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Tawton Forger

Tawton Forger

Whilst looking for something else I came across the following in J.L.W. Page’s book (p.88); “… John Orchard who was shortly afterwards hanged for forgery.” But what on earth did the man forge to recieve the death penalty? One would have thought it was something major to deserve such a harsh judgement. Some research revealed that the crime and its trial involved two John Orchards who were a father and son from South Tawton, a small village on the northern fringes of Dartmoor.

The actual proceedings took place at Exeter court in 1827 and did in fact involve two John Orchards, who were father and son. Both were accused of forging a deed thus defrauding a Mrs Lane of some property on which she had supposedly lent John Orchard senior £1,000.

In 1818 Thomas Pring, an attorney from Crediton advertised that John Orchard jnr. was seeking to borrow £1,000 which would be secured by a property mortgage deed at a 4.5% rate of interest. The money was to be for John Orchard snr, who being elderly and infirm was unable to “transact his own business“. Mr. Pring could find no lenders willing to enter into such a transaction but recommended that Orchard jnr. try another attorney called Mr. Berry.

As advised Orchard jnr. went to see Mr. Berry armed with a sheath of deeds one of which showed that in 1784 a cousin of Orchard snr. had been left him an landed estate at Ford. However, Berry discovered that there was a previous mortgage of £500 placed on the property but Orchard jnr managed to convince him that the debt had been settled. So on the 23rd of December 1818 the sum was paid and the property put in trust for Mrs Lane and despite both father and son being present only Orchard snr. signed the mortgage conveyance. There was a covenant in the deed which expressly stated that John Orchard snr. was the “absolute proprietor of the estate“. The money was then released to Orchard jnr who immediately placed it in his account at the Devonshire Bank.

Part of this transaction included various interest payments on the loan and in due course this was applied for but with little success. So in 1824 notice was given for the sale of the estate which I suppose in modern terms would be the equivalent of a repossession order. For whatever reason nothing transpired until the following year when it came to light that Orchard snr. had in fact supposedly transferred the deed to his sons name in 1817, a year before loan agreement. When at the time Orchard snr was questioned as to why this had happened he claimed that he knew nothing about it. The attorney then threatened proceedings against Orchard snr. to recover the monies. With an ensuing conversation with Orchard jnr it was pointed out that there were other deeds on the Ford estate which appeared to show that the property was made over to himself in 1817 by his father.

Another attorney from Tiverton Called Partridge then entered the scene who had been employed to re-conveyance other properties belonging to Orchard snr. and had been mortgaged to a Mr. Pope. At this time it was agreed that the Ford estate must not be conveyed back to Orchard snr. and must remain in his name. In 1825 Partridge discovered that despite the previous reservation the deed had in fact been signed over to Orchard jnr. but did not realise the implications. However, shortly afterwards Partridge closely examined the original title deeds and discovered that an alteration had been made. The original deed contained the clause regarding the Ford estate; “save and except all that capital messuage tenement called Ford…“. But the document presented for conveyance the word ‘save’ had been cut out and the ‘except’ was missing and replaced by the word ‘also’. The wording then read “also that capital messuage tenement called Ford“. which meant that the deed could be transferred. Partridge also testified that to the best of his knowledge the handwriting on the document was that of Orchard jnr.

Another solicitor from Exeter named James Tyrell testified that he had been instructed to make a deed of conveyance for the Ford estate between Mr. Sparke of Ashburton by Orchard jnr, for the sum of £1,400 on which debts were later outstanding. Tyrell later saw an advertisement for the sale of Ford estate at which point he realised that the property had been fraudulently double conveyed.

A partner at the Devonshire Bank, one John Serle testified that on receiving the £1,000 from Mrs Lane’s attorney John Orchard deposited £971 into his account of which £750 was used to clear an overdue bill thus leaving the account £221 in credit. Serle also confirmed that John Orchard snr. never held an account at his bank.

Several character witnesses were called for the Orchards’ including one Reverend Oliver who stated that he had known both of the defendants for over thirty years and that they were “honest and respectable men“.

It was also stated at the trial that at the time all the above was taking place John Orchard snr. was; “so much affected by age and infirmities that the business was transacted by the son, and that all the negotiations, up to the day of execution, took place with him“.

So the upshot of all this was that basically John Orchard jnr. had forged the title deeds of the Ford estate in order to illegally borrow money from several sources. Consequently the jury delivered a not guilty verdict for John Orchard snr presumably believing that he had no knowledge of what he son had done. But in the case of John Orchard jnr they found him guilty as charged for which Justice Burrough pronounced the death penalty – death by hanging. That sentence may seem harsh in modern terms but if you take the average earnings index comparison then at today’s rate £1,000 in 1818 is roughly £717,000 in 2012.

There is also another twist to this story, at one time there was an ancient wayside cross which once at the top of the hill which runs down from South Tawton to South Zeal and was known as Hill Head Cross. Sometime in the early 1800s it was destroyed and the finger of blame for its demise was pointed at one John Orchard. At the time it was locally thought that it was done as some kind of act against Christianity and that for doing this Orchard’s final demise was an act of divine retribution, (Page, pp.87 – 88).

Tawton Forger

Burke, E. (Ed.) 1827, Annual Register – Vol. 69, Longmans Green & Co.

Page, J. Ll. W. 1895, An Exploration of Dartmoor, London: Seeley & Co. Ltd.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

One comment


    Good day

    I have a beautiful etching , one of 5 allegedly, done by a bank forger doing time in Dartmoor prison. Its on a prison slate crafted with chalk, boot polish and gruel and extremely detailed. I would love to know more about the other etchings and if anyone has clearer information. Late 1800’s.

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