by Sandra Lewis
First came the English town. That was Wantage in the Vale of the White Horse, located in yesterday’s North Berkshire which is part of today’s Oxfordshire. Wantage spawned both Alfred The Great and my great grandmother Ellen Sessions although about a thousand years apart, Alfred in 849 A.D. and my great grandmother in 1866 A.D. In an earlier structure, the town’s Parish Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul was the site of Alfred’s baptism and in its present structure, probably the site of Ellen’s, too. Ellen’s marriage to my great grandfather George Henry Argyle took place there in 1889. For the last hundred years or so, a statue of the long-respected king has been standing in elegant whitish marble looking confidently across the Wantage Market Square. When author Thomas Hardy wrote his novel Jude The Obscure he actually changed Wantage’s name to Alfredston.
For a very long time townspeople of Wantage earned their livings through tanning (process of turning rawhides into leather), sack making, farming and horse racing. Life there turned ugly for many in the years between 1790 and around 1833, when the place earned the name Black Wantage. London’s best and worst criminals and drifters found their way to the village’s isolated location usually by way of the newly built Wiltshire and Berkshire Canal. Transportation was otherwise extremely difficult. London’s earliest form of police force, known as The Bow Street Runners, often hunted Wantage for bad guys. Probably a good thing that Alfred who was highly respected was long dead. He would have been dismayed.
Gambling was big and occurred at events like cock-fights, badger-baits and bull-baits. Badger baiting was a bloody event between a dog and a badger. Bull-baiting was equally horrible work between dogs’ teeth and the snouts of bulls. Of course, cockfights amount to rooster against rooster. No doubt at least a small percentage of the local populace grew conditioned to grizzly activity of some sort or at least curiosity for it. An example has to do with Ann Pullen, mother of two and widow of a very likely ancestor of mine named Richard Pullen. Richard lived in the first half of the Nineteenth Century. Although newpaper reports of the time vary the story around Ann somewhat, the main details were true.
Mrs. Pullen was decapitated on a Friday night in August, 1833 and left in two pieces on the floor of the kitchen which was the scene of the crime. On the next day, Saturday, from noon until three in the afternoon constables, witnesses, coroner and magistrate sorted out what happened. Farmhand George King from a nearby village, age nineteen, was guilty of ‘wilful murder’. After officials departed the scene, townsfolk paid the victim’s mother and others to enter the kitchen and observe the bloody sight of Ann whose head rested at her feet. A Sunday viewing, again for a price, was arranged as well. By then the poor woman’s remains lay in a coffin. This time, Ann’s body was back together but the bloody cut line at her throat was well exposed.
George King had entered the White Hart public-house for some supper. Proprietor Ann had cut him a rasher of bacon which, so says a report, he ominously ‘frizzled’ on the end of a knife. ‘Frizzled’ is an unusual word. There is ‘frazzled’ as in I am so tired I can’t put my hat on. There is ‘twizzle’ which is an artful action requiring unimaginable control and skill and performed by ice dance competitors. There is even ‘sizzle’ as in ‘I love Paris in the summer, when it sizzles’. But ‘frizzled’? You don’t even need to know what it means. Context laid it all out in the newspaper writeups about Ann Pullen’s frightful demise. It described far more than what George King did to his meat. While in the process of frizzling then eating it, the already intoxicated thug might have been considering the forty-year old woman. When he suggested they spend the night together she threatened to give him a knock on the head with what was described as ‘the poker’, likely a hearth tool. Good on her for feistiness but the teenager Mr. King didn’t like that and after going outside briefly, he returned to pick up the possessions he had brought with him: his cup and his big iron bean-hook. With the cup in one hand he appeared ready to leave but suddenly, he turned violent. He intended to hit the back of Ann Pullen’s head with the bean-hook, he said later in defence of himself, but not to behead her. With one swift swipe of his weapon he did just that. He then ripped a pocket from her clothing and stole it with its contents: a purse, some shillings and a crooked sixpence. His hands must have been full but somehow he grabbed a lit candle to guide him through the indoor night blackness. He dropped it and had to grope about searching for the bolt of the door to the outside. He stepped on the candle and left bootprints in the wax as some evidence of his guilt.
