Four strange-but-true tales from Wiltshire, England

I was born and raised in the county of Wiltshire in southwest England. Recently, I have been delving into my county’s history. Here are four of the weirdest tales I uncovered.

Weirdshire. Image created by the author on Canva. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

“Strange tale to tell; yet not more strange than true.” — words printed on a postcard, Salisbury, Wiltshire, 1900s.

1. “The Robbery of the Wicked Shall Destroy Them”

This is the tale of how a four-versus-one highway robbery went very wrong for the highwaymen.

On the evening of the 21st October 1839, wealthy farmer Mr. Matthew Dean, 58, was returning alone on horseback along the road across Salisbury Plain from the market at the town of Devizes to his home, Seagrams Farm, in the village of Imber. Just before he turned onto the road to Imber, at a crossroads known as Gore Cross, Dean was attacked by four highwaymen. They pulled him from his horse and robbed him of three £20 notes, a sovereign and a half in gold, £2 in silver (equal to thousands of pounds/dollars in today’s money), and his hat.

Victim of highwaymen wealthy farmer Matthew Dean. Photo credit: Private Collection / Ros Hooper

The quick-thinking farmer pretended to call out to a friend nearby. The robbers believed his bluff and fled. Not willing to be a passive victim of highway robbery, Dean followed the men on foot (his horse having bolted during the attack) enlisting the help of three locals — James Morgan, John Baish and James Kite — from nearby Gore Cross Farm. “Take a stick in your hand as a man has been robbed!” shouted Baish. They were soon joined by another local man, William Hooper, who brought his gun.

Whilst one highwayman appeared to have made his escape for now, the local pursuers, who were on horseback, caught up to the other three and a perhaps rather comic stand-off ensued with the robbers denying that they were the ones guilty of the crime and affirming “We’ll fight for it first.” One of the highwaymen, Benjamin Colclough, shouted at Hooper “You bastard, I’ll blow your brains out!” “Fire away, have the first shot” replied the also-armed Hooper. Hooper kept shouting “Robbers!” to attract the attention of anyone else nearby on the plain, with the robbers in turn trying to drown him out by shouting “Fox hunters! Tally Ho, Tally Ho!”

The robbers again took flight and were pursued by a growing band of local men for three hours until one of the three highwaymen, Colclough, age 35, fell down dead at a spot on Chitterne Down a few miles away from the initial attack on Dean. A little later the other two highwaymen were again surrounded but were still resisting a citizen’s arrest by brandishing their walking sticks. One local pursuer retaliated by holding up his large whip and saying:

“If this is not enough for you, I have a brace of pistols in my pocket. If you make the least resistance, I will shoot you dead on the spot!”

The two highwaymen eventually surrendered and were handed over to the Police at The Lamb public house in West Lavington.

The next day, the body of Benjamin Colclough was collected from the downs. Farmer Dean’s money was also recovered from where it had fallen or been dropped by one of the fleeing highwaymen. The third living highwayman, Richard Harris, was caught soon after. History does not tell us what happened to Farmer Dean’s stolen hat.

The highwaymen were quickly tried at Devizes. The guilty trio of Harris, 31, George Waters, 24, and Thomas Saunders, 33, were to be transported by ship to Australia to serve out their 15-year sentences for the highway robbery of farmer Dean. The Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette reported that after the sentence was passed Saunders “was very violent and swore that ‘if he had a knife he would have run’d it through Mr. Dean”

Australian records show that Saunders left England via London aboard the prison ship the Lord Lyndoch on the 11th September 1840, bound for what is now the island of Tasmania, Australia. The voyage ‘down under’ took almost four months with the ship arriving on the 5th February 1841. Saunders died in Australia nine years later on the 31st December 1850. Detailed record books of convicts were kept and Saunders’ paperwork describes him as having dark brown hair, hazel eyes, a large nose, and a large head(!), and states that he could “read and write a little.”

