This is of course, a gardening blog. I am not usually a fairweather gardener but this winter has defeated me with its endless wet, followed this last week with frost. Instead of showing you yet more hellebores and snowdrops, I’d like to take you for a walk. England and Wales have 130,000 miles of public footpaths, taking you across almost any field you take a fancy to ramble over. But after constant rain you tend to arrive home with most of the field on your boots. But you don’t need to tramp across bleak fields. This part of Suffolk is rich in some of the prettiest villages in the country. The wealth that the wool trade brought to fifteenth century Suffolk has left a legacy of magnificent churches and beautiful half timbered houses, many of them thatched.
Not far from where we live is the delightful village of Polstead. In winter this is made even more delightful by the snowdrops growing in every garden and spilling onto the verges, many of them have petals tipped with green. In spring, there are trees frothing with cherry blossom; these are the famous ‘Polstead Black’ cherry, which is famous for its juicy sweetness. I did have one of these lovely cherry trees, but it succumbed to one of the Pianist’s rare moments of strimming enthusiasm. But then let’s not apportion blame, maybe it was a rabbit. ( I have to be careful what I say, now and again the Pianist does actually read my blog. I don’t want to discourage his rare sorties into the garden)
The name Polstead means a ‘place of pools’. It has a pretty twelfth century church with lovely views over rolling countryside. We are told that the phantom off a previous vicar of the church sometimes comes dashing down the hill in a trap drawn by a headless horse. A tad melodramatic, don’t you think? It’s funny how often phantom horses are headless. Maybe this same rector drove the Rev Hayden Foster from the rectory in 1980 with his attention-seeking hauntings.
But this post is not about ghosts it’s about a murder. The Victorians invented the murder mystery and they couldn’t get enough of real life murders. They invented murder tourism and would come from miles around to visit the sight of a grisly crime. Thomas Quincey said: ‘Pleasant it is no doubt, to drink tea with your sweetheart, but most disagreeable to find her bubbling in the tea urn’. This may be true, but the Victorians couldn’t get enough of stories about other people’s sweethearts coming to a gruesome end. Maybe one of the first murders to catch the imagination of the public was the notorious Red Barn Murder in 1827, ten years before Victoria came to the throne.
Maria Marten was the daughter of the mole catcher and ‘no better than she should be‘ as my grandmother would say through pursed lips.
She had had two illegitimate babies from two different fathers, ( one of of them William’s brother) before she started a relationship with William Corder who was the son of a farmer and rather further up the social scale than Maria.
Maria persuaded William to marry her after she had yet another child. He agreed to run away with her and told her to disguise herself as a man and meet him in a nearby barn. She did so and was never seen again. William told Maria’s parents that she was waiting in Ipswich for a special licence to get married. He even said that he had received a letter from her from the Isle of Wight. Eventually, he left Polstead, taking the key to the red barn with him. He advertised in the newspapers for a wife. He found one and settled down in Brentford in Essex. Eleven months after her disappearance, Maria’s young stepmother said that she had had a dream and that Maria’s father should go and dig up the floor of the red barn because she was sure that Maria was buried there. It has been suggested she knew where the body was because she had a relationship with Corder herself and was piqued when he got married. She may even have been implicated in the murder, but after all this time we will never know the truth. Maria’s decomposing body was found and Corder was arrested. The trial at Bury St.Edmunds caught the imagination of the public and was reported in the papers in all its gory details. Maria appeared to have been shot, strangled and stabbed. There was Red Barn mania. A year after the murder case the barn had been destroyed by souvenir hunters wanting a piece. Later Maria’s grave stone would also be chiseled away. Plays and ballads were written and Staffordshire potteries made models of the barn.
The murder trial was a sensation and the conviction inevitable. Maria’s decomposing head was used in evidence. Corder was sentenced to be hanged and his body to public dissection. The hangman was allowed to keep the rope which he sold, at a guinea an inch, to souvenir hunters. It is estimated that a crowd of 10,000 people came to see the hanging and to file past the body which had been cut open so that they could see the organs. This disgusting practice came to an end in 1832 when the Anatomy Act came in. Up until then, anybody who was hanged for murder was denied burial, so when the surgeons had finished dissecting Corder his skeleton was given to the West Suffolk Hospital where it was used to teach anatomy. It remained there until the 1940s and was even taken to dances sometimes. The surgeon who dissected him was called Creed and he got to keep the scalp which he tanned. He even had a book made out of the tanned skin. These grisly relics are to be found in Moyses Museum in Bury St Edmunds. Close your eyes now if you’d rather not see.
The Victorians were fascinated by their new found science ‘phrenology’ which wasn’t scientific at all . They really believed that a person’s character could be read in the bumps of his head.
Of course they were keen to read Corder’s skull and a cast was made of it by Childs. A lengthy dissertation was the result and of course the bumps in the head proved what a rogue Corder was.
It is sobering to think how blood thirsty and ghoulish our ancestors were in the not so distant past. Of course we all like a good murder mystery,there is even a new genre called ‘cosy murder mystery‘. But there is nothing cosy about the Red Barn Murder. I don’t know what Agatha Christie would have made of it all.
I hope when I come to write my next post it will have stopped raining and I will be bringing you news from the garden. It’s possible that I may show you some more beautiful Suffolk villages in future posts. But no more grisly murders. I promise.