Thomas WHEELER (murderer), St Albans area, 1880

November, 2007

Sarah Beth Hopton (sb @t writes from Florida to say: I am a writer working on a piece of historical fiction about the life, loves, murder, and execution of Mary Eleanor Wheeler Pearcey.  The name may sound familiar as this is Thomas Wheeler's daughter. I have volumes of research on Mary's later life, but her early life is completely unknown to me.

I need to know more about her father to piece together her early life. I do not have access to the archival newspapers from Herts Advertiser in America and was hoping you could help me locate and read the news coverage relating to Thomas Wheeler's crime and execution. Lastly, I am hoping you can help me unravel  the genealogy of the Wheeler family.

I am planning to visit in the spring and would be able to do on-site research then, but of course, anything you can help with now would be very much appreciated.

I was very excited to get your request as I had not known about Mary Eleanor Wheeler Pearcey - despite having done quite a lot of work on the murder of Edward Anstee by Thomas Wheeler some years ago [q.v.]. My reply highlights the things you could find useful to do before you come to England - as well as suggesting some avenues you might like to follow when you get here.

... but see December update

1. The 1890 Murder. I need to deal briefly with Mary Eleanor Wheeler Pearcey's crime, for the benefit of other visitors to this web site. I suggest they visit your blog about Mary or simply google for "Mary Eleanor Wheeler Pearcey". The key dates are that Pheobe Hogg was murdered on 24th October 1890, Mary was convicted of the crime and hanged on 23rd December. The detailed story has all the features that would make the headlines in today's popular press.

2. The 1880 Murder. Thomas Wheeler murdered Edward Anstee on the 22nd August 1880  (see The Murder of Edward Anstee for a brief summary and a link to sources). My interest relates to his earlier connection to Heath Farm, Bernards Heath, and I have added some Old News items (Thomas Wheeler v F Barford and Trespassing in search of Coneys) to expand the information already on this site. If you have not already seen it you should seriously consider getting the book Crime in Hertfordshire, Volume Two, Murder and Misdemeanours as it is the best modern account of the crime I have read.

You may want to look at some of the contemporary press coverage in more detail, and the case was carried in the national as well as local papers - and some of the national coverage may be available to you in the USA. The Times is historically the UK newspaper of reference and the original contemporary index is now available on CD and online, and many key libraries world wide have copies of the paper on microfilm. Coverage was pretty good - although their reporter did not know the area and there is some mis-reporting of names of places, etc. The Guardian (then the Manchester Guardian) is available online an a quick check of the index shows there was press coverage of the murder on 23rd, 25th and 28th August, 1880, and of the confession on 13th November, 1880.

The local weekly paper, The Herts Advertiser, really went to town and even issued a special supplement to record the result of the trial. It is not indexed, but can be seen on microfilm at the St Albans Central Library. In contrast to The Times it is excellent on local information - but the reporter was less familiar with the legal points of such a major trial. Other local weekly papers included useful coverage, such as the Watford Observer (some weeks as much as 4 columns), the Bedfordshire Times and the Bucks Advertiser.

3. Father & Daughter. It is important to clarify the link between Thomas Wheeler and Mary Eleanor Wheeler. On your blog you say "Mary Eleanor Wheeler Pearcey, called Mrs. Pearcey by those who came to know her, was born in 1866. She led an ordinary lower middle-class life until the age of 10, when her father, Thomas Wheeler, murdered a man by shooting him in the face and then robbing his farm house."  I will be coming on to the subject of Thomas Wheeler's family later but Thomas's daughter Ellen would have been 18 or 19 at the time of his execution - and the information I have is that the family were agricultural workers and I am sure that a "cowman"  would not be considered lower middle class, although it would be more respectable that a mere agricultural labourer. If the 1890 papers describing Mary's trial and execution confirm the link with Thomas Wheeler, murderer of Edward Anstee there is no reason to question the identity - as I can't believe the press would miss out on it if it were true. However the background to the 1890 murder may suggest reasons why Ellen would have used a more classy name, "Mary Eleanor", shed years to suggest she was younger than she was, and moved her family origins up the social scale. (Life in the country was hard for the poor and in this context Thomas Hardy's poem "The Ruined Maid" seems to have some relevance, even if things clearly went very wrong for Mary Eleanor.)

Map: J. Cary, 1811
Larger scale maps from c 1880 are available on Old Maps.

