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The Murder of Samuel Warr Buckler


On Friday 28th May 1880, an open hearse carrying a black coffin, draped in a velvet pall, pulled into Highgate Cemetery. It was followed by four coaches, carrying the principal mourners, and several carriages. According to one newspaper report, some hundreds gathered at the graveside to hear the minister from Upper Holloway Baptist Chapel, the Reverend J R Wood, make a ‘very impressive and touching address’ before reading the words of committal.

The deceased was Samuel Warr Buckler, the brother of my great grandfather, Richard Warr Buckler – and therefore my great granduncle. Reporting on the funeral, the Hampstead & Highgate Express described Samuel as ‘a hard-working, industrious tradesman, on friendly terms with neighbours and all those with whom he came in contact.’ His character was in every way ‘worthy of the encomium passed upon him by Mr Wood … He has left the world regretted and respected.’ The same newspaper suggested that, while many in the large crowd had been drawn to the funeral by sympathy, others had undoubtedly come out of curiosity – a curiosity excited by the fact that Samuel had been the victim of an extraordinary, and widely reported, murder.

When his life came to its violent and premature end on Saturday 22nd May 1880, Samuel was just forty-four years old and ‘a well-known and respected’ resident of Junction Road, Holloway where he worked as a cheesemonger. The three-storeyed building that accommodated his shop also provided the home he shared with his wife, Emma, and their four children. Despite the generous tributes paid him after his death, Samuel, it appears, was no saint. On two occasions between 1870 and 1880 he had appeared before the magistrates on a charge of fixing his weighing machine against his customers. For both offences he was fined 10s; and, in the case of the first, a further 10s was added for Samuel’s having obstructed the inspector in the execution of his duty!

The events of that unfortunate Saturday in May were described in a colourful account that appeared a week later in The Penny Illustrated Paper (‘We want to be esteemed the friend of the people’):

Our artist now conducts us to the salubrious North-London suburb of Upper Holloway, near the foot of Highgate Hill; and brings us face to face with the tragic occurrence which threw the whole neighbourhood into a ferment of excitement last Saturday morning. Mr James Sweetland, aged thirty, a master baker, of 7 Junction Road, Upper Holloway, is the chief actor in this unhappy affair.

With the aid of various newspaper reports and the official record of Sweetland’s subsequent trial, we are able to piece together an accurate account of how events unfolded that Saturday morning.

At seven o’clock, as Samuel and his thirteen-year-old son, Henry, were getting the shop ready for the first customers of the day, they were rudely interrupted by James Sweetland, the proprietor of a bakery directly across the road. In the course of the heated argument that ensued, Sweetland grabbed Samuel’s collar with one hand and started to wave his other hand about wildly – at which point a neighbour intervened and warned the baker, ‘Sweetland, you are going mad; you will get locked up’. Sweetland appeared to heed the caution; he let go of Samuel and returned to his shop.

Forty-five minutes later, Sweetland reappeared, standing in the doorway of his bakery. He was holding a shotgun and shouting ‘Where is he? Where is he?’ He then fired two shots across the road. Those who witnessed the scene saw Samuel stagger and then fall to the pavement with blood running down the side of his face.

A local resident by the name of Nathan Lack heard the shots as he was quenching his thirst in a nearby pub. He hurried to the scene and arrived just in time to see the baker retreat into his shop. ‘Good God!’ exclaimed Lack, ‘Sweetland has gone mad.’ He then watched Sweetland come back out – this time without his gun. The baker went up to Lack and told him, ‘I have done it. I want a policeman.’ With no policeman to be found in the immediate vicinity, Nathan Lack and a barman from the pub escorted Sweetland to Highgate Police Station.

Meanwhile, Samuel was in a critical condition with wounds over his head and face. He was carried into his shop and taken upstairs to wait for a doctor. At the inquest five days later, the doctor would report that Samuel had received about sixty shot wounds in different parts of his body; the twenty or more wounds to his head would have been sufficient to cause Samuel’s death which followed two days after the shooting.

Although there was never any doubt about the identity of the perpetrator of the crime, there was much speculation about the events that led up to Samuel’s murder. It appears that, on the previous Wednesday evening, a crowd of onlookers had gathered outside the baker’s shop where Sweetland could be seen acting in an excitable and somewhat violent manner. Samuel and another neighbour had decided it was best to close up Sweetland’s shop before the situation deteriorated.

Two days later, on the day before the murder, Sweetland went with some of his friends to the races at Harpenden. Regular race meetings had been held in the town for more than thirty years, and race days offered, in addition to a full programme of horse races, all the fun of the fair with a variety of sideshows and other amusements. Sweetland and his friends would have been among the many Londoners who travelled on special trains to join in the revelry. On his return to Holloway that evening, Sweetland made his way to the Archway Tavern to continue drinking. For some time, he had been drinking heavily and his increasingly erratic behaviour had become the subject of much discussion among his friends and customers, some of it rather light-hearted. In the Archway Tavern that evening, when he learnt that Samuel and another neighbour, Harry Nice, had been among those talking about him, Sweetland lost his temper and started to speak harshly about the two men. His fellow drinkers, knowing him to become excitable after a few drinks, took no notice of the threats he was making.

After his evening in the Tavern, Sweetland twice stumbled across to Samuel’s shop and started knocking on the door, waking the cheesemonger and his family – disturbances for which Samuel would reproach the baker in the course of their argument the next morning.

