Intrigue at The Parsonage

This humble author takes no pleasure in relating to Puffins the following tragic tale from the history of his own Debatable Lands, unearthed while researching his family tree. In the never-ending side-shifting quicksands of genealogical scandal, the evidence suggests my great-great-grandmother was an unfortunate teenage maid named Glendinning seduced by a German itinerant. Meanwhile, in another part of the county, a relative of hers, despite a proud history of service to respectable clergy, was at the centre of an even greater intrigue…

The countryside north of Hadrian’s Wall is a magnificent portrayal of natural beauty and tranquillity, teeming with lush green landscapes, rolling hills and serene stretches of still water among babbling brooks and country lane fords. The presence of historical landmarks, such as castles and ruins, adds a sense of timelessness to the picturesque surroundings. The countryside is sparsely populated, allowing wildlife to thrive in these areas.

Open grasslands host ancient domesticated pedigrees. Long Horn cattle consume rough upland forage that other breeds cannot. Hardy Belted Galloways well adapted to harsh climates graze among the ubiquitous sheep. In doing so they provide high-quality beef and attractive hides for another hardy local species – the descendants of the Border Reivers.

The Border Reivers were raiders along the Anglo-Scottish border from the late 13th century through to the beginning of the 17th century. They originated from both sides of a border which was divided into “The Marches.” Reiving was part of daily life in these Debatable Lands and involved stealing cattle, material goods, and even kidnapping. The Reivers were known for their expert horsemanship and guerrilla warfare tactics. The period of their activity, known as the “Border Lawlessness,” ended after the Union of the Crowns in 1603 when King James VI of Scotland also became James I of England.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
The Border Reivers of the Debatable Lands.
Border reivers at Gilnockie Tower,
G Cattermole
Public domain

A quarter of a millennia later the shadow of these dark days cast again across the Cumberland countryside as the morning of Thursday the 17th of April 1851 broke and a little girl named Mary Jane Graham made her way to Walton parsonage, a stout Victorian home in the hamlet of Walton – a settlement on the line of Hadrians Wall to the north of the River Irthing and about 10 miles east of Carlisle.

The 13-year-old maid was in the habit of taking milk to a Church of England clergyman, the Rev Joseph Smith. When going through the incumbent’s roadside gate that morning, beside a shrubbery Mary Jane saw a man lying on his back, his hat and stick by his side. Afraid to go further she retraced her steps in haste to call upon a neighbour named Nixon who returned with her. En route, Mary Jane also saw parsonage servant Ann Glendinning, a lady of about thirty-one years (who is important to our tale) and told her what she had seen.

Upon returning, it was noticed that about the gatepost there were signs of a horse having been tied for a long time. As they approached the parsonage shrubbery in trepidation, unbeknown to Mary Jane, Mr Nixon and Miss Glendinning, a riderless white pony was being found loose about a mile from Walton, at Walton Rigg. It headed north as if making its own way home.

As the adults approached the body – for the lying man betrayed no sign of life – a look of shocked recognition fell across Miss Glendinning’s face. Any doubts regarding her acquaintance with the corpse were dispelled by business correspondence found upon his person showing the lifeless remains to be those of Mr William Armstrong, a respected and respectable gentleman farmer of Sorbietrees, Roxburghshire, in the Scottish border valley of Liddlesdale.

The substantial house of Sorbietrees, a working farm to this day, stands on the site of a Pele (a fortified tower) and lies a stone’s throw from the ruins of the tower of the Reiver chief’s of the Armstong Clan, of which William was a direct descendant. The most prominent tower in Liddlesdale it, according to the chroniclers, was located in the most dangerous place in Europe during the time of the Reivers.

On the right side of forty, married with children, a yeoman of the district and a considerable land owner, the previous day Mr Armstrong had set out on his white pony on a 16-mile ride for the purpose of making arrangements for the completion of the purchase of some property he had bargained for.

