My wife, Annie, and I had parked in the village of Priston, a few miles from Bath, and set out to explore the area with the help of our dog, Edna, who is always keen to find new smells. We followed a lane past the parish church and out onto a footpath that led to the next village, Timsbury.
Just outside Priston we saw a standing stone, where we stopped for some photos before carrying on along the path. Never knowing that, just a few yards from where we walked, a man had had his throat cut for the sake of a small amount of money.
We saw no sign of it at all. That was hardly surprising, since although only a short physical distance separated us from the scene, there was also a gap of 169 years.
On Monday December 1st, 1851, a 36 year old man named George Bush was walking along that path, on his way back from an auction in Priston to his lodgings in Timsbury, when somebody attacked and killed him. His body was discovered the next day, when his landlady sent out her two children to look for him.
Subsequently, the Police arrested the landlady and several other people, on the grounds that they knew he had gone to the auction with money in his pockets. They also arrested a man named Evans, who had been in the Ring of Bells Pub with Bush that evening. Apparently there had been an argument, and Bush had left without paying his bill, whereupon Evans had been heard to say that Bush should have his head chopped off.
Moreover, when Evans was arrested he was found to have bloodstained clothing and a knife with blood on it.
Pretty damming evidence, you’d think. But the blood was easily explained, since Evans was a butcher – and the blood could well have been animal, not human. They couldn’t be sure.
Moreover, the timings didn’t work out. Evans had left the Ring of Bells after Bush, but he’d returned within fifteen or twenty minutes, and it being a ten minute walk to the murder site, it was decided that he hadn’t had time to do the deed and return.
So Evans and all the other suspects were released. I did feel some sympathy for the Police of 1851 – they had very few tools to work with. No DNA to determine if the blood on Evans could have been from Bush. No CCTV in the pub or the village to see exactly who left when and who returned. No crime scene photographs to record the details before the body was moved, no forensic examination at all, beyond determining the cause of death. It’s a wonder anyone was ever convicted at all in those days – unless you were caught in the act, you could get away with murder.
As a postscript, in July of 1852 an Irishman known variously as John (or Christopher) Smith (or Halsey) confessed to the crime. However, it was subsequently decided he was insane - ‘of unsound mind’ in the court records – on the grounds that he had also confessed to several other murders. He was also convinced that the Irish potato famine was his fault, due to him having broken a vow to give up tobacco.
So the mystery was never solved, and the crime went unpunished. There was no justice for poor George, who never completed his walk from Priston.
We fared better, and enjoyed a pleasant afternoon stroll before driving home, all unaware that we had been at the scene of a crime.
History is all around us. In a small, relatively crowded country like Britain, we are constantly walking past it, or even over it. We live in the little bubble of our own time, mostly unaware of what happened just next to us yesterday. Or last year, or last century – or tomorrow.
Perhaps just as well – it would spoil a lot of good walks!
(For a more complete account of the murder, see https://www.priston.org.uk/Priston%20Murder%201851%20V2.pdf )