The Oddingley Church Murders
The tithe system was first set in process during the reign of Aethelwulf of Mercia, and was the means by which a church and it's clergy was funded. Today most ministers, priests and vicars are paid a salary by their employers but right up until 1936 every landholder and tenant on parish land had to hand over one tenth of their produce – or cash from it's proceeds - to their local church. Tithe barns were built to store the piles of crops and house the livestock, even honey had to be given over. As the centuries went on it became more convenient for the church to have the tithe in cash out of the farmer's total income, and often it was deferred to be paid in a lump sum annually at an amount set by market rates.
By the late 1700s people were becoming very resentful of the tithe demands and relations between a parson or priest and his flock were often strained. The village of Oddingley in Worcestershire was no exception and when a new parson by the name of George Parker arrived at St James's church in 1783 he found that the annual tithe of £135 – a considerable sum at the time – had been held at that rate for some years and immediately increased it to £150. The farmers all refused to pay, and Captain Evans of the neighbouring Church Farm became an unofficial leader of the tithe rebels. Parker then revived an old tradition – the taking of tithes in kind. He had a tithe barn built for the incoming produce and demanded an additional payment of £150 to pay for the building! Over the next couple of years legal claims and counterclaims flew back and forth but most of the farmers grudgingly handed over their tithes. After some time under the medieval style system they found they were worse off and agreed to revert back to the cash payment, but the bill for the barn was still demanded by Parker and needless to say – tensions were simmering.
Midsummers Day in 1806 was very quiet in Oddingley. Everyone had gone to the nearby fair and Reverend Parker sauntered across a field to check on his small cattle herd. He was surprised to see a sinister man emerge from the treeline and walk towards him, the fellow was dressed in a full length long leather coat and large hat pulled down over his brow. Looking every inch the movie bad guy, this man lived up to his appearance by opening his coat and producing an early example of a shotgun. Crouching and aiming directly at the parson, he fired. The reverend fell with a scream yet still lived and the man leapt forward to bash his head with the butt of the shotgun. Two travelling butchers were walking along a nearby lane and heard the commotion, they ran across the field to help Parker, one splitting off to chase the fleeing assassin. The butcher halted when threatened with the gun and returned to the reverend but it was too late, he died there in more blood than he usually saw in his day job.
The men were not local so couldn't name the killer but it wasn't long before the inhabitants of Oddingley deduced his name from the description they gave - Richard Heming from the nearby town of Droitwich. He had indeed disappeared from his home and from work so the police worked quickly to try and hunt him down. With impressive speed for the time they sent word to ports and stations to look out for Heming but the trail turned cold amid rumours that he had made it out of the country and escaped to the Americas. The case was eventually suspended and placed in file and for the next twenty odd years all was quiet in Oddingley and a new parson moved in.
In 1830 a man was pulling down an old disused barn that was to be replaced. To his surprise his spade turned over a shoe, then it's matching partner. A half rotted coat came next, then he recoiled in horror as a human skull appeared. He had discovered an entire corpse! It didn't take a genius, even after twenty four years, to work out who the deceased was, and careful reconstruction of the skull – it had been broken into over twenty pieces - and it's skeleton confirmed it's identity. This was Richard Hemming. Investigations commenced into just how the killer of Reverend Parker came to end up here and who had literally smashed his skull in, and it wasn't long before four men in particular were focused on. Captain Parker, the tithe rebel from decades ago, was firmly in the sights of the police as well as a Barnett, Banks, and a man named Thomas Clewes. People began to come forward with information, saying that the men had been seen arguing furiously many times and that Captain Evans had publicly sworn an “oath of vengeance” against the parson.
With pressure building Thomas Clewes cracked. He had been thrown in Worcester gaol pending a trial and told the police everything. Captain Evans had been the ringleader, gathering a cabal of disgruntled farmers in the nearby Speed The Plough Inn to plot a way of dealing with the demands of Reverend Parker. He proposed hiring one of his workers as a hitman to kill the parson then they would secret him away out of the area, and Hemming was their man. All swore an oath of secerecy and the murder was carried out, then Clewes was ordered to hide Hemming in a barn on his land. He was more alarmed than he already was by the gang pounding on his door during the night and demanding he lead them, along with “a local ruffian” named Taylor, to the barn in the dark. He did this but when Evans marched into the barn to wake Hemming from his bed of hay he gestured Taylor to come forward. “Wake up Hemming, we have something for thee” and with that the farrier swung a heavy iron club at Hemming's head, shattering his skull into pieces. The tool used was known as a “blood stick” and was usually employed in the old practise of “bleeding” horses.
Hemming, or what was left of him, was buried there in the barn and all seemed quiet until the building was renovated. Evans had died and Clewes was now held up as the next ringleader, he and the others were hauled up before Worcester Crown Court and charged with accessory to murder but the case incredibly collapsed. At that time if the murderer was dead then his or her accomplices could not be tried for anything! The case drew national interest and the newspapers of the time employed “fast trotters” - express messenger riders on exceptionally quick horses – to send dispatches as they happened.
The story did not quite end there though. Back in Oddingley a raucous party was held to celebrate the aquittal of the men, incredibly the revellers barged into the church and held it there. To the horror of the new parson his own church bells were commandeered and rang out in celebration, and to his further rage, after seeing a man relieve himself on the Reverend Parker's grave, festivities were concluded with a a drunken mass brawl at the church gates!
St James's Church, Oddingley
The Speed The Plough Inn, where the murders were plotted, still going strong today
St James Church, Oddingley
The grave of Reverend Parker
A flein, which would have been used to smash in Hemming's head
Sotgun, or fowling piece as they were known then, of the time of the murder
The entrance to the church at Oddingley, where the party spilled out on to and ended in a pitched brawl