The Canterbury Rioters, 31st May 1838.
Courtenay shooting Lieutenant Bennett
THESE singular but mischievous riots occurred on Thursday, the 31st of May 1838, at a place called Bossenden Wood, situated about five miles from the ancient city of Canterbury, and were the result of the pranks of a madman who had assumed the title of Sir William Percy Honeywood Courtenay, Knight of Malta, and whose insane spirit communicated itself to the rustics, and produced severely calamitous consequences. The infatuation with which this insane impostor was followed, and even worshipped, by the peasantry of the district into which he intruded himself, affords a striking and melancholy proof of the magic powers of fanaticism. But while one is not surprised that among the lower orders he should find persons incapable of resisting his wily and specious arguments and the impudent falsehood of his assertions, it cannot but be the subject of the greatest astonishment that he should have procured the countenance, during a very considerable period, of individuals of superior rank and education in the county.
The best mode of introducing this extraordinary event will be by detailing succinctly the circumstances of the early life of the supposed Sir William Courtenay. The real name of this pretender was John Nichols Thom, and he was the son of a small farmer and maltster at St Columb in Cornwall. While yet a lad, he procured employment in the establishment of Messrs Plumer and Turner, wine-merchants of Truro, as cellarman, but after five years' service, the firm was broken up and the business ceased. Thom now commenced trading on his own account, as a wine-merchant, maltster and hop-dealer, and for three or four years he carried on his trade with great apparent respectability. At the end of that time his premises and stock were consumed by an accidental fire, and he recovered from an Insurance office, for the losses which he alleged he had sustained by this event, the sum of 3000L., being a much larger amount than many judged him to be entitled to. Subsequently he rebuilt his house and continued his trade, and, after about two years more, he made a considerable sum of money by a successful venture in malt which he disposed of in Liverpool. For two years after this event he was lost sight of by his friends and it was presumed that he was out of England, and the first intimation which was received of his return was his declaring himself a candidate to represent the city of Canterbury in Parliament, under the name of Sir William Courtenay, in the month of December 1832. He was found to have taken up his residence at the Rose Hotel, Canterbury, and the splendour of his dress, and the eccentricity of his manners, soon gained for him many admirers, even among the respectable inhabitants of the town. During his canvass he increased the number of his friends, and his success in procuring supporters was most extraordinary. His effort, however, was not fortunate. His opponent candidates were the Hon R. Watson and Lord Fordwich, the former of whom obtained 832 votes and the latter 802, while Courtenay polled 375. This attempt gained him many friends, and great popularity among the lower orders. His persuasive language was exceedingly useful to him, but the peculiarity of his dress, combined with the absurdity of many of his protestations, induced a belief among some of those to whom he procured introduction that he was insane.
After his defeat, he did not confine his proceedings to Canterbury alone, but passed through most of the towns in Kent, declaiming against the poor laws, the revenue laws, and other portions of the statutes of the realm which are usually considered by the poor to be obnoxious to their interests. By his speeches he obtained much éclat, but his exertions in favour of some smugglers led him into a scrape, from which he was likely to have suffered serious consequences. An action took place near the Goodwin Sands in the month of July 1833 between the revenue cruiser Lively and the Admiral Hood smuggler, and, in the course of the flight of the latter vessel and her exertions to escape from the Lively, her crew were observed to throw a great number of tubs overboard, which, on their being picked up, proved to contain spirit. The Admiral Hood was captured, but no contraband goods were found on board, and, on the men being taken into custody, Courtenay presented himself as a witness before the magistrates. He swore positively that he had seen the whole of the action, and that no tubs had been thrown from the Admiral Hood. He further stated, that he had observed those which had been picked up by the revenue men floating in the sea all day. This was so diametrically opposed to the truth, that a prosecution for perjury was determined on, and he was indicted at the Maidstone Assizes on the 25th of July 1833. A verdict of conviction followed, and Mr Justice Park, the presiding judge, passed a sentence of imprisonment, to be followed by seven years' transportation. The difficulty in which he was placed, however, having reached the knowledge of his friends in Cornwall, they made representations to the Home Secretary that he was insane, and, after having suffered four years' confinement in a lunatic asylum at Barming Heath, he was at length liberated, on bail being given for his future good behaviour.