4. The St Albans Area. If you are to understand the Wheeler family and the Anstee murder it is important to understand the local geography as it was then. The following identify some of the places you may encounter when researching the Wheeler family. Edward Anstee's murder took place at Marshalswick Farm, then in the Parish of Sandridge, now in St Albans. To the North is the parish of Wheathampstead, which includes the hamlet of Gustard Wood. To the West is the rural part of the parish of St Michael and to the East is the parish of Hatfield, with Symondshyde Wood on the boundary. Hammonds Farm (near Tower Hill on the map) and Heath Farm, on Bernards Heath lie to the south of the old parish of Sandridge. St Peters parish was a large on to the south of Sandridge, and the urban part of the parish was part of St Albans. In 1871 The area to the south of Townsend Farm (south west of Bernards Heath) was being developed for working class terrace housing - and included Bernard Street.

5. The Wheeler Family. Working out the family. Who's Who for The Marshalswick Murder records a number of members of the Wheeler family and you may want to check up details using the facilities on Ancestry and familysearch (see the tutorial if you are not sure of the techniques). I did a quick scan and Thomas was with his mother and siblings in Gustard Wood in the 1841 and 1851 censuses. (But beware, by 1851 his mother had remarried someone called Boon - mis-indexed on Ancestry as Moon.)

By 1861 Thomas was married, living at Symondshyde Wood, Hatfield, with wife and young son. (Hammonds Farm, Sandridge, abuts onto Symondshyde Great Wood - so it is just possible that in 1861 Thomas Wheeler worked for my ancestor Henry Cox as a herdsman. If so my great grandfather Jacob Reynolds may have dismissed him when he succeeded Henry Cox as tenant of the farm in 1863 as children after circa 1863 were born in St Albans. It could be worth gettin a birth certificate to see where they were living at the time.)

In 1871 Thomas's wife and children (including Ellen) were in lodgings in Bernard Street, St Peters, St Albans. Thomas was nowhere to be seen. When he lost his job on Heath Farm (when Edmund Smith died and Jacob Reynolds took the tenancy) he may well have lost his accommodation. Many farm worked lived in tied cottages and the family would have been homeless - and perhaps they were found lodgings by the Union (preferable to housing them in the Workhouse). Thomas may have been travelling looking for a job - or perhaps he was in prison under an assumed name, a trick which he is known to have tried later.

In 1881 his wife Mary was, not unexpectedly, a widow. She living at Lewisham with her children, including 19 year old Ellen.

You will obviously want to look up the details yourself, including other members of the family, with details from civil registration certificates where appropriate. For instance the birth places of the children suggest that they moved from the Symondshyde cottage in about 1863 - and the birth certificates should give the addresses where the children were born.

6. The Essex Period. The evidence surrounding the trial of Thomas Wheeler suggests that shortly after 1870 he, and his family, moved to Essex. One detail suggests that immediately before returning to St Albans in 1880 he had been released from an Essex prison where he had been held under a false name (which unfortunately is not given). It may well be that there are relevant records relating to this crime, and perhaps earlier crimes, relating to his period in Essex - and a check at the Essex Records Office would seem appropriate.

7. Background and other Information. This site provides information - and more importantly references to books - on many of the Hertfordshire places mentioned - and all books should be available for consultation at HALS when you visit the UK. They will also have much other information, which may include details of the trial of Thomas Wheeler.

In addition there are three books which might be worth reading before you come to England as they will give you more understanding of the world in which Thomas, and his daughter Ellen, grew up. Larkrise to  Candleford is a wonderful account of what life must have been like in small hamlets such as Gustard Wood, and it is so well written that copies occur in almost every library in the English-speaking world. Cottage Life in a Hertfordshire Village gives another, more local viewpoint but could be far harder for you to get a copy. Behind the Plough by Nigel Agar, is a more academic approach to life on the land during the 19th century - and copies are readily available online.

8. Take care - for instance there was another Thomas Wheeler of a similar age, living in the Leverstock Green area (between St Albans and Hemel Hempstead) (See Wheeler, Redbourn area, early 19th century) - so all references to the name cannot be automatically be assumed to be the right Thomas. See Right Name Wrong Body?

Sarah responded: Thank you so much for your time. I've had great success on ancestry finding the Wheeler family and the Hoggs family, thanks to your good starting points. I've also located three out of three books recommended and am voraciously reading them now. And I was able to find many articles at the Manchester Guardian online for both Mary and her father's crimes.

I look forward to hearing more about your researches.

December, 2007

Sarah's next report report of her research put a very different light on the situation. She writes: just wanted to update you on my research progress, as it may be of interest to your readers. It certainly was to me.

I finally received the court documents from the National Archives and buried deep within an editorial was the mention that Thomas Wheeler was Mary's father, but this information conflicted with direct testimony given by his wife, Charlotte Ann. As it turns out, Thomas Wheeler is NOT Mary Eleanor's father. Her father's name is James Wheeler. He died in August, 1882. Mary was born on March 26th, 1866 in Igtham, Kent. The family moved to Stepney afterward and she spent most of her days living in and around Miles-End.

