Preston man shot and wife attacked in shocking night-time raid

Local historia Keith Johnson looks back at a brutal robbery from yesteryear...

Newsham Hall where the alarm was raised
Newsham Hall where the alarm was raised

The Crow Hall farmhouse on Newsham Hall Lane, Woodplumpton was a focus of local attention in late February 1848 after a gang of armed ruffians forced their way on to the premises.

On the last Friday of the month Joseph Cottam went to visit a neighbour leaving his wife Margaret and a servant girl alone in the farmhouse, the pair sitting by the fireside sewing.

Shortly before 8 o’clock that night they heard footsteps on the causeway at the back of the house and then a gentle tap on the rear door, which was bolted. Immediately they went to see who it was and when asked the intruder said he was a policeman and then using rough language demanded the door be unbolted or he would break it down.

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As Mrs. Cottam unbolted the door she was confronted by five ruffians who forced their way in, hitting her over the head with a bludgeon as she was brushed aside and putting a pistol to the head of the helpless servant girl.

They then went into the living room, blew out the candles and helped themselves to Mr. Cottam’s horse pistol that was on the table.

They demanded money, but Mrs. Cottam declared they had none which was the prelude to the uttering of threats and imprecations. She was then forced to hand over the keys and they unlocked cupboards and drawers, but found little of value except a purse containing silver. Three of the men then made their way upstairs carrying a lighted candlestick and ransacked a couple of bedrooms, but only found a silver watch and a few coins worth stealing.

When the gang regrouped downstairs they were clearly disappointed with their haul, but as they uttered more threats to the women Mr. Cottam’s dog, that was about the premises, began to stir and its yelping and barking distracted them. Realising there was little else worth stealing they quickly departed, with Mrs. Cottam immediately heading to nearby Newsham Hall to raise the alarm.

As the gang got partly down the lane Mr. Cottam was returning and when he got within a few yards of them he asked them what was their business and in response a shotgun was fired in his direction. The shot lodging in his thighs and knees as he was halted in his tracks and the men moved swiftly on. A couple of farm servants who worked on the Crow Hall farm spotted the men further down the highway seemingly heading in the direction of Lancaster.

Fortunately, Joseph and Margaret Cottam were not too seriously injured by their attackers and soon a search for the intruders by the county constabulary was underway.

Within a week three men, namely William Savage, William Nelson and Simon Coulthard Marshall appeared before the county magistrates in Preston charged with having feloniously shot at Mr. Cottam with intent to murder and the theft of a silver watch, a horse gun and coins.

After a lengthy hearing the charges against both Savage and Marshall were dropped due mainly to a lack of certainty over identification. In the case of William Nelson the court heard that Mr. Cottam was of the view that he was the one of the culprit when his home was raided eight years earlier and the pepatrators never caught. He had described Nelson as a tall, heavy man with a long face and dark whiskers. A shopkeeper from Broughton was also called and she identified Nelson as a visitor to her shop a few hours before the raid.

It was sufficient for the magistrates to commit Nelson, aged 27, to the Liverpool Assizes held in late March 1848. Various witnesses were called but His Lordship Baron Alderson was troubled by the evidence of identification on a dark, gloomy night and he curtailed the proceedings telling the jury to return a not guilty verdict on both counts, which they did and Nelson was released.

It is recorded that prior to the building of Newhouse Chapel in late 17th century days, the Roman Catholics of the district held services at Crow Hill shrouded in secrecy. Early in the next century Samuel Peploe, the Vicar of Preston, reported the place to the authorities for being used for superstitious purposes.