When Is A Murder Victim Not A Victim Of Murder?

Fun topic for a mid-week evening quick blog, right?!

I know that I’m not the only one who trawls through newspaper archives searching for mentions of ancestors and other family members. So it was quite the surprise when I first came upon an article – somewhat calmly – stating that a James Holbrow had been killed by an employee of his in Willesden (north west London).

Quite an eye opening find.

Only … hmmm.

The article can be found in the Wolverhampton Express and Star, of Thursday 24 November 1881.

Poor James. Only … hmmm.

I found it strange that I couldn’t find hide nor hair of a death registration for James. Even taking into account the length of time for an inquest, no James Holbrow’s died between 1880-1884 that would fit the bill. I made an assumption that the crime took place toward the end of 1881 and wondered if James might appear in the 1881 census.

I was … pleased? surprised? to find that there was a James Holborough living right in Willesden, on Willesden Road (is this the same as the modern Willesden Lane i.e. the A4003?). He is living with his wife, Catherine, and three children, Annie, Minnie and William. However, not only is the address different than reported, but he is a groom and therefore unlikely to have employed other people.

So I turned my attention to the prisoner, Peter Priest. The article says that he was being “re-examined”, implying that there had perhaps been a previous examination, and therefore may have appeared elsewhere in print. So back to the search I went, this time focussing on Peter.

And … well.

There it was. In over two dozen newspapers, ranging from Bristol to Glasgow, from Glamorgan to Northumberland: “Fatal Quarrel”. Peter Priest attacking his employer in Willesden. Only … It wasn’t James.

The victim in all of these articles, bar two, is named as Charles Holford, hay dealer. The full details were reported at the trial, which took place on Friday 2 December. Charles had sent Peter to market with a load of hay to sell. Peter returned, drunk, the following day and gave Charles only a portion of the value of the hay. An argument followed (a witness reported that the prisoner “said bad words”) which turned violent. Peter struck Charles who then got up and a moment later fell down dead.

A post mortem found clots of blood on his chest, and returned a verdict of death by syncope, accelerated by the weak state of the heart. The Judge declared that the charge of manslaughter could not be upheld and the jury returned a verdict of “Not Guilty”. I feel that the cast of CSI: Your Town would’ve had a different take on it, let alone Silent Witness.

Not only do articles contradict the name of the deceased, but also the age of the accused. Some say 16, some 31. However, I can find no Peter Priest of the right age. There is a Peter Priest, labourer, in the 1881 census in London – albeit lodging in Kensington, around 4 miles to the south, but born in 1840.

There is often discussion around primary and secondary sources used in genealogy. Primary sources are the original records or objects created by participants or observers; whereas a secondary source of information is one that was created later by someone who did not experience first-hand or participate in the events. FamilySearch gives examples of primary sources: newspapers, letters, journals, tax lists, court documents, church records, or a census. I would hesitate to say any of those are 100% factual, 100% of the time. Certificates can be wrong, people can lie, people can make mistakes when recording information.

Newspaper articles can be classed as both primary and secondary sources, but its clear in this example that you would initially think that they would be a reliable primary source when it comes to reporting on crimes, the victims and the perpetrators. But in this instance its more a case of caveat emptor (caveat lector?). As always, each piece of evidence needs to be reviewed and weighed against others to find where the truth may lie (in this case, the victim overwhelmingly reported as being Charles, not James).

So no murder victim.

But I did do what every good genealogist does: research this new James’ family line. As he was born in Willesden, I assumed that he was from the mysterious Sussex/Essex line of Holb(o)rows rather than a West Country branch. Which turned out to be the incorrect assumption. His father, Charles, had been born in Great Barrington, Gloucestershire. Great (and Little) Barrington lies to the north of the A40, on the River Windrush, nestled in the Cotswolds. (The ship HMT Empire Windrush, synonymous with post-war immigration from the Caribbean to the UK – and the more recent Government mistreatment of those people and their families – was named for this river.) Although of the same county as the Holborow Heartlands, this area to the eastern edge of the county is not prime Holborow country. In fact, it was Charles’ father – Richard – who moved across the county from the village of Bisley, approximately 30 miles to the west. As an Ag Lab this would’ve been quite the journey. By 1851 he is living with his wife and 3 of his children, but 10 years previously the couple have ten children at home! I don’t know when he moved from Bisley, but he marries his wife – Mary Shillam – in Great Barrington in the Spring of 1818.

I can move back to Richard’s father, Thomas, and his father, Richard, all in Bisley. However, it seems that Richard’s baptism is waiting to be teased out of the records – if they still exist! – as the eldest record I can find is of his marriage to Martha Brown in 1751. His burial gives his approximate age (67) which would put his birth at around 1720. But so far no dice!

However, it’s nice to have a challenge – and its nice to go from a murder to having a whole host (remember those 10 children?!) of new family lines to chase down!

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