‘One of the most cowardly and diabolical outrages ever committed upon the Police of this country was perpetrated within a few minutes’ walk of Hungerford’
(Reading Mercury, 16 December, 1876)
When I first moved to Berkshire in the 1990s, I lived near Hungerford where, 140 years ago, a shocking double murder took place. On the evening of 11 December 1876, Inspector Joseph Drewett and Constable Thomas Shorter, both of the Berkshire Constabulary, were walking their beat around the small, market town. At 10.10 pm Inspector Drewett met PC William Isaacs in Hungerford before setting off across the fields towards Denford Toll Bar, near the hamlet of Eddington. This was the last time that Inspector Drewett was seen alive.
Just ten minutes earlier, PC William Golby had started out on his night-time beat. The night was clear and not very dark, as he climbed the hill beyond the town, out towards Eddington and Denford Bar. As he reached the turnpike, he spotted someone lying in the road, about 25 feet away. Thinking that it was a drunken reveller, he reached down to grab the man’s collar, but as he did, he felt something ‘moist and soft’. Striking a match, he found that his hand was covered in blood and to his horror, spotted the lifeless body of a colleague, PC Thomas Shorter: ‘his brains and bits of his skull were lying about in the road’. Golby raised the alarm and the fallen police officer was transported back to Hungerford.
Later that night, PC Golby returned to the spot where PC Shorter’s body had been found to look for Inspector Drewett, who had not been seen since he left Hungerford. Together with another constable, Golby lit his lamp and searched the woodland and hedges nearby. A few yards on, the officers came across the inspector’s body – he had suffered a fatal gunshot wound. Following this gruesome discovery, the police examined the area for clues. PC Golby found the broken lock of a gun close to the place where PC Shorter had been found, as well as a cap and an iron tobacco box stained with blood, near Inspector Drewett. They also took wax castings of footprints found at the scene. These items formed the chain of evidence used in the conviction of the police officers’ killers.
By 5 am, Superintendent George Bennett had arrived from Newbury and arrested the suspects; brothers Henry, William and Francis Tidbury, aged 26, 24 and 17 respectively, and William Day, 39. The men were well-known poachers, who lived nearby in Eddington. The prints from the castings matched their boots, and the cap and broken gun lock were identified as belonging to Henry Tidbury. Furthermore, a neighbour had heard the men’s voices near the crime scene at the time of the murder. It was believed that the men had been out poaching when the police officers had attempted to arrest them. They had shot Inspector Drewett and bashed PC Shorter over the head with the butt of their rifle. Later, what was thought to be human blood (there was no test available at this time) was found on their trousers, which they had tried to cover with red lead paint.
The four men were tried at the Berkshire Assizes on 19 February 1877 for the murder of Inspector Drewett and Constable Thomas Shorter. On the second day of the trial, William Tidbury gave the compelling evidence that he had come across his brothers on the night of the murder, near the police officers’ bodies, and that Henry and Francis had confessed to him that they had killed them. Afterwards his brothers had run off, and he and William Day had returned home for some food. William Tidbury admitted that he had previously told the police that he had been in bed at the time of the shooting, and he had hidden the truth for his family’s sake: ‘It is very hard to tell on my own brother.’ Although the evidence was largely circumstantial, the jury decided that William Day was not guilty, and that William Tidbury was not guilty of murder, but was guilty of being an accessory after the fact (he was later discharged). Henry and Francis Tidbury were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.
The execution of brothers Henry and Francis Tidbury took place at Reading Prison, on 12 March 1877. The scaffold had been erected in the photographing room, where the prisoners’ mugshots were usually taken. It was a wooden structure about the size of a shepherd’s hut, with a glass front and roof, located in the exercise yard, from where it could not be seen from the cells. The double hanging was scheduled for 8 am on the Monday morning and, although it was a private affair, several hundred people had gathered outside the prison. The prisoners had slept well the previous night and ate their breakfast as usual at 6.45 am. They then attended a service in the chapel. At 7.45 am, the brothers were escorted to the waiting room, where executioner William Marwood pinioned their arms. As the clock struck eight, the procession of officials arrived to witness the execution. The prisoners looked pale as they approached the scaffold. The white caps were placed over their heads and the noose was adjusted. As the chaplain began to say The Lord’s Prayer, Marwood pulled the lever and the men dropped through the floor with a dull thud: ‘Death was instantaneous; not a quiver of either rope was to be observed’. It was Henry Tilbury’s 27th birthday, and the press noted that he died ‘about the very hour at which he was born.’
Joseph Drewett and Thomas Shorter were buried in the churchyard in Eddington, and there is still an iron cross, dedicated to Inspector Drewett, marking the spot where they died. The cross in memory of PC Shorter is at the Thames Valley Police Museum in an exhibition about the Hungerford Murders.