A Crime of Anonymity

Barbara Rich
26 min readDec 2, 2018


The Pursuit of Mary Cathcart — part 5

Early on Tuesday 22nd February 1881 thick snow fell over Stafford, whitening a cold dawn as the days lengthened at the end of a bitterly cold late winter. Shortly after eight o’clock, in a corner of the prison yard of Stafford Gaol, a condemned man was hanged. He was a young man who had drowned “his sweetheart” in a canal. He was sentenced to death for her wilful murder, and not reprieved, although the jury recommended mercy, and a petition went to the Home Secretary. Hangings were no longer a public spectacle, but a large crowd gathered outside the prison and watched the black flag raised at its gate after the sentence had been carried out.

At the same time, a few streets away, in a small red-brick terraced house that was home to a husband and wife and six young children, Detective-Inspector John Thomas Wheaver of the county police prepared to start his working day. And north-east of the city, towards the Staffordshire moorlands, Joseph Hall, a Post Office rural letter-carrier, walked from his home in the small town of Cheadle with the morning’s post for the nearby villages. He had miles to walk each day, but better to be walking in the open air than following his father into the coal mine, as he had done when he first left school in the 1860s.

At about twenty past nine that morning, Joseph Hall delivered a letter to George Ainsworth, a locally-born man who kept the Shrewsbury Arms Hotel in the village of Farley. Joseph had collected this letter, with three others, from the pillar box in Farley at about 5.30 the previous day, and taken them to Cheadle to be sorted and postmarked for delivery. The Shrewsbury Arms, a coaching inn with an archway through its frontage leading to the stables behind, stood by the gates of Alton Towers, its theme park attractions still undreamed of in the future. The hotel was also George Ainsworth’s and his family’s home. His work there included hiring horses and carriages and general posting business. Amongst those who used these services were Mary Unwin and her widowed mother, Emily. Mary and Emily lived a few miles from Alton, at Wootton Lodge, the Jacobean mansion that Mary’s great-grandfather James had inherited from Edward Wheeler in 1761, and which had come to Mary after the untimely death of her father in January 1846, managed and kept intact for her during her childhood as a ward in Chancery.

19C map with Ellastone at its centre, about halfway between the towns of Cheadle to the west and Ashbourne to the east, and Alton about halfway between Ellastone and Cheadle.

The letter that Joseph Hall delivered was unsigned, and George Ainsworth did not recognise its author from the handwriting. It said:

We warn Mr Ainsworth, of Alton, that after this notice if he is found having any transactions with Mrs or Miss Unwin up to the day of 1st March, his house shall be made a heap of ashes in one night.”

Ainsworth, unsurprisingly, was greatly alarmed, and immediately sent for the police and handed the letter over to them. A little later the same morning, a man called James Preece came into the Shrewsbury Arms. He asked George Ainsworth if he would “have a glass”. “You look as if you had something on your mind”, he continued. George Ainsworth did indeed have something on his mind but merely said that he did not feel very well, as he had a touch of bronchitis. He had only known James for a few months, and as he was not a regular at the Shrewsbury Arms, George was not inclined to tell him what was really troubling him.

As the police quickly discovered, George Ainsworth was not the only person to receive a similar anonymous letter with a Cheadle postmark that morning. A coachman employed by Mary Unwin and her mother for many years received this:

“We herewith inform you that if you are found in company with, or doing any work for, Miss Unwin, whatsoever it may be, after this notice, you must prepare yourself to meet the same fate as your mistress.”

The nature of “the same fate” was spelled out in the even more sinister letter addressed to Mrs Unwin and Miss Mary Unwin. It had a Cheadle postmark, and the stamps of the post offices which had received it for onward delivery: the town of Ashbourne, and the village of Ellastone, close to Wootton Lodge, where it was delivered and read by Emily and Mary that same Tuesday morning. The letter was on a single large sheet of note paper, headed with the words “Agricultural Board of Trade Union” and embellished with drawings of coffins at the head of the page and pistols at the foot. The coffins were later described in court as “very neatly drawn”, each shown both sideways and upwards, with the name “Unwin” on them.

