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The Gypsy Murder

Noah and Priscilla Small had been married for 26 years over which time they had ten children and sadly at the time only eight were still alive. They were a gypsy family who made their living by hawking brooms and brushes around the various town markets. In the January of 1910 Noah and his wife along with six children were living in a caravan on Ramshorn Down. It was also well known in the area that Priscilla had a serious alcohol problem and was often found in various states of collapse. On Saturday the 15th of January both Noah and Priscilla went to Ashburton in order to sell some of their brushes and brooms. The various events of that day resulted in what was to become a dark day for the Small family and one that has notoriously gone down in Ashburton’s past.

On that fateful day Small and his wife had visited several of Ashburton’s public houses where they had a drink or two. At about half-past six Priscilla was reported to be ‘three sheets to the wind’ and so it was decided to make their way back to the caravan on Ramshorn Down, in those days a journey of around six miles. Allegedly a little way outside Ashburton Priscilla fell down and had to be put back on her feet by Noah. In her drunken state she decided she didn’t need any help and told her husband to go on without her as she could manage the rest of the journey by herself. Accordingly he did as requested and went on his way, however after a short while he couldn’t hear her following so retraced his steps but could find no sight of her. Eventually Noah held her to her word and decided to carry on home. On reaching their caravan there still was no sign of his wife and as the night drew on she still remained missing. As soon as daylight broke the next day Noah and his brother retraced the route to Ashburton. On the way the two men met a young boy who said he had seen a body lying in a nearby field who they took to be Priscilla. Sure enough when they found the body it was Priscilla who had sadly died. The police were sent for and the body removed to Ashburton for examination. This was the general synopsis of events but many more facts came to light in the following inquests and Assize hearing as can now be seen.

An initial inquest was opened on the 18th of January where further facts of the event were presented. The first witness was Noah Small who stated that he and his wife visited Ashburton to sell their wares and whilst there they had drinks in the Victoria Arms and the Engineer Arms which they left at 12.30 pm. He then saw his wife hawking their goods in the street and so went to the Rose and Crown. At around 4.30 he was asked to go to the house of a Mrs. Thorn who resided on Kingsbridge Lane and remove his wife. There he found her in the kitchen in a drunken state and so removed her. At this point the couple must have separated because he never met up with her again until sometime between 6 and 7 o’clock at which point they made their way back to Ramshorn Down. As initially stated above on the homeward journey she fell over three times and on the third occasion, having picked her up again, she told her husband to carry on as she couldn’t walk as fast as him. At this point she was still carrying a basket of brushes and brooms. So as requested he carried on but  after a while as he could not see his wife following so retraced his steps back towards Ashburton, eventually arriving at the Bay Horse Inn where he remained until closing time. On arriving back at the caravan on Ramshorn Down he found that his wife still had not returned. Come daybreak the next day he and his daughter retraced his route as far as Caton Cross where his brother was living in another camp. As she had not even visited there he and his brother continued the search back towards Ashburton. As they approached Stallwell’s Bushes Quarry they met a young lad who said that although he had seen no woman he had noticed a basket lying in a field gateway not far away. Immediately they went to said gateway and saw the basket and looking over the hedge saw to their horror the body of Priscilla Small. She was dressed only in her underwear, stockings and boots. Small then sped on to Ashburton to summons the police. He also noted at the inquest that on numerous occasions his wife had been known to sleep in hedgerows and that on one occasion she had slept for two days at Churston Station. He also added that on the day in question they had not had an argument and that he had no idea why she told him to go on alone.
The medical evidence was given by Dr. Fitzpatrick who stated that he along with P.S. Boughton visited the scene and found the deceased attired as Small described and that the body appeared to have been placed in a comfortable position against the hedge. On his initial examination he found marks and wounds to her head and breast but no marks of having been choked or any broken bones. A mortuary examination later revealed a wound to the head just above the left temple which showed signs of swelling and was likely caused by a blow. There was also a wound to her left breast possibly caused by a kick. He also found that the skull was not fractured but on opening it he found a big blood clot caused by a broken artery. The coroner then asked the doctor if the injuries could have been caused by a fall. He replied that in light of where they were the only possible way would have been to have turned a somersault. He also added that it would have been impossible for the woman to remove her own clothes with such injuries. In conclusion the Fitzpatrick added that he would like a second doctor’s opinion for such a serious case. The coroner adjourned the inquest until the following Monday and requested a second doctor’s opinion. Two days later Noah Small was arrested and charged with murdering his wife and was remanded in Exeter gaol.

