Fights, arson, poisonings – the career of John Pilley – Part Six – The Final Part

During the huge ongoing case that was the Clavering Poisonings, Police Constable John Pilley, my 3x great uncle, was involved in other cases. (You can read the previous post here – or from the start – here.)


In March 1848 a man named Charles Taylor aged 27 was in court for setting fire to a “halum stack”, which belonged to a Peter Pigram of Clavering back in January of that year. They had managed to put the fire out before it spread to any more areas of his farm. The local pub landlord found some matches on the road from his house to where the fire occurred, and he handed them to John Pilley. He did say that he saw Charles at the fire, but that he was assisting to put it out. Another witness who was lodging at the pub said he saw Charles who asked him if he could have a “box of lucifers” [matches] and he had said he didn’t know. Another lodger saw him later with beer and matches. A portion of the box of matches had been found in a nearby ditch. When John Pilley apprehended Charles Taylor he found bits of match box in his pocket that matched with the bits found in the ditch and a piece of a match. Charles told John he hadn’t bought any matches within the last fortnight.

The local butcher George Hockley said he had discussed the fire with Charles at the pub a few days after the fire. Charles asked him where he thought the fire started and what the punishment was for arson. George said he believed it was transportation, to which Charles said, “Then they don’t hang now?” and George said “No, unless anyone is burned, and then they consider it murder.” Charles made a comment about how he thought it was farmers burning their own property (maybe for insurance money), but that he didn’t think Pigram was the sort to do that. He said he would rather rob someone than set a fire. When Charles was being taken to the Newport Police Station, he had asked again about what sort of punishment would be given out for the crime and was told it depended on the circumstances.

The jury gave a verdict of not guilty as they felt there was little motive for Charles to commit the crime and the case was based on little evidence and statements alleged to have been made by him.


Fire engine from The Illustrated London News, Jul.-Dec., 1851

The next case John was involved in that was reported in the local papers was the case of the Stocking Pelham Burglars. They were a gang of men, Henry Wilkinson, William Pigg and Isaac Parker. They were charged with burglarously [what a great word!] breaking and entering the dwelling house of Mr William Sworder, farmer of Stocking Pelham Hall, and stealing money while Mr Sworder was at church. The men were accused of breaking through a partition in his house. In his sitting room he found the bureau broken open and drawers taken out and the contents removed. The cash box had been broken open and there were some old guineas and half guineas missing and a 7s piece. His daughters room had also been rifled through, her drawers were open, and things strewn about.

A witness – a boy named James Bradford, said he had seen the prisoners at the horse pond, and they had talked about breaking into Mr Sworder’s house to get money. They wanted him to come with them and keep watch outside, he said he dared not to. Pigg agreed to go and be look out – watching for when the Sworder’s came out of church, but not to go in the house. Parker had said he had an old pair of shoes he could wear over his own, they had all the nails pulled out so that he couldn’t be traced.

After the burglary the witness James asked Parker what they had got, he said they had got some old coins, some old pieces of silver, two or three shillings and an old watch. All of this had been given to Wilkinson to hide. They said they had used a plough coulter to get in and had used an axe and broke a hole by the side of the room. After the burglary they parted ways. James also asked Wilkinson what they had got – he told him they got nothing. James saw Parker again who asked him if he had told anyone about it – he said no, and he said if James talked about it – they would say he was with them. James went home and told his father about it who went to his employer Mr Robert Trigg and told him.

John Pilley said he received information about the robbery and went with Superintendent Clarke to watch for Wilkinson, when he came out they grabbed him – his hand was in his pocket and in his pocket was a bag – which contained one guinea, one half guinea, one seven shilling piece, in gold; two old shillings, three old sixpences, a quarter-franc, a threepenny piece and a twopenny piece, in silver. When Parker was apprehended, he was found with an old silver coin from the reign of Elizabeth I. Clarke apprehended a man called Hollingsworth who had the watch and four half crowns on him. Miss Sworder gave a statement to say the watch was her watch which had been stolen. Her cousin concurred that it was a watch he had given to her about six years ago.

The local draper gave evidence of the fact Parker and Pigg had come to his shop and bought two smock frocks, a waistcoat and a hat for £1 6s 3d. A local pub landlord said that Wilkinson had told him he wished to buy a horse from him – for £6 or £7, he had known him for ten years and he had never been in a position to buy a horse before.

They found a chisel at Parker’s house which matched the marks made at the house – it was distinctive as it was missing a piece on the corner. Parker had made a signed confession. Henry Wilkinson’s father was also charged with the crime, but his case was dismissed due to lack of evidence. Parker was further charged with wilfully setting fire to an oat stack, the property of Robert Trigg. They were all sent to trial.

They were all found guilty and sentenced to be transported for seven years.

Criminal register 1848

Criminal Register entry for the Stocking Pelham Burglars from 1848 from Findmypast

James Bradford – the witness in the burglary case seems to have been in court accused of setting fire to a stack of wheat belonging to a Mrs Hodges of Berden, to the value of £200. He had no defender for his case, he was just 15. This had taken place in the November of 1848 but came to court in March 1849.

