SO FAR – On the evening of Saturday 16th December 1876, a young Wisbech man named Robert Roughton was involved in a drunken scuffle with two older men – George Oldham and Charles Wright – on the river bank near the timber yard on Nene Parade. Allegedly, Roughton was pushed into the river and has not been seen since. The police have arrested Oldham and Wright on a charge of murder, but have been forced to release them on bail, as Robert Roughton’s body has not been found.
Christmas came and went, and The Norfolk News had this brief update in its edition of 30th December.
The case dragged on and on, with Oldham and Wright going back and forth to the court and being released again but, eventually, the inevitable happened, and on Sunday 20th January a Wisbech sea captain called Edward Benton made a grim discovery. He later informed the court:
“I am the master of the steam tug Spurn., and live in Bannisters Row, in the parish of Leverington. Yesterday morning I was walking down the bank when a gentleman called across the river to me and said that there was something like a corpse floating. I then launched the boat end recovered the body and brought it to the “Old Bell.” I believe the body to be that of Robert Roughton from the description his father gave me about a week ago.”
P.C. Burdett. added:
“Yesterday morning I searched the body which was brought to the stables by Capt. Benton. and found in the pockets 6d. in silver and 4d in coppers, a pocket-knife, a clay pipe, and a scarf pin.”
At last the police had a body. What kind of state it was in can hardly be imagined. The Nene was certainly freezing cold at that time of year, which would have hindered putrefaction, but the mortal remains of Robert Roughton would have been swept back and forwards twice each day by the relentless scouting tides. The body was identified, with a savage touch of irony, by Robert Roughton’s older brother, who was now a Sergeant in the police force. The post mortem was conducted by Mr William Groom, surgeon. He told the court:
“On Sunday morning, 21st January, I made an examination of the body shown to me as Robert Roughton. The hands were clenched, the arms extended above the head. I had the clothing removed and the body washed except for the face. I saw no marks of injury on those parts which were washed. I washed the face myself and found a bruise upon the left cheek bone between that and the ear about two and a half inches in length. There was a lacerated wound a little above the left nostril and a bruise extending to the lip. There was a bruise upon the prominent part of the right side of the head. I examined the chest. The lungs were in a much congested state and the air tubes had a reddish mucus in them. I then turned the scalp down. The marks of injury on the outside corresponded with the marks of injury on the inside of the scalp. I then removed the cranium and upon examining the brain I found it highly congested. There were livid patches on the face and body, but they were the result of being in the water. I should say that death was caused by suffocation or asphyxia, and from the appearance of the body I should say from immersion in the water. I should say that the injuries on the face were given before death.”
So, the police now had their body, and after further court hearings in Wisbech, where evidence eventually emerged that Robert Roughton was in dispute with Oldham and Wright over a relatively small sum of money. The disagreement spilled over from the confines of The Albion and onto the quayside of Nene Parade. The magistrates finally adjudged the two men to be guilty of manslaughter, and the case was sent to be tried at the next Cambridge Assizes in March. The hearing was brief, and the newspaper reported:
“Charles Wright and George Oldham, two elderly men, were indicted for the manslaughter of Robert Roughton, at Wisbeach, on the 16th of December last. A bill for murder had been sent up to the Grand Jury, but was thrown out by them. Mr. Naylor appeared for the prosecution ; the prisoner Oldham was defended by Mr. Horace Browne. It appeared that a dispute had arisen between the prisoners and the deceased on the evening in question, and they were seen struggling together on the banks of the river, in which the body of the deceased was afterwards found on the 21st of January. The evidence showed that both the prisoners and the deceased were the worse for drink, and that the deceased, who was a much younger man than either of the prisoners, was the originator of the quarrel. The river bank at the place in question was sloping, and at the place where the cap of the deceased was found there was a gap in the rails by the river-side. Mr. Horace Browne, for the defence, urged that there was nothing in the evidence to show that it was any. thing but an accident. The Jury found the prisoners guilty, and his Lordship (Mr Justice Brett, left) passed a sentence of six months.”
What do we know of the subsequent lives of the participants in this sorry tale? Of Roughton himself, his burial place is not recorded, at least in cemeteries run by Fenland Council. Oldham and Wright appear briefly in the county record of criminal convictions for 1877 (below)
Robert Roughton’s parents, William and Sarah had moved to King Street by 1881, and were in their late 60s, but of Oldham and Wright there is no conclusive trace.
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