Midnight Poachers at East Coker
The following is a précis taken from
an article by David Foot who was a sports regular writer
for the press
I am also grateful to the Somerset Heritage Centre who have the original
in their storage under DD/ASC/11/7/6
This is tale about one of 37 year old Nathaniel Cox's exploits as the village Policeman for East Coker, Somerset where he lived with his wife and four children.
On 16th November 1876, he and his companion Henry Stacey; also a policeman from West Coker, received instructions to patrol the forthcoming Yeovil fair, looking for cheap-jacks, pick-pockets, horse thieves and poachers.
On their way they called in at the White Post Inn before going on duty. At around 10pm they were on their way, when at Netherton, they heard a horse & cart coming towards them. As it passed, a gruff, self-conscious exchange of good nights took place followed by a significant darting look between the two policeman; who in the light of their lantern had recognised the three men they saw, suspecting a third to be lying in the bottom of the cart. But as they were not sure they did not stop and question the men.
Just under two hours later, Cox & Stacey were at the home of Farmer Squibb having a glass of ale, when they heard a horse & cart. On investigating they found the same cart as they had seen before, but with one man sitting on the cart whilst the other three walked. It now looked as if the cart was loaded.
The cart rounded a sharp bend where there later was a railway bridge, and began to follow the sharp rise to Netherton. Cox, now being able to see that the cart was loaded, ran forward, and seizing the reins questioned the men as to what they had. The reply was in no uncertain terms and Cox was struck severely on his head, dislodging his helmet, felling him to the ground.
Stacey, who had been searching the cart's contents, ran to Cox who gasped" They've got me. Look out, they're coming again!" - This was the last Stacey heard as he was knocked unconscious. On regaining consciousness he staggered to his feet, and was eventually able to make his way to the nearby Darvill farm of Henry Marsh, collapsing several times before arriving there.
Stacey hammered as best he could on Farmer Marsh's door, who brought him inside and after hearing about the attack, knocked up two of his labourers, hitched up a wagon, and went off in search of Cox. Some seventy yards or so from where the first attack took place, they found Cox. He was dead. His staff was lying broken near his hand.
Dr E.C. Garland was sent for and after pronouncing Cox as dead from a very vicious attack, attended Stacey who had severe concussion. Stacey was taken to Hospital where he remained in a critical condition for several weeks.
News of Cox's death quickly spread around the villages, and many questions were raised. The West Country press soon picked up the story and a police notice circulated with a description of the wanted men. It was suspected they were member of the Hutchings family of Hardington where they were known as notorious poachers, but there was also an unknown fourth member of the gang.
It was not long before reports filtered through. The suspects were spotted at Charminster, Puddletown and Okeford Fitzpaine in Dorset, at one time they were seen at a Shillingstone Inn, and then washing at a brook near Beaminster. The public were reported as being uneasy at the thought of having three desperate men at large, and veiled hints were heard of PC Cox's murder being linked to the killing of one Ruth Butcher two years before.
However, in late January the year following, a surprising development occurred. James Vagg, a butcher from West Coker, arrived at Yeovil police station with old George Hutchings and his son Giles in his cart. Both were dishevelled and dirty. He claimed to have found them by accident, and were prepared to give themselves up. Vagg contended that he qualified for the reward of £100 being offered.
After a great deal of detective work, all four poachers were caught, and appeared at Yeovil magistrates court on 30th January the same year. There was much evidence given by both prosecution and defence, the jury finding three guilty of manslaughter, and sentenced to penal servitude, whilst the older Hutchings received a free pardon after it was decided that he had taken no part in the attack.
Nathaniel Cox lies at rest in East Coker churchyard, his headstone reads: -
"In memory of
A police Constable of this
county who was killed whilst
in the discharge of his duty
on the night of November 16 1876
"In the hour of death, and in the day
of judgement, good Lord deliver us"