We all love a grisly, real-life story of murder – especially when it’s a Norfolk case! Here’s a local tale which (though we hate to ruin the ending!) resulted in an execution at Norwich Castle Gaol, where Norwich and the surrounding area’s hangings used to take place!
Image: Norwich Castle during the 1800's
It’s 1877 and Henry March (59) and Henry Bidewell (56) are at loggerheads. They’d worked for Thomas Mays (76) in his Blacksmith shop in Wymondham for 30 and 40 years respectively, and now Mays had announced he was going to sell the shop and retire, possibly leaving them both without jobs. This soon incensed March, who was of a rather fiery nature, as he’d convinced himself that Mays was going to pass the shop onto Bidewell because he’d been working for Mays for much longer. It seems that March had, very rashly, jumped to this conclusion with no real justification for thinking this way; arguments between the two started with a passion. It’s a shame that they were not aware that Mays had kindly intended to pay both men a year’s wages – things could have turned out so differently if the rage within March had subsided, even a little!
The culmination of all this fury came to a head on Saturday 20 October 1877. Bidewell got in the way of March whilst cleaning the shop and March snapped; he pushed Bidewell out of the way and they began arguing back and forth until Bidewell starting acting like the Big Cheese of the shop. He taunted March that he’d soon be unemployed and that he, Henry Bidewell, was now above him. March saw red and grabbed an iron bar as his weapon; he wacked Bidewell on the head with it, knocking him into the coal pit, and then proceeded to hit him another six times (seven in total)!
Meanwhile, May’s servant girl, Sarah Bailey, alerted him that the two were brawling; she had seen March hit Bidewell with the iron bar through a window. Mays went to investigate and, on further inspection, saw Bidewell’s feet sticking out of the coal pit. Questioning March on what he’d done, March admitted nothing – how on earth he thought he’d get away with it is anyone’s guess! May’s kind nature here was his downfall; instead of legging it out of the Blacksmith building, or ‘Smithy’ as it was called, he instead leaned over Bidewell’s body (who was actually still alive - barely - at this point) to try and help him. At this point, March thought that he “might as well as hung for two as for one” (as he later said) and smashed the back of his boss’s head with the iron bar - very Cluedo-esque!
Both men’s injuries were horrific. Henry Bidewell had the whole of his left jaw smashed in, his lower lip and chin cut open, his left eye completely destroyed, left ear slashed off and, to top it all off, the front and left-hand side of his skull were fractured. Thomas Mays hadn’t fared much better; six hits to his skull left it smashed at the front spilling out parts of his brain.
Image: Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery
What may surprise you all is March’s subsequent actions. He certainly saw red when he attacked Bidewell but didn’t stop there, acting rather more calculated with Mays’ death. You’d still expect the red mist to subside and for him to despair at what he’d done – but no, far from it; he headed home, took off his apron and apparently strolled to the pub for a pint.
He was arrested later that day at his home and, despite pleading “not guilty”, a jury took only 15 minutes to convict him of wilful murder. His defence had been one that today would have been known as ‘diminished responsibility’; he claimed he was too drunk to remember his actions.
His execution was scheduled to take place exactly one month after his crimes: 20 November 1877.
March was allowed a private hanging, though there was a member of the press present – a journalist for the Norfolk Chronicle, who documented March’s final moments. He was also (relatively) lucky to be hung by executioner William Marwood, who implemented the ‘long drop’ (this was generally far quicker to kill) as opposed to his predecessor William Calcraft who used a short rope, which often ended up strangling instead and rarely resulted in a fast death. In fact, William Marwood was known as the first "scientific" British hangman because of his well-thought-out and efficient way of conducting the execution.
There are also plenty of brilliant books on local subjects in the Millennium Library’s Norfolk Heritage Centre, on the second floor.
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