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Stillington and District Community Archive

In the Heart of North Yorkshire

An Unwelcome Visitor at The Hall


On the morning of 23rd December 1846 Colonel Harry Croft of Stillington Hall was awoken to hear some rather unpleasant news - during the night an intruder had ransacked his dressing room. Clothes had been removed from the wardrobe and were strewn everywhere. A search revealed some items to be missing: the worst of which was the revelation that the drawer in which he kept his valuables, including a bag of sovereigns amounting to some £200 and a cheque for £170, had been found lying on the lawn in front of The Hall. It was empty.

The Enquiry

The police were called and such was the seriousness of the theft that Inspector from York was sent at the scene.

He questioned the Croft Family and their servants. It appeared that Colonel Croft had been the last to  retire the previous night, at 11:30 extinguishing any lights, as was his habit. The servants had checked the doors and windows before they went to their well earned rest. All was secure. No-one had heard or seen anything. There was no obvious sign of a break in.

It was noted, however, that the door leading to the kitchen at the back of The Hall, had been left unlocked at about 4:30 onwards when a member of staff had gone out to the brewhouse directly opposite to check a batch of beer being made for Christmas.

Despite this the Inspector came to the same conclusion as Colonel Croft - it had been an inside job.

Somehow suspicion fell on William George Wells Hempsall, 38, Colonel Croft's former butler who had left his post on 26th November after seven months of employment. Hempsall was arrested in Sheffield two days after the burglary.

The Trial

After a protracted arraignment in January 1847, when a great many witnesses were questioned, he was sent for trial in March that year.  Details from the arraignment and trial were widely reported in the Press.

On 22nd December Hempsall had made a trip to York so he might visit friends and acquaintances. He had gone to Eltridges Hotel, a place frequented by Colonel Croft when he had business in York,  meeting there one Robert Horseley, an ostler at that establishment. It was said the Hempsall questioned him minutely on the details of the Croft family's household arrangements - namely whether he knew if there were any visitors at Stillington Hall. When assured there were none he was said to have seemed very pleased.

In the afternoon Hempsall was seen about York. He was at pains to tell two people, one a policeman, that he was returning to Sheffield on the 3pm train. However at 4pm he was seen at Dawson's Public House, which was close to railway station, and there he left a carpet bag, a hat box and umbrella. He then went away only to return somewhere between 9 and 10 pm to retrieve these items.

Next he was seen boarding the Sheffield train at 5:30am. What had happened in the intervening hours? The prosecution alleged he was travelling to Stillington Hall, committing burglary and making his way back to York. It wasn't far they said. A mere ten miles. Why had he needed the carpet bag and hat box? To conceal the stolen items, naturally.

Hempsall was next seen in Sheffield at 8:30am, engaging a cab that took him to the house of a man named Sanderson, to whom he gave an air rifle saying  ‘ Don’t let any living soul know I gave it to you or that it was mine.’  This rifle was later identified as belonging to Colonel Croft.

On leaving Sanderson's house he hailed another cab and went to a clothes merchant called Levy. There he bought some clothing: £12 worth. Though he would have spent more but he couldn't find a coat to fit.  He paid for his goods in gold coin. Levy asserted that Hempsall had about him a great deal of money - about £200 in fact! It was said that he had complained to his friends in York that he was 'down to his last shilling' as he had been unable to find another position.

After travelling about Sheffield he finally went to the house of a groom called Peace, at 7, Smith Street. When questioned Peace stated that Hempsall looked 'tired and jaded' and that he fallen asleep several times. When asked why he was in such a state Hempsall had lied and said he had arrived in Sheffield late the previous night and rather that disturb the household had bedded down with 'unsavoury' company. It was also noted by Peace that Hempsalls boots and trouser cuffs were caked in mud, as though he had been tramping rough roads.

Hempsall took himself off to The Mermaid Hotel for the night and was arrested the next morning by Police Officer Winterbottom, who searched Hempsall's room, baggage and person. This search revealed that Hempsall only had sixteen shillings on him, though five gold sovereigns were found on the windowsill of his room. Hempsall denied knowledge of the money, saying that it must have been left there. A servant who had drawn the window blind for Hempsall the previous night said she hadn't noticed any money there. On searching Hempsall's carpet bag Police Officer Winterbottom discovered some items of clothing which belonged to Colonel Croft. No other items, or the cheque, were found on him.

There isn't much in the newspaper articles on Hempsall's defence. It was merely said that if Hempsall had wished to steal he had ample opportunity when in Croft's employ and that any money Hempsall had was from pawning items in York for which he had the tickets as well as several witnesses. 

The Verdict

The judge wasn't impressed by the evidence, which though lengthy, he said was largely circumstantial. Neither were the jury, who acquitted Hempsall on the judge's instruction.

However immediately after the trial Hempsall was rearrested on suspicion of stealing items from Colonel Croft. It is well to remember that the police were prosecuting Hempsall on the behalf of Croft, who seems determined to get a conviction of some sort.

Read about William Hempsall's subsequent trial on the page named 'The Air Rifle'. Click here




















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