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WEIRD NORFOLK: The Burnham Market poisoners: A tale of Georgian murder

PUBLISHED: 18:00 09 May 2020 | UPDATED: 08:30 10 May 2020

The death masks at Norwich Castle. PICTURE: Jamie Honeywood

The death masks at Norwich Castle. PICTURE: Jamie Honeywood

Jamie Honeywood Archant Norwich Norfolk

The witch, the arsenic and the adulterers: the story of the Burnham Market Poisoners who consulted a witch in Wells to help them make their husbands ‘disappear’.

Weird Norfolk at the Castle Museum in Norwich.
Death MasksWeird Norfolk at the Castle Museum in Norwich. Death Masks

Burnham Market is a beautiful Georgian village in north Norfolk which hides a dark secret: a pair of poisoners who left behind a trail of death and destruction. In the 1830s, three families lived side by side in cottages now lost to time. In one was James Billing and his wife Frances – known to her friends as Fanny – and their eight children, next door lived Mary and Peter Taylor and next door to them and above a carpenter’s shop lived Robert Frary and his wife Catherine, or Kate, and their three children.

Fanny, 46, had given birth to 14 children but lost six as infants – she came from Blakeney and was the daughter of a shepherd and had married James, an agricultural labourer, in 1808. She supplemented their income by being a washerwoman and was initially thought of as a God-fearing woman but that would soon change. Peter and Fanny were having an affair and James found out about it, catching them in the act not once, but twice, once in the shared privy. After the second occasion, he lashed out, leaving Taylor beaten and Fanny with a bruised eye – she called the police and James was arrested and sent away, but with eight mouths to feed, he was soon back at home. Peter was a shoemaker but made very few shoes – he would earn money by waiting at tables and singing at the Independent Meeting House and The Hoste Arms his wife Mary, however, was industrious and well-liked in the village.

According to village gossip, Kate, 40, was also playing away, having an affair with an unknown man by the name of Mr Gridley. Her husband Robert was an agricultural labourer having previously been a fisherman. In the 1830s, the illicit goings on in both Fanny and Kate’s households was of great interest in a small village, but nothing out of the ordinary. By 1835, both Fanny and Kate had earned themselves reputations as loose women, the latter said to be devoted to “drugs, charms and conjurations” who associated with witches and believed in magic. Regardless, she worked as a childminder to women who had to work and it was while looking after six-month-old Harriet for farm worker Elizabeth Southgate on February 21 1835, that something terrible happened.

News reached Elizabeth that her child was seriously ill – when she arrived at Kate and Robert’s house, the baby was shrieking in agony and Robert was moaning in bed, having been ill for a fortnight. A doctor had previously been called for Robert who had prescribed pills for a stomach inflammation. Elizabeth tended her ailing child, offering her a cup of warm water sweetened with some sugar she had taken from Kate – a few hours later, her daughter was dead. Meanwhile, Kate was tending her husband and feeding him gruel sweetened with the same white powder that Elizabeth had used for Harriet.

The next day, Kate and Frances walked five miles to Wells to speak to Hannah Shorten, a fortune-teller who was thought to be a witch – more about her another day – and spoke to her about their husbands. As the pair walked back home, they were met by Peter, who walked away with Frances and when James saw his wife’s friend return without her, he guessed where she had gone and with whom. A furious row began but was quickly cut short when James became ill with stomach pains and feared he had cholera. A doctor proclaimed that Harriet had died of natural causes and Mrs Shorten visited Frances and Kate at Burnham, a meeting that ended with the women visiting the chemist in the village and asking apprentice Samuel Salmon for arsenic. It was for the rats and mice in Fanny’s cottage, she said. Robert’s condition worsened as he was tended by his wife – he died on February 27 and soon after, James Billings fell ill, shortly after that, so did Mary, Peter’s wife, just after heating the dumplings and pork gravy she’d warmed up for dinner. Kate came to look after Mary and served her gruel – she was quickly doubled with convulsions. A doctor was called, but it was too late. Finally, Burnham Market became suspicious – there had been three deaths within just 13 days, all in three houses next door to each other. A post-mortem of Mary was ordered and coroner Francis Church sent the poor woman’s stomach to a druggist, Henry Nash, who tested for arsenic…and found it.

You might think that Fanny would lie low and cross her fingers, but instead she offered her husband James a dumpling – suspicious, he refused it, and when he later agreed to taking tea with her, saw a suspicious white powder in the cup. He became ill. At the same time, Mrs Southgate begged Kate to have her husband’s body raised so it could be tested and an inquest for Mary concluded that she had been poisoned “by persons unknown”. Fanny was arrested on March 18 and held at Walsingham Bridewell, Peter was arrested on March 19 and Kate was next to be apprehended. Robert’s body was exhumed and tested: he had been poisoned, too and a search of Peter’s house led to the discovery of arsenic and the dumpling dismissed by James was also laced with poison.

Fanny, Kate and Peter were committed for trial. Fanny blamed Kate, Kate and Peter denied everything – no one believed them. Taylor managed to escape punishment when the grand jury chose to ‘ignore’ his role as an accessory before the fact leaving the women to stand trial on August 7. The courtroom was so packed that there was standing room only, both women were found guilty of murdering Mary and Robert – the judge, Justice Bolland, reached for his black cap. As he proclaimed their fate, he referred to their “profligate, vicious and abandoned course of life” which had been packed with “guilty lusts” and urged them to repent their sins before ordering their deaths and burial within Norwich Castle. The Times of London reported: “No sympathy appeared to tell towards these monsters in human form…”

Three days later, the women were executed in front of the castle and a crowd that had gathered from miles around and which was disproportionately female – and included Peter Taylor. The women were given one last chance to see their children, who wept and clung to their mothers for the last time, and James Billing visited Fanny in order that he could forgive her before she died. A decision was made to move the gallows to the upper end of the Castle’s bridge which meant the women had less of a walk…and more people could watch them die. With white handkerchiefs covering their faces, Frary and Billing appeared at the prison gates two minutes before noon with the prison governor, justices, surgeon, executioner and the chaplain. Kate wore widow’s weeds and had to be dragged to the gallows, Fanny wore a coloured dress and walked steadily, later helping her friend up the scaffold steps as the chaplain read the funeral service.

William Calcraft, the executioner, slipped cloth bags over the women’s heads and adjusted their nooses, strapped their legs and positioned their feet as the crowd before them fell into an anticipatory hush. Suddenly, the women dropped and the 20,000-strong crowd screamed – Fanny died instantly, Kate struggled and finally choked to death. Their bodies swung in front of the crowd for an hour, and then they were taken away to be buried after their heads were shaved and their faces cast for the death masks which can still be seen in Norwich Castle’s dungeons today. But the body count continued to rise: foolishly, Peter Taylor was identified in the crowd and when he expressed ‘great satisfaction’ with the women’s deaths, he had to run for his life. When he ran back to Burnham Market, however, a crowd was waiting for him. He had to flee and, when the rumour mill started to churn, witnesses came forward again and the investigation was reopened. Taylor was re-arrested and in April 1836, sent to trial. This time, he did not escape and on April 23, at noon, he met the same fate as the women he had watched die months earlier.

The cottages where the three intertwined families lived are long gone, their reputation tarnished beyond repair and to the point where no one would dare let the ‘haunted’ houses on Murderers’ Row or Poisoners’ Piece. And it was only last year that the chemist shop that sold Billing and Frary their poison closed its doors for the last time – to all intents and purposes, this episode in Burnham’s past has vanished. But there are some that claim that area on North Street still makes their blood run cold and that there are ghosts that make the village their second home…

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