The letter said:

“We, as members of the aforesaid union, in the county of Derby and Stafford, hereby warn and give notice to Mrs and Miss Unwin, for their uncharitable feeling and selfish disposition towards your fellow creatures, both as workmen and all others you herewith have any connection, that in the year 1881, and in February, the same month, we intend as fellows joined together in one band and unity, to exterminate from the face of the earth you and your daughter aforesaid and all other such-like landowners after this notice; dated and signed February 21st 1881. Having procured a body of men to do their duty for their country all vain your trying to escape for your doom is sealed, whether at home or abroad so “Prepare to meet your God”……. Yours &C, THE UNDERTAKERS”.

Like George Ainsworth, Mary and her mother called for the police. At the trial a few months later, the barrister who led the prosecution said that “perhaps to masculine nerves [it] would not have seemed very terrifying, but to ladies living in a solitary country house it was an extremely terrifying letter.” Masculine nerves or not, I found reading the letter for the first time nearly 140 years later intensely chilling, both in its own right, and in its similarity with contemporary anonymous abuse on the internet, particularly that addressed specifically to women.

Mary or Emily may have read or heard of such letters, perhaps from Mary’s grandfather Cooper Preston in his days as a magistrate in Skipton, for similar violent threats made by anonymous members of an “under” class against wealthy landowners were not unusual in the late 18th and early 19th century. Or much closer to hand, there had been a report in the local newspaper only a few weeks earlier of the trial of three shoemakers in Burton on Trent for sending an anonymous threatening letter with a rough sketch of a coffin and a skull and cross bones drawn at the top of it, in an attempt to intimidate a rival tradesman and the landlady of his shop.

The historian E P Thompson made a study of a selection of these letters in his 1975 essay “The Crime of Anonymity”. His evidence was drawn from letters quoted word-for-word in official advertisements between 1760 and 1820 in the government journal “The London Gazette”, offering a pardon in return for information leading to conviction of a perpetrator of such written threats. Many of his quoted examples had the same violent tone and language of the threats made to Mary Unwin and her mother. The use of “we” and the suggested existence of some united organisation or “fellows joined together in one band and unity” as a grandiose facade for the correspondence of a single individual or small handful of people, as in the Unwins’ letter, was also typical. The biblical language — “your doom is sealed . . . prepare to meet your God” — was another common feature, both Old and New Testaments then being a potent source of figurative and declamatory language. E P Thompson described the writing and sending of anonymous threatening letters as “a characteristic form of social protest in any society which has crossed the threshold of literacy …” concluding that they were an authentic expression of how paternalistic society felt ‘from below’, that people who wrote them were dissatisfied with that society but not actually insurrectionary, and instead resigned to the inevitability of the social order in which they lived, the letters being a means for the poor to recall the rich to certain notional duties.

Even if Mary or her mother recognised any similarity in the letters to anything they had heard of before, by 1881 Cooper Preston had been dead for over twenty years and his stories of keeping the peace during industrial riots in 1840s Yorkshire a distant memory. Mary and Emily had left the Preston family home at Flasby Hall, where Emily had grown up and Mary spent much of her childhood, and where there was always a brother or unmarried sister or maiden aunt living as part of the extended family. Mother and daughter were now living alone, save for domestic servants, at Wootton Lodge, a detached and isolated house surrounded by its park. Emily was sixty-one and Mary thirty-five, long past the age at which a wealthy heiress might have expected to marry in mid-Victorian England. Indeed, there was a line in the letter addressed to her and her mother which said as much, in words of stark cruelty and which were surely no less subversive to the sense of social order of a family like the Unwins than the rest of the letter would have been. After the words “Prepare to meet your God”, the writer had added:

“Why did not Miss Mary Unwin even marry a tramp or farm labourer, being no one else has condescended to have her, and tried to live happy.”

