Valentine Kemp was from Metfield in Suffolk. His name appears in a report on long-term workhouse residents published in 1861. The report gives little information about him, simply stating that he was living in the Blything workhouse, which was at Bulcamp near Blythburgh. He had been there for seven years in 1861 and the “reason assigned why the Pauper in each case is unable to maintain Himself” (as the report states) was given as “age and infirmity.”
Despite the scant information in the report, his unusual name makes it quite easy to trace Valentine Kemp. We can find that he was born in Metfield in around 1791, that he was 5 feet 4 ¾ tall and had dark hair and hazel eyes. We can find out that he joined the army in 1812, but for most of his life he was an agricultural labourer. We can find out that he married a woman called Mary Rayner in 1820, moved to the nearby village of Huntingfield and that he was in Blything workhouse as a young man – and possibly periodically throughout his life – and that one of his children, David, died there, only a week old. And we can find out about his involvement in a story that was to deeply affect not only his life, but the lives of several other families in Metfield.
Metfield is a small village, close to Fressingfield and Halesworth. In many ways it is a typical, pretty Suffolk village, in the heart of the Waveney valley, with a lovely church, B&Bs and a shop selling local organic produce. The Huntsman and Hounds, the inn that was the centre of village life for centuries is long gone along with three other pubs. There were about 550 people living there when Valentine Kemp was born, including a number of skilled workers – carpenters, tailors, weavers – but the vast majority of Metfield people had precarious employment on the land for a very basic living and for this they depended upon the ten or twelve landowners/farmers in the area. They depended on them for work but if they couldn’t get any work, they depended on the very same people to help them survive. Those same landowners took turns as the Churchwardens, Overseers and Guardians of the Poor that had control over what happened to the poor, whether they and their families were allowed to stay in the parish, or receive assistance, or whether they starved.
Meetings of the Guardians were held at Metfield poor house, a cottage-sized affair that was closed around 1835 when the parishes of Hoxne hundred formed a Union and built a workhouse at Barley Green, near Stradbroke. The Guardians’ records show that they spent more than any of their neighbouring parishes on entertaining themselves, including lavish evenings at the Huntsman and Hounds. As well as giving assistance to the very poorest of the parish, they sought legal means to remove anyone who didn’t “belong” to the parish elsewhere, brought bastardy cases to force the fathers of illegitimate children to pay for their upkeep and had a great deal of control over the daily lives of the labourers in the village. All parishioners were obliged to work on local roads for twelve days each year or be fined. They took action to prevent families from letting their animals graze on public land bordering their own farms and to stop single women from gleaning at harvest time. They published lists of village children who did not attend Sunday School and in 1794 “ordered to Do up a notice for all Boys who are found at any Illegal play on Sundays that they will be Sett in the Stocks.”
The Guardians of Metfield were especially keen on pursuing the poor of their village, using laws developed from the Poor Relief Act of 1662 to make them prove their right to settlement there and, if they couldn’t, ordering their removal to the parish that was responsible for them. In 1826, the wife and children of John Burleigh were ordered to be removed to Reydon because he couldn’t (or more likely, wouldn’t) support them. His wife, Ann Burleigh appealed the order. It seems that she was successful because she was still living in Metfield a few years later, as we shall see.
If you could avoid the poor house, you might be allowed a subsistence income, known as outdoor relief. This could be in the form of a cash allowance, but the Guardians also bought commodities like coal and grain in bulk and sold them at low prices to those in need, sometimes giving them away. They also provided clothing, equipment and even beer, if they felt it was needed. Not that the Guardians didn’t take advantage of the access to cheaper fuel and foodstuffs themselves. This system existed for a long time in Metfield as the Guardians’ Minutes Book shows. There were a great many paupers in the parish in the 1780s and this seems to have been the case for many decades. The 1851 Census of Metfield includes an extraordinary number of people who were described as paupers, presumably in receipt of outdoor relief, in exchange for which they were all “picking oakum”, something which is mainly associated with prisoners. This is not a coincidence. To many of the wealthy residents of Suffolk in the early nineteenth century, poverty was a crime.
Kemp’s employer, Robert Thain, was a blacksmith and not very wealthy but he owned some land in Metfield. He served as an Overseer, appointed in April 1810 and was a member of the Metfield Society for Prosecuting Felons – which was very active over at the Huntsman and Hounds and involved all the same men who were Poor Law Guardians. In 1828 Thain was 83 years old and almost completely blind. He could only recognise people by the sound of their voices. He lived with his wife who was an invalid and a housekeeper, Anne Waller.
Events on the night of the 8th of May were to change the lives of many people in Metfield. Shortly before that date, Thain sold some land and was keeping the money in a chest at the end if his bed. According to the evidence presented to the Suffolk Assizes at Bury St Edmunds the following August, two men, Joseph Bullen (“dark complexion, dark hair, green eyes” and 5 ft 6 ins tall) and Augustine Bush (known as Osborne Bush), broke into Thain’s house, beat him badly with a pole-axe and robbed him of “divers articles of wearing apparel, and plate [five small spoons and a table spoon] and money, his property.” Bush and Bullen (who’d been to prison before) denied any involvement.
