The Unsolved Murder

Parts of East Herrington long remained in the land holdings of the successors of the de Eshes, the Old Catholic recusant family of Smith or Smythe of Esh. By the early 19th century this family had been raised to the baronetcy and moved to Shropshire. Maria Smythe, granddaughter to the baronet is known to history as the widow Mrs Fitzherbert, then engaged in a liaison with the Prince Regent.

All this adds a further dimension to the story of Lady Peat, born Jane Smith in 1752, daughter of Squire Matthew Smith of Herrington, a kinsman to the baronet, and his wife Jane Taylor of Stobbilee near Lanchester.

Unfortunately there is no picture of her, which is a pity as she undoubtedly was one of the most colourful characters of the village and as such deserves a chapter to herself. She is described as wearing a bonnet, gown and shawl that cost only a few shillings, having a massive gold chain round her neck and boots that belonged to her father. Squire Matthew and his daughter lived in a house at the end of the road – then being much narrower than its modern counterpart opposite the blacksmith’s shop situated at the side of the chapel. The property was called Herrington House but known later to the locals as Peat’s Hall.

The first record of Jane appears in 1786 when with her father – a miser reputedly worth £30,000, an enormous sum in the 18th century – they travelled home on horseback along the turnpike road. At the West Rainton turnpike gate instead of paying the toll they argued with the gate-keeper that they had no need, having passed through that morning. Spurring his horse Squire Matthew called his daughter to hurry past.

The gate-keeper knowing their story to be untrue and having chased them 300 yards down the road, was furious that such a wealthy man could stoop to such a trick. He brought a court action against them. At the hearing amidst a large amused crowd of locals, it was found that they had been in Barnard Castle for a visit of several days so could not have passed the toll that morning. Despite desperate pleadings with the magistrate they were fined £10 each.

Squire Matthew died in 1793 aged 74 and was buried at the Rock Cemetery at Houghton Cut.

Three years later Jane was again in trouble with avoiding taxes. For ladies of standing, the fashion was then to use hair powder, greasing elaborate hair-do’s until stiff and covering them with powder from a bellows in a small closet – the origin of today’s “powder room” – punk fashion having discovered nothing new. Having taxed windows, hearths and lights, the ingenuity of the government soon latched on to this as a new source of revenue. Hair powder, to be made of starch, was taxed at one guinea a year. Information was disclosed that Jane had used hair powder but had omitted her name from the household tax accounts. She was summoned and given a stiff fine of £40.

Why did someone bother to inform upon her?

The truth was that Jane was disliked. Not only a miser like her father, she was also a kleptomaniac. Though she might keep nine of the commandments tolerably well she found the eighth one impossible. The despair of shopkeepers in Sunderland, everything she could lay her hands on disappeared into her capacious pockets. At one function in the town it was discovered a shawl was missing from the cloakroom. When confronted by the curate of Bishop Wearmouth a corner of the offending article slipped into view at the vital moment and she was caught red-handed. Being a lady of standing she usually got away with a severe reprimand.

At a grocers shop in High Street she was seen putting a pound of butter into her pocket so the shopkeeper kept her talking before a roaring fire until it ran down her petticoats. There are many such tales told of her. My great-grandfather, H. M. Whiteley, who came to Middle Herrington in the 1860’s, said that the villagers were still talking about her and they believed that some of the shopkeepers deliberately put things in her way to steal, then would apply to Mr Gregson of Burdon Hall, her lawyer, knowing she would be obliged to pay double the value to keep out of trouble. In this way she once escaped prosecution by paying the year’s rent of a house for stealing a silver spoon.

Yet at home she made the servant girl poke the fire with an old broom handle – it saved wear and tear on the poker she explained, whilst at the same time from the burnt end she could see if the fire had been disturbed too much and the coal used up.

Finally Mr Gregson tired of the cases of theft and asked Dr Clanny what might be done. Following his invention of the safety lamp, Dr Clanny had come to know some prominent people and had then visiting him a gentleman in search of just such an heiress.

Sir Robert Peat is an equally extraordinary character though perhaps less sympathetic. Son of a watchmaker from Hamsterley area he had been taken up by the Bishop and ordained in the Church of England. After being an army chaplain and a vicar in Cambridgeshire, he was then one of the hundred or so domestic chaplains to the Prince Regent. Prinny gave him the living of New Brentford in Middlesex as a favour.

He was also a heavy gambler, eager to climb the next step to worldly success. A letter penned at this time (1813) from the Brentford parsonage to the Regent’s Secretary suggests all the hallmarks of a Mr Collins:
“Sir Robert Peat presents his respectful compliments to Col. MacMahon and requests the honour of a few minutes conversation, respecting an intended publication which has come to his notice relating to the Princess of Wales, which in his opinion may produce much irritation in the public mind. Although Sir Robert has never had the honour of being presented to HRH, yet from having been so many years upon his list of chaplains added to other circumstances, he cannot help feeling much interested in anything that concerns the Prince. Sir Robert trusts this will apologise for interfering in a subject which concerns him no farther than in showing his desire to seize every, even the most trifling occasion of proving his attachment to the Prince and the obligation he is under for the polite manner in which Col. MacMahon received him at Carlton House…”

Whilst in Sunderland he was introduced as a member of the Masonic Lodge and introduced also to Miss Smith. He was much taken with the prospect; a lady with immense fortune, although nominally a Catholic, could it be that he was swayed by her distant kinship with the Regent’s unofficial wife as likely to advance him in favour with his Royal master?