He now took up his abode at the residence of Mr Francis, a gentleman of fortune, of Fairbrook near Boughton in the neighbourhood of Canterbury, and speedily resumed his wild efforts to gain popularity for himself. His dress now was similar to that which he had worn before his incarceration; and the following sketch of his personal appearance, extracted from the romance of Rookwood by Mr Ainsworth, well describes him. 'A magnificent coal-black beard decorated the chin of this worthy; but this was not all -- his costume was in perfect keeping with his beard, and consisted of a very theatrical-looking tunic, upon the breast of which was embroidered in golden wire the Maltese Cross; while on his shoulders were thrown the ample folds of a cloak of Tyrian hue. To his side was girt a long and doughty sword, which he termed, in his knightly phrase, Excalibur; and upon his profuse hair rested a hat as broad in the brim as a Spanish sombrero. Exaggerated as this description may appear, we can assure our readers that it is not overdrawn.'
His impositions, unfortunately, proved as mischievous as they were plausible. He succeeded in persuading many of the ignorant peasantry that his origin was as high as that of the Saviour. His visits to the cottages of the labouring classes were numerous, and his striking appearance seems to have had considerable influence upon the minds both of men and women. Many of the poor people believed that he was in the habit of receiving barrels of sovereigns every week to meet his current expenses, and that he was the rightful owner of some of the largest estates in Kent, from the possession of which he was only driven by the violence and fraud of their present holders.
A misunderstanding with Mr Francis compelled his retirement from that gentleman's house, and he took up his abode at the residence of one of his most devoted followers named Wills, from whence subsequently he again removed to the farmhouse of a person named Culver, at Boughton. During these changes he was constant in his exertions among the poorer classes, and the influence which he obtained over them was extraordinary. The women excited their husbands and sons to join him, 'because he was Christ, and unless they followed him, fire would come from Heaven and burn them'. They asserted, as he had declared, that 'he had come to earth upon a cloud, and would go away from it on a cloud'; and instances were not infrequent in which the misguided people, the subjects of his imposture, had actually worshipped him as a God.
At length this excitement was destined to be brought to a conclusion, but not without the occurrence of events which are deeply to be lamented.
On Monday, the 28th of May, Courtenay, with about ten or fifteen followers, sallied forth from the village of Boughton, without having any very distinct or apparent object in view, and proceeded at once to the cottage of Wills. Here they formed themselves into a species of column, and a loaf having been procured, it was broken in halves and one half of it was placed on the top of a pole, which bore a flag of blue and white upon which a lion rampant was drawn. Wills having joined them, they all proceeded to Goodnestone, near Faversham, Courtenay, as they went along, haranguing them and the country people whom they met, and producing a great deal of excitement and astonishment at his proceedings. From thence they went to a farm at Herne Hill, where they received food, and then to Dargate Common. By Courtenay's desire they all went to prayers here, and after that they returned to Bossenden Farm, where they retired to rest in a barn. At three o'clock on Tuesday morning, they went to Sitting bourne, and Courtenay provided them with breakfast, for which he paid twenty-seven shillings, and then they went to Newnham where, at the George Inn, they had a similar treat. After visiting Eastling, Throwley, Seldwich, Lees and Selling, where, as at Sittingbourne and Newnham, speeches were made and new followers obtained, the party again returned to Bossenden Farm.
During these progresses, it appears that Mr Curling, a respectable farmer, lost some of his labourers who were enticed away from their work by the crowd, and disinclined to permit them to join the riotous proceedings of Courtenay and his party, he went before a magistrate of the district, by whom a warrant was issued for their apprehension. Nicholas Mears, a constable, and his brother, were entrusted with the warrant for execution, and on Thursday morning at about six o'clock they went to Culver's farm-house to secure the men. Upon their presenting themselves, Courtenay and several of his followers appeared, and almost before the unfortunate Mears could state his object, Courtenay drew a pistol from his breast and shot him dead. He returned into the house, exclaiming to the men who were there, 'Now, am I not your Saviour?' and going out again, he discharged a second pistol at the body of Mears and mutilated it with his sword.
This diabolical murder was communicated to the magistrates directly afterwards, and they proceeded to take steps for the apprehension of Courtenay. But the latter immediately called out his men and marched them to Bossenden Wood, and there he administered the sacrament to them in bread and water. This over, a man named Alexander Foad knelt down in the presence of the rest and worshipped him, and while on his knees, he demanded to know whether he should follow him in the body or whether he should go home, and follow him in the spirit? Courtenay answered, 'In the body,' upon which Foad jumped up with great exultation, exclaiming 'Oh! be joyful, be joyful; the Saviour has accepted me. Now go on; I will follow you till I drop.' Another man, named Blanchard, also worshipped him. Courtenay then, in answer to a question which was put to him, said that he had shot the constable and had eaten a good breakfast afterwards, and added, 'I was only executing the justice of heaven in consequence of the power God has given me.' At twelve o'clock Sir William and his followers had shifted their position to the Osier-bed, and here he harangued them, informing them that he was invulnerable, and that they also could not be hurt by reason of the faith they put in him. He defied the attack of the magistrates, which he declared would do neither him nor them any harm, but then he proposed that they should take up a position in ambush in the wood. This was agreed to, and on their way thither, seeing the Rev Mr Handley of Herne Hill observing their motions, Courtenay fired at him but happily missed his aim.
