Sad, Sinister & Strange (death, crime and mystery in Victorian Plaxtol): part one

Last month, I posted a piece about Victorian Plaxtol’s carriers, describing an accident which befell Hezekiah Beadle on his way to Maidstone.

Despite a slow recovery from his injuries, Hezekiah continued to prosper. He took over the family farming interests after the death of his father in 1876, bought more land, built a house for his new wife in 1882, and became manager of nearby Ducks Farm in the 1890s.

But his encounters with the dangers inherent on Victorian roads – and specifically from bolting horses – were not over. In the summer of 1892, John Martin, a farm carter under Hezekiah’s management, was indicted for manslaughter after causing an accident in Plaxtol Street in which a child named Edward Allard was killed.

The whole heart-breaking story is related in Plaxtol Local History Group’s publication, Houses and Households of Victorian Plaxtol. But reviewing the news reports for myself prompted me to look more deeply into the details behind the case.

In farming terms, the wagoner was ‘royalty’. He held a position of trust and responsibility, taking pride in the appearance and health of the team of horses in his charge. Exempt from mundane labour on the farm, he was guaranteed paid work whatever the weather and he and his family usually occupied a farm cottage and garden. The respect that a wagoner enjoyed did not go unearned. They did work very long days, being up in time to feed the horses in their particular charge as early as three o’clock in the morning, have them impeccably groomed and harnessed by four o’clock, and in the fields by five. Each wagoner and mate would walk miles behind their team each day.

The 1891 census shows the Ducks Farm wagoner to be a man named Henry Martin, but he and John were not related. The newspapers called John a carter, but in the census returns for 1891 and 1881 he is recorded as merely an ‘ag lab,’ and so it is unlikely that there was anything skilled or ‘royal’ about him. And although John Martin’s brother George was also employed on Ducks Farm, actually as a wagoner’s mate, the two men did not even live at the same address. George, just 16, lived with his sister and brother-in-law at May Hill Cottages (May Hill is today called Dux Hill, and the cottages far pre-dated those which stand there today), while John, already in his mid-thirties, occupied a cottage in Red Lion Square, alone save for a housekeeper (a woman whose main occupation must surely have been striving to keep out the flies arising from the inn stable standing a stone’s throw from their front door). No doubt this proximity to the Red Lion itself had facilitated John’s bouts of drunkenness that summer, which were remarked upon at the inquest into Edward Allard’s death.

The old Red Lion, The Street, Plaxtol Picture property of Plaxtol Local History Group, published in 'Beerhouses and Inns of Victorian Plaxtol'.
The old Red Lion, The Street, Plaxtol
Picture property of Plaxtol Local History Group, published in ‘Beerhouses and Inns of Victorian Plaxtol’.

The extent to which Victorian country people got drunk is astonishing. There are reports of men and women being literally ‘falling down drunk’, lying in ditches or in the middle of the road and all–too-ready to assault police officers and commit other transgressions! The term ‘roaring drunk’ seems particularly apt, and since John’s drunkenness was well-known it is likely that he fell (no pun intended) into that category. He had been drinking again on the night of 25th July,

The next morning, the 26th, Hezekiah Beadle considered John sufficiently sober to take two horses and a cart to Bewley Farm, where steam ploughing was going on.

Steam ploughing had come into general use from the 1860s, and was conducted by a pair of engines, one at each side of the field, with the plough shuttling to and fro on a cable between them as they progressed along the headland. It required a crew of five men – two for each engine and one riding on the plough as it passed up and down the furrows. It is strange to consider, in the light of today’s ever larger and heavier farm machinery, that this method was thought preferable as it avoided the consolidation of the soil caused by the hooves of the traditional plough team. The steam ploughing was done  by contractors who travelled from farm to farm with the engines, machinery and a living van. But the supply of water and coal needed during the day was the responsibility of the farmer on whose land they were working. The engines had to be replenished with water every three or four hours, throughout a 12-14 hour day (far longer than any plough team could work), and the water was drawn by hand pump from the nearest stream or pond and carried to the field in a horse-drawn 200-gallon bowser or tank. A separate cart would have been used to ferry coal to the fields to feed the fires of the steam engines.

Traction engine, steam plough and horse-drawn bowser at rest

The picture above is reproduced here by permission of the Steam Plough Club (who have also provided much of the information about how a team worked) and shows a steam cultivation team posed at rest. The water wagon, here drawn by three horses in tandem rather that John Martin’s two, is on the right of the picture.

