Ann Beeston ran a shop, next to her house, in the centre of the village, and not far from the church. She sold hats, handkerchiefs, cloth, other textiles and things like tea and sugar. On the Wednesday morning of the 13th December 1826 she got up to find that her shop had been burgled. Her testimony to the Rutland Assize Court at Oakham the following March said that she had gone to bed as usual about 11pm on night of the 12th December having made sure that all her doors and windows were locked. Nothing had disturbed her during the night but on getting up had discovered the shop had been broken into and things stolen. Her shop was in part of the house and accessed through a door from where she lived and she went into her shop that morning, she discovered a large hole in the outside wall and a number of items missing.
The items stolen would have been valuable, given the times, and included, neck and pocket handkerchiefs, flannel cloths, Irish cloths, Prints, Tea, Sugar, some hats and Gingham. A general alarm must have been raised but no culprit was immediately found. A few days later a servant at Edith Weston Hall found some of the stolen goods.
William Hibbert was in his thirties and employed by the local rector, Richard Lucas*. The Lucas family had been lords of the manor since 1742 and most of them had also been Rectors of Edith Weston Church. As a result they had substantial property and land in the area as well as influence through the church. William was an agricultural labourer for the Rev. Lucas and went on the Thursday following the theft, to fetch some sheep skins from one of the Rector’s buildings, where a wagon and other items for the estate was stored. The sheep skins had been placed over a beam in the building and he had to climb up to get them and was in the process of throwing some of them down when he noticed a sack and two hats, ‘in the scaffolding of the Wagon Hovel’. He had heard about the theft from Mrs Beeston’s shop and was immediately suspicious that the items were some of the stolen items. Leaving them where they were, he went off to fetch her. When he returned with her about an hour later the items were still there but had been partly covered by an empty skep. (This was a empty basket, probably an empty straw beehive), there was nobody else about. William worked with John Culpin, who was employed on the Lucas estate as a ‘helper’ in the stables, so knew him well but admitted, in court, that he had not seen him that morning when the property was found.
On the same morning William Baines, another Agricultural Labourer working for the Rector went to the building to fetch some bones. John Culpin, hearing that he was going to go the building, followed him and offered to look for some for him, saying he would ‘get up and look’. William let him climb up and whilst he up there heard a ‘lumber whilst he was up there, as if he was moving something about’. William reported to the court that John was not going to the building until he found out that he was going himself and immediately followed him and ‘seemed to push himself forward to look for the bones’.
John was suspected of being the thief and his house searched, where items similar to the ones in the building and to those that had been stolen were found. If that wasn’t enough to convince the jury, a key testimony from the Rector himself convinced them of John’s guilt.
Whilst he was held in Gaol, John had a visit from the Rector. In court the Rector said John had ‘confessed to him’ in Gaol, that he had ‘committed the robbery alone’ and had used a ‘coulter’ from one of the Rector’s ploughs to open up the wall.
A coulter (shown in red) was a type of knife which hung down from a wooden or metal plough so that it could vertically pull through the soil in front of the big metal section (shown in green) that lifted and turned the soil. It would have made an ideal weapon or implement!
Clearly though, the Rector had no problems in reporting the ‘confession’ he had received to the authorities (today some Priests might consider a confession to them as confidential) but then again he was also John’s Lord of the Manor and employer.
John said nothing to defend himself in court and the Judge concluded that ‘the burglary was constituted by being done in the night-time, and the robbery was of more than 40 shillings value (£2 is said on the UK National Archives Site**, to be worth about 15 days craftsmanship wages ). The property found on the prisoner was prima faciae evidence of his having committed the crime, and his own voluntary declarations confirmed it’
The Jury found John guilty and he was sentenced to death for the crime.
The sentence was later changed from death to transportation for 14 years and John was sent to New South Wales in Australia on a convict ship on 4th August 1827.
John sailed on HMS Florentia, the ship’s first convict voyage, under the command of Horatio Billett and with surgeon James Dickson, she departed England on the 15 September 1827, with 165 male convicts. She arrived in Sydney on the 3 January 1828. There was one convict death en route.
John’s wife and family continued to live in the village, his children marrying and producing their own families.
* The Lucas family had been Lords of the manor since 1742 when Mary Halford (married name Lucas) inherited the estate. The Rev. Richard Lucas in John’s court hearing died later that year and the state passed to his son another Richard who also became Rector. This Richard Lucas demolished the old Manor House next to the church and build a new hall, Edith Weston Hall which survived until the mid twentieth century.