“The Berkswell Murder”, 1845

On Wednesday 19th November 1845, Thomas Tranter, a 60-year-old farmer described as  living near Docker’s Gate in the parish of Berkswell, was found murdered in an outbuilding adjoining his home.

The door was locked from the outside and he was found face down in a pool of blood in the doorway, with a sack over his head and a blood-stained bill hook and axe lying next to him. Death was apparently due to a fracture of the skull, caused by a single blow from a blunt instrument, believed to be the head of the axe, which bore some of Thomas Tranter’s grey hairs. Mr Arthur Sargeant, surgeon from Meriden, declared that it would have been quite impossible for the wound to have been self-inflicted.

Thomas Tranter had lived at the farm on Barretts Lane, Balsall Common, for about eight to ten years, having purchased it from a Mr Cole of Warwick. The Berkswell parish tithe map of 1841 lists Thomas Tranter as owner and occupier of nine plots of land, in the vicinity of roads now called Sunnyside Lane, Barretts Lane and Meeting House Lane. The map above shows the field names from the tithe map added to the 1st edition county series 1:2500 Ordnance Survey map surveyed in 1886.

The Leamington Spa Courier of Saturday 29 November 1845 noted that he had previously lived on a farm at Haseley and “has always been deemed a most eccentric character.” It looks as if he was born in Berkswell, being baptised at the Church of St John Baptist on 13th November 1785.

He was last seen alive on the morning of 17th November. George Satchwell, a nine-year-old boy from Burton Green, who had started working for Thomas Tranter just one week and one day earlier, had arrived for work, and eaten in the house the breakfast he had brought with him from home.

The boy left Tranter’s house shortly after 8am, retrieving a fork and shovel from the barn in order to spread some manure in the meadow opposite the front of the house. He left his master still eating his breakfast of bread and ham and cheese. After about ten minutes, Tranter came out and assisted the boy for about five minutes before telling him to spread the muck more thinly and then returning to the house via the back gates. He wasn’t seen alive again, except by the murderer.

At about 2pm, George Satchwell returned to the house to retrieve his bag containing his dinner. However, he found the house shut up, with the inside shutters to the ground-floor windows closed, the blinds drawn and the door locked. As the deceased was known to be a man of eccentric habits, a court hearing was told that it was not unusual for him to leave home for some time. The boy returned to his work without having his dinner and, after working until dark, returned home and went to bed shortly after 8pm. 

The discovery of the body

The following day, George Satchwell arose about 5.30am and had breakfast at home with his father, to whom he mentioned that Tranter was missing. As soon as it was light, George started work in the barn at the farm finding it unlocked as he had left it the previous day. He didn’t see his master during the day and returned to his parents’ house before it was dark as, again, he had been unable to gain access to the house for his dinner.

On the third day, Wednesday 19th November, he again arrived to find the house still shut up. He became alarmed and alerted Tranter’s nephew, John Whitehead, blacksmith, who informed Berkswell police constable, Thomas Trippas, of the situation. The policeman attended, alongside John Whitehead and William Goode, a labourer of Balsall Street, who was married to Thomas Tranter’s niece.

Access to the house was obtained by means of a ladder to Tranter’s bedroom, enabling the window to be removed.   On entry they found the rooms ransacked, chests opened and drawers partly out, with papers scattered about and clothes removed. Finding no trace of the occupier inside, the adjoining brew-house, which was also padlocked, was also entered by means of the window, whereupon his body was found on the floor. It was presumed that he had been attacked whilst cutting sticks in the brew-house. The key to the padlock was subsequently found on a table inside the house but the house key remained missing.

The police constable sent for the Coroner and the inquest, which had been adjourned on Thursday 20th November, began on Wednesday 26th November 1845 at the Bear Inn, Berkswell. It concluded the following day with the inquest jury returning a verdict of “Wilful Murder against some person or persons unknown.”

Thomas Tranter’s body was buried at Berkswell parish church on 23rd November 1845. He left no will but his sister, Ann Turner, of Temple Balsall, obtained letters of administration in May 1846, enabling her to deal with his estate.

The arrest

By the time of the inquest, suspicion had already fallen on James Read, who had absconded immediately after the murder and was “nowhere to be found.” He had been found concealed behind the brew-house door about year earlier and handed over to the local police constable at the time, although Thomas Tranter had refused to press charges when Read was brought before the magistrate.

A reward of £100 was offered for information leading to the apprehension and conviction of James Read and a description of the wanted man was issued. A free pardon was also offered to anyone other than the murderer who may have been involved in what was described in the newspapers as “The Berkswell Murder.”