Feelings were running high. The defence lawyer, Mr. Prendergast, succeeded in his request that the witnesses on both sides should leave the courtroom and wait outside to be called. The prosecuting lawyer, Mr. Eagle, presented his case by describing a version of events on the night of the burglary:
“[Thain] recollects Thursday, the 8th of May last; he had lately sold some land, and received the money for it, at that time in his house; he kept it in a small box which was placed in the chest that stood at the foot of his bed; he went to bed between eight and nine o’clock on the evening of the 8th, and about twelve, or a quarter-past, two men came into his room; there was a candle light in the room, and one of the men came up and took it in his hand; he gave a great alarm in consequence, and on doing so another of them came to his bed’s head and said, “D__n you, lie down and hold your tongue” he had scarcely got the words from his mouth, when he struck him a violent blow on the head, which cut him severely; he bled very much.”
Thain was unable to say what he was struck with because he could not see, but according to the prosecution “he was present when the prisoners were brought before the Magistrate; he then heard the voice of one of them (Bush) and said, ‘I know that voice,’ Bush replied that he was not there.”
Thain’s housekeeper, Anne Waller, gave evidence of seeing “two people, one leaning over the banisters and the other coming up stairs; one of them appeared taller than the other, and the other was dressed in darker clothes, One of them said ‘go back, I’ll soon quell them.’ ” She was unable to identify the intruders but added that as a pole-axe was kept in the house which she had placed in a corner, but “did not see it again until brought in by one of their workmen named Valentine Kemp.”
A neighbour, Robert Saxby, gave evidence next: “I live at Metfield; the prisoner Bullen is my next door neighbour, and sleeps in a room which is only separated from mine by a thin partition. On the night of the 8th of May last, I went to bed about nine o’clock, and about twelve or one o’clock I heard Mr. Thain, the prosecutor, cry out ‘Murder!’ I immediately got up, and striking the partition as hard as I could called out to the prisoner Bullen, but received no answer. I then put on my clothes, and proceeded downstairs, but while I was doing so, I heard some person into the house of Bullen, and walk upstairs with a heavy step. I then proceeded to the house of Mr. Thain, where I found him bleeding profusely, and he told me that he was robbed and very badly used. I saw Bullen the next morning, but had no conversation with him. I mentioned to some persons, in the course of the morning, about hearing Bullen coming in after I had heard the cries of murder. About ten o’clock he came to me, and asked me why I had been saying such things about him, and said he would split my skull if I said so again.”
Saxby’s story was corroborated by his wife Sarah, but under cross-examination, he was unable to explain why he didn’t report all this to the “proper authorities and to get the prisoner taken up.”
Valentine Kemp was the next witness. He said, that on the morning after the robbery, he noticed the footsteps of a man and boy underneath the window where the burglars had broken in, He traced them to a rick-yard, in the direction of Bullen’s house. That was the extent of Kemp’s “evidence” along with the fact that he found the pole-axe – a short hatchet with a hammer attached to it. The local constable, Mr. Sparkes, then showed it to the court. The front edge of the axe was badly stained with blood, and he also held up Thain’s shirt and nightcap, which were according to the Suffolk Chronicle report of the trial “completely saturated with gore. This exhibition,” the reporter continued, “created a shadow of horror throughout the court; even the prisoners themselves turned away their heads from the shocking scene.”
The next witness was George Burleigh, described as “a sullen, dogged looking boy, of 14 years of age”. He lived with Bullen as his mother, Ann Burleigh, was co-habiting with the defendant. He answered “no” to every question that was put to him. His brother, James, who was only ten years old, was more forthcoming.
James said he went to Thain’s house one night with the prisoner [Bullen]. In getting there, Bullen broke some glass in the window, and, putting in his hand, opened it. He then put James through the window, and asked him to let him in through the door. There was a key in the door at the time, and it was bolted. When he opened the door, the prisoners came into the house, and told him he could go home, which he did, leaving them behind him. Shortly after his arrival at his mother’s house, Bullen came home. The prisoner Bush went round the house, and waited at a stile until he opened the door.
James claimed he had been threatened by “a prisoner in gaol” into giving his evidence. His older brother, George was brought back to be cross-examined by Mr. Prendergast, and said that James told him, in bed, that he knew nothing of the robbery at Master Thain’s and that he was “threatened to be hanged if he did not say that he opened the door.”
There appeared to be a considerable discrepancy in the evidence George gave in court and a deposition he made before the Magistrates earlier, and there was some discussion about whether the deposition could be admitted as evidence. A protracted argument ensued at the end of which the judge declared that if any doubts had been raised in his mind, they were now removed. He advised the jury to dismiss the discussion from their minds, as if they had never heard it.
