Rebecca Worlock a 37-year-old mother-of-three, went to the gallows at Gloucester on 16th August 1820 for the murder of her husband, Thomas.
Rebecca bought rat poison at Two Mile Hill in Kingswood. The purchase of poison required two people to be present and so Rebecca asked a stranger, Mary Jekins to accompany her, which she agreed to do and who later testified against Rebecca.
After buying arsenic as a means to rid herself of her husband, Rebecca foolishly told Mary that the poison was not really for rats, but for her husband. Rebecca gave Mary threepence for her trouble and went on her way.
On the evening of 17th April Thomas returned home to Barry Road, Oldland, after a hard day. He had walked about 30 miles that day and was thirsty. He sent his eldest daughter, thirteen-year-old Mary Ann, across the road to the Chequers public-house for a pint of beer. Mary Ann took the jug from its place hanging on a nail in the kitchen, went across the road and Mary Hook, the landlord’s daughter filled the jug. Thomas drank his beer in two gulps. He immediately started to feel bad and in the bottom of the jug found a white gritty substance.
Over the next couple of days Thomas got steadily worse. He died just after midday on 21st April. A post-mortem soon identified that an irritant poison was responsible for his death and Rebecca was arrested. She was tried at Gloucester Assizes on Monday 14th August. The jury took just seven minutes to find her guilty and she was sentenced to death. She later confessed and was hanged two days after the end of the trial.
The following link provides an account of the trial: https://iiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/drs:5814742$2i
Penny Deverill’s book Two Penn’oth of Poison
Thomas & Rebecca Worlock first came into my life in 1981 soon after I decided to trace my family tree. My maternal Grandmother Mrs Worlock, (known affectionately to everyone in the district as Old Mother Worlock or Auntie Beat… midwife extraordinaire) had recently passed away and it was left to me to sort out her Estate and her little whitewashed cottage in Oldland Bottom. Within a few months, with the Hatched, Matched & Despatched Registers for St Mary’s Bitton in front of me, I found a Burial entry in 1820 for Thomas Worlock, aged 40, not only that but Rev Henry Thomas Ellacombe (Curate of the Parish) had thoughtfully added how he had “Died of Poison”.
Although on a bit of a roll by now I was still not expecting to find, 3 pages on, a Burial entry for his wife Rebecca and this time Rev Ellacombe had surpassed himself by adding how hers was not a natural death nor had she succumbed to poison like her unfortunate husband but that she was “Hanged at Gloster”!
As Thomas and Rebecca’s story has been well documented I want to concentrate on the importance St Mary’s Church played in their tragic story and how pivotal Rev Ellacombe was to the whole proceedings.
Thomas’ parents John and Martha Worlock (nee Prigg) were married at St Mary’s on May 5th 1776 where, according the Register, John was a Butcher and his bride a girl from Swineford. All 12 of their children were born in Bitton where, tragically, 2 died as babies whilst of those who survived the 4 eldest (including Thomas) were Christened at Hanham & Oldland Chapel (now St Anne’s). “Most” of the others were taken to St Mary’s.
Rebecca, on the other hand, was a Bitton girl the daughter of affluent Miller and Landowner Lamorock and Mary Flower (nee Francis) growing up alongside her 2 sisters and 5 brothers at Boyde Mill, Golden Valley Lane. All 8 Flower children were Christened at St Mary’s.
I now need to take you to onto that fateful day, October 7th 1807, when Thomas and Rebecca probably made the biggest mistakes of their lives….they married…at St Mary’s naturally. I would like to think it was a love match, although it’s highly likely it was not entirely accepted by either family which, despite the couple being “of full age” and therefore did not need parental consent to marry, is probably why Thomas obtained a Marriage Licence, thus avoiding the need to have the “Banns Read” in Church.
Thirteen years and three children later any feelings Rebecca had for her husband had turned to loathing thanks in no small measure to Thomas’ liking for the strong ale served by George Hook, Landlord of The Chequers, Barry Road, Oldland and his eagerness to return home so drunk and foul tempered that he thought nothing of raising his fists against his defenceless wife, totally unaware his three young children were upstairs quaking with fear as they listened to their mothers sufferings all the while wondering when their father might turn his anger on them.
No one knows when Rebecca decided to take things into her own hands, when it was she decided she had received one beating or assault too many or her children had seen the latest bruises on her body, however by the end of Monday 17th April 1820 Rebecca had passed the point of no return, Thomas had swallowed some beer into which she had mixed nearly all the 2 Penno’th of Poison she had bought a few weeks earlier from Mrs Stephens in Kingswood Hill.