From 24th November 1845 until 25th January 1846, James Read worked in Bilston, Staffordshire, at the coal works of Mr Banks, giving his name as James Jones.

At 8:40am on Friday 6th February 1846 Read was recognised in Dale End, Birmingham by a previous employer, Mr Page, milkman,  who, after an exchange of words, followed him up Bull Street and into Snow Hill. With no policeman in sight, Mr Page and one of his employees effected a citizen’s arrest near Bath Street, grabbing Read by the collar. James Read was then taken into custody protesting his innocence.

On Monday 9th February he appeared at Solihull Petty Sessions court in a hearing that was held in private. He was remanded in custody in Birmingham and subsequently committed to the Spring Assizes. 

The case against James Read

The man accused of the murder, 18-year-old James Read, known as Jem, was the son of William Read, a police officer from Bradnock’s Marsh, who lived about a quarter of a mile from the house of the deceased.

Read appeared at the Warwickshire Assizes on 31st March 1846, before Mr Justice Coltman, charged with the wilful murder of Thomas Tranter, for whom he had apparently done some work previously. It was suggested that James Read had some animosity towards Tranter and that Read had said in February 1845 that “I will give him a crack some day.”

The prosecution’s case hinged on a man seen by George Satchwell leaving the house sometime around 12:20pm on 17th November 1845, carrying under his arm a bundle tied in a blue handkerchief. If he had locked the door and taken away the key, the prosecution argued, then he was likely to have been the murderer.

Although the boy said he believed that from his actions the man had locked the door and put the key in his left-hand breeches pocket, he hadn’t actually seen him with a key. He also didn’t recognise the man he had seen, although he described the distinctive clothing, including a billycock hat, which matched what others had seen James Read wearing.

William Illiffe, a farmer living at Docker’s Lane [now Station Road], Balsall Common, about four hundred yards from Tranter’s house, reported seeing James Read coming along a public footpath from the direction of the house carrying a blue and white bundle under his arm. Read was also seen with the bundle by others who knew him:

  • John Wright, a servant to William Illiffe, spoke to him directly and noticed the blue handkerchief with white spots
  • Henry Stevenson of Bradnock’s Marsh saw Read on 17th November heading for Hampton Station, about a mile away, shortly before 2pm, and assumed he was aiming to catch the 3rd class train from Hampton to Birmingham which was due about 2pm
  • Elias Lazurus, a pawnbroker of Digbeth, testified that he received a blue and white handkerchief on the evening of 17th November from a man called James Read who gave his address as Sandy Lane; James Read was also seen in Birmingham over the next two days by others who knew him
  • At about 10:30am on Thursday 20th November he was seen by George Hopkins, a gardener from Berkswell and, when asked where he had been, said that he had been to Birmingham to look for work and was now heading home.

The murder had been discovered on the morning of Wednesday 19th November and John Whitehead and William Goode spent that night sitting in a room in the house with the sleeping George Satchwell. Early the following morning, around 5am, they were alarmed to hear footsteps outside the house and the noise of a key being inserted and turned in the lock. They went outside but didn’t see anyone.

They reported the incident to John Ploughman, constable of Berkswell. He investigated and discovered marks made by someone stumbling and falling over. The marks were made by narrow corded trousers or breeches, of the same type worn by James Read.

Fresh footprints were also found in Tranter’s garden and were shown to Joseph Blick, shoemaker in Berkswell, who was asked if he recognised them as belonging to any boot he knew. Without having heard the name of any suspect he said that his first thought was that it matched the pattern of a laced boot that he had nailed for James Read on 4th May previously – half boots nailed round with square heads from the heel round the fore part of the shoe in a particular pattern. He said that the shoes he had made for Read were unlike any he had made before or since.

The summing up

As the death penalty was mandatory for the crimes of treason and murder, James Read could have been sentenced to death if found guilty of murder. The judge in his summing up observed that the charge was very grave and directed the jury to give the prisoner the benefit of the doubt if, when they reviewed the evidence, they found the circumstances to leave a reasonable doubt.

The judge pointed out that the case contained much circumstantial evidence and that the crucial consideration was the evidence of the boy, George Satchwell, who was now ten years old as of 27th January 1846. If the jury was satisfied that the man the boy saw was James Read and that he had locked the door of the house and pocketed the key, then it was a strong case against the prisoner.

Following the judge’s summing up, the jury recalled George Satchwell and asked him questions about how he had been able to see the door, whether he had seen the key, and exactly what he had seen the man do.

