John Thurtell was a graceless scamp, a rotten egg and naughty fellow. He came from good yeoman stock – his father was a Norwich merchant and had been mayor of that town. In 1809, at fourteen years of age, John entered the Royal Marines as a second lieutenant and served until 1814, when he returned home to Norwich, where his father set him up in business as a cloth dealer, (and his brother, Thomas, as a farmer). He didn’t really take to the commercial life and was drawn instead to boxing, gaming and the theatre.
One of his ‘flash’ friends was William Probert, a man of gigantic frame and diminutive intellect, who married an uncomely spinster for her money and set himself up as a London wine merchant, a business that failed in 1819, with debts of £14,000.
|A Regency Gambling Den|
Thurtell took to visiting London on business, as an opportunity to spend time in the gambling dens and boxing rings, and on one trip he was returning home when he was attacked by footpads, beaten and robbed. His creditors in Norwich didn’t believe his version of events, thinking instead that John had staged the crime and pocketed their money for himself. Thurtell skipped to London but the bad reputation followed him and he was declared bankrupt in 1821. Soon after, his brother Thomas joined him in the capital, and was also declared bankrupt. John tried his hand at running a pub, which lasted until he lost his licence for keeping an unruly house, and he then became a trainer and manager of boxers. Inevitably, he became involved in the shady underbelly of pugilism, with its gambling and fixed fights. At his time, he was introduced to Mr William Weare, who said he was a solicitor but who was really a billiard marker, an ex-waiter, a card sharp and a gambler.
Thurtell, Weare and other ‘flash’ players took to travelling to Wade’s Mill, Hertfordshire for the night time gaming and boxing, falling under suspicion for backing ‘ringers’, and John earned a reputation for cowardice. The Thurtell brothers went into business together as cloth merchants hired a warehouse and bought some stock. Amazingly, the warehouse caught fire and all the stock was burnt (although, wink wink, some say that it had already been taken away and sold) and the Thurtell brothers claimed on the insurance. The County Fire Office, the insurers, questioned liability and refused to pay, so the Thurtells took them to court. The case ought to have been thrown out, but Mr Taddy, for the defence, managed to upset the notoriously crotchety Mr Justice Park (whom we will meet again soon), and this vindictive judge summed up in favour of the plaintiffs, the jury followed his advice, and the Thurtells won £1,900 damages. They didn’t see any of the money as their bankruptcies were still being finalised (but they had some money from the stock that they had fraudulently sold). Like many gamblers, Thurtell had an over-inflated view of his own meagre abilities, which made him easy prey for other smarter, more accomplished operators and, as unsuccessful gamblers frequently do, when things went wrong he blamed other people for his losses.
Thurtell lost £300 in a bet and blamed Weare for the loss (he lost another £300 soon after, but was dropped a tip on a fixed boxing match and made his £600 back) but felt he had little hope of winning the money back from Weare, so he decided to rob him instead. Weare was well known for his mistrust of banks (can you believe such a thing?) and was rumoured to carry in excess of £2,000 cash about his person. Thurtell invited Weare to a shooting party at a cottage owned by William Probert (the failed wine merchant) at Radlett, Hertfordshire (Weare was a keen field-sportsman and an excellent shot), together with Probert and Joseph Hunt, an unsuccessful publican and noted singer.
|Gill's Hill Cottage|
On Thursday October 23rd 1823, Weare packed a carpetbag, and readied his double-barrelled gun and a backgammon board, and the following day he left London for Radlett, in a gig with Thurtell whilst Hunt and Probert travelled together in another gig. Just before they reached the cottage, in Gill’s Hill Lane, Thurtell drew a pocket pistol and shot Weare in the face. The pistol was a cheap, underpowered gun and the ball glanced off Weare’s cheekbone, and the dazed Weare jumped from the gig and tried to run away. Thurtell ran after him, knocked him to the floor, cut his throat with a penknife and stabbed him in the head with the barrel of the pistol, stirring his brains about with it.
|The Gig in the Lane|
He then went and found Probert and Hunt, and together they went on to the cottage, where Mrs Probert was waiting, and where they ate pork chops for supper, before returning to Weare’s body, dragging it through the hedge into a field, where they rifled his pockets. They returned to the cottage, where Hunt sang songs for their entertainment and Thurtell gave Mrs Probert Weare’s watch chain as a present. Later, the three went out again, put Weare’s body into a sack with some stones and dumped it in the pond in the cottage garden.
|Plan of Probert's Cottage and Gardens|
The following morning at 6am, two labourers, Richard Hunt and William Bulmer, were working in the lane when they saw Thurtell and Hunt ‘grabbling’ in the grass for something, and when asked if they had lost anything, Thurtell told them that his gig had almost overturned there last evening and it was a very bad road.
|Gill's Hill Lane|
When Thurtell and Hunt left, the workmen had a closer look and found bloodstained grass together with the knife and the pistol, which they took to the local magistrate. On the following weekend, Thurtell and Hunt went back to the cottage with a spade, intending to bury Weare’s body, and were alarmed when Probert told them that he had been talking to a neighbour who had told him that several people had heard a gunshot and some workmen had found bloodstains in Gill’s Hill lane.
|The Pond in the Garden|
The three of them panicked and decided that more desperate measures were needed to conceal the body, so they dragged it out of the pond in Probert’s garden, sacked it up, weighted the sack with flints, put it in Thurtell’s gig and took it to Elstree, where it was dropped into a deeper pond.
Tomorrow - Discovery and Treachery