Fights, arson, poisonings – the career of John Pilley – Part Four

In the last instalment we saw that sadly, Lydia Taylor’s nine month old son Solomon had eventually died after having been ill for some time. Sarah Chesham’s two sons who had died the previous winter, had been exhumed and the surgeon had performed the grisly task of examining their stomach contents and also later on the contents of Solomon’s stomach.

The inquest resumed with statements from a few other people. First was Daniel Woodhouse, a Labourer of Albury who stated that around 15 weeks prior to the inquest, Mrs Chesham was in his daughter’s garden, when Mrs Taylor came to him and said, “this woman” – meaning Sarah Chesham, “has been giving my child something.” He said the child “slobbered from the mouth a good deal; the grandmother offered it something to drink, but it was very wild looking, and took nothing” while he was there. He said to Sarah “If you have given this child anything, you must be a sorrowful sort of a woman, indeed.” Sarah had said she had given Solomon nothing bit a bit of bread. She said she had “picked a bough, and given it into his hand, and it had run it into its mouth.” Daniel’s wife Elizabeth confirmed his testimony.

John Cowell – an acquaintance of Mr Chesham said he had told Superintendent Clarke and Constable Pilley that he had seen Mrs Chesham and a certain person talking sometimes in the day and something in the night, in such a way as he should not like if she had been his wife. He had often seen her with Mr Thomas Newport, talking together in the lane by her house, possibly a dozen times. He said he thought he last saw them together perhaps two months ago.

The various bottles found at Sarah Chesham’s home had been numbered and the chemist Professor Taylor, from Guy’s Hospital, discussed which bottles had been ruled out from the investigation as they either were not poisonous or would have caused different effects and narrowed it down to about two possible bottles. At that time, he needed to do more tests, so the inquest was adjourned again to the end of October.

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Arsenic was relatively easy to get hold of – Wood engraving after J. Leech of An unscrupulous chemist selling a child arsenic and laudanum. Credit: Wellcome Collection

When the inquest met again there was a witness called, James Player from Clavering, an employee of Thomas Newport. He recalled going by the Chesham house in the summer and saw Mrs Chesham against the door making a noise at her little boy, he heard her say “Hold your tongue, you little dog, you ought to be whether the other ones are.” He didn’t hear her say anything else and didn’t tell her he had heard what she said. He mentioned it to a few people once he got back to Manuden including Mrs Taylor and Lydia. Lydia said she was sure James had said he had heard Sarah say, “Damn you, you ought to go to sleep for half an hour with the other two.

Lydia said that when Sarah made her second visit to the house when she brought food with her, there had been a mess made with the food which the Chesham family dog ate. He was scared away from the mess with an umbrella where he curled up under a bench – and the dog died there less than ten minutes later. It was said that Sarah had thought she had “fluttered the heart of the dog, by frightening it with the umbrella, as Tommy Newport had fluttered the heart of her two boys.” This caused some sensation in the inquest hearing. Consider that Sarah’s previous story stated that Thomas Newport had hit her son Joseph, but no mention of him having threatened her younger son James.

Sarah’s son Philip – an elder brother of the two deceased children Joseph and James, was brought to make a statement – but he refused to kiss the bible – despite having done so at a previous hearing. They read through a previous statement he made, about how he recalled the family dog being alive after Joseph died but dying before James did.  His statement was confused about when the dog died, and he didn’t know what it died of. His father Richard Chesham then gave a statement to say the dog lived for some time after both children died.

The inquest into the deaths of Sarah Chesham’s two sons concluded with a verdict of wilful murder against Sarah Chesham after just ten minutes of deliberation. This then meant Sarah could be formally put on trial for her crimes.

The inquest into the death of Solomon Taylor continued in November.

Mr Brook – surgeon of Newport who had assisted with the Chesham boys postmortem had examined the substances found at the Chesham house and said it would be out of his power to conclude that the child died from the effects of poison and he was still of the opinion that the child died from a disease of the mesenteric glands – something he had stated earlier in the inquest process.