A local labourer Joseph Cheffins gave evidence that he was at the Cock public house on the day of the fire where he saw James and gave him some beer. They left in the afternoon and went towards the field for a while, as they walked James said to him “Joseph, I have just come out of that damned pretty place (meaning the union workhouse), and I don’t mean to go there anymore; I dare not go to Hertford anymore, and I expect my next place will be Chelmsford; but before I go I should like to have a good fire, for I want to go away. Old Trigg and Henry Trigg want a damned good warming, and your old master (Mr Sworder) and Mrs Hodges are damned cunning: hasn’t she got a wheat cock just the other side of your master’s field?” Joseph said he thought she had and they parted ways. About 15 minutes later the alarm was raised that there was a fire and he went to the stack where he saw Henry Trigg with James and another man James Rule. He said to James “Jim, what the devil in hell have you been after?” He replied with “I am guilty, I am guilty, take me now.

At that point James exclaimed in court that he had been wrongfully arrested and that it was Joseph Cheffins who was responsible.

James Rule stated that he had run to the fire when he heard the alarm and he saw James Bradford running from it as fast as he could. Bradford said to him “What a damned pretty job this is.” Although he also said to James Rule “I was against your master’s cart shed when it broke out, and it scared me very much.” However he said he had just left that shed and saw James Bradford coming from the opposite direction.

Joseph said he had told Henry Trigg about it all as soon as he could once the fire was put out. Henry then decided to have James Bradford taken into custody.

The local constable Thomas Collis apprehended James Bradford and found two lucifers [matches] in his pocket which he couldn’t account for.  A witness – Mrs Charity Wallis said that the Tuesday before the fire James Bradford had asked her for matches and when she told him she didn’t have any he said “Nor more has my old grandmother, but if I can get any before night I will burn the bloody old house down, and if Triggs was in Essex I would fire it, and I hope old Trigg may be in the midst of it, for I want to get transported; as to the house breaking, I have had nothing to do with them, [presumably to do with the burglary at Mr Sworder’s home] but I have been the ringleader of the fires.” James denied being at her house that day. She said he was there snapping his fingers and saying how cold it was, and that a good blaze before night would be a good thing. She said “Don’t burn up the poor animals,” but he said “They have no souls, and their sufferings being soon over it did not much matter.

A man named James Knightly corroborated Joseph Cheffins statement, James Bradford called him a liar.

John Pilley stated that when the prisoner was in his custody he first said he was sleeping in a cart when he first saw the fire, and then said “I will tell you all about it, there were three of us in it, including Cheffins and Knightley, but they did not set fire to it.

James Bradford stated that Cheffins had called him into the pub and gave him some beer and then asked if he would set fire to the stack, he said he would have nothing to do with it as no good would come of it, then he saw Knightley and they arranged it. The two went different ways but met up where Cheffins gave Knightley the matches. After the fire was lit Cheffins told him not to say anything and then immediately reported him for the crime.

The jury found him guilty without any hesitation. The judge stated – “From the whole of the evidence adduced against you today, there is no doubt you are a very wicked boy. You are only 15 years of age, but you appear quite matured in the commission of crime, and are skilled not only in the commission of offences, but in endeavours to cast upon other parties the guilt of your diabolical practices. The jury are quite satisfied of your guilt; and such is the enormity of your offence, that a few years since your life would doubtless have been sacrificed to justice. I feel bound to pass upon you a severe sentence, and for a long period to remove you from your country. The sentence of the court is that you be transported for twenty years.

The prison records chart James Bradford’s time following his conviction:


Dartmoor Prison Gate postcard from

James was received at Parkhurst Prison on 4th August 1849 – the entry notes he had also been convicted of breaking windows. He was then sent to Dartmoor Prison on 23rd August 1852.

End of Sep 1852 – conduct for the quarter – Good

End of Dec 1852 – conduct for the quarter – Bad

End of March 1853 – conduct for the quarter – Indifferent

End of June 1853 – conduct for the quarter – Good

End of Sep 1853 – conduct for the quarter – Indifferent

End of Dec 1853 – conduct for the quarter – Very Good

End of March 1854 – conduct for the quarter – Very Good

End of June 1854 – conduct for the quarter – Good

End of Sep 1854 – conduct for the quarter – Good

End of Dec 1854 – conduct for the quarter – Good

End of March 1855 – conduct for the quarter – Very Good – Ticket of Leave “Stag” 25th Jan 1855

This was then when James was finally transported to Australia – he went aboard the ship Stagg which left on 2nd Feb 1855 and arrived in Fremantle, Western Australia on 23rd May 1855. He seemed to have been in and out of the local convict hospital over the next few years with illnesses ranging from worms, to indigestion to catarrh. I haven’t looked into what became of him. Was he really responsible? Did he really want to be transported? Who knows?


