Sarah Dazley (1819 – 5 August 1843),
later known as the "Potton Poisoner", was an English murderer
convicted of the poisoning of her husband William Dazley. Dazley
was suspected, but not tried, in the poisoning of her first
husband Simeon Mead and their son Jonah Mead in 1840. The murder
of William Dazley took place in Wrestlingworth, England.
Born in 1819 in the town of Potton,
Bedfordshire, Sarah Reynolds was the daughter of the town barber
Philip Reynolds and his wife Ann Reynolds. At the age of 7,
Dazley's father died and her mother went on to date a series of
Following her mother's footsteps, the tall girl with long
auburn hair and big brown eyes married at the young age of 19 to
Simeon Mead. They lived in the town of Potton for two years before
moving to Tadlow in 1840. Shortly after the move, she gave birth
to their son Jonah. Jonah became ill and died at the age of seven
months. In October 1840, Simeon Mead died unexpectedly as well.
It didn't take much grieving for Dazley to get
over her first husband before marrying her second, and final,
husband William Dazley in 1841. Once married they moved to the
village of Wrestlingworth. Dazley invited teenage Ann Mead, Simeon
Mead's daughter, to live with her and her new husband. William
Dazley was opposed to the idea of Mead living with them so in
retaliation he became an avid drinker and hit Sarah. She went on
to tell one of her friends, William Waldock, that she would kill a
man who ever hit her.
William Dazley grew ill and his wife along with
Ann Mead began taking care of him. The local doctor, Dr. Sandell,
gave William prescriptions that helped him show signs of recovery,
while under the care of Ann Mead.
After seeing this Sarah started making pills of
her own for her husband. Mead was unsure what she was seeing and
didn't notice it as a problem at first. When William refused to
take the new pills, Ann took one herself to show him there was
nothing wrong. She was not aware that these pills contained
arsenic trioxide that Sarah had intentionally added. Once Sarah
saw Mead take the pill she scolded her for it. After taking it,
Mead became ill and shared similar symptoms with William, vomiting
and stomach pains. William continued to take Sarah's made up drugs
and died on October 30, 1842.
After his death, suspicion rose against Sarah
and the deaths of her two husbands and son. William Dazley's body
was exhumed and found to contain traces of arsenic. An arrest
warrant was then issued for Sarah Dazley, who fled to London.
After being discovered in London by the
Superintendent of Blunden Biggleswade Police, she insisted she was
innocent of any crimes. Dazley claimed she had no idea about any
poisonings and never got a hold of poisons or anything of that
matter. She was arrested and returned to Bedford. The news of
William Dazley's death caused suspicion regarding the deaths of
Jonah and Simeon Mead as well, so their bodies were also exhumed.
Traces of arsenic were found in Jonah, but Simeon's body was too
decomposed to test.
Sarah Dazley was committed to Bedford Gaol on
March 24, 1843 and awaited her trial. Meanwhile, she used this
time to conjure up defenses such as William poisoned himself, or
he poisoned Jonah and Simeon so she poisoned William as revenge
for murdering her family out of his desires for Sarah.
On July 22, 1843, Sarah Dazley was tried for
the murder of William Dazley at Bedfordshire Summer Assizes. She
was not tried for the murder of her son Jonah, but the case was
kept if the first case against her were to fail. Dazley was found
The chemists she bought arsenic from were able to testify
against her, as well as Ann Mead and neighbor Mrs. Carver. They
told what they had seen, including the pill making. William Waldock testified against Sarah about her statement that she would
kill any man that hit her, after making claims that William Dazley
had hit her. The Marsh test was used to detect the arsenic in
William Dazley's body and the result was used as forensic evidence
against Sarah. It only took 30 minutes for the jury to convict
Sarah for the murder of her second husband.
Judge Baron Alderson sentenced Sarah Dazley to
hang. She was executed on Saturday, 5 August 1843, at Bedford Gaol.
She was the only woman to be publicly hanged at Bedford Gaol.
Thousands of people came to watch the execution. She became known
as the Potton Poisoner.
Sarah Dazley - a Victorian poisoner
Sarah was born in 1819 as Sarah Reynolds in the
village of Potton in Bedfordshire, the daughter of the village
barber, Phillip Reynolds. Phillip died when Sarah was seven years
old and her mother then embarked on a series of relationships with
other men. Hardly an ideal childhood.
