1. EARLY LAW ENFORCEMENT, PRISONS & COURTS IN THE PARISH OF ALFRETON
Originally the judicial powers rested with the Lords of Alfreton in Manorial Courts, but in 1327 the office of Justice of the Peace was created by statute which took away some of the Manorial power. In 1360 an Act was granted whereby each county was responsible for appointing six JP’s who were to hold courts four times a year, known as the Quarter Sessions. Over the centuries, the power of the Justice of the Peace was increased until they effectively dealt with all offences on the Statute Books and were dealt with directly in the local court, or, for more serious crimes committed the offenders to a higher court.
In the 1600’s, law enforcement was administered locally by town councils or authorities, who often employed a constable to uphold the law. It is known that the parish of Alfreton employed a Constable on behalf of its citizens prior to the establishment of a national police force. An unnamed Alfreton Constable was involved in the case of a stolen goose in 1638. What may seem a trivial case today was in times past, when people had little in the way of possessions, a more important criminal event. This case is taken from the “Three Centuries of Derbyshire Annals - the Records of the Quarter Sessions of the County of Derby” by the Rev. John Charles Cox published in 1890. The transcription includes the words as presented in the record, with the case for both plaintiff and defendant recorded by the Justice of the Peace, John Bullock.
The courts also acted as a type of arbitration service. Petitions could be presented and judgements made, seemingly regardless of the position of either party involved. The right to Appeal against rates for Poor Relief or against the refusal of Parish Officials to grant Poor Relief was originally written into Statute during the reign of Elizabeth I. At the Trans. Sessions of 1649 a petition was heard regarding a case to compel the overseers to continue Relief from one quarter session to another. The “Three Centuries of Derbyshire Annals” states that:
In 1658, the constables of Derbyshire were especially warned to present all game law offenders at the following Quarter Sessions. The following is the presentation of Daniell Clarke, constable of Alfreton at the Epiphany Sessions, 1658:
The following case is taken from the same records:
Criminal cases brought before the courts often relied heavily on witnesses or the testimony of victims and to encourage their participation rewards were offered. The more wealthy members of the population joined Associations which listed offences and the rewards they offered for successful prosecutions.
In the mid to late 1700’s an association was formed centred on South Wingfield, to which people could subscribe and which offered rewards for crimes committed against its members or their families. Titled “SOUTH WINGFIELD ASSOCIATION FOR THE PROSECUTION OF FELONS” its members included several landowners and businessmen from the Alfreton Parish. The earliest reference to the Association has been found in the Derby Mercury, published on 4 December 1788, which read: “THE SOUTH WINGFIELD ASSOCIATION ETC – Held at the House of Mr Peter Kendall, the Peacock Inn at Ufton Barns on November 26th, it was resolved that Mr Wm Hopkinson, Mr Jos. Hepworth and Mr Robt Marsden be continued as a Committee for directing prosecutions. It was resolved that the Articles shall be left in the hands of Mr Wm. Wilson of Alfreton. Resolved also that the names of the subscribers shall be printed… Resolved also that the treasurer shall pay the following rewards to any person (not being a subscriber) who shall discover any offenders who are successfully prosecuted:
Murder, Burglary & Highway Robbery - £5. 5s.
Stealing any Horse, Mare, Gelding, Bull, Cow, Heifer, Calf, Sheep, Lamb, Pig or any Capital Offence not specified - £3. 3s
Stealing Fowls, Poultry, Cutting down trees, Hedges, Gates, Stiles,Fences or destroying utensils or crops or any petty Larceny – 10s. 6d”
The subscribers from the Alfreton Parish were listed as: Benjamin Smith Jnr; William White; Joseph Wilson and William Wilson.
Reports were published in the Derby Mercury for each of the Associations annual meetings, and over the years other local people subscribed, included Edward Waters of Pye Bridge, and the Reverend Henry Case Morewood of Alfreton Hall.
In 1799, Alfreton established its own Association, although many of the members of the South Wingfield Association seem to have continued with their subscriptions.
