“Christmas Can Be Murder” - Stoney Middleton

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper on 21st December 1992, reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.

CHRISTMAS CAN BE MURDER

Christmas Eve 1866 was a Monday and it was time for Harriett Wager to go home. She had lived for most of her 40-odd years at Stoney Middleton and had just spent the previous night there with friends. In mid-morning she asked the daughter of the house, Alice Hancock, to go back with her to Bleaklow Farm, her far-from-happy home between Stoney Middleton and Great Longstone.

The two women arrived to find the house empty but around three o'clock Edward Wager, Harriett's husband of only two months, returned too, and the worse for drink. He had spent the morning in the Newburgh Arms at Hassop. Thirty-six year old Wager was in aggressive mood, demanding to know why his wife had walked out on him. Harriett told him that it was because she dreaded him coming home drunk in the early hours and ill-using her yet again.

Wager continued to pick a quarrel while Harriett was getting tea, swearing at her, cursing her father and alternately trying to grab and kiss first her and then her friend. Suddenly Harriett ran outside where Alice found her hiding in a shed. She persuaded Harriett to go back to Stoney Middleton with her, but Wager came out and let the cattle into the yard to block the gates. He grabbed Alice when she tried to climb over a wall but in the meantime his wife had escaped from the opposite side of the yard and was running away.

Wager set off after her, yelling that he would kill her if she did not come back, but Harriett kept moving. Hampered by her long skirts she scrambled over stone walls and across the fields, literally screaming ‘Murder’. Alice Hancock left her to her fate and fled back to Stoney Middleton.

NO HIDING PLACE A hundred yards from the farm young Benjamin Oliver was working in the Big Beacon turnip field. Harriett's son from an earlier relationship, he worked on the farm. He had an elder brother, a soldier, but Wager refused to let him come to Bleaklow.

Benjamin watched as his mother was chased in the direction of the Deep Rake then lost sight of her. That was where they had both spent the previous Saturday night in an open-sided coe - a lead-miners' stone shelter - rather than sleep at the farm. But there was no hiding place there for Harriett now.

Also in the area were two miners, Roger Sellors and his father, Dickie. They would later testify that at about five o'clock they were passing the vein dam on their way home when they saw a couple on the cart road at the far side. They recognised Edward Wager who was pushing a woman backwards and forwards, shouting “Go on you ...... thundering w..., b... you eyes, go on!” He pushed her away from a gate which would have led her back to the farm, propelling her instead towards the head of the dam.

By this time the miners were only ten feet away but although the woman called to them for help they kept out of it, even when Wager threw her to the ground and kicked her repeatedly, shouting at her to get up and go back to Bleaklow. Roger Sellors was barely certain who the woman was, for the top of her head was white, as though she had something on it, and the lower part of her face was covered in blood.

Still intent on minding their own business the Sellors men carried on their way. Roger Sellors turned for one last look just as Harriett appeared to jump off the very brink of the steepest side of the dam. She dropped from sight with a splash and almost immediately the men heard Wager shouting after them to “Come back, her's in the water”.

The younger man simply called back “Her is in the water” and turned his face towards home. He last saw Wager walking back towards the farm.

THREE FOOTPRINTS Next to arrive on the now deserted scene was miner William Goddard, also walking home. In the dusk he spotted something in the middle of the dam and went to fetch Inspector Cruit from Stoney Middleton. Together they returned to drag Harriett Wager's lifeless body from the water and carry it back to Bleaklow Farm.

The newly bereaved widower, on being taken into the kitchen where his wife's body lay on the sofa, told Inspector Cruit that Harriett had drowned herself out of jealousy of Alice Hancock. He declared that she had threatened to do away with herself but even when she was in the water he thought that she was only “larking” with him.

Wager was taken into custody and delivered to Bakewell lock-up in the early hours of Christmas Day. This was also the 12th birthday of Benjamin Oliver, who went to see for himself the three footprints left by his mother on the side of the dam.

THE BLACK CAP At the Derbyshire March Assizes Edward Wager faced trial for “wilfully and of malice aforethought, killing and murdering Harriett Wager”.

After the witnesses had given evidence, Inspector Cruit spoke to the court. He pointed out that the dam was only 5'2" (5 feet 2 inches, about 1.6 meters) at its deepest so unless a person was very exhausted it would be easy to get out again.

When Dr. Wrench of Baslow gave his post-mortem findings a most unflattering picture of Harriett Wager emerged; she was described as very fat, with a very fatty liver ‘caused by habits of drinking’. The court had already heard from Inspector Cruit that Harriett was quite bald when brought out of the dam. In fact she normally wore a wig.

In Dr. Wrench's opinion one of the injuries found on the deceased, which had resulted in broken bones of the mouth and nose, could have been caused by an upward blow from a heavy boot.

With such facts to bear in mind the jury finally retired. Their verdict was ‘Guilty with a recommendation to mercy’: on the grounds that although Wager's conduct alone drove his wife to take her own life he did not actually force her into the water.

The Judge donned the black cap and passed sentence of death. Within days the case was taken up by those who objected to capital punishment and a plea for reprieve reached the Home Office. Meanwhile Derbyshire newspapers revealed that Wager had already served four terms of imprisonment and hard labour for unlawful wounding, assaulting a police constable and “an indelicate offence”

Local rumours that Wager's execution was imminent were ended by news in the Wirksworth and Matlock Advertiser of 30 March 1867 that Mr. Walpole had told the House of Commons that whilst the Wager murder was one of aggravated enormity and barbarity, the last punishment of the law should not be applied where a murder had not been premeditated. Therefore he had recommended Queen Victoria to exercise the royal prerogative of granting a reprieve.

The sentence of death was duly commuted and Edward Wager was sentenced to penal servitude for life.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 21st December 1992.

Research References

  1. “The Bagshawe Collection” in Sheffield Archives, includes a copy of Richard Heyward's plan produced for the legal case of Regina v. Wager, showing Bleaklow Farm, and sections of the dam in which Harriet Wager was “drowned in suspicious circumstances on December 25th, 1866, with notes of the witnesses evidence marked at appropriate places, February, 1867” [Sheffield Archives Reference: Bag C/282, 1866-1867 - my thanks to Glenn T. for locating).

  2. We believe Edward WAGER's wife was Harriet OLIVER, née BLAND, their marriage registered at Sheffield in Dec 1/4 1866 (9c 482). It states above that she had been married previously, so this is likely as 'Hariot BLAND', to marry Samuel OLIVER (marriage recorded in June 1/4 1841, registered at Bakewell), with the death of Samuel OLIVER registered at Bakewell in December 1/4 1862. A Samuel and Hannah OLIVERS were recorded on Eyam 'East of the Church' Census in 1861 (Schedule #113, Middleton Dale), with (amongst other children), a son Benjamin J. Olivers, aged 6.

  3. Edward WAGER was convicted on 6th March 1867, sentenced to Life, and transported in October 1867 on the ship Hougoumont. (HO 11/19, available at Ancestry UK

  4. The William GODDARD mentioned may have been my (Rosemary's) great*3 grandfather, baptised at Stoney Middleton in 1813, or perhaps his son, also William, baptised in 1842. If the latter, he was to have a very chequered career, as I found him on the 1871 Census living in Ingleton Fells, Yorkshire, with his wife of 2 years, Dora (née MARSDEN), working as a miner on the railway (presumably the Settle-Carlisle line). By 1891, he had returned to Stoney Middleton with a new 'wife', Eleanor, and a 'new' profession of Lodging House Keeper.

  5. Richard (‘Dickie’) SELLORS (or SELLARS), and his son Roger, may also have been Stoney Middleton born and bred, Richard baptised in 1795, being the son of Rodger and Mary (Epinstone) SELLARS, and his son Roger baptised in 1826.

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