Episode 3; John Tomkins’ Story; 21st and 22nd April 1751

This is the third of a series of imagined scenarios based on the widely known story of Hertfordshire’s Last Witch Hunt, as seen by five of the individuals involved, It is broadly based on the known facts from published accounts but a number of other assumed facts and conversations have been introduced to add context and make it easier to read. We have also condensed the timescale to bring the early part of the story to life.

It is not part of my job as Master of the Workhouse to protect people from a howling mob but this is now what I am expected to do. I can’t believe the numbers gathering outside; it’s been building up ever since Matthew Barton, Overseer of the Poor in Tring, told me that I had to admit John and Ruth Osborne into my Workhouse for their safety. I was reluctant to do this but Barton is an important man in these parts. Also, I like the Osbornes; I see them pass here on their way to beg for food and have chatted to them; I sometimes wonder how long it will be before they are joining the pathetic inhabitants of this place .

It’s true that the Osbornes are a little strange but I was surprised to hear that this farmer in Gubblecote has accused them of being witch and wizard. They seem very quiet and rather pathetic to be honest, cowed by years of begging and poverty.

But once word gets around about witches and wizards, it seems impossible to stop and the hostile gossip has spread quickly around the villages after the ducking was announced last week. And ever since I reluctantly let the Osbornes in a couple of hours ago, the crowd outside has been growing in numbers and noise.

It’s now late evening, it’s getting cold and the crowd begins to disperse. But there are shouts of ‘we’ll be here in the morning’ so I know that there’ll be no escape for the Osbornes. There are lots of ruffians out there who have no respect for the law or for the Overseer. Soon after the crowd has gone, there’s a knock on the door and it’s Barton. I report the situation to him and we discuss what can be done.

We decide that, in the early hours of the morning, we will move the Osbornes to Tring Church and hide them in the Vestry. Around three o’clock, we check that there is no-one outside and Barton agrees to go to tell the Rector and get the key. I’m pleased it’s not me having to wake him up. We agree that I will wait for fifteen minutes and meet him at the Church. The Osbornes are terrified but pathetically grateful when I tell them what we are planning. I tell them to leave their belongings which can be picked up tomorrow.

I install them in the vestry and tell them to not to move outside into the main body of the Church. It is very cold and I wish I had brought blankets for them. I return to the Workhouse and try to grab a few hours sleep before the morning. But my mind keeps coming back to the next day and what we will do if – or when – the mob begins to assemble again.

My worst fears are realised. Soon after 9am the crowds begin to gather and I am relieved when Matthew Barton forces his way through the crowd and I unlock the door to let him in. By midday the numbers have swelled to over a thousand and it becomes clear to both Barton and me that we are not going to be able to hold them out much longer.

We decide that the best idea is to let some of them in and show them that the Osbornes are not here. Barton goes outside to shout this message and unlock the yard gate. Very soon my Workhouse s full of angry men women and even some children, all hoping to take the Osbornes for their ducking. When the house is full the mob overflows into the garden and, when they realise that the Osbornes are not here, the mood becomes violent.

One of the men who was first in and seems to be the leader, gets hold of me by the collar and tells me that, unless I deliver the Osbornes to him, they will pull the house flat to the ground. Then I hear a sound of breaking glass and turn round to see stones smashing into the front windows. I can see my Workhouse staff backed against the wall, looking terrified. Matthew Barton is right next to me and says quietly;

‘It’s no use John, we can’t fight this, tell them where the Osbornes are or we’re all going to die.’

I do as he says and the word soon gets around. They all fight to be in the lead and the mob – which now seems to be several thousand – heads down the road to the Church. As I look down the road, I see Sebastian Grace, our Blacksmith and Tring Constable, trying to stop those at the front of the crowd.

Grace holds up his staff of office and shouts:

‘I am here to keep the peace. Stop this unruly behaviour’

The leader of the mob, a big man with a red beard, shouts;

‘Don’t mind him, he’s only a part time Constable. Get out the way Blacksmith or you will not live to see another day’.

I now know that there was nothing more I can do and that the Osbornes are doomed.

Supporting Long Marston Book Group to raise awareness & donations for a memorial to Ruth Osborne, a woman from Long Marston. To donate go to https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/longmarstonbookgroup-longmarston

Read: Episode 2; John Butterfield’s Story; mid April 1751

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