Local historian Keith Johnson looks back at the case of a thief who abducted his accomplice and kept her in a makeshift hut in the woods for a month.
At the Lancaster Assizes of late August 1822 Richard Heys, a labouring man, aged 45, was charged with having broken into the house of Thomas Fishwick, at Heapey near Chorley, and stolen several articles of wearing apparel including three gowns.
In the course of his trial before Baron Wood an extraordinary series of events came to light mainly from the evidence of Lettice Smith his alleged accomplice who had chosen to Kings evidence against him.
According to the witness, who was described as a very pretty girl of 18 years, she had been seduced by the accused and forced to live with him in a state of adultery, he being a married man with four children.
She stated that in the middle of May 1822 the prisoner had come to her at Blackburn, where she was living with her mother, and told her he had a job for her to do. She went off with him, and he took her to the house at Heapey where she had previously lived as a servant. Once there he took out a window, and put her in the house. Then at his request she opened the door and let him in, and he then stole the articles mentioned in the indictment. These being afterwards pledged by her at Blackburn, under Heys direction.
She was then cross examined by Mr. Coltman on behalf of the prisoner and she stated she had given information of the robbery to Mr. Fishwick in early August. Being unable to do so earlier because the accused had kept her for a long time in a wood, tied to a tree. She stated that sometime after the robbery she had become uneasy in her mind about it and that when she told the accused he was fearful she would disclose the information.
Unbeknown to her Heys had erected a small hut of sods and sticks in Lower Nab Wood about two miles from Chorley. The prisoner had then decoyed her to the place, tying her to a tree against which the hut was built. In this place he had kept her for over a month, evidence that was corroborated by others.
The place was so low that she could not stand up, and she had only old sacks and straw to lay upon. The prisoner visited her occasionally during the night, and brought her scant amounts of food.
He used to untie her when he came; and one night whilst she was thus at liberty, he fell asleep and she took the opportunity to make her escape. Once free she went to the prosecutor’s house and told him what had befallen her; and he went with other persons to search for the hut directed by her. In the meantime the prisoner had demolished it, but they found abundant traces of its existence.
Her mother was then called and stated that she had been missing for over seven weeks and that when she returned home she was in a dreadful state of emaciation, covered with sores; and her clothing was tattered and torn.
The prisoner in his defence merely said that he had nothing to do with the robbery. He called no witnesses and the jury, without hesitation, found him guilty. His Lordship Baron Wood then passed sentence of death upon him. Heys was one of 18 who received a death sentence at that Assizes for offences such as horse or cow stealing, forgery or highway robbery.
Fortunately, before Baron Wood departed for his next Assizes he spared the lives of all those facing the executioner, sentencing them to transportation for the rest of their lives.