This week I’ve been investigating an event that took place in my village in 1876 – a crime ‘so unparalleled in that neighbourhood that it occasioned quite a thrilling sensation’!
On 30 December, 1876, a ‘tragical occurrence’ took place in Drayton (now in Oxon but then in Berks), when a young man named Benjamin Marshall attacked a father and daughter, James and Elizabeth Beesley. Two days later he was charged with their two attempted murders. The story caused considerable ‘excitement’, especially as there had recently been other ‘horrible murders’ and an attempted murder in the county. The Berkshire Chronicle commented: ‘The year 1876 will be a memorable one for Berkshire in the annals of crime’.
To piece together the events that led to the attack, and the details of the attack itself, I’ve referred to six newspaper articles in three publications, which reported on the event over a two-month period. It’s been really interesting seeing how details changed over time, as more and more witnesses gave their accounts – a good reminder to search for more versions of a story wherever possible.
The Beesleys were an established local family. James Beesley was a grocer/fruiterer, born in Drayton in about 1825. He married Elizabeth Caladine, from Sutton Wick (a hamlet on the edge of Drayton) in 1848 and they had several children, including Elizabeth in 1860. In 1871 the family lived at their grocer’s shop on Abingdon Road, between the Wheatsheaf and the Red Lion – two pubs still located in the centre of the village. As well as being a shopkeeper, James was a potato and apple dealer.
In 1876, his 16-year old daughter Elizabeth, who went by ‘Bessie’, had formed ‘an acquaintance of a more or less tender character’ with Benjamin Marshall, ten years older than Bessie, who came from London but had recently been spending time in Drayton. Benjamin was a relation of the late landlady of the Roebuck, an inn on Stert Street. He was described as a publican in one source, and of ‘no occupation’ in another. Bessie had known Benjamin for about a year and they had been ‘keeping company’ for about six months (one article said they were engaged). However, the day after Christmas, Bessie broke it off with him. Some said he was of ‘dissolute habits’. Bessie herself said her friends didn’t approve of him and that it was due to her father’s disapproval that she ended the relationship. Initially Benjamin seemed to accept her decision, and to stay on good terms with the family, but the following day, as he accompanied her father James on an errand, he asked James if Bessie would have ‘anyone else?’ James answered, “That is as the Almighty pleases to put into her head. What is to be will be.” Benjamin angrily responded that ‘if she did not have him she should not have anyone else.’ (Noone had coined the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ in 1876 but Benjamin’s behaviour from this point on is a textbook example).
On 30 December Benjamin hired George Goodey, a local saddler, to take him into Oxford, where he purchased a six-chambered revolver. In fact, it was later revealed in court that Benjamin had attempted to purchase a firearm a month earlier. On the way back to Drayton, George noticed that Benjamin seemed ‘put out’. They talked about women and George joked: “I should not put myself out of the way about one woman; there [are] plenty about”, but Benjamin said he ‘loved the very ground [Bessie] walked upon.’ On their way back to Drayton Benjamin stopped off for drinks in three pubs. It’s no surprise then that when he returned to the Beesleys’ home that evening he had clearly been drinking. He entered and left their home several times. On the second time, Bessie was reading a newspaper story about a woman cutting her throat in Hagbourne (a nearby village). She commented “what a dreadful thing it is for them”, to which Benjamin replied, menacingly, “Perhaps you will hear of something as bad or worse before long”. On the third time he entered the home, Mr and Mrs Beesley and their two daughters, including Bessie, were in a small room leading out of the shop. Mrs Beesley went into the shop to serve a customer, with Bessie following, and Benjamin fired a shot at Bessie from behind. He then turned around and fired three shots at Mr James Beesley, one of which would have been fatal ‘had the bullet not struck his [silver fob] watch, glancing off and only occasioning a superficial wound.’ Later, the watch was observed to have stopped at a quarter past six. What happened next was described like a slow-motion action scene from a movie:
‘Beesley, who is a powerful man, must, we suppose, have been momentarily paralysed by the suddenness and ferocity of the murderous attack and finding himself shot, but he now closed with the ruffian and threw him on the sofa, and while struggling with him another shot was fired.’ James fought with Benjamin for twenty minutes, during which time his wife was able to take the revolver, until finally someone else came to their aid. Meanwhile, his injured daughter had run to Mrs Cornish’s cottage next door and fainted. Police and medical assistance were sent for, and George Goodey rushed to the next village and brought PC (Joseph) Walklett to Drayton in his trap. For a rural policeman, the violent event must have been quite a shock. Medical aid was provided by Dr Slade Innes Baker, a GP from Abingdon, 2.5 miles away, who found that a bullet had lodged in Bessie’s lungs. A week later, it was reported that ‘all attempts to extract [the bullet from Bessie’s body] have been unavailing, and … she is lying in a dangerous state.
