Death of a farm lad

High Street Nunney

In April 1850 a teenager was brutally murdered in Nunney. The case raised headlines across the country.

Part 1 – Joseph and Mary

Chitterne, Wiltshire

All Saints Church, Chitterne, Wiltshire
The font from the old All Saints Church was brought over to the new church.

We’ll start at the beginning. The boy’s father, Joseph George, was born in 1802 in Chitterne, Wiltshire. Chitterne lies about 9 miles east of Warminster in the middle of Salisbury Plain.

You drive through it if you take a shortcut from Warminster to Stonehenge and the A303. The village had 469 people, according to the 1801 census.

Joseph’s parents were Betty Sainsbury, age 40, and Thomas George, age 42. He was baptised at the 12th century font in All Saints Church, Chitterne. This is not the church you find in Chitterne today, for it was in such as poor state of repair that the church was rebuilt in 1863.

The current church combined both parishes in Chitterne, All Saints and St Mary’s, and is twice the size of the one in which Joseph was baptised. The font came from the old church, however, as did the pulpit.

All Saints Church, Chitterne
Old All Saints Church in Chitterne was largely demolished in 1861, painting by John Buckler, c1805 (collection: Devizes Museum)

Unfortunately, it soon turned out that the land on which the new church was built was rather damp, making it unsuitable for burials. It had already been decided to keep both chancels of the old churches in use as mortuary chapels.

Any monuments and memorial tablets that were in the old churches were removed to their respective chancel and the maintenance of each building was the responsibility of the respective parish.

By 1877 the All Saints chancel had deteriorated and the decision was taken to demolish it. The monuments were moved to the tower of the new church.

Death runs in the family

Thomas and Betty George were married in St Mary’s Church in Chitterne on 1 August 1784. They had eight children, all baptised in All Saints Church, of which Joseph and his sister Elizabeth were the youngest. Both were born when Betty was already in her forties. At least two other siblings died in infancy.

Joseph had several older brothers, including Thomas. Thomas was seven years old when Joseph was born. By the time he was 21 Thomas had fathered a child with a local girl, Jane Poolman.

He didn’t marry Jane though, although he was named on the birth certificate. Instead he married Elizabeth Bundy a few years later, on 9 December 1823. Together they had three children.


When Thomas George was 38 he worked for farmer Robert Fisher at Chitterne Farm. Now called Chitterne Lodge, the farm consisted of about 1500 acres between Chitterne and Shrewton.

The name George itself is derived from the Greek language and means land-worker or farmer. It was introduced into England by the crusaders but was never common until the Hanoverian succession in the 18th century.

Anyway, on 3 December 1833 Thomas returned from the Saturday market in Warminster with a wagon load of coals. Thomas had been out drinking with his mates at the market and was riding on the shafts.

Unfortunately, he fell off and was killed instantly as the wheels of the cart crushed him to death. Death, it seems, ran in the family. But then, doesn’t it in all?

The Coroner observed to the Jury during the inquest into his death, held at Warminster on 9 December, that they would scarcely believe the number of people killed on Wiltshire road each year due to overindulgence at public houses at different markets. Is that where the expression ‘falling off the wagon’ comes from?

Thomas left his widow Betty and three children, John, Jane and Anna aged 10, 6 and 3. Betty never remarried and took in laundry to help make ends meet. She died in Chitterne in 1871.

Thomas and Joseph George had an older brother, called James. In the 1848 directory for Chitterne, James is listed under local traders as a carrier, visiting the markets in Salisbury, Devizes and Warminster on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays respectively and returning the same day. Known as George’s cart, the service is still listed in the 1855 directory – three years after James died.


Joseph and Mary

Back to Joseph now. Although he lived in Chitterne throughout his childhood, he too fathered a child out of wedlock. His daughter Elizabeth was born in 1831 and baptised in All Saints Church, Nunney.

Unlike his brother, Joseph did marry the mother of his child. Joseph George and Mary Pitman were married in Nunney on Christmas Day, 25 December 1831.

It didn’t take long for Mary to fall pregnant again. A son, also called Thomas, was born in Nunney and baptised on 14 October 1832. In total, Joseph and Mary had six children within 14 years.

According to the census of 1841 Joseph and Mary George lived in Nunney Street, what is now called the High Street.

Later census data tell us, however, that Joseph lived up Russells Barton, on the corner of the Market Place. That makes more sense, as we will see later on in this story.

Joseph worked as a farm labourer for two brothers, Messrs Hoddinot, who ran Manor Farm House behind Nunney Castle.

1841 census
1841 census

Ann’s story

The Round House, Chitterne
The Round House, Chitterne

Joseph and Mary George were not the only connection between Chitterne and Nunney at the time. A young girl born in Nunney, Ann Whittaker, worked as a domestic servant for Charles Morris and his family in Chitterne.

The house is know known as The Round House, but was then called Laura Cottage. In the 1841 census Ann Whittaker is listed as a servant to Charles and Charlotte Morris and their daughter Hannah Anne.

She was 22 years old in 1841. It was not uncommon, however, for young girls to start work as a domestic servant at a younger age.

It’s intriguing to speculate whether Ann found her employment through Joseph and Mary George, the most obvious link between Nunney and Chitterne at the time.

She remained with the Morris family for at least 40 years, most of her adult life. She saw the family through good times and bad. Through the marriage in 1841 of their daughter Hannah to surgeon Henry Hayward Richardson and Hannah’s return home after Henry’s early death in 1851.

Through the deaths of Charlotte Morris in 1862, Hannah in 1868, and grandson Charles Richardson in 1871. Charles Morris survived them all with Ann looking after him for another 8 years until his death at age 94 years in 1879.

Charles Morris provided for an annuity in his will for his faithful servant Ann, but she had no home of her own. So in 1881 we find her lodging just a few doors away from Laura Cottage at 101 Oak Terrace (part of St Mary’s Lodge) with Joseph and Sarah Williams.

The White Hart early 20C
The White Hart early 20C

On 27 September 1882, when she was 63 years old, Ann married 66 year old Thomas George, becoming his third wife. This Thomas George, one of many in this story, was none other than the son of James George, the carrier.

Thomas was a freeholder of Chitterne, a beer retailer and carrier at the White Hart, and a landlord of cottages. Not only had he carried on his father’s business, he was a man of some means who left Ann well provided for when he died in 1889.

In 1891 Ann was living on her own means and renting Flora Villa (Gate House) in Chitterne for herself and her companion, niece Martha Whittaker. Martha married James Grant in 1894 and moved to Amesbury.

Ann moved with her and died there in 1899, but she was buried back here in Chitterne where she had spent most of her life.

Tragedy strikes again

High Street Nunney

Back to Joseph and Mary again. They had six children: Elizabeth, Thomas, Sarah, Shadrach, Frank and Joseph.

Thomas grew up to be a farm worker, like his dad. They both worked for the Hoddinot brothers.

Soon tragedy would strike the Georges repeatedly, however. First Shadrach died in May 1844 and was buried in Nunney churchyard, not even 5 years old.

Then at dawn on Thursday 4 April 1850 Joseph George discovered the body of young Thomas with his throat cut in the cartshed by the castle.

In the words of one newspaper, he was found ‘frightfully murdered’ and Thomas’ colleague, Henry Hillier, was arrested for murder.

The case made headlines across the country and the detailed coverage gives us a unique insight into everyday life in Nunney in the 1850s – as we will see in part 2 of this article.

Read more:
Death of a farm lad: Part 2 – The killing house

We are indebted to Sue Robinson and Tania White for their help in researching the history of the George family.