the expected trial of Wills, the man who has been in custody for some time on suspicion of having murdered Thomas Hunter, the Orton Carrier. So great was the pressure from the crowd, and such the extreme noise created, that Mr. Justice Coleridge, after several admonitions, ordered the constables to partially clear the court. It will be seen, however, that there was no bill found in Wills’ case, who was consequently discharged, and, as we understand, went to his father’s at Tebay, that evening. Our readers will learn the chief facts brought out in the course of the several examinations which he underwent, from Mr Justice Coleridge’s charge to the jury.
The customary forms having been gone through, the following gentlemen were sworn of the Grand Jury;_
Sir George Musgrave, of Eden Hall, bart., Foreman
Matthew Atkinson, Esq of Templesowerby
E.W. Hasell, Esq., of Dalmain
John Hill Esq., of Bank Foot
Edward Wilson Esq., Of Abbot Hall
William Crackanthorpe, Esq., of Newbiggin Hall
Richard Burn Esq., of Orton Hall
Martin Irving, Esq., of Soulby
John Wakefield, Esq., of Sedgwick
Wm. Wybergh, Esq., of Clifton Hall
Arthur Shepherd, Esq., of Shaw End
Daniel Harrison, Esq., of Kendal
John Crosby, Esq., of Kirkbythore
Thomas Gibson, Esq., of Oddendale
Sackville Ropin, Esq., of Acorn Bank
The proclamation against vice and immorality was then read, and the Grand Jury having been sworn, His Lordship addressed them nearly to the following effect:- He said that, although the number of cases on the calendar was not greater than ordinary, he was sorry to state that it contained a charge of one of the most serious offences that could be committed – that of wilful murder. The charges altogether were limited to three: the first was one of obtaining money under false pretences, and the second a charge of sheep-stealing. With regard to this charge, although the loss of the sheep could be proved by Mr. Bourne, the question that would involve the prisoner’s guilt or innocence would turn upon the identity of the skin. A quantity of mutton has been found in the prisoner’s house, and a portion of the tail part had been found to fit part of the skin. If this should appear to the jury to be established, there would be no difficulty in forming their decision. – With respect to the charge against the prisoner for obtaining money under false pretences, it presented no difficulty. The prisoner (who had been liberated from the jail) went to the father of another prisoner (William Wills) now in confinement, and informed him that he had supplied his son from time to time with tobacco, to the value of 10s 2d. His Lordship here explained the statutes enacted for such offences in the reign of George the Second and of George the Fourth, and then proceeded to say, that Robert Wills – the party applied to – had given money to the prisoner, whose statement he had afterwards discovered to be false. The learned judge next adverted to the consideration of the competency of the prisoner (Wm. Wills) to bear evidence in this case. Having briefly gone over the principal points in these charges, his Lordship drew the attention of the jury to the case to which he had alluded at the beginning of his charge – that if wilful murder. He said he had little doubt that, from the attention this case had excited in the neighbourhood, and especially from the acquaintance most of them have with the local administration of justice, they were aware of the circumstances of the murder; but at the same time he should give a short outline of the facts. And, in the first place, it appeared to him that the depositions did not sufficiently explain the local position of places in the district where the murder occurred, nor did the depositions enter with clearness into the circumstances under which the case occurred. The facts seemed to be these:- The person murdered had been a carrier, who travelled betwixt Archer Hill and the town of Kendal, he usually left his house (Archer Hill) on Friday, and after transacting business in Kendal and various places on the road, returned on Saturday.