It’s impossible to know what, if any, truth lay behind these unkind words. Did the letter’s author take the words “live happy” from the memorial to Mary’s great grandparents on the wall of Ellastone church? Had Mary been rejected, or had she simply not been approached and courted by any of the men of eligible rank and fortune to whom she must have been introduced at around the time she attained her majority in 1865, at the age of twenty-one? Had she rejected suitors herself, preferring her independence, as her grandfather’s friend and contemporary, Miss Frances Currer, who had also been a child heiress and ward in Chancery had done? Given the great weight of conventional expectation at the time that a young woman like Mary Unwin would marry as soon as she reached her majority, and that she and her valuable inheritance would be protected from unscrupulous adventurers in a suitable marriage, it does seem more likely than not that she did not choose her continuing spinsterhood in 1881. How much worse to be confronted by the stark fact of it in this terrifying letter, and still worse, for its contents to be exposed to wider knowledge as the police investigated. They quickly found and charged a suspect to bring to a trial which aroused great public interest.

The investigation was led by Detective-Inspector Wheaver, no doubt prompt to attend both to the concerns of a wealthy landowner and of two women unprotected by a husband, father or brother. A detective-inspector in a Victorian county police force was no Sherlock Holmes figure, but, like Wheaver, a working-class man promoted through the ranks from the uniformed constabulary. In his career, Wheaver had dealt with many minor urban and rural crimes— on one occasion arresting a poacher with a ferret in his pocket, and on another a woman with a jug of ale under her apron for sale outside licensing hours. He was the detective-inspector in the case of the threatening letters sent by the shoemakers of Burton on Trent just a few weeks earlier in 1881. He was a similar age to Mary, but her solitary life with her widowed mother in the spacious rooms of their castellated mansion could scarcely have been more different from his own crowded home and large family. And he must have towered over her, as he was almost six foot tall, and she scarcely five. A witness in one of his police court cases, when asked if she remembered him coming to her house said, to laughter, that “Anybody seeing you once would remember it”.

The evidence given at the police court committal hearing and the subsequent jury trial, brings to life a lost world of rural working-class village life — a world of Sunday postal collections, where not only the letter-carrier but other working people walked miles around the district on a Sunday to visit friends or relatives for tea drinking or courtship, and habitually attended church, even to the extent of going to morning, afternoon and evening services in the parish church of their own or another village.

Joseph Hall, the letter-carrier, would tell both courts that he had cleared the letter box in Farley on Monday February 21 and found four letters in it. This letter box would have been a hexagonal pillar box, still a relative novelty as it spread across Britain in the 1860s and 1870s, first green and then from 1874 painted, as now, in red. The box had last been cleared at 11.30 on the Sunday morning, so the letters must have been posted some time between then and Monday afternoon. One was addressed to George Ainsworth, one to Mrs and Miss Unwin at Wootton Lodge, one to their coachman, and one to James Preece, the man who had gone into the Shrewsbury Arms Hotel and asked George Ainsworth what the matter was with him the following day. James was a young man of twenty-three. He lived with his parents and sister in the nearby village of Ellastone, and worked for the Uttoxeter Brewery Company as a clerk and travelling salesman. Like the other three letters, James Preece’s bore the Cheadle postmark, but its spelling was “curiously imperfect”, essentially a phonetic spelling of local speech, and its tone more conspiratorial and ingratiating than openly threatening in the same vein as the other letters. It read:

“Mon nite. Being as you are a sort of a brewery, wil you send Miss Unwin some of your 4 ½ penny ale to chear up her sperits, as we are for settling the old dame some of these days, and tell Will Haynes that lives agen you to go to Wooton Lodge again, as her wants to see him, and her conner get on without im. Dunner you mind us wrighting to you, but being a toidy little chap, we thought we would like to encourage you a bit. We hope we shall see you sone. Wishing you good health again and again, again and again.”

