The Repented Sinner's Two Penny Murder Secret

Two 'old' pence
Two 'old' pence

Newspapers reported that between 8 and 9 o'clock on Thursday evening, 30th April 1868, members of the 2nd battalion of the 3rd Buffs stationed in the Horfield barracks in Bristol, who had recently been stationed in Ireland, were suddenly alarmed to hear five distinct reports of the discharge of a rifle, over a short period of time, coming from the direction of the sergeants' mess. Officers and non-commissioned officers ran from their quarters to investigate.

Colonel Pearson, Colour-Sergeant Howarth, and Sergeant Jenner were first on the scene and found Private Robert Synon lying on the steps at the entrance to the mess-room. Leaving Colonel Pearson holding Synon, and after sending for the surgeon, Howarth and Jenner went into the mess-room in search of the person who had fired the shots and to call for further assistance.

Behind the door they found Sergeant John Maskell, with a rifle in his hand, and with his sword bayonet fixed. Both men went to seize him; Howarth held on to Maskell who struggled with him, causing them both to fall to the ground but somehow Jenner managed to disarm Maskell. As others approached, Maskell was firmly restrained and removed to the lock-up.

The surgeon examined the body of Synon and found he was quite dead. There was a bayonet wound to his forehead and to his side, and a bullet wound in his back. No one saw Maskell fire, but it was believed that the deceased, like his comrades, alarmed at hearing the discharge of a rifle, went to seize Maskell to prevent him firing again, and was then attacked with the bayonet, and afterwards shot. Private Synon was known as an "exceedingly well-conducted man", and was believed to be a friend of John Maskell.

On the following Saturday morning, Sergeant John Maskell appeared before Captain Belfield at Lawford's Gate and formally charged with the wilful murder of Private Robert Synon.

The Leeds Mercury (Leeds, England), May 9, 1868.
The Leeds Mercury (Leeds, England), May 9, 1868.

John Maskell was born in Epsom Surrey in 1838 (GRO reference: Sept 1838 Epsom 4 78), the son of Thomas and Harriett Maria Maskell. He was baptised on 26 August 1838 in St Martin of Tours church in Epsom. The baptism records states that his father was a coachman, although in the 1841 census Thomas was recorded as being a labourer living in Woodcote Epsom. John had two siblings Elizabeth Mary, who was baptised in 1836, and William who was baptised in 1844.

William only lived for 11 months and 2 weeks before dying. He was buried on 21st September 1845 in the St Martin's churchyard. John's father Thomas, aged 38, died three months later, and was buried on 12th January 1846 in the same graveyard as his son.

In 1850 John's widowed mother Harriett married John Coldman, a gardener, in Epsom. Their daughter Harriett Anna was born on 26th January 1851 and was baptised in St Martin's church on 23rd February 1851. John aged 12, and his 15-year-old sister Elizabeth appeared in the 1851 census as living with their 2-month-old half sister Harriett and their mother and stepfather in 'Worlds End' Epsom. John and Elizabeth's surnames have been recorded as Coldman, not Maskell. Elizabeth Mary Maskell, John's sister, married William Leaker in Exeter Devon in 1859. Their son William was born the following year.

John did not appear in the England 1861 census, as he was by now in the army overseas. His mother Harriett was still living at 'Worlds End' Epsom with her husband John Coldman and their 10-year-old daughter Harriett. Harriett's daughter Elizabeth and grandson William Leaker were also living with them.

John Maskell was considered a man of very good character, having been in the Buffs for many years serving in Malta, Gibraltar, Barbados and Ireland before returning to Bristol England, and it was not known that he had had any quarrel with the deceased soldier, Robert Synon. John was a family man having married in 1864 Margaret Angelina Hopper, a daughter of a soldier who had been born Malta in 1849. Their sons John H and Charles were born in 1864 and 1866 respectively, in Barbados.

During the resulting murder trial, it came to light that John had been that day twice to the Bristol post office three miles away, in his capacity of army letter carrier. On his return from the second visit at about 7.30 pm, he had in his possession a letter for the Adjutant, which he had had to pay 2d on because it had been overweight. It was stated that the Adjutant had refused to refund this amount to John as the letter should have been processed through the cheaper 'book post' as it had been sent open ended, like a rolled magazine.

After leaving the Adjutant he returned to his apartment in a state of 'great excitement' and quarrelled with his pregnant wife and this had resulted in him breaking up all the furniture in their room. His wife Margaret had appealed to the Sergeant Major for help but was told that if he came down to sort things out, he would then have to 'confine her husband', which she did not want to happen.

