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Historical English crime: A fatal case of mistaken identity

I was recently down in Rye, a lovely old town on the Sussex coast that has a long history as part of the medieval confederation known as the Cinque Ports, as well as many an old tale concerning smugglers and threats of invasion by the French. It’s full of history – the Mermaid pub has a sign saying that it was re-built in 1420 – which simply cannot be avoided as you walk up those cobbled streets to the churchyard at the top of the hill. 

The church, St Mary’s, has wonderful views of the surrounding area should you climb the tower (I, of course, cannot resist the chance to climb a good tower); you can see across Romney Marsh, down to Camber Castle, even to the power station at Dungeness on a clear day, and across to the cliffs by Pett Level – one of my favourite stretches of beach.


For any visitor to Rye, the Ypres Tower (pronounced ‘wipers’, just like the way the British soldiers pronounced the name of said Belgian town during the First World War) is well worth a visit for those wishing to find out more about the history of this fascinating place. One of the exhibits is somewhat macabre – it’s a full-size replica human skeleton encased in a gibbet, which was the metal cage in which the body of a condemned criminal was placed after said criminal had died by hanging, to be displayed at a suitable point such as a crossroads in order to warn people of the consequences of breaking the law.

This refers to one of Rye’s most (in)famous stories, that of a local butcher who murdered an ex-mayor of Rye in 1742. The twist is that he killed the wrong man. Not for nothing is it known as the ‘murder by mistake’.

The butcher in question was John Breads, who was by all accounts the sort of man who was easily angered and who, if he could not settle a dispute by way of a punch-up, was prone to bearing a grudge. In particular, he bore a grudge against the mayor of Rye, James Lamb, who’d fined him for selling meat at short weight. This angered Breads to the point at which he came to the conclusion that the best way of settling this grudge was by killing the mayor. Not being particularly subtle, he sometimes spoke about what butchers do to lambs (in an age before refrigeration, they’d often do the slaughtering as well as the butchering) after he’d had a few drinks in the pub.

He got his opportunity on the night of 17th March 1742. There was a ship docked in Rye Harbour which included Lamb’s son as one of the officers; as such, the captain had decided to invite Lamb to a banquet on the ship. Rye being a small town, it didn’t take long before everyone knew about this. To get from his house to the harbour and back, Lamb would have to walk through the churchyard, and it was here that Breads reckoned he would have his chance to kill him – preferably on the return journey when it would be darker and Lamb might have had a bit too much to drink (it was also widely known that French brandy – smuggled, presumably – would be served at the banquet). In the moonlight, it should be fairly easy to identify the mayor in his red cloak.

Unbeknown to Breads, though, it wasn’t James Lamb who went to the banquet. He’d not been looking forward to it as he wasn’t feeling well but had felt obliged to go because, well, he’d been invited and he was the mayor so it might cause offence if he didn’t go. However, his brother-in-law, a former mayor of Rye called Allen Grebell, popped by to see him in the afternoon and, on being informed that Lamb wasn’t up to it, offered to go in his place – for surely an ex-mayor would add just as much dignity to the occasion as the actual mayor? Lamb readily agreed, and decided that as Grebell would be going to the banquet on his behalf, it was only fitting that he should wear the red mayoral cloak.

Grebell had a lot to drink at the banquet, and was staggering on his way home which took him up the hill and through the churchyard. Seeing a figure in a red cloak and assuming it was Lamb, Breads (who’d been hiding behind a tombstone) attacked, stabbing his victim before fleeing. Grebell did not appear to realise he’d been stabbed – when he got home, he calmly informed his servant that someone had tried to attack him in the churchyard on his way home, and that he would sit down in front of the fire for a while before going to bed. No need for the servant to wait up any longer. What with Grebell wearing Lamb’s red cloak and the only available sources of light being the fire and maybe a lamp or two, the servant didn’t notice that his master was bleeding.