At the trial, Mary gave evidence that a man named William Haynes, who now lived opposite the Preece family home in Ellastone, used to work for her in the garden of Wootton Lodge, but that he had left her employment the previous November. This was obviously the “Will Haynes” referred to in this letter.

James Preece became Detective-Inspector Wheaver’s prime suspect. Wheaver went to James’s home and interviewed him on Thursday 24 February and they subsequently corresponded. James said he had not mentioned the letter he had received to anyone, and commented that “it appears to be rumoured about that Mr Ainsworth has had a similar letter on the same subject”. Wheaver thought that James Preece’s visit to the Shrewsbury Arms on the day the letters were delivered was suspicious. Why would he have gone there and asked about George Ainsworth’s health if he were not the writer and sender of the letter? Wheaver also convinced himself of a similarity in James Preece’s handwriting to that of the threatening letters, just as he had done with one of the Burton-on-Trent shoemakers, and he felt even more convinced he had his man when, on 18 March 1881, he went with a search warrant to the Preece family home in Ellastone. The bitter cold of the late winter had at last given way to milder weather that week, easing his journey from Stafford. He asked James about some letters in the house, one of which James admitted was in his handwriting. Searching the house, Wheaver found a small quantity of writing paper in a cupboard and compared it with the paper on which the letter to the coachman was written. He found it corresponded exactly, in size, quality, appearance and make. After measuring the writing-paper, he said to James “These are exactly alike”. James exclaimed “Do you think so?” Wheaver also found two soiled sheets of notepaper on which James had written. James said “that’s only some scribbling of mine” and that Wheaver need not take them. However, he did take the sheets of paper away and examined them and found they appeared to be of exactly the same paper and written in the same hand as the anonymous threatening letter to George Ainsworth. Convinced that he had identified the author of the letters posted at Farley, Detective-Inspector Wheaver then took James into custody.

A fortnight later, on Friday 1 April 1881, James Preece appeared before the magistrates at Cheadle Police Court. By that date a number of witnesses had been found to give circumstantial evidence about James’s whereabouts on Sunday 20 February. The evidence centred on that conspicuous hexagonal novelty, the Farley village pillar-box. It was said that James Preece did not often go to Farley, about four miles away from Ellastone, but he had been seen there on Sunday 20 February. In the morning, he had gone to church in Ellastone with his sister, Rhoda, and in the afternoon had gone to church again at Cotton, which was also about four miles away from Ellastone, and the nearest road to Cotton ran through Farley. At the Stafford Assizes trial, James’s barrister said that James was courting a young woman who lived at Cotton, and was in the habit of attending Cotton Church, presumably with her. After the church service at Cotton, James called in at the Star Inn and had tea with the landlord, James Buttress, before returning to Ellastone at about six o’clock and going with Rhoda to the evening service there. Two men gave evidence that they had seen James passing the Farley Post Office, but that he had not put anything whatever in the letter box as he passed. A boy who saw him pass the letter box a little after five o’clock on Sunday afternoon also said that he did not put anything into it. The hearing was adjourned to the following week for further handwriting evidence from the prosecution’s expert, M Chabot, who had come from London, and confidently said that he had no doubt that the anonymous letters had been written by the same person as other letters which James Preece had admitted to having written. Chabot was a lithographer and graphologist who had made a name for himself as an examiner of questioned documents and expert witness on handwriting. James’s solicitor did not call any evidence to seek to contradict M Chabot, but argued — to no avail — that handwriting evidence could be unreliable and was not infallible, and that his client, who was a young man said to be of excellent character, had no motive for writing the letters. As readers of the Staffordshire Sentinel on Saturday 9 April 1881 learned from the report under its headline “Extraordinary Charge of Sending Threatening Letters”, Thomas James Preece was charged with the offence of sending a letter threatening to destroy the property of George Ainsworth, and on being committed for trial at the next Stafford Assizes on this charge, was also charged with sending the letter to Mrs and Miss Unwin, and bailed pending trial against the sums of £500 from himself and £250 each from two sureties.

