The shooting of a gamekeeper at Knowsley Hall in the early Victorian period led to five poachers being sentenced to death, although only one of them ended up on the gallows.
At around 430am on 10th November 1843 watchers on the Knowsley Hall estate became aware of ten men and a dog looking for game and Richard Kenyon, the gamekeeper was summoned. After shouting out to the men he was shot in the stomach and overpowered. He managed to retreat to safety while the group of ten dispersed, some towards St Helens and some to Liverpool. Kenyon, whose bowels were hanging out when he got home, died four days later
John Shaw, a known poacher had a dog and was formerly a gamekeeper at Knowsley, was soon arrested at his home in Eldon Street, Vauxhall, after watchers told police they believed they had heard his voice. On 15th November, the day after Kenyon died, he appeared at Kirkdale Sessions House and was committed for trial.
The evidence against Shaw was flimsy at best, as although witnesses said they had seen him in Huyton the evening before the shooting, others saw him in Scotland Road after midnight. It was also acknowledged he hadn't fired the fatal shot so a £100 reward and the promise of a Queen's Pardon was offered for anyone with further information on the crime. This led to John's 19 year old son Nathan, who lived with him in Eldon Street, coming forward and indicating that he was involved, not John.
He claimed that some of the men set out from London Road and joined up with others at Old Swan and Eccleston. John Shaw, Nathan said, met them at Old Swan but went back to Liverpool as the others went towards Prescot. In all there were ten men, two of them with guns and he said it was John Roberts who fired the fatal shot.
When Roberts was arrested, police found gun caps in his cellar. James Hunt was apprehended on 19th November and was in possession of a poachers net. Thomas Jacques and Joseph Rimmer were rounded up and Henry Fillingham was found sleeping in a barn in St Helens under some straw. The other four men - John Webster, William Webster, Henry Robinson and Thomas Tither - remained at large, while Nathan Shaw was not charged.
At the trial Nathan Shaw repeated what he had told the police, and witnesses confirmed that they had seen him and other Defendants walking back towards Liverpool. Watchers identified the men on trial, a pawnbroker told how John Roberts had lodged the gun with him in a false name, while a surgeon told how Kenyon's death was directly as a result of the gunshot wound. The defence was quite straight forward. They dismissed the evidence of Nathan, claiming it was being given purely out of greed and the desire to get his father off a serious charge. They also said that he watchers evidence was unreliable, as they had mistakenly believed John Shaw was there and it had been shown that he wasn't. The Defence then made the mistake of calling two relatives of Jacques to try and prove an alibi, but they contradicted each other which only made the Prosecution case stronger.
In summing up, the judge said that if the jury were satisfied Roberts had shot to cause injury then it was murder and if they believed the fellow defendants had agreed using a gun was necessary then they were guilty as well. The jury deliberated for forty minutes and found all the defendants guilty, but gave a strong recommendation for mercy. The female relatives in court were so upset that they had to be removed before sentencing was passed.
Direct appeals were made by the relatives of he condemned men to Lord Derby, who refused to show sympathy. However the Home Secretary commuted the sentences on all of them to transportation for life except Roberts, who was to be hanged in public at Kirkdale on 20th January 1844. He claimed in the condemned cell that he had shot out of fear and also somewhat worse for wear through drink.
Around 30,000 turned out for the execution, which included a number of Roberts' female relatives who were shrieking as he took to the scaffold. Before the bolt was drawn he gave a short speech to the crowd, shouting 'Good People, never let yourselves be entangled with the devil nor go into bad company. Farewell.' After Roberts fell to his death, the hangman was pelted with stones by some of the crowd. Of the four men who evaded capture, three were never found but Robinson handed himself in in December 1846, having been in the army with the 48th Regiment of Foot. He was also sentenced to death, commuted to transportation for life.