Sarah grew up to be a tall, attractive girl
with long auburn hair and large brown eyes. However she too was
promiscuous and by the age of nineteen had met and married a local
man called Simeon Mead. They lived in Potton for two years before
moving to the village of Tadlow just over the county border in
Cambridgeshire in 1840. It is thought that the move was made to
end one of Sarah’s dalliances. Here she gave birth to a son in
February 1840, who was christened Jonah. The little boy was the
apple of his father’s eye, but died at the age of seven months,
completely devastating Simeon.
In October Simeon too died
suddenly, to the shock of the local community. Sarah did the
grieving mother and widow bit for a few weeks, before replacing
Simeon with another man, twenty three year old William Dazley.
This caused a lot of negative gossip and considerable suspicion in
In February 1841, Sarah and William married and moved
to the village of Wrestlingworth three miles away and six miles
north east of Biggleswade in Bedfordshire. Sarah invited Ann Mead,
Simeon’s teenage daughter to live with them. It seems that all was
not well in the marriage from early on and William took to
drinking heavily in the village pub.
This inevitably led to
friction with Sarah which boiled over into a major row culminating
in William hitting her. Sarah always had other men in her life
through both her marriages and confided to one of her male
friends, William Waldock, about the incident, telling him she
would kill any man who hit her. Sarah also told neighbours a
heavily embroidered tale of William’s drinking and violence
William became ill with vomiting and stomach
pains a few days later and was attended by the local doctor, Dr.
Sandell, who prescribed pills which initially seemed to work, with
William being looked after by Ann Mead and showing signs of a
steady recovery. Whilst William was still bed ridden, Ann not
entirely realising what she was seeing at the time, observed Sarah
making up pills in the kitchen.
Sarah told a friend of hers in the village, Mrs
Carver, that she was concerned about William’s health and that she
was going to get a further prescription from Dr. Sandell. Mrs
Carver was surprised to see Sarah throw out some pills from the
pillbox and replace them with others. When she remarked on it,
Sarah told her that she wasn’t satisfied with the medication that
Dr. Sandell had provided and instead was using a remedy from the
In fact the replacement pills were those that
Sarah had made herself. She gave these to William who immediately
noticed that they were different and refused to take them. Ann who
had been nursing him and had still not made any connection with
the pills she had seen Sarah making, persuaded William to swallow
a pill by taking one too. Inevitably they both quickly became ill
with the familiar symptoms of vomiting and stomach pains. William
vomited in the yard and one of the family pigs later lapped up the
mess and died in the night.
Apparently Sarah was able to persuade
William to continue taking the pills, assuring him that they were
what the doctor had prescribed. He began to decline rapidly and
died on the 30th of October, his death being certified as natural
by the doctor. He was buried in Wrestlingworth churchyard. Post
mortems were not normal at this time, even when a previously
healthy young man died quite suddenly.
As usual Sarah did not grieve for long before
taking up a new relationship. She soon started seeing William
Waldock openly and they became engaged at her insistence in
February 1843. William was talked out of marriage by his friends
who pointed to Sarah’s promiscuous behaviour and the mysterious
deaths of her previous two husbands and her son. William wisely
broke off the engagement and decided not to continue to see Sarah.
Suspicion and gossip was now running high in
the village and it was decided to inform the Bedfordshire coroner,
Mr. Eagles, of the deaths. He ordered the exhumation of William’s
body and an inquest was held on Monday the 20th of March 1843 at
the Chequers Inn in Wrestlingworth High Street.
It was found that
William’s viscera contained traces of arsenic and an arrest
warrant was issued against Sarah. Sarah it seems had anticipated
this result and had left the village and gone to London. She had
taken a room in Upper Wharf Street where she was discovered by
Superintendent Blunden of Biggleswade police. Sarah told Blunden
that she was completely innocent and that she neither knew
anything about poisons nor had she ever obtained any.
arrested her and decided to take her back to Bedford. What would
be a short journey now required an overnight stop in those days
and they stayed in the Swan Inn, Biggleswade. Sarah was made to
sleep in a room with three female members of the staff. She did
not sleep well and asked the women about capital trials and
execution by hanging. This was later reported to Blunden and
struck him as odd.
The bodies of Simeon Mead and Jonah had also
now been exhumed and Jonah’s was found to contain arsenic,
although Simeon’s was too decomposed to yield positive results.
On the 24th of March 1843, Sarah was committed
to Bedford Gaol to await her trial and used her time to concoct
defences to the charges. She decided to accuse William Dazley of
poisoning Simeon and Jonah on the grounds that he wanted them out
of her life so he could have her to himself. When she realised
what he had done she decided to take revenge by poisoning William.
Unsurprisingly these inventions were not believed and were rather
ridiculous when it was William’s murder she was to be tried for.
