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Tavistock Murder

Tavistock Murder

One hundred and thirteen years ago the sleepy little village of Peter Tavy was to witness one of Dartmoor’s most violent crimes. Nestled below the lofty western tors  Peter Tavy has always been a typical moorland village. People never travelled far and everyone knew each other, the chances were that a mans wife came from nearby and competition for young girls was fierce.

At this time there lived a young man called William Williams who had taken a shine to a seventeen year old ‘Tavy’ girl called Emma Doidge. As time passed his fancy grew into firstly a passion and then a jealous obsession. Wo betide any young lad that Emma should happen to smile at whilst under the watchful glare of Williams. What angered him even more was that despite his attentions Emma was not in the least bit interested. Ok, she would never be rude to her admirer especially as they were living in such a small community but she surely didn’t encourage the lad. Now William Rowe was another matter, he too lived in Peter Tavy and Emma definitely had designs on him. He was twenty two years of age and came from a long established local family. Before long they would often be seen walking the sunken lanes of an evening or sat in the churchyard porch watching the bats flit to and fro. Local ‘newsin’ was foretelling of a possible wedding which did not sit well with William Williams. He was becoming the spurned man with all his love letters and notes being totally ignored by young Emma. Over time his jealousy turned into a deep hatred of William Rowe, at night Williams would lay awake thinking of ways he could get his revenge. Bit by bit the hatred ate into his soul until all he could do was plot and plan the couples downfall.
One day in early November, William Williams went to the nearby town of Tavistock and paid a visit to the local ironmonger. Here he purchased a revolver and a quantity of bullets and having loaded the gun he hid it under his coat and made his way to Peter Tavy Church. Williams knew that he would find Emma and William at the church which made his stride more purposeful. His assumption was correct and it was not long before he and Emma’s brother were embroiled in a heated argument during which Williams stormed out of the church. Nothing more was thought of the matter and Emma and William walked homewards. Halfway down the lane William Williams suddenly leapt out of the hedge, both could see to their horror that he had a pistol pointed at them. Williams coldly aimed the pistol at his rival and with a look of sheer hatred squeezed the trigger. A load shot rang out and William Rowe fell to the ground, some say he was dead before he crumpled into the dusty lane. Emma became hysterical and flung herself over her lovers body. She then regained her senses and flew at Williams like a screaming banshee. Another shot rang out and Emma fell to the ground, blood pouring from a mortal wound. The shock of what he had done brought Williams back to his senses. He looked down at the sad crumpled body of Emma and glanced at the corpse of Rowe and then realised the enormity of what he had done. The little lane fell silent, the hedgerow birds that had fled in fear began to return and their scuffles could be heard in the ditch bottom. Slowly Williams raised the gun to his head and gently squeezed the trigger, a third shot rang out and he slumped to the floor. For some reason the bullet had only grazed his head and so with blood streaming down his cheeks Williams once again placed the gun to his head. A forth shot boomed out across the lane, this was followed by screams of agony. This time Williams had managed to blast out one of his eyes but not to end his miserable life. In panic and pain the lad ran shrieking across a nearby field and made his bloody way to the river Tavy. Here he flung himself into its cold waters in an attempt to drown himself. By this time some villagers had come to see what all the commotion was about and spotted the lad fling himself into the river. It did not take long to pull Williams out, half his face was missing, he was soaked to the skin and much to his despair he was still alive.
The following March Williams had recovered enough to stand trial at which he pleaded “not guilty” to the murders of Emma Doidge and William Rowe on grounds of “insanity.” Clearly these were premeditated murders as Williams had purposefully gone to Tavistock to buy a gun with which he then shot the couple. His three suicide attempts did demonstrate a degree of remorse but as far as the judge was concerned not enough. On the 28th of March 1893 William Williams was executed for his ‘crime of passion.’