Not all offences committed would be obvious by today’s standards. In the Derby Mercury of 27 May 1802, a report concerning an apprentice was published: “ABSCONDED – from his master’s service on Friday 14th May, George Potter, Apprentice to Mr James Simpson, Tailor of Alfreton. He is about 20 years of age, 5ft 4ins high, pale complexion, large nose, high forehead, brown hair and is stout made; had when he went away a blue coat, darkish coloured clouded swansdown waistcoat, velveteen breeches and a round hat. Any person who will apprehend and bring him back to his master shall receive a reward of half a guinea. If the said George Potter will return immediately he will be kindly treated and on his future good behaviour all past offences will be forgotten. Alfreton 24th May 1802” The rules on apprenticeships were harsh. It was often the family of the apprentice who paid the master for the apprenticeship and other than basic board or lodgings no payment was made for any work completed. The apprentice undertook a contract with his master and it was looked on badly if he then absconded.
During this period Somercotes and the surrounding villages had a small population and although petty crime would have existed, little has been recorded. However, sometimes even petty crime resulted in harsh sentences, which were occasionally recorded in the newspapers. One such article was printed in the Derby Mercury of 4 October 1804: “AT THE GENERAL SESSIONS OF THE PEACE – for this County… James Clarke, convicted of having stolen a Tub and a quantity of potatoes from the dwelling house of Mr George Godber of Swanwick, was ordered to be transported for seven years; this man has traversed the country asking alms, and under the pretext has taken every advantage of pilfering wherever opportunity offered”.
On occasion it seems that despite an offence being committed, a public apology from the culprit sufficed. On 25 January 1810, the Derby Mercury reported: “I, JOSEPH STANLEY OF ALFRETON, unlawfully shot a greyhound belonging to Mr Wm. Kirkland of New Grounds, Alfreton in pursuit of a Hare, for which offence and action has been brought against me, and is now agreed to be relinquished on my paying costs and making public acknowledgement of my error, which I now submit to and thank Mr Kirkland for his lienty. Witness my hand the 20th January 1810”. The ”New Grounds” mentioned in this notice is now known as Newlands, Riddings.
A further act of clemency was recorded on 8 March 1810: “PARDON ASKED – Whereas I, John Douglass and Elizabeth, my wife, did on 17th February take and feloniously carry away a quantity of coals from Summercotes [sic] Colliery, for which offence a prosecution was justly entered into against us. By acknowledging ourselves in this Public Paper and asking Pardon is withdrawn. As witness our hands this 28th February 1810.”
Army Deserters were also listed in the papers. Although not a civil matter such offences were often harshly punished by the military authorities. A report in the Derby Mercury of 7 June 1810 read: “DESERTER FROM THE WIRKSWORTH REGIMENT OF MILITIA – Jonathan Wheeldon, Labourer, 25 years of age, 5ft 5 and a half inches high, brown complexion, resident of Somercotes. Anyone apprehending him would receive a reward of twenty shillings”.
As time went on the population of the district increased, and with it came an inevitable increase in the crime levels. Below is a list of some the reports printed in the Derby Mercury:
2 March 1815: “COMMITTED TO THE COUNTY JAIL – since our last, John Walker of Sommercotes [sic] charged by an inquisition held before George Gosling, Gent., Coroner with killing and slaying George Mather at Sommercotes aforesaid.” It is currently not known what happened to John Walker.
2 February 1820: “COMMITTED TO OUR COUNTY JAIL - Sarah Smith, charged with stealing on 29th Ult. From the dwelling house of George White at Alfreton, a cotton gown and apron, a petticoat, a nightcap and a piece of muslin the property of Betty Marsden”. Sarah was later found guilty of the charges at Derby assizes and sentenced to 12 months imprisonment.
16 July 1823: “COMMITTED TO THE COUNTY GAOL – Thomas Lisley…George Holmes… and Joseph Stone charged with slaughtering a lamb in the parish of Alfreton and carrying away the carcass; also with stealing it at the same time and place half a dozen pigeons”. The trial took place at the summer assizes. The offence took place on land owned by William Kirkland. Thomas Lisley pleaded guilty to the offence; Holmes pleaded not guilty but was found guilty by the jury and Stone provided King’s Evidence [who it can be assumed became the primary witness]. Lisley and Holmes were sentenced to death.
