Murder at the Neptune Public House
Murder at the Neptune Public House
Reproduced from ‘Swanbourne – History of an Anglo-Saxon town’ by the late Ken Reading (reproduced by permission of his relatives)
A story handed down by word of mouth through several generations is not supposed to lose much colour in the telling. Perhaps this story is not unconnected with the sour grapes inevitably arising from the undoubtedly privileged treatment of a member of the Colgrove family by the first Lord Cottesloe.
Certain distinct likenesses between descendants of the Colgrove family and the Fremantle family give rise to conjecture. I am certain that the key figure to this mystery within a mystery is one Margaret Brise born 12th March 1809 three weeks before a daughter was born to Betsy Fremantle, wife of the Admiral. The times were not renowned for high morals. Readers of `The Admirals Fremantle` will have had an insight into the early life of the first Thomas Francis and his brother John who died at an early age.
I shall go back to before the beginning with the marriage in Swanbourne of Robert Colgrove to Ann Bull followed in 1769 by the birth of a son Robert to be followed three years later by another son Dodwell.
Dodwell has been talked of in Swanbourne within living memory. The late Canon Forest had heard it said that he wore an ear-ring in one ear, supposed to have been the mark of a gipsy. I feel that this is more likely to have been Dodwell`s father.
We do know from the Parish Register that Dodwell had a son John born in 1804 and another son Robert in 1808; that Dodwell survived until 1848.
About 1827 the turnpike road between Winslow and Aylesbury was straightened, by-passing the Inn known as ‘Small Beer Hall’ on the junction with the Granborough Road at Holcombe Gutter. Sir Thomas Fremantle built a new Inn just by the tollgate at the southern end of the new stretch of road, naming it `The Neptune` after his father`s Trafalgar warship.
In 1834 John Colgrove married Margaret Brise, daughter of John Brise of Brises Farm. Soon after he is described as ‘Butcher and Publican’ having been granted the tenancy of `The Neptune`. The butchery interest was continued by brother Robert`s branch of the family for more than a century. It is interesting to note that in the Napoleonic roll-call, the Posse` Comitata, Dodwell is described as a butcher. He would have occupied the cottage and shop built by the roadside on the site of 39 Nearton End.
The position of the tollgate caused complications. The fields of Hoggeston east of the turnpike were open to the road. Travellers to Swanbourne could easily avoid payment by crossing the open field. Complaints were made to the proprietor of `The Hoggeston Field,` a gentleman by the name of Hitchcock, about the unenclosed nature of the land. Mr. Hitchcock appealed to Sir Thomas for assistance in the work of enclosure.
Sir Thomas agreed that his gardener should provide quicks (hawthorn plants). So the existing hedge between The Neptune and Aylesbury Gate at Swanbourne Parish boundary was planted. As can be seen today, Mr Hitchcock took in the maximum amount of field. This work took place in the late 1840`s. John Colgrove continued to live at The Neptune until in 1850 Swanbourne Station was opened.
For The Neptune the writing was on the wall. The loss of passing trade was catastrophic. Sir Thomas had been in the habit of using the inn as a staging post when returning from his parliamentary duties in London.
The journey was formidable and a wash and a brush up or perhaps if late at night, a stay overnight enabled him to be more presentable to his family upon arrival at `The Old House` then known as `Swanbourne House`. During winter months the family would stay at his town house No. 4 Eccleston Street, London. No doubt many other noblemen had made similar use of The Neptune. Now they would use the railway.
John Colgrove left the business of publican to live in Swanbourne, thereafter, to be described as `butcher and farmer`.
Years later, Sir Thomas purchased and rebuilt John`s house, now known as Hensmans Farm. Considerable lands belonged and more were purchased by Sir Thomas and attached. Descendants of the Colgrove family occupied the house and land until the 1960`s. The tenancy of this farm was to go to John`s son Hugh. Another son, Cornelius, was later given the tenancy of Dodley Hill Farm, at the time the largest holding in the Parish. Another older son, John Brise Colgrove received a classical education eventually becoming a lecturer at Loughborough, Leics. From the days when Dodwell had been described in the Parish Register as a labourer, great strides had been made. John had obviously married well. The Brises not only owned their considerable farm in Swanbourne with its fine house but also farmed Redhall Farm on the Winslow side of the Parish boundary.
