Check up on a tragedy - Inquests reported in newspapers


When a death certificate arrives giving a cause of death as suicide it can be disconcerting for the descendants or other family.

The problem comes when the reason for the tragedy is not known. A stark statement on a death certificate would not be of much help. It might, however, lead to a coroner’s inquest and then you can look for a report of the inquest in a local paper.

This will give you more information than might be left in actual court records as these were often shortened and disposed of after a while.

Coroner’s records are actually closed to access for 75 years after the event and many have been destroyed. Those which have survived and are beyond the 75 year limit are usually found in the county record office.

This is why the newspapers are a more likely area to find out the cause of the incident.

In June 1861, local papers in Norfolk reported on what appeared to be an attempted murder and suicide.The stories provided enough detail to allow anyone related to the people involved to glean some extra information on their families.

The Norwich Mercury began its report by stating:”Events that occurred on Thursday and Friday last have excited considerable sensation at Diss. A farm servant named Charles Sheldrake, in the employ of Mr Ringer, a gentleman residing at Walcot Green, about three quarters of a mile from the town of Diss, shot a fellow servant named Susan Garrod and, on the following day, when about to be apprehended by the county police, terminated his own existence by firing a loaded gun into his mouth.”

Certainly a long-winded opening but it does give the just of the story.

Inquest reports in the Mercury and the Beccles and Bungay News of 2 July 1861, enabled readers to piece together the story of Charles Sheldrake, who appeared to have in interest in guns.

He was from Burston and in January 1853 had been committed for trial by the magistrates in Diss for stealing two guns, the property of Mr John Mallett, of that town. 

At the Norwich quarter sessions, he pleaded guilty and as it was his second conviction for felony, he was sentenced to be transported for 10 years. 
He was taken to Dartmoor but apparently did not get transported and after four years penal servitude at the prison there he was given a ticket of leave and returned to his father’s home at Burston.

It was then that a local philanthropist, Mr George RInger, tried to find him employment but was continually told he was unemployable because people felt “his character was against him”.

He did get the odd day or two of work from Mr Ringer and eventually told the philanthropist that he had earned only eighteen pence (7.5p) in a fortnight and in the meantime he had married and had young children.

The News takes up the story: “As time wore on, Mr Ringer gained considerable confidence in the man; he appeared to lead a sober, steady life, and to conduct himself respectably. This brings us down to last week, and the tragical ending of the history. The affair, whatever may said, is quite inexplicable upon the facts which have been allowed to transpire. Little can be added to that which was elicited in the inquest given below.”

The coroner was told by various witnesses that Sheldrake had been running by degrees into loose and less sober habits. 

One day when Mr RInger and his wife were out Sheldrake brought home a bottle of wine and a bottle of brandy, which he had purchased on his master’s credit, and he and Susan Garrod, and her female cousin visiting her, drank the wine, and the two girls turned ill upon the wine.”

The newspapers said that there was only the girl’s statement as to what ensued, and this fails to explain what really happened. She said her cousin had gone and she was walking in the garden. As she reached the orchard she saw Sheldrake with his master’s double-barrelled gun which he then fired at her from the bushes at a distance of about twenty yards.

The gun was loaded with small sparrow shot, a large number of which entered her breast. She said she ran into a shed and locked the door but Sheldrake tried to break it down but then went away.

Half an hour later Mr RInger arrived home, found the girl covered in blood and in a dangerous state, although she was out of danger after a day or two.

It appeared that for the rest of the night and until noon the following day Sheldrake hid himself nearby.

THe papers reported that meanwhile a warrant had been issued for his arrest: “Boutell and Curson, the police-constables, went in search of him, and when Boutell first saw him, he was crouching down among the bushes.

“Sheldrake immediately raised the gun to a level with his hip, and Boutell leaped forward, and shouted to him not to fire, and Curson and a boy came up, when, before Boutell could reach him, he dropped the butt of the gun upon the ground, and placing the muzzle in his mouth, pulled the trigger and killed himself instantaneously.”

The inquest was held in the Magpie Inn, Walcot-green, before E. Press, the coroner.

Thomas Boutell told the court that as he was looking for Sheldrake a boy named Henry Foulser said he had seen him in his father’s field.

Henry Foulser told the coroner: “I live at Walcot-green, Diss, and am a farmer’s son. On Friday last, about ten minutes past two, I was looking for Charles Sheldrake, in consequence of what my father said, and saw him near my father’s clover field, which is next a wheat field. 

“Soon after that I saw police-constable Boutell, and told him I had seen Charles Sheldrake.

Mr George Ringer said the deceased was his groom and gardener and had been with him for four years. He said that for a four or five week period he had been absent from home and left Sheldrake in charge. On the day in question he and his wife had just left the house for the day to go to Harling.

As Susan Garrod was not fit to appear in court Mr Ringer was allowed to state what she had told him. He said: “ From her answers to my questions. it appeared to have happened between six and half-past. 

“She told me that Charles Sheldrake had shot her while she was standing in the orchard. Sheldrake said it was accidental, but she would not credit that. 

“Undoubtedly the shooting was deliberate, for he went to the chaise-house and got the gun when her cousin left. For the last two years the deceased had been in a place of trust, and I had the greatest confidence in him.

John Sheldrake, labourer, of Burston, Charles’ father, said he knew nothing that had distressed his son enough to make him shoot the girl, although he was upset he could not support his wife and two children.

The jury returned a verdict that “Charles Sheldrake did wilfully and with malice aforethought kill himself, and the Coroner issued his warrant for the interment of the body in Diss churchyard, between the hours of 9 and 12 that evening. On Monday evening about half-past eleven o’clock, the body was buried under the north wall beside the path, in the unconsecrated portion of Diss Churchyard, without ceremony or Christian burial. “

The papers said: “Two or three hundred persons were assembled, but were not allowed within the Churchyard. He was brought from Walcot-green in a cart, and carried to the grave followed by four or five of his relations. The scene was a very solemn and terrible one.”

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