This was handwritten and given to Terrie when she purchased Dunsley
The old stile, one firm and strong, was now tumbledown, and had reached the end of its life. It had been long stood where the footpath from Gibraltar, Kinver (having crossed the turnpike road for Kidderminster to Wolverhampton) joined the old road, from Kinver to Stourbridge, which, passes over to Dunsley Heath and the wood on Dunsley Bank. Now were approaching the stile to demolish it and replace it with a new stile with no history. The new stile could not be linked, as could its predecessor, with the events of long ago which had given name to that area – “The Gibbet” One the evening of 18th December 1812, a farmer, Benjamin Robins of Dunsley Hall, near Kinver, was returning home for Stourbridge Market, when he was shot in the back, and robbed, about half a mile from his home.
He was not killed outright, and reclaimed when shot “you rascal! Why did you not ask for my money, and not shot me”. He was later able to describe his assailant as “about five feet six or seven inches high, appeared rather clean and well dressed, having on a good hat and a long, dark coloured coat down to the calves of his legs. His legs a little bowed and he seems to walk wide”. Mr Robbins struggled home, and legend has it that bloods trails from his wounds could be seen on the staircase of the Hall.
Two surgeons from Stourbridge, Isaac Downing and John Causer testified, that, though after receiving the wound he walked home without appearing more fatigued than they found him. Nevertheless Mr Robins death had been occasioned by “a leaden bullet which had entered the middle of his back, just on the spine, and which was extracted from his right side about fourteen inches from the place it had entered. The person who fired it must have been near to, and behind him. He died 10 days after on December 28th aged 57, and, was buried at Enville Church on 1st January 1813.
The bullet remained in Downings possession. Dr. Causer continued to attend to Robins until his death. A reward of £100 was offered for the apprehension of the murderer, and the notice was stated that “on Friday evening, 18th December a little after 5pm, Mr Benjamin Robbins of Dunsley Hall Dunsley Kinver, returned from Stourbridge market, was accused by a man near the end of Mr Hill’s park, who walked and conversed with him as they passed along the public road till they came upon Dunsley Hill (n.t. not the area now generally known as Dunsley Hill – r.d.p.) where the man drew behind and shot Mr Robins in the back, and afterward robbed him of two ten pound notes of Messrs Hill and Co Stourbridge Old Bank, one point note of the Dudley Banks, together with shillings and a silver watch” Then followed the detailed description of the man his appearance given obviously by Mr Robins, in the four days before his death, who had put up the £100 reward.
The Scotland Yard of the day, the “Bow street runners”, were called in, and two officers we assigned to the case, named Samuel Thornton and Henry Adkins, known as “the little font”. Their investigations eventually pinpointed on a comparative stranger to the area, William Howe, alias John Wood a carpenter, and a long chain of circumstantial evidence was produced. On the day of the murder according to the publicans daughter Elizabeth Perrins, Howe had been at the Nag’s Head Inn at Stourbridge from one o’clock until between two and three o’clock, and then he ate a pork pie and drank two pints of ale. The publican’s son, Edward Perrins, had been in the kitchen at dinner time with the prisoner and others, and after his meal he returned to his work, the accused man accompanying him as far as New Street, the nearest road leading up to Dunsley and there they parted.
The prisoner proceeding towards Fir Tree Hill. But, the most extraordinary testimony at his subsequent trial was that which claimed that, in the evening of the robbery, Howe, was wearing a dark coloured coat, and went into the Angel public house at Stourbridge at about 6 o’clock.
According to John Bullock a shoe maker of Stourbridge, Howe remained about an hour, during which time the conversation in the pub related entirely on the outrage committed on Mr Robbins that afternoon. We were told that “Howe exhibited no symptoms of alarm, drank his ale composedly, and did not appear at all heated or flummoxed on a persons coming into the company and stating that the bullet had been extracted, and that Mr Robins was in a fair way of recovery, Howe remarked that “the man who shot him had not done his work effectively”.
It also appeared that Howe slept that night at The Duke William public house at Stourbridge, which he entered at about 9.30pm and remained there until between 7-8 o’clock the next morning. Before he went to bed, he remarked to the company who like folk, no doubt, in many meeting places in the pub were discussing the attack that he supposed that Mr Robins must have been shot by someone who knew him. Howe’s manner was entirely composed.