John Brise would have been somewhat broadminded for his time perhaps, for readily taking the son of a labourer into his household. Not a position easily elevated from in those days. This may be explained by a common relationship through female members of the Bull family. John Brise married Ann Bull in 1798 almost thirty years after Robert Colgrove 1st married another Ann Bull, probably an aunt.
Having given the background I will tell a story. At the end of November 1836 cowmen arrived at a lonely cowshed near to Holcombe Farm to perform their usual morning task.
One who has experience of the ways of cows and cowmen might conjecture that the cows refused to enter the building, for inside was the body of a man. Tradition has it that he was hanging from a beam and that despite the late November conditions around the cowshed his boots were clean. Whatever the cause of his death a strange story is told in the Aylesbury News and Advertiser 3rd December 1836 .
‘At an inquest held on a man found dead a verdict was returned that he died `BY A VISITATION OF GOD` but later a medical man gave the opinion that the man was not dead merely in a trance. People visited the coffin in the Church, where the man lay, but did not like to go alone. The report states that `his limbs are neither stiff nor cold, and his body is at times covered in perspiration`. As far as the newspaper was concerned there the matter rested.
A coffin in the church at the end of November would not seem to offer much prospect of recovery, so it is hardly surprising that the Parish Register reveals that `An unknown man found dead about 40` was buried on 1st December.
The villagers of Swanbourne however, did not have the same inclination to let the matter rest. The deceased man`s clean boots were to be the cause of comment for many years to come. The finger of suspicion was pointed at John Colgrove. The victim is said to have been a wealthy traveller who booked in at The Neptune on the previous evening. Only in 1972 the wife of the present occupier of Neptune Farm as it now is, told me of the spot where a gold sovereign fell from the man`s pocket. She assured me that the previous tenants, the Fairmans, had dug for the coin unsuccessfully and that she and her husband (Mr. and Mrs. Harwood) had also been unsuccessful.
A cowshed on Holcombe Farm where the body may have been found is not only still standing but in good condition. Carved on the beams are names and dates older that the Neptune and the modern road that runs a field away to the east. The SwanbourneChurch records reveal that John Colgrove held the Church land nearby from 29th September 1836, one of the conditions being the maintenance of a cowshed on that land. A payment by the Churchwardens of 6/6d. for the thatching of a cowshed on the Church land was made in 1834. The Neptune ceased to be a public house late in the last century when Mr. and Mrs. Fairman were invited by Lord Cottesloe to discontinue inn keeping. They readily agreed. Under the wallpaper over the mantlepiece survived the inscription `No beer served on Sundays except to travellers`.
Further information from Winslow suggests that the dead man carried samples of furniture in miniature as was the custom of furniture salesmen in those days. Such a salesman would collect debts. His disappearance might not be too thoroughly investigated in those times of poor communications, it being presumed that he had absconded with his employer`s money. Such an employer might find the confiscation of the vanished employee`s assets a much more practical means of recovering his loss than the hopeless course of invoking the aid of such forces of law and order as then existed.
An alternative theory has crossed my mind regarding the strangely far fetched article in the Aylesbury News and Advertiser. The common people did not send articles to the press in those days. They could not read or write of course.
I have wondered if someone not satisfied with the inquest`s verdict wished to grind an axe. The editor of the Aylesbury News and Advertiser was a radical and an opponent of the ruling squirarchy. In those times inquests were often slipshod, hurried affairs sometimes conducted in public houses. All local decisions were influenced by the all powerful squirarchy.
During the winter season Sir Thomas would not be likely to be in the village. Whatever John Colgrove had to do with this affair it did not bring him into disfavour. John Colgrove died in 1896 aged 92. A tombstone with a considerable text stands in a line of family monuments a few yards away from the north door of the church. My attention was first drawn to this strange affair through my embarrassed presence at a heated dispute in Nearton`s Street between two village elders around the year 1960. Much more recently I was told by another elderly inhabitant how brother Robert was once heard to threaten his brother John, in a heated moment with `Don`t forget I could hang you John`.
The identity and circumstances of the dead man will never be known. I am convinced that the fortunes of the Colgroves did not originate from any associated robbery as village legend suggested, but rather from a blood relationship with Sir Thomas Fremantle, the first Lord Cottesloe. It is significant that descendants of brother Robert do not carry any family resemblance to the Fremantles. The Fremantle papers contain evidence that John Brise Colgrove was not averse to writing, from his institution of learning, to request financial help from Sir Thomas. I have therefore concluded that John Brise, Hugh and Cornelius Colgrove were the sons of John Colgrove in legal terms only. What a well kept secret this must have been.