Monday, November 28, 2011
UNEARTHING a 19th Century article about a prized bantam hen has helped a man stumble on a link between a missing ancestor and a Victorian murder at Beechwood Park Estate in Markyate.
Communications manager David Cain’s investigations have helped him unravel details of the imprisonment and subsequent transportation of his relative to Australia, where he died in a convict prison in Fremantle in 1865.
David’s research into the history of his great-great-great-great-grandfather, George Cain, born in Bedfordshire in 1834, had come to a halt.
When he realised George’s death was not recorded in any English registers, David instead began digging into the margins of his family’s history, researching people who lived in the area at the time although they were not his relations.
That led him to Sir John Saunders Sebright, a friend of Charles Darwin and whose home was Beechwood Park Estate.
The Sebright family owned a group of small villages dotted around the Herts and Beds boundary and David’s family had lived within these six square miles for generations.
David began researching the Sebright bantam, a bird which apparently amazed the poultry world when its developer, Sir John, unveiled it.
While reading about the bantam in newspaper archives, David spotted a story about a death at the Beechwood Park Estate and the peculiar link was revealed.
George Cain was 26 years old in 1860 and like half the male population of Flamstead, Markyate and Studham, an agricultural labourer. David discovered that his relative’s pursuit of a pheasant led to a fatal affray.
According to articles around that time George, leading the way with a shotgun, and three other men hid their faces behind handkerchiefs and went poaching in woodland, Foul Sloughs.
But shots were fired when they were intercepted by two gamekeepers from Beechwood Park Estate, one of whom was killed in the confrontation, and another severely wounded.
George was apprehended along with two fellow poachers, while the fourth avoided arrest when, giving evidence at the subsequent court case, he alleged that George had fired the fatal shot.
Although he was acquitted of murder, George was convicted of night poaching and received the maximum penalty, 14 years transportation to Australia.
He became one of nearly 162,000 convicts sent from the UK to Australia, the majority of whom were petty criminals, before transportation ceased in 1868.
David, who is adapting the story for a novel based around the episode, said: “It is thanks to that well-named bantam that I have been able to discover a lost part of my family tree. It all began with a chicken and ended in murder.”
His research is also to appear in the December edition of BBC magazine Who Do You Think You Are.