In another version William had poisoned himself by accident.
She came to trial at the Bedfordshire Summer
Assizes on Saturday the 22nd of July before Baron Alderson,
charged with William’s murder, as this was the stronger of the two
cases against her. The charge of murdering Jonah was not proceeded
with but held in reserve should the first case fail.
Evidence was given against her by two local
chemists who identified her as having purchased arsenic from them
shortly before William’s death. Mrs Carver and Ann Mead told the
court about the incidents with the pills that they had witnessed.
William Waldock testified that Sarah had said
she would kill any man that ever hit her after the violent row
that she and William had. Forensic evidence was presented to show
that William had indeed died from arsenic poisoning, it being
noted that his internal organs were well preserved. The Marsh
test, a definitive test for arsenic trioxide had been only
available for a few years at the time of Sarah’s trial. Arsenic
trioxide is a white odourless powder that can easily pass
undetected by the victim when mixed into food and drink.
Since 1836 all defendants had been legally
entitled to counsel and Sarah’s defence was put forward by a Mr.
O'Malley, based upon Sarah’s inventions. He claimed that Sarah had
poisoned William by accident. Against all the other evidence this
looked decidedly weak and contradicted the stories Sarah had told
the police. It took the jury took just thirty minutes to convict
Before passing sentence Baron Alderson
commented that it was bad enough to kill her husband but it showed
total heartlessness to kill her infant child as well. He
recommended her to ask for the mercy of her Redeemer. He then
donned the black cap and sentenced her to hang. It is interesting
to note that Baron Alderson had, at least in his own mind found
her guilty of the murder of Jonah, even though she had not been
tried for it.
During her time in prison, Sarah learnt to read
and write and began reading the Bible. She avoided contact with
other prisoners whilst on remand, preferring her own company and
accepting the ministrations of the chaplain. In the condemned cell
she continued to maintain her innocence and as far as one can tell
never made a confession to either the matrons looking after her or
to the chaplain.
There was no recommendation to mercy and the
Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, saw no reason to offer a
reprieve. The provision of the Murder Act of 1752, requiring
execution to take place within two working days had been abolished
in 1836 and a period of not less than fourteen days substituted.
Sarah’s execution was therefore set for Saturday the 5th of August
1843. A crowd variously estimated at 7,000 - 12,000 assembled in
St. Loyes Street, outside Bedford Gaol to watch the hanging. It
was reported that among this throng was William Waldock.
The New Drop gallows was erected on the flat
roof over the main gate of the prison in the early hours of the
Saturday morning and the area around the gatehouse was protected
by a troop of javelin men. William Calcraft had arrived from
London the previous day to perform the execution.
Sarah was taken from the condemned cell to the
prison chapel at around ten o’clock for the sacrament. The under
sheriff of the county demanded her body from the governor and she
was taken to the press room for her arms to be pinioned. She was
now led up to the gatehouse roof and mounted the gallows platform,
accompanied by the prison governor and the chaplain. She was asked
if she wished to make any last statement which she declined,
merely asking that Calcraft be quick in his work and repeating
“Lord have mercy on my soul”. He pinioned her legs, before drawing
down the white hood over her head and adjusting the simple halter
style noose around her neck. He then descended the scaffold and
withdrew the bolt supporting the trap doors.
Sarah dropped some eighteen inches and her body
became still after writhing for just a few seconds, as the rope
applied pressure to the arteries and veins of her neck, causing a
carotid reflex. Sarah was left on the rope for the customary hour
before being taken down and the body taken back into the prison
for burial in an unmarked grave, as was now required by law.
It was reported by the local newspapers that
the crowd had behaved well and remained silent until Sarah was
actually hanged. Once she was suspended they carried on eating,
drinking, smoking, laughing and making ribald and lewd remarks.
Copies of broadsides claiming to contain Sarah’s confession and
her last dying speech were being sold among the crowd, which
amazingly people bought even though she had made neither. You can
see a broadside about her hanging here. Note the stylised woodcut
picture that was modified to show a man or a woman as appropriate.
The 1840’s were a time of great hardship
nationally and yet Sarah, whilst hardly wealthy, did not seem to
suffer from this and it was never alleged that she was unable to
feed her child or that she was destitute. Extreme poverty in rural
areas did appear to be the motive in some murders at this time,
especially of infants. Sarah’s motive seems to be a much more evil
one, the elimination of anyone who got in the way of her next
Sarah’s was the first execution at Bedford
since 1833 and she was the only woman to be publicly hanged there.
