the beare manslaughter trial

the beare manslaughter trial

As reported in full in the Press


The following are the details of the manslaughter case against James Beare, watch-man of Yeovil, in 1838. The name of the deceased, not mentioned in the press but recorded in the Felons Register of Ilchester Gaol, was Isaac Justins.



The Taunton Courier, Wednesday 24 January 1838
from 'The Sherborne Mercury'

A considerable degree of excitement has been produced in this town by the death of mendicant (beggar) in the watch-house under very distressing circumstances. It appears from the evidence adduced at the inquest (which lasted from Friday morning, the 12th instant, up to a late hour on Wednesday evening, last) that's the unfortunate man reached Yeovil from Sherborne late on Monday evening, the 8th instant, in search of work as a collar-maker. Being unsuccessful in his efforts to obtain employment, he applied to the manager of the Mendicity Society (Mr Porter) for relief, at about 10 o'clock on the night in question. The rules of the society do not permit the granting of relief after 9 o'clock at night, but under the peculiar circumstances, nor to individuals labouring under intoxication.

Deceased, having the appearance of being much in liquor, was refused relief by Mr Porter, who puts him into the street; and Slade, the constable, subsequently finding deceased on the ground in the lane (Porter's Lane - today's Westminster Street) near Mr Porter's house knocked at the door and enquired what should be done with him. Mr Porter, in reply, advised his being taken to the watch-house, under the impression that he was in a state of intoxication; at the same time desiring his release the next morning. Slade accordingly took the unfortunate man to the watch-house and placed him on the bench in the outer room, informing the mendicant, on leaving him in this miserable abode, in total darkness, that someone would be soon they are to light a fire (having understood that a fire was to be lighted there every night during the season, and also that it was the duty of the watchman to be there every hour in the night. Slade subsequently met J Beare, one of the watchman on duty that night, and told him of the circumstance, adding "You take him into your charge and take care of him, and you can let him out in the morning, in about four or five hours time." It was then about half-past ten. Beare said "Very well, I will." Slade said "You will, mind that." and Beare replied "That shall be all right."

Slade afterwards saw George Hill, another of the watchman then on duty, and requested him to let the man out of the watch-house on the following morning, to which Hill assented. It seems, however, incredible as it might appear, that not only was the wretched inmate suffered to remain there the whole night with out the glimpse of a spark of fire to warm his chilled and rapidly sinking frame at this inclement season, but that's no soul visited him till the Wednesday night following, when he was found by a boy (who went to the cell for the purpose of lighting the fire) a cold and stiffened corpse!

W Tomkins Esq., Surgeon, stated that the stomach of the deceased was found on examination to be perfectly empty, and so were the intestines - not a particle of the food in either. The bladder was also empty. He had no doubt that the man died from want, or starvation, and the coldness of the situation in which he was placed. There was a small quantity of tobacco in his breeches pocket; and in his fustian jacket pocket was found some bread and cheese, apparently raw-milk cheese, and two pieces of bread, together about 6 ounces. He afterwards saw a piece of blue cheese and a piece of bread, which he was told by some persons in the watch-house, had been taken from his pocket. He did not think any food could have been in the stomach for the last twenty-four hours of life. The bread and cheese were identified by Mary Ann Hammond of Sherborne, as being the same she had given the deceased on account of the Mendicity Society. Deceased had also been offered relief by various persons in Sherborne, but seemed too much exhausted to benefit by it. At the Mendicity Office, Sherborne, he stated his name to be Isaac Justins, a native of some parish near Lynn in Norfolk, and that he was 42 years of age.

The jury returned a unanimous verdict of "Manslaughter" against George Hill and James Beare; and, as regards the Borough constable (Slade), the jury divided in equal numbers, seven to seven, consequently he (Slade) is discharged, and to the Coroner has committed the two former to the gaol of Ilchester.




The Taunton Courier, Wednesday 11 April 1838

George Theodore Butler Hill and James Beare, policeman of Yeovil, were indicted for manslaughter, the prisoners having on 8th January last had a person, name unknown, delivered in their care, and placed in the watch-house at Yeovil and detained they are without food and fire until the 10th, when he was found dead.

The prosecution was conducted by Mr Jardine and Mr Montague Smith; the former stated very clearly the facts of the case, and the following evidence was then adduced :-

Caroline Evans -- I am a servant with Mr Porter of Yeovil; lived with him in January last; recollect on 8 January last man came to my master's house; he asked for relief; I thought he was drunk, went and told my master; master came out; he again asked for relief; master told him he was drunk; deceased then muttered out something, don't know what it was; deceased had then went away; don't know where he went; he came again in about 10 minutes with Slade the constable; I went to the door that time, master again came out; Slade said he had picked up the man in the road; master told him to take care of him; he then asked master what he had better do with him; he then seemed intoxicated; they then went towards the Borough, that is the town; master put him outside the door; on the Thursday morning I saw deceased lying dead in the watch-house; it was the same man; my master acts as secretary for the Mendicity Society; persons in distress are in the habit of coming to my masters, and he relieves them, and then sends them away again.

John Slade -- I am a constable at Yeovil; was coming by Mr Porter's house on 8 January last; saw a man lying by Mr Porter's door on his back apparently in liquor; went to him and asked him what he did there; he said Mr Porter would not relieve him; Knox at Mr Porter's door, the girl came out; ask her if master was in: he came out; told him I had found the man lying at his door; he told me to take care of him; went away with deceased towards the watch-house; he could not walk without my assistance; when we came to the courts of the watch-house he stopped; I told him he appeared much in liquor; he said he was crippled; it was not until then I found out that he was not drunk; I told him if he had any money I would get a bed for him; he said he had not a farthing; took him to the watch-house, put him in, and sat him down on a bench; went out and left him; the door fastened outside by a staple and hasp, which comes over it fit for a padlock; there are two or three of these hasp's; did not shut but one of them; any person could open it inside; then went away towards Hill's house; met James Beare and told him he was the man I wanted; he said, what for? I told him I had put a man who I found at Mr Porter's door in the watch-house; told him to let him out in the moulding; he said, that shall be all right; then met Hill in Middle Street; told him I had been to his house, and could not find him; told him I had put a man in the watch-house, not as a prisoner, but as a place of refuge; told him to let him out in the morning; he said he would; it was prisoner's turn to guard the town that night. On Wednesday evening was fetched to go to the watch-house, where a man was found dead; said it was not the same man because the man had not any apron on; but afterwards found the apron; on Thursday said it was the same man, and could swear to it; Mr Porter did not ask me on Wednesday night why I did not take care of the man.

Ann Helliar -- I am a widow woman living in the same court as the watch-house is situated; on Monday, 8 January last saw Slade go to the watch-house with a man, the man walked slowly; saw Slade go to the watch-house door and put him in; heard Slade tell him if he had any money he would get a bed for him; he said he had not a farthing; Slade said, all he could do was to put him into the watch-house; deceased said, thank you; Slade put him in, went away and shut the door; as Slade was going out of the court he met Beare; told him he had put a man into the watch-house by Mr Porter's orders, not as a prisoner, but as a place of refuge, and hold him to let him out in the morning; Beare said, very well, that shall be all right; they then both left; that was all that then passed. When Slade left deceased, he said "good night my friend" and told him he should not lock the door, but pull it fast, and that he could come out when he pleased.

Humphrey James; my house adjoins the watch-house; remember the Tuesday night before deceased was found dead; when in bed that night heard groaning which alarmed me much; waked up my wife; thought it was my little girl; afterwards found out that it proceeded from the watch-house; did not get up and go to the watch-house; if I had known it was from a dying man I certainly should have done so.

John Lugg -- I am a son of Charles Lugg a watchman of Yeovil; went to the watch-house on Wednesday tenth of January, opens the door and threw in some potato stalks; saw something on the floor: don't know what it was: went away, and went to chapel; went to the watch-house again about 9:30 o'clock with a lantern for the purpose of lighting the fire; saw a man on the floor; went after my father and he came.

Charles Lugg -- I am one of the watchman of the town of Yeovil; there are four of us; the constables have a right to the watch-house as well as us; I was at the watch-house on Sunday morning; I was on duty that night; my boy called me on Wednesday night to come to the watch-house, because somebody was there, when I came there I found a man on the floor, dead; went and called Hill; Hill went with me to the watch-house and said he did not think he was dead because he had seen in 10 minutes ago; he went and found the man dead; I fetched Mr Tomkins, and by his orders Hill searched the deceased and found on him some small bits of bread and cheese, and a small quid of tobacco; it was my duty on the Monday night, but Beare engaged to do it for me as I was ill.

John Lugg, recalled -- I went to Mr Beare, on Monday, January 8, asked him to do my father's duty that night, because he was ill, he promised to do it.

Henry Jeffreys -- I am superintendent of police at Yeovil; Hill and Beare were on duty on Monday and Tuesday night in question. When a fresh policeman is appointed he has instructions of his duty in writing. There is a minute book kept at the watch-house, to enter them in, but on account of there being no convenient place in the watch-house, one of the watchman keeps it at his own house.

William Tompkins -- I am a surgeon living at Yeovil; I am a commissioner of police; on Wednesday night I was called upon by one of the policeman to go to the watch-house and see a man that was there; he told me he was dead or dying; when I came out there the body appeared to have been dead some time, it was cold and stiff; we had some conversation; I asked Hill how long it was after he discovered deceased that he came to my house, he said he got a light and came directly; I had no doubt but he had fallen from the bench by the position in which he was laying, it was a stone floor, no straw on it, and a very cold room; made a post mortem examination, the stomach was quite empty and reduced to about half its natural size; I had no doubt but he died of want and the coldness of the situation in which he was placed; as Commissioner of police, I examined the constables and police, I think as a medical man, that to deceased when put into the watch-house was too ill to eat any food whatever with out medical assistance; I believe when he was put into the watch-house he could not have recovered without medical assistance and that's the coldness of his situation and wants of assistance was the cause of his death; when I saw deceased first, thought he had been dead about 40 or 48 hours; think proper food used properly might have saved his life.

Mr Moody and Mr Fitzherbert appeared for the prisoners, and the former in the course of his address to the jury, said there were many parties to blame - a neglect of moral duties in some quarters, and a neglect of legal duties in others, and that in consequence of the excitement which had prevailed, a cry had been made for a victor him, he felt, however, confident, notwithstanding the legal skill and ability which had been brought to bear in support of the prosecution, that the prisoners must be acquitted, and contended that the omission or forgetfulness to do anything, did not amount to manslaughter, and after going through the evidence, concluded a long address, by calling on the jury to pronounce a verdict of 'not guilty' against both the prisoners.

Lord Denman summed up the evidence in a very able manner, stated the law of the case, and left it to the jury to say if the prisoners were guilty or innocent of the charges laid against them in the indictment.

The jury returned a verdict of guilty against both prisoners.

Lord Denman said he wished to take the opinion of the other judges, before he pronounced sentence on so novel a case.

Mr Walter Hancock, of Taunton, attorney for the prosecution, and Mr Slade and Mr Newman, solicitors, Yeovil, for the prisoners.



Although I discovered all the details of the case, including the guilty verdict, the only thing I couldn't discover was the sentence which was not given by the judge at the time but held back for deliberation and consultation. However, it must be presumed that the case against James was ultimately dismissed although he almost certainly lost his job as a Watchman since, immediately after the case he became a beerhouse keeper.




This colourised photograph features in my book 'Secret Yeovil'

The basement of the old Tolle Hall, the original town lock-up or 'blindhouse' where the unfortunate beggar died, still remains under the Borough by the War Memorial.


Left-hand page of the 1838 Assizes Register showing James Beare's entry.


.... and the right-hand page showing "Discharged on Sureties to appear etc".