In May of 1841 Superintendent Francis Fagan of the recently formed East Sussex Constabulary received an anonymous letter, cryptically hinting at the guilt of four men implicated in an incident at Ringmer nearly three years earlier. It had been early in the morning of 2nd June 1838 that itinerant peddler Hannah Devonshire, known as Hannah Smith, being the common-in-law wife of one William Smith, left her Lewes home with a pack of rags slung on her back and a basket of trinkets over her arm, ready for a day’s hawking of her wares at Ringmer. Not a great deal of selling had been done by 9am, the time she arrived at Elizabeth Stephens’ beer shop near Ringmer Green. There she gained a companion, General Washer, a 56-year old farm labourer with a quaint Christian name given after his father’s service in the militia.
Smith and Washer remained at the beer shop supping on beer and eels until around 2pm when they moved onto the Green Man. After another six hours or so of drinking they arrived at the Anchor where at some point they were joined in the taproom by three other men, all in their 20s, Charles Briggs, a labourer, Stephen Steadman, a whitesmith, and John Pockney, a blacksmith. The landlady of the Anchor, Ann Stanford, chose to close up at 11pm and enquired of Hannah Smith whether she was afraid of the road back to Lewes late at night. Smith replied that she had been on the road too many times to be afraid and, according to Stanford, appeared to depart steadily despite what had been a fourteen-hour drinking session. “No one will hurt me”, were Smith’s parting words.
Around 6am the next morning Hannah Smith was found in the pond behind the vicarage (pictured right) by John Gaston, gardener to the local curate. Gaston summoned help and a futile attempt was made to revive the retrieved body, including sending to the Anchor for brandy. This group of witnesses including Henry Weller, the parish constable, noted that a willow tree growing around the pond’s edge showed signs of damage and that the surrounding grass had been trampled, footmarks being clearly visible in the morning dew. Smith’s basket was discovered nearby but contained little of her wares – she had been too busy drinking to sell them so had most likely been robbed. After the news of the incident spread, General Washer was one of those who came to view the corpse lying by the pool. Smith’s body was then taken in a wheelbarrow and stored in the shed of the Briggs family – Charles Briggs had been one of the other men last seen with her.
Despite the obviously suspicious circumstances surrounding Smith’s death, the coroner’s inquest at the Anchor that same afternoon could only reach the open verdict of ‘found drowned’. There was in those days no such thing as a ‘crime scene investigation’ and the body had been only perfunctorily examined after it was clear there were no obvious marks of violence on the upper parts. The subsequent investigation, such as it was in the era before forensic science and professional policing, came to nothing, despite Steadman, one of the four men drinking with Smith on that fateful night, showing signs of guilt by departing the village very suddenly. Now nearly three years later, Pockney was another of the four to leave Ringmer in a hurry, no doubt panicked by Superintendent Fagan’s own enquiry, set in motion by that tip-off via the anonymous letter.
Fagan was no bumbling country amateur. After serving on the Bow Street Foot Patrol he’d been commissioned into the Metropolitan force as Inspector. During October 1841 Fagan arrested all four of Smith’s final night drinking companions. But with the accused having given their testimonies - often conflicting and contradictory, either non-committal or designed to attribute blame to others, sometimes retracted - it became clear at the trial on 3rd March 1842 that there was insufficient evidence to proceed with the preferred changes of murder and larceny. The case against General Washer had already been dropped, while the judge directed the jury to exonerate Briggs on the basis that no prisoner could be convicted only on the evidence of his said accomplices, a point correct in law in those days.
Both Pockney and Steadman were found guilty of larceny and sentenced to two years and to eighteen months hard labour respectively. But they could consider themselves fortunate, for not only did they escape the more serious charge of assault, their same actions today could have seen them stand trial for rape. So what did happen on that evening of 2nd June? The testimonies are clear on the main points. After leaving the Anchor, the three young men had repeated ‘connections’ with Hannah Smith in the field above the pond. Pockney clamed he agreed this with her beforehand but Steadman suggested Smith to be so much in drink as to be unaware of the ‘assault on her person’ that was taking place. Either way, Smith remained insensible enough to be robbed of her basket of trinkets, the proceeds of which were divided up in the churchyard (pictured). The near empty basket was then returned to where she had passed out.
Hannah Smith is buried in Ringmer churchyard. She was referred to by both General Washer and Stephen Steadman as ‘the old woman’. She was but 43 years old.
Johnson, W. H. (2005) Sussex Murders, Stroud: Sutton Publishing.
Welcome to Brighton visitoruk.com, http://www.brightonuk.co.uk/historydetail.php?id=29700&f=Brighton (Accessed 12th August 2011)