top of page
  • Writer's pictureWendy Percival

Murder trial witness

Updated: Mar 17, 2022

As I mentioned in last week’s blog post, I discovered, while browsing the British Newspaper Archives, that, Henry Viner, an ancestor of my husband, had been called upon to give evidence in a murder trial in 1857, in his capacity as parcels clerk employed by the Great Western Railway in Bristol.

Etching of Bristol Temple Meads Station - image courtesy of John Cooke Bourne

The accused was John William Beale. He was charged with the murder of Charlotte Pugsley, whose body was found in Leigh Woods, on the outskirts of Bristol.

Beale was a butler and Charlotte also worked in service. Charlotte told her friends with whom she worked, that she was to be married and, afterwards, would be travelling to America with her new husband. The wedding was to take place in Southampton ahead of the sailing. Her intended was John Beale, even though, it transpires, he was already married.

The couple's luggage

The story goes that Charlotte and Beale’s luggage for the trip comprised of 3 boxes containing Charlotte's clothes, although labelled with Beale's name. These were taken to Freshford Station, a village 6 miles south-east of Bath, and put on a train bound for Bristol, and the couple followed on a later train. At Bristol station, Beale apparently took issue with the porter over a charge on the items. Beale said he hadn’t the means to pay, so it was agreed he would return the next day and the boxes were placed in Henry Viner's office.

At the trial, Henry Viner said that when Beale and Charlotte arrived the following morning, Beale made further complaint about the fee but after consulting the station manager, came back and paid. Henry showed the court the record book in which he'd logged the payment.

Different destination

Interestingly, though, Beale told the clerk that they were going to Liverpool, not Southampton. So Viner assured him that the boxes would be passed over to the Midlands Railway for the ongoing journey. During the trial, Henry Viner readily recalled the conversation with Beale but admitted only vaguely remembering the woman accompanying him. There his brief contribution to the trial ends.

The murder

About 5 pm on that same day day, Thursday 10th September 1857, Beale and Charlotte were seen by witnesses taking a walk in Leigh Woods, near Bristol. Sometime later the sound of a gunshot was heard.

When Charlotte’s body was discovered, the police launched a hunt for Beale and he was tracked down in Daventry and arrested. At his home, the police uncovered, not only a pistol, but the boxes of clothes belonging to Charlotte Pugsley which had been in Henry Viner's office.

In the subsequent trial, Beale was found guilty and was hanged for his crime in January 1858.

Public hanging

I hadn’t realised that public hangings had continued up until 1868, so I was shocked to read in The Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette of 14th January 1858, “Beale gave a vacant look around and turned his back to the spectators”.

Chillingly, the report continued, “the executioner placed him in position, adjusted the rope, placed a cap over his face, and retired, and in less than a minute the drop fell. His struggles were severe, and continued about two minutes and a half.”

In The Taunton Courier, I read something which immediately reminded me of one of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex Tales, The Withered Arm.

The newspaper reported, in a derisory tone, offering it as, "proof of wretched ignorance prevalent among the lower classes", that a resident from Bath who had a "wen on his neck" had applied for “permission to touch the dead body of the murderer believing that he would be thereby cured. The application,” continued the appalled reporter, “ was of course refused.”



Wendy Percival
Wendy Percival
Jan 18, 2020

No, I’ve never been, Helen. But I must admit when I went to find out where it was, the photos of it looked beautiful. Especially the pub! 😄 Those gorgeous honey coloured Bath Stone buildings. Must put it on our “Places To Visit” list.


Helen Baggott
Helen Baggott
Jan 17, 2020

Good grief – what a fascinating, and horrific, story. Have you visited Freshford? I went there for a research trip and it was worth the journey (used in the Titfield Thunderbolt film).

bottom of page