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The 1871 census tells us that Edward Handcock and his family lived in London End Cottage, Priors Hardwick and, judging by his neighbours the Sharps, whose cottage was described as ‘near the Vicarage’, London End Cottage was in the same area. Handcock was 48, and was his wife Betsy 38. The children in the house were Walter Edward (11), Harry Mold (6), Eliza (5), Charles (3) and Minnie (2). We know for certain that Walter was not Betsy’s son, as he was the product of one of Edward’s earlier marriages.

1871 census

Edward Handcock’s marriages were, to say the least, interesting. We know that he married Betsy Mold in September 1865, so it is safe to say that Harry and the younger children were blood siblings. An earlier marriage, in 1851, was to Ann Hodgekins or Hodgkins. She died in 1862, and a newspaper report subsequent to the events of this story suggested that Handcock’s first wife was Betsy’s sister Ann, but following that trail takes us away from the narrative to no good purpose.

Edward Handcock was a butcher, but he worked for himself, more than likely dealing with the pigs that were the staple of many cottagers at the time. There is no better description of the trade than in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure but, unfortunately, Challow the pig-man doesn’t turn up, so Jude and his wife Arabella have to do the job themselves.

“Upon my soul I would sooner have gone without the pig than have had this to do!” said Jude. “A creature I have fed with my own hands.”
“Don’t be such a tender-hearted fool! There’s the sticking-knife — the one with the point. Now whatever you do, don’t stick un too deep.”
“I’ll stick him effectually, so as to make short work of it. That’s the chief thing.”
“You must not!” she cried. “The meat must be well bled, and to do that he must die slow. We shall lose a shilling a score if the meat is red and bloody! Just touch the vein, that’s all. I was brought up to it, and I know. Every good butcher keeps un bleeding long. He ought to be eight or ten minutes dying, at least.”
“He shall not be half a minute if I can help it, however the meat may look,” said Jude determinedly. Scraping the bristles from the pig’s upturned throat, as he had seen the butchers do, he slit the fat; then plunged in the knife with all his might.
“‘Od damn it all!” she cried, “that ever I should say it! You’ve over-stuck un! And I telling you all the time”
“Do be quiet, Arabella, and have a little pity on the creature!”
“Hold up the pail to catch the blood, and don’t talk!”
However unworkmanlike the deed, it had been mercifully done. The blood flowed out in a torrent instead of in the trickling stream she had desired. The dying animal’s cry assumed its third and final tone, the shriek of agony; his glazing eyes riveting themselves on Arabella with the eloquently keen reproach of a creature recognizing at last the treachery of those who had seemed his only friends.
“Make un stop that!” said Arabella. “Such a noise will bring somebody or other up here, and I don’t want people to know we are doing it ourselves.” Picking up the knife from the ground whereon Jude had flung it, she slipped it into the gash, and slit the windpipe. The pig was instantly silent, his dying breath coming through the hole.

Arabella says, “There’s the sticking-knife — the one with the point”, and this phrase will have a chilling resonance as the story of Edward and Betsy Handcock unfolds. It seems that Edward Handcock was convinced that Betsy was being unfaithful to him, although no sound evidence ever emerged that this was true. When combined with his penchant for alcohol, this put him in dangerous and violent moods, as their next door neighbours, the households only separated by a thin wattle and daub wall, were later to testify.

The events of 13th November 1872
Two terrible deaths