Missing

Andrew Groome was a swineherd from “Hills Coppy”, Shropshire,* who went off on business into Flintshire in May 1687, with his servant Richard Finney, expecting to be away for about 3 weeks. But he didn’t come home. At first his wife Sarah thought he had just extended his trip. But then she got word from a neighbour that a man had been killed near Bronington (Flintshire), and “by his cloathes shee feared it was her husband”. Sarah sent her brother to Flintshire to investigate.

They learned that Andrew’s body had been found in a cornfield by workers on 13 June, with the back of his head smashed in. The people in Bronington had not known his identity, except that he had told an alehousekeeper that he was a “dealer in swine” and lived near Nantwich (Cheshire). A coroner’s inquest brought in a verdict of murder (by person or persons equally unknown). He had already been buried by the time Sarah’s brother arrived: he was identified by his clothes and by a knife found in his pocket. What was not present, however, was any of the substantial sum of money that Andrew had taken with him when he went away.

So where was Richard Finney? He had been with Andrew in the alehouse on 11 June, and the two men had then been seen going together (on their own) into the cornfield. Further enquiries soon tracked him to his own home, Church Minshull (north of Nantwich), in a house where he had previously been a servant. Sarah went there, with two men from Nantwich. He attempted to run and hide from them, but was caught and handed over.

He then told a series of different stories about what had happened. In his first examination, he simply said that Andrew had given him some money and they had parted near Whitchurch (Shropshire). He had already told two witnesses a story about a pair of men who had attacked Andrew in the field and with whom he had then shared out the stolen money, which he repeated on further examination (adding that the two men, one of whom had a Welsh name, had said they were going into Wales). He had also told his increasingly suspicious and distressed mother a story about Andrew giving him money for clothes. But he admitted his guilt to another witness after some persuasion: he had battered Andrew over the head with a piece of timber while he was asleep and taken the money. He was convicted of murder and theft.

I’m not quite sure whether he was ultimately hanged: there is a note on the calendar of prisoners that he was to remain in gaol, which implies that there had been an appeal for mercy, and the corresponding document in the next gaol file has not survived, so I don’t know if he got his pardon. (I would have to go to London to find that out. It’ll be on the next “To Do in Kew” list.)

If any killing is a sad affair, there is something particularly poignant about this one: the waiting wife who would never see her husband again, the identification based on clothes and the contents of pockets, the killer’s distraught mother (the magistrate who examined her – who had no sympathy for her son – thought that she had become mentally disturbed (“touched”) and asked that she might be excused appearing in court).

It’s the first case of its kind I’ve encountered – the violence you find in court records tends to be very much a local affair, usually involving people who knew each other all too well. Sometimes, too, there are coroners’ inquests on ‘unknown strangers’, but these are usually travellers who have died of natural causes or vagrants who have died of cold or starvation (resulting in verdicts of “ex visitatione dei” or “per infortunium”). But it makes you wonder, reminds you of the limitations of early modern policing. None of these places are that far apart, after all.

(Here’s a modern map of the area. Bronington is just below the south-eastern bottom edge, if you scroll down very slightly; Church Minshull is too small to show but is near Minshull Vernon at the top.)

If Andrew had been just a little further from home, perhaps Sarah would never have tracked him down at all; if Richard had not simply run home, he might well have got away with it. This is the social context of Martin Guerre, a society lacking easy means of identifying people, without photographs, or birth (or death) certificates, or ID cards. It was easy to go missing, or to disappear if one chose to.

And if it’s unusual as a homicide case, there are some very familiar features. One of my interests in my research project is precisely in people moving around (and in border crossings between England and Wales). The main reasons for moving about tend to be economic, just as they were here: working, looking for work and/or begging, trading in licit or illicit goods and animals (and occasionally thieving). In Wales, it’s hardly surprising that much of that is related to livestock farming and marketing. This case takes us around between Shropshire, Flintshire and Cheshire (where most of the examinations were taken, and Richard was initially imprisoned in Chester and later taken to Flintshire for trial). The victim and killer were both English, but there is the attempt to shift the blame onto an imaginary Welshman, and it’s possible that even as late as the 1680s the idea of fleeing into the Welsh marches to evade justice (as medieval outlaws had notoriously been able to do) might still have had some cultural resonance.

Now all I have to do one of these days is pull all these bits and pieces together and see whether they add up to anything…

…….

* It says Shropshire on the wife’s examination although if he described himself as coming from near Nantwich, that sounds more like Cheshire. I can’t track down a place with that name at the moment – it’s probably “Cop” (crest/summit of a hill) in modern spelling – but I suspect it’s on the Shropshire/Cheshire border somewhere between Whitchurch and Nantwich.

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2 Responses to Missing

  1. For some reason, the first thing that popped into my head when I read this was The Mayor of Casterbridge … It’s been a day.

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