Odds & Ends

Murder in Barford St Johns (1871)

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BarfordMurderI have been researching my family tree for some time and I have a friend in Middleton Cheney who is on the same trail and we send each other any bits of information that we come across that are relevant to the family. Recently she sent me an email and had attached an item from The Times dated 6th July 1871 and the heading was ‘MURDER NEAR BANBURY’.
I started to read the article and when I realised that it was about a murder in Barford St John, and the name Castle was mentioned, I wanted to know more. In our search we have collected some interesting information and I thought perhaps present day Bloxham residents might be interested in the sad story that shocked the nearby village of Barford 142 years ago.
Thomas Castle was born in 1840, the youngest child of William and Hannah Castle who lived in Barford St John. Thomas’s older brother John Castle was married to Joice Tew, and her illegitimate son James Tew became my great grandfather, and so through previous investigations into our family tree, I already had information about the Castle family from census forms and birth, death and marriage registers, but the newspaper article inspired me to look into it further. I found the criminal trial records for July 1871 – and went from there.
In April 1867 Thomas Castle married Margaret Evans, daughter of William and Mary Ann Evans of Barford St Michael. Thomas was an agricultural labourer and Margaret was a milkmaid at Lower Grove Ash Farm. At the beginning of 1870 Margaret had a baby daughter, Sarah Ann, but a few weeks later at the beginning of June, Margaret died leaving Thomas a widower and alone with a tiny baby, so a month or so later he took in a girl called Rachel Busby as his housekeeper and promised to marry her.
Rachel was 24 and came from Boarstall, a small village near Brill in Buckinghamshire. She had an illegitimate son Edward Patrick aged four, who came along with her to Barford St John. After Rachel had lived with Thomas for four months he changed his mind about marrying her and they began to have terrible arguments, usually about the little boy who always seemed to be in the way. Thomas ill treated the child all the time and one day he told him he had no ‘victuals’ for him and he must go out and beg for it, but the boy played in the street with other children and Thomas beat him with a cane for not begging for his food. Thomas told Rachel that she must get rid of the boy and in desperation, she said she would.
On the 31st May, Rachel told her next door neighbour, Sarah Messenger, that she had sent ‘Little Teddy’ to stay with an uncle in Tetsworth. She had put him on the train at Aynho station in the charge of the guard and her uncle, William Weston, who worked at Thame railway station had met him from the train. She said she had had a letter from her uncle to say the boy arrived safely. But in fact Rachel was so frightened of what Thomas might do that she had secretly hidden the boy in the cellar under the cottage and kept him there for three days until Thomas went to Deddington on the evening of the 3rd June.
Almost a month later on Monday evening the 26th June, John Calcutt who was a shepherd employed by Mr Francis Sellers in Little Barford, was walking with his dog along the farm road and the dog ran across to a pool in First Hill Ground, a field about 30 yards from the cottages, and started ‘sniffing about’, so John Calcutt went to see what it had found. He looked into the pool and saw a child’s body half submerged in the water. He went home and told a neighbour, John Plester, who fetched a wheelbarrow and the two men went across to the pool. They pulled the body out of the water and wheeled it, in the barrow, to Mr Seller’s barn and left it there and informed the policeman. On the Wednesday an inquest was held at the Crown Inn, owned by John Crofts, next to the church in Barford St John.and a post mortem was performed by Edward W Turner, surgeon from Deddington and Wm. W Hyde, surgeon from Bloxham.
Identification was almost impossible but clothing from the body was recognised by Sarah Messenger who had seen the child playing in the garden next door wearing the brown smock with black braid around the sleeves and also she remembered seeing his mother, Rachel Busby, making it for him. The Superintendent of Police for Banbury and Bloxham, William Whadcoat, described how the child had been found bundled up in a large calico apron with the four corners knotted together and a large stone, 9lbs in weight, had been tied to the back, before he was drowned in the pool. In the evening of the same day as the inquest, 28th June 1871, little Edward Patrick Busby was buried in the churchyard at Barford St.John.
When she was questioned by the policeman Rachel said Edward was with her uncle and she had a letter to prove it, but when spoken to by the police the uncle denied seeing the boy at all and had not written the letter, as he could not write and no one had written for him.
Rachel Busby and Thomas Castle were both charged with murder, and on the 6th July 1871 they went on trial at Oxford Assizes. Thomas was acquitted, as he was at Deddington on 3rd June, the evening of the murder, and knew nothing about it. Rachel was too ill to attend the trial, but had already confessed and made a statement to the fact that she had done it alone. She said, “I was drove to it. It grieved me to see the child always in the way and being knocked about, till it was bruised from its foot to its head. I did it to put the poor little thing out of its misery”. The newspaper article claimed, ‘Great indignation is felt against the prisoners’.BarfordMurder2
Rachel received the death sentence, but it was later commuted to penal servitude for life. She was sent to Knaphill Prison for female convicts in Woking. According to the notes on her prison record, she was only 4’11” tall and had light brown hair and grey eyes and had ‘a diseased right foot’. Her job in prison was ‘brush making’. After three years at Knaphill she was removed to Fulham Female Convicts Prison where the women were trained in laundry and other domestic duties. Rachel behaved very well and became matron at the convalescent home attached to the prison. The photo of her was taken when she arrived at Fulham Female Prison.
In February 1883 after twelve years in prison, Rachel Busby was released ‘on licence’ but she continued to be matron at the convalescent home until she retired at 65 and lived the rest of her life in Guildford and died there at the beginning of 1930 at the age of 84 years.
As for Thomas Castle, in 1872, a year after the murder trial, he was in trouble again and went to prison for six weeks for ‘indecent assault’. After 1872 I could find no information about him or his daughter Sarah Ann so as it was possible they had gone abroad. I asked Anne Williams in Adderbury if she could find any information on her overseas ancestry programme. The mystery was solved when she discovered that Thomas had emigrated to Johnson, Missouri, USA and had taken his daughter Sarah Ann with him and on 16th November 1879 he had married a widow named Mrs Belle Hann. She was English but living in America when he met her.
It has been a sad but very interesting project and all because Denise chanced to find that long ago newspaper article and sent a copy to me. When she found other prison notes complete with a photo that was a bonus, as then we could see what Rachel actually looked like. Anne found details for me in old Oxford newspapers of 1871, about the inquest, post mortem and the trial. Thank you to both of them for all the extra information. (Too much to include it all here).
I contacted several people who have lived in Barford for a long time, but none had any knowledge of the murder that happened in their village 142 years ago or where the pool had been.
The passing years have erased the cottages and filled in the pool.
If anyone has any information to add to this story, I would love to hear from them.


