THE RAT CATCHER
08 August 1873
Ratcatcher, James Cole, was passing Pennycott Farm on his donkey cart, when one of his dogs ran into a field and was caught by a gin trap. On rescuing the animal James put the trap in his pocket and headed to the farmhouse to return it to Mr Leach the farmer. Then, unexpectedly, PC Cockwell appeared from behind a furze bush where he had been hiding. Afraid that the PC might accuse him of stealing, James claimed his bulging pocket was full of lime but the PC forced him to reveal the trap. This, at least, was the version of events presented by James’s in court.
PC Cockwell’s account was different. In his opinion James had trespassed deliberately to steal a trap and was not heading directly to the farmhouse door when he was apprehended. The court found James guilty was he was given a prison sentence of 5 days.
The Coldridge rat catcher was once reported to have killed 150 vermin on a farm in a single day but on this occasion it was Lapford’s new policeman who appears to have smelt a rat.
Lapford-born Walter Leach left the village for Cardiff soon after being acquitted on a charge of murder. He was one of three youths to chase a group of blackface minstrel singers from a Kings Nympton pub ending in the violent death of a 72-year old man.
Leaving his past behind, he was involved in the expansion of the telegraph system in South Wales erecting and maintaining telegraph lines. It nearly cost him his life when he fell 36ft from the top of a telegraph pole.
Walter’s upbringing in Lapford had been difficult. His mother died when he was two years old. He was brought up at Stonegate Cottage but was working as a farm servant at Bowerthy by the time Stonegate became PC Cockwell’s Police House. He subsequently ran into trouble with the constable on at least three occasions (see below)
19 May 1874
Richard Ware, gamekeeper to the Earl of Portsmouth, came across a number of poacher traps on the Earl’s land. He arose at first light to catch the poachers and, at about 6 o’clock, Richard Stentiford and Walter Leach arrived to check their traps. At the court hearing the following month the gamekeeper explained how pleased he was when the culprits showed up as he had wanted his breakfast!
Richard Stentiford did not show at the hearing. PC Cockwell gave evidence that he had left a summons at the farm where he worked. His master, Mr.Sanders, had said he had fled but might return for his wages. In his absence, Richard was fined £2 13s or a month in jail. After the case he remained a serial poaching offender. He later returned to court for stealing a scythe and again for stealing a gun for which he received a prison sentence.
Unlike Richard, Walter Leach did turn up for the hearing and received a smaller fine of £1 13s 6d.
PC Cockwell received a report of two boys illegally carrying a gun in Lapford. He caught up with Walter Leach, age 17, and Frederick Sanders who were heading out of the village towards Lapford Forches. With no license, Walter was liable for a £10 fine, but it was mitigated to £2 10s at the court hearing. Frederick (possibly Fred Saunders, aged 14, of Little Hole) had only carried the gun at the request of Walter and was consequently not fined.
10 December 1876
Walter, now a labourer and residing in Nymet Rowland, was summoned to court on suspicion of poaching. PC Cockwell had caught him with William Luxton who was carrying a dead but still-warm rabbit. William refused to hand the rabbit over to the constable and there followed a three minute tug-of-war with the dead animal. In court Walter’s previous convictions were proved and the Bench fined him £3 and costs, or one month’s imprisonment with hard labour. William Luxton was found guilty of resisting a police officer.
Christopher Christow, Nymet Rowland, was summoned by PC Cockwell and fined 11s for having pigs astray and 11s £1 12s 6d for bullocks, including costs.
FROM BROOMSMEAD TO BROADMOOR
How the stealing of a shovel from a Lapford smithy led the institutionalisation of Charles Davey in one of the country’s newest asylums.
18 February 1875
At around 2 o’clock in the morning Jacob Kemp was returning to his home, Burridge Farm, after an evening out at a neighbouring farmhouse. As he approached his farm he saw a man leading a horse from the gate. Under his arm was a maund, a basket typical to the pannier markets of North Devon. In the moonlight Jacob soon recognised the man as Charles Davy, a local labourer, leading his master’s horse. The trusting farmer believed Charles’ story that the fowl he was carrying in the maund had been purchased the previous day but, in the light of the morning, Jacob realised that two of his fowl were missing and reported the theft to Lapford’s PC Cockwell.
Later the same morning, Philip Howard, of Broomsmead smithy, discovered a break-in to the cowshead adjoining his house. In addition to smithying, Philip and his father ran a tool-selling business and their stock of implements was stored in a tool shed that could be accessed via the loft of the cowshed. Fortunately it appeared that nothing had been taken but the break-in was reported. PC Cockwell now had a double investigation!