In fact Bedfordshire executions were rare events and there were to
be only two more in public, Joseph Castle on the 31st of March
1860 for the murder of his wife and William Worsley on the 31st of
March 1868 for the murder of William Bradbury.
Notes on the period.
Queen Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837,
at the age of eighteen and her reign saw a great deal of change in
the penal system. For the first thirty one years of it executions
were a very public event enjoyed by the masses. People would come
from far and wide to witness the spectacle, in some cases special
trains were even laid on! Broadsides were sold at many executions
giving the purported confessions of the prisoner and there was
considerable press interest, particularly where the criminal was
Thirty women and two teenage girls were to be
executed in England and Scotland in the thirty one year period
from May 1838 to the abolition of public hanging in May 1868. Of
these twenty one had been convicted of poisoning (two thirds of
the total). Sarah Chesham was actually executed for the attempted
murder of her husband but was thought to be guilty of several
fatal poisonings as well.
Attempted murder ceased to be a capital crime
in 1861 under the provisions of the Criminal Law Consolidation Act
of that year. Mary Ann Milner would have made the total thirty
three had she not hanged herself in Lincoln Castle the day before
her scheduled execution on the 30th of July 1847. There were no
female executions in Wales during this time but a further ten
women were hanged in Ireland during the period, all for murder.
Sarah Chesham’s case prompted a House of
Commons committee to be set up to investigate poisoning. This
found that between 1840 and 1850, ninety seven women and eighty
two men had been tried for it.
A total of twenty two women were
hanged in the decade 1843 – 1852 of whom seventeen had been
convicted of murder by poisoning, representing 77% of the total.
There were no female executions in the years 1840 – 1842 in
England. This rash of poisonings led to a Bill being introduced
whereby only adult males could purchase arsenic.
considered a particularly evil crime as it is totally premeditated
and thus it was extremely rare for a poisoner to be reprieved
whereas it was not unusual for females to be reprieved for other
types of murder, such as infanticide. One of the few poisoners to
be reprieved was Charlotte Harris in 1849 who had murdered her
husband but who pregnant at the time of her trial.
Sarah Dazley and the Merry family of Bedford1.
The association of ballad-maker, ballad-seller and a particular
event tantalisingly glimpsed in the case of Coventry Tom2 can be
tentatively extended through that of Sarah Dazley, who was
executed at Bedford for poisoning her second husband, William.
Briefly, Sarah Dazley was baptised at Potton, Bedfordshire, in
1815, daughter of Philip and Ann Reynolds, and married a Simeon
Mead from Tadlow, just across the county border in Cambridgeshire,
in 1835. A son, Jonah, was born in 1840 but both Simeon and Jonah
died during that same year, Simeon aged but 24.
In the same year
again, Sarah then married William Dazley at Wrestlingworth, a
village near to Potton; but he, too, died soon - in 1842. It was
only a few months later that banns were read for Sarah Dazley and
George Waldeck of nearby Cockayne Hatley.
These circumstances might seem to have been, collectively, a
trifle unusual and there were also rumours about the death of
William Dazley. George Waldeck had himself been warned not to
fulfil his engagement and did, it seems, break it off. Consequent
to these uncertainties, the Bedfordshire coroner ordered
disinterment and traces of arsenic poisoning were found in the
bodies of both William Dazley and son Jonah (but not in the body
of Simeon Mead).
Eventually Sarah Dazley, having apparently absconded - in company
with one, Samuel Stebbings, described as a ‘paramour’3 - was apprehended in London where she
declared herself quite ready to face any closer investigation so
as ‘to clear her character’.
A trial was held back in Bedfordshire
and the jury gave the opinion that William Dazley had died ‘from
the effects of arsenic administered to him with a guilty knowledge
by Sarah Dazley, his wife.’ She was confined in Bedford gaol on
24th March 1843 and hung before a crowd estimated variously but at
least once in excess of some twelve thousand on August 5th 1843.4.
One newspaper report of the execution indicated that ‘a number of
inhabitants’ had made the journey to watch; and then the newspaper
followed with some clearly withering remarks about the lack of
suitable behaviour amongst the crowd and its connection with
ballad-selling, often typical of newspaper reports, justified or
The crowd was reasonably orderly until after the victim was
suspended, when the ordinary debaucheries were carried on, "to
show the moral effects of the public examples," in these legalized
butcheries. Drinking, smoking, hustling and singing were among the
few displays of fine feeling, and the lawless mob were inclined to
no ordinary degree by the vagabond ballad-mongers bawling out the
last dying speech and confessions, and singing the copy of verses
made by the woman herself; all of which, we need not add, was
entirely false, and got up on the occasion, by a printer in the
town, as a harvest.5.