As he drew near to Archer Hill, he had to go through several narrow lanes, and, from the circumstance that had happened about a month before his death, he came under a degree of alarm, which induced him to employ a man, who was his servant, to come and meet him. On the night in question when the carrier was killed, the man, who had left the carrier’s employment, did not meet him; Hunter had been seen in the neighbourhood of the lanes between nine and ten o’clock – and, said his Lordship, it is not an unimportant matter that in this case they had the precise dates. About ten o’clock it would be stated to them, a shot was heard in the lane, and shortly afterwards the carrier’s neighbours went out and found him lying dead in the road. On his person was found some money in copper, one or two shillings loose about his clothes, his money-bag was found empty, and a pocket book, which he had had in the inside pocket of an inner waistcoat, was taken away. The carrier’s wife would state that when he went away he carried it with him. There could be no doubt that the man was murdered, and if the jury were to find a verdict with respect to the party charged with the crime, there could be no question that it must be either a verdict of wilful murder or no offence at all. He need not trouble them with any remarks on the law; there could be no reduction of the crime; it could not be other than a crime of wilful murder. His Lordship then adverted to the evidence as it bore upon Wills being on the spot at the time when the murder was committed; that evidence was entirely of a circumstantial nature, and there were one or two circumstances that appeared to him to be material, and which should have been more fully investigated. First, it should have been ascertained whether the deceased carried money with him during that day, and from whom he had received it; and, if he had received any provincial bank notes, whether such had been recognised. In the next place, the prisoner was found to have had in his possession forty-one shillings and seventeen sixpences, and it was material to inquire if the deceased had got such money from any parties. The manner of his coming into possession of this money was material; the prisoner had accounted for it as having been received from different individuals who had employed him; if that were found to be a true statement, it would weigh most materially in the prisoner’s favour; but if it were found to be not true, then it would, on the other hand, be a material circumstance against him. There had, however, been little light thrown on various matters connected with the case, and he must take that opportunity of stating, that in this remote county, where the roads are lonely, and but few houses intervene between the towns and villages, it was very much to be regretted the police establishment in the rural districts was composed of persons whose educations and habits rendered them inadequate for their duties. In the case in question, the assistance of men much more experienced should have been obtained. His Lordship now referred to what might appear the inculpatory evidence against the prisoner. The first inquiry would naturally be. Was Wills on the spot? – had he means to commit murder? – the gun – if he had the gun? – what was his conduct after the deed was effected, and whether the account that he gives himself tallies with the evidence of other parties? It appeared from the evidence that the prisoner lived in a place called Tebay, not far distant from the place where the murder had taken place; that he had been seen with a gun in the course of that day, going with the view to look for ducks. Before going to the road he returned, and on his return he unscrewed the gun and put it in his pocket, when he called at a smithy and seemed not to have had any instrument. About seven he was at a woman’s named Margaret Saunderson, from who he bought some tobacco. Next was the evidence of the prisoner’s father and mother, which stated that he was at home at eight o’clock; that he then went out for about half an hour, returned, and sat at the fire for another half hour, after which he went to bed. The father and mother stated that the prisoner remained in the house; the mother had averred that she had seen her son go upstairs to bed. But there was a separate door at which he could go out, and this evidence therefore no certain proof of his remaining in. The father stated that it would take more than half an hour to walk from his house to the spot where the deceased was murdered, yet this was not very decidedly in favour of his son’s being in the house at the time. It appears also that besides the possession of the gun, the prisoner had bought that day a larger kind of slug, but the surgeon who had examined the deceased’s body had not found any shot in it. Another circumstance worthy of remark was that, near the spot of the murder, was found a larch stick, which a woman had stated the prisoner had pulled from off a tree in her garden, but it was not shown by any witness that he had carried a stick on the day in question. So much for the evidence against him that night. And, then, as to his own conduct. While conversing on Sunday about the murder of the carrier, a