Until the mid-19th century policing in most villages was undertaken by part time
Parish Constables chosen by local ratepayers. In Lincolnshire, even after a professional
police force was formed in January 1857, these men were still offering valuable service.
The concept of a professional police force was slow to take off. Even in the 1870’s
the county’s 207 strong force, led by Captain Philip Bicknell, included Parish Constables.
One such man was Thomas Bett Gell who came from Hemingby, near Horncastle. In 1876
he became the last Parish Constable to be murdered. Constable Gell’s death pinpointed
the weaknesses of attempts to police such a massive rural area. The Horncastle force,
which patrolled Hemingby and neighbouring villages, had a wide and demanding remit,
while the range of crimes they had to deal with was formidable.
Constables spent a great deal of time on minor matters: public health risk, assaults,
youths loitering in dark corners and so on. But surviving police notebooks report
a very high incidence of violent crime; there were gangs of villains and sometimes
real threats to order and safety. In his book Lawless and Immoral: policing a country
town, 1838-1857, the historian B J Davey describes how vulnerable and hard working
the constable was. “The people of Horncastle were usually not very worried about serious
crimes like robbery and they did not expect the likes of Ackrill and Gapp [constables
a few decades before Gell] to be able to do much about such things anyway. They
wanted the policeman to deal with the lawless and immoral, to reduce drunkenness,
vice and considerable disorder throughout the town…”
By the end of the 19th century, one of the last Horncastle constables, Mr Tooms,
tried hard to find a weekend assistant to deal with problems such as “noise in a
bawdy house” and pubs abusing the gaming laws. The duties of the parish constable
were onerous. He supervised prisoners, put them in stocks or secured them in a lock-up;
then had the responsibility of taking them before the magistrate. Usually he would
not even have a uniform the general practice was for his wooden truncheon to be a
symbol of his office, as well as an instrument for instilling fear. When not on duty
Constable Bett Gell was a blacksmith, but he was always on call in emergencies. In
the 1871 census he is listed as a Wheelwright Master employing two men and two boys;
one of his fellow blacksmiths was to become his killer.
On 15th October 1876, William Drant – a man with a long history of violence and savage
mood swings – came home after a night of heavy drinking. Because his wife had left
him he was living with his mother. On this night he brought home a friend; but then
complained of feeling ill and, as his temper changed, he became loud and abusive.
It was known that he had been subject to fits so he was taken to the house of Elizabeth
Goddard for help, but then taken home again. He lay down and tried to sleep. After
half an hour he woke up and became dangerously aggressive, starting to rant about
Mrs Goddard trying to poison him. Although she was extremely patient and did her
best to quieten him, he got to his feet and threatened her with his fists. From
this point his behaviour can only be called manic, as the Times reported.
“He then called for his mother, who taking alarm, had run out to find assistance.
He went out to fetch her and returned, dragging her by the neck into the kitchen
of the house where he flung her onto the floor kneeling on her taking out a knife
and threatening to murder her…” Four neighbours arrived, two carrying wooden rails
from a fence. They wrestled him away from his mother and took the knife. One managed
to crack him on the head, which almost stopped him; yet he recovered and hit back,
narrowly missing one of his assailants. The next stage was an attack on William
Leggit, another blacksmith in the village who obviously knew him. It is not clear
whether he tried to appease the rabid William Drant, or to tackle him, but when he
was threatened he run off. There was so much noise in the street by this time that
Constable Gell was roused and was leaving his house just as William Drant run out
into the street, swinging a piece of rail, which struck the constable with considerable
One witness reported that “It felled him to the ground and repeated blows were heard,
sounding as if striking an empty barrel.” The officer was mortally wounded, his
brain severely damaged. A doctor did attend, but there was no hope and he died the
next morning. While Constable Gell was battling for his life, his assailant had
finally been overwhelmed. He was taken to the Horncastle lock-up after being arrested
by PC Lawson from nearby Baumber and one of the new professional policemen.
William Drant was charged with assault and attempted murder. His only reply was:
“they have worked me up so much I couldn’t stand it a minute longer, watching and
peeping about my house, and I’ve given Gell one.” What emerged later was that William
Drant had once been sacked by Thomas Bett Gell, so there was bad blood between them. Witnesses
stated that the murderer had spoken out aggressively against his former employer
on several occasions. In prison he quietened down and eventually said, in a more
sober tone: “Oh dear, oh dear, I am sorry. I did not think I had killed him!”
At the inquest held in the Coach and Horses pub at Hemingby, William Drant was charged
with murder and the case was referred to the next Assizes. At the trial on 29th November
Baron Huddleston presided. The prosecution was led by Mr Barnard and Mr Lumley, while
Horace Smith appeared for the defence. The latter tried his best to approach the
issue by way of the history of insanity, referring to the fits to which the accused
was subject. Apart from that, his stance was that there was no real malice and intent
to murder, so manslaughter would seem an appropriate verdict.