19 February 1875
Early in the morning the Lapford constable visited Charles Davy’s home with a search warrant. In the backhouse he came across the maund. It was empty of fowl but inside the constable found a small shovel. Charles was arrested for the theft of the missing Burridge Farm fowl. With no police cell in Lapford, Charles was handed across at Eggesford to Philip Nott, the police sergeant of Chulmleigh police station.
PC Cockwell recognised a potential link with the reported break-in at Broomsmead, and visited Philip Howard’s smithy that evening. By lamplight he inspected the tool shed. He enquired if a shovel was missing and, sure enough, the smallest and sharpest of Philip Howard’s five shovels was gone. The smith was able to described the characteristic streak of rust on the back.
Arriving back home late in the evening, the constable would have needed to prepare for the 36 mile round journey to South Molton for the court hearing taking place the very next day. He had already travelled many miles investigating the two crimes, getting the search warrant, organising trial witnesses, handing over the prisoner and making all necessary communications with court authorities and other police stations . The logistics of doing all of this within 2 days is really quite impressive considering the constable had no telephone and no powered vehicle!
20 February 1875
At the South Molton Petty Sessions court PC Cockwell gave his evidence against Charles Davy. Philip Howard and his apprentice, John Heal, had also travelled to the hearing to identify the shovel. Charles claimed it had been purchased from Bater’s of Witheridge for 2s. 3d but he had requested that the police did not trouble Mr Bater for confirmation!
Charles was found guilty of stealing the shovel and sentenced to a term of two months in Exeter jail with hard labour. He was not sentenced for stealing the fowl from Burridge Farm as they were never found, but he was given an additional month with hard labour for entering the court of Burridge Farm for an unlawful purpose.
A PRISON SECRET LEADS TO BROADMOOR
The stealing of the small shovel started off a series of unfortunate events in Charles life. The jail sentence brought hardship on his family. Charles’ wife, Maria, and his two sons left Lapford soon after the trial, possibly for Crediton workhouse. In 1880 the family were living in Down St Mary, still in hardship and with three more children. At about 1.30am on 23 May Charles broke into Mr Blackmore’s stores at The Sturt Inn, Morchard Road. He killed Mr Blackmore’s dog with poison and loaded a bag with family provisions— 2lbs of jam, 8½lbs of sugar, 4lbs currants and some flour. PC Cockwell happened to be passing with another officer and, curious as to why a light was on, stopped and caught Charles in the act.
By November 1880 Maria was in Crediton workhouse, now with six children. The youngest, a new-born, had not been seen by his father Charles who was still in Exeter prison awaiting trial that month. Charles had been held in prison since May. Why the peculiarly long delay in case the coming to court? On 18 July two senior prison officials—the governor and the chief surgeon— had attended a planned hearing and explained that Charles was unable to attend as he was “in bed with a fever”. The actual circumstances were NOT revealed: Charles had, in fact, received a severe blow to the head earlier in the month from another prisoner. It seems the prison authorities did not wish news of Charles’ injury to be publicised. The blow had left Charles incapacitated and mentally ill. Following the incident he had tried to take his life on two occasions. Charles made little progress and the prison authorities finally had no option but to reveal what had happened when Charles’ case was finally heard in court.
Charles stood in the dock expressionless, seemingly unaware of what was going on around him. He was unable to communicate a plea. A reporter wrote “the expression on his face indicated an absence of intellect”. Charles was was not sentenced but sent to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.
Broadmoor today, with its high walls, austere Victorian architecture and a list of infamous residents, is often mistaken for a top security prison. However, the Victorians were immensely proud of the institution. It was not a prison but a modern asylum—the very symbol of a humanitarian and tolerant society that recognised that not all offenses were caused by criminal minds but were the result of mental heath conditions that needed to be treated. Mental illness was still poorly understood and there were no effective medicines, but Broadmoor aimed to provide mental wellbeing, exercise, stimulation, good food, support and care.
For Charles, the living conditions in Broadmoor would have been much better than those of his wife and children in Crediton workhouse and probably better than those of a typical Devon labourer. His wife, Maria, certainly considered it the best place for her husband, pleading for the magistrates in Reading to place an order on Crediton Workhouse to contribute 14 shillings to Charles’ costs so that he could continue to be treated at Broadmoor. The order was granted and Charles stayed until July 1883 when the asylum records record that he was “recovered”. His treatment in the asylum appears to have been successful. There are no more recorded court summons for Charles following his release and he found settled employment as a draper with William Bartlett, a wine merchant in Tiverton. Charles and Maria had two more children.
