History - 1 : Cruel Work in 1849

Cruel Work, Bethersden, 7th February 1849

William Law was an 80-year-old former farmer who had given up business and retired to Potters Farm, at that time a relatively isolated cottage with land to the south of Bethersden. Although Law lived alone, he was very sprightly for his age and would think of nothing of walking the mile or so up to the village or even further afield to Ashford where his daughter lived.

On the night of Wednesday, 7 February 1849, his cottage is broken into and ransacked. During the burglary the old man receives several severe blows on the head delivered with an iron instrument whilst he lay in bed. The intruders left the house taking only a pair of breaches and four sausages. It was thought that they had probably been after his gold watch that he had sold shortly before. After the assailants had gone, William Law covered in blood managed to crawl across the nearby road to a neighbour Thomas Millen who lived a short distance away (at a property now called Thorntrees) where he obtained assistance. Law languished at the house of Thomas Millen until Sunday evening, 11 February 1849, and in spite of treatment from two surgeons, he died. His body was taken to the outhouse opposite the Bull in Bethersden, the local mortuary where a post-mortem was conducted by two surgeons.

By the following day, the robbery and assault was talk of the village. One of the meeting places for the village at that time was the blacksmith’s forge and it was here that William Smith, a labourer living in The street, Bethersden said that he thought he could provide some information about the attack. Later he repeated to the inquest “I heard of the outrage of Mr Laws last Thursday morning at about eight. In the afternoon of the day before, at about 4pm, I was coming down The Street from the Churchyard and saw George Millen and Henry Sheepwash standing together in front of the George Inn. As I slowly passed them, I heard George Millen say to Sheepwash, “Old Master Laws would be a good place to go to”. Later it was reported that George Miller had said “Are you of a mind to have a prowl tonight?” Where? said Sheepwash. Millen replied “At old Laws, for I have been about there and seen a watch hanging up in the kitchen, and I think he's got some money, but we will want a candle and I'll get the things to go”.

In consequence of this information, William Smith was visited by Henry Vile, the high Constable of Ashford and was later examined before a magistrate. The information he gave led to the arrest at Pluckley that evening (after a chase in which virtually the whole village turned out) of a 17-year-old Bethersden youth named George Millen. When taken into custody, he implicated to other Bethersden youths namely Henry Sheepwash, aged 16, and Charles Oliver. They were duly arrested and taken by cart from Bethersden to Ashford. On the way, whilst in conversation, Henry Sheepwash was heard to make incriminating remarks about himself and George Millen, the youth who had been arrested at Pluckley. Later, whilst being held in custody Ashford, Sheepwash made a full confession to the crime.

The following day, acting on what Sheepwash had told him, Constable Vile found some sausages in the water under Bull Bridge, whilst the breaches and a piece of iron used in the attack were found in a pond not far to the North West of Potters Farm.

When it had been proved the next day that the youth named Oliver had no hand in the affair, he was released. However, the two other detainees were taken to the offices of Messrs Furley and Mercer at 32 North Street, Ashford (now a Masonic Temple) and were remanded by the Rev N. Toke. On Saturday morning whilst being held in the lock-up, Millen made a confession to the grandson of William Law.

During the investigations into the burglary, Mr Miller and Mr Griffiths, the surgeon who came to attend Mr Law, went to the deceased house accompanied by two other persons. They found that pane of glass was gone from the window near the lock on the front door so that a person could put his arm through. The door stood wide open. In the kitchen, they found a bureau broken into and the stairs door was forced off the hinges. When they went upstairs into a back room adjoining the deceased's sleeping room, they found a box and trunk both broken open and another box lying on the bed broken open. When they examined the deceased sleeping room, they found blood on the bed clothes and a quantity of blood on the floor between the bed and the window.

Mary Law, William’s daughter, lived in Ashford and after the attack and burglary, she came to Bethersden to the neighbour Thomas Millen where she stayed with her father until he died. Soon after she arrived, Mr Law said to her “how cruelly I have been treated; cruel work, cruel work. I have lived to be four score and then to be knocked on the head like a dog”.

On Friday, 16 March 1849, Millen and Sheepwash appeared at Maidstone before Mr Justice Wightman at the Kent Assizes. They were charged with burglary and stealing one pair of breaches and three pork sausages, the property of William Law. At the same time they were charged with beating the said William Law with an iron bar at Potters Farm, Bethersden. As a result, they were also charged with the wilful murder of the William Law. At the end of the trial, the jury found both guilty and the judge putting on the black cap said to the two prisoners in a solemn tone “You are to be taken from hence to the place from whence you came and from thence to the place of execution and that there you will be hanged by the neck, until each of you be dead and that your bodies be buried within the precincts of the jail and may the Lord have mercy on your souls“.

The execution date was set for Thursday, 29 March 1849 at Maidstone jail, the gallows having been removed there from Penenden Heath in 1831 after complaints from the residents of Boxley village whose houses overlooked the spot. The scaffold was resited beside the porter’s lodge, close to where the present-day public entrance to the County Court is located. Only Millen was hanged with Sheepwash being granted a reprieve by the Secretary of State. It was generally thought that this was a result of his ignorance and the semi-idiotic state of his mind and that whatever part he took in the murder, he was little more than a tool in the hands of his more intelligent and wily accomplice. Despite some accounts that he was transported, Sheepwash was later committed to a lunatic asylum probably Barming.

[Note A.: The above has been taken from “Old Ashford Borough Murders” by Mark Mullins. At the end of his description of Cruel Work at Bethersden, the author commented “In April 1999, I stayed at Potters Farm, now a warm and friendly B&B with no hint of any ghosts! The front door appears to have been altered at some time as it doesn't seem possible to reach the lock by putting your hand in through the window (as the burglars did). The stairs which lead up from the kitchen have been taken out and though there has been an extension built at the back and a small one on the side, the house retains it original character”].

[Note B.: When Potters Farm was being renovated in about 2008, it was noticed that it probably comprised two smaller dwellings and that the cottage mentioned in the Mark Mullins book probably referred to the western side of the house. Although the front door still exists and faces the Brissenden Green Lane, it has not changed much in the last 75 years according to photos belonging to earlier owners of Potters Farm. It is therefore most likely that the door referred to in the account of the murder was the old backdoor that has now been removed. From this door, it would have been possible to break the window and stretch through to unlock it and thus gain entry].

Ian and Lynne Anderson, the current owners have lived at Potters Farm for 32 years and have always felt that there was a warm and friendly feeling in the house. This and the lack of ghosts are probably due to the fact that Mr Law did not die at Potters Farm but across the road.