Edward Bentley, the Runwell Horse-Burker

Written for 'Essex Belongs To Us' under the title, 'The Shocking Case of the Essex Horse-Burker'

As James Mason walked home from a meeting at his club in Baddow one evening in January 1847, each step brought him closer to the discovery of a crime so shocking that it would make worldwide news. Snow crunched under his feet and a bright, full moon lit the way as he walked the four miles towards East Hanningfield. At around midnight, as he approached Thomas Stock’s farm where he lived and worked as the horse-keeper, he could hear a strange groaning noise. He stood still and listened. The noise seemed to be coming from the yard so he went to investigate.

Mason cautiously crossed the yard and as he drew closer to one of the sheds, he could see a horse lying on the ground, and a man, dressed in a well-worn hat, a heavy cloth coat and dark trousers, kneeling at its head. He crept forward and when he got to within about three yards, he thought he recognised the crouching man as someone he had known for many years: Edward Bentley, a dealer in dead horses from Runwell.

“What are you doing here?” Mason called out to him.

At the sound of Mason’s voice, the man leapt to his feet and bolted towards the five-bar gate that separated the yard from the road. Realising something was wrong and with his instincts kicking in, Mason grabbed a small stick from the ground and hurried after him, lashing out and striking the man on the head as he clambered over the gate and made his escape.

With no chance of catching him, Mason turned and ran to his cottage to fetch a lantern before dashing back to the shed. Although still warm to the touch, he could see that the horse, a bay gelding, was now dead. Lying discarded on the ground near its head was a hempen halter and four twisted clumps of hay. Not sure what to do next, Mason went and fetched one of his neighbours, Thomas Hurrell, and then ran the half-mile to his master, Mr Stock’s, house to tell him what had happened. Stock returned with Mason to the farm, collecting his friend, Richard Mihill, who was the landlord of the Windmill Tavern, on the way.

The men all gathered in the shed around the horse’s body and Mihill picked up and examined the halter and the twists of hay before handing them over to Stock. Two of the bundles of hay in particular were very tightly twisted and they all felt damp to the touch. Stock quickly realised it was a matter for the police and sent Mason and Hurrell to fetch Police Constable James May who was stationed at Woodham Ferrers.

Mason explained to the Constable what had happened and asked that Edward Bentley, the Runwell knackerman, be taken into custody. Runwell at this time was a scattered village with most of the land given over to farming, and unmarried Bentley lived with a widow called Mary Key in an isolated house. The trio set off for his lodgings and arrived at about four o’clock in the morning.

PC May knocked on the door and eventually a man in his 20s with brown hair and a long face appeared at an upstairs window.

“Is your name Bentley?” PC May called up to him.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Come down please. I wish to speak with you.”

Bentley made his way downstairs and opened the door wearing just his shirt. He invited PC May, Mason and Hurrell inside.

“Were you in Hanningfield last night?” May asked him.

“No, I wasn’t,” Bentley replied.

“Well, regardless, I need you to come with me. I’m taking you into custody on suspicion of killing Mr Stock’s horse. Go back upstairs and get dressed please.”

“I’m willing to go with you but I know nothing at all about it. I haven’t even been at Hanningfield,” Bentley protested.

Bentley dressed and then the party returned to Mr Stock’s farm, arriving at about 6 o’clock in the morning. As they entered the yard, Mason called out to his master:

“This is the man I saw. This is who killed your horse.”

“You’re mistaken; I wasn’t here,” Bentley asserted, his hazel eyes flashing in defiance.

“I know it was you,” Mason hissed back.

PC May led Bentley off and when he later searched him, he found a length of bloodstained cord and a knife in his pockets. In the daylight he noticed he had a black eye and a graze on his left eyelid – the sort of injury that could have been caused by being struck with a stick.

Back at Thomas Stock’s farm, two veterinary surgeons were brought from Chelmsford on the morning of the 5th of January to carry out post-mortem examinations on the horse. Externally, there were no signs of violence but there was blood and mucous in the windpipe and the blood vessels in the lungs had ruptured. They both concluded that the horse’s death had been caused by suffocation. One of the vets, Samuel Baker, explained that clumps of hay could be stuffed up a horse’s nostrils while it was still standing and then held in place by a tightly-bound halter. As the horse began to fight for breath it would fall over and if the rope was removed just before it was dead, it wouldn’t leave a mark. This method would make it easy for one man to act alone and suffocate the animal.

Edward Bentley was tried in February 1847 and it soon became apparent that Thomas Stock wasn’t alone in having lost a horse in suspicious circumstances. So many valuable and apparently healthy horses had died in the neighbourhood in the previous eight months – 23 in total – that their owners had begun to believe there was a curious epidemic raging across South Essex. Bentley had arrived on the scene soon after each death to buy the carcass. Samuel Green of Rettendon recalled Bentley buying his master, Mr Taylor’s, dead horse in December 1846. Furthermore, he was certain Bentley used the same halter as the one found discarded at Mr Stock’s farm as he remembered it had a piece of string around it which he had hurt his hand on.

Reports followed that a cow had suffered a similar fate to the 23 horses; that Bentley had been making profits of up to £2 on each carcass; that some of the horse flesh had been salted down and then sold as imported beef; and, even more disturbingly, that Bentley had hidden stolen chickens and sheep inside the carcasses of the dead horses and had then, according to the South Eastern Gazette, supplied the London market with the “delicate morsels from these novel packages.”

Bentley was found guilty of maliciously killing a gelding and sentenced to 15 years’ transportation. He was held at the County Gaol in Springfield for a short time before being transferred to Millbank Prison in London where all convicts who had been sentenced to transportation were first sent. The convicts were closely watched by the prison inspectors and once the period of assessment was up, they would recommend the place of transportation to the Home Secretary. Bentley was in London for four months and from there he was sent to the Stirling Castle prison hulk at Portsmouth where he spent the next four years. His conduct was described as “exemplary” during this time.

In July 1851, the 5′ 7′, stout-figured Bentley boarded the Minden convict ship in Plymouth for the 12-week voyage to Western Australia. His conduct during the voyage was described as “very good – deserving of notice”. It would appear that his good behaviour helped him to receive an early pardon as in 1857, he married a lady 16 years his junior called Maria Buckingham. In 1858 the couple took out a lease on a vast swathe of land in Moore River, built a property which they called Wannerie and began farming and grazing activities. Their first child, Edward junior, was born in 1858 but died when he was just three days old. They had another son, James Levi, in 1859.

Four months after James Levi’s birth, 38-year-old Edward, now described as a yeoman, was drowned while trying to cross the Karakin Brook. He is buried in one of the oldest marked graves in St Luke’s Churchyard in Gingin which reads: Boast not of tomorrow for ye know not what a day may bring forth. Therefore be ye ready for ye know not what hour your Lord may come.

As he thrashed around and fought for breath, did he remember the horses, I wonder?

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