Convict George Waters, of Bishopstone, Wiltshire was also aboard the same sailing of the Lord Lyndoch. Waters’ paperwork describes his appearance: he was 5ft 11 inches tall with brown hair, grey eyes and a pointed nose.

The third man, Richard Harris was also aboard the Lord Lyndoch. He is described as only 5ft 5 inches tall, with sandy hair and red whiskers, blue eyes and a large nose. The Australian records also reveal Harris had committed highway robbery once before, in 1833, and had served a prison sentence for this crime: it seems that, as soon as he was freed, Harris went straight back to highway robbery.

Convict transport ship the Lord Lyndoch. Image Source.
Drawing of a convict chain gang near Sydney, New South Wales, 1843. Image Source.

The three transported convicts would likely have spent two years ‘on probation’ as part of work gangs engaged in forced labour. They would then have been freed to work for wages.

Back in Wiltshire, at the inquest into Colclough’s sudden death, it was found he ‘caused his own death’ suffering a brain aneurism whilst trying to flee a citizen’s arrest. The foreman of the inquest jury summed up their verdict: “Why, we finds as he busted himself.” The Coroner decreed that the criminal Colclough must be buried without funeral rights.

Farmer Dean lived to be 84 and died in 1866 with a fortune valued at about half a million pounds (over 690,000 USD) in today’s money. His farm, along with the entire village of Imber was emptied in 1943 so that the British Army could use it for wartime training.

a postcard of the Robbers’ Stone at Gore Cross. Image source.

Today, two memorial stones, erected soon after the incident in August 1840 to act as a deterrent to other would-be highwaymen, mark the spots where the attack on Farmer Dean and the death of Highwayman Colclough took place.

The first memorial, known as ‘the Robbers’ Stone’, is by the roadside just north of Gore Cross and names the four highwaymen. The inscription on the stone reads, in part:

This Monument is erected… as a warning to those who presumptuously think to escape the punishment God has threatened against Theives (sic) and Robbers.

The second stone, on Chitterne Down and now inaccessible to the public since the land is now a British Army live fire training zone, reads in part:

This Monument is erected to record the awful end of BENJAMIN COLCLOUGH a Highway Robber who fell Dead, on this Spot, in attempting to escape his Pursuers after Robbing Mr Dean of Imber, in the Evening of Oct 21st 1839, and was buried at Chitterne without Funeral Rights.

The robbery of the wicked shall destroy them. Prov. 21. 7.

The stones do not seem to have worked as a deterrent: another robbery took place at Gore Cross soon afterward. Mr. Brown, a gardener, was attacked by two men on foot, who stole 10 shillings (about £45 / 60 USD in today’s money) from him. Happily, however, they left him with the £14 pounds in notes and gold he also had on him at the time (worth well over £1,000/1,600 USD today).

As a weird postscript to this already strange tale of highway robbery gone very wrong for the robbers, sixty seven years later in November 1906 a Miss Edith Ann Draper, aged 24, who lived at The Sands in Market Lavington, about seven miles from the spot where Benjamin Colclough died, was sent a postcard of the highwayman‘s memorial stone with the cryptic message:

If you rob anyone you will fear and then you will run and you may get the same as this man got. I mean the thing you can’t see. I believe that you want this kind.

M. R. P. M.

Postcard of the memorial to Benjamin Colclough. Image source.

‘This man’ is presumably Benjamin Colclough who was pursued until he dropped dead. The card was posted from Market Lavington on 8 November 1906, but the sender has never been identified. Edith Draper, later Mrs. Edith Bishop, kept the card until her death in 1969 when it was passed down in her family, eventually being donated to Market Lavington Museum.

It was not only highwaymen who could pose a danger to those on Wiltshire’s roads, however…And so we continue on to our next strange-but-true tale.