The defence case consisted of alibis for the defendants. James Taylor, who shared lodgings with Bush at Withersdale, provided one. It’s interesting as it gives a glimpse into the life of a working man at this time: “The staircase of the house is in common; he saw him on the evening of the 8th of May; it was about nine o’clock when he returned from his day’s work; he lives three-quarters of a mile from Mr Thain’s; he went to bed at a quarter past nine; Bush was then in bed; he could hear him talk in his chamber; he saw him the next morning at a quarter before four o’clock, when he was going to plant potatoes, he was then also in bed; the prisoner could neither come in or go out without his hearing him; he did not hear him stirring on the night of the 8th of May.”
Ann Burleigh gave Bullen an alibi, telling the court they were both at home in bed, that she didn’t hear any knocking, or any cry of “Murder!” Despite this, the jury brought in a verdict of guilty. Bush and Bullen were both sentenced to death.
Shortly afterwards, Valentine Kemp was attacked in the street by Ann Burleigh. The report in the Bury & Norwich Post on 22 October 1828 gave the following details: “At Ipswich Sessions on Friday … Ann Burleigh, for an assault on Valentine Kemp, who was a witness at the late Assizes against Osborne Bush and Bullen, with one of whom Burleigh cohabited, three months’ imprisonment and to find sureties.”
The Suffolk Chronicle added, more accurately, that she had been living with Bullen, whose death sentence had been commuted to a sentence of transportation for life, adding Kemp’s witness statement that “on the morning after his return from [giving evidence at] the assizes, a neighbour called to him in the road, and asked how he had got on at Bury, and whilst he was telling him, the prisoner came from her house in a violent passion, and struck him three times on the face, saying ‘how can I bear to see persons near me who have forsworn themselves.’ ”
The trial of Bullen (32) and Bush (20) appears to have created a division among the local community. The key witness was Ann Burleigh’s son, James, a ten-year-old boy. Documents in the National Archives reveal that the report from the gaoler at the prison where they were kept awaiting transportation regarded Bush and Bullen as “bad” characters (Bullen had been in prison before) but in their favour a local magistrate, Augustus Cooper, wrote a letter containing a statement by James Burleigh, saying that the prisoners were convicted through false evidence. Eighteen people signed a character reference for Bullen and eleven people “of Stradbrook” signed one for Bush. Nevertheless both men were transported for life on the convict ship, Lady Harewood, on 24 March 1829 (some Australian records say they were on the Waterloo.)
Neither of them ever returned from Australia. We can trace Osborne Bush because he received several tickets-of-leave (a document giving a convict parole), meaning he had proved himself trustworthy and giving him limited freedom of movement. Bush’s first ticket-of-leave had been cancelled in 1840 due to his presence in a “disorderly house”at Hyde Park Court in Sydney. A second ticket-of-leave was issued at Mudgee, in the County of Wellington, New South Wales on 3 January 1842, allowed him to “proceed to Bligh and Liverpool Plains in the service of Mr. Edwin Rouse for 12 months.” In November of that year, the Colonial Secretary’s Office in Sydney granted Osborne Bush a pardon. He then seems to have disappeared into rural Australia, first living in Mudgee and later at Wee Waa, 571km from Sydney, where there is a Post Office record of unclaimed letters addressed to him in the 1860s. Bullen got his ticket-of-leave as early as 1837, after which there doesn’t seem to be any trace of him.
What of the people they left behind? A great deal has been written about the undoubted hardship faced by the convicts who were transported but their families remained to face equally-hard lives of poverty, hard labour and deprivation. In Metfield they also had to live with the fall-out from a trial that had divided their community. Ann Burleigh was probably not alone in feeling anger towards Valentine Kemp for giving evidence against her partner. The Bullen, Bush and Burleigh families were closely connected and there were quite a few of them in the village. A year after he was transported, another Augustine Bush was baptised in Metfield church. The mother was Mary Ann Bush who was Mary Ann Burleigh before she’d married Augustine/Osborn in 1827 and must have been pregnant when he was sentenced to death. By 1841, Mary Bush, “pauper ag”, was still living in Metfield with her eleven-year-old son, his name now shortened to Austin, and four other sons, none of whom could possibly have been fathered by Augustine/Osborne.
James Burleigh, the boy who had given the evidence that condemned two men, can be found in Metfield in 1851, living with his wife and three children. He’s described in the Census return as a “pauper ag lab picking oakum” and by 1861, he had been an inmate of Hoxne workhouse for nine years.
Perhaps it is not surprising that Valentine moved, with his wife and child, to live in Huntingfield. Compared to Metfield, there appears to have been full employment there. It is not hard to see that Valentine Kemp may have had other reasons to move away from Metfield however. Life would have been difficult for him after the trial. Three families had lost loved ones and breadwinners on his inconclusive evidence and that of a child who had then rescinded it. Did he move away because of the hostility and resentment giving evidence caused? Whatever happened, both witnesses had the same fate awaiting them.