Neither Mary nor her mother were present at the hearing before the magistrates. The 1881 English census, taken on the night of Sunday 3 April, shows that both were then at Flasby, where Emily’s brother John was now head of the household and lived with his wife and young children. Emily’s childhood home must have seemed as much a refuge from alarm and distress for them as it had done thirty-five years earlier after the sudden accidental death of her husband.

The trial at Stafford Assizes opened on Monday 18 July 1881. James Preece was indicted on two counts of “unlawfully sending, delivering or uttering a certain letter”, one threatening to burn or destroy the house or premises of George Ainsworth and the other threatening to kill or exterminate Emily Jane Unwin and Mary Unwin. The Staffordshire Sentinel described James as “a well-dressed young man”, offering another observed glimpse of the “toidy little chap”, as he was described in the letter sent to him. Two QCs and a junior barrister acted for the prosecution, led by Henry Matthews QC, a highly regarded member of the Oxford circuit. It was he who had also led the defence of the young man who had drowned his fiancee, and who was hanged at Stafford Gaol in February. Three barristers, the most senior of whom, Mr Montagu Williams, was “specially retained”[1], defended.

The prosecutors could offer the jury no reason for James Preece or anyone else to have sent the specific threats in the letters to Mary Unwin and her mother, or to George Ainsworth or the Unwins’ coachman. No-one gave any evidence of either of Emily or Mary having shown any “uncharitable feeling” or “selfish disposition” towards anyone in the neighbourhood. Living in Ellastone, the nearest village to Wootton Lodge, and himself the son of a bailiff of one of the prominent local families, James Preece knew all the Wootton Lodge domestic servants. The prosecution said that he was in “constant intercourse” with them, but neither in opening the case nor in cross-examination of Emily and Mary could they establish any specific grievances about either woman that any of the servants might have had and communicated to James Preece or anyone else. A waggoner called Thomas Degg, who had worked at Wootton Lodge as a labourer until January 1881, when he had been dismissed, gave evidence and strongly denied having sent any of the threatening letters. There were a few questions about frequent changes in the household at Wootton Lodge, with servants staying in employment a very short time and some giving notice the day after they were engaged, but these questions led nowhere in evidence. In summing up the case for the prosecution, Mr Matthews QC acknowledged that only two servants had been dismissed from Wootton Lodge in the previous twelve months, and these dismissals would not have led either of them to write in this way.

Mary herself gave evidence, and this is the earliest record of her public voice in a courtroom. She described receiving the letter and said that it had alarmed her considerably. She said that she was not aware of having given any cause for any person writing in the strain in which the letter was written. She explained that she thought the words “at home or abroad” in the letter she had received were a reference to the fact that she had been in the habit of going abroad a great deal for a number of years. She answered some questions about James Preece, confirming her knowledge that he lived with his family in Ellastone and that he had never been in her service, and some questions about some of the other servants at Wootton Lodge. And that was all. Just as before the magistrates, the case against James Preece rested on the circumstantial evidence of his having passed the pillar-box at Farley on the day the letters were posted, the conversation with George Ainsworth on the day the letters were delivered, and on the evidence of the handwriting expert, M Chabot. Mr Matthews QC also insinuated that James Preece was responsible for the letters by remarking that whoever drew up the design of the coffins on the letter sent to Emily and Mary “must have had a considerable knowledge of the undertaking business”. This was met with “a laugh”, as the Staffordshire Sentinel recorded, a laugh which now brings a macabre echo from the page. James Preece had been apprentice to a carpenter, but had given that up. The jury would surely have understood that even this limited experience would have given him some insight into the design and making of coffins by a village carpenter, and that Mr Matthews QC was suggesting that this made it more likely that it was James who drew the sinister coffins on the letter to Mary Unwin and her mother.