The verdict

The trial lasted some eight hours and then the jury retired to consider their verdict. They returned in about a quarter of an hour and returned a verdict of Not Guilty.

In custody again

James Read’s freedom was short-lived as he was arrested again within two weeks of his acquittal.

Following the publicity in the newspapers as a result of his trial for murder, public information was given to the police.  The Coventry Standard of Friday 17th April 1846 reported that James Read was again in custody, “charged with robbing the premises of the murdered man.”

The principal evidence was that a pair of black trousers were found in Berkswell and the pockets contained two pledge tickets for items taken to a pawn-brokers in Birmingham by a man called James Read, who gave his address as Sandy Lane. The items were a handkerchief, a waistcoat and an old purse. 

Read was arrested in Berkswell and remanded in custody to Birmingham. He was brought before Rev. Archer Clive, a Solihull magistrate, on Tuesday 14th April 1846, and further remanded for another week. At his next court appearance, it emerged that the Superintendent of Police in Birmingham had received news that a hat and shirt belonging to the late Thomas Tranter were in pledge in Birmingham. He investigated, and found that the items were in pledge with Mr Aaron, pawnbroker, Edgbaston Street.

The shirt was identified by Ann Turner, Thomas Tranter’s sister, as one she had made for her brother some 20 years previously. John Aaron confirmed that it had been pledged on 18th November by the prisoner, giving the name of James Jones. The same man had pledged his own coat on 13th November under the name James Read.

Tranter’s niece, Catherine Chamberlaine, of Berkswell, identified the handkerchief as belonging to her uncle, whose washing she did until the time of his death. The Solihull magistrates committed the prisoner to the next Warwickshire sessions and he was taken back to New Street police station.

On Wednesday 5th August 1846, James Read appeared at Warwick Crown Court before Mr Justice Coleridge and was indicted for feloniously stealing, at Berkswell on the 17th November last, one handkerchief, one hat and one shirt, the property of the ordinary. The jury returned a verdict of Guilty and the judge sentenced James Read to transportation for seven years.

In his summing up, reported by the Leamington Spa Courier  8th August 1846, the Judge referred to the murder:


“I say not now whether you were guilty of the murder of the man, Tranter – that is a matter between yourself and your Creator. You have now only to answer to a charge of larceny, yet committed under very aggravated circumstances, for it cannot but be believed and understood that you were the person who rifled the boxes and premises of the deceased; left the house under such painful circumstances as I will forbear further to allude to; and then disposing of them as you did immediately afterwards. Such a case as this is not an ordinary one, and it is my duty to pass a severe sentence upon you. It is no real severity to you under all the circumstances to be banished from your native country, and if you have any feeling yourself, you certainly must think it best. The sentence of the Court, therefore, is that you be transported beyond the seas, to such place as her Majesty in Council shall think fit, for the term of Seven Years.” Some tears began to trickle down the prisoner’s cheeks and he left the dock crying, but, as during the whole trial, never uttering a word.

Transportation

After 1776, all transportation of criminals from England & Wales was to Australia, specifically New South Wales and Van Diemens Land (now Tasmania). Convicts awaiting transportation to a penal colony would spend time in floating prison hulks or in gaols prior to the four- or five-month journey to Australia. 

The Tasmanian Names Index suggests James Read was sent to the Convict Prison at Gibraltar before being transported to Australia for the final two years of his sentence. His conduct at Gibraltar was noted as “good.” He sailed from Portsmouth for Van Diemens Land on 25th February 1851 aboard the Cornwall, arriving on 11th June 1851. He was one of 300 convicts aboard the ship. 

On arrival, a convict would be assigned either to work for an individual free settler or retained by the Government for labour on public works. After a set period (usually four years of a seven-year sentence), provided that the convict had demonstrated good behaviour, a Ticket of Leave could be granted. This enabled him to live and work for his own wages, provided that he remained in a particular police district and reported annually to the ticket of leave muster.

Once the sentence had ended, convicts would be issued with a certificate of freedom. The former convicts could in theory return to England (unless they were forbidden from doing so). However, this was not easy to do and, as they had to pay their own passage home, most did not return.

The conduct record for James Read at the Tasmanian Archives indicates that he was granted a Ticket of Leave on 20th July 1852, and it looks as if he received his certificate of freedom the following year. It’s not known what subsequently happened to him.


Tracey

Heritage & Local Studies Librarian
email: heritage@solihull.gov.uk

 © Solihull Council, 2020.
You are welcome to link to this article, but if you wish to reproduce more than a short extract (including on social media platforms), please email: heritage@solihull.gov.uk

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