My name was Church before I enlisted—I believe my father's name was Church; it was as far as I know—my mother's maiden name was Body—I might have been in a situation in a public-house before I entered the Army—I might have been in a situation as barman—when I come to think may have been; I cannot say where exactly; it was in London—I was in London when I enlisted—I might have been in a situation as barman; I cannot recollect now—Q Do you mean, upon your oath, to say before the gentlemen of the Jury that you do not recollect?—A. I might have been—I might have been in a public-house before I was in the service, but cannot say where …
Broadcast on Wednesday 1st November during Unsigned Madness with @StephenAndAnne for @EGHRadio, with some superb theatre provided by Jim Herbert of Berwick Time Lines.
Court and Criminal records are a valuable resource for family and local historians. The transcript of the evidence given by numerous witnesses at the trial of Kate Webster in 1879 is no exception. This mid Victorian period experienced continuing social change, with many folks finding themselves upwardly mobile. As a result some either invented a suitable past to reflect their new position, or were deliberately hazy about the details. The evidence of John Church, the landlord of the Rising Sun is a prime example and led to the discovery of a fascinating backstory. Church had previously been in the army and admitted having lied about his occupation in his attestation papers. Having been implicated by Kate Webster of Mrs Thomas’s murder he had been arrested. Although subsequently cleared of any wrong doing his appearance in court sparked a serious bout of amnesia.
Many thanks to local historian Jim Herbert of Berwick Time Lines for that fantastic bit of theatre. So, who was John Church? In the 1871 census he gave his place of birth as Chalfont St Peter in Buckinghamshire, and whilst there is a body of bodies in Bucks, no birth of a Church was registered there with a mother’s maiden name of Body. There was, however, an illegitimate birth of a John Boddy in 1838, whose mother Martha married a wheelwright named Job Church on 30th November 1840. Job Church it transpires, was convicted at the Buckinghamshire assizes in 1843 for an unspeakable crime, resulting in transportation to Australia for life! The criminal records associated with this case describe Church as married with one child. However, this child was not John, but a Job Church junior born in 1841. This implies that Church was not John’s father at all and whose identity remains as yet unknown. By 1851 the remaining family the family are destitute and living as paupers in the Watford Union Workhouse. A valid reason perhaps to run off to the army and be hazy about his past.