The Stanfield Hall Murders

By Oriel Sutherland

IT is late November in the year 1848. On one of the highest points in Norfolk, a commanding edifice, is Stanfield Hall. The night is cold and crystal clear, an icy moon dances on the surface of the moat and peeps from behind turreted chimneys. Above the entrance porch the family crest gleams in the moonlight that streams across velvet lawns.

Through the great windows comes the sound of laughter. Within dinner has been served and a contented family relaxes after the evening meal. Suddenly a black wraith speeds across the bridge above the moat, runs swiftly over the lawn and disappears into the house. Shots ring out, piercing the frosty air. Terrified, anguished screams frighten the crickets in the grass, then silence gains sway once more. In the mansion some dare not speak but others cannot. The visitor Death seems to glide away from the misery that he has wreaked, until he is swallowed by the night.

On the morning of 27 November 1848, sleepy, stolid, earthy, East Anglian Norwich is shaken roughly from her slumbers by rumours of deeds bloody and foul. The previous evening the recorder of that capital city and his son were murdered at the family residence of Stanfield Hall. Mr. Jermy's (the recorder) daughter-in-law and her loyal servant lay in danger of losing that small thread of life even now left to them.

Nobody saw the recorder fall but the butler saw the son die. The wretched man was, however, too frightened to challenge the assassin but fled to his pantry, only to hear two more shots fired. These, he learned later, were at his master's daughter-in-law, and Elizabeth Chestney, who refused to leave her mistress until she too fell horribly wounded.

It was a servant employed in the stable who, on hearing the firing, was the first to carry the sad news to Wymondham (the estate lands lay in three parishes, Wymondham, Hethel and Ketteringham). He borrowed a horse and spread the horrific story as he went. Those who hurried to the scene found the servants in such a panic that they had barred the doors and barricaded themselves inside.

The two wounded females had been put to bed but the father and son lay dead and cold where they had fallen. Shortly after, the magistrate, his clerk and various other gentlemen connected with such unpleasant matters arrived on the scene. A telegraph was sent to the family's medical attendant, Mr. Nichols of Norwich. A number of Norwich police as well as county police appeared to question those fortunate enough to have escaped the killer.

At once, like a hawk swooping to the kill, the public grasped one personality. James Blomfield Rush, a man well known in West Norfolk as a farmer and landagent, was the chosen one. There had been much bad blood between the late recorder and himself over two issues, money and a plot denying Mr. Jermy's right to the Stanfield estates.

At Michaelmas, 1836, Rush took the Stanfield Hall Farm on a 12 year lease. His father-in-law was against this action, for he believed that he would ruin himself with such a large undertaking; the rent was 500 per annum. The owner of the Stanfield property at that time was the Rev. George Preston. When he died, his son, then a Mr. Preston, inherited the estates.In August 1838 the gentleman took the name and arms of Jermy by licence from the crown. Jermy was another family name.

RUSH had been employed by the Rev. Preston as his agent; and the new owner continued to employ him in this capacity. However, Mr. Jermy discovered that the leases that Rush held were illegal and rescinded them. This seems to have caused the first bad blood between them.

New leases were granted but Rush maintained that these were at higher rents than before. This ill-feeling increased when a local property, Pot-Ash Farm, was put up for sale and both of them wished to buy it. What actually happened was that Mr. Jermy authorised Rush to purchase the property for him but Rush in fact bought it for himself. The air must have cleared eventually, because Rush borrowed money from Mr. Jermy in order to complete the transaction. Rush told a different tale, saying that Mr. Jermy would not pay the value of the farm, so he bought it himself.

In 1847 time left for the payment of debts to Mr. Jermy expired and proceedings were taken against Rush. He asked for more time and was given it. He seems to have had a glut of pecuniary difficulties at this time. On one occasion when Mr. Jermy was due to visit the farm to see what chance he had of getting his money, Rush procured animals to stock the farm with. Unfortunately for him someone wrote to Mr. Jermy telling him to repeat the visit, which he did, and found the farm in a sorry state.

Towards the close of 1847 Rush called his creditors together and offered them 12/6 in the . This was generally accepted. He then made an application to the courts and was declared a bankrupt.

At this time his mother died, leaving her money in trust for his children. During these proceedings Rush still retained possession of farms at Felmingham. The rents of these was overdue and distraints were put on them.

Rush threatened to shoot the officer who held the warrant. After considerable delay and procrastination the money was paid. There still remained the unsettled mortgage on Pot-Ash Farm. Mr. Jermy was this time adamant and refused to grant any more time for payment. Their last interview took place at Stanfield Hall only two days before the murders. What passed between them no one will ever know.

There was little doubt of what the verdict at the trial would be. Rush had a motive, he had opportunity in that he had the freedom of the house as Mr. Jermy's agent, he had a weapon, we know, because he used it to threaten an officer who brought a warrant to his farms at Felmingham.

The assassin wore a disguise that was flowing and voluminous and two disguises were found at Rush's home. One was a complete widow's outfit made to fit him exactly with a frilly bonnet to obscure the wearer's features. In this outfit Rush had been seen in Wymondham several weeks before the murders.

James Blomfield Rush was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. His execution had all the accoutrements then in vogue. He was followed to the gallows by a procession of men, women and children. In the mid 1800s the ghastly and sordid spectacle of a hanging was quite an event for all save the miserable victim.

Illustrations by P. Kemplay

Ref: Sutherland, O. 1962. The Stanfield Hall Murders East Anglian Magazine. August. 550-553

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