2 September 1829: “COMMITTED TO THE COUNTY GAOL – since our last, Abraham Elliott, charged upon a Coroner’s Inquest with the wilful murder of a newborn female bastard child at Alfreton; and Charity Elliott and Jeminah Wombwell for aiding and assisting Abraham Elliott in murder”. The Derbyshire Spring Assizes took place in March 1830 when Abraham Elliott was indicted on the charge of wilful murder. Although there seems to be no question over the basic facts, there was no material evidence to prove whether or not the child had been born alive, and on the Judges direction the jury acquitted the prisoner and he was discharged.
21 July 1830: “DERBYSHIRE TRANSLATION SESSIONS – Held at the Town Hall, Chesterfield on Wednesday and Thursday July 14th & 15th 1830 – William Stone pleaded guilty to a charge of stealing at Birchwood an ass, the property of John Radford and his partners. To be transported for 7 years.”
8 January 1834: “DERBYSHIRE QUARTER SESSIONS – Before R F Forester Esq. MD - John Hopkinson, aged 40, charged with stealing three pecks of wheat, at the parish of Altreton, the property of Christopher Whysall, his master. Christopher Whysall addressed the court, and said the prisoner had worked for him for more than eight years, and he never knew anything against him before. The Chairman told the prisoner, in consequence of what his master said of him, the sentence of the Court would be lenient. He was ordered to be imprisoned for three months, with hard labour.” The Chairman, Richard Forester, was a former partner in the Alfreton Ironworks at Pye Bridge.
Regulations regarding weights and measures were also as important a part of legislation as they are today. For centuries, inns and beer houses have been regulated to ensure that beer, wines and spirits are not under sold. Even margarine came under scrutiny. The Margarine Act 1890 [amended several times] required the product sold to be clearly labelled, as it was often fraudulently sold as butter, a much more expensive product. The Derby Mercury published on 6 November 1889 had several cases relating to weights and measures: “UNLABELLED MARGARINE – Herbert Shaw, grocer of Somercotes was summoned for exposing in his shop margarine without a label upon it of the required size. Fined 20s and 9s 6d costs”. Milk was also another product which was closely monitored: “MILK AND WATER – John Hall of Somercotes was summoned by Colonel Shortt for having sold a pint of milk not being of the quality required. The analyst’s report stated that there were 85 parts milk and 15 parts water in the sample. To pay 20s and 9s 6d costs”. Some petty crimes seemed to have been harshly punished by today’s standards. The same newspaper reported that: “…Joseph Hubball, 70 years of age was charged by Samuel Jaques with stealing 2lb of apples, the property of Mr. Burgin of Somercotes – To pay 13s 10d or 14 days imprisonment”.
Around 1834, a Justice Room in Alfreton seems to have been opened to deal with petty crime. Exactly when this opened, or where the room was located is not known [it could have been within the Moot Hall]. The first mention of this was published in the Derby Mercury on 19 March 1834: ALFRETON JUSTICE ROOM – March 7th – Before William Milnes and Charles Clark Esquires; Thomas Peacock, the constable of Shirland was convicted in the penalty of 40s. and costs for neglecting his duty in not conveying one Titus Elliott, a well-known horse dealer to the gaol at Derby on receiving commitment and special directions from the Magistrate”. Alfreton had its own constable, who in 1836 was Joseph England. Like the constable of Shirland, Joseph would have had the responsibility of apprehending felons, keeping the peace and arranging the transport of prisoners to the various Court Sessions in Derby and Chesterfield. On 11 May 1836 the Derby Mercury reported that: “At the Court Leet and Great Court Baron of William Palmer-Morewood Esquire for the manor of Alfreton held at the George Inn on Thursday 28th Ult. before Joseph Wilson Esq. Steward, Mr Joseph England was re-appointed Constable and other officers were appointed for the year ensuing”. This notice shows that the procedures used for upholding the law dated back to medieval times.
PHOTO: The Moot Hall, King Street, Alfreton c.1910
A prison in Alfreton existed beneath the Moot Hall, where the Constable would lock up prisoners until he could arrange transport to Derby Gaol. The House of Confinement in Alfreton was built sometime between 1823 and 1826. According to Reginald Johnson in “A History of Alfreton” this building does not appear to have existed at the time of the Alfreton Enclosure in 1823, but the Alfreton & District Heritage Society record an entry in the account book of John Kemp, Overseer to the Poor for 25 August 1826 which states “…to cleaning House of Confinement – 6d”. The building consisted of just two windowless cells behind the jailer’s room, which also had the only fireplace.
