George Poplett And The Quality Of Justice


The quality of justice for the poor back in the 1870s was rough. If you had insufficient money you might well end up in the workhouse; if your wife was cheating on you there were no funds for a divorce and, if she ran out on you, the children could be put in the workhouse or dumped on relatives. More seriously, if you were indicted for capital murder, you couldn't afford a lawyer.

This was the situation in which George Poplett of Ewell found himself. George was born in Ewell in 1830, the son of agricultural labourer Charles Poplett and his wife Mary. He became a Private in the 37th Regiment of Foot, earning two good conduct stripes, and was present at the Indian Mutiny of 1857. On leaving the Army he became an agricultural labourer, although around 1871 he had a job at the powder mills. It was very much a case of taking whatever work you could find.

The events which ultimately led to his downfall began in 1863, when he apparently impregnated young Charlotte Smith of Ewell, who was then aged about 16. Given subsequent events there is probably no guarantee that George fathered the child, but he took the responsibility. A daughter named Sarah Ann Smith was born on 29 October 1863, followed by a marriage between George and Charlotte at St Martin's, Epsom on 26 June 1864. Unfortunately, the name of Charlotte's father on the marriage register is unreadable, but it does not appear to be Smith. Thanks to some digging by a colleague, it has been discovered that she was the illegitimate daughter of Ann Smith from Cobham, Surrey, who seems to have gone to London, where she gave birth to Charlotte in Shoreditch district in 1846. Ann then returned to Surrey and married farm labourer John Arter in 1848: thus, Charlotte was present in the 1851 census for Stoke d'Abernon and the 1861 census for Ewell with the surname of Arter. John died in 1866 and in 1867 Ann gave birth to a son called George Allen. She appears to have married farm labourer John Allen at some point between 1866 and 1871, but we cannot currently find a marriage record. In 1871, when George and Charlotte Poplett were living at Lintons Lane, East Street, Epsom with two children, the aforementioned Sarah Ann and John (born 1869). I believe that in between there had been some children who had not survived. A third child, James, was born in 1871.

The job at the powder mills seems to have ended, possibly because of the domestic turmoil in the Poplett household. Apparently Charlotte had run off with other men previously, leaving George with one or more of the children, and he had been in Epsom Union Workhouse with them twice, for a few weeks, in 1873 and 1874. It was said that Charlotte was 'scarcely ever sober' and 'Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper' described her as 'a dissolute, irreclaimable termagant' (shrew).

In October 1874 William Jones, a travelling man with a threshing machine, was at Ewell, met the Popletts and had some drinks with them. It seems that he then asked Charlotte to run off with him, and she did. It was said that she put the children in the Workhouse, although George is recorded as being in there with them from 7-20 November 1874. He then took them out and left them with his mother-in-law. I do not know how he knew where Jones and Charlotte were (they were working at 'Waffron's Farm' at Thames Ditton), but he found out and on 21 November he walked the several miles over there and was taken on as a casual labourer himself. Jones said he then saw George talking to Charlotte, there was a loud scream, Charlotte slumped to the ground and George tried to run away. Jones knocked him down, but he escaped. Charlotte bled to death very swiftly from a knife wound in her breast. The wound was three and three quarter inches deep and had been inflicted with a pig-sticker's knife, which was later recovered from a nearby pond. George was arrested at 'The Star' beer house in Ewell, taken before the magistrates and committed for trial at Kingston Assizes.

The Star 1966 photographed by LR James
The Star 1966 photographed by LR James
Image courtesy of Surrey Libraries and is held in the
Epsom & Ewell Local And Family History Centre Collection (Opens in a new window).

We need to pause and take stock here, because the timescale of these events was astonishing. The murder happened on 21 November and by 27 November the verdict had been delivered at the Assizes. One week.

George admitted that he had killed Charlotte, saying 'I shall die happy and I don't care anything about it'. However, his version of what had happened immediately before the stabbing differed significantly from that of Jones: he said that he had begged Charlotte to come home, she answered with foul abuse and Jones joined in.

So, you may ask, what did counsel for the defence have to say at the trial? Shockingly, George did not have either solicitor or barrister because he could not afford them and, had the prison chaplain not found him a barrister, he would have had no representation at all. 'Reynolds's Newspaper' of 20 December 1874 said, 'The trial, so far as it went, was one of those solemn but hideous shams we are accustomed to in our courts of justice. The prisoner, having no money, could not afford to fee counsel or attorney - and although the chaplain of the gaol kindly provided him with the former, it is an admitted fact that the "learned gentleman" knew little or nothing concerning the details of the case'.

George was convicted of murder, with a recommendation for mercy from the jury, and sentenced to hang at the Horsemonger Lane Gaol (then the county gaol for Surrey) on Tuesday 15 December, just over three weeks after the crime. The nature of the trial, the verdict and the unseemly haste sparked outrage, coming as it did only weeks after a Camberwell man named John Walter Coppen had been hanged for the murder of his wife. The circumstances were vaguely similar to those in the Poplett affair and press opinion was that manslaughter would have been a fairer verdict, but the new Home Secretary, Richard Assheton Cross (later Viscount Cross), had declined to intervene. If there was any justification for a verdict of manslaughter in the Coppen case there was even more in the Poplett case. There had been no suggestion that Mrs Coppen had behaved badly towards her husband.

Richard Assheton Cross
Richard Assheton Cross.
Image source Wikipedia

Coppen unwittingly helped George Poplett, for the newspapers saw all this as a pattern of judicial travesty against the poor. The High Sheriff of Surrey, his deputy and the prison chaplain all made representations to the Home Secretary, but on Saturday 12 December he said that he saw no reason to intervene. By Monday 14 December he had changed his mind, having no doubt read the intervening newspapers, in which the injustice of the Poplett case 'went viral'. George was reprieved.

Curiously, I cannot find any report to tell us what happened next, but one assumes that the sentence would have been commuted to a term of imprisonment. I cannot find any further trace of George Poplett.

As for the children, Sarah Ann seems to have been in and out of Epsom Workhouse on various occasions subsequent to the murder, but after 1882 she too sinks without trace. John died on 21 March 1875, aged five, in the Workhouse, and was buried at St Mary's Ewell. James was still in the Workhouse in 1881 but subsequently joined the Army; he married in 1902 and died in 1950.

As a postscript, 'Lloyd's Weekly' was vitriolic about the Home Secretary and feared for the fate of two other convicted murderers whom it saw as deserving of a reprieve. One was reprieved and one was hanged.

Linda Jackson
December 2012
With thanks to Hazel Ballan for additional research.




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