  1. Brenda Kirkham says:

    Re: Rachel Busby’s prison record.
    She was in solitary confinement at Millbank Prison for the first six months. Then at Woking Prison for about 18 months when she was ill. Then she was at Fulham from 1874 until she was ‘liberated on licence’in Feb. 1883.

  2. Andrea Hartman says:

    My partner is also descended from Thomas’s sister Ann through her daughter Laura Watts who is his great great grandmother. We were planning a visit to Barford St John and looking for links when we came across your story. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Brenda Kirkham says:

    Joice Tew was born in 1821, her parents were Elizabeth Ward and William Tew. Joice’s first two children, sons James born 1842 and Benjamin born 1844 were both illegitimate.
    James was my gt grandfather.
    Joice married John Castle in 1849. She had not been married before.

  4. In 1842 Joice Tew married at Buckingham one of three men John Tew, James May or George Horne. Is it possible that Joice married a cousin named Tew, had two children James (1842-1912) and Benjamin (1844-1921) and that the marriage ended with the death of John or the failure of the marriage, before 1849)? We know for sure that Joice married John Castle in August 1849 and went on to have six more children before dying in 1892. My interest is that Benjamin Tew was my GG grandfather

  5. Stephen Lambert says:

    My Great Great Grandfather was also John Crofts of the Crown Barford St John ( On my Mother`s side of the family )

    My Grandfather was John E S Crofts ( 1906-1986 )

  6. Richard Crofts says:

    Researching my family history (CROFTS). John Crofts of Crown Inn, barford st John was my great great grandfather. I believe Crown Inn is no more. Hope to visit next summer

  7. Peta Millard says:

    Anne Castle, Thomas’s sister (1837) was my great great grandmother on my Mother’s side of my family.
    I was intrigued with your report of her prison life as all the newspapers said she was sent to Millbank prison London.
    That closed in 1890.



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