When PC Walklett took Benjamin into custody, the prisoner asked “Is Bessie hurt much?” PC Walklett responded (with deadpan delivery): “I should think she is. She has a bullet in her back.” There was ‘some commotion as Benjamin was conducted through the streets’ on the way to the lockup in Abingdon. On the way to Abingdon, Benjamin ‘smelt of brandy and appeared in a stupefied condition’. He staggered twice due to drink, and was found to be carrying two portraits of Bessie.
Benjamin Marshall was brought before the magistrate in Abingdon two days later, and James Beesley then gave his own account of the events. Benjamin himself refused to make any statement and ‘looked and acted like a madman’. One newspaper said he ‘pretended to look idiotic’. On 15 January, Benjamin was examined again, and this time ‘listened to the proceedings with composure.’ He now knew that Bessie was expected to recover and that he would therefore not be facing possible execution. Mrs Beesley, Mrs Cornish and PC Walklett gave their statements. Finally, on the 18th, Bessie was well enough to attend and give her account. However, the ‘ball’ had not been extracted from her back, so unsurprisingly ‘she was very pale and still weak and allowed to give her evidence sitting.’ Other evidence was given that corroborated the witnesses’ accounts, including the locations of the bullets that had been fired in the home, which paint a vivid picture of the Beasleys’ domestic setting: One bullet had lodged in the piano, another had passed through a case of stuffed birds and struck a wall, and a third had struck an advertisement glass case, leaving a hole in it.
Benjamin Marshall’s trial took place at the Lent Assizes, February 1877. He was charged with ‘feloniously and of malice aforethought shooting at Elizabeth Beesley and her father, James Beesley, with intent to murder them.’ He pleaded not guilty but was found guilty of wounding with attempt to do grievous bodily harm, and sentenced to ten years’ penal servitude. His sentence could have been more severe; ‘The Judge said the jury had taken a merciful view of the case, and he expressed his concurrence with it.’
In 1881 he was a convict in the Woking Invalid Prison, described as a ‘lunatic’. There is no evidence of him in any England censuses after that date.
Bessie survived the attempt on her life. However, at the time that Benjamin was sentenced, the bullet had not been removed from her back. I find it hard to believe that she made a full physical or emotional recovery from her ordeal. Nevertheless, she went on to have a trade, a large family, and a long life. In 1881, aged 21, she lived alone in a cottage in Drayton, working as a slop worker – someone who made cheap clothing. A few weeks later she married William Prior, a labourer, who was a widower with a young son. Their second son was named James Beesley Prior after Bessie’s father. In 1891 Bessie (Elizabeth) had the occupation of ‘Tailoress’ (see below). The 1911 census shows that Elizabeth and William had 13 children born alive, seven of whom were still living. Bessie lived to the age of 71, passing away in 1931.
Direct quotes (shown in inverted commas/speech marks) are taken from the Berkshire Chronicle – Saturday 06 January 1877, Saturday 13 January 1877, Saturday 20 January 1877, Saturday 24 February 1877, Reading Observer – Saturday 6 January 1877, Saturday 20 January 1877, Windsor & Eton Express – Saturday 24 February 1877 (accessed via britishnewspapers.com on 23/4/20), Ancestry.co.uk
Post updated on 11/5/20