Sweetland resumed his drinking as soon as he got out of bed at six o’clock. One of his assistants watched him put away a considerable amount of gin and become quite incapable of serving customers. Then, just before eight o’clock, he left the shop saying he was going to look for Harry Nice. However, when he learnt that Harry was still in bed, Sweetland stormed back to his shop and started throwing the bread about! Then, catching sight of Samuel with a knife in his hand, he thought, ‘I’ll put his light out! He has spoken against me and done me harm. I have never done anything so bad as he has.’ The baker owned two double-barrelled guns which he kept for pigeon shooting. Grabbing one of these, he fired from behind the shop counter before going to the door with the second gun to deliver the fatal shots.

At his trial six weeks later, Sweetland was charged with ‘the wilful murder of Samuel Warr Buckler’. His defence lawyer argued that he was not responsible for his actions, and called several witnesses to substantiate this.

The first witness was the wife of a coffee-shop keeper who told the court that when she first met the baker five years previously, she had considered him to be a sober and stable man. It was only when he suffered a serious financial loss that he began to drink heavily and become excitable. At the time of the disturbance on the previous Wednesday evening, she had seen him behaving violently and, she believed, not in his right mind. Other neighbours told the court that from what they had seen of Sweetland’s behaviour in the days leading up to the murder, they were also of the view that he could not have been in his right senses.

Sweetland’s father told the court that his son had for some time been behaving in an extraordinary way, and he believed him to be of an unsound mind. There was, he said, some history of insanity in the family.

Sweetland’s lawyer then told the jury that the only conclusion it could come to was that, at the time the baker had fired the shots, he was labouring under the delusion that the deceased was armed with a knife with which he intended to attack him; and that what his client had done was absolutely necessary for the preservation of his own life.

The jury was not convinced by this argument and took less than two hours to find Sweetland guilty of murder.

The London Daily News concluded its report of the trial:

Mr Justice Hawkins then put on the black cap, and, addressing the prisoner, said that after a long and most patient enquiry …. the jury had found themselves compelled to find him guilty of the crime of wilful murder. That he had caused the poor man to be hurried into eternity without giving him one moment’s warning there could not be the slightest doubt … For the crime of murder the law of England only knew of one penalty, and that penalty was death, and it was now his duty to pass that sentence upon him for the crime of which he had been convicted. His Lordship then passed the usual formal sentence of death, and the prisoner, who appeared in a semi-unconscious condition, was removed from the dock.

The date for Sweetland’s execution was set for Monday 26th July – just three weeks later.

However, this was not to be the end of the affair. One week after the trial ended, a petition, ‘very numerously signed, especially by people of the neighbourhood of Holloway, including many medical men’, was presented to the Home Secretary. The petition begged for clemency for James Sweetland on the grounds that the evidence given at the trial raised doubts about his mental condition at the time of the murder. At the same time one of the jurors commented, ‘I am quite sure that all [the jury] would be willing to share in any appeal that may be made on behalf of the unhappy man, that the sentence should not be carried into effect.’

Four days later James Sweetland heard that the petition had been successful; it was ‘her Majesty’s pleasure that the capital sentence passed upon [him] should be respited’. He was reported to have received the news ‘with much emotion’.

Sweetland now faced the prospect of penal servitude for life. In August he was moved from Newgate to Pentonville; then, the following March, to Chatham Prison as a ‘star class’ prisoner. The ‘star class’ category had been introduced just two years previously for first-time offenders; it was hoped that, by keeping these prisoners separate from other convicts, there would be no danger of their becoming ‘contaminated’ by the criminal mentality.

Chatham Prison closed in 1892, and I do not know what happened to James Sweetland after that. It is possible that, at some point, he was released – even in the nineteenth century a life sentence did not necessarily mean that someone would spend the rest of their life in prison.

However, I do know what became of Samuel’s family. Soon after his death his widow, Emma, and their four children[1] moved to Kiver Road, just half a mile from Junction Road, and here Emma remained until her death in August 1890. Cecilia, the eldest of the four, worked as a teacher before training as a nurse. She was a sister at the London Hospital before moving to Surrey where she continued her nursing career. She never married and died in Surrey at the great age of 89. Of her two sisters, Edith remained in London where she died in 1919; and Ellen moved to Surrey with her husband, Frederick Darke, before retiring to Hastings. Ellen died back in Surrey in 1947.

Their only son, Henry Charles, married and moved to Lowestoft where he followed in his father’s footsteps as a grocer in the Kirkley area of the town. His name appears occasionally in the Lowestoft Journal, from which we learn that he joined the committee of the Kirkley branch of the English Church Union in 1904, and in the following year was initiated into the Unity Lodge of the Freemasons.

There were to be no more Bucklers on Samuel Warr’s line after the early deaths of the two sons born to Henry Charles and his wife, Mary. Horace Frank Buckler was killed during the First World War; and Leslie Pritchard Buckler died two years later at the age of twenty. Of their four daughters, only Madeline married; and there is no record of her having had any children.

Henry Charles died in 1936; and Mary twenty-seven years later, in 1963. The line came to an end with the death of their youngest daughter, Vera, in 1982.

[1] Samuel and Emma had five children, but Lydia had died at the age of eight in 1877.

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