At this point it is useful to recall the alleged process of
making ballads on executions. Mayhew gave the information that the
case of any murder was presented in printed form in stages - life,
trial, confession and execution with, maybe, a sorrowful
This pattern is often found in newspaper accounts except
for the last-named which is likely to have given the most
opportunity for a separate ballad-printing; but prose accounts of
the event did sit side by side with verse. As noted in the
previous article in this series, Hindley printed just such an
amalgam in the case of Corder’s murder of Maria Marten.7.
A similar amalgam, for comparison, can be found centred on the
trial and execution (28th March 1866) of Mary Ann Ashford in
Exeter for the murder of her husband. One account of the Ashford
case, in terms reminiscent of the strictures on the Dazley
execution cited above, suggested that ‘there were 20,000 persons
present to gratify their morbid curiosity’.8.
Another included brief extracts from
correspondence between Mary Ann Ashford and a Frank Pratt (they
had, apparently, formed a liaison); more extracts, this time from
newspaper reports on William Ashford’s death; a reference to the
trial and the execution; and then a ballad, of whose style the
following stanzas are representative:
Good people all both far and near
Pray listen unto me
Mary Ashford she did die
On Exeter’s Gallows tree.
For the murder of her husband, dear,
William Ashford was his name.
She poisoned him at Clist Honiton,
And died the death of shame ... 9.
Following Mayhew’s description: the matter of confessions may be
considered. The presence of clergy was a ubiquitous feature of
executions and confession was certainly encouraged in keeping with
the solemnity of an occasion when culprits were preparing to meet
their maker. According to Mayhew, though, the confession of James
Rush, in a widely-reported case, was a ‘cock’ - a fabrication.10.
We have already seen, in the case
of Coventry Tom, how a supposed confession may have been contrived
from within the condemned cell, whether the occupant could write
or not. Nonetheless, newspapers did publish references to and some
full confessions. A report of the execution of Rebecca Smith in Devizes (23rd August 1849) ‘for murdering her infant child’
contains the following passage:
... Free from guilt and hypocrisy, she at once unhesitatingly
confessed her crime, and acknowledged the justice of the
punishment that awaited her, and frequently expressed a hope that
others would take a warning by her fate.11.
George Bentley, executed at Stafford in 1866, ‘made a
confession’ to the prison authorities ‘and he fully acknowledges
the justness of the sentence that has been awarded.’12. Catherine Foster, executed in Bury St
Edmunds in 1847, had her confession witnessed by the prison
governor and the prison chaplain and then published.13.
after public hanging ceased to be a public spectacle in 1868,
confessions were published. That of William Bull, like Sarah Dazley, executed at Bedford (1871), was made on two separate
occasions, the first witnessed by the governor of the gaol and a
warder and the second, made a week later, in the presence of the
governor and the prison chaplain.14. That of Henry March, who was
executed in Norwich in 1877, was also published.15.
There are, too, ballad-printings of confessions such as that of
Thomas Drory (mentioned elsewhere here) who, supposedly wrote of
Jael Denny, his victim, that
I in a field did her entice
And with a rope I did her kill ...
and, after begging forgiveness for his crime, continued:
Farwell my friends and neighbours too,
Adieu my tender father dear ... 16.
Clearly, though, the device of confession, in this case, was
simply another way of casting the details of the case.
Where Mary Ann Ashford was concerned, the Western Morning News
indicated that she ‘refused to make a detailed confession’17 and there is
no mention of one in the ballad either.
As for Sarah Dazley, there are contradictions which cannot be
resolved. She always maintained her innocence and, in one report,
is supposed to have protested to her gaolers right until the last
that she did not know that her husband had taken poison and, then,
seeming to comprehend how things were going to turn out, despite
her protestations, ‘Pray do not leave me,’ she continued, ‘but be
as quick as you can’.
In another report she is reputed to have
answered the Minister and Gaoler ‘severally’ asking if she had
anything to say by replying: ‘I have nothing to say’ after which
she only repeatedly uttered the words, ‘Lord have mercy on my
Yet another newspaper report gave the
information that, apparently, she refused to say anything at all
during her last hours and the press ‘by the under-sheriff’s
deputy, were excluded from the scene, where the last words of the
prisoner, about to enter the presence of her God, should have been
Further, the first newspaper report cited in
this piece indicated that as ‘the unhappy woman was launched into
eternity amidst the groans, sighs and tears of the spectators’
most ‘were greatly shocked at the idea of her not having made any
confession’. This may or may not be hyperbole.
