I was preparing a talk on Murder at Reading Gaol recently, when I realised that all the heinous events I was researching had a link with March. Not only were there trials and executions, but also some of the worst murders in the town’s history took place during this inauspicious month.
Prior to 1971 in England and Wales, the most serious crimes were tried in the assize courts. Assizes were held twice a year, usually in Lent and Winter. Therefore, many trials took place in March, and as there was never much time between the serving of the death sentence and its execution, they too were in the same month. In Reading, 15 out of the 29 hangings between 1800 and 1913 were carried out in March.
The first public execution at the ‘new’ prison in Reading, which opened in 1844, was that of Thomas Jennings, on 22 March 1845. Earlier in the month, the 37-year-old farm labourer from Thatcham had been convicted of poisoning his young son with arsenic. Eleazar, aged 3, had died on Christmas Day of stomach pains and an exhumation of his body, following the sudden death of his younger brother in January, had confirmed the authorities’ suspicions.
A year later, on 20 March, William Spicer was ‘launched into eternity’ by executioner William Calcraft, after having been found guilty of murdering his wife. Elizabeth Spicer, 60, had been found slumped in the cellar of the couple’s home. Her husband had alleged that she had fallen, but an analysis of the blood spatter pattern, had led to his conviction.
The next execution at Reading Prison, which was the last one to be held in public, was on 14 March 1862. John Gould, who was known for drunken bouts, killed his six-year-old daughter, Hannah, after a week-long binge. It took the jury just 12 minutes to decide his fate. Also hanged by Calcraft, John Gould was ‘plunged into eternity without a struggle’ in front of the thousands of spectators gathered in front of the prison gatehouse (pictured at the top).
From 1868, executions were held in private, and the next hanging at Reading Prison was a double one. On 12 March 1877, brothers Henry and Francis Tidbury were executed for the murder of two police officers in Hungerford. Well-known poachers, it seems that the brothers attacked Inspector Joseph Drewett and PC Thomas Shorter when they tried to arrest them.
In addition to executions, there were also two very shocking murders in March, both in the same year and both connected with Reading, which hit the national headlines. On 16 March 1896, Royal Horse Guards trooper, Charles Thomas Wooldridge slit his wife’s throat with a razor in a fit of rage and jealousy. Following his confession, Wooldridge was incarcerated in Reading Prison and while he was awaiting his execution, he caught the attention of Oscar Wilde, who was also an inmate. After his release, Wilde immortalised Wooldridge’s desperate act in The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
Two weeks after the murder of Laura Wooldridge, another terrible event stunned the town of Reading. On 30 March, a brown paper parcel was found in the River Thames near Caversham Lock, by a bargeman. Inside was the body of a baby girl, who had been strangled. This gruesome discovery would lead to the arrest and conviction of one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers, the infamous baby farmer Amelia Dyer.
As I write this post, we are almost halfway through March, and I shall be relieved when we get to April!
Images courtesy of Reading Borough Libraries