The House of Confinement was ill conceived, being far too small and inadequate for its purpose. A new prison was therefore constructed in 1844 on the site now occupied by the Abraham Lincoln Memorial Library. This prison had four cells with a house for the Superintendent Constable. Unlike the House of Confinement, which was built of stone, the new prison was built of brick. It was demolished after the First World War.
The Moot Hall was also where the local Justice of the Peace sat in judgement. This practice continued until the mid-19th century, but in the year of 1856 an Assembly Room was built as an annexe to the George Hotel by William Palmer-Morewood and this was used by the County Court and Petty Sessions until Mr Frederick Lee built the Town Hall, Post Office and County Court Offices on the High Street, which is where the Court then sat. The final move came in 1934 when the Police Station and County Courthouse were erected on Hall Street. These buildings were demolished and the Tesco Store built on the site in 2004.
The office of “Town Constable” was made redundant in 1856, after the County and Borough Police Act made policing a requirement throughout England and Wales. This was paid for by central government Treasury department funds, distributed to local governments. In addition to creating the national Police Force, the Act formed a "central inspectorate of constabulary" that assessed the effectiveness of each county constabulary. It reported directly to the Home Secretary.
PHOTO: The House of Confinement, King Street, Alfreton
2. CRIMES & PUNISHMENT
Perhaps the most interesting part of any history on the subject of crime and punishment is the reporting of offences and the subsequent sentencing of offenders. Over the years, local newspapers were full of articles relating to petty and major crimes alike. From murder and highway robbery, through to modern motoring offences and TV Licence non-payment, all have, at some time or another been reported. Just a few of the more interesting ones have been transcribed below:
PLEASE NOTE: THE FOLLOWING ARTICLES ARE ALL IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN
This report, published in the Derbyshire Times & Chesterfield Herald on 10 December 1898 is typical of many of the cases brought before the Alfreton Bench: “ROW AT SOMERCOTES - Thomas Smith, of Somercotes, was charged by Elizabeth Johnson with assault, committed at Somercotes on the 26th of November. The complainant said she had occasion to go up Somercotes on Saturday evening, when she met Smith. Without any provocation the defendant thrashed witness on the shoulders, and he would have hurt her further had she not been protected. She had never spoken to him in her life. Lucy Nicholls said she was in the Tiger Inn at Somercotes when the complainant came in. She saw the defendant strike the complainant. Elizabeth Johnson, the complainant's mother-in-law, corroborated. The defendant said the complainant attempted to seize him by the nose, and he merely knocked down her hand. That was all the blows struck.—Smith had 19s. 6d. to pay.”
The fine [with costs] of 19s. 6d. was a considerable sum for a working man at the time
A case of illegal betting from the Ripley & Heanor News, published on 28 August 1936: “BETTING CASE AT SOMERCOTES - Albert Langton, miner, of Coupland Place, Somercotes, was accused at Alfreton Police Court on Wednesday of being the occupier of premises used for betting on August 14th. Mrs. Rose Langton, of the same address, was summoned for being the owner of the premises used for betting. Each of them was also accused of similar offences on July 8th, 13th, and 16th. Superintendent Campbell explained that Mrs. Langton was the owner of the house and her husband the tenant. Owing to complaints, he had the house watched, and on July 8th 13 persons were seen to enter. On July 13th, 40 persons went to the house, and on July 16th, 35 persons. On August 14th the house was raided, and Langton and his wife were found inside with another woman. A number of betting slips and racing materials, and an amount of money, were seized by the police. Albert Langton, who pleaded not guilty, said that he disapproved of betting and had never taken part in it. He had turned away from the house people who visited it during his wife's absence. Mrs. Langton, who pleaded guilty, did not give evidence on the summonses relating to August 14th. Albert Langton was fined and and ordered to pay 4s. costs, and his wife was fined £2 and ordered to pay 14s. 6d costs, The Langton’s had to pay 4s. costs in respect of each of the other six summonses.”
It was not until 1960 that a Parliamentary Act legalised off-course bookmakers. Until then, such offences as described above were not uncommon.