Lamb, meanwhile, was having a troubled night – he was woken up following a dream in which his late wife (Grebell’s sister) had appeared to him and warned him about her brother’s safety. Early in the morning, therefore, he decided to see if Grebell was all right. The servant answered the door, and on finding that Grebell’s bed hadn’t been slept in he remembered that Grebell had said he’d sit down by the fire in the front room. The checked the front room, and found Grebell. The ex-mayor had bled to death after falling asleep.

It soon transpired that Breads, who was nothing if not unsubtle, hadn’t fled far from the scene of the crime. He was wandering around the town, drunk, shouting about having killed the mayor. The parish constable found a blood-spattered knife in the churchyard. It had Breads’s name on the handle. The butcher of Rye was quickly arrested and imprisoned in the Ypres Tower.

The subsequent trial took place in May 1743 (actually a couple of months after the murder, as this was when Lady Day, 25th March, marked the start of the new year in England). It was, apparently, unique in English legal history in that it was the only time when a murder trial was presided over by a judge (Lamb) who had been the defendant’s intended victim. The verdict was never in any doubt – the evidence of the knife and Breads’s behaviour on the morning after aside, he said enough at the trial to incriminate himself, shouting at Lamb: “I did not mean to kill Mr Grebell. It was you I meant it for, and I would murder you now if I could!”

Having been found guilty of murder, Breads was sentenced to be hanged and, just over a month after the trial, that is what happened. The hanging took place out on the marsh, and afterwards the body was enclosed in a gibbet and left there – at a place known today as Gibbet Marsh.

Gradually, over the next fifty or so years, the bones disappeared as some of the townspeople stole them – back in the 18th century, ground-up human bones were regarded as a remedy for rheumatism. When only the skull was left, it was taken to Rye Town Hall where it remains to this day; there are apparently plenty of requests to see it, although the occasional suggestion that it be put on public display is invariably rejected by the council on the grounds that displaying actual human remains wouldn’t be appropriate; tourists can make do with the fake skeleton in the Ypres Tower.

That is ‘official’ the version of the story, as laid out in a pamphlet called Murder by Mistake (which used to be available for sale at the Ypres Tower but which has now been out of print for many years) and retold in a book called Murders of Old Sussex of which I happen to own a copy (for what it’s worth, it stands on my bookshelves next to Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in Barnet, Finchley and Hendon; make of that what you will).

That the story raises a few questions is beyond doubt – least of all the question of what possessed Lamb to officiate at Breads’s trial. Judges are supposed to be impartial, and in this case Lamb – as both the intended victim and a relative of the actual victim – most certainly was not (there’s a reason why the trial is unique in English legal history). And why would the mayor – the local magistrate – take charge of a murder trial in any case? Serious crimes were meant to be dealt with at the Assizes, those quarterly court sessions that were held in most county towns until well into the 20th century. Rye being in Sussex, Breads should surely have been sent to Lewes to stand trial at the next Assize session. It would be interesting to know how Lamb managed to justify his unusual actions, presuming that anyone from the government saw fit to ask.

If you ask around in Rye, you’ll find a different take on the town’s most notorious case of mistaken identity. Being an old and somewhat isolated port located on the edge of Romney Marsh, Rye has a long association with smuggling (of which more in a future post) and a local theory is that Lamb was in the pay of a group of smugglers known as the Hawkhurst Gang (who we will return to in said future post). Grebell, so this ‘unofficial’ version goes, found out about the mayor’s corruption and was planning to expose him; Lamb found out about what Grebell knew and planned to have him killed in order to keep him quiet. Breads, a violent man with a known grudge against Lamb, thus became Lamb’s unknowing tool in the elimination of Allen Grebell. Quite how Lamb was able to guarantee that Breads would be waiting with his knife in the churchyard, or even that Grebell would willingly take his place at the banquet, is not clear. But as conspiracy theories go, it’s an interesting one.

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