Sex-scandals, tipsy vicars, robbery and riots

The following article was published in the Leicester Mercury  (although it no longer appears to be available on their website). It is drawn from the letters  from William Spencer to John Frewen.


They are letters that tell a not-so everyday story of country folk; riven with salacious gossip, wandering husbands, drunken vicars and murder. Some of the 200-year-old correspondence from William Spencer, a steward from Sapcote, to his master, village squire and Irish MP John Frewen Turner, makes the most sensational Archers plotline seem tame.

It’s all going on: randy men of the cloth who can’t keep their eyes off the housemaid, a mother and daughter chasing the same man and a runaway wife.

“It’s a view of village life from this period that you rarely get,” says Keith Hextall, chairman and founder of Sapcote Heritage Group.

Spencer, who managed Frewen Turner’s property in the village, was also his protegee.

The squire’s main residence was more than 35 miles away in Cold Overton, so the letters formed a vital correspondence between man and master.

Keith has spent hours transcribing the letters since Sapcote Heritage Group paid for copies of originals held by Lewes Record Office in Sussex, where Frewen Turner spent the last years of his life.

Spencer, an erudite writer, reports on the day-to-day: weather, new building projects, village crime and crippling poverty.

There are 130 letters spanning three decades. When the loyal steward died in his fifties, the squire erected a plaque in Sapcote church dedicated to his ‘faithful servant’.

“When I finished the last letter, I felt I had got to know him (Spencer), and I felt quite sad,” says Keith. “It know it sounds idiotic, but I even went across (to the churchyard) where he is buried and spoke to him.”

Here are some extracts. The spelling and punctuation are Spencer’s own.

May 30, 1793: A few days ago there was a Child found in the field between Sapcoate and Hinckley with its Arms quite cut off, and its throat cut, they had the Coroner, and the verdict was Wilful Murder.

July 11, 1800: Alice Messenger’s servants were at work in the Field among the hay this week, and they had laid their Cloths, Dinner Basket, and Bottles of Beer under a Hedge.

These were observed by some evil disposed person, who contrived to get three Waistcoats, a Silk handkerchief, one Bottle of Beer, and a pewter plate through the hedge, by means of a hooked stick, with which he made off, and has not since been heard of.

August 17, 1804: We had a Riot in the Street last Night which produced Bloody Noses, broken shins. It was a parcel of Drunken Men and Women who I believe had no object but to see who could swear the fastest and brawl the loudest.

September 17, 1806: Our Statutes Yesterday was one of the Greatest that has ever been in the Neighbourhood, and much hiring was done.

From the Church Yard to the top of the street, one could scarcely pass, the street was so full. The chief constable has promised to hold a Statutes at Sapcote as long as he lives. I believe there was more business done than is usually done at Hinckley Statutes.

April 10, 1807: I write a few lines, fearing I shall not be able to come over to-morrow, on account of the difficulty I have in getting a horse, as the Farmers are all so busy they cannot with any convenience spare one.

If I cannot get a horse, I have some thoughts of coming on Sunday on foot, if the weather permit, but I dread a long Journey on foot, as I am generally foot-sore in walking to Leicester.*

A report is very current now, that two young Methodist Girls are in the family way, and one of them by her Master, who is also a Methodist, and a married man.

* Spencer regularly walked from Sapcote to the squire’s home in Cold Overton, a distance of 37 miles.

August 22, 1807: One Sunday Morning the people assembled at the Church, and no Minister came, and sometimes we have had a drunken parson, with scarcely either stockings or shoes on, I mean Dawson of Hinckley whose drunkenness is notorious.

Report says Mr Ashmores youngest Daughter is in the family way by the servant man, and she says her Mother may hold her tongue about it, for her Mother likes him as well as she does. I believe this to be true in toto.

September 12 1807: I hear that Mr Ashmore has had a terrible thrashing from his Wife.

He has, and I believe chiefly owing to my advice, got a licence for the Marriage of his Daughter, but that event has not yet taken place. His Wife I fear stands in the Way.

September 21, 1807: The Wake was what we call a small one, and there has been no quarrelling whatever.

The statutes were well attended, and more hiring done than there was last year.

Mrs Carter, and W. Gee came home yesterday, and the Wags of Sapcote rang them a peal. Poor Carter is much rejoic’d at his Wifes return.

October 12 1807: Mary Farmer is going to live at Broughton along with Jn’o Bird, but whether as Wife or Mistress is unknown at present.

It is reported that Mrs Ashmore is nearly crazy on account of her daughter marrying the servant man. Poor Ashmore feels a double portion of the effects of her frenzy.

April 24 1808: There were 43 in the Club* after the division, there are now 65. Gee continues a Member, but he ought to be expelled, if it could be done without alarming the rest, Carter’s Wife, who was with child by him has been delivered of a dead Child, which was buried early in the Morning soon after it was born, and which caused some suspicion in Mr Moor that the child had not fair play.