A case of assault at Somercotes. The Derbyshire Times & Chesterfield Herald published on 27 January 1939 reported: “SOMERCOTES ASSAULT - SELSTON MAN’S ATTACK LEADS TO COURT - A Lower Somercotes man, George Joffre Verdun Miles, at Alfreton Police Court on Wednesday, summoned Wilfred Brogdale, Nottingham Road, Selston for assault on January 18th. at Somercotes. Miles said he returned home from Alfreton by bus, upon which was Brogdale. When he alighted at Lower Somercotes, Brogdale followed and struck him, knocking him down and spoiling his overcoat. The Magistrates’ Clerk: ‘Did he strike you without cause?’ Witness: ‘He said I kicked his little lad at Riddings Wakes; I deny it’. Miles said he was hammered about the nose and mouth. His father telephoned for the police, but when they arrived Brogdale could not be found. P.C. McNaught said he found Miles with a damaged face and blood on the front of his clothes. Miles’ father spoke of going out to help his son and telephoning for the police. The cleaning of his son’s coat cost 6s. Brogdale said Miles struck his boy and he retaliated. That was all there was about it. The Chairman (Mr. Geo. Beastall): ‘You bear malice six months?’ Witness: ‘He struck me first and I struck back. I admit striking him over the nose and mouth.’ The Chairman: ‘You will have to pay 25s., including costs. You did one of the most stupid things a man can do by striking a man in the dark’”.
A case of shooting at Somercotes, published in the Ripley & Heanor News of 1 November 1940: “SHOOTING CASE AT SOMERCOTES - At Alfreton Police Court on Wednesday, Christopher Grundy (30), of The Bungalow, Pye Bridge, was accused of inflicting grievous bodily harm on Norman Vardy by shooting at him at Somercotes on August 5th. Grundy, who pleaded ‘Not Guilty’ was fined £2 15s. 5d. including costs. He was also summoned for using a gun without a licence on the same occasion for which he was fined 10s. and ordered to pay 4s. costs. Supt. W. Pike said that on August 5th three boys were in a wood at Birchwood when a man started shooting at them with an air-gun. One of the boys was ultimately struck about an inch above his right eye. When the boy was struck, the man shouted, ‘That serves you right, you —.’ Norman Vardy, aged 16 of Wheatley Avenue, Somercotes, said that on August 5th he was in Pennytown Wood with two other boys, when they heard pellets whistling through the trees overhead. They got behind a tree, and he ‘popped’ his head round to see where the person shooting was, when he was struck on the eyebrow. He bled profusely. Police-constable Benson said he received a complaint, and saw Grundy, who said, when cautioned, ‘I am sorry I hit him. I didn't shoot him on purpose. It must have glanced off a tree’. When asked if he had a gun licence, Grundy stated that he had not. In Court Grundy said that he borrowed the gun to shoot rats, and found it would not kill them at 30 yards. He went to his sister's, who asked him to teach her to shoot. He went out with his sister, and started shooting into a pond. The boy’s must have thought he was shooting at them, and started swearing. He tried to frighten them by shooting over their heads. Announcing the magistrates' decision, Councillor A. Lee, who presided, told Grundy that he had been ‘very foolish.’”
On 4 March 1927, the Ripley & Heanor News published a report of a court case that resulted in a “Not Guilty” verdict: SOMERCOTES PERJURY CHARGE FAILS - ECHO OF OUTCROP CASE - A further case of perjury was proceeded with before Mr. Justice Brandon and a jury at Derby Assizes on Tuesday. The prisoner was Henry Edward Parker, aged 43, joiner, of Lower Somercotes. Mr. T. N. Winning appeared for the prosecution and Mr. T. A. Herbert for the defence. Mr. Winning said the man was charged at Alfreton with doing malicious damage to land at the rear of his house by sinking a small pit for the purpose of getting outcrop coal. During the proceedings he gave evidence on his own behalf, in which he made statements to the effect that be had nothing to do with the making or working of the pit. Prisoner's contentions were that he had never had any coal or sold coal from the outcrop. On the other hand, evidence would be called to show that the man bought timber, was seen making the head-gear for ‘Parker's outcrop’ (this title might refer to his son), had sold quantities of coal for a considerable amount of money, and had been seen riddling and loading coal. Alderman Mr. Mortimer Wilson, clerk to the Alfreton magistrates, stated that the prisoner said in Court that his son had worked the pit, but not himself. Cross examined, the witness said it was admitted all along that coal from the hole had been used in Parker's House. Evidence as to carting coal at the end of last year at Parker's instructions was given by witnesses, and also to the disposal of loads of coal by Parker and his purchase of pit timber. For the defence Mr. Herbert submitted that whilst Parker was loading coal he had nothing to do with the working of the pit. Parker in the witness-box, agreed that he had stated on oath he never worked the pit or disposed of the coal. Witness understood his son had something to do with the outcrop but he himself was working away at Long Eaton. Clarkson, who was courting the witnesses daughter, was in charge of the operations. Money was taken on his behalf. Prisoner was found not guilty, and was accordingly discharged.