On the 24th of January the second inquest was held and the first witness was Bessie Elford, the landlady of the Bay Horse Inn. She testified that she had sold three-halfpenny worth of beer to Small and his wife. She also stated that they were very quiet and left after about twenty minutes. She then added that around ten o’ clock that night Noah Small returned  alone and stood a round of drinks.
Ethel Gill was the next to give her evidence and said that around six o’ clock on the 15th of January she had seen the couple in North Street on the sitting on terrace steps and the deceased was very “obstinate” and appeared “the worse for liquor”. She also stated that she had heard Mr. Small say “come on, come on,” but the woman refused and that when she did finally get up she fell over.
William Hamlyn a farm labourer from Bickington related how on the day in question he was walking towards Ashburton to meet his wife. At Rock Park Cross he noticed someone standing in a gateway and wished them “good night” but received no reply. A few yards further on he saw the deceased lying in the road with her husband on one knee, holding a broom beside her. Small then asked Hamlyn to give him a hand but when he walked towards the couple Small, supporting himself up with the broom said “No, I can manage.” Hamlyn then insisted in helping but was told, “if you are not gone on I will knock you down with the brush stick.” At this point Noah Small denied that he was even on the road and could not have met Hamlyn.
Robert Small, Noah’s brother then gave witness and related that how he and his brother had gone in search of Priscilla on the Sunday morning.  On their way they met a boy called Mogridge who said he had spotted a basket in a gateway. All three then returned there and on opening the gate Noah Small exclaimed, “here is my missus, stripped naked.” at which point Noah sped off to Ashburton and his brother back to Caton.
Samuel Edgecombe testified that he had been approached by the Smalls at a point two fields away from where the body was found who asked if he had seen a woman with a basket.
William Mogridge gave witness that it was himself who had met the Small brothers and taken them to the gateway in which he had seen the basket.
Samuel Willis, a butcher from Ashburton was next to appear and said how he had found the deceased jacket in the road.
Abraham Knott and ex-policeman from Ashburton told how he had found the deceased hat in the road and signs that looked as if a persons dress had been dragged along .
Dr. Fitzpatrick confirmed his initial findings from the first inquest and added that from the position of the body it must have been placed in the field after death. He described how the legs were out straight thus supporting the body and the hands were opened across the body. The head was stuck in a thorn bush and which made it difficult to remove. Once again he said the cause of death was a blow to the head from a blunt instrument resulting in a brain haemorrhage and death.
Dr. Wilcox was the requested for a second opinion and confirmed all of Fitpatrick’s finding and added that the blow to the breast was probably caused by a fist.
At the end of the inquest the bench committed Noah Small for trial at the Assizes.

The Devon Assize trial was held on the 3rd of February 1910 before Mr. Justice Bray. Many of the witnesses who appeared at the second inquest once again gave their evidence with the addition of a few more.
Robert Ewing a labourer from Ashburton said how he had met the couple at Tucking Mill and how Small had threatened to knock him off his horse if he did not pull in and afterwards he wished Ewing a “good night”.”
William Endacott a baker’s assistant from Ashburton explained how he seen Small shouting at his wife to get out the way of my wagon and had heard Small say to his wife “the next time you go to prison you will have to take your children.”
Noah Small then gave his evidence which virtually was a repetition of what he had previously stated and confirmed his movements and the fact both he and his wife were extremely drunk and he couldn’t remember much about that night. Judge Bray intervened and said to the prosecution that if it was Small who had inflicted the fatal wound to his wife was there any evidence to suggest to the jury that he had intended to kill her. He also added that as there was no evidence of any such previous behaviour or hostile intent towards her he would instruct the prosecution to address the jury on a case of  manslaughter.  Eventually the jury retired and returned ten minutes later with a verdict of guilty of manslaughter. Before sentencing the defence stated that there had been no previous serious charges brought against the defendant apart from drunkenness and that a police constable had described Small as a respectable man who had been about the county for twenty five years. It was also pointed out to the judge that in all likelihood Small had been subject to a great deal of provocation from his wife as she was frequently drunk. Additionally the fact that she had been convicted on four occasions for drunkenness should be taken into consideration. The judge replied to this agreeing that yes the woman was a drunkard but that Small had married her for better or for worse. He then addressed Small and said  that he entirely agreed with the verdict as it was consistent with the evidence. He also added that Small must have known that the blow he dealt his wife would cause severe injury if not death. With that he sentenced Noah Small to five years penal servitude.

I have taken the consensus of several different local newspapers in relation to this story and there does seem some of odd factors. Firstly the evidence given by an ex-policeman stated that he had found signs that someone’s dress had been dragged along.  In that case being an ex-policeman why did he not investigate further? Secondly, assuming that Small did kill his wife why having done so would he then remove her clothing leaving her wearing just underwear, stockings and boots? Thirdly, it was January so on Dartmoor it would have been cold in which case surly she should have been wearing other garments under her coat, why were these never found? Additionally if as the medical evidence stated she must have been put into the field after her death then one can only assume it was in an attempt to hide the body? Therefore having gone to that trouble why leave an empty basket in the gateway, and a hat and jacket in the road, surely that would have drawn some attention to the scene? Finally in his evidence William Hamlyn said he saw someone standing in a gateway and then a few yards down the road he came across Noah standing over his wife who was lying in the road. That being the case who was the person standing in the gateway and what were they doing there?

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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