Nash's Yard in Manor Road

Last week (June 2008) a workman repairing the roof of a barn in Nash’s Yard found a bottle containing a note, written in pencil on a page apparently torn from an accounts book, as follows:

This mystery has now been solved by Sulgrave History Society member Valerie Henn, who has lived in the village all her life. All of the facts in Mr Adkin's "scrip" turn out to be true. These facts are as follows:

In 1897 Albert Smith aged 13 and his sister Alice aged 9 lived in Sulgrave with their father Francis, a farm labourer. Their mother had died some years previously.

On Saturday 10th July of that year they were alone in the house whilst their father was at work. Their uncle James Shaw aged 25 arrived unexpectedly and took them out for a walk. He was newly discharged from the army after seven years in the Scots Guards.

They went first to Mr Godfrey’s shop in the village and bought sweets. The local constable Fred Cole saw them leaving the village along the Helmdon Road, apparently in high spirits. They climbed a fence bordering the road and went into a field of oats then known as “Stone Pits”.

Francis Smith arrived home from work just after 6 pm to find Alice on her own. She said that her Uncle James had sent her home some hours earlier but brother Albert had been allowed to stay out. When he didn’t return by 8 pm Francis commenced a search which was called off at 2 am on the Sunday morning when it was too dark to continue.

The search was resumed on Sunday morning but when there was still no sign of Albert, Francis sent his elder brother to Banbury where Sarah Hobbs, James’ sister lived, this being the most likely place for him to have gone. James Shaw was indeed there and said that he had left Albert outside the Sulgrave blacksmith’s shop at 4 pm on the Saturday.

Francis called the police. On Sunday evening Constable Fred Cole found the headless body of Albert Smith in a ditch. His head was nearby covered in grass, together with a cut-throat razor wrapped in a bloodied piece of paper. There were signs of a violent struggle. Alice Smith then told Constable Cole that James Shaw had assaulted her in that field but didn’t know whether this had been witnessed by her brother because he had walked on ahead. She said this was why her uncle sent her home.

James Shaw was arrested within the hour and charged with murder.

On the next day, Monday, an inquest was held before a packed crowd in Sulgrave’s school room. The verdict was “wilful murder”.

The trial was held on 19th November before Mr Justice Wills. Shaw claimed he was in Banbury at the time of the murder, having travelled there by train from Helmdon Station. However, Helmdon station signalman Alfred Hobbs recalled telling him at 3.45 pm that there would be no train until after 5 pm. Shaw had then walked to Brackley and caught the 5.22 pm train to Banbury as witnessed by a police constable who happened to share the same carriage.

The station in Helmdon (c1910) where James Shaw went after the murder
(photo courtesy of www.helmdon.com”)

It also emerged that a police constable had seen Shaw in Sulgrave village at 1.30 am on the Sunday morning and another constable had seen him in Banbury some three hours later. He offered no explanation as to why he had made the long walk from Banbury to Sulgrave and back again in the course of Saturday night and Sunday morning. The prosecution suggested that he had returned to bury the body but the presence of searchers in the area had prevented him from doing more than throwing it into a ditch and covering the head with grass.

The court heard evidence as to Shaw’s mental state. A number of his former army colleagues attested that he had delusory and violent tendencies. This was confirmed by prison officers attending him as he awaited trial. However, the jury concluded that he was sane and returned a guilty verdict. Mr Justice Wills duly sentenced him to death.

This sentence was later commuted to one of life imprisonment on the basis of evidence from two eminent London doctors that he was “criminally insane”.

More details of this dreadful affair can be found in

Northamptonshire Murders
by Kevin Turton
An exploration of murders in Northamptonshire from 1852 to 1952.

To purchase this book, go to The History Press

Thus it turns out that, far from being some kind of a hoax, Mr Adkin's message in a bottle was a true record of the facts. He must have written it immediately after the inquest in the village school, which he may well have attended. Clearly he was much moved by this event and the stir it had caused in the village and wished somehow to record his feelings for posterity. He chose the time-honoured builder's method of a "message in a bottle", safely concealed until the next renovation or demolition and so his bottle remained intact for 111 years.

Any further information or comment on this affair would be welcome.

Send me an email at mailto:[email protected] or telephone me on 01295 760788.

Colin Wootton