3. THE MURDER OF MELVILLE WATSON, 1914
Thomas Simms, the landlord of the Horse & Jockey Inn on Leabrooks Road, Somercotes is probably the most infamous of all landlords in Somercotes and the surrounding district. In 1914 he murdered Melville Watson, a partner in the firm of Wm. Watson & Sons, Auctioneers, and then whilst still at the scene of the murder Simms committed suicide. This event was widely published in the newspapers. Following is a full transcript of the Coroner’s Inquest into the incident as published in the Derby Daily Telegraph on 18 June 1914: “THE ALFRETON TRAGEDY - DAY'S INQUEST - BROTHERS GRAPHIC STORY - WILFUL MURDER AND FELO DE SE [a term denoting an illegal act of suicide]. The Coroner for the district (Dr. A. Green, of Chesterfield) held his inquiry this (Thursday) afternoon into the circumstances attending the terrible tragedy which was enacted at Alfreton on Wednesday morning, and which caused such a sensation throughout the whole county. Both the victims were well known in the locality, Mr. Melville Watson a partner in a well-known business firm, and his murderer Thomas Simms, not only as landlord of the Horse and Jockey, Somercotes, but also as belonging to a family long connected with the farming industry in the same district. The proceedings took place in the billiard-room the George Hotel, Alfreton, and it was inconveniently crowded with jurors, the general public, and newspaper-men. The Coroner, at the outset, briefly outlined the story of the crime, and said they would no doubt like to express their sympathy with Mr. Watson's relatives in their terrible bereavement. Inasmuch as both men were dead, and no further proceedings could possibly be taken, it would not be necessary to go into all the facts, and it would be sufficient for the purposes of this inquiry to accept the general story. Arthur William Watson was the first witness. He said was managing clerk to the firm of William Watson and Sons, auctioneers and valuers, Alfreton, of which Mr. Melville Watson, his brother, was a partner. His brother was 45 years of age. Witness was in his own private office adjoining Mr. Melville Watson's room when the tragedy occurred. This was about 10 a.m. Witness did not know that Simms was there until he heard his voice.
The Coroner: Was he speaking in angry tones?— Witness: No, he seemed to be speaking in ordinary language. They were in the passage just outside witness's brother's office door. The telephone was there. Simms had visited the office before on business, but he was not a frequent visitor. Suddenly, witness heard three shots in quick succession, and jumping from his stool rushed into the passage. He saw Simms standing near the telephone, and catching hold of him swung him round to pull him out of the way while he looked round for his brother. While witness had hold of him, Simms put a revolver to his head and fired.
Did you leave hold of him?—l don't know what happened then. I left Simms to look after my brother, whom I found lying on his back in the passage, bleeding from the mouth. Witness added that until the doctor told him he did not know that Simms was dead. Witness thought Simms was going away when the tragedy occurred.
Do you know of any grievance which this man Simms had with your brother?—l think he had an imaginary grievance, but am not sufficiently acquainted with the circumstances to into it. It has been said that the trouble was about a valuation, but that was not true, as my brother never made any valuation for Simms at all.
The Coroner: All sorts of rumours get about at these times. Witness: I can tell you what I know of the matter between my brother and Simms. Simms took a farm under my brother and then gave it up.
Do you know anything of the character of the man Simms?—l have known him from a boy. Would you say he was a man with a hot temper?—He was the last man I should expect to commit an act of this kind - I have never seen him in a temper, and this thing seems to me to be foreign to his nature. If I was to express an opinion I should say he was mad with drink.
Was he a hard drinker?—l should not like say that. He was in very low circumstances and was no doubt troubled in his mind about his private concerns.