James did not give evidence in his own defence, for it was not until 1898 that a person charged with a crime was treated as a competent witness for the defence.

As for the handwriting evidence, on which both Detective-Inspector Wheaver and the prosecution relied with such a triumphant sense of anticipated success, it is tantalising to wonder how similar the threatening letters posted at Farley really were to letters which James Preece admitted having written. Handwriting science at the date of the trial did not have any of the technical tools which modern forensic document examiners have for analysing marks made on paper, and appears to have relied entirely on pointing out apparent similarities in letter formation and style. In opening the case, Mr Matthews QC said that at first sight, on looking at the letters rapidly, it looked as if James Preece was a man “who wrote in a very dissimilar way on different occasions” but that on looking closely at the letters, the jury would find that “they were undoubtedly written by one and the same person”. He also emphasised James’s use of identical notepaper to that which was found by Detective-Inspector Wheaver “in considerable quantities” in James Preece’s house. The forensic impact of this was surely blunted though, when Wheaver admitted in cross-examination that “the paper was of a common kind, and such as might be bought at any stationer’s shop in the United Kingdom”. M Chabot, the handwriting expert, gave evidence at great length and detail on the similarities between the handwriting on the letters which James Preece admitted having written, and that of the anonymous threatening letters. On the first day of the trial he was still giving his evidence in chief when the court adjourned at about 7.20 pm, and resumed at 9.30 the next morning. He was robustly challenged in cross-examination, Mr Montagu Williams starting by putting to him that “Juries had quite frequently disagreed with the view he had expressed as to the similarity of various handwriting and of late years he had not been so successful in this way as formerly”. Chabot was then 66 and was to die in the autumn of the following year. Williams asked him about a specific high-profile criminal libel case at the Old Bailey, where Chabot’s evidence had been undermined by a person who admitted having written the alleged libel on a postcard himself. Chabot was forced to concede that he had been mistaken as to the identity of the handwriting in this and other cases.

The Staffordshire Sentinel described Williams’ closing speech for James Preece as “powerful”, as indeed it seems to have been. Montagu Williams had been an actor before being called to the Bar in 1862 and may have used his theatrical skills well in his new career. He reminded the jury that if convicted, James Preece was liable to punishment of ten years’ penal servitude, and contrasted the enormity of the offence with which James was charged, and the magnitude of the punishment with the “miserably weak evidence” on which the prosecution was based. He denounced M Chabot as a dangerously unreliable witness whose evidence had been misleading, and ignored by juries — had been “repeatedly ridiculed by results” — time after time. He made no secret of his own lack of belief in experts on handwriting, challenging any of the jury to compare the threatening letters with any letters they might have upon them, contending that if they did so they would see “endless similarities” between them which were common to the writing of all persons accustomed to the use of the pen. He also warned the jury not to place too great a weight on the notepaper being the same as that which was found in James Preece’s home, particularly as the prosecution had avoided drawing attention to the fact that the letter to Mrs and Miss Unwin was in any event written on different paper. The barrister also denounced the absence of “a single particle of motive on the part of this young man” for James to send Emily and Mary Unwin a letter threatening to kill and murder them, or to write the letter to Mr Ainsworth, with whom he was on familiar terms and whose hotel he used. James had no personal ill feeling or grudge against any of the parties to induce him to write these letters. He was a person of “most exemplary” good character.

“He had been well thought of, and had been a well-conducted, quiet and peaceable lad — a lad of the highest moral character, and if this were so it seemed unlikely that suddenly, without any earthly reason or cause whatever for no injury inflicted, he should have set to work for the purpose of terrifying people out of their lives, and doing a dastardly felonious act which would entail upon him the most serious consequences”.