Maria died age 40, a mother, who managed to raise all eight of her children despite periods of destitution and Charles’ absences. Charles remarried and had one further child. He died in 1908, aged 53.
PC COCKWELL AND THE NORTH DEVON SAVAGES
In the early 1870s the Cheriton family of Nymet Rowland gained national notoriety. Their run down farm even became something of a tourist destination for those curious to see the family’s reported “savage” way of life. They were undoubtedly poor, uneducated, unneighbourly and dismissive of the moral standards expected by Victorian society, but the family simply became fodder to the national media who revelled in painting a wildly exaggerated picture— a tribe of near naked savages; festering in a den; sleeping in pits; wretched; criminal; the product of incest. A Daily Telegraph reporter wrote—
“The Cheriton family in the interior Africa would bad enough; in an English village, and under the lee of Christian church these creatures become simply unbearable”.
The media’s portrayal attention fuelled something of a hate campaign against the family.
PC Cockwell took the Lapford post knowing that the Cheritons were part of his patch. He must have been a little apprehensive if he had read media reports—
“The male savages …. are not all backward in assaulting strangers
with bludgeons, and even with guns …. even from the squaws of the
tribe who have an evil repute for hurling brickbats at people’s beads”
In the years leading up to PC Cockwell’s arrival in Lapford, the family, headed by Christopher Cheriton, had been charged more than 50 times although not all complaints against them were upheld in court. PC Cockwell handled nine incidents involving the family and brought to court. As the following accounts show these were mostly minor offences—staying cattle, an unlicensed dog— hardly the stuff of barbarians or savages! The worst offence he handled was an arson attack against the family. Over a number of decades there had been several attacks on the family and it is clear that the constable was diligent in trying to prove the guilt of those who wished the family harm.
01 April 1874
PC Cockwell gave evidence against William Cheriton who was charged with owning a dog without a license. The dog had been given to him by Thomas Luxton who was fined £1 5s. William Cheriton was fined £1 10s.
21 April 1874
PC Cockwell charged Christopher Cheriton for allowing a pig to stray on the highway at Lapford.
16 May 1874
Responding to complaints, PC Cockwell met up with Christopher Cheriton, his daughter, and his son, on the road between Lapford and Eggesford where they were collecting grass into bags and loading them into a horse drawn cart. Accompanying them were two bullocks and a calf grazing on the roadside. Christopher was charged on a count of allowing straying animals . When the cases were heard at the Chulmleigh Petty Sessions, the Chairman ruled that this “very economical form of farming” of verge side grass gathering was undesirable. The roadside grass collection reflected the families poverty at the time but the family riled the local community and little sympathy came their way at court hearings. Christopher was fined a shilling for each straying animal and full costs.
26 Sept 1874
Mr Cheriton allowed three bullocks to stray. PC Cockwell later proved the case at the Chulmleigh Petty Sessions with with Mrs Cheriton attending for her husband. A police sergeant requested that the Cheriton family be given the full penalty due to the great trouble the Cheriton family gave the public from their cattle straying. A 12s fine was imposed.
27 October 1875
Mr Cheriton was fined 11s in court for allowing his horse to stray onto the road. The case was proved by PC Cockwell.
23 November 1876
William Cheriton, assisted by sons John and Samuel, drove some pigs, belonging to farmer Thomas Brook’s, into their own yard. It was a rouse—the Cheriton’s sent word to Thomas Brook that his pigs had, in fact, escaped onto their land and demanded compensation for damage they had caused to their ricks. Mr Brook, sent his servant Robert Galling with 2s 6d to pay for the damage.
In court John Manley, a labourer, and William Bartlett, a joiner, testified that the Cheriton’s had driven the pigs and PC Cockwell gave evidence that the ricks had not being undamaged. The constable produced a plan of the ground describing the locality, with the distances.
The jury found William guilty of obtaining money by false pretences. John(17) was acquitted of conspiracy. No case was considered for Samuel(14) on account of his age. William was sentenced to two months’ hard labour, and in the interim agreed to a bail of £40, paid by his father.
06 October 1879
In the early hours of the morning PC Cockwell got an urgent knock on the door. It was William Cheriton reporting an act of arson at his farm in Nymet Rowland, one of a number of hate crimes against the family. William had been awoken by a party who had travelled from Coldridge where they had seen the fire in the distance. They found a wheat rick ablaze “alone in it’s glory” and also a nearby cart.