Did he borrow money from your brother ?—I do not think so. There are many stories about which are wrong. When my brother bought Carnfield Hall about three years ago he also bought some farm land adjoining. Simms was leaving his farm on the estate, and he applied to my brother for the tenancy of portion of the land which my brother had bought. He made an offer as to the rent, and my brother accepted it. There being no houses the land, my brother agreed to build one within a year. The tenancy agreement was signed, and a deposit £50 was paid by Simms. There was a clause in the agreement that if he did not carry out the contract this would be forfeited, which was the usual course in an agreement this kind. Simms came to the office some time afterwards, and voluntarily surrendered the tenancy. Simms saw me personally, and asked me about the £50 deposit. I told him must see my brother, and he said he supposed he would get something. I said that in all probability he would. I reported my conversation to my brother, who had since made Mr. Simms a substantial offer in settlement. Simms thought he should have had the whole of the £50 back. My brother offered him £30, and I knew that he had lost something through Simms breaking the contract. For instance, he had to let the same land to another tenant at 2s. 6d. per acre less than Simms had agreed to pay. This was the only business transaction with the man which my brother had at any time.
Mrs. Annie Mary Simms identified the body as that of Thomas, her husband, who was 33 years of age. He had been ill for some time past. He was all right as to his mind. He had not been drinking heavily of late, and when he left home at 10 minutes to nine on Thursday morning he was quite sober and of cheerful demeanour. Witness knew that he had some business to do with Mr. Melville Watson, but had never heard him say anything threatening about him. She was not aware that he had revolver in his possession, and could not say how he came to get it.
The Coroner at this point asked if there was any evidence to show how Simms became possessed of the revolver, and Supt. Fennell replied in the negative. Every inquiry had been made on the point, but without result.
Witness, continuing, said she did not think anything was wrong with her husband mentally, but, pressed by the Coroner, she added that one of his sisters had been in an asylum for two years.
Walter Percival Whittle, a clerk the employ of Messrs. Watson and Sons, said he was in the office when the tragedy occurred. He corroborated the details given by Mr. Arthur Watson in his evidence. When witness was attracted into the passage by the sound of the revolver shot he saw Mr. Arthur Watson swinging Simms round. Witness, proceeding, said he saw Simms put the revolver to his head and fire, and then witness went to the assistance Mr. Melville Watson, who was lying in the passage. When Simms came to the office he asked see Mr. Melville Watson, but did not state what his business was. He appeared to be sober, and there was certainly nothing his manner to excite suspicion. As far as witness could judge, the conversation between Simms and Mr. Melville Watson was conducted in an ordinary way, and there seemed no undue excitement.
Sidney Baker, collier, Lea Brook [sic], Somercotes, said he was a personal friend of Simms. On Wednesday morning witness met Simms, and on his invitation agreed to walk with him to Alfreton. He was then as usual, and although sometimes quick-tempered was no worse in this respect than most people. They called at a public-house and had half-a-pint of beer each, and Simms produced from his pocket a bottle containing whisky, out of which they both drank. Simms also showed witness a number of cartridges, but he did not show him a revolver. Witness did not recognise them as revolver cartridges, but thought they were for use in a rifle. On the way to Alfreton they talked about various subjects, chiefly horse racing, but there was no mention by Simms of Mr. Watson. Simms was certainly not the worse for drink. When they reached Alfreton witness waited outside Mr. Watson's office while Simms went inside. Five or ten minutes later witness heard the sound of shots, and saw people running to Mr. Watson's office door. Witness went into the office and saw Simms lying apparently dead. Witness then went to Somercotes and broke the news to Mrs. Simms.
Had Mr Simms been drinking lately? To tell you the truth he was always drinking, but on Wednesday morning he did not show any signs of it. He was jolly as usual, and seemed all right.
Dr. Sidney Bingham, of Alfreton, spoke to being called to Mr. Watson's office on Wednesday morning shortly after ten o'clock. He saw Simms lying on the floor of the outer office quite dead. In the passage witness saw Mr. Arthur Watson supporting the head of his brother. Witness afterwards traced the course of the bullets in the body of Mr. Watson. There were three wounds in the neck and chest, but any of the wounds might have proved fatal. Witness had heard all the evidence, and could find nothing in it to convince him that Simms was insane at the time of the tragedy. He had made superficial examination of the body of Simms, and had found a wound on the right temple which was quite enough to cause death.