After Mr M and Is Smith had been to Mr Dyke about it, Mr M writes a letter directed to Mr Freer, Leicester, and sends it by Jos Smith to me, as Constable, desiring I would send it immediately to the Coroner, I did so; but the Coroner has taken no notice of it tho’ more than a week has elapsed since.

I can’t make out that the Child was killed after it came, but have no doubt of its death being caused by portions taken to procure abortion.

That there was no intention of her being delivered in secret appears from this, Amy was applied to, but she being with a Stanton Woman, Mr (Taulsman?) was applied to, now he happened to be ill, so Jane Ellis was called upon, and was there all the time.

* The Sick and Benefit Club.

May 30, 1808: W. Gee and the famous Mrs Carter are gone off again.

November 11, 1808: Ab’m Nurse and I found Wm Gee at Mountsorrel last Saturday along with the infamous Mrs Carter; he is now in the House of correction at Leicester, for one Month.

It is every body’s mouth here that Old John Messenger is the Father of the Child his servant maid is now pregnant of, and I hear to-day his wife has left his house on account of it. She is a simple young Girl, and Niece to him, which will be the worse if it be true that he is the Father.

June 1, 1809: The Rev’d Mr Cotman and his Lady have had a violent quarrel, which has caused much talk and various reports in this Neighbourhood.

His Wife is said to be Jealous of the servant Maid, and it is reported that Mr Greenway has been sent for to draw up articles of separation.

Greenway has been there I know, but it has not transpired how matters are settled.

Cotman left his house and slept at Jarratts a night or two, and I have heard that he intends to set his House and Church to Mr Glover. I send you the above as what is reported amongst us very currently, and I fear there is too much of it true.

January 19, 1810: Old Amy has thrown the Wedding Ring at Frank her husband, and now resides with her daughter Beal.

January 29, 1810: Old Amy has consented to put the Ring on again.

August 31, 1810: These Magistrates intend to commit two of the Paupers in this House to Bridewell next Monday for Idleness and Hypocrisy. There are three stout able bodied men in this House that (in the opinion of the Doctor) counterfeit sickness.

He says their pulse is the pulse of health, they can eat well, drink well, get drunk, in short, can do every thing but work.

These fellows assaulted the Governor on Monday night last in a riotous way and if I had not been resolute as a Constable, I cant tell to what excess they might have proceeded. And I am happy to inform you my conduct has the approbation both of Mr Clark and the Magistrates.

The riot at the Industry on Monday night was heard in the Town, and after I had overpowered the ringleader and put him in the prison he was heard in the town, attempting to break open the Door for nearly an hour.

The Governor is a poor creature or he might prevent any thing of this sort, I hope the Guardians will now see the necessity of a change.

March 7, 1811: There has been another attempt to rob a poor Woman between Sapcote and Frolesworth last week, but she luckily had nothing about her only two bottles of the Bath Water which the rogues took to be spirits.

October 17, 1811: The Cheese Fair at Leicester was rather an extraordinary one, vast quantities of Cheese were taken home unsold but none of the Sapcote Cheese; in this Article we more than rival the neighbouring Parish of Aston.

March 7, 1813: The stocking trade gets worse, many hands are turned off. The Poor rates at Hinckley will this year amount to 23s in the pound at Sapcote to about 8.

April 26, 1813: Our Sapcote people have been feasting the greater part of last week; three Club-feasts and a feast of Plough-bullocks have exhausted most of the Ale in the public houses, and most of the tobacco in the Parish, and there have been some bloody noses.

September 3, 1813: The only parish News I have to communicate is the defection of Parson Hincks. He has absconded with considerable property of other peoples. He has taken all the money belonging to one of the Clubs, to which he was Treasurer, and among a variety of reports it is said he is in debt to the sum of 700 £ but I suppose there is much exaggeration.

It is a severe cut to the Methodists among whom he was reckoned infallible as the Pope of Rome.

February 14, 1814: Your Christmas Charity this year has been distributed as follows, to one poor Woman a pair of Shoes, to another 4 Cwt of Coals, and three yards of flannel each to twenty four others.

Old Betty Messenger more troublesome than ever; she is now in the habbit of sitting up all night and lying in bed all day.

  1. Harrison and Thos Messenger have had a serious quarrel about her, each thinks much of what they do for her, and each strives to counteract the other.

It is with the greatest difficulty any person can be found to attend her at any price.

June 17, 1814 : This has been our day of rejoicing on account of the Peace.

It is now nearly ten o’clock, and all had been, hitherto, peace and harmony.

Master Harrison was just in his element, he was tapster, and guarded the ale barrel. Among the diversions were several foot races of Men, Women, and boys.

Mrs. Bogas won an handkerchief by racing, but was beat in a smoking match for a ¼lb of tobacco by Mrs Turl. Bogas was also beat in a smoking match by Jno Lucas.

Tom Ellis, son of the late Clerk, won a hat by racing.

The whole of the Inhabitants of the Parish, including the poor from the Industry house, about 700 in the whole, dined in the Western close opposite the Church.

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