There is another aspect to consider. The depositions in the Dazley
case would have offered prime material for adaptation; and we do
know that ballad-makers used newspaper accounts. One of Mayhew’s
informants, for instance, told him that, of one ballad, ‘that bit
was taken from a newspaper. Oh, we’re not above acknowledging when
we condescends to borrow from any of ’em’.19. Mayhew also
commented that ‘The narrative, embracing trial, biography, &c., is
usually prepared by the printer, being a condensation from the
accounts in newspapers ... ’.20.
The question all the time is to do with the composition and
distribution of ballads. Much evidence, some as noted here and in
the previous article, does refer to the practice. At Aylesbury, in
1845, men were seen to be ‘turning a penny’ by the sale of a
description of ‘the execution of John Tawell this morning’.21.
The Times report on
the execution of Sarah Chesham for the murder of her husband
Chelmsford in 1851 noted ‘hawkers of ballads and "true and correct
accounts" of the execution ... ’ (and added, in an almost
throwaway line about the behaviour of the crowd, that ‘all kinds
of edibles appeared ... ’).22. At Maidstone, in 1867, at the double execution of Ann
Lawrence and James Fletcher,
There were the usual hawkers of "last dying speeches and
confessions," and other itinerants who live by similar scenes.23.
The Northampton Mercury, indeed, in an account reminiscent of the
one printed by the Banbury Guardian, reported that at the Dazley
execution, ‘Vagabonds of both sexes were bawling out the last
dying speech and confession of the woman of "three" murders, when
in truth she did not acknowledge one.’24. It is a matter of no little
conjecture that an observer might well describe what was expected
to happen and not necessarily what actually happened in something
of the same way that some ballads would appear to have been
concocted and others put out before the ‘drop’. Still, where Sarah Dazley is concerned, references to the selling of a ballad are
In terms of probability and circumstance, then, the odds are that
a ballad about Sarah Dazley was contrived. If so, some or other of
the features described here would most likely have appeared.
Regret for the crime, we would expect. According to the printed
ballad, Harriet Tarver, executed at Gloucester in 1836 for
poisoning her husband, hoped that her ‘orphan child’ would take
warning and shun ‘vice and bad company’ and
You married women wheree-er [sic] you be
I pray take a warning by me
Pray love your husband and children to [sic]
And God will his blessing bestow.25.
Any reference to the actual crime seems, usually, to have been
somewhat restrained in character. Henry March, for instance, fell
out with a ‘shopmate’ and ‘With a large bar of iron his life took
away’. Mary Ann Cotton, convicted of a series of murders of
husbands, children and neighbours, ‘watched them yield their
latest breath’.26. In the
case of Sarah Chesham,
On the twenty-eighth of May,
The wretched woman she did go
To a shop to buy the fatal poison,
Which has proved her overthrow;
The dreadful dose she gave her husband,
Soon after which Richard Chesham died ... 27.
It was left to newspaper accounts to stretch out the lurid
All this would allow any ballad-maker latitude to compose an
attractive (salacious?) narrative; to escape fidelity to
actuality; and thus to steal a march on ostensibly accurate
newspaper accounts; and to have been able to choose a particular
viewpoint, whether that of an onlooker or of the principal, for a
more effective dramatisation of the event.
Similarly, the idea of
last words and confessions, palpably not always capable of clear
verification, would still attract a ballad-maker’s skill and still
invite an audience, even a prurient one. We know this, at the
least, from the continued popularity of execution ballads which
regularly referred in their titles - somewhat in the manner that
the Drory case was presented - to exactly the ‘last words and
Where the unfortunate Sarah Dazley was concerned and the
possibility of a ballad having been made on her execution, we do,
in fact, have information about ‘a printer in the town’ whose
activities date from 1818 through one, Clarke Barber Merry,
‘Printer, Bookseller, Stationer, Paperhanger, Bedford’, who, in
1820, printed election pieces concerning local politicians.29.
In 1821 the Bedfordshire Quarter
Sessions Records included a letter from a C B Merry asking the
Magistrates to consider his services for printing purposes. Pigot’s Bedford directories listed Clarke Barber Merry as printer,
High Street, Bedford, in 1830 and in 1839. There are more recorded
manifestations of the family concern throughout the middle years
of the century, including a song-text, Trelawny and Victory to the
tune of With Helmet on his Brow, printed in 1854. We do also know
of broadside ballad-sheets with the Merry imprint on them - there
are ten such in the Bodleian collection30 - and certain details on
the sheets and, even more so, dates associated with one or two of
them, give a further perspective on the progress of the firm
through the century.