By Thursday 20th April everyone knew Thomas was dying even though Dr Edwards from Keynsham and Dr Watts from Bitton still vainly tried to save him, by the following day it was clear the only person Thomas needed now was his Confessor and this is where Rev. H. T. Ellacombe joins our tragic tale.
It was Rev Ellacombe who was at Thomas’ bedside on Friday 21st April when Churchwarden and family friend Robert Henderson came to write down the dying man’s last wishes and Rev Ellacombe’s name appears as one of the Witnesses.
It was Rev Ellacombe who, left alone with Thomas, was to hear the allegations that Rebecca had added white powder to his beer.
It was Rev Ellacombe who was with Thomas when he took his last painful breath and it was Rev Ellacombe who confronted Rebecca with the allegations of poison only for her to utter the immortal words “she loved Thomas too much to ever to have done such a cruel thing”!!!.
It was Rev Ellacombe who, rather than stay and testify at the Coroner’s Inquest to be held at The Chequers later that day, chose instead to accompany the distraught Worlocks back to Bitton.
It was Rev Ellacombe who laid Thomas to rest in the family grave in St Mary’s Churchyard…it was April 23rd (St Georges Day), Rebecca did not attend, found guilty of murdering her husband by a Coroner’s Jury she was already on her way (via Lawfords Gate House of Correction) to Gloster Gaol to await trial at the Summer Assize.
When Rebecca finally faced her accusers at The Gloucester Summer Assize she not only met a hostile biased public but an all male Jury guided by a Judge who had already told those chosen to serve as his Jurors throughout the two weeks the Assize would take to hear all the cases how he “expected” each deliberation to take no longer than half an hour as he had promised his wife, the Lady Harriet, a holiday in Malta!!
Although the evidence against Rebecca was strong and damning all the Witnesses were subjected to rigorous cross examinations from both Prosecution and Defence Councils however it was Rev Ellacombe who proved more than capable of standing up to the posturing bullying tactics of Mr Ludlow, the Prosecuting Council, it was Rev Ellacombe who stood at young Mary Ann Worlocks side when, thanks to her Testimony, she saw her mother sentenced to hang, her body to be handed over to the Surgeons for dissection afterwards and it was Rev Ellacombe who took the hysterical child from the Courtroom!!
It was Rev Ellacombe who was with the Prison Chaplain when Rebecca confessed to murdering Thomas, in return it was Rev Ellacombe who promised to do all he could for her three orphaned children and to receive her mortal remains back home in Bitton Churchyard, fully aware it would not be popular with certain families in the village.
It was Rev Ellacombe who was at Rebecca’s side as she stood on the Gloucester gallows and was the first to grant her eternal peace when it was all over.
True to his word, Rev Ellacombe received Rebecca’s mortal remains back in Bitton Churchyard…or did he? As ordered by the Judge, Rebecca’s body was handed to the Surgeons and whilst it was common practice for executed criminals to be buried within the walls of the Prison from “whence they we executed”…. I can find no record of Rebecca having been interred within the walls of Gloster Gaol, likewise I can find no grave nor confirm where she lies in Bitton Churchyard either, all I can be sure of is that thanks to Rev Ellacombe, on Aug 20th 1820 the name of Rebecca Worlock was written in the Burial Register for St Mary’s Bitton….whether she actually lies there is another story altogether.
The Film: The Trial of Rebecca Worlock (2017)
This short drama film was made by film-maker Adam Morgan and stars Faith Elizabeth, Olivia Maiden and Nick Orchard.
The History Group showed the film on 27 June at St Mary’s Church.
Bel Mooney’s connection with Rebecca Worlock
Bel Mooney tells us about her fascination with the spirits of her home….
Like all the best ghost stories, it began with a stranger knocking on our door over a year ago.
Her name was Mrs Penny Deverill and she was asking permission to take a photograph of the old farmhouse, a corn mill until 1904, that my husband and I had moved into a few months previously.
Surrounded by packing boxes still, and deafened by the sound of carpentry, I only half-listened to her explanation that she’d discovered that an ancestor was poisoned by a daughter of the house.
Mrs Deverill, it transpired, had written a privately-printed novelisation of the story and sometimes gave talks on the subject to W.I. groups, so wanted the snap. She kindly gave me a copy of her book, but, busy settling in to my new abode, I put it to one side.
Yet as the house slowly became our home, and we made our own changes but kept old details, something about the story she had told me haunted my thoughts.