2. Lioness Attacks Stagecoach

The Quicksilver — a four-horse stagecoach which carried mail and passengers between Exeter in Devon and London — was approaching the inn at Winterslow, Wiltshire when a beast appeared out of the dark October night. At first, the coach driver, peering into the dark, thought the animal trotting alongside his horses was a calf. As the coach drew to a stop outside the inn, however, the animal attacked, jumping at one of the two lead horses, whose name was Pomegranate, sinking its claws into the horse’s neck and throat. Pomegranate, harnessed to the coach, could not escape or defend himself as the beast clung to his neck, whilst blood flowed from the horse’s wounds. The other three horses began to kick and plunge violently in terror, rocking the stagecoach so much it was in danger of overturning.

‘The Lioness Attacking the Horse of the Exeter Mail Coach’ — print of a painting by JamesPollard, 1817. Image Source.

The guard atop the stagecoach, a Joseph Pike, was armed in order to protect the coach’s cargo of mail and its passengers and so drew his blunderbuss (a firearm with a short, large caliber barrel which fired ball shot) and took aim at the beast by the dim light of the coach’s lamp. As he did so, a party of men with a dog appeared. They set the dog to attack the beast and it grabbed hold of the beast’s hind leg. This diverted the beast’s attention from poor Pomegranate and it turned to chase down the dog. The men called out to Pike not to shoot: “For God’s sake do not kill her!…She will be as quiet as lamb if not irritated!”

Meanwhile, the coach’s terrified passengers had fled screaming for the Inn, locking themselves inside. By one account, one passenger was left locked outside and was so traumatised by this, and by the attack, that they were later committed to an asylum.

Painting of the attack by A Sauerweid, 1817. Image Source.

Amidst the chaos, the men with the dog quickly explained to the coachmen that they were part of a traveling menagerie — Ballard’s Grand Collection of Wild Beasts — which had camped nearby for the night before heading to Salisbury Fair and that the beast was one of their star attractions, a lioness, who had escaped from her cage. The lioness had by now herself taken fright and had hidden underneath a nearby granary.

The Salisbury and Winchester Journal now takes up the tale:

Her owner and his assistants…followed her (under the granary) upon their hands and knees, with lighted candles, and having placed a sack on the ground near her, they made her lie down upon it; they then tied her four legs and passed a cord round her mouth, which they secured; in this state they drew her out from under the granary, upon the sack, and then she was lifted and carried by six men into her den in the caravan… the lioness lay as quietly as a lamb during her removal to the caravan.

The lioness was in fact partly tame and calmed down on hearing the familiar voices of the menagerie folk, allowing them to re-capture her.

Remarkably, the stagecoach, with Pomegranate replaced by another horse, soon continued on to Andover and arrived only 45 minutes late. On the way, the coach passed by the menagerie’s encampment. The coach driver, angry at the violent and completely unexpected attack on his fine stallion Pomegranate according to contemporary author William Hone:

…proposed to alight and stab the lioness with a knife, but was prevented by the remonstrance of the (coach) guard; who observed, that he would expose himself to certain destruction, as the animal if attacked would naturally turn upon him and tear him to pieces.

A mention of the Sunday night attack was made the very next day in London paper The Courier and the story soon appeared in newspapers across the country.

The injured horse, Pomegranate, despite having suffered deep wounds to his neck and check survived and was immediately purchased by Ballard’s Grand Collection of Wild Beasts and displayed alongside the lioness and a mastiff dog at Salisbury Fair and beyond with the advertisement:

THE NOBLE LIONESS from Africa, which attacked the Horse in the mail coach at Wintersloo Hut, near Salisbury in October last (1816) but was detered from its prey by a large MASTIFF DOG. These three animals may now be seen together in perfect amity!

This exhibit made the menagerie owner plenty of money — he raised the admission fee due to his lioness’ fame — even if the dog was not the one involved (as that dog had sadly been killed by the lioness during the attack). After his time in the menagerie, Pomegranate went on to enjoy a long career on the Brighton and Petworth stagecoach. The lioness was exhibited at the 1825 Bartholomew Fair in London.

