BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

29 October 2014

BBC Homepage
»BBC Local
Things to do
People & Places
Religion & Ethics
Arts and Culture
BBC Introducing
TV & Radio

Sites near Wiltshire


Related BBC Sites


Contact Us


Decomposed body
A murdered man's body knows its killer

Wiltshire's Secret History

Wiltshire's secret history from serial killers and leper colonies to religious private eyes..

The Wiltshire County Council's Community History website is pulling all of Wiltshire's historic skeletons out of the cupboard.  From serial killers and leper colonies to holy private eyes...

Here's just a taster of some of them:

The Religious Private Eye

Among Wiltshire's legendary tales is one which tells the story of a Pewsey cleric who turned detective, in 1798, to solve the murder of a farmer.

The Reverend Joseph Townsend, the rector of the village church, came up with a bizarre way to unmask the farmer's murderer.

Playing on the superstition that the body of a murdered man could point the finger at its killer, he hauled the corpse into his church on Sunday.

Every member of the congregation was asked to place their hands on the dead man's face and declare their innocence. One man, whose surname is recorded as Amor, was too afraid to take the test and was later charged with the murder and hanged.

The Wiltshire Leper Colony

Even stranger is the bizarre story of the origin of the village name of Maiden Bradley.

The 'Bradley' part of the name means simply an open woodland space but the 'Maiden' part refers to a time when there was a leper hospital on the site for 'maidens' who had been affected by leprosy.

The hospital, founded in 1152, took in wealthy or aristocratic women who were suffering from leprosy but later became a priory.

By the end of the 13th century the lepers had long gone but the priory continued to prosper until King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries.

The last prior, before the dissolution, was the notorious Richard Jennings (1506-1536). Claiming to have a papal licence, that allowed him to keep mistresses, he chose the prettiest women as his lovers but then married them off when they became pregnant.

By the time the priory was dissolved, he had fathered six sons and several daughters.

Wiltshire's first serial killer

Than there's the one about possibly the first serial killer in Wiltshire.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, a small inn called The Shepherd and Dog stood on the Lydeway, near Urchfont.

With Thomas Burry as the landlord the inn soon earned itself a bit of an evil reputation. It was rumoured that any solitary visitor, such as a peddler or traveller, who entered the small inn was often never seen again.

One story even suggests that over a dozen bodies were exhumed from shallow graves, behind the inn, all the victims of the landlord's greed.

Although records state that Burry, who died in 1842, was never tried or convicted it is claimed in local folklore that the church bells refused to chime at his funeral.

Who's the Horn blower?

One other frequently asked historical question relates to the identity of a statue of a man blowing a horn which stands in the river at Wylye.

The statue is thought to be 18th century and represents a post boy who had fallen from the mail coach into the river and drowned.

Drummer boy

The website also contains some chilling ghost stories, including the story of the 'Tidworth drummer'.

Legend has it that the drummer was arrested while begging in Tidworth and thrown into prison in Salisbury.

At the time, prisoners normally either had their food provided by family or friends or they had to pay for it. The drummer had no friends, family or money, so he starved to death.

After his death, the sound of a drum was often heard beating in the house of the magistrate who jailed him.

Other fascinating stories include the history of the 'Purton Spa' - water which was sold commercially for its reputed medicinal value throughout the 19th century and into the 1920s.

And the story of Isaac Pitman, the inventor of the shorthand system, who was born and brought up in Trowbridge.

Wiltshire Community History website

Over the next few years the Wiltshire Community History website will map out the history of every single town and village in the county.

Many communities are already featured on the site, along with over 2000 images, maps, prints and photographs.

Local studies librarian, Mike Marshman, says: "We have received inquiries from all over the world - from local people in Trowbridge to inquiries from as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

"Many of the questions we are asked throw up some very interesting stories and show what a fascinating history the county has, beyond the better known aspects such as Stonehenge and Avebury."

last updated: 15/12/05
Have Your Say
Your name: 
Your comment: 
The BBC reserves the right to edit comments submitted.

I would just like to say that the previous comment pretty much sums up the state of society; no punctuation, somehow expressing hate towards a piece of factual writing and the word 'horbble'. My sympathies go out to a lost generation.

Paul Monkton
Years ago I saw a ghost What looked like A very scary dog,it had bllod coming out of its mouth,so i legged it home,STRANGE

i think that it is really horbble and it is really scary and i hate it so much

Go to the top of the page

Curator's Pick
A pick of the museum's most unusual and surprising objects

Wilts at Height
Bird's eye view of Wiltshire

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy