This is the story of a landmark murder case that occurred in Moretonhampstead nearly two hundred years ago and centred around the historic coaching inn, The White Hart Hotel.
The story begins with the brutal mugging and murder of 48 year-old local farmer Jonathan May on July 16th, 1835. May was a well-to-do farmer who, after having sold cattle at Moretonhampstead’s Great Summer Fair, then visited the White Hart Hotel. On leaving the coaching inn he was brutally mugged, struck over the head and his takings stolen.
From evidence at the scene it appeared as if the victim had crept along the road on his hands and knees to where he was discovered, the tracks extending over sixty feet The hedging at the side of the road was sprinkled with blood. May was eventually found and carried back to the White Hart, where he died a day later of his injuries.
The barbarous attack, and the subsequent sentencing, became a case of national importance. In his statement, White Hart landlord Samuel Cann said, ‘May had left his inn at 10pm perfectly sober.’ Two men were eventually arrested for his murder and tried in Exeter. Both Thomas Oliver, alias “Buckingham Joe” and Edmund Galley alias “Turpin” were known petty criminals. Following the trial, the jury took only six minutes to find both men guilty. As the Learned Judge placed his black cap on his head to signal the death sentence, Turpin lifted up his hands, and exclaimed, “As God is my judge, am an innocent man”. Turpin then pleaded with Buckingham Joe to confess. He did, and furthermore, he admitted that he had an accomplice, but that it was not Turpin. Although every persuasion was used, nothing could induce him to confess who was the real partner in crime (1).
Buckingham Joe was hung at Devon County Gaol on August26, 1836. Turpin had to wait until two days before Buckingham Joe’s execution to hear the news that his own execution was delayed. He was eventually transported to Australia, despite growing opinion that he was innocent. Then, almost fifteen years after the murder of Jonathan May, another transported convict, called Avery, confessed on his deathbed that he had been the mystery accomplice (2). Forty-four years after the murder of Jonathan May, Turpin, aged over eighty years old, was pardoned by Queen Victoria.
This, however, did not satisfy the people of Devon, who had felt sympathy with Turpin from the start and who now considered that a certain discredit had been attached to their county by the fact that an entirely innocent man had been convicted. Subsequently a petition was signed by over 5,000 Exeter and Devon people and comprised some highly influential signatures, including the Dean, the Mayor and ex-Mayor of Exeter, the Mayors of Plymouth, Tiverton, and Totnes, and many Aldermen and Town Councillors of the various boroughs in Devonshire. There were the names of 34 magistrates, 43 clergymen of all denominations, 306 professional and independent men, 18 journalists, and 2,115 merchants, tradesmen, and farmers. There were also the names of Mr. Sanders, J.P., Mr. Latimer, J.P., and Mr. Rose, late Governor of Exeter County Gaol, all three having been present at the trial of Galley in 1836, and throughout convinced of his innocence.
The case for compensation eventually resulted in Turpin being awarded damages for false imprisonment and the injuries he sustained whilst a prisoner. He lived the rest of his life in Australia as a sheep hand. This case of Edmund Galley alias “Turpin” remains a landmark in the history of British law.
At the murder trial, an evidence map was produced, showing the layout of Moretonhampstead and the various inns (all 10 of them) and houses involved in the case. An original copy of the map still hangs at The White Hart. Jonathan May is buried at St Mary’s Church, Dunsford.
1. Exeter & Plymouth Gazette Saturday 30th July 1836.
2. Exeter & Plymouth Gazette Saturday 6th January 1849