That was the grizzly Friday night. Early on Saturday morning Ann’s twelve-year old elder son descended the stairs after his night’s sleep. He didn’t see his mother’s head on the floor at first. He wasn’t looking for it there and he stumbled on it. No history is written of his younger brother’s Saturday morning.
In all, six ghastly incidents resulted from the presence of George King in the White Hart Inn, Wantage, Berkshire, England, Friday, August 30, 1833:
A widowed mother was decapitated.
Her son found her with her head below her feet.
Her mother and other relatives displayed her right where she lay. Viewers paid for the privilege of having a look.
The next day when the show was changed her mother charged again for customers’ pleasure in seeing the body. It was a more dignified setting, though, the body being in its coffin.
Finally, early in March of 1834 in Reading, Berkshire, strapping young agricultural labourer George King was hanged. How could any good come of this horrific debacle? Well, it might have been a last straw. Indication of the impact on the community is seen in a Berkshire newspaper of the day which included with its magnetic headlines and report a drawing of the murder scene and a heart-rending rhyming poem.
‘The whole Particulars of a most Atrocious, HORRID, & BRUTAL MURDER,
Committed by George King, upon the body of
Ann Pullin, Widow, Landlady of the White Hart public-house, WANTAGE,
by Severing her Head from her Body with a Bean-Hook.’
A murder of the blackest dye I shortly will relate,
‘Twill draw the tears from every eye for this female’s cruel fate,
She was a widow good and kind, with two small children dear,
And how she met her dreadful end you presently shall hear.
She kept the White Hart public-house, and since her husband died,
Has struggled hard for her poor helpless children to provide,
Last Saturday morn her little boy came downstairs from his bed,
And there upon the kitchen floor he found his mother dead.
Her head was from her body cut most awful to behold,
Enough to shake the stoutest heart, and make the blood run cold,
And at full length her body lay extended on the floor,
And the waistcoat, and the flooring was reeking with her gore.
Oh! what a dismal spectacle, to see her body lie,
And to hear her little children how bitter they did cry,
To lose their tender Mother dear in such a shocking way,
And their kind and loving Father is sleeping in the clay,
The town in consternation came out walking(?) for to see,
And many a briny tear was shed for this calamity;
George King, the cruel Murderer, did full confession make,
And now confin’d in Reading gaol his trial for to take.
When news of the murder reached Parliament in London an Act was passed with the purpose of getting lighting, decent roads and lawful governing for Wantage. Decades later in 1873, after my great grandmother’s birth, the Wantage Tramway was up and running. The Tramway provided a link with a more distant-traveling railway line known as the Great Western. With access thus opened up between the town and neighbouring villages and counties, the criminal element could no longer hide there easily. Gradually their powerful influence petered out. The Agricultural Revolution was having its say as well and the manufacture of agricultural tools became an industry in Wantage.
Many generations later the story has affected me, too. Last week when I reached out my door to my mailbox for the morning newspaper, I was taken aback by the large shimmery globe resting on my snowy front walk. It was a silver winter decoration which wind had blown from its stand on my porch and rolled down the fluffy white steps. It was Ann Pullen’s head.
– report via Internet from Icknield Way Morris Men in the Vale of White Horse
– report from a correspondent of Wantage; held by Harvard University, Harvard Law School Library/Executions of criminals: more generally known by the uninviting name of “Dying Speeches”
– the story written more recently – Vale and Downland Museum, Wantage Local History Series; Ann Pullen – A Wantage Legend by Stuart McDonald
– regarding the trial of George King – Reading Morning Chronicle 9 Dec 1833 –
– regarding the hanging of George King – Hull Packet Fri 7 Mar 1834 through http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk ￼