During the course of Howe’s trial, which took place at Stafford Assizes on Tuesday 16th March 1813, a carpenter, Japheth Patmore, who had worked with Howe at Lady Downshire’s at Ombersley, testified that Howe has left his work on 13th December and had returned to fetch his tools on the 23rd December. The Bow Street officers, Danston and Adkins, visited Worcester on 7th January and traced two boxes from Worcester to an address in London where they had returned on the 10th acting on information that they had gathered, at least they found the boxes at a lodging house in Bishops gate. Patiently the two men waited for someone to collect the boxes, and on 13th January William Howe turned up. He agreed that the boxes were his.
He changed his name to prevent his wife following him. He was taken into custody, and in his clothes box was found a screw barrel pistol, three bullets, a bullet mould and a fawn skin waistcoat, which, (evidence eventually revealed) he was wearing in the public houses in Stourbridge. When charged by the officers however, the prisoner told Adkins that he had never been in Stourbridge and that he had never heard of Mr Robins being shot.
He mentioned that he was in Kidderminster on that day. It is interesting to note that Adkins subsequently told the court that he expected a share of the £100 reward if the prisoner was convicted. At the time the case for the prosecution was put on by a Mr Pearson and a Mr Jervis that for the defence was read by a Mr Campbell. Upwards of thirty witnesses were examined and amongst them, we are told; the evidence of a ten year old girl was of great importance,
Several witnesses attested that a person identified as the prisoner was on the road when Mr Robins was shot, on that evening. It was snowing. He was seen to pull from the hedge a stick or a thorn, and then put something into his pocket. Though Hose decide to visit, Sarah Delves, who lived near the Gig Mill, testified that the prisoner, wearing a long dark coat had called at her home to borrow a pin, evidently with the intention of opening the touch hole of a pistol. (Presumably the thorn was not suitable) He had remained in the house for two of three minutes and she was able to take particular stock of him, one of her little girls had opened the door to him and she was also able to recognise the prisoner as that man. Mrs Delves next saw him some time later in the care of the constable. John Collins of Stourbridge, knew Mr Robins, and had seen him on Friday 18th December at Stourbridge Market, and some time after 4o’clock he saw Mr Robins leaving Stourbridge to go home.
He thought no more than 30 people would use the road to Dunsley during the course of the day. Other witnesses on the road that evening testified to having seen a man, whom, they later identified as Howe. Thomas Bate a farmer, was preceding home on horseback as it grew dusk, saw the man who, he said seemed to “look at him with evil desire” and he was apprehensive of being attacked.
At about 10 minutes to four Benjamin Carter was going from Stourbridge to Gig Mill with a load of straw. The road he said, leads up towards Mrs Hills Park (this is what we know as High Park?) He saw a man seeming to charge a gun, though he saw no gun, and then the man went towards Mrs Delves house. Elizabeth Carter mother of Benjamin Carter and a neighbour of Mrs Delves, saw a man similar to the prisoner standing of the road to Hill Park. She heard the clock at Stourbridge strike Four. Edwards Cox a farmer of Dunsley, left Stourbridge Market at about 5pm, and was returning home when, at the top of Fir Tree Hill, he saw a man in a dark coat, resembling the accused, coming up the top hill at a great pace, who passed on towards Stourbridge within ten minutes of arriving home Cox heart that Mr Robins had been shot. It was suggested that the murderer mistook Mr Robins for a Mr George Burgess of Checkhill a local Farmer, who was known to have visited the Bank that day and to have taken our his half years rent, which was to be paid the next week to his Landlord, Mr Foley of Prestwood. Several witnesses told of having been in Howe’s company in the various Stourbridge Inns that evening, and of his sharing in their conversations concerning the robbery and wounding.
He was wearing a long dark great coat and a fawn skin waistcoat with a dark binding. Very damming evidence was provided by two fellow prisoners in the County Gaol/ One of them, who was seeing a visitor, Howe declined a letter to be given to a woman in a spotted shawl who was waiting at the prison lodge and who said that she was Mrs Howe (it may be interesting to note that, reporting on the trial, the Staffordshire advertiser stated that the prisoner had two wives, on in London, and one at Ombersley Worcestershire.
If this is so which of these ladies received the letter we cannot tell. The letter had since been destroyed, but, as the women could not read, its contents had to be known to several other persons, who, in turn, had read the letter to her. As a result of the contents of that letter, two persons were despatched to Stourbridge, where, they, met William Robins, son of Joseph Robin’s attorney, of Stourbridge and nephew of the murdered man.