In the meantime, the magistrates had been taking such steps as they deemed advisable for the maintenance of the public peace, and in order to secure the person of the leader of these extraordinary proceedings with his followers. Acquainted with the desperate violence of Courtenay, by his act of the morning, they deemed it unfit that an unarmed force should be brought in opposition to him and his party, and they in consequence dispatched a messenger to Canterbury, requiring the aid of the military. A detachment of one hundred men of the 45th Foot, under the command of Major Armstrong, was at once placed at their disposal and marched to Boughton. The rioters were known to be posted in Bossenden Wood, from the information of out-scouts, and in that direction the troops, accompanied by the magistrates and special constables, were marched. The position of Courtenay was ascertained to be about a mile from the road in Bossenden Wood. The wood was of very considerable extent, but was intersected by two roads; and it was found that the insurgent party were placed so that their front and rear were covered by the roads right and left. The military were in consequence divided; and while one party of fifty under the command of Captain Reed took the road nearest Canterbury, the other was conducted by Major Armstrong, assisted by Lieutenant Bennett and Lieutenant Prendergast, along the road next Boulton-under-Blea. Thus the insurgents were placed between the two bodies of troops and their only chance of escape was to take a straight line through the woods. For this, however, the madman who was their leader was in no wise disposed, and he soon presented himself to Major Armnstrong's troop. He was required to surrender, but without waiting to give any answer, he called upon his followers -- now only between thirty and forty in number -- as if to prepare for the approaching conflict and rushed at Lieutenant Bennett, who was rather in advance of the soldiers. Lieutenant Bennett observing this movement, rushed forward also, sword in hand, but almost before he had reached his assailant, Courtenay presented a pistol, fired, and the ball entered the right side and passed completely through the body of the young officer, killing him instantaneously. At this moment Courtenay was felled to the ground by a constable named Millwood, but he jumped up again, and at the instant of his regaining his feet, he was shot by the troops. The order to 'fire', was then given by Major Armstrong, and being mounted, he dashed in among the peasantry. By the discharge eight men were killed on the spot, and several others were wounded; but the wretched peasantry fought desperately, until at length, perceiving the dreadful consequences which must result from persevering in their resistance, they dispersed and scattered themselves through the woods. In the course of the afternoon twenty-seven prisoners were made by the military and constables, and of these seven were wounded, two of them mortally. Of the party who were employed in maintaining the law, George Catt, a constable, who acted with much determination, was shot, and Lieutenant Prendergast received a contused wound on the head from the bludgeon of an insurgent.
During the remainder of the week the coroner of the county was engaged in conducting the necessary inquiries into the cause of death of the deceased persons. Verdicts of 'Wilful Murder' were returned against Courtenay and his adherents, in the cases of the constable Mears and Lieutenant Bennett, while in the case of Catt, the jury found 'That he had been killed upon an erroneous belief that he was a rioter.' In the cases of death which had occurred amongst the insurgents, the jury found a verdict of 'Justifiable Homicide'. The scene which presented itself, during the sitting of the jury, was distressing in the extreme. The Red Lion at Boughton was the place at which the coroner conducted the investigation, and there also all those prisoners who were suffering from the wounds which they had received were detained, while in the stable attached to the house, the bodies of the slain were extended. In the yard were the wives, widows and children of these deluded men, lamenting bitterly the position of danger into which the fanaticism of their relations had drawn them. During the sitting of the jury, two of the wounded men died and, upon their decease being communicated to the crowd outside, they gave vent to new expressions of grief. The body of Lieutenant Bennett lay in an upper chamber of the inn and was a mnelancholy spectacle. The unfortunate gentleman was about twenty-five years of age, and had just obtained leave of absence when, the news of the riots reaching the barracks, he applied for and obtained permission to join the party.