Since writing the above I have found a newspaper report of the crime dated the 15th of November 1892, so having had the fiction here are the facts which don’t differ too much in the telling:
About 9 o’clock on Sunday night. Emma Holmes Doidge, aged 17, eldest daughter of Mr. John Doidge, farmer and warden of Peter Tavy Church, attended evening service at Peter Tavy with her brother William, her younger sister, Elizabeth, and two daughters of William Mudge, farmer. All the girls sang in the choir, and were regular attendants at Peter Tavy Church. With them were three young fellows from Sampford Spiney. Emma Doidge, a very attractive girl had for some little time past received letters from William Williams, 21, eldest son of a farmer and miller in Peter Tavy, but had rejected his advances, and had written to him to request that he would not communicate with her any more. The parents of the girl were ignorant of Williams’s importunity, but the young people seem to have been aware of the state of affairs, and the brother, it is said, accompanied Emma to church with the intention of protecting her from any annoyance on the part of Williams. The latter was a ringer at the church, and he also attended service on Sunday evening and appeared to enter heartily into the devotions. Upon leaving church William Doidge heard Williams remark that he would “knock her head off,” and at once said, “You’ll do nothing of the kind while I’m here,” or words to that effect. A quarrel between the two young men seemed imminent when Williams said something about having their Sunday clothes on, and offered to fight Doidge in the morning. William and Elizabeth Doidge then started for their home at Coxtor, a little more than a mile distant, and Emma came on behind, accompanied by William Rowe, 21, who was in the employment of the Rev. Dr. Bryant, rector of Peter Tavy. The father of Rowe is also in the service of Dr. Bryant, and is the organist of the church, his son officiating as organ blower. Emma Doidge must have waited a little for Rowe, as Dr, Bryant had forgotten his umbrella at the church and sent Rowe back for it. William Doidge entered his father’s house, and Elizabeth was on the point of following when she heard four pistol shots. She gave the alarm, and on parties going down the road a distance of about 500 yards, they found their sister Emma, and William Rowe lying on the ground, with blood flowing from their heads. Both were removed, and medical aid was sent for. It was then found that the girl had been shot in the forehead, and in her case death had apparently been instantaneous. Rowe lingered on until 9 in the morning, and then expired. He was unable to speak during the whole of the time. The police in the meanwhile visited the scene of the murder, and found a revolver and two ordinary felt hats, one of which had two bullet holes through the front. They afterwards went in search of Williams. He could not be found at Peter Tavy village, but a message came to the father of the missing man that his son wanted him at a cottage at Harford-bridge, and, on the police proceeding thither, they found him with two bullet wounds to the head and his clothes dripping in water. He was at once arrested, and conveyed to Tavistock Cottage Hospital, where it was found that he had attempted to shoot himself in the left temple. The bullet had, however, glanced across his forehead and had passed out over the rim of his hat. He had then shot himself through the right eye, and the bullet was discovered to be embedded behind the ear on the same side. He had evidently afterwards attempted to drown himself in the Tavy. Williams received skilful treatment at the hands of Drs. Bradrick, Smith, and Hislop, and the embedded bullet was successfully removed during the morning. In the afternoon it was deemed advisable to take out the shattered eye, and this was also successfully done. It is believed that notwithstanding a great loss of blood, he will recover. He was conscious throughout the morning, and appeared to suffer much mental anguish.”

The inquest of Emma Doidge was held on the 19th of November 1892 where the following was established:
The solicitor for Williams, Mr Percy T. Pearce, of Plymouth cross examined several witnesses. The prisoner although progressing favourably, was too weak to be present. He is still in the hospital. Mr Blanchard, ironmonger, Tavistock, would not swear to the pistol produced being the one he sold to Williams, but said he believed it was the one. Williams had had frequent dealings with the ironmonger. The jury, after ten minutes, returned a verdict of wilful murder against Williams, adding a rider expressing regret that the purchase of firearms could be so easily effected.”

On the 9th of March 1893 the final report on the case was published stating that:
” William Williams, 19, miller, was charged with the wilful murder of Emma Holmes Doidge and William Frederick Rowe, at Peter Tavy on November 13th last. The Hon. B. Coleridge, Q.C., M.P., and Mr H. L. Lopes prosecuted for the Treasury; Mr Duke defended; and Mr Bryant watched the case on behalf of the parents of the deceased. Williams and Emma Doidge had been on very intimate terms. One Sunday evening, as the girl was walking home after church with Rowe, he fired at them with a revolver and shot each one through the head. Emma Doidge died at once, and Rowe some hours later. Williams tried to shoot himself afterwards. He confessed that the crime was a result of jealousy. It was contended by the defence that the prisoner was insane. The jury found him guilty; and the Judge observed that they would be wanting in their duty if they had found otherwise, as a more cruel or more deliberate murder he had never heard of. Sentence of death was passed in the usual form.”

William Williams was executed by hanging in the March of 1893 at Exeter Prison – the full lurid details can be found on this separate web page – The Long Drop.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

One comment

  1. Barry Badger Rothery

    Good info on the case. Emma was my Great Great Aunt.
    Just wonder if there is any copyright on the Totness Times articles of 1892/3. –
    Most of the information .is there – but it is 130 years old. – Wonder if you know whether anyone has
    bought any rights from Totnes Times – any rights over the story from anywhere else. and is it possible to
    get the news articles again. – more copies.
    I would think all the journalists are deceased now – butwhatofthe paper?
    It has been in a book of murders – Would the information in the paper be free to use.?
    Man thanks. Badger.

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