14:27 Friday 21 December 2012

The Case of the Statutes Fair Murders - Part One

"SO, what is this week's mystery?" said William Ross, seating himself on the edge of Sister Modwenna's bed.

The nun herself sat on a small chair at a rickety table, and anyone who may have been compiling an inventory of the room would have been able to stop there and knock off early for lunch, as there was no other furniture in the cloisters of St Modwen's Church where the two friends met.

After their adventures over the previous couple of months, Modwenna's reputation as a holy detective had become rather well known.

Her fame was not restricted to Burton either, and she now received numerous requests of help each week.

Because of this, Ross had taken to calling on his ecclesiastical friend on Sundays, before evening prayer, and they would look over the correspondence that had trickled in over the previous seven days.

However, this particular evening, before they could wade into the stack of letters, they both became aware of a commotion coming from below.

They hurried downstairs and found themselves witness to what could only be described as a mob, who were confronting a perturbed-looking man in fine dress, standing in front of the lectern.

However, this mob were not an enraged gang of men armed with pitchforks or flaming torches, but rather a selection of mostly elderly, entirely female parishioners, and their only weapon seemed to be a sheet of paper held by their leader.

This ringleader, along with the frightened well-dressed object of her attention, were instantly recognised by Modwenna and Ross as, respectively, Lady Burton and Mayor Richard Wilkinson.

The former, also known as Harriett Georgina, the wife of Bass brewing magnate Lord Burton, was an imposing woman, bearing herself like the royalty most of the town considered her to be.

It would be a brave man who did not wilt even a little in her presence, and the mayor was doing a brave job of keeping his cool in the face of the tirade issuing forth.

This rant was just reaching its zenith as Ross and Modwenna arrived on the scene — and it seemed that the object of Lady Burton's wrath was none other than the Statutes Fair, an annual event which was taking place the very next day.

Her problem with the fair, it seemed, was that its original purpose as a place for farmers to find labour, had had its day, and the circus which had grown up around it had turned the town into a den of iniquity.

". . .and so we argue," Lady Burton was saying, "that, owing to a better system, there are now only comparatively few cases of hiring at the Burton Fair.

“That the so-called pleasure fair is a nuisance to the town by reason of the obstructions and crowds in the streets. The music and engines connected therewith are a danger to horses, and the ordinary business of the town is hindered and considerably prejudiced.

“That the character of the pleasure fair is depraving. Thieves and bad characters assemble to meet the young people, who unfortunately are frequently led astray from the paths of virtue, honesty and sobriety. The songs and literature sold publicly and privately are vicious.

“Your petitioners feel that, in the interest of civilisation and morality, the Statutes Fair should be abolished.

“Your petitioners therefore humbly pray that you will be pleased to take such steps as you may deem necessary to abolish the said Statutes Fair in the Borough of Burton-on-Trent.”

With this final point, Lady Burton slammed her walking cane on the ground and thrust her paper into the hands of the terrified mayor.

"There are 10 names, all good, honest gentlewoman of Burton, attached to this document, Mr Wilkinson, surely this is enough for you to act," she concluded.

The mayor's response was inaudible from where Ross and Modwenna stood, but Lady Burton's booming response seemed to indicate that the town official had suggested it was too late to call off this year's fête.

"Nonsense! My dear man, no stalls are yet erected, are they? No roundabouts are spinning, no jugglers are juggling, no ne'er-do-wells have yet drunk themselves into a blind stupor, have they?"

The mayor mumbled a negative response.

"Well then, simply turn the carts around when they arrive."

However, any further discussion on the matter was halted by the arrival of the evening congregation, and although Lady Burton seemed happy to continue her tirade in front of an audience, the mayor saw the chance to make good his escape, and took it.

Sister Modwenna and William Ross shared a smile, before the former admitted she had better leave as well, in order to attend to her evening duties.

Ross, meanwhile, said he was to meet his wife Mary for the evening service, before they made the short journey to the Market Place to witness the arrival of the entertainment for the afore-mentioned Statutes Fair.

The nun and the blacksmith took their leave of one another, agreeing to meet in the morning at Ross' smithy to continue their discussion.

The carts and wagons carrying the people and equipment which would overnight transform into a wonderous carnival were just beginning to make their way along around the corner from Bridge Street when William and Mary Ross arrived on High Street.

The evening service at St Modwen's — which they had started attending due to Ross' friendship with the nun who resided there — had only just finished, meaning they were among the last to arrive, and the cobbled square was already packed with less religiously-diligent onlookers.

The Statutes Fair did not officially open until the following day, but the entry of the various shows, roundabouts, musicians and other entertainers and amusements into the town on Sunday night always attracted great interest.

Ross and his wife thought they might have to settle for a spot at the back of the merry throng, but a combination of William's slight notoriety and Mary's swollen belly saw the crowd reluctantly and gradually part in front of them, until they had a prime spot at the place where the railway line serving Worthington Brewery crossed High Street.

The arrival of the Statutes Fair participants was not an official event, and as such there was no order to the procession which meandered slowly along the road.

Their progress was however impeded by the crowd who were there to watch, as every few seconds an errant child or wayward dog would dash across the street, causing the procession to halt in its tracks.

The carts were just about to reach their expectant audience, with William and Mary set to be among the first to cheer them past, when the barriers went down across High Street, indicating a train was set to pass, either to or from the breweries.

These railways were almost as great a source of consternation to many residents of the town as the Statutes Fair itself, although Lady Burton, with a vested interest in the industry they supplied, was notable by her absence from the various petitions which had arisen to try and prevent the building of the tracks.

On this occasion though, the cry that went up from the crowd was largely good-natured, as they knew the delay was only temporary, and in its own small way, it added to the excitement and drama.

The barriers always went down several minutes before the train was actually due to arrive, just in case some brave or foolhardy transgressor attempted a last-minute crossing, and so after the faux exclamation of protest, there was a lull in the hubbub which had built up, as the crowd and fair folk awaited the passage of the engine which prevented the twain from meeting.

However, this silence was broken by a sudden cry from above.

As one, the crowd turned and beheld a figure cloaked in black, with a mask covering all but the lower part of his face, peeking from an upstairs window of one of the corner buildings at the junction.

He repeated his yell, and this time it was clearly intelligible as the name "Robert Bletchingley!", and was hurled in the direction of those people arriving in their carts and wagons on the other side of the crossing.

William Ross, along with his wife and their colleagues in the crowd, turned their attention the same way and were rewarded by the sight of a tall, bearded man standing up on the cart which bore him and responding with an inquisitive "Yes?".

The disguised stranger in the window responded, not with more words, but by raising a rifle which he had been concealing beneath the sill, and firing a single shot in the direction of his target.

At this precise moment, the train — with a sense of drama usually reserved for flashes of lightning and rolls of thunder — boomed past, and a combination of this and the gunshot threw the horses on the far side of the street into alarm and distress.

Several attempted to bolt, while more bucked and pranced, causing the occupants of the vehicles they pulled to be similarly tossed and, in more than one instance, turned out of their carts.

The train seemed to take an age to pass, although it was in reality only a few seconds, and when it had, the barriers were raised immediately.

The crowd on the one side rushed to the other, with the considerate half attempting to help control the mayhem and the voyeuristic others simply eager to witness any massacre.

The latter were to be disappointed however, as when the horses had finally been calmed down and the scene cleared, it was discovered that, while there were a few spots of blood on the cart where the tall bearded man had stood, the body of the fellow apparently known as Robert Bletchingley, was nowhere to be seen.

With thanks to Tim Fletcher for his research and the information provided.

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