I began to wonder about all those who had lived here before me — the romances, the sorrows, the dramas of their lives that had been played out here, with the old stone walls around me their constant backdrop.
Even now, I find my imagination conjuring up the daughter in question, Rebecca Worlock, as a little girl in long petticoats toddling into the room where I’m writing.
The beams over my head were probably old even then — when the 19th century was young and Rebecca was carefree and innocent. Before she met her terrible end at the gallows in 1820.
Does the spirit of Rebecca ever come back to the home where she was born, raised and happy — before being hanged for the murder of her husband, Mrs Deverill’s ancestor, ‘with malice aforethought and at the instigation of the devil’?
Oh yes, the history of your house can affect you in more ways than you expect, if you care to uncover it.
I can easily visualise the horror on the face of respectable and wealthy Mrs Mary Flower, sitting in this house, when she was first informed that her daughter Rebecca had been arrested for murder …
Rebecca’s father Lamorock Flower (all the first-born Flower sons had that strange name) had died in 1797 when she was 13 and six years later her mother Mary, aged 40, married a 25-year-old man — who must have had his eyes on the mill as well as the widow.
It’s impossible to believe that Rebecca approved — especially as her young stepfather soon became caught up with costly legal disputes.
I bet there wasn’t much attention paid to the young woman and she wanted to escape.
Perhaps that’s why, just four years later, she married Thomas Worlock — who was very much her social inferior.
She was used to a large comfortable house, with a family income from the mill and the vast acres; her new husband was the son of a slaughterman and owned no land at all.
The ill-matched couple moved to a humble cottage just over the hill on Oldland Common.
Thirteen years and three children later, Rebecca slipped arsenic into Thomas’s beer, causing him to die in agony. It’s said that he was a violent drunkard and the marriage was always tempestuous.
In her confession, just before the gallows, she said he had been jealous and ‘repeatedly called her the most opprobrious epithets’.
But perhaps she was unfaithful — who can know what goes on between a husband and wife?
One thing is certain — there’s nothing new about unhappy marriages. Between 1800 and 1868, of 206 females hanged publicly in the British Isles 42 met their fate for murdering their husbands.
Arsenic, commonly used as rat poison, was the favourite murder weapon for wives who wanted to dispose of troublesome spouses — which is why women weren’t allowed to buy it on their own.
But it was easy to take somebody into the druggist with you — which is what Rebecca did. She asked a stranger, Mary Jenkins, to go with her for ‘two pennyworth of something to poison rats with’.
Mary Jenkins’s evidence in court was damning: ‘On leaving the shop, the prisoner told her that it was not to kill rats, but that she had a hell of a fellow at home, whom she meant to do for.’
The opportunity came when Thomas came home tired and thirsty after walking 30 miles that day and sent his oldest child, 13-year-old Mary Ann, to the Chequers Public House (which is still there) for a jug of beer.
She took the jug, went for the beer — but when she returned home, her mother took the jug from her and sent her off to look for her brother and sister. That was the fateful moment when Rebecca put the white power into the beer.
They all came to the Assizes to give evidence against her — the woman who sold the poison, the witness to the purchase, the girl who drew the beer, the publican himself, the neighbour young Mary Ann called when she heard her father tell her mother ‘you have done for me’ and various medical men.
The court was packed to hear the jury return their verdict of guilty after just seven minutes. Rebecca Worlock’s last words in public were: ‘Oh my poor children!’
Two days later she was hanged in front of a huge, rowdy crowd and her body cut down and given (final horror) for dissection.
The last person to speak to her was the vicar of our village, who (it’s officially recorded) ‘brought home with him several little presents for her children which she requested he would give to them on his return’.
Wondering what pitifully few possessions the condemned woman might have had to give, I start brooding about those children. Because nobody took care of them.
Two months after their mother’s execution, Mary Ann and her little sister Honor were sent to separate orphanages in London.
The boy, John, remained in the village, reliant on parish handouts and gradually getting into trouble with the law.
But where was grandmother Mary when all this was happening? Sitting in this very house, with her young husband, listening to the mill wheel turning as ever — and turning her back in shame.
Didn’t she ever recall nursing her daughter in the upstairs room where she was born? Watching her play? It makes me quite angry to think about it.
You imagine what it would have been like to be them. And it makes you feel closer than ever to the place you have all ‘shared’.
Bel’s newspaper article can be found here: https://www.pressreader.com/uk/daily-mail/20110723/282415575946319