Murder most foul?
The Murder of Elizabeth Harrison in 1772
Wymering churchyard has fine and historically important tombstones but one has given rise to a legend of scorned love, murder and execution. The story goes that Elizabeth Harrison wore out the patience of her lover, a local farmer's son, leading to her murder and his execution by hanging from a nearby tree. A good story but I wanted to know if it was true.
The inscription reads
In Memory of ELIZABETH HARRISON who Departed this Life August the 7th 1772. Aged 27 Years.
All you my Friends who this Way passeth by Observe the adjacent field their shot was I: In Bloom of Youth I had no thought of Death So sudden was I forced to yield my breath Therefore I'd have you to prepare your way For Heav'ns high summons all men must obey
Newspapers then as now loved a good story. They told of a murder at Wymering during the night of Thursday (6 August 1772) where high spirits resulted in tragedy. Some servants had been dancing and making merry that evening and decided to frighten a man who lived alone in a nearby house. They took handbells and other things to make a noise and went to his house. The man kept a gun and loaded it to deal with the disturbance. At the same time two other servants (one of whom was Elizabeth Harrison) who had nothing to do with the revelry, arrived to see what was going on. When the man opened fire on the group he hit Elizabeth in the face killing her instantly. He was arrested and charged with wilful murder. At Winchester Assizes the following year he was convicted of the murder but not sentenced to death. Instead he was sentenced to be burned on the hand (branded).
So there is no spurned lover nor execution but the story is still intriguing in what it suggests about Wymering at that time. The merry servants were described as 'several gentlemen's servants', suggesting they were not farm labourers. Elizabeth Harrison and her companion were described as 'a lady's servants'. The man was the coachman, suggesting they also came from a wealthy household and perhaps had been sent to find out what the noise was. Where did they come from? As they ran down to the field where the man lived they probably were employed at Wymering Manor. All the 'adjacent' fields where the murder took place were on the Manor's land and a map of 1792 shows a house in the field where SSE's Electricity sub-station is now. Who was living at Wymering house (as it was then) in 1772? It was Elizabeth Harris, the widow of the vicar of Wymering, Richard Harris. He had left his Wymering estate including the manor, to his widow for her lifetime and she remained there until her death in 1785. Perhaps she also paid for Elizabeth Harrison's elaborate tombstone. The wording, without mention of her family but with a pious verse on the fragility of life, suggests the stone was not provided by her family.
Who was the murderer? He was Stephen Burges and the legend says he was the son of the farmer at Wymering Farm (where Jubilee House is now). This was the only farm in the immediate vicinity at this time, where the Pittis family were tenant farmers so this bit of the legend cannot be true. The reports say he was a labourer but he was clearly no ordinary labourer as he was a single man who lived alone in a house. Labourers were lucky to have a one room cottage and single men often took lodgings with a family. He had a gun with swan shot at a time when hunting was the pastime of the wealthy. He was able to write his name confidently when he was a witness at a wedding by licence in 1769. His punishment on conviction also points to a man who could read, as burning on the hand was reserved for men who could claim 'benefit of clergy' (that is, could read a passage from the Bible to demonstrate they were educated and so escape the death penalty.) The singling out of this man for some 'sport' in the middle of the night suggests he was regarded as different from other labourers. Was he employed to protect the wildfowl on the marshes from poachers or to watch for smugglers? If so, he may have been the butt of local resentment or perhaps he was just 'different'.
Further details are few. Although the coachman was seriously injured he survived and was on the way to recovery by the end of the month. Following his conviction Stephen Burges no longer paid parish Poor Rates though he remained in the parish. He died in 1780 and was buried in Wymering churchyard. His resting place is not known whereas the grave of his victim, Elizabeth Harrison, has a fine headstone. Although the legend is just that, the true story is a fascinating glimpse of Wymering in 1772.
The research for the above topic was carried out by Janet Hird. It is subject to copyright and should not be copied or transmitted in whole or part without her acknowledgement. We ask you to respect her copyright.