At Dunsley in a Hay Stack not far from the house they found a glove containing three bullets, and in the same stack, a pistol which corresponded exactly with the pistol found in the prisoners box, one of the bullets fitted the bullet mould in the box, though the other two did not. Another fellow prisoner, announced that Howe told him where a watch was to be found, namely at the pawnbrokers establishment of Edward Power in Warwick. The officers had followed up this information, the watch was retrieved, and, was identified as that of Mr Robins, the murdered man.
The pawnbroker swore on oath that the prisoner had passed the watch to him in return for £2. William Gammon, a watchmaker in the Bull Ring Birmingham, stated that he had repaired the watch and returned it to Mr Robins in November. Jeremiah Robins, brother of the deceased identified the watch as that, which he had given to his brother some years before, As to the boxes, William Ogden, of Worcester, a carrier’s book keeper said that on Sunday 27th December, the boxes were forwarded at the prisoner’s desire, to “John Wood” at the Castle and Falcon in Aldersgate, London. They appeared to be tool chests. After the judge, Mr Justice Bayley, had summed up, the jury conferred for about seven minutes, and brought in a verdict of guilty. In very solemn words, the judge then addressed the prisoner telling him that the jury had come to the conclusion that he had committed one of the greatest offences that can be committed by man, and had violated one of God’s first commandments “thou shalt do no murder”. He had sent out of this world one who had never done the accused any harm, and to whom he could owe no ill-will. He had killed a man without giving him an opportunity of making up his account with his maker,
The Judge went on “It only remains for me to pronounce the awful sentence of the law, which is that you be taken from hence to the place from which you came, and, on the 18th of this month, from thence to the place of execution, there, to be hanged by the neck until you be dead, and that, when dead, you body to be dissected and anatomised, and may Almighty God, whose mercy is infinite, induce you to employ from time in the way you ought to do, and may he have mercy on your soul”. The trial lasted from eight o’clock in the morning until 4.30 in the afternoon.
At the Stourbridge magistrates’ hearing on the previous 19th January, Howe stated that he was born in Essex but, refused to name the parish. He had given the details (but with no precise date) of considerable travelling during the crucial period, once in a chaise, though mostly on foot in the midlands, and in Oxford and London, where he sought work.
He implied that “on Christmas Day at Pershore, for which he had been paid 12/-, he had stayed at various public houses at Worcester, Kidderminster, Broadway, Evesham and elsewhere, though sometimes he “slept with his wife at home”. He had had many meals at public homes. On his journey to London, he rode about 10 miles in a wagon, and had walked the rest of the way. At the trial, however, he said nothing in his defence, nor, we are told, did he exhibit any signs of fear or during his trial. At the conclusion, he explained that his “heart was innocent”. Two days later, on 18th March at 11am, the unhappy man was conducted to the “new drop” as it was known in front of the County Goal. The platform was entirely new, with a new construction of a trap door drop, the first of its thing.
The Staffordshire Advertiser of 20th March tells us that Howe “trod with a firm and heavy step, and, persevered his fortitude unshaken till the last. He approached the front of the platform, and addressed the spectators for three of four minutes, turning himself about that he might be heard on every side. He exhorted the spectators to take warning by his untimely end, acknowledged that he had committed many thefts, but, steadily denied that he was the murderer of Mr Wigan near Bridgnorth, of which crime also he had been suspected. He freely confessed that he was the murderer of Mr Robins, he went to Stourbridge for the purpose of committing a robbery, supposing is probable that he might obtain a considerable booty, it being the day of the old market, he did not know Mr Robins, and any other person who met him at the time would have shared the same fate.. He deplored the “badness of his heart” which, most devoutly for the forgiveness of the Almighty, and in treated the prayers of the surrounding multitude. He then submitted to his fate, with firmness and composure.
He was 32 years of age, thus, the Staffordshire Advertiser recounts the end of the life of William Howe. A.J. Standley, in “ The history of Stafford Goal”, writes “Originally the trial Judge in passing sentence, had ordered that Wood’s (Howe’s) magistrate had applied immediately for the body. R.D.P)” possibly because of the outrage felt towards the condemned man, and his body after execution at the prison, was hung in chains on Dunsley Heath near to the spot where the murder had taken place, a permissible alternative to dissection under the prevailing law. Inevitable, the body, thus suspended, excited some considerable interest, and crowds of people from a wide area (one figure has it that there were 40,000 on the fist Sunday) were reported to have visited the part of the heath where the body could be viewed.