The work John Martin was doing that day was heavy – not the sort of thing a bona fide wagoner would have been called upon to do – and he would certainly have felt the effects of his drinking the night before and of whatever heat was in that late July day. The temptation of the ‘hair of the dog’ must have exerted an irresistibly powerful pull. Yet there is no indication where he got his drink. The keeper of the Rose & Crown beerhouse at the top of Sheet Hill, Mrs Newman, said that John had come in for a pint between nine and 10 o’clock that morning, but that she had refused to serve him as, in her opinion, he was already drunk. Nevertheless, John obtained drink somewhere – there were often jugs of small beer or cider laid on for field workers – and when Hezekiah Beadle rode over to Bewley Farm at the 12 o’clock dinnertime he found John ‘the worse for liquor.’ The two men exchanged what must have been heated words, with Hezekiah upbraiding John and John declaring that he had had enough. Hezekiah told John that he would send someone else to take over the team.

Returning to Ducks Farm, Hezekiah sent John’s young brother George to relieve him of the horses, but later thought that George was ‘not man enough’ and sent another man, labourer Arthur Wakeman, to assist him. He must have felt that there was some urgency by now, as he had James Gardener, groom at Ducks Farm, drive Wakeman to Bewley Farm. There were now four farm men looking for each other on the road instead of working, an apparently farcical situation across which the portents of tragedy are writ large in hindsight.

* * *

Young George Martin passed the Rose & Crown on his own way to Bewley Farm, and found his brother’s cart and horses there. He went into the beerhouse and persuaded his brother to leave, no doubt with the help of a vexed and irritable Mrs Newman! John climbed upon the cart and George started for home, leading one of the horses, with his brother singing and shouting and cracking the frayed cord of the whip. Somewhere along the road they met Wakeman and Gardener. Wakeman told John that he had been sent to take over the horses, to which John replied with typical inebriated belligerence that if Wakeman wanted the horses he would have to fight him for them. Wakeman was sufficiently unnerved to give way, and the Martins proceeded on their journey.

When I first read this story, I could not understand why George Martin had decided to go down The Street, instead of taking Grange Hill towards Ducks Farm. But it is now clear that he planned to get John back to his cottage in Red Lion Square, either on Hezekiah’s instructions or his own initiative. He was managing to control the horses, even without the whip which his brother refused to relinquish, but then, just as the cart turned into The Street, the breeching on the harness broke.

The breeching is that part of the tack or harness which passes around the haunches of a horse. It is attached to the shafts and its purpose is to help the horse slow a cart on a descent; as the strap presses into contact with the horse’s haunches it prompts the horse to push back. With this broken, there was nothing to stop the cart running forward onto the hindquarters of the rear horse, which then caused the horses to bolt. Neither George nor John could do anything to stop them, although George was seen to try. The collision with Mr Allard’s bakery van, standing in The Street, must have been as horrific as it was inevitable. The baker and his son were both thrown out and eight-year-old Edward suffered fatal head wounds. The horses belonging to both vehicles must surely have been injured, too.

The coroner’s inquest was opened and adjourned, finally hearing the evidence in a session on 4th August at the Red Lion. The coroner’s jury, under its foreman Henry Fawcett, heard the evidence of the various witnesses and returned a verdict of manslaughter against John Martin. As the PLHG publication explains, they also requested that the coroner censure Hezekiah Beadle for his part in bringing about the fatality. He had known John Martin to be a drinker, quite probably under the influence on the day in question; he had sent John out with two horses, one or both of which were known to have bolted in the past; and the nature of his business, involving farming at both Ducks and Bewley, meant that his horses were on the road more often than those of other farms. In the coroner’s opinion, he should have taken the horses away from John when he found him drunk at Bewley that dinnertime, instead of sending first one man and then another to do the task for him.

Police Superintendent Lane was present and took John into custody. The case was heard at the Malling Petty Sessions on 8th August and John was committed for trial at the next Assizes.

The case came to court in December. George was called to give evidence and, according to The Courier, ‘entirely contradicted the statement he swore to before the Coroner and the Magistrates,’ so that the judge was forced to threaten him with further proceedings. Despite this failure of the prosecution’s witness, John Martin was found guilty. There was a recommendation for mercy on account of his previous good character; he was later sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment.

© New Moons For Old, 2015.

New Moons For Old

2 thoughts on “Sad, Sinister & Strange (death, crime and mystery in Victorian Plaxtol): part one

  1. Hi,
    Little Edward Filmer Allard (“Filmer” was his mother Eliza’s maiden name) who was killed, was my grandmother’s second cousin on the Allard family line. My Allards came from Plaxtol. Am I permitted to send this link to my brothers, because they would be interested. (One of my brothers’ middle names is “Allard”!)
    Best wishes,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Christina,

      Yes, do please forward the link to your brothers. I am immeasurably pleased when something I have written strikes a chord with someone else. Family and local history are fascinations of mine, often because they open a door onto wider stories and better understanding of the past.

      Sending you best wishes and thanks for your comment.


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