The Masked Assassin

Tragic link with Amy Robsart

Besieged in a Norfolk Hall

Estate that passed through three generations in a space of a minute

By "Tit-Bits" Special Investigator

Dramas of disputed ownership innumerable are associated with Stanfield Hall, the manor house of the Jermy estate, near Wymondham in Norfolk. Yet it is still among those stately homes of England to which, with the broad acres around them, there are many claimants.

A few years ago a woman came forward with a strange story. Long and earnestly her mother sought for a bible known to contain evidence about her family, the Jermys, one of whom, Sir John Jermy, was Governor of Sierra Leone, and about a fortune, including the Jermy estate in Norfolk, to which they were entitled.

Clue Revealed By A Dream

The daughter, after her mother's death did not trouble herself concerning this fortune until she had a dream. She was seated in a room. Presently an old man with silvery white hair entered, and, walking up to her, placed in her lap a Bible much the worse for use. Moved by a sudden impulse, she turned over some leaves, and then looked for entries on the front flyleaf. No family history was there.

Disappointed and vaguely wondering what to do next, she placed the old Bible on the table, and as she did so accidentally lifted the back cover, thus disclosing some writing on the end flyleaf. Eagerly she bent forward to read it, and - awoke.

As she had previously seen the old Bible in a dream, she determined to find it, and to this end visited London, Bristol and other places. Ultimately, as if impelled by an unseen force, she went to Carmarthen, and there she discovered some distant relatives, who, on hearing of her quest, brought out an old Bible - a Bible which not only exactly corresponded with the one she had seen in her dreams, but contained entries giving just the information she needed to fill up all-important gaps in the family tree.

All the disputes over the ownership of the Jermy estate have sprung from nineteen words - "such male person of the name Jermy as should be the nearest relative to the testator in blood".

These were the words used by William Jermy, who provided that the estate should pass in succession to two persons whom he named - Jacob Preston and Thomas Preston - and then, in the event of there being no male issue, to "such male person", and so on.

Storm Clouds Gather

Enter now the villain of the piece - Isaac Preston, father of Jacob Preston. Not many years after William Jermy's death this man saw that as Jacob Preston and Thomas Preston would probably die childless, the alternative devise to a person of the name Jermy was likely to take effect. So, wishing to obtain the estate for himself, he resolved to defeat the devise, and accordingly looked around for the person nearest related in blood to William Jermy.

This seems to have been either Francis Jermy, of North Walsham or John Jermy, a labourer living at Yarmouth. John, as he himself stated subsequently was illiterate. This was said during a trial in which he was called as a witness, and the evidence he gave can never be surpassed for brevity. "Can you write?" was counsel's first question. "No", John replied, and left the box.

The astute Isaac bought the reversionary interests of Francis Jermy and John Jermy, paying John only £20 for his. As a result, on the death of the two Prestons, Jacob and Thomas, without male issue, Isaac claimed the estate, and held it till he died.

Eventually it passed to the Rev George Preston, and then to his son Isaac, Recorder of Norwich, who thereupon assumed the name and arms of Jermy.

Meanwhile, there had been many a storm over the ownership of the estate, and soon after the death of the Rev George Preston the clouds gathered again. When Isaac Preston, by virtue of the agreement he had made with the Jermys - catching and unconscionable agreement according to the claimants who eventually sprung up - he was attacked in several pungent pamphlets "Narrative of Disputes between Isaac Preston, who purchased the estate for £20, and John Mitchell".

A copy of this publication was among the effects of the Rev George Preston sold by his son, Isaac Preston (afterwards Jermy), and through this circumstance the question as to the title of the Prestons to the estate was reopened.

Shortly afterwards matters came to a head, the Rev George Preston's library and furniture at Stanfield Hall was advertised for sale, whereupon a man named Larner, cousin of Thomas Jermy, whose grandfather, John Jermy, of Yarmouth, had sold his reversionary interests in the estate, served notices on Isaac Jermy and the auctioneer to stop the sale. It was consequently postponed, the auctioneer locking up the property.

A few days later Larner took forcible possession of the Hall, and remained in it for a whole day; but he was then turned out by a number of labourers on the estate headed by James Blomfield Rush, a tenant.