Not wishing to overlook the opportunity of spreading the Gospel, a minister is believed to have been of the Methodist persuasion, was said to have attended on three consecutive Sundays, and to have preached an appropriate sermon to the crowds who had gathered. The expenses due to John Harris for his part in hanging the body in chains amounts to £7.19s.9d” says A.J.Stanley. “Dunsley Heath” is difficult to place precisely. Presumably, is the former area of Dunsley Common indicated in 1780. However, that enclosure around the area has no map. Probably, the common was in the area of Gibbet Wood to the north of the old Kinver-Dunsley-Stourbridge Road, now known as Gibbett Lane, between that road and the Stewpony including the present undulating field alongside the A449.
The T-shaped structure on which the bodies of executed criminals were exposed to public viewing was known as a “gibbet” Howe’s body had been brought in a cart from Stafford to the place of the murder by a John White of Holloway End. S Grazebrook states that his father (probably T.W. Grazebrook of Stourton Castle) present at the gibbeting, recounted that some man, who displayed more curiosity than the others, leaned over the cart in order to better view the body, at that moment the cart gave a sudden lurch, and one of the legs of the corpse, rose up and struck him in the face, giving him a black eye. The body was bound round with hoop iron, and hung up on the gibbet by a hook iron over the head.
The whole gruesome event has given its name to Gibbet Wood. Legend has it that three stalwart youths visited the scene, and, stood at the foot of the gibbet. Having drunk too much ale, they began to verbally abuse the body. One cried out “Will Howe” how bist thee?” and the corpse replied “cold and Clammy” the youths reaction is not recorded. The body remained on the gibbet for twelve months, but, the gibbett itself stood for several years. Paul Henry Foley, of Prestwood, accounts a legend that the Stourbridge Surgeon Issac Downing, who, we have noted, treated Mr Robins, proceeded illegally to summon the body from the gibbet for eventual dissection. While he was in the process of doing so, he heard someone approach along the road, and, in alarm, he slipped down and lay flat on the ground. While he was there, the body fell on him, and he had to remain motionless with it lying over him until the travellers had passed. He later removed the body to his surgery and kept the skeleton, jointed with wire, hanging in his hall, and it was used to freighted visitors.
The Peterborough column in The Daily Telegraph of a few years ago in “London day by day” has a variation, and states that in the Mander and Michelsom Theatre, collection, is a painting by a Miss E M Bayliss, of a skull, which, according to a note on the back of the frame “was that of William Howe, who waylaid, robbed and murdered a farmer at Gibbett Wood near Stourbridge”. The newspaper paragraph goes on the say that “he was caught and his skull was used by Sarah Siddons” who, retired from the stage in 1812, the year before Howe’s skull could possibly have become available.
We are told that, Mrs Robins, the farmer’s widow, is said to have had the window of her bedroom, which overlooked Gibbett Wood, bricked up, so that she could not see the gibbett. The window was opened again later, and now provides a delightful view over the Hall’s rose garden and Dunsley Hall Farm fields. “Fir Tree Hill”, later became know as “Gibbet Lane” and the adjoining woodland as “Gibbett Wood”. In 1834 the Ordinance Survey Map designates that part of the land alongside the wood as “Little Dunsley Bank”. But what of the stile, with which, we began this grisly account? Foley tells us that eventually “the gibbet was removed by G Thompson, and then used at Prestwood by being made into uprights for stiles.
It so served to scare off ‘superstitious thieves’ who, previously had been in the habit of removing the wood stiles. “Today”, says Mrs Francis Campbell, a local historian, writing more than 40 years ago, “the fine slightly tumbledown file, used by farmers when tending their sheep was in good condition”. She goes on “the site of the gibbett was marked by a young oak, and a stout post, but a few years ago the fine oak tree was inadvertently sawn down”.
Well today the stile too has gone; so, too probably, has the stile that replaces it. But, Gibbet Wood still remains, and though it passes that old sandy road from Kinver to Stourbridge on which Benjamin Robins and William Howe found themselves on that winter late afternoon in the year 1812.