PC Cockwell travelled immediately to Nymet and, in the very early hours of the morning began enquiries. By first light he had visited Mr Down at Hele Farm to obtain the boots of suspect Albert Smale. By first light he had found the boots matched with footprints found near the rick. Another footprint near the stile leading into William Cheriton’s wheat field were found to match the boots of another suspect George Rooks.
Both men had been seen leaving Coldridge hours after another fire at Westacott Farm and would have travelled past the Cheriton’s farm to get home. PC Cockwood also gathered evidence of a clear motive—the men had threatened William Cheriton that evening and threatened to burn his gate down. On questioning Albert, the young labourer at first denied being near the rick but on being presented with the evidence he conceded “I must have been there, as no one else wears my boots.”
At the initial hearing, the magistrate released George Rook as his footprints went no further than the stile. Smale was released on a bail of £10, causing the editor of the Western Times to comment—”Can it be right that for so grave a crime as arson” … “and on such trifling bail?”
PC Cockwood made his own boots and boot prints held something of a fascination. He appears to have been a meticulous, detailed man and in this case he must have been confident that his carefully gathered bootprint evidence conclusively placed Albert Smale at the scene of the crime. He had observed several unique features about Albert’s boot print these had be carefully measured with a compass. Unfortunately the court did not appear to be receptive to lengthy and technical detail. PC Cockwood’s cause was not helped by the clerk who had tried to document the constables evidence. The defence pointed to—
… ” difficulty from the evidence being so badly written down; lines have been marked out, words have been interlined, and in neither case are there any initials. It looks as if the writing was that of a School Board boy at a very early stage, and boy who was attending school under very compulsory circumstances.”
William Cheriton was not an articulate man and his attempts to revel that he too had handled the boots himself to check the fit to the print, succeeding only to cause laughter and clear suspicions of evidence tampering. Depite Alberts of violent on the evening of the fire, knowledge that he wlaked nome past the farm and PC Cockwood’s the courthouse appears to have been swayed by the Cheriton’s reputation so wildly embellished by the national media. The judge refused to leave the case to the jury, and Albert Smale was discharged.
PC Cockwood had worked right through the night to gather evidence he must have been incredibly disappointed that neither the magistrate’s clerk nor the judge had much of an appreciation for detail- appreciation of good forensic science in the courts of Devon was still decades away.
Mr. Cheriton, of Nymet Rowland, was summoned by P.C. Cockwell, for allowing a horse to stray on the highway. The case being proved, defendant was fined 11s including expenses, and had a caution from Earl Portsmouth, as the horse was an entire one. Richard Stone, Coldridge, was summoned for allowing a donkey to stray on the highway. The summons was served by P. C. Cockwell. Defendant pleaded guilty, but stated that was donkey kept by his son to ride to school, and that it had strayed away on the day named. Fined 12s 6d.
27 January 1878
William Cann, George Lugg, and A. Smale, were charged by Mary Ann Cheriton, Nymet Rowland, with assaulting her. She said she could swear the two Canns, not to the others : there were four of them, and they continued throwing stones from 4 p.m. till dark—two hours and half—until she threatened send for P.C. CockwelL—W. Cheriton and J. Cheriton corroborated. The latter said did not we Mrs. Cheriton throw stones.—There being do evidence against Lugg, was let off: the other three were fined 11s. including costs.
HIGHER FILLEIGH FIRE
03 April 1875
It was a Saturday evening at about half past eleven when a fire broke out at Higher Filleigh Farm, owned and occupied by Mr. John May. A servant man discovered the fire in the roof of the dairy. The dwelling house, dairy, and part of the pound house were destroyed. PC Cockwell was informed about the fire on Sunday morning and immediately went to the farm. He found the woodwork of the pound house still burning. He remained on site until Monday morning when the fire was fully extinguished. The estimated damage was £400 but the buildings were, fortunately, insured.
19 CHILDREN IN 20 YEARS
10 April 1878
PC Cockwell was on duty in Lapford when he heard a row. Samuel Heal had turned up to Malt Scoop Inn in a drunken state and was being been ejected by Mr Bere, the landlord. The constable found Samuel kicking at the door and pushed him away when he refused to stop. Samuel now vented is anger at the officer kicking him several times before running away to avoid arrest. PC Cockwell caught up with Samuel who stuck several blows and tore the constable’s uniform before finally being restrained with hand-bolts. Samuel was presumably kept in Lapford overnight. As there is no recorded lock-up in the village were people detained overnight at Stonegate, the police house?