In 1984, the lioness attack at Winterslow was depicted on one of five 16p Royal Mail stamps commemorating the bi-centenary of the introduction of the mailcoach. In 2012, a copy of James Pollard’s painting depicting the attack was auctioned in Salisbury after having been rescued from a skip (or dumpster) 30 years before. It sold for £1,700 (around 2,300 USD).

3. The Circus

You might think the above tale of a lioness running free in Wiltshire would be a one-off. You would be wrong.

In April 1980, Chipperfield’s Circus was set up on a field in Devizes, Wiltshire next to Devizes School. As the school’s 1,500 pupils aged 11 to 18 were on their lunch hour, one schoolboy spotted something strange:

“I saw this shape come across the grass. It looked like a Great Dane a’ first. An’ it jus’ sort of bounded up the steps, didn’t stop or anything, and it went straight through the glass (door). An’ I looked in there an’ I realised it was a lion! An’ I just ran…an’ told the teachers”

In fact, there were two circus lionesses, named Girlie and Jessie, on the loose at the school. The witness continues:

“There was panic from the girls, they were screaming. An’ we just all rushed (inside) an’ shut the doors.”

“I was scared out of my wits” fifteen-year-old schoolgirl Sarah Parson admitted to a journalist after the incident. The lioness Girlie broke into Sarah’s classroom:

“I heard the crash of glass and a lion jumped through the window of the room…I just ran and ran. My friends ran also.”

An ex-student of the school who was sixteen at the time recalled in 2010 that he was within 10 metres (32 feet) of one of the lionesses as “it appeared ‘round the corner. I was terrified. Absolutely rooted to the spot.” For another schoolgirl, the lionesses’ visit had an upside, however: “Not only did we miss most of the afternoon’s history lesson, but we were the lead story (on the national news) that day too.” One brave or foolhardy schoolboy apparently stayed outside, hiding behind a tree and growling at the lionesses.

Press cuttings about the Devizes School lionesses attack, 1980. Image Source.

With police marksmen standing by, teachers managed to lock the lionesses into separate empty classrooms before circus handlers came to retrieve them.

The circus claimed that the lionesses had not escaped, but had been set free: “We suspect that somebody had released them” one circus worker told the BBC , “although to release ’em would be quite a job” he admitted.

Whilst one pupil reported that their lunchtime sandwich had gone missing, Jessie the lioness hut cut her face on broken glass when charging the door, and there was some small damage to school property no one was hurt in the incident — although it certainly makes for a different kind of childhood memory! Devizes School later adopted a lion as their logo in memory of the incident.

Chipperfield’s Circus, it seems, did not have the best luck with securing their animals: eleven years later in March 1991 four of the circus’s lions brought the town of Grimsby, in North East Lincolnshire to a standstill after they escaped. One young man was attacked and mauled by one of the lions after being chased down and pounced upon. He was saved by a passing policeman who rammed the lion with his patrol car. The lions were eventually rounded up and recaptured with the help of one of the circus’ clowns.

Chippefield’s Circus has other connections to Wiltshire besides mixing lionesses with schoolchildren. Back in 1954, the circus clashed with ‘upstart rival’ circus Bertram Mills in Salisbury when both circuses deliberately booked the same dates to appear in the city. By this time, under the management of Jimmy Chipperfield who had been an RAF fighter pilot in World War II, Chipperfield’s employed 250 people, boasted a big-top tent which was the biggest in the world, and had a collection of 200 horses, 16 elephants, and 200 other animals.

It was predicted that splitting their clientele would lose both circuses money. News of the ‘clash’ made national newspapers, however, and this free publicity meant both circuses reported full big tops at all performances. It was estimated that 58,000 people saw the two shows, and the clash put Salisbury on the circus map.

