John Thurtell

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John Thurtell

Born on 21st December, 1794, John Thurtell had every opportunity to make the most of his life in times when to be poor meant hardship and deprivation. His parents lived in Norwich, where his father was Mayor, and at 15 he joined the Royal Marines in a career spanning five years during which he saw action and rose to lieutenant. On discharge, he and his brother, Thomas, became bombazine manufacturers (of twilled fabric, especially silk), a venture which led to bankruptcy followed by a fraudulent insurance claim when their business premises burned down.

After that it was all downhill for John Thurtell, who began to mix with London ne’er-do-wells and shady characters we today might regard as the underworld. It ended at the gallows at Hertford gaol in 1823, when he was hanged for the brutal murder of William Weare at Radlett.

John Thurtell was an intelligent, ‘hard’ man, a compulsive gambler who had no trouble thriving on the trappings of shady deals and illegal prizefights which he promoted and in which he took part. He opened up several gambling houses in London, and a tavern, all a far cry from his East Anglian roots. And, not surprisingly, he fell in with a bad crowd.

One of these was a man called William Probert, who married a woman described as ‘physically repellent but financially attractive’, and was thus able to purchase a cottage in Gills Hill Lane, Radlett. Here he lived with his wife, her sister, two children of Thomas Thurtell (John’s brother) and a couple of servants. Probert also put his wife’s money to other use, setting himself up as a wine merchant, a venture that failed around the same time as John Thurtell’s own business ventures collapsed. The two were well matched.

Another of these ‘sleezys’ was Joseph Hunt, 26, an illiterate whose only talent was that he could sing. Doubtless there were other such characters in John Thurtell’s world of dubious deals and gambling, and of these was one was 43 year old William Weare. Weare was a ‘notorious blackleg’, card sharp, gambler and avid visitor to race horse meetings. He trusted no-one, and kept his considerable fortune about his person, strapped to his chest or secreted within his clothing. He lived in lodgings at Lyons Inn, off the Strand. This had previously been the address of reputable solicitors, which would have made Weare appear ‘respectable’, an image borne out by his appearance, for he was always smartly dressed.

In October, 1883, Weare, who had been to Doncaster races, returned to town much in profit from his venture. Our heroes, with the exception of Thomas Thurtell, were regular visitors to Rexworthy’s Billiard Saloon, off Whitehall, where, by all accounts, John Thurtell won £300 of Weare’s money at cards. The problem was, Weare did not pay up this considerable sum, and Thurtell was not pleased about that at all. And so, to exact revenge, John Thurtell invited Weare to accompany he and his little band out into the country around Radlett for a spot of hunting.

Weare gladly accepted, and was quick to tell his friends of Thurtell’s kind invitation. Meanwhile Thurtell and Hunt busied themselves purchasing a pair of pistols, a rope and a large sack, and hiring a gig, a small carriage ideal for making the trip to Radlett. On the day, Weare presented himself, complete with a sack of his own, a gun and a change of clothing, and he accompanied John Thurtell in the gig, whilst Probert and Hunt followed in another.

The party raced along the Edgware Road, calling at taverns, overtaking one another along the way as they set forth for their boozy, sporty and ultimately murderous weekend. Entering Radlett, Thurtell went on ahead whilst, it seems, Probert dropped Hunt off, before heading off along Gills Hill Lane after him. The course of events near Probert’s cottage depends on whose account you believe: different versions were given, first at the inquest, then at the trial. But one thing is certain, that John Thurtell, still aboard the gig, shot Weare in the face, discharging a shot that did not kill him, then struck him several blows with his pistol, that did. Then, when the deed was done, he cut Weare’s throat with a sharp knife.

Thurtell, with or without Probert’s co-operation, placed Weare’s body into the sack and secreted him underneath some bushes. It should be borne in mind that Gills Hill Lane was then no more than a muddy track, overgrown by uncropped hedgerows, not the prim, suburban street we see today. Thereafter, Hunt appeared, and the three men – Thurtell, Probert and Hunt – went to the cottage, later returning to Weare’s corpse to rifle his pockets. After supper, in darkness, they took Weare on horseback to a nearby field where they threw him into a pond. Thurtell searched in vain in the darkness for the gun and knife, murder weapons he could not, as a murderer, afford anyone else to discover.