Failed in one direction, Larner lost no time in trying another. With a body of sympathisers, he asserted the title of his cousin by cutting down some timber and carting it away. All the men were apprehended, and, though Larner himself went scot-free, the others were convicted in heavy penalties.

Still Larner would not accept defeat. Soon he and Jermy gave notice, by means of placards posted all over the district, that they would take possession of the hall, and proceed to carry out the interloper. Larner, supported by eighty or ninety labourers and small shopkeepers went to the Hall, ejected the housekeeper and other domestic servants, and, after stacking the furniture on the lawn, barricaded the place as though determined to withstand a siege of indefinite duration.

Rumour - Then Tragedy

The police attempted to dislodge the trespassers - in vain. They could make no break in the defences. Rush consequently galloped to Norwich, bringing back on his heels a strong military force. Its effect was prompt and decisive. Alarmed at the appearance of the soldiers, Larner and his companions surrendered. All were afterwards indicted and sentenced to imprisonment.

Even then Larner was not beaten. After assuming the name of Jermy, he issued circulars, claiming the Stanfield estate, and ordering tenants to pay rent to him alone.

About the same time it was announced that a will of the Rev George Preston had been found, and somebody wrote to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, as well as official of a parish in Norwich, stating that such a will was in existence, and that under it legacies were left to the institution and the parish. Probably this was done with a view to enlisting support for the will when it was produced. Nothing more, however, was heard of the matter.

While rumours and further developments in the long dispute were in the air the whole country was shocked by terrible happenings at the Hall. After dinner one night Mr Isaac Jermy had been to the front of the Hall and was going back into it, when he was met by a masked assassin, who shot him dead.

The victim's son, alarmed by the report of the pistol, rushed out into the passage, instantly to be killed by the assassin, and when Mrs Jermy, his wife, came to the scene, and bent over the body of her husband, the wretch fired at her in turn, shivering one of her arms and wounding her in the chest.

"Double Cross"

Her maid, more courageous than the other servants, most of whom were by this time in hiding, was the next, and final, mark for the ruthless murderer. She ran to the assistance of her mistress, and while embracing her was seriously wounded in the thigh.

When the police reached the Hall, it was momentarily supposed that the murders were the work of one of the claimants; for the miscreant had left behind a paper, on which was written:-

"There are seven of us here, three of us outside and four of us inside the Hall, all armed as you see us two. If any of the servants offer to leave the premises or follow us, you will be shot dead. Therefore, all of you keep to the servants' hall, and you nor anyone else will take any harm, for we are only come to take possession of the Stanfield Hall property."
"Thomas Jermy, the Owner"

But suspicion soon fell upon Rush, who had, it was found, been playing a deep game. He had changed sides, and promised Larner and Thomas Jermy that he would do everything in his power to place them in possession of the estate, though at the same time he had made arrangements to "double cross" them should they be successful. Rush was one of those men compounded of cunning and sensuality in fairly equal proportions.

After a remarkable trial, he was found guilty, and he paid the penalty for his crimes on the scaffold at Norwich.

A curious effect of the murders at Stanfield Hall was a rapid change in ownership. When Mr Isaac Jermy was shot dead, the estate descended to his son, who held it for only a few seconds, after which it passed to his heir-in-law, his daughter, aged thirteen, who ran out into the hall while the slaughter was going on, but happily escaped the deadly bullets. Thus in less than a minute the estate was owned by three generations in succession.

Many years later a further attempt was made, this time by legal process, to recover the Stanfield Hall estate. It was in the form of an action brought by a railway guard, a descendant of one Robert Jermy, said to have been the nearest related to the testator in blood on the failure of issue of Thomas Preston.

After the case was opened, however, it was held that the proceedings were barred by the Statute of Limitations, and consequently the estate was, despite its having been so strictly and jealously limited to the Jermys, left in possession of strangers in blood to them.

Since then no public claim has been made to the property. Still there has been a deal of research by Larners, and still more by Jermys, some of whom do not look upon their "birthright" as absolutely lost. Stanfield Hall, tragic as are its associations merely as a claimants' objective - and long before it became such it was a home of the ill-fated Amy Robsart, who was afterwards, it is supposed, done to death at Cumnor Hall - inspires high hopes to this day.

Ref: Anon. 1931. The Masked Assassin. Tit-Bits. 21 March 1931. No. 2577. p73 + 82