Chipperfield’s Circus at the Downs, Bristol, 1950s.

In 1955, just one year after the ‘clash’ with Bertram Mills Circus, Jimmy Chipperfield left the circus business, and in the 1960s he built a new career creating ‘drive-through’ safari parks. In 1966 he co-founded the Longleat Safari Park at Longleat House, Wiltshire. It was the first drive-through safari park outside Africa; visitors could drive their cars into the animals’ enclosures and perhaps have close encounters. The park is still very popular to this day boasting lions, tigers, rhinos, wolves, and a rescued former circus elephant called Anne.

When Chipperfield’s came to Salisbury in the mid-20th Century, the clan could also visit with Richard Chipperfield, their former patriarch, who had retired in 1939 and moved his wagon to the field behind the Royal Oak Pub at Great Wishford near Salisbury. He was based there until his death in 1959 and he, and most of the rest of his branch of the Chipperfield family, are buried in a little cemetery close to his field, on the road to Grovely Wood. This brings us to the setting of our next tale…

4. Stay out of the Woods

Image created by the author on Canva. Original photo Grovely Wood Roman Road on Wikipedia.

“The atmosphere was so intense, she could not bear it. She…felt as if someone was watching her and she turned around and fled” Account of a visitor to Grovely Wood, Wiltshire.

Grovely Wood is ancient. An arrow-straight Roman road cuts through the centre of the woodland west to east and within the wood, one can find pre-historic earthworks. In the wood, there are also three very old, gnarled beech trees and one fallen beech tree that look like they belong in an enchanted forest. These trees are grave markers for four sisters, murdered in the woods for allegedly being witches. Some say the trees were not planted but grew spontaneously from the sisters’ burial places to remind the murderers and their descendants of the crime they had committed.

The four Handsel sisters, who were Danish, moved to the Wiltshire town of Wilton in 1737. Unfortunately for them, around the time of their arrival there was a smallpox outbreak in the area which claimed 132 lives. Local people blamed the foreign sisters for spreading the disease, accusing them of witchcraft and an alliance with the devil. Mob justice was meted out with the four sisters taken to Grovely Wood where they were bludgeoned to death. The sisters were buried in there in the woods, far enough apart from each other so they could not ‘conspire against their murderers.’

Whether or not the sisters were witches their trees have become a site of pilgrimage. There is a hollow at the base of the largest beech tree where people leave offerings for the murdered sisters to this day. The trees are also often decorated with ribbons and trinkets.

“All three (trees have) huge, thick trunks, knobbled branches and dark canopies. They are very distinctive amongst the tall, thin pine trees which surround them.” Account of a visitor to Grovely Wood

Decorated tree said to mark the grave of a Danish witch, Grovely Wood. Image Source.

It is said that the spirits of the murdered sisters haunt the woods to this day. Paranormal investigator Maria Williams writes on her website:

“We have captured some strange sounds in Grovely Wood…We have captured what sounds like a woman crying, really sobbing…our…visit (to) the woods felt sinister and even our most intrepid paranormal investigators were anxious.”

The distraught and/or vengeful Handsels are not the only ghosts to worry about in Grovely Wood. It is also said that the woods are haunted by the Burcombe Woodsman named for his home village which is a few miles south of the wood. His real-life identity is shrouded in mystery: some say he was a poacher who was hung from a tree in the wood for his ‘crimes’, others say he was a watercolour painter who was accidentally shot dead in the woods during a deer cull. Sightings of his ghost have been reported, usually after hearing the cracking of a twig — or perhaps it is the cracking of the hanged man’s neck breaking. Stay out of the woods.

I hope you enjoyed these four strange-but-true stories from Wiltshire, England. Stay tuned for more stories from the ‘Weirdshire’ series, or check out my previously published stories.


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Researcher and writer. Author of the ‘Weirdshire’ series. True crime and strange tales. You can buy me a coffee at:

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