Episode 5; The Reverend Roland Johnson’s Story; July 30th 1751

This is the last 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.

I have just returned from the Assizes at Hertford where the trial took place of those villains who were involved in the murder of dear Ruth Osborne. I am proud to have been the person who led the enquiry into the happenings on that sad day when Ruth went to meet her maker. I wrote to Earl Cowper in May, on behalf of the enquiry team, reporting the names of those who led the riot and took part in the ducking, describing in some detail their riotous and unlawful acts.

Three were convicted of murder and will receive the ultimate punishment; Thomas Colley, Charles Young – whom they call Red Beard – and William Umbles. There were six others who were acquitted of murder but then the Council for the King moved for an indictment of these six for damage to the Tring Workhouse and the Church. They were immediately brought before the grand jury and found guilty. This was no less than they deserved because, during the enquiry, I was told by many of my congregation that they were all part of Red Beard’s gang and deliberately incited the mob to violence.

Of the three convicted of murder, I was surprised to feel most sympathy for Thomas Colley. Unlike the others he seemed to feel real remorse; in his confession, he begged us all to forgive him; his words made me pray for his soul. He pleaded:

‘It was my foolish and vain imagination, heightened and inflamed by the strength of liquor. Pray to God to forgive me, and to wash clean my polluted soul in the blood of Jesus Christ, my saviour and redeemer’

I realise that this may have been a desperate attempt to save his neck but he seemed genuine to me. Not that it made the slightest difference to Lord Justice Lee who seemed to have no sympathy at all. As he sentenced Colley to death, he made it clear that he should not expect a pardon. The Sheriff told me in confidence later that Colley is to be hung in chains, in the second half of August and his body suspended on Wilstone Green. The other two who were found guilty of murder will be hung in their own localities. The date for Colley’s execution is being kept secret because a mob may gather as soon as they see the gibbet being erected.

What is even more surprising to me is that the Sheriff also worries that the mob may try to rescue Colley from his fate. Apparently the majority of the populace believe that he has done no wrong, that he is something of a martyr. Though I have said that I felt some pity for him, this is surely going too far. He was the one who directly caused her death and the law says he must pay. I decide that I will say something about this at my sermon next week.

During the enquiry It was very difficult to find anybody who would provide names of the guilty; most people claimed that they didn’t recognise anyone, which I knew to be untrue. The enquiry also revealed that, despite the change in the law and the advice of the authorities, there is still a common belief in the evil of witchcraft, even though it’s sixteen years since it ceased to be an offence.

My heart goes out to poor John Osborne whom everybody seems to have forgotten in all the drama and excitement of the trial. I hear that he is now in the Tring Workhouse and I must make sure to visit him soon.

The End of the Story

Thomas Colley was executed at 10am on 22nd August 1751. He had been taken from Hertford Gaol, incarcerated at St Albans the night before and executed at the scene of the crime. To provide the necessary solemnity and protection, a military display was organised and there were no attempts to save the condemned man.

The gibbet was left in situ for some time as a way of striking terror among the people and deterring them from similar riotous behaviour.

Ruth Osborne was the last woman ever to be killed for being a witch in England and she was buried in Tring Cemetery. Colley was the last man to be executed for murdering someone accused of witchcraft.

Did you miss? Episode 4; Harry Archer’s Story; April 22nd 1751

Editors note:

We have used two main sources for our story; Dick Gomm’s excellent history of Wilstone and the Cheddington History group’s equally excellent version of the story which they recently posted on Facebook. As is often the case in research of history, there can be different versions of events and, in that case, we have used the version that fits more easily into this form of presentation.

2 Comments on “Episode 5; The Reverend Roland Johnson’s Story; July 30th 1751”

  • john bly

    says:

    A thoroughly readable and remarkably well-researched series, deserving a wider publication.
    I look forward to seeing it available perhaps in printed form as a fund-raiser available in Tring Church.

  • Ivor Gregory

    says:

    No one was buried in the old churchyard at Marston because of the groundwater being so high. All locals, including Ruth Osborn, were buried at Tring until the new All Saints Church was built on higher ground around 1810.

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