Immediately after this closing speech, some character witnesses gave evidence for James. They were all men of local standing. Sir Henry Edwards of Wootton Hall had known him since childhood, as James’s father had been Sir Henry’s coachman, and had lived at the lodge at Wootton Hall when James and Rhoda were little children. Sir Henry described James as an “extremely good, orderly, sober, and well-behaved young man”. James’s employer, the manager of the Uttoxeter Brewery Company, said he had been “honest, straightforward, and had given every satisfaction to the firm”. Another witness, the headmaster of Ashbourne Grammar School, the Reverend Alfred Davies Cope, was active in the Church of England Temperance Society. His exchange of civilities with Mr McGann of the Uttoxeter Brewery Company must have been a cool one as they waited outside court together to give their evidence.

The judge then gave a short summing-up in which he said that the evidence only amounted to James Preece having had an opportunity of sending these letters, and that the evidence did not show to the judge’s mind that James Preece was the author of the letter to Mrs and Miss Unwin, and that the jury should not pin their faith on the expert evidence of M Chabot.

At 2 o’clock the jury retired to consider their verdict. They returned at twenty-five past seven with a “Not Guilty” which was received “with loud applause on the part of some persons in the galleries at the rear, which was immediately suppressed”. After dealing with the technicalities of producing a not guilty verdict on the second indictment relating to the letter to George Ainsworth, James Preece “at once stepped from the dock, and being joined by his friends, left the Court, apparently much pleased with the result of the trial”.

Extract from the Criminal Register for Stafford Assizes on 11 July 1881, showing Thomas James Preece recorded as Not Guilty of the charge of feloniously sending writing threatening to murder. The rural nature of the community is reflected in some of the other charges of other defendants — two for bestiality, and one for assaulting a gamekeeper

James Preece disappears from the life story of Mary Unwin, and from Ellastone, after this episode. His subsequent life showed remarkable social mobility for the son of a coachman. In October 1883 he was admitted to St Catharine’s College, Cambridge and was afterwards ordained and had a long clerical career. By 1891 he was a curate in Kirkby, on the outskirts of Liverpool, and his devoted sister Rhoda, who had given evidence for him at the police court, was visiting him. In 1896, still in Merseyside, and by which time he was chaplain of a children’s home in Fazakerley, he joined the Masonic Lodge in Blundellsands. The occupations of the other men whose names appear on the same page of the register: surgeon, barrister, merchant, ship-broker, confirm how completely he had joined the professional middle class — indeed he acquired the identical social standing that Mary’s grandfather, the Reverend Edward Unwin, had enjoyed a century earlier. Rhoda remained unmarried and moved to Merseyside to be close to her brother, and stayed there even after his appointment as rector of Hallaton, near Market Harborough in Leicestershire, in 1907. She lived alone, save for a servant, in the village of Everton, working as “Lady Superintendent” of the Ladies’ Parochial and Domestic Mission, a movement founded in 1857 to bring religious education to the poor. James served as rector of Hallaton, a post that brought him a living of almost £500 a year, until 1924, married and had a daughter who survived him, and died, mourned and respected by his former parishioners, in 1928. He must have lived in what is now the Old Rectory, Hallaton, a substantial and impressive house built in the 1840s and a far remove from the family home in Ellastone where he lived as a young man. His daughter Edith married Bertram Bewicke, son of a prominent local family, who became heir to the manor of Hallaton. His duties as rector of Hallaton included blessing, cutting and distributing a large hare pie on Easter Monday, in conjunction with the traditional bottle-kicking contest with the neighbouring village of Medbourne.