One of the ballad-sheets has the initials, ‘C
B Merry’, on it. Another places The Drummer Boy of Waterloo,
positing a fairly obvious date, alongside Woodman, Spare That Tree
which latter dates from 1837.31. A third focuses on the subject of the siege of Lucknow, which took place in 1857. Taking these factors together
and noting that there are shades in between, the point here is
that a period of time during which the Merry imprint flourished is
We know that Clarke Barber Merry’s sons, John Swepson Merry and
William Merry, were printers but William died in 1846 and,
moreover, John Swepson was not recorded in the 1851 Bedford
census.32. There may be one
answer to an implicit mystery: the initials, ‘M. A.’, appear on
five ballad-sheets. These seem to have belonged to Mary Anna
Merry, daughter of Clarke Barber Merry, and baptised in 1830. It
is not possible, at this stage, to be clearer about Mary Anna’s
involvement. It does, nevertheless, look as though Clarke Barber
Merry had passed on the business since, although he was listed in
the 1851 census, it was not as a printer. In 1861 he was listed as
Even more pertinently, we also know that it was John Swepson and
William who were involved in the Sarah Dazley case. For, in this
respect, a discovery was made recently, that of a poster situated
in the Bedford Museum which revealed a simple picture with the
legend ‘The Execution of Sarah Dazley’ on it and accompanied by
the initials of J S and W Merry.
Frustratingly, however, that is all ... no text concerning Sarah
Dazley appears to have survived.33. As in the case of Coventry Tom, clinching
evidence of a specific event and an attendant ballad simply eludes
Roly Brown - 28.2.03
1. There are, as usual, several debts to be acknowledged and I
would particularly like to thank the staffs at the under-mentioned
libraries for their provision of material and help with
consultation during a number of visits: Plymouth public library
for the Tavistock Gazette, The Western Morning News and the
Western Daily Mercury; the West Country Local Studies Library,
Exeter for the Exeter Flying Post; Wiltshire Public Record Office,
Trowbridge for The Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, The Salisbury
and Wiltshire Herald and the Sherborne Mercury; both Trowbridge
and the Oxford Local Studies Library for The Northampton Mercury;
and Oxford also for Jackson’s Oxford Journal and The Banbury
Guardian (other material was made available in all these libraries
as well); the Essex Public Record Office for The Times and the
Chelmsford Chronicle articles; Chris Smith and the Norfolk Studies
Library for sending me the Norfolk Chronicle and Norwich Gazette
reports; and Joanna Pateman and the Kent Record Office for
forwarding the Maidstone and Kentish Journal newspaper accounts
and Deborah Saunders and the Centre for Kentish Studies for
additional information, all cited in the text below. I also have
to thank the Bodleian Library for permission to quote from copies
of broadsides included in its Allegro archive and Cambridge
University Library for permission to quote from copies of
broadsides from the Madden collection. Access to the Madden
collection was most often gained through the auspices of the
Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House and I would
like to thank the EFDSS and especially Malcolm Taylor and his
staff at the library for patience and help.
2. See Musical Traditions, Article 131, January 2003.
3. Bedfordshire Mercury and Huntingdon Express, April 1st 1843
(see end for acknowledgements).
4. Jackson’s Oxford Journal, Saturday August 12th 1843, p.4, gave
its estimate as 10,000.
5. Banbury Guardian: Thursday 10th August 1843 - which newspaper
spelled the name as ‘Dazeley’ whereas other newspapers left out
the first ‘e’.
6. See Henry Mayhew, Life and Labour of the London Poor (London,
Frank Cass and Co. Ltd., 1967, Vol. I), pp.280-285.
7. The murder took place in 1828. Hindley’s piece was first
printed by Catnach and is found on p.80 of The History of the
Catnach Press (first published in 1887 and re-issued in Detroit by
The Singing Tree Press, 1969).
8. Tavistock Gazette, Thursday 29th March 1866 unpaginated. The
Exeter Flying Post (28th March 1866, p.8 - though the report was
written on Wednesday March 28th) followed a similar line,
referring to ‘every species of vice and immorality’ amongst the
9. I am indebted to Sue and Phil Warrilow (Braunton, Devon), for
forwarding a copy of this piece which is included in a Devon
Library Services Theme Pack, Law and Order (n..d.). The exact
source of the printing has not yet been identified.
10. Mayhew: op cit, p.281; and for a note on this phenomenon, the
previous piece in this series.