Having left his wife, John went to the canteen and drank beer before returning to his apartment again to collect his rifle and pouch, which reputably contained 20 rounds of ammunition. It was shortly after this that he went on his rampage. It was claimed that John was suffering from sunstroke and, although he had been teetotal for several years, had become excited while under the influence of the alcohol he had consumed.

Witness Lance Corporal James Tripp said that it was about 7.45pm when he had heard John Maskell shouting at the top of the landing near his quarters and had asked him to be quiet. John reportedly replied "I know who you are; your name is Tripp. If you advance up these stairs any closer to me I will blow your brains out". Needless to say Tripp stayed back as he had heard John rap his rifle butt against the stone steps and draw his ramrod, put it down the barrel and fully cock his rifle, all the while repeating his threat. Tripp attempted to persuade him to give up his breach-loader rifle but John replied "Oh no, oh no I am not drunk. Tripp, this is all over two pence (2d), and I will be revenged ". Who this revenge was to be aimed at, was not mentioned.

Tripp then said that he had sent a warning to the guard while he retreated to a corner by an archway. It was while he was there that he saw another soldier approach. John Maskell fired his first shot, which hit a stone step without any damage to anyone. A few minutes later he walked into the barrack square with his rifle and bayonet fixed and his pouch slung across his shoulder. Three or four men were walking across the square and although none were hit, witnesses saw John deliberately fire his rifle in amongst them. After quickly reloading, he then fired at another group of men running to take cover in the sergeants' mess room but again he missed. He then turned and took aim and fired towards the main guard where another group had formed, and again, missed any of them. After this, there were no witnesses to say whether or not John had reloaded his rifle as he walked up to the sergeants' mess room but on approaching the entrance to the mess-room he had encountered Private Robert Synon.

The jury returned a verdict of wilful murder and committed him to take his trail at the next Gloucestershire assizes.

Manchester Times May 9, 1868
Manchester Times May 9, 1868.

On 12th August 1868 John appeared before Mr Pigott in the Gloucestershire assizes where he was charged with wilfully murdering Robert Synon. He was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to serve 10 years imprisonment.

John and Margaret's daughter Maria was born in the September quarter of 1868, her birth being registered in the Reading district. When Margaret returned to her husband's hometown of Epsom is unknown but she appears in the 1871 census as living at Prospect Cottages, East Street Epsom. 22-year-old Margaret was recorded as the head of the family and living with her were only the two youngest children; Charles aged 5 born in Barbados, and Maria aged 2 born in Bristol. John, their 7-year-old son, was a pupil at The Presbytery, a boarding school in South Mimms, which was run by a catholic priest named George Bampfield. John's place of birth was recorded as being in the West Indies. John's mother Harriett was now living at Woodcote End with her husband John Coldman. John meanwhile, was serving his time in Old Brompton Prison Gillingham Kent and appears in the 1871 census there.

In 1876, John's 68-year-old mother Harriett died. She was buried on 22nd July in grave number C192 in the Ashley Road cemetery. Two months later her husband, John Coldman, died and was buried in the same grave on 26th September 1876

John's prison release date is unknown but Albert Edward Maskell was born in 1877 in Epsom and baptised in St Martin's church on 11th March 1877.

Later that year John, the 13-year-old son of John and Margaret Maskell, died in the Epsom Union workhouse and was buried on 13th October 1877 in grave number E394 in the Ashley Road cemetery Epsom.

When the 1881 census was taken the Maskell family were living in Woodcote End, Epsom. John was working as a general labourer, whilst Margaret did some casual work 'spice pickling'. Charles was a 15-year-old greengrocer's boy. Also recorded were 12-year-old Maria, a scholar, and 4-year-old Albert. Margaret's 25-year-old brother George Hopper was also there on that census night. His place of birth was given as Barbados and occupation as 'Invalid soldier, disch. 2nd April' (sic).

It was around 1885 that John became the Verger and Sacristan of St Martins of Tours church in Epsom. Three years later, John and Margaret's son George was born. He was baptised on 15th August 1888, in St Martin's church.

As the Verger, 'He who carries the Virge before the procession', John would have been considered to have been a minor church official. The 'Verge' (Latin - Virga; Old French-Vergier), is a ceremonial rod which a verger carries, and is used by the Verger when he walks in front of the clergy during processions, to ensure that the services are not disrupted during worship. As a verger, John would have worn a jabot (a necktie) with a black ankle length fitted gown called a cassock and sleeveless chimere (a long sleeveless gown open down the front and gathered in at the back between the shoulders) and worn a purple or violet sash (fascia) above his waist, with the ends hanging down on the front of his left hip. He would have been responsible for the care and cleaning of the plate and other valuable objects used in the church services, and for taking care of the interior and secruity of St Martin's church. His position of being the Sacristan would have given him the responsibilities of taking care of everything kept in the sacristy, a room also used by the clergy to dress for church services. The vestments (clothing worn by the clergy during services), the church furnishings, altar linens, candles, sacred vessels and parish records would have been kept in there. It is possible that John may have been responsible too for digging graves and ringing the church bells for weddings and funerals.