Another case John Pilley was involved in that year was the case of James Wood aged 32 a pig jobber. He was in court for stealing 17 live fowls from James Woollard at Clavering which had occurred in March 1848. James Woollard had found his hen house had been broken into one morning – one of his hens was dead on the ground having had its neck broken. One of the hens that was missing had distinct markings. About a week later he was in the White Horse in Bishops Stortford where he saw some chickens for sale, the prisoner asked him if he would like to buy them, he picked out the chicken that had the distinctive markings and took it back to his home, where it instinctively ran to the feeding place it knew. His wife identified it too. They brought the hen to John Pilley who then questioned James Wood who said he hadn’t bought any fowls since he had been to Royston Fair, John asked him to account for the specific bird, he said he had owned it for two months. James Wood was found not guilty by the jury.

Later in the year John Pilley had taken a young boy into custody by the surname Wallace who was just 13 years old, accused of setting fire to a straw stack and a hay rick belonging to Mr Sworder of Stocking Pelham, seemingly the same Mr Sworder who was burgled before. He was sent to Hertford goal to await trial. I’ve not found what became of this boy.

At the time of the 1851 census John and his wife Ann were living at Wicken Lane, Clavering. His occupation was Police Constable and Ann was a Dressmaker.

John’s name was in the local papers again on 7th Jan 1853 when a letter was read out in the local court – dated 4th Jan that year.

Chief Constable’s Office, Chelmsford.


I have the honor to report that John Pilley, late a constable in the Essex constabulary, having, from infirmity of body, become unfitted for further service, after having discharged his duties with fidelity for twelve years and eight months, I was under the necessity of discharging him from the Essex constabulary on the 31st Oct last; and in conformity with sections 10 and 11, act 8 and 4 Vic. Cap. SS,  I have now to recommend this court being pleased to order a gratuity of £57 12s 8d to be paid to the said John Pilley out of the Essex constabulary Superannuation Fund….

I have the honor to be, My Lords and Gentlemen, Your very obedient servant. J B B McHardy, Capt. Royal Navy and Chief Constable for Essex.

John’s simple entry in the Police Employment Record states that he joined on 17th Sep 1840 and was “dismissed” on 4th Feb 1855 – although from the letter from the Chief Constable it shows he stopped being a police constable at the end of October 1852. The entry of “dismissed” seems like a harsh term for someone who has essentially had to retire out of ill health. However the other entries are either Resigned or Died. It also shows who recommended him to be a police constable – a J Phillips Esq of Champion Lodge, Camberwell and Mr John William Goss of Bull Wharf. His pension of £57 12s 8d was worth around £4,621.39. According to the National Archives Currency Converter tool it would have been enough to pay the wages of a skilled tradesman for 288 days.


After being a police officer for almost 13 years, John became a boot and shoemaker. He and Ann were living at the Shoemaker’s Shop, Wicken Lane, Clavering in 1861. The census showed John had two apprentices – one of which was his wife’s nephew William Hummerston and the other was not with them. Ann was a Dress Maker still and with them was a seven year old visitor John Martin – from London.

By 1871 John and Ann were living at Hill Green, Clavering. John was now a Seedsman and Shoemaker. Ann had no occupation listed.

In April 1880 there was a mention of John in the paper suing a man called George Barker of Clavering for having not complied with a judge’s order from the previous July. John was noted as being a Grocer. George was ordered to pay 2s a month and that if he didn’t make the first payment within 28 days, he would be put in prison for 30 days. I am guessing he paid. Presumably it was an unpaid debt with John’s business as a grocer.

At the time of the 1881 census, John and Ann were living at the Grocer’s Shop, Wickham Road, Clavering. This is right next to Hill Green, so I am guessing that they actually may well have resided at the same house for the whole time they lived there and it was just described slightly differently in 1871.

In 1891 they are described as living at the Grocer’s Shop, Hill Green, Clavering. John is now a Grocer & Draper with an assistant – Laura Abrams. Ann had no occupation.

Both John and Ann didn’t live to be on another census as they both died in 1899. Ann died before him, and he died on 14th Dec 1899. The executrix of his will was Laura Abrahams – the same woman named as Laura Abrams who was his grocer’s assistant in 1891. The value of his effects was £35 4s 6d – which would have been worth around £2,753.62 – which would have paid the wages of a skilled tradesman for about 106 days. However, this amount isn’t the full value of his estate. I don’t have a copy of his will for that information.

In 1901 Laura aged 38 was running the Grocer & Draper’s herself in the same premises, with a 14 year old general domestic servant called Mary Burges. In 1902 Laura married Joseph Chesham and sadly died in 1908 aged 46, it doesn’t look like they had any children. I do not know if the Joseph Chesham she married was any relation to the Chesham family in the midst of the poisoning case in the 1840s and 1850s but it is a possibility there was a distant family connection.

So John Pilley had a rather eventful career as a Police Constable before retiring from ill health and becoming a shoe maker and grocer. I would imagine he was quite well respected in the village of Clavering. It seems a shame that he and his wife Ann had lost their only child and had no more children. I wonder what he made of the Sarah Chesham case, if he believed her to be guilty or not?

Do you have any police officers in your family tree? I’d love to hear what you have uncovered!