Murder on Wetley Moor

· 4 min read
Murder on Wetley Moor
Wetley Moor Common

In the early 19th century, Wetley Moor, a rural area teeming with natural beauty and small-scale mining activity, witnessed a mysterious and tragic event.

The story revolves around Thomas Sherwin, a man of notable lineage, born in 1817 into a family that had resided in the area for over 150 years. His ancestry can be traced back to John Sherwin, born in the early 18th century, whose final resting place is in St Mary's Church in Bucknall. Thomas's mother was Susannah Forrester, belonging to another well-established local family. In 1838, Thomas married Sarah Hewitt, and together they had two children, James and Enoch.

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St Mary's Church, Bucknall - Photo Jenna Goodwin

Thomas, a literate man skilled in copperplate handwriting, worked as a collier amidst the small mines and coal pits scattered across Wetley Moor. This moorland, feared by some for its hidden mine shafts, had been a mining hub since the mid-18th century, peaking in activity just after World War I.

The narrative takes a grim turn with the focus on William Hewitt, Thomas Sherwin's uncle through marriage. Aged 60 in June 1841, Hewitt, a former miner, was known for his frugal yet disreputable lifestyle. He had faced legal trouble in October 1840 for stealing fowl and spent time in jail. Homeless after his release, he survived by taking shelter with locals or sleeping in the open on the moor.

On the morning of June 19, 1841, Hewitt's lifeless body was discovered by a man named Holland. The corpse, found in a stone pit with deep head wounds and a missing purse, was in a state of rigour mortis. Thomas Sherwin, living nearby, was one of the first to confirm Hewitt's demise.

An inquest held in Hanley delved into the mysterious death. A surgeon's examination concluded that Hewitt had been murdered, and beaten with a stone. Constable Allen discovered a bloodied grit stone nearby, believed to be the murder weapon, indicating Hewitt died from skull fractures caused by heavy blows to the head.

Suspicion fell on William Simpson, a local man of questionable repute, known for his financial woes and intemperate habits. Simpson's sudden financial windfall following Hewitt's death raised eyebrows. He was seen spending liberally, paying off debts, and indulging in drinking sprees.

Assize Hall, Stafford

During his trial at Stafford Assizes, Simpson, defending himself, faced a prosecution that heavily relied on circumstantial evidence. After only ten minutes of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of "Not Guilty," stunning the courtroom. Despite his acquittal, Simpson's subsequent behaviour, including public rants and threats against witnesses, led to his re-arrest.

In a twist of fate, Thomas Sherwin, a potential witness in Simpson's case, met an untimely death in a gunpowder explosion in a mine on October 31, 1841, highlighting the hazardous nature of mining work at the time. This tragedy left his wife Sarah to remarry and raise their two young sons alone.

Simpson's legal troubles continued as he faced subsequent trials for manslaughter and robbery. Despite initially being found not guilty, he was convicted and sentenced to seven years of transportation to Australia, a common punishment during that era. The harsh realities of the British justice system were evident, with transportation sentences often leading to permanent exile.

The Mossfield Colliery Disaster

The Sherwin family's history is entwined with the dangers of mining. Over 40 years after Thomas's death, three more Sherwins perished in a mining accident at the Mossfield Colliery, further underscoring the dangerous life of miners in the 19th century.

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