These facts make James Preece one of the more intriguing figures in Mary Unwin’s story, and raise many now unanswerable questions. Was he the primary suspect as the author of the letters because of his unusual literacy for a young working-class man — the discarded writing that Detective-Inspector Wheaver found perhaps being part of James’s endeavours to keep up some life of the mind or studies whilst being constrained to work as a traveller for the Uttoxeter Brewery? Was he deliberately set up as a suspect by the real perpetrator(s), who may not have had any real grievance but simply wanted to make mischief and trouble both for Mary Unwin and James Preece? Were the Preece family treated with suspicion in Ellastone because they were ‘outsiders’ (James’s parents came from Shropshire, and both their children were born there, whereas most of their neighbours in Ellastone were natives of the village) or because of the conspicuous intelligence of their children? Did sympathy for his wrongful accusation and acquittal at the trial lead to James obtaining the help he needed from those who had given character evidence for him, to leave his job and become a Cambridge undergraduate? Did he ever speak of his early life and the singular ordeal of the trial to his friends and family and those who knew him in his later life, or was it only his sister Rhoda with whom he kept the secret of these extraordinary events?

George Ainsworth also disappears from the story, as he died that autumn. Detective-Inspector Wheaver was promoted to Superintendent, had two more children and spent the rest of his life with his family in the small terraced house in Stafford, retiring from the police in 1895 on a pension of £110 a year — less than a quarter of the income that James Preece enjoyed as rector of Hallaton. Montagu Williams, the barrister who successfully defended James Preece at the trial, later became a QC and a magistrate, and published two volumes of reminiscences, “Leaves of A Life” in 1890 and “Later Leaves of A Life” in 1891. Although he did not include his experience of defending James Preece, in chapter 15 of Leaves of A Life he discussed the libel case in which Chabot’s evidence had been discredited, and firmly repeated the dismissive view of handwriting experts that he had expressed at James Preece’s trial in 1881, saying:

“I never was much of a believer in experts in handwriting. I have examined, and more frequently, cross-examined, Chabot, Nethercliffe and all the experts of the day, and have nearly always caught them tripping. In fact, in my opinion, they are utterly unreliable.”

But the receipt of the anonymous letter, and the unsuccessful prosecution, had a lasting effect on Mary herself. Even if she had never before thought of herself as a victim and a person threatened by an unknown enemy, it would not have been irrational for her now to develop such feelings, and become prey to paranoia, as it seems that she did. A decade later, at the inquisition in lunacy, the threatening letter and the 1881 trial were mentioned. Although the inquisition jury and the Master in Lunacy were not told of the details of either the letter or the trial, they were told of some of the consequences in Mary’s own mind. In 1886, Henry Matthews QC, the barrister who had led the prosecution of James Preece, became Home Secretary in the government of Lord Salisbury, and was Home Secretary at the date of the lunacy inquisition. Mary had by then developed the idea that there was a Home Office conspiracy against her, and fixed on the notion that Matthews had deliberately failed to prosecute with sufficient vigour to obtain a conviction against James Preece. Her husband’s barrister said that Mary had in her possession two letters written by members of James Preece’s family to her mother, Emily, asking her to intercede to stop the prosecution. These seem to have formed the basis of Mary’s belief that Matthews had acted improperly in some way in the prosecution and was now implicit in a conspiracy against her.

In fact, James Preece’s acquittal was consistent with many of the cases studied in E P Thompson’s essay on “The Crime of Anonymity”. The harsh penalties for the offence, and the difficulty of proving guilt based on the impressionistic and unscientific view of handwriting experts made juries reluctant to convict, even in cases where the prosecution looked less weak and the defence less strong from the outset. No other suspect was ever found, nor is there any evidence that the anonymous campaign of hostility against Mary and her mother continued. But the letters were clearly unburied in her memory, and a source of inner torment, for she did not even tell her husband about them either before or after their marriage in 1887.

[1] Montagu Williams was not a member of the Oxford Circuit and entitled to appear as of right at trials at Stafford Assizes, but was entitled to a “special fee” and had to have a member of the Oxford Circuit briefed with him.

Previous instalments of The Pursuit of Mary Cathcart


Part 1 — A Shocking and Fatal Accident

Part 2 — Cold Clay

Part 3 — A Gainsborough Portrait

Part 4 — A Ward in Chancery



Barbara Rich

English barrister & mediator — specialising in disputed succession & decision-making for people who lack mental capacity