The irony in all of this, of course, is that Thomas Wheeler had a daughter named Charlotte Ann, so I was working under the assumption that Mary's sister was Charlotte Ann. Mary did, of course, have a younger sister named Charlotte Ann, but it was also her mother's name. Once I found this out, the rest unravelled quite nicely.

At any rate, I wanted to update you. The information I have on Mary Eleanor is even more fascinating despite the link between she and Thomas Wheeler being a false one. This is definitely another case of right name, wrong person! Ah, and just as the book about Hertfordshire Murderers arrived at my house ;)

Oh well - it was too good to be true - but at least I initially said (3 above):

If the 1890 papers describing Mary's trial and execution confirm the link with Thomas Wheeler, murderer of Edward Anstee there is no reason to question the identity - as I can't believe the press would miss out on it if it were true.

Rather than waste it I will put on record some of the additional information I have found out about Thomas Wheeler from the censuses (Ancestry), etc.

24th December 1820 James Wheeler married Eleanor Taylor at Harpenden (familysearch)

16th April 1835 Thomas Wheeler was born at Wheathampstead, Son of James & Helen Wheeler. He was christened on 26th September 1841 (familysearch)

1841 census Gustard Wood, Wheathampstead

Name Age Occupation Born Hertfordshire
Ellen Wheeler 35 Hawker Yes
Emma Wheeler 11   Yes
Eliza Wheeler 8   Yes
Thomas Wheeler 6   Yes
Henry  Wheeler 4   Yes

1851 census Gustard Wood, Wheathampstead

Name Position Age Occupation Born
John Boon Head 27 Agricultural Labourer Wheathampstead
Ellen Boon Wife 51 Agricultural Labourer Wife Redbourn
James Mathews Son-in-law 22 Agricultural Labourer Kimpton
Eliza Mathews Daughter-in-law 20 Agricultural Labourer Wife Kimpton
Thomas Wheeler Son-in law 17 Agricultural Labourer Wheathampstead
Henry Wheeler Son-in law 15 Agricultural Labourer Wheathampstead
John Wheeler Son-in law 16 Agricultural Labourer Wheathampstead

[In 1851 Mary Ellingham, 26, unmarried bonnet sewer, was living with her widowed father John, 60, widower, late gardener. at Bury Green, Wheathampstead.]

1859 Marriage registration  April May June St Albans 3a 343  Thomas Wheeler - Mary Ellingham

1861 Symondshyde Wood, Hatfield

Name Position Age Occupation Born
Thomas Wheeler Head 27 Herdsman Gustard Wood
Mary Wheeler Wife 32 Straw Bonnet Sewer Wheathampstead
John E Wheeler Son 16 months   Hatfield

1861 Registration of birth of Ellen Wheeler - Oct-Dec 1861 Hatfield 3a 259

1871 census Bernards Street, St Peters, St Albans

Name Position Age Occupation Born
William Messer Head 33 Cooper Wheathampstead
Harriet Messer Wife 26 Laundress Hatfield
Mary Wheeler Lodger, Married 44 Hat Sewer Wheathampstead
Ellen Wheeler [Lodger's] Daughter 9 Scholar Hatfield
William Wheeler [Lodger's] Son 7 Scholar St Albans
Ann Wheeler [Lodger's] Daughter 6 Scholar St Albans

1881 Rushey Green, Lewisham, London

Name Position Age Occupation Born
Mary Wheeler Head, Widow 45 Straw Hat Maker Wheathampstead
Ellen Wheeler Daughter 19 Assistant Dressmaker Hatfield
William Wheeler Son 17 Baker's Boy St Albans
Annie Wheeler Daughter 15 Servant Domestic St Albans

1891, 8 Willow Walk, Lewisham, London

Name Position Age Occupation Born
Mary Wheeler Head, Widow 67 Dress Maker Wheathampstead
Annie Wheeler Daughter 25 Domestic Bernards Heath, St Albans

1901, Gate House, Old Marford, Sandridge

Name Position Age Occupation Born
George Wheatley Head 51 Foreman Platelayer St Pancras, London
Mary A Wheatley Wife 49   Wheathampstead
Lizzie Wheatley Daughter 17 Dressmaker's apprentice Wheathampstead
Nellie Wheatley Daughter 12   Harpenden
Laura L Wheatley Daughter 10   Harpenden
Albert J Wheatley Son 8   Welwyn
Mary A Wheeler Mother 76   Wheathampstead

There is a web page for Gustard Wood and the other places mentioned in Hertfordshire.

see also The Murder of Edward Anstee in 1880Who's Who for the Marshalswick Murder [word file]

If you can add to the information given above tell me.


Page updated September 2008