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Revisiting the 'High Street Murders' of 1599

One January morning in 1599, the bodies of two women were discovered in a house in Poole. Newly catalogued records from the Poole Borough Archive shed light on a murder case which dragged on for over 40 years and led to the execution of one man and suspicion cast on a number of possible accomplices.

A case of historical intrigue

Records catalogued during the Borough of Poole Archive project reveal one particularly intriguing murder case. In January of 1599, widow Mrs Alice Green, her servant Agnes Beard and her two dogs were killed when intruders broke into her home in Poole.

Our story begins in September 1599, with a document summoning Alice Green's son-in-law, Robert Berryman, to court. This may well relate to the original trial for the double murder, but nothing else can be found from this period.

After a gap of over ten years, interest in the murders was re-ignited. We pick up the case in June 1610 with the first in a series of examinations carried out over 30 years by the Mayor of Poole and other justices. The documents shed light on the circumstances of the murders and put forward a number of possible perpetrators.

Murder and motive

The 1610 examination of Gerrard Spencer, daughter of Gowin Spencer, provides a graphic second-hand account of the murders:

"Roberte Hill came suddenlie on the said Agnes Beard out of the said rome [room] and then and there he having a pressing iron in his hand, stroake [struck] the said Agnes in the head therewith and immediatlie Gowyn Spencer, father to this ext. [examinate], stepped forth and strake [struck] the said Agnis unto the temples of her head with a Bodkin [dagger]...w[hi]ch ffacte beinge donne the said three p[re]s[en]tes went ymmediatlie into the hall where the said Alice Green was sittinge att supper and there the said Roberte Hill with his pressing iron strake the said Alice in the head and the said Gowin Spencer and Parmiter in like manner did thrust her into the temples of the head w[i]th the said Bodkin; and also then killed the two little dogs by her".

Some at the time were convinced that the motive was the £200 which Mrs Green had come into following her husband's death. It seems that this was common knowledge - one of Mrs Green's neighbours, Clement Starr, had been heard by witnesses discussing how easy it would be to break into the house and take the money. The perpetrators are thought to have made away with a 'ffiftie pound bag' with five pounds in it, some 'writings', a gold ring worth 40 shillings and other rings and pearls.

Who was Alice Green?

We can assume from the size of her inheritance that Mrs Green, widow of William Green, was a fairly wealthy woman. The 1574 Poole census lists two families named Green, although unfortunately wives' names were not included. One possibility is found in an entry for a household of thirteen including 'Mr Grenne and his wife', Davey, William and Raffe Green, two man servants and two maids. It has been suggested that her husband was the William Green who served as Mayor of Poole five times between 1560 and 1571 and as MP for Poole from 1563-1567.

We don't know precisely where the murders took place. What we can tell from the records is that the house had a courtyard and was on or near High Street, Poole - Marie Gibbons recounts that she saw someone leaving Mrs Green's house in haste as she was going down the High Street towards the Quay on the night of the murders.

The plot thickens

From a 1638 examination we learn that Robert Hill was hanged for the murders, likely in 1600-1601. It is evident that Hill, a tailor and a possible suitor of the servant Agnes Beard, did not carry out the crime alone. In 1610, both Gowin Spencer's wife Elioner and daughter Gerrard laid the blame with Spencer (seemingly deceased by this time), Robert Hill and a third man, Richard Parmitter of Milton Abbas. In addition to Gerrard's account of the murders, Elioner Spencer recalled her husband returning home the day after:

"shee looked on him and found behind in one of his hose or stockins a greate blacke spott and then thought it had bene a stewed prune...and then shee p[er]ceived it was a clott of thicke bloode"

Marie Hall, former servant to Richard Parmitter, recounts that Parmitter was frequently abusive towards his wife. On one occasion when he threw a hatchet at her, she exclaimed:

"I thinke thou wilte murder me as though hast others"

Accompanying examinations suggest that a number of other men may have been involved. Clement Starr was implicated by Nicholas and Marie Gibbons in their 1610 and 1638 examinations. They claimed that Starr had discussed Mrs Green's money with them and how one might enter the house to take it, "and as the sayd Starr related the worde to her husband soe it came to passe". Starr was found guilty by the Grand Jury in 1611, but nothing seems to have come of this.

Perhaps more central in the murder plot was Alice Green's son-in-law, John Berryman, a merchant who owned the 'Three Mariners' pub and a three-time Mayor of Poole. There was little love lost between Berryman and Green, with Berryman supposedly jealous of his mother-in-law's goods. During a conversation with Agnes Beard, Berryman insisted on his rights to some of Alice Green's goods, claiming "I will have some before I have donne". On Alice's death, Richard Parmiter, who was living in Berryman's house at the time and working as his servant, claimed "he never heard any of them use any speech of sorrowe or otherwise for the said murder". There was a suggestion that Berryman had provided the murderers with the key to his cellar, which led into Alice Green's house. Gerrard Spencer claimed that Mrs Green's stolen goods were delivered directly to Berryman after the murders and that Berryman and his wife had bribed Gerrard to be silent with a new petticoat. Another witness thought they saw someone hurrying from Mrs Green's house into Berryman's house on the night of the murder.

Was justice done?

From later examinations and town accounts we know that in September 1600, Gowin was prosecuted "for the burglary and stocking but not for the murder of Mrs Greene". We also learn that Assizes in Dorchester and Sessions of Gaol Delivery in Poole took place in March to September of 1611 where John Berryman and Clement Starr were prosecuted. A warrant was issued in the February to apprehend Richard Parmiter and bring him to Poole. The Sessions were attended by the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Thomas Fleming, who just a few years before had presided over the trial of the infamous Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot.

Unfortunately, we do not know what became of Parmiter and Berryman or whether they were found guilty of the crime. However, what became of Mrs Green's money is a little clearer- on one document it is noted that all Green's goods went to Berryman but "now King Charles is to have all by Mr Melledy(a Sheriff of Poole)his seising thereof which 'a quod non capit christus rapit fiscus' " - roughly translated 'what God does not take, the exchequer seizes'.

This summary only scratches the surface of an exceptionally detailed set of records which contain an unusually large number of witness statements and information, providing various 'subplots', differing angles on the case, character assessments of the witnesses, accused and their families, indications as to what happened to the murder weapon and allusions to corruption and plotting among some of Poole's elite. Intriguingly, there is evidence in the examinations of a number of other testimonies taken at Poole which have been lost. Some town records, including records relating to the murders, appear to have been lost or 'embezzled' even by the 1630s-40s!

Sources and further reading:

These documents are available in our searchroom:

  • 'Documents relating to the murder of Mrs Alice Green and her servant Agnes Beard' (reference: DC-PL/C/H/1)
  • 'Record book covering the years 1568 to 1649' (reference: DC-PL/B/1/1a/2)

A transcript of the 'Poole Census 1574', is available in our family history room

Pat Wilnecker, The High Street Murders 1598 (Borough of Poole Museums Service, 1980), available in the Local Studies Library.

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