Police constable Clarke of Alfreton, spoke to being called to Mr. Watson's office and having described the positions of the bodies, mentioned that he found the revolver, which he produced, close by the right hand of Simms, who was on the floor in the outer office. In the revolver he found one live cartridge, whilst beside him were four or five discharged cartridges. Police-constable Lowe spoke of having searched the clothing of the man Simms. He found no letters or documents upon him which threw any light upon the tragedy. He found a number of live cartridges in the man's pocket, which were similar to that found in the revolver. He had made enquiries in the neighbourhood, but was unable to ascertain where the cartridges were obtained from. From one document he found that Simms had at one time been in the Derbyshire Imperial Yeomanry. There was also a small bottle half-full of whisky in his possession. There was, as he had before mentioned, nothing else upon him to throw any light upon the tragedy.
Mrs. Simms. re-called, said her husband had been in the Yeomanry for about three years. The Coroner, addressing the jury, said it was quite clear from the evidence that Mr Melville Watson had been prepared to treat Mr. Simms fairly in the matter of his business. It was also clear that the mental condition of Simms was normal when he called, and that he was sober at the time. The only thing which could be urged in the favour of Simms was the utter absence of motive, for he could have had none unless he had some imaginary grievance against-Mr. Watson. But Simms had never told anybody of any grievance nor any cause for anger, not even to his wife. A verdict of "Wilful murder" against Simms was returned in the case of My. Watson, and in the case of Simms it was Felo de se [an illegal act of suicide]."
4. THE MURDER OF LILIAN BONSALL, 1952
The sad case of Lilian Bonsall, of Somercotes Hill, was recorded in the Ripley & Heanor News published on 19 December 1952. Alfred Osborne stood trial for her murder at Birmingham Assizes and was found guilty on Saturday 13 December. A transcript of the newspaper report follows: “THE SOMERCOTES MURDER CASE – ‘Frustrated love’ for an 18-year-old girl was the reason why Alfred Osborne, aged 25, of Hill Crescent, Sutton-in-Ashfield, killed her widowed mother, a jury heard at Birmingham Assizes last Saturday. When Mr. Justice Lynskey sentenced him to death for the murder of Lilian Bonsai!, aged 57, of Somercotes Hill, Somercotes, the girl, Miss Doreen Bonsall, was sitting outside the court in tears. The prosecution alleged that Osborne attacked the widow at her home on October 15th with a poker and then strangled her. When Doreen arrived home he also attacked her with the poker after saying: ‘I have just killed your mother and now I'm going to kill you’. In evidence Osborne said he ‘looked on Mrs. Bonsall as my mother’ and thought he would confide in her after he had quarrelled with Doreen. She told him that her daughter had heard a ‘lot of nasty stories’ about him, and said he was a ‘liar’ and a ‘damned nuisance’ and tried to get hold of him. He alleged that Mrs. Bonsall then reached for the poker but he grabbed it himself. ‘I had no intention of using it or of doing her any bodily harm,’ he added. Addressing the jury, Mr. R. C. Vaughan, Q.C., who defended, said that the tragedy had been caused by frustrated love. Osborne was visited on Wednesday by his solicitors, who discussed the possibility of an appeal.”
Although sentenced to death by hanging for the murder, Osborne’s case went before the Home Secretary. The outcome was also reported in the Ripley & Heanor News on 2 January 1953. The article read: “REPRIEVE IN SOMERCOTES MURDER CASE - The Home Secretary last Saturday recommended a reprieve for Alfred Osborne (25). of Sutton-in-Ashfleld, sentenced to die for the murder of a Somercotes woman. Osborne, a hosiery knitter of Hill Crescent, Sutton- in -Ashfield was found "Guilty" at Birmingham Assizes of strangling Mrs. Lilian Bonsall at her home at Somercotes Hill, Somercotes after he had attacked her with a poker. Evidence was given at the trial that Osborne had courted Mrs. Bonsall’s 18-year-old daughter, until there had been a quarrel. News of his reprieve was given to Osborne in Leicester Prison while he was being visited by his father on Saturday. Mr. and Mrs. Osborne said the reprieve was the best possible Christmas box they could have received”.
Please Note: There have been several murders committed within the parish of Somercotes or involving residents of the Parish since the death of Lilian Bonsall, but as these have occurred within the last 60 years the decision has been taken not to include these here, although information is available within the public domain.