Lydia’s mother was called again and stated that Sarah had first visited them in the January of 1846 and that she had last given him something on the 12th June. The baby was never taken in the same way when Sarah Chesham had not been to the house. While Solomon had been in dreadful pain occasionally in her absence, Mrs Taylor had also been unwell at the time and couldn’t distinctly remember details like whether Solomon’s tongue had peeled (a symptom of one of the poisons in the bottles). She said he had a bad mouth a month or five weeks before he died, he dribbled excessively. He couldn’t bear anything warm in his mouth, he would vomit – sometimes the vomit contained blood. Such dreadful suffering for such a small baby.

The jury were directed to deliberate over what had been presented to them. There were a lot of differing statements from the medical professionals including their disagreement over what could have caused Solomon’s death. There were the considerations around Thomas Newport’s desire to be rid of his illegitimate child and whether Sarah was acting as his agent, especially given her statement to John Pilley when he had arrested her.

There was an option that Sarah could have disposed of the bottle that contained the actual poison used, which was why they were unable to match the potential symptoms to the symptoms recalled by the family. It could be that Solomon had died of natural causes, from the mesenteric disease which lead to him being malnourished and exhausted. There was talk of witness intimidation to prevent people from giving testimony at the inquest.

The room was cleared and after twenty minutes the jury returned a verdict that Solomon died from disease of the mesenteric glands, but they could not decide whether it had been caused by natural causes or from violence.


In January 1847 Thomas Newport was arrested as being implicated in the poisoning cases. It came after a letter had been intercepted which had been written by Sarah Chesham to Thomas. He was arrested for aiding and abetting Sarah Chesham in the administration of poison to her two children Joseph and James in the month on January 1845. Thomas’s elderly mother who was then 82 had apparently offered the police £100 to allow him to stay at home till the next morning and vouch for him staying at home. Of course, this was refused.

Initially Thomas seemed unaffected by the accusation, but after a night in the cells he became very upset and worried about how his mother would cope with the farm without him. The letter from Sarah was not initially read out in court, but it was said to upbraid him for deserting her, that there was a breach of promise for not paying money promised to her if she held her tongue and other accusations which were at that time, wrapped up in mystery. Thomas admitted having told Lydia Taylor’s mother that she must get rid of the child but firmly denied being implicated in the transactions mentioned by Sarah, he said they had been made up to extort money from him.

The magistrate for the case said that he had not had so painful a case brought under his notice as the one now before them and that he felt he would not be doing his duty to the public if he did not commit the prisoner for trail. Thomas asked for bail which was denied. It was also noted that Lydia had been discharged from her work from having appeared as a witness against Thomas and that another witness had also been treated in a similar manner by Thomas’s brother.  By February the charge on Thomas was now “having incited one Sarah Chesham to poison Solomon Taylor“. He was bailed out on a £400 bond in February 1847.


Arsenic Tin – from  Image – public domain

In March Sarah Chesham was charged with the wilful murder of her two sons. Thomas Newport was also charged with being an accessory before the fact, and inciting Sarah Chesham to kill and murder Solomon Taylor by poison. The trail began on 11th March 1847 – Sarah pleaded not guilty to the murders of both her sons. Joseph’s case was the first to be held.

Many of the same witnesses from the inquest were called, one of which, Sarah’s neighbour Thomas Deards said much the same as he had before, although he did state that they had a rat problem, due to there being rats by the nearby pond which contradicted the previous statement he made.


The matron of Springfield Gaol, Frances Hall, stated that she had been asked by Sarah to write a letter, which she did. She handed it to the governor of the prison, expecting that it would be sent to Thomas Newport – she didn’t say to Sarah that it wouldn’t be sent to him. It was only later that she found out it had not been sent to Thomas.

