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Brutal Murder in the Gloucestershire hamlet of Morton near Thornbury 1887
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Richard Rugman – was born on 7th February 1807 and baptised in Thornbury on 22nd March 1807. He was the son of Cornelius Rugman, a labourer and his wife, Rose (nee Baker). Richard never married but as the account of his death written below, he appeared to have a long close relationship with his housekeeper Eliza Smith. They were sharing a house in Morton Lane the 1861 census. A sale notice in 1877 shows him as the occupant of a farm opposite the Baptist Church in Lower Morton (Plot 2708 on the 1840 Tithe Map). The 1881 census shows him living in ‘Butt Lane’ listed between Mr Till at Park Farm and Gloucester Road. This may coincide with the move from the farm to the small cottage referred to in the account. This would imply that the cottage in which they lived at the time of Richard’s murder was in Butt Lane.

Eliza Smith – we think she was baptised on 19th September 1813. She was the daughter of Joseph Smith, a labourer and his wife, Ann who lived at Milbury Heath at the time of the baptism. We have been unable to trace Eliza in the 1841 and 1851 censuses. In 1861 she was living as the housekeeper of Richard Rugman in Morton Lane and she seems to have continued living with him until his murder. She survived the attack and she was living at Milbury Heath when she died aged 80. She was buried on 11th February 1890.

(information source www.thornburyroots.co.uk/ )

The riddle of Richard Rugman

It would seem that Gloucestershire was deemed a ‘ particularly dangerous place to live in the 1880s if the ‘local papers are to be believed.

Under the headline ‘Brutal Murder near Thornbury’ it announced that the county had again been ‘brought into notoriety by the commission of another murder equalling in daring and nearly surpassing in brutality one or two other outrages that have occurred within the past 18 months’.

This particular crime took place in a tiny hamlet called Morton and the victim was a man of 80 by the name of Richard Rugman. His housekeeper, Miss Eliza Smith, who was 76, was also beaten to within an inch of her life.

The April day in 1887, just prior to the Easter weekend, had been the usual sort of Thursday with a neighbour, Mrs Brown, calling in late afternoon for a chat, leaving them at around 6 o’clock to return to her own home. Another neighbour, James French, called in shortly afterwards and remained in conversation with them until a little after 7 o’clock.

Mr Rugman was sitting in his usual place by the kitchen fire and Miss Smith was seated on a settle nearby when they heard the latch on the kitchen door click and a man appeared in the room, looming over Mr Rugman and demanding he hand over £5. Miss Smith intervened at this point saying: ‘My good man, we’ve got no money to give you, we can’t afford it.’

The man, stated later by Miss Smith as being a total stranger to them, became extremely aggressive at her words and began to attack Mr Rugman with a large stick then turning to her and striking her as well.

The attack seemed little less than frenzied and the elderly couple were left lying on the floor where they remained in an unconscious state until the following morning when Miss Smith regained sufficient strength to crawl out of the front door and into the garden where she was discovered a little after nine by George Trayburn, a Thornbury trader who was calling to take their meat order.

With the help of a man called Horsman who was working nearby, Trayburn managed to carry the badly disfigured woman into the house where Mr Rugman was found lying on the floor, his head under the settle, still unconscious and having lost a great deal of blood.

Someone went to fetch a doctor and the police and everything possible was done to aid poor Mr Rugman but the prospect of his survival did not look hopeful as his injuries were appalling. He had five or six long wounds to the head and a terrible cut over the left eye and the whole of his face was covered in bruises.

His arm, with which he had attempted to protect his head, was broken above the wrist. The hat he always wore was completely smashed, the blows having broken right through the crown and the front part of the brim had, curiously enough, been cut cleanly away leading police to wonder if the bill-hook found in front of the house might have been used in the attack, although a heavy stick nearby had clearly dealt most of the blows.

Eliza Smith, too, was lucky to survive. She had been badly beaten, most of the force being directed at the left side of her body and her face was virtually unrecognisable with the right eye black and closed and a wound on top of her head. In the room itself were bloodstains over the clock case, the bellows and the mantelpiece.

The horrific incident shocked the local people to the core. Rugman and Eliza had always lived in the area and were known to everyone for miles around.

Many years ago they had both been servants but had determined to improve their lot and both of them had put aside part of their wages each week until, nearly 40 years ago, Rugman had rented a small farm, Eliza putting her savings into the venture as well. As time went by they both made wills leaving everything to the survivor.

After 29 years they decided to give up the farm and retire as Rugman had purchased a cottage years ago while still in service and a man called George Ball took over the farm. Apparently, Richard Rugman was a cheerful and popular man and was loved by all the local children who always ran to greet him when he passed by although latterly chronic rheumatism had prevented him going out much and he could only walk with the aid of crutches. He had family living in the vicinity, a sister and three brothers, one of whom was 90.

