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.

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