The next morning Samuel was taken before Rev. J. Vowler Tanner, who ordered him to be summoned. Following a court hearing Samuel was fined £1 9s for drunken behaviour and damage, or seven days’ imprisonment; for assaulting PC Cockwell he was fined £5 15s, or three months’ imprisonment. It is recorded that Samuel didn’t pay the fine but no record appears to exist of a prison sentence.
Samuel had strong Lapford roots. His William (1818-1885) and grandfather, Samuel (1781-1856) were agricultural labourers born in the village, descendants of the Heal family who resided in Tudor Lapford. However, following the court case, Samuel left his labouring job and worked as a gas fitter in Stoke Damerel and later in Bristol. He married Bessie Gibbings in Stoke Damerel in 1880 but his surname is given as Hill. What this a simple error or has Samuel escaped justice by moving from Lapford under a new name?
Samuel and Bessie had 19 children in 20 years, 12 of whom survived infancy. Their oldest son had a similarly large family.
Samuel Passmore of Morchard Bishop, was charged by PC Cockwell with leaving a timber waggon on the turmpike in the parish of Lapford. On measuring the road the officer found but eight feet clear. Fined l4s inclusive of costs.
A SECRET IN THE DRAWER?
A jug and basin belonging the signalman at Lapford Station went missing and PC Cockwell was put on the case. He soon has a suspect but the woman denied possession. A local newspaper reporter was clearly impressed with the constable’s next move.
The constable was not be shaken out of his convictions … although the objects of his search were not visible, he, with the penetration of a clairvoyant, knew where they were.
Despite the reporter’s praise it seems PC Cockwell’s “clairvoyance” came with the help of a female assistant who actual found the stolen jug and basin! She had been asked to join in the search as she understood the “tricks” of a “woman’s ways”. Did the PC call for female assistance because he suspected the objects were hidden in a female underwear drawer?
The thief was transported to Chumleigh lock-up
A DAY AT THE RACES
03 October 1878
The 4th Thelbridge Races on the Billhole estate were over and the large crowd left for home having watched six races from the purpose-built stand and vantage points. PC Cockwell had been in attendance and was pleased there had been little trouble. However, as he neared home he found the road obstructed with household items. A number of young men had broken down the door of William Westaway’s cottage at Three Hammers, smashed potatoes then dragged items from the cottage onto the road, including a boiler.
The men ran when they saw the constable but he caught one of them, Emanuel Laskey, who was later fined 10s for property damage, 10s for highway obstruction and £2 5s costs. One newspaper reported that a Francis Knight was also fined. Others involved were never caught.
The motive of the attack was not reported but they men had also been to the races where a disagreement may have arisen. Were their actions directed at William Westaway, or were they aiming to block the road to apprehend somebody?
WRAPPED IN A MANGER AT A LAPFORD INN
24 March 1879
charged with stealing a half-pint of brandy, a half-pint of whisky, a pint bottle of champagne, and two bottles containing wine, the property of his master, Mr. Wm. A. Spreadbury, of the Yeo Vale Hotel, Lapford, on the 25th March inst.
William Spreadbury, landlord of the Yeo Vale Hotel, Lapford, left home about four o’clock in the afternoon for a 4-day trip to Salisbury. He had just started a seed business next door and his wife, Caroline, was regularly left to run the hotel.
Soon after William’s departure Caroline saw the trap door of the cellar open, and, suspecting something wrong, sent for PC Cockwell. An employee, Henry Matthews, 28, had been drunk earlier in the day and she suspected him of stealing alcohol and concealing it in a loft space to drink. Sure enough the constable found a bottle of open whiskey hidden in a manger and roundabout four other bottles concealed in straw—sherry, brandy, port and champagne.
To convict Henry Matthews further evidence was needed. PC Cockwell marked the bottles and hid himself in the straw overnight. At about 7am Henry came to the loft and began drinking. PC Cockwell stayed hidden and observed three further visits over half an hour before following him. Henry was caught in possession of two of the bottles that the constable had marked but denied knowledge of the other three. He was sentenced to four months hard labour. Soon after Henry moved to Plymouth. He emigrated in 1885 and died at Paddington, Brisbane in 1918.
William Galliford and William Searle were summoned by PC Cockwell for being on land in search of game. A large net was found in their possession, which was produced in court. They were each fined 10s, plus expenses.
DRUNK IN CHARGE OF SHEEP!
11 May 1880
In Chawleigh, PC Cockwell charged Henry Croote for being drunk whilst in charge of a flock of sheep and unable to stand. Henry was later given a 2s 6d fine or seven days’ imprisonment.