Murders & Madness in Broughton Hackett
You may recall my post about the notorious murders related to Oddingley Church, well just a few miles away in the village of Broughton Hackett another two bizarre killings took place around this time, and again their parson was at the centre of it.
Reverend James Lee was resident cleric at St Leonard's Church in the Worcestershire village of Broughton Hackett. By all accounts he was an easy-going vicar, just as at home in the local inn as he would be in church. As we saw in the Oddingley story, vicars, parsons and priests were still paid by the tithe so the wealthier the farms around the parish – the richer the rector. Lee had an eye for the ladies of his parish and focussed on the wife of Sam Taylor, a local farmer and one of his benefactors via the tithe.
Calling at the farmhouse every time Taylor was away at market, Reverend Lee eventually began a full blown affair with the farmer's wife. He tried to cover his tracks by visiting other houses too but Taylor began to notice a change in his wife, put two and two together and confronted her. She confessed to everything, but he was not the forgiving kind and sent her away to her mother's house. When the parson next turned up at the farmhouse he got a shock when Sam Taylor answered the door. The farmer verbally tore into Lee, leaving him in no doubt that the game was up and that he was going to report the matter to the Bishop himself, and see what he made of an adulterous, drunk vicar with “morals that would disgrace a polecat”.
The Reverend James Lee froze in shock, his whole life seemingly coming crashing down around him. In a moment of utter madness he grabbed a mattock – a small one handed pickaxe – and swung it at Sam Taylor's head, burying it in his brain. With the farmer lying dead in a pool of blood across the threshold of the house, Lee regained his composure...what had he done? True to his personality, the truth was out of the question. He dragged the corpse of the unfortunate farmer behind the house as quickly as he could, then hit on an idea. Many larger farmhouses had a separate building for baking rather than the traditional bread oven adjoining the fireplace, and Chequers Farm was no exception. Lee got the fire going then gradually fed the corpse into the bakehouse oven, feeding and tending the flames until only ashes and charred bones remained. These he crushed up as best he could and pushed them into the farm cesspit, leaving no trace of Sam Taylor on the earth.
After a couple of days it was time for Lee to open up the church for services, and when this went without a hitch he began to think he had actually gotten away with the murder. Another week went by and he settled back into his old lifestyle, content in his own belief that he was cleverer than everybody else. The next sunday morning came around and after hymns and after hymns the parson prepared to give his sermon, but stood frozen in terror as the door to the church opened quietly. Sam Taylor had walked in! All eyes turned to see the man quietly making his way to the pews and sitting down, gasps and the buzzing of questions building. Where had he been? Lee just stood there, immobile, his face a mask of terror. The ghost of the man he had murdered was here!
The Reverend dropped down to his knees and sobbed, finally falling into a faint. In the chaos that ensued some helped Lee to his feet, others quizzed the intruder, thinking this to be old Sam Taylor playing some trick. The parson called all to order and silence fell upon St Leonard's Church. He blurted it out, all of it, every gruesome detail and why he had done it, before collapsing again as the ghost advanced towards him. This was no phantom though, this was the twin brother of Sam Taylor. He had travelled to Chequers farm to see his brother, wondering why he had been so quiet, then headed for the church to check that he and his wife were there, but the ensuing confession sent him into a furious rage.
The squire and leading landowners of the parish sent everyone home then went into a secret meeting, summoning the old assistant curate from his hiding place in the vestry. Swearing on an oath, they wrote a letter addressed to the Bishop, informing him that the Reverend James Lee had died suddenly and that they recommended the well liked curate as his successor. Now the question of Lee's fate was left to the other Taylor brother. Though he had calmed down, his insistence on brutal justice had not abated. Wasting no time, they dragged the cleric up the hill to an oak tree where a cage normally used for dogs was suspended over a branch – with the Reverend locked in it. He was left to starve and beg for water, with Taylor laying out a banquet on plates and a jug of water on the ground, just out of reach of the murderous parson. By the end of the week, he had died.
The curate, or rather the new parson, did eventually write an account of what happened in the parish records, with the intention being that his conscience would be cleared and his successor would know the truth after everyone involved had themselves passed away. That may have been the case, as the tale is known today, but trying to read his words today is impossible – the pages have been torn out! If you pass through Broughton Hackett today then I recommend the legendary carvery at the March Hare Inn...in the summer one can sit in it's garden and look directly onto the hill where James Lee hung in his cage...and appreciate that little bit more the food on your plate...
St Leonard's Church, Broughton Hackett
St Leonard's Church
The oak tree believed to be where James Lee met his miserable fate
The oak of revenge