After the attack a bed was made up for him in the kitchen and he was able to recognise the many people who came to see him, including a niece who lived fairly close by. He repeatedly muttered I’m very bad; I’m going to die’, and then would lapse back into unconsciousness.

On the Saturday afternoon an old friend of his, by the name of Howell, was sitting by his bed when he suddenly said: ‘William, did a man come in and hit me with a stick? I suppose I dreamed it.’ His friend tried to establish what the attacker looked like but Rugman, who was rather deaf, made no reply and soon drifted into unconsciousness again. He finally died on the Tuesday.

The police had found it extremely difficult to piece together any sort of case. Accounts were confused and neither Rugman not Eliza Smith could give a clear picture of events because of the severity of their injuries. Robbery was the obvious motive.

Richard Rugman had been to the bank at Thornbury on the day in question and it was known throughout the neighbourhood that he had provided comfortably for his old age over the years.

However, this sort of knowledge pointed to someone in the neighbourhood familiar with Rugman’s affairs and habits and no supporting evidence backed up this theory. To the best of Eliza’s memory the intruder had only been in the house about 10 minutes and she did not believe he had gone up the kitchen stairs to her bedroom where £15 had been left in view on a table.

Neither did she recall him searching Rugman’s pockets although they were found empty.

It was thought that the man, frightened by his own violence, had fled the scene empty handed. On the Sunday word reached Sergeant Eyles that a man had left the town in the company of two others and that his shirt sleeve was spattered with blood.

Taking a trap and accompanied by constables Hemmings and Pledger, he set off in pursuit and caught up with the group at Berkeley. The man, when accosted, appeared agitated, perhaps understandably and when his shirt was examined the marks turned out to be red paint. He was a painter by trade and said he had left Bristol the night before.

The belief that the attacker was a local man gathered momentum. It was thought that a stranger would be unaware that anyone but the humblest cottager might be living in the Rugman dwelling as there were no outward trappings to indicate wealth and, inevitably, suspicions were aroused and fingers pointed at certain people in the community. Over a week passed, Richard Rugman was dead and the police were no nearer solving the crime. Eliza Smith had to be carried in to attend the adjourned inquest, wrapped in blankets and appeared extremely weak but was able to answer the questions put to her intelligibly. She was cautioned by the coroner Dr E M Grace (brother of the famous W.G. Grace) who asked her if she wished to give evidence. She replied: ‘I did not do it and I don’t know anyone who did.’

After being sworn she gave an account of the Thursday and mentioned the visits of Mrs Brown and Mr French. She said she heard someone at the door between 8 and 9 o’clock as she and Rugman sat opposite each other by the fireside. She got up from her chair to answer the knock but before she could reach the door it opened and a man entered, shutting it behind him. She could not see his face; he had his back to her then walked round the settle and stood before Rugman demanding £5. She realised he had a stick in his hand but did not see him actually strike Rugman because, she said, she was ‘so frightened.’ He then turned on her and began to deal with her in a like manner. At this stage she thought she must have passed out. All she could remember about the man was that he was tallish and wore a dark coat.

When she came to she found Rugman on the floor and tried to lift him up, without success. She spent the night in the kitchen and remembered little about those hours; and was not sure whether or not she replenished the fire, although she did recollect she should not go to her room and leave Rugman on his own. Because of his infirmities he always slept in the kitchen. She recalled leaving the house in the morning but by this time her face was so swollen she could hardly see. She remembered letting the fowls out then falling down outside and being carried in by someone whom she thought was the butcher.

She admitted that she usually kept the door locked at night and could not think why she had not done so on this occasion.

On being asked about the murder weapon she doubted whether she would recognise it although she had noticed a whitish stick with some ‘rind’ peeled off in the man’s hand when he came into the room.

She had been told it was one which had been in the garden of the cottage and picked up by the intruder before entering the cottage. Susan Brown, who had visited the couple earlier on the fateful Thursday, was then questioned, saying that she had enquired of Eliza on occasion whether she and Rugman ever quarrelled or assaulted one another and remembered Eliza saying that at the time of attack they ‘were on as good terms as they were at any time in their lives and no such thoughts entered their heads’.

Apparently, Mrs Brown had been helping Eliza after the incident, drawing water for her as she was too weak to do it herself or pour it from the well bucket. She did not believe that Rugman and Eliza ever fought.

Meanwhile, a suspect, a Francis Frederick Ponting, had been apprehended and charged with Rugman’s murder after he had made a statement implicating his guilt but it turned out he was a time waster and was nowhere near the scene of the crime on the night in question.