Mr Smith relied, as every lawyer then did, on the M’Naghten Rules. These stated
that if insanity is proven, there is an absence of a mens rea, intent to kill, so
the jury should commit the prisoner to hospital and confinement for an indefinite
The rules had been drawn up after the trial of Daniel M’Naghten in 1843, who had
murdered the private secretary of Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel. The proceedings
were halted over a plea of insanity. In the Drant case, however, the judge saw no
problem at all with the accused mans behaviour and general condition. He stated
that: “The law presumed all killing to be murder and it rested upon the accused to
show that the offence was manslaughter only.” Amazingly, he directed the jury not
to take “a cowardly refuge in either alternative [manslaughter or insanity] to avoid
responsibility.” To be fair, he instructed them with the reference to the M’Naghten
Rules, but then led the summary into a recounting of William Drant’s actions on that
fateful day. The accused, he reminded them, had been subject to no provocation from
his victim, but had had a violent blow to the back of his head, and “this had confused
him.” Then, rather unexpectedly, the judge opened up the possibility of an escape
from the murder charge: “The accused snatched up the first weapon near him and so
caused the death of the deceased… the offence might be manslaughter.” The jury took
25 minutes to decide that William Drant was guilty of murder.
On 7th December Henry Maudsley, a leading psychiatrist, wrote to The Times about
the case, drawing attention to the prisoner’s condition before the latter turned
violent. “On the evening of the murder he had been taken ill in a neighbour’s cottage;
he was cold, trembled very much and was extremely pale in the face, crying out. “Oh
Lord save me!”
Having reflected on the progress of the outburst, Henry Maudsley noted a familiar
pattern of epileptic symptoms. He pointed out that William Drant’s mother said her
son had always had fits, and that he had had two such seizures on the Tuesday before
the killing and “four or five” again on the Wednesday. She stated: “He usually went
violent after these fits. During the time he was in the house on that fateful night
talking to himself. I washed him about seven o’clock when he was trembling violently
and seemed to know nothing.”
The psychiatrist was acute enough to realise that the person closest to the killer,
his mother, was well informed about the case history, and in fact described her son’s
symptoms and habits very ably and accurately. Mrs Drant said the local practitioner,
Dr Boulton, had attended William several times recently, and that a few days before
the incident, she had slept with her bedroom door open for fear of her son having
a sudden fit of rage. This confirmed an opinion that should have been brought up
in the trial. Henry Maudsley wrote that such “epileptic mania…is well known to have
most furious and dangerous consequences.”
He described sufferers as: “Sane enough, perhaps, and even amiable, industrious and
well-behaved during their fits, then these unfortunate persons become immediately
after them most violent and destructive beings for a time… and when they come to
themselves they are utterly unconscious of what they have done in their state of
alienation.” A lecturer would not be able to quote “a more typical example then
the painful case of William Drant who is now lying under sentence of death.”
Henry Maudsley seems to have echoed the feelings of local people. After the trial
William Drant’s neighbours and fellow citizens gathered a petition to the Home Office
requesting a reprieve. This was granted, and the prisoner was detained “during Her
Majesty’s pleasure.” It was The Times court reporter who called this “a painful case”
and it is a fitting description. Constable Gell was buried in the churchyard at
Hemingby, surely respected and admired by his family, friends and clients.
Henry Maudsley went on to found a research centre into mental illness a departure
from the normal practice of setting up yet another asylum. Ironically, only a short
distance from Hemingby, the Lincoln Bracebridge Asylum had, by 1890, almost a thousand
patients inside its walls.
Captain Bicknell finally resigned in 1902. The Hemingby incident was one of the
worst experiences he had to bear over his long career, which included riots in Lincoln
in 1862 and several other prominent murder cases.
William Drant’s case was one of many which slowly brought about changes in the relationship
between the courts, legal professionals, and the medical men who were increasingly
called upon to pass informed opinions.
The place of epilepsy as a part of a legal defence continued to be problematic well
into the 20th century. This story of the killing of Constable Thomas Bett Gell is
notable for two reasons: it took place in an area that had a unique local history
of policing, and it involved a classic narrative of the Victorian criminal justice
system when it came to understanding insanity.
Reproduced by kind permission of Simon Fowler, Editor of “Ancestors” the Family History
magazine from the issue of August 2007 to whom we are indebted.
Thomas Bett Gell's weather-worn
grave lies in the shadow of
St.Margaret's Church, Hemingby
While researching items for the Hemingby History Group we were kindly
given the following article which we hope will be of interest to villagers.
Thanks to Simon Fowler and 'Ancestors " magazine for allowing publication.
Stephen Wade reports on the perils of policing 130 years ago