Several points should be mentioned at this stage. First, the gunshot was heard by at least one man, a Mr P. Smith, at nearby Battlers Green. Second, a man named Freeman saw a gig in Gills Hill Lane with two men on board, and third, on the day of the murder, Joseph Hunt sported a beard and moustache, yet on his arrest just days later he was clean shaven and was wearing William Weare’s clothes!

The next day two workmen noticed blood on the ground and found the bloodstained pistol and knife. Then a few days later Probert’s own blood must have run cold when a farmer chanced to remark he’d ‘heard a shot’ about the time of the killing. Probert wasted no time in telling his companions, and the three men placed the wretched Weare’s corpse back into the gig and threw it into another pond, this time near Elstree.

But now, rumours were abroad. There were no police, of course, but word reached the magistrates who called in the Bow Street Runners. Soon John Thurtell, his brother Thomas, Probert and Hunt were arrested. ‘Honour among criminals’ soon fell by the wayside as Probert and Hunt turning King’s Evidence, pointed the finger at Thurtell and told of the location of the body.

The inquest was held at the Artichoke public house, Elstree, whose licensee was foreman of the jury. The jury were shocked by the murder of Weare, which was described as ‘cruel, barbarous and bloody’. William Weare’s corpse was examined by Drs Ward and Kendall, of Watford. Cause of death was severe blows to the skull, by the gun, causing pieces of bone to lodge in the brain.

Hunt, out to save his own skin, gave evidence that John Thurtell had bought the pistols for £1 17s 6d., and that he had enquired about hiring a gig. Incredibly, the party had called at the Artichoke for a drink on the way to Radlett on the day of the murder! After the murder, said Hunt, John Thurtell declared ‘I have killed the man who robbed me of £300 at Blind Hookey (cards)’, and took from his pocket a gold watch. ‘Do you believe me?’ Thurtell had asked. Hunt then gave account of the dumping of the body, after which he (Hunt) gave more damning evidence in private to his solicitor, including receiving Weare’s clothes and ‘shaving off his whiskers’.

Hilariously, a juror asked Hunt: ‘What has become of your whiskers and moustache?’ Hunt replied: ‘You must be able to see I have cut them off!’

Probert told the court that Thurtell had gone ahead and killed Weare, and that he (Probert) had not been party to the murder. He agreed he had helped to dispose of the body, adding he had not told his wife about the murder, and that he had done ‘nothing that would injure her’. He (and Hunt) stated Thurtell had shared some of the money stolen from Weare with them. He also told the court he had not murdered Weare. The court returned a verdict of ‘wilful murder’ and committed the prisoners to Hertford gaol, including Thomas Thurtell who had played no part but, in transpired, was wanted on warrant for conspiring to set fire to premises.

Languishing in prison, all three protested their innocence. Thurtell said it was Hunt. Probert, it seems, was utterly wretched and couldn’t speak of anything. Hunt, blaming Thurtell, gave account of an incident involving a man named Woods, a rent collector whom, he implied, had been ‘paying his addresses’ to Probert’s sister, Miss Noyes. It seems they had lain in wait for Woods, when Thurtell, intending to strike him on the head with a set of dumb-bells, instead struck Hunt. Woods escaped. Lots of accusations and counter-accusations, all designed to set the blame elsewhere.

Hunt, who had turned King’s Evidence, was transported to Australia. Probert won his freedom, only to be hanged later for stealing a horse. On 9th January, 1824, 15,000 turned up to see John Thurtell hang at Hertford. Whilst he had pleaded not guilty, Thurtell, upon conviction, declared: ‘I am satisfied. I admit that justice has been done to me’.

Such was the shame on Thurtell’s family that at least one member changed his name, whilst others emigrated to Australia. They buried William Weare in the dead of night in St Nicholas’ Church cemetery, Elstree, where, despite the hour, most of the population turned out to witness the funeral.

Gills Hill Lane is now a winding, urban thoroughfare, linking Loom Lane and the Watford Road, Radlett. The Artichoke is still there, partially rebuilt after a fire.

Surprisingly, murder was uncommon in the 19th century. So it was little wonder that the jury and indeed the public were shocked by the brutality of the killing of William Weare. The case gained national notoriety, not least because the killer was the son of a prominent figure, Alderman Thurtell, Mayor of Norwich.

As well as extensive media coverage, the case appeared in stage-plays and books. Sir Walter Scott, who scoffed at people who visited the scene to collect twigs as souvenirs, visited the scene himself in 1828, and reference was made in the subsequent writings of such luminaries as Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle and George Eliot.