person observed that any one who could do such a thing must have had a hard conscience; to which the prisoner had replied in some such words as these – “they who could do that, would think no more of it than of shooting a dog.” He went away next day from Tebay, and on parties talking to him again of the murder of the Orton carrier, he denied any knowledge of having heard of it, but his own declaration shewed that it was hardly possible he could have forgotten the circumstances. Another circumstance that weighed against him was his affirming that he had not had a gun that day, while a witness swears that he had that day seen him cleaning a gun. These were the strongest points to be noticed in proof of his guilt. There was likewise another circumstance to which the learned judge requested attention – the manner in which the prisoner’s father and mother had dealt with the gun, and if some suspicion attached to the possession of it. The gun was first hid by the father after the report spread of the carrier’s death; and then it was taken at an unseasonable hour to the house of a neighbour, (Sisson), who declined taking it in. His Lordship said he had thus stated at length what appeared the most important points for the serious consideration of the jury. If they should find a bill, and it ultimately occurred, after trial, that a verdict of acquittal were returned, the prisoner could never be charged again with this offence; but if they should deem the evidence sufficient for finding a bill, he could at a future period be brought to trial. Justice sometimes travelled at a slow space, but generally with a sure one, and circumstances would probably lead to such a discovery of the offender as should bring him to justice. He (the learned judge) gave only his own view – it was for them (the jury) to decide; but unless they saw the facts in a different way from what he did, they would serve the interests better by ignoring the bill. This, however, was thrown out merely as a suggestion to them. There was one consideration with which he would conclude by reminding them of. The number on the present jury was but small – only fifteen- and to find a bill, there must be a majority of twelve.
The jury then retired to consider the cases.
Mr Morland made an application to the court to grant a Habeas Corpus to allow William Wills, the prisoner confined on the charge of murdering Thos. Hunter, to appear as a witness in the case of Richard Mackereth, accused of obtaining money under false pretences.
After a short conversation, the application was granted.
CHARGE OF MURDER.
The Grand Jury were engaged in the investigation of the case of the murder of Thomas Hunter, the Orton carrier, for fully three hours, and eventually ignored the bill.
The learned JUDGE then briefly thanked the jury, and dismissed them, and the court broke up.”
Who do you think was guilty?
On Sunday 26th November in All Saints Church The Rev William Holme Milner preached a sermon [on the text ‘Be sure your sin will find you out’] that was so popular that copies were printed by J. Brown of Penrith for private distribution. I know of one copy that has survived but there may be more out there, somewhere .
Thomas Hunter’s widow continued living at Archer Hill for a few years with her children and father-in-law but eventually they all moved to farm at Gills but after her father-in-law died she became a housekeeper for her brother in Ravenstonedale.
If you go to Orton Churchyard you can see the headstone of Thomas Hunter erected by his father to the east of the church.
Further information from The Carlisle Patriot Newspaper November 1837 and January 1838.
An absolutely fascinating account. We realise that Thomas Hunter’s widow Mary has appeared in this blog already – her widowed brother who she ends up housekeeping for in Newbiggin, Ravenstonedale was Thomas Bousfield who was father to young Robert Bousfield who was adopted by the Nelson family of carriers and who grew up to be a carrier too.
Another potential candidate for the murderer was mentioned in an article in the Westmorland Gazette in 1842. Someone called Ion, had already been charged and convicted of another crime and there was a strong suspicion that he was also responsible for the earlier shooting of Thomas Hunter but the evidence was never presented by the policeman in question.
Ion is an unusual surname, so it wasn’t hard to track down the case in the local newspaper – Christopher Ion, licensed victualler in Liverpool and ex-landlord of the Black Bull Inn, Kirkland, Kendal was charged and convicted in March 1842 of assaulting and robbing John Benson, a carrier between Kendal and Hawes. His sentence was deportation to the colonies for life. An interesting detail about how the carriers operated is that John Benson said in his testimony before Westmorland assizes: “I do not go with the carts myself. I travel on horseback after they leave the town.” Westmorland Gazette – Saturday 12 March 1842
He also gives quite a lot of information about the stolen banknotes he had withdrawn from the bank of Messrs Wakefield and Co. in Kendal, explaining: “Sometimes I pay money at different times for my customers.” ibid
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