11. See Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette for Thursday August 23rd
1849, p.3. Identical reports can be found in The Salisbury and
Wiltshire Herald (Saturday August 25th 1849, p.4) and the
Northampton Mercury, (Saturday September 1st 1849, p.4). This
succession of reports is an interesting indicator of how news may
have travelled and in what form.
12. Western Daily Mercury 28th March 1866, p.2.
13. The Norfolk Chronicle and Norwich Gazette, 24th April 1847.
14. Bedfordshire Times, 4th April 1871. This execution took place
behind closed doors; but there were, it is reported, numbers of
people gathered outside the prison walls.
15. See The Norfolk Chronicle and Norwich Gazette, 24th March
16. Confession of Thomas Drory, Bodleian Allegro archive, from
17. Western Morning News, Thursday March 29th 1866.
18. Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire Express, 5th August 1843.
19. Mayhew: op cit, p.225.
20. Ibid, p.281.
21. Banbury Guardian, 4th April 1845. The execution took place on
28th March 1845. It was also reported in Jackson’s Oxford Journal
(Saturday March 22nd 1845, p.4 and Saturday March 29th 1845, p.3)
where, incidentally, a confession was cited; and in Northampton
Mercury (Saturday April 5th 1845, p.4) where Tawell’s
acknowledgement of the murder was noted but not a confession.
22. The Times, 26th March 1851 (unpaginated). This was also the
occasion of the execution of Thomas Drory for the murder of Jael
Denny. For a report on both the Drory and Chesham executions see
the Chelmsford Chronicle, 28th March 1851, and for a separate
report on Drory see the same newspaper, 14th March 1851. Drory, it
seems - or, rather, Jael Denny, the victim - did not do well for
Mayhew’s informant because ‘The weather coopered her, poor lass!’
- presumably he was travelling the country ... Nonetheless he
still expected to make money from Drory: which suggests that old
news would be re-cast (Mayhew, op cit, p.225). Sarah Chesham is
not mentioned in Mayhew’s accounts.
23. See Maidstone and Kentish Journal, 12th January 1867, p.2, the
first of two reports on these executions in the same journal, the
second put out two days later.
24. Northampton Mercury, Saturday August 12th 1843, p.4.
25. I am indebted to Roy Palmer (Malvern) for forwarding me a copy
of this ballad, printed by Willey of Cheltenham and to be found in
the Madden collection. The full title given by Willey was:
An affecting Copy of Verses
Written on the Body of Harriet Tarver
Who was Executed April 9th 1836, at Gloucester, for Poisoning
her Husband in the town of Camden
- Camden being Chipping Camden.
26. The March and Cotton ballads can be found in the Bodleian
Library’s Allegro archive: taken from sources as follows: Harding
B 14 (234) - no imprint; and Firth c 17(98) - no imprint. Mary Ann
Cotton was executed on 24th March 1873.
27. Hodges (London) imprint, Bodleian Allegro archive, from Firth
28. See, for example, the Disley (London) printing of Lamentation,
Confession and Execution of Muller, Bodleian Allegro archive
(Johnson Ballads 316). Muller was executed in 1864 for the murder
of one, Cooper, in a railway carriage.
29. He was baptised December 8th 1786 in Moulton, Northamptonshire
and died on 15th September 1868. The reference to ‘a printer in
the town’, it should be recalled, is in the first newspaper
account quoted in this article.
30. The Madden collection has no items at all from Bedfordshire.
31. This is as a first publication of Woodman ... . The words
actually date from 1830 and a poem by an American, George Pope
Morris, and the music was by Henry Russell, English-born but
living in America when he collaborated with Morris. Russell came
and went to America and in 1842 was giving a series of concerts in
England. It may have been then that Woodman ... was first heard in
England and that printings appeared subsequently (for more brief
details of Russell’s career see Derek Scott: The Singing Bourgeois
... Aldershot, Ashgate Publishing Company, 2001, pp.39-40). It
should be said that Waterloo material could well have been
retrospective as, for instance, was much to do with Nelson and
Trafalgar ... that is to say, given the obvious caveat, put out
much later as a commercial proposition.
32. This might conceivably have been a temporary blip: he could
have been away from home during the census take. More information
is emerging in connection with John Swepson and this will form
part of another piece in this series.
33. I am greatly indebted to Susan Edwards, archivist at the
Bedford Public Record Office, who has assembled a mass of detail
concerning Sarah Dazley’s case, and who sent me a copy from which
some references are taken in order to supplement the first account
in the Banbury Guardian above and that of others found; and who
also furnished me with details of the Merry family. It is very
much due to the efforts of the Bedford Record Office that
information contained in this article has come to light.