Sunday, 13 March 2011

Murder in Northamtonshire (written February 2000)


In recent weeks I have been sorting out the papers of Ralph Hall, a long standing member of the Society of Genealogists who died in 1998. He was particularly interested in Cornwall, Devon and Northamptonshire.
But Mr Hall was best known for his work in indexing the 'London Gazette' - the British government's official daily newspaper. The Society has his index to Devonian names in the Gazette. His papers contain further lists of Cornish people and Londoners, as well as London coffeehouses.
His work suggest that the Gazette is a seriously under used resource for family historians, particularly for the first fifty or so years of the journal's establishment in 1665 when it contained many news items, such details of runaway apprentices, bankrupts and the arrival of ships in port, which would eventually find their way into more conventional newspapers. A set of the London Gazette is held by the Public Record Office (class ZJ 1) and the British Library. I am sure sets are also held elsewhere.
Ralph Hall was particularly interested in the small town of Raunds and its neighbouring villages on the Northamptonshire/Bedfordshire border. This is where his HALL ancestors came from and, as a result, he undertook a detailed study of the town and the people who lived there from the medieval times up to the 1930s. Unfortunately his work has never been published, which is a pity because there is some very useful material here.
Probably the most exciting thing ever to happen to the neighbouring parish of Ringstead was the discovery of the body of Lydia ATLEY (sometimes called ASTLEY or ATLEE in the newspapers)in 1864. The unsolved murder is still remembered today. Murders then, as now, sell newspapers and the unusual circumstances received considerable coverage. A verbatim account of the examination by magistrates appeared in the local 'Northampton Mercury' and the story also appeared in 'The Times' and other national papers.
A body was discovered in a ditch in February 1864, which was supposed to be that of Atley who had disappeared thirteen years previously. At the time of her disappearance she had been co- habiting with the married village butcher, Weekly BALL. Indeed she was pregnant by him at the time of her disappearance and was close to confinement.
On the evening of 22 July 1850 at about 9.45pm Ball's neighbours heard them argue in his orchard. Joseph Groom, Atley's brother in law, who lived opposite remembered her screaming 'Get off me for I believe you mean killing me tonight, Weekly Ball... The Lord have mercy upon me if I'm to die in the state I'm in.' But Groom being a complacent fellow did not investigate further. Next day she had disappeared.
A few weeks later one of the villagers received a letter from a son in Northampton 'I write a few lines to inform you that I saw L. Atley in Northampton.... There was a man with her with a long smock frock on and a cape' The examination cast doubt about the truth of the letter for Ball had apparently asked the writer to send it.
The local police soon began to investigate the disappearance. Notices were put into the 'Police Gazette' and hand-bills were circulated locally offering a reward of œ50 for information about her. She was described as being 'a young woman, middle size, very fair skin, very light hair and eyes; her face is quite red from scorbutic eruption. She was badly dressed at the time she left home, and had an old bonnet and shawl on...' But no information was received.
Certainly Atley was no saint. One of the doctors had mentioned that she had had another child in Thrapston Workhouse a few years previously. She clearly spread her favours widely amongst the local men. Under examination her own brother in law, Joseph Groom, had to deny the rumour saying that 'There never was any ground that I had been improperly familiar with Lydia Atley.'
The 1851 census indicates that BALL, a butcher, (age 33) was living with his wife and niece both called Hannah. Incidentally Ringstead was the home to Margaret Thatcher's great-grandfather John ROBERTS, although he was not involved in the case at all. Although not prosecuted at the time, Ball felt compelled to leave the village for good in the summer of 1851.
Because of the primitive state of forensic science at that time it was not possible to prove the body was that of Lydia. The doctors who testified before the magistrates thought it was not her's, because they could find no evidence of her having given birth. Indeed she was found in a place which tradition said was a gypsy burying place.
The village however was more certain. After the trial in 1864 song about the murder soon circulated in the district, which made clear the feelings of local people. The chorus went 'O cruel butcher he hung should be/for killing of Lydia Atley.'
Was Ball guilty? We shall never know, but from the newspaper reports it is clear that he had a strong case to answer. Had forensics been more advanced he might well have been found guilty and eventually hung.
Perhaps this miscarriage of justice why the ghost of Lydia Atley was supposed to have haunted the village for many years after the tragedy. According to Christina Hole's 'Haunted England' her ghost was often seen to be walking from the orchard sometimes towards the place where the body was found and sometimes towards the church.
Even in the 1990s the case was not dead. According to Paul Roberts, a local historian who corresponded with Ralph Hall: 'Even today if bones are found the story resurfaces... As a child when out for my parents for the Sunday evening was and we passed the spot where the map marks the supposed burial spot father would say that this was where the ghost of Lydia Attlee haunted, and being a lonely place on the road we never really believed in the ghost, but we always kept close to Mother and Father until well cleared of the place.' 

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