The next year, 1889, their son Charles married Harriett Woods in Hampstead Middlesex.

John and his family were living in Woodcote End when the 1891 census was taken. John was still working as general labourer to support his wife Margaret and 2-year-old son George. Their son Albert was not living with them and has not been found as yet in the 1891 census. However records show that their daughter, Maria Margaret, married Joseph Francis Coules in 1891 after working as a servant in Waterloo Road Epsom. Their son Charles was living with his wife Harriett and one year old son Charles in Hampstead, London. He was working as a general labourer to support them. In 1893 Charles and Harriet had another son who they named John. Apart from everyone being 10 years older, the census entry in 1901 for the Maskell family in Epsom was identical to the previous census, and again no sign of Albert who was by then probably in the army. Charles was working as a cook by now and boarding with William and Alice French in Edgbaston, Warwickshire while his wife Harriet, who was also a cook, and sons Charles aged 11 and John aged 8 were staying with Harriet's brother-in-law George Goble in St James London.

By 1908 the Maskell family had moved to 2 Mayfield Cottages Wyeth Road Epsom.

The St Martin's Parish Magazine reported that on 24th January 1910 the church had held a late Christmas tea party for 100 local children. They all sat down to 'well spread tables' in a decorated room complete with a decorated Christmas tree. The surprise visitor was Santa Claus who arrived bearing lots of lovely toys. A comment was made "has Mr Maskell missed his vocation in life?"

The 1911 census for England and Wales was taken on the night of Sunday 2 April. In response to government concerns the 1911 census also asked additional, more specific questions to each household, about fertility in marriage and occupational data. John, aged 72, declared himself as Sacristan of St Martin's church, while Margaret stated she had been married for 47 years and had given birth to five children, four of whom were still living. The next year, 1912, the family were recorded as living at 52 Wyeth Road Epsom Surrey.

John Maskell took his obligations with St Martins seriously but joined in with the church's seaside trip to Worthing in July 1914.

In 1917, because of ill heath, John retired after 32 years of being Verger and Sacristan of St Martin's church. The church decided that, as the entire congregation held him in high respect that a weekly pension of 30 shillings should be paid to him.

St Martin's Parish Newsletter
St Martin's Parish Newsletter

A month after taking retirement, on Friday 2 February 1917, John died aged 78 in the Epsom Cottage Hospital (GRO reference: Mar 1917 Epsom 2a 82). A funeral service for him was held on 8th February 1917 in St Martins, during which the choir sang, "I heard a voice from Heaven". His coffin was covered in his verger's gown and had a wreath on it from the clergy, choir and congregation. After the service, John was buried in the Ashley Road cemetery Epsom in grave number A447.

An article in the St Martin's church magazine stated that:
"He [John Maskell] will long be remembered as one who was above all things devoted to his duty, a humble servant of God and his church, kind and courteous to all"
John Maskell's entry in the National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), reads that John's home address when he died was 52 Wyeth Road Epsom. Probate was given to his widow Margaret on 6th March, with his effects being £158 18s. She also received a collection of £50 from the St Martin's church's congregation and continued to receive John's 30 shillings a week pension.

John's son Albert's service papers have not survived but we know that he was at Ewshot Barracks as a regular soldier with the rank of Driver, serving in 132 Battery RFA. His medal card shows that he went to France on 7 November 1914. At some point he contracted a disease on active service and was returned to England. Whilst at Parkgate Auxiliary Military Hospital, Cheshire, he died. His body was transported to Epsom cemetery where he was buried on 11 April 1917 in the same plot as his father, A447. (And John's grandson, Roland George - son of George - was a WW2 casualty. As a Gunner in the Royal Artillery, he was killed in action in Libya on 12 June 1942.)

John's widow Margaret died aged 85, in Middle House Dorking Road Epsom. She was buried on 25th March 1933 in the same grave as her husband John and son Albert

This article was researched and written by Hazel Ballan, 2010

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St Martin's Parish Magazine
The Standard,
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Pall Mall Gazette,
Manchester Times,
Leeds Mercury
Henry Constable
Henry Constable
Woodcote Grove
Woodcote Grove
Riotous Epsom
Riotous Epsom
Harriot Mellon
Harriot Mellon
Abele Grove
Abele Grove