Charlotte Pugsley and John William Beale – Part 1
On Saturday 12th September 1857- 150 years ago – The Bristol Times, owned and edited by Joseph Leech, who later built Burwalls, began its “painful duty to record one of the most dreadful and mysterious murders that has taken place in the neighbourhood of Bristol for some years!. The story competed successfully with stories of the Indian Mutiny. For weeks the local press wrote about “The Late Horrid Murder in Leigh Woods”.
A decade before the completion of the Suspension Bridge, Leigh Woods was still undeveloped. Nightingale Valley was a romantic walking place, particularly for city dwellers coming bty Rownham Ferry, past the New Inn and the Tea Houses, not yet destroyed for the Railway.
On Friday afternoon Mr. Wort, a Leigh Court game keeper, noticed a partly buried handkerchief “on a small plateau of greensward on the north side of the top of Nightingale Valley”. On picking it up, it dripped blood. He notice more on the turf, and then looked over the edge, where he saw the body of a woman, on her back, about 12 feet down, “most foully murdered” with her head nearly severed from her body by a deep gash in the throat and a small wound in the left temple, from a gunshot. The frightened Mr. Wort ran to Long Ashton Police Station, and later helped Superintendent Jones carry the body, on a cart, down to the New Inn at Rownham. Jones locked the body up in the stable, sent a constable on foot to Yatton to notify the Coroner, and must have started talking to the press.
The Saturday papers carried details of the victim’s clothing: “ grey alpaca frock, trimmed with an embroidered frill around the neck and down the front; her underclothes consisted of two skirts (one a corded moreen and the other a while skirt) and such other articles as are generally worn by persons moving in a respectable sphere of society. She had on a pair of kid boots, laced at the sides, with military heels which appeared to have been recently soled”. Her hair was dark brown; she was of middling stature and apparently about 30 years of age.
“Great as was the excitement caused on Saturday it increased a hundredfold on the succeeding day; early till tlae a stream of people poured to Rownham and Nightingale Valley. Soon after 3 the public were admitted to view the corpse”. But despite the gawping of the multitude, the visits from searchers for “runaway wives” and “lost daughters”, the body was not identified.
Crowds again massed when the Inquest opened on Monday at the New Inn. Mr. Rudd Lucas of Long Ashton was charged to do a post-mortem, presumably in the stable, as the press records that on Tuesday the now decomposing body was removed to “the dead house at Long Ashton Church”, and could give details of the victim’s more intimate underwear, which was marked “C.P.” with stays of a distinctive type and a manufacturers mark “R”, At the reopened Inquest on Saturday, Rudd Lucas reported the cause of death as the throat wound, not the bullet in the head, and that whilst the victim was not a virgin, she was not pregnant and had not been raped. The jury recorded an open verdict – “murdered by person or persons unknown”.
Within a week the victim was identified and the police had a suspect.
A washerwoman recognised the “C.P.” as the way Charlotte Pugsley marked her underwear when both worked for the Hon. Mrs. Hutchinson at Dorset House on Clifton Down (now the Royal Marines). She also recognised a distinctive decayed tooth in the decomposing body. A fellow servant was found who confirmed the identification. Bristol and Bath police methodically traced Charlotte from job to job after leaving Dorset House, ending with her as Head Cook at the Rev. Bythesea’s house at Freshford, outside Bath.
The staff there recognised the clothes, and the markings, and told the story of charlotte’s departure on the Wednesday of the week in which she was found murdered. She had given notice, saying she was to marry and emigrate to America; she had drawn out her savings (£7) in Bath and boxed up her belongings, including new clothes. That afternoon, John William Beale came to collect her, saying they were going to Bristol, where he had business to do, then to Southampton to marry in St. Mary’s Church and then on to America. The butler had accompanied them to the station at Lympley Stoke, and then arranged for Passenger to Bristol”. The police discovered from staff at Temple Meads that the boxes had not been claimed that evening as Beale had disputed the charge, but had been paid for and moved to the Midland office on Thursday morning as Beale said he was emigrating fom Liverpool; they were finally removed at a later time unrecorded or remembered.
The stupendous sum of £100 was offered as a reward for Beale, who was described as “about 30, slight build, usually in a frock coat and waistcoat, wearing rings, normally employed as a butler or single handed servant in gentlemen’s families and thought to be in the Daventry area recently. Well known in Clifton and Bath”. It was not needed. Police in Bath, where Beale’s parents and sister lived, discovered he was working for a Captain Watkins near Daventry. Inspector Norris travelled there, and with the local police, surprised and overwhelmed Beale. They found the three boxes, opened, and the keys; one loaded pistol and one “recently discharged”; a dirty shirt with blood on the wristband, and a clasp knife. Beale had had leave for a week from Captain Watkins “to visit his sick father and bury his sister”, and had returned with the boxes containing, he said, his late sister’s clothes. Meanwhile, the Bath police found witnesses who said Beale had told them he was in Bath because Captain Watkins had a week’s shooting near Bradford-on-Avon, and had found Beale’s father and sister in good health.
Norris brought Beale back to Bristol by train. 3,000 people were waiting at Temple Meads. The police were overwhelmed as the crowd tried to get at Beale. Norris was knocked down, with Beale on top of him, before they were rescued and got into a fly, which took them “at all speed” to the Court House at Flax Bourton.
Beale made his one and only statement. He was not guilty of Charlotte’s murder. They were just good friends, arising from being in service together. Each had often lent the other money as “one good turn deserves another”. Whilst at Dorset House, Charlotte was to be married to someone of whom Mrs. Hutchinson disapproved and made Charlotte break off the relationship. (Other witnesses later confirmed this). But the relationship had continued, and Charlotte had agreed again to marry her admirer and emigrate with him. She had asked Beale to come down from Daventry to collect her, and see them off, as he (Beale) was her only trusted friend. The admirer, John James Thomas, whom Beale described as short, with a dark complexion, had met them off the train at Temple Meads and calling Charlotte his wife “took her off up Temple Street”. Beale waited, with the keys to the boxes till gone midnight, but they did not return. He did not know what to do on the Thursday as he had to got to Bath, and on Friday returned to Daventry taking the boxes with him to look after them. He had opened them only to look for clues about where Charlotte and/or Thomas might be. He kept the pistols for the protection of Captain Watkins and his property, and to shoot rabbits, which had recently done; the clasp knife was to finish off wounded rabbits, and to skin and gut them – hence the blood.
By now the Court House was besieged. Beale was remanded for a week to Taunton Goal, and then had to be smuggled out to another fly to get him away. When he returned, the police outwitted the crowds by getting him off the train at Long Ashton Station, and taking him to the court in an omnibus! The scene was set for the legal proceedings to begin.
To be continued …………..