The letter was then read out:

Chelmsford Old Goal, Dec 22nd, 1846

Sir, Mr Bowker [Sarah’s solicitor – appointed by her friends] informed me, when I saw him last, that my friends would keep me with money to board myself; he left me a half-sovereign. Mr Bowker said he would call again by the time that money was spent but I have not seen him since. I know it is not in my own friends’ power to keep me, therefore you must; for, Mr Newport, your well know that you promised me when we stood against Pond Field Gate together, that I should want for nothing. That what I wanted I was not to stand for any expense, for you would pay it. You told me not to speak of it; but now I must, for you won’t send to me, nor let my own relations come to see me; for ‘tis you, and you only, that keep them from me. You know you ruined me, and have brought me to all this trouble, and you know ‘tis true, and my friends know the same. I wish I had told all about it when I was at Newport Station, for if I had spoke truth then you must have been in prison as well as myself. You deserve to be here more than I do, for you did it, not me; and you know that I have told you that I would speak of it times and times, and you told me not to be a damned fool : for I told you I would have a letter wrote and keep it by me for fear anything should happen to me, for I always told you, you would be the death of me, and so I say now. ‘Tis your money keeps you out of prison – you deserve to be here more than me. Mr Newport, you shall support me, for I am suffering for the crime that you did. You caused the death of my poor children. I am wretched, and always shall be, for you know what I have upon my mind: and I cannot never be happy any more, and if you do not suffer in this world you will in the next. You know this is all true and much more if I could be allowed to send it. From the unhappy Sarah Chesham.

P.S. I hear I am going to be brought in fault about Sarah Parker, at Wigill’s but you know it was yourself did that.

It is not clear from Sarah’s letter whether the reference to the deaths of her two boys was in relation to the beating upon Joseph Thomas Newport apparently dealt out, or perhaps to do with the arsenic. It is also unclear what she means by the reference to Sarah Parker.

The doctors who had examined Joseph’s stomach confirmed they had found arsenic in it – enough to kill.

After the jury had heard all the evidence, they deliberated for only ten minutes before finding Sarah not guilty. While they had no doubt in their mind that her son had been murdered, they could not prove she was the one who did it.

The court then moved to the second case – the murder of Sarah’s son James. Again, the court heard evidence from the doctors confirming they had found arsenic. Sarah’s son Philip gave evidence again but was so vague and claimed to not be able to remember much at all. He seemed to be quite unwilling to give evidence.

Again, the jury retired and after some twenty minutes gave the same verdict as they had in the previous case – not guilty.

Next the court heard all the evidence again relating to Solomon Taylor’s death. Poor Lydia had been grilled about her relationship with Thomas Newport. She said she had been working for his mother for about a fortnight before he had made any sort of advance upon her, but it was six months before anything physical took place. She said she had never done anything like that with another man, that although she knew a man called William Taylor who was Thomas’s cowman – she had not had sex with him. It caused a sensation in the court room.

The medical evidence was heard and the fact that there was nothing really left within the stomach to suggest the presence of arsenic or any other poison. The views differed between doctors about what caused his death.

It was decided that the case should go no further, and the jury returned a verdict of acquittal.

Thomas Newport’s case was transferred to the next sitting of the assizes, he had plead not guilty. His case went on to be dismissed too.

This had been quite an upset for the local people of Clavering. Many were convinced of Sarah’s guilt and so felt unsatisfied to say the least about the outcome of the various cases.

However, this wasn’t the end of the dreadful story. Read the next part here.


Another engraving by John Leech – referencing the case of the Bradford Poisoning of 1858 where sweets were tampered with. Credit: Wellcome Collection

6 thoughts on “Fights, arson, poisonings – the career of John Pilley – Part Four

  1. Wow, no convictions. I guess England has/had a similar standard for criminal convictions as here in the US—beyond a reasonable doubt. Perhaps that’s even where we got it since we got so much of our legal system from England.

    What possibly could have been the reason for murdering these children?

    • I know it is crazy, but yes beyond reasonable doubt. I guess they didn’t feel they had enough evidence to definitively tie her to the deaths beyond hearsay of witnesses of statements, especially if people get caught up in the fervour of the case and the horror of it and may have skewed their memories of things Sarah had said to them. As for motive, we may never know, but with female killers it is often something like – a new lover and you don’t want to jeopardise the new relationship with any issues with your children getting in the way of that, or for money (like life insurance etc). It is crazy though. There is also cases where a parent worries they may lose custody of their child to the other parent and it is a case of “if I can’t have them, no-one can.” And there are ones where they want to make you sick so they can be the one to care for you and make you better – i.e. poison you, stop poisoning and oooh you are better thanks to me… I don’t know in Sarah’s case – there are hints at a possible relationship with Thomas Newport.

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