Favours indeed were to fall on Robert Peat, made Knight of St Patrick, Knight of the Polish Order of Stanislaus, Chaplain to the Orange Lodge of England and finally first Grand Prior of the re-established Order of St John of Jerusalem.

For her part, Jane was much taken with him. Her mother having died in 1798 she was alone and impressed greatly with the idea of a title as well as the appearance of the man himself – “A fine looking man, small, dressed like a dandy in a beautiful coat and waistcoat, white necktie and breeches with white silk stockings and on the coat, three gold orders…”

But for her fortune she was more cautious. Marriage would mean putting it at his disposal so when he came out to Herrington to persuade her, she declared she could not leave the old house whilst it was still standing, that remark being remembered in the village.

In August that year of 1815, Jane Smith left the house in charge of her servant girl, Isabella Young, and went off to Lanchester to collect her rents on farm properties. The girl was nervous of being left alone – it was an isolated crossroads and for several nights she heard someone trying the windows and doors. She asked a neighbour to sleep with her, the neighbour refused but escorted her home and waited until she had locked herself in. In the early hours of the morning, John Stonehouse at the smithy opposite woke up to find light reflecting on his ceiling.

Looking out he saw Herrington House on fire and with his brother rushed across the road, found a way in and discovered the servant girl lying dead. Covered in blood and bruises, her head had been smashed, eyes beaten in and jawbone broken. They dragged her out into the road; the house had been ransacked and there was little they could do to stop the fire. Only blackened walls surrounded by the outside sheds stood by daylight.

Miss Smith was sent for and was met at the top of Durham Road to be told of the fire. The first thing she did was to rake embers and gather up the nails and bolts to sell as scrap iron. The poor girl’s body had been laid in a box in one of the sheds until taken away. Rather than pay for a night’s lodging Jane lay down in the box and covered herself with the horse cloth that had shielded the corpse. However, during the night the heavy wind round the empty walls of the house made such a rattling it gave her a good fright.

Three Sunderland men were suspected of the crime but only on the gossip of having been seen in the neighbourhood. No real evidence could be found at the trial though it dragged on and off for four years. Miss Smith at one point complained of the expense and the Judge asked if she did not consider the cost worthwhile in justice to the murdered girl. Evidently she did not.

The suspects were held in jail for so long a period that the Society of Friends took up their cases. They proved that two of them were miles away from Herrington that night and later charges against the third man, James Wolfe, were dropped. He was shunned for the rest of his life; further tragedy overtook his family when his granddaughter was found dead and robbed at the foot of Rectors Gully in Bishopwearmouth.

The murder remains unsolved. Had the fire been instigated and the girl recognised the man trying to break in? Or was it a simple case of an opportunist being disturbed?

At any rate there was now no excuse to delay the marriage. It took place at Houghton Church in November 1815 but only after she had drawn up a settlement in which she was able to retain a considerable portion to herself.

Sir Robert celebrated at the Bridge Hotel in Sunderland then took her off to London to meet his fashionable friends. At the first party she was missing for some time and a search was made. She was found where she felt more at home, sitting on a cracket in the kitchen chatting to the servants.

This was the first and only time Robert Peat tried to introduce her to society. He brought her back to Sunderland and rented a house in Villiers Street.

Lady Peat had once boasted that she could live on two pence a day. Inspecting the larder her husband soon found why. There were mouldy old pies and a leg of pork in advanced stages of decomposition. It was too much for the dandy’s stomach and he took separate lodgings in the next street.

As soon as he could, he scuttled off to London returning North only once a year – it was popularly believed he had to stay one night with his wife each year or lose his allowance.

In Sunderland Lady Peat continued to make a nuisance of herself. In the Herrington neighbourhood where she would appear inevitably at mealtimes, there grew up a saying “But don’t tell Lady Peat!” at the news of any stroke of good fortune.

The marriage had been a failure. Though she had obtained her title, real happiness was not a thing gained by acquisition.

Sir Robert died at his Brentford Vicarage in 1837. When she was told he was dead and must wear mourning she exclaimed it was “The best news I ever got in my life” and went out to purchase a bright yellow gown with ribboned bonnet – whilst slipping an ostrich feather into her pocket – and paraded the town saying, “What joyful news I have received, Sir Robert is dead”.

For many years she lived in the basement of the house in Villiers Street with one old servant. The rest of the rooms were crammed with an astonishing collection; at least ten dining tables, a full set of forge implements, carpenters tools, an old teapot said to have belonged to Cromwell.

Becoming blind as she approached ninety she was urged by her confessor to settle her affairs. She died in 1842 and her will – nine parchment pages each the size of a tea cloth – goes into great detail about the farms and lands scattered over the county.

Her personal estate was given to her confessor to pay her debts, the residue he gave to Ushaw College. The landed property was bequeathed to her mothers relatives including the old black walls and burnt thatch of the house in Herrington which had now long been used as a byre. It was demolished in 1885. All this was left on condition that her heirs assumed the name and arms of Smith, her last attempt to leave a mark on posterity. The legacy assigned to her confessor himself (though in spite of his protests), he used to found St Bede’s Convent in Sunderland.

Lady Peat was buried in the family vault at Houghton, forgotten in the village where she cut such a figure. In recent years only one old lady could recollect the saying “Don’t tell Lady Peat!”, but there have been reported seeings of a ghostly figure near the area where the old house once stood.