The journey would take in excess of four hours and terminate on the English side of the border at Brampton, a town of considerable antiquity which also sits on the River Irthing, close to its confluence with the Gelt. On arrival it was market day and having completed his business, Mr Armstrong met with acquaintances from north of the border including an Elliot of Liddlesdale and partook of the local hostelries.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Market day.
Richmond in Yorkshire (1818),
Thomas Rowlandson
Public domain

Having drunk somewhat freely, they left Brampton between eight and nine o’clock in the evening, apparently the worse for liquor. In the early part of the journey they were joined by another acquaintance, Mr Richardson of Solmain. On a moonlit night, the three proceeded to the inn at Cambeck Bridge, at the junction of Walton Lane and the road from Brampton to Longtown, where they stopped and took more drink until about 11 o’clock. They left the public house together and continued north but Mr Armstong cantered ahead leaving his friends behind. They were not to see him alive again.

By half past eleven on the fine moonlight night, Mr Armstrong will have reached a junction in the road just before Walton. A little before the parish church the road diverges in three directions. On the extreme left lies the way to Walton Mill. The centre path leads to Bewcastle (Mr Armstrong’s homeward road). Fatally, he preferred the path to the right which leads to the parsonage house – presumably on account of Miss Glendinning.

From the main road the parsonage gate is a distance of 86 yards. From the gate to the front door is 45 yards. Importantly, within a yard or so of the front doors sits the parsonage’s study window. By the following morning, curious villagers were gathering around Mr Armstong’s cold body. His remains were taken to a nearby inn where an inquest was convened that very afternoon presided over by coroner William Carrick Esq.

Ann Glendinning was called to give witness. Miss Glendinning maintained she was a servant of Rev Smith and went to bed a little before 11 o’clock leaving the Rev and Mrs Smith in the dining room on the south side of the house, the front door being on the north side. Tellingly, she had known the deceased for about 20 years having lived as a servant with his father and afterwards served for himself for about nine years. Also in the house were a nurse, Sarah Blackrock, and four children.

Miss Glendinning slept in an upstairs room and was awakened by a noise, two sharp knocks, and heard another noise immediately afterwards as a door shut. She heard nothing more until the next morning after 7 o’clock when the little girl named Mary Ann Graham found the body.

The Reverend Smith was called next. The 45-year-old perpetual curate of Walton was a small man of weak nerves whose eyesight was so poor he was known to hail complete strangers as if parishioners. Readers may be more surprised by his testimony than the impromptu court, as the reverend gentleman had already said much when summoned to his shrubbery earlier that day.

The Reverend Smith’s youngest child had become restless the previous evening between nine and ten o’clock deranging the usual time of family prayers and preventing the Reverend and Mrs Smith from retiring to bed at the usual time. Nearer midnight Mrs Smith retired with the child while her husband sat alone and rearranged clothes drying before the fire.

During this time he heard a knocking which he located to the study. Upon entering that room he became very agitated. Noticing the bar of the study window to be unfastened he became afraid the window might be broken in. He closed the window with a great noise, wary of ‘vagrants and sailors’ about the parish. Unlocking a study drawer, he withdrew his pistol and proceeded with it and a small lantern to the front door.

The weapon had been bought recently in Carlisle and was a pepper box-style pistol of four-inch long revolving barrels bought because the clergyman was aware of the Frimley shooting. Only a day earlier, 15th April 1851, Levi Harwood and Samuel Jones were executed for the murder of Rev George Hollest on September 27th 1850 during the robbery of three watches and numerous silver items from Frimley parsonage in Surrey.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
The Victorian parsonage.
Parsonage House at Henstead,
Benjamin West
Public domain

After opening the lock on the parsonage door, the Rev Smith was greeted by the moon casting a dark shadow on the northwest angle. Into those shadows, determined to frighten away any marauders, he discharged three volleys. After looking outside and seeing no one, he locked the door and retired.

Partway through the hearing the inquest was adjourned for the purpose of a post-mortem which was carried out by Dr John Graham of Brampton and Mr Murray, the Armstrong family surgeon. Two bullet wounds were found. The first and fatal was about the right breast, four inches from the nipple, and had passed through the liver, entered the posterior of the stomach and continued until it lodged close to the skin between the tenth and eleventh ribs.

The following Tuesday, the coroner’s court reconvened. Having concluded its business and after a retirement of only one hour, the jury returned a verdict of guilty of manslaughter. The parish will have been unsurprised. Upon the discovery of the body, it had been the clergyman who had found the bullet holes in the unfortunate victim’s clothing after which he had exclaimed, ‘I’ve been the death of the poor man.’

Beyond the legally obliged conclusions, the general belief about the village was that Mr Armstong had called at the parsonage with the intention of speaking to the woman Glendinning, perhaps by way of an offer of employment.

While the corner gave his instructions to the jury and deliberated upon the next steps to be taken, Mr Benson, the vicar of Brampton, burst into the room unexpectedly and in great haste and in a state of painful excitement exclaimed, ‘He’s gone, quite gone! The poor man he is quite gone out of his mind.’ An eye-witness conferred that this caused great sensation and sympathy among those who remained, a ‘deep and sorrowful expression overspread the countenance of all who heard the painful intimation.’

When Rev Smith had been told the result of the inquiry he became overwhelmed and cried and sobbed like a child before falling into an imbecility of mind which lasted several hours. The magistrates with some of Smith’s friends proceeded to his residence but found him beyond the usual steps required upon such a verdict. Dr Graham certified it would be dangerous to communicate with Smith therefore a certificate of derangement was drawn up and he was bailed without appearing in front of the magistrates.

The next day, John Foster the parish constable visited the accused and asked why he had fired without speaking to the suspected intruder. Foster made the observation that a constable would have suffered much before firing. Smith replied he thought ‘they’ were going to break into the house and said, ‘You see it was by accident, I was so unnerved.’ As he said this, the constable recalled, Smith was changing colour and showing much agitation.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Evidence at the assises.
Sunshine and shadow in New York,
Mathew Hale Smith
Public domain

The evidence was repeated at Carlisle assizes the following August as Judge Baron Platt presided. Mr Temple and Mr Otter conducted for the prosecution, Mr James and Mr Thompson for the defence. The Crown maintained due care should always be exercised when discharging a firearm. The defence countered that the defendant was reasonably afraid for his life given the remote location, the pertinence of the Frimley murder, the unreasonableness of the hour of the night and the inebriation of the victim.

Mr James contended the prisoner was under a bona fide impression his house was to be broken into at midnight and was justified in firing his pistol to alarm those whom he believed to be attacking his house. A sympathetic Judge Platt referred throughout to Smith as the reverend gentleman rather than the accused and included the following in his summing up as the case concluded on 6th August 1851,

‘After weighing the evidence it is for you (the Jury) to say whether upon the occasion referred to, Mr Smith, bona fide, believed robbers were about to attack his house. If a man so conduct himself by making noises at untimely hours as to cause the inmates of the house to believe that it is going to be broken into, it is precisely the same as if the burglary was committed; and no question a man has a right to go forth and alarm persons so acting, either by shooting over their heads or in the direction in which he fancies they are, to prevent the burglary.’

Proceedings continued until after ten o’clock at night but, as with the coroner’s court, the jury’s deliberations were brief, only half an hour. However, they returned a verdict of not guilty. The prisoner immediately fell to his knees and raised his hands to heaven, an act respected by a densely crowded court that fell silent.

North of the border sentiments were reversed. The Rev Smith was a small man with the valour of a mouse. The weakest vessel in a parsonage of women, children and servants, one who became horrified at a knock on the window.

Subscriptions enabled a memorial to be raised in October 1853 in the ancient burial ground of Ettleton near Newcastelton, a rural graveyard that gives way to meadowland afore rising hills dotted with dark green copses. Within its drystone boundary a 12-foot-high freestone obelisk towers over the other graves. An inscription reads,

‘Memorial: In this spot near which rest the ashes of his forefathers is interred William Armstrong of Sorbytrees who to the great grief of the neighbourhood was shot without challenge or warning by the Rev Joseph Smith, incumbent of Walton Cumberland, on the night of Wednesday the 16th of April 1851, in the 38th year of his age.’

That inscription sits upon the south side of the memorial, scowling towards England.

© Always Worth Saying 2023