A week later the inquest was resumed and Dr Taylor who had examined the couple after the attack was called and cross-examined. He was asked how he thought Eliza’s injuries were produced and gave his opinion that those to the head, collar bone, neck and shoulders were caused by a blunt instrument ‘such as the stick produced’. He was then asked if he thought any of them could have been caused by a fall and he replied that the horizontal head wound was very likely caused by a fall but the blow to the collar bone he thought was sustained by direct violence.

He was then asked to speculate as to whether Eliza might have been struck by the deceased with a crutch as he sat opposite her by the fire and the doctor admitted that it was possible, adding ‘I should not like to say it is impossible’. He was then quizzed as to Eliza’s mental state and said he believed her memory to be affected by the blows administered to her and said: ‘I should not place any importance on any statements she made as regarded what happened soon after the injuries.’

Superintendent Critchley, who had taken charge of the case, had made an enquiry about the number of blows she had suffered and Dr Taylor thought at least six or seven. He was then asked by a juror if he thought Eliza could have launched an attack on Richard Rugman after having sustained these injuries and he replied that he did not think she could.

The coroner then posed the question: ‘Do you believe it possible that Richard Rugman could have inflicted the injuries on her before any injuries were received by him?’

Dr Taylor said he considered it possible he had sufficient strength before he was hurt. As to whether or not Eliza could have made the attack on Rugman before she was hurt the doctor said ‘I don’t think she could’. A neighbour from Lower Morton, Ada Howell, was then called. She described how she went to the cottage at about 9 o’clock on Good Friday morning and found both Rugman and Eliza Smith lying on the floor and George Trayburn there.

He told her that he had carried Eliza in and placed her in a chair but she had fainted, knocked over the table and slid on to the floor. She noticed that Eliza’s hands were covered with blood. Someone drew her attention to the fact that the soap was smeared with blood.

Sergeant Eyles then related his story of being called to the cottage and listening to Eliza Smith’s account of the intruder. In the room in which she was found, he said, there was a bureau but none of the drawers had been disturbed although the keys were in the top part and he had searched the bedrooms and had found nothing disturbed there. PC Hemming who had also been called to the scene testified that he had found a purse containing 13 sovereigns and there were 2 half-sovereigns, half a crown and sixpence in another purse. He called on the deceased, he said, every day until the day of his death but he never heard Rugman say anything about a man entering the cottage and attacking him.

Between 8 April and 2 May Eliza Smith had said she had met with some of her ‘accidents’ by falling down outside the house. She said she remembered perfectly well falling down twice and hurting her shoulders and head and she recollected ‘something running down her face’. Superintendent Critchley said that when he went to the house and saw Eliza Smith there was thick blood on the back of her right hand and there were also two or three grey hairs on it.

The back of the left hand was smeared with blood but the palms appeared to have been washed and he drew Sergeant Eyles attention to this fact. He mentioned it to Eliza who said: ‘Oh, I didn’t know.’ Apparently she sank back then and he did not question her further although he did elicit the information that she was certain the intruder did not go into the room where the bureau was, or upstairs.

The coroner then summed up, remarking that obviously the injuries which led to Richard Rugman’s death were not self inflicted and they had to consider what reason would lead to anyone going to the house to beat two old people.

There must have been some motive – either robbery or revenge and if that was the case was it likely they would have gone without carrying some weapon with them and it had been established the stick used was one which had already been in Rugman’s garden.

He asked the jury to consider the height of the kitchen and consider whether it was possible for a man to stand up and deliver the blows as Eliza had described.

They must either accept her evidence or disregard it entirely. He pointed out that Dr Taylor had said Eliza did not have the strength to administer the blows but they had to consider whether she could have done it when he was lying on the floor. If the jury believed that an intruder had entered the cottage and committed the crime then the verdict had to be wilful murder but if they decided Eliza and Rugman had quarrelled then the charge would be manslaughter because they would not consider in an ordinary way that Eliza Smith, using that stick, would be able to murder Richard Rugman.

The room was cleared at 8.45 to allow the jury to consider their verdict and an hour later they returned one of ‘Wilful murder against some person or persons unknown’.

So Eliza was given the benefit of the doubt. But what really happened in that firelit kitchen on the night before Good Friday in 1887? Did the elderly couple have a violent argument which led to such a vicious conclusion that one of them died?

Did Eliza concoct her story to cover up the true facts? Or did a passing stranger, perhaps someone who had kept a watch on the house and thought he would chance his luck, come in, make his demands then launch an attack through frustration in meeting resistance from a couple of old people, who refused to hand over their hard-earned cash to some ‘chancer’?

Alas, after all these years, we shall never know the truth.

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