At the conclusion of the proceedings before the coroner and the magistrates, the following prisoners were committed for trial, viz: Thomas Mears alias Tyler (the cousin of the murdered constable), Alexander Foad, William Nutting, William Price, James Goodwin, William Wills, William Spratt, John Spratt, John Silk, Edward Curling, Samnuel Edwards, Sarah Culver, Thomas Myers alias Edward Wraight, Charles Hills, Thomas Ovenden, William Couchworth, Thomas Griggs, William Foad and Richard Foreman.
The prisoners Mears, Alexander Foad and Couchworth were wounded. Foad was a respectable farmer, cultivating a farm of about sixty acres, and it was a matter of some surprise that he should have been implicated in so extraordinary a proceeding. The prisoner Sarah Culver was a woman about forty years of age, of respectable connexions, and possessing considerable property. She had been a devoted follower of Courtenay, but it was presumed that she, like him, was insane. The other prisoners were all persons of inferior station.
On Tuesday, the 5th of June, the greater number of those who had been killed at the riot were interred in the churchyard of Herne Hill. Amongst these was Courtenay; and the funeral attracted a vast assemblage to the place. Considerable apprehensions were entertained lest the mob should use any violence to prevent the burial of their late fanatical leader, for many had been heard to declare their firm belief that he would 'rise again', but the whole affair passed off quietly and no new outrage was committed. The bodies of the other deceased persons were buried by their friends.
At the Maidstone Assizes, on Thursday, the 9th of August 1838, the trial of the prisoners commenced before Lord Denman.
The first persons who were tried were Mears and Price, and after a long investigation they were found guilty of being parties to the murder of Mears the constable, but recommended to mercy, on the ground of their having been led astray by their infatuation in favour of Courtenay.
Sentence of death was at once passed upon the prisoners, but they were informed that their lives would be spared.
On the next day, William Wills, Thomas Myers alias Edward Wraight, Alex. Foad, Edward Curling, Thomas Griggs, Richard Foreman, Charles Hills and Williamn Foad were indicted for the murder of Lieutenant Bennett, but upon their being arraigned they pleaded guilty, on the same understanding as that which existed in the former case, namely, that their lives should be spared. The prosecutions in the cases of the other prisoners were not proceeded with, and they were discharged from custody.
On Friday, the 17th of August, the extent of the commutation of the punishment of the convicts was made known to them. Mears and Wills were ordered to be transported for life; Price was ordered to be transported for ten years; and Wraight, the two Foads, Curling, Griggs, Foreman and Hills were directed to undergo one year's imprisonment and hard labour in the House of Correction, during which, each of them was to pass one month in solitary confinement. A pension of 40L. per annum was granted to the widow of Mears the constable, in consideration of the death of her husband.
The unfortunate Courtenay appears to have been a man by no means devoid of ability, and who had turned what little education he possessed to the very best account. His speeches were energetic and well put together, and he possessed an ample flow of language. He was abundantly supplied with scriptural quotations, and appeared to be fully and intimately acquainted with the Old and New Testaments.
Shortly before the dreadful affray in which he lost his life, he left off the picturesque attire in which he had hitherto been in the habit of dressing, and assumed one of a more homely character. This was a blouse or frock of brown holland with a black belt, in which he carried a brace of pistols; and a round hat. He was usually also armed with a sword and dagger, but his miserable followers possessed no other weapons than those which the hedges or woods through which they passed afforded them. It is remarkable that none of them were of so low a station as to render it at all probable that want had induced them to listen to the insane promises of their leader. The precise object which was held in view appears to have been unknown even to the misguided men themselves; but the general impression was, that Courtenay, by his power, would take possession of all the private estates of the county, which he would bestow upon his trusty followers. The Sunday after the riot, according to the statements and promises which he made, was to have been 'a glorious but a bloody day', and some persons did not scruple to assert that it was his intention on that day to fire Canterbury. It is probable, therefore, that the distressing events of the 51st of May served to prevent the occurrence of scenes even more terrible.
The visual proof of the existence of a degree of superstition so gross as that which is shown here to have been exhibited is almost necessary to induce its belief; but there can be no doubt that the lamentable ignorance and fanaticism of the peasantry was even more striking than we have described it to be. The general happy contentedness of the inhabitants of the county of Kent, the proximity of their position to the metropolis, and the high state of cultivation to which the soil of that county has been brought, one would have thought would have tended to forbid the possibility of such occurrences among them. These remark able details, however, only serve to afford an additional proof of the facility with which the human mind is moved, and how open it is to the operations of the allurements of fanaticism.