A brief post about an old book.
It is the best part of a decade since I was writing about the misdeeds of the Oddingley farmers in the summer of 1806. But recently that murderous tale was brought back to mind when I chanced upon the above picture of a half-timbered ‘pigeon house’. This building had long since vanished by the time I wrote Damn His Blood but it occupied an important part in the story. It was the place, on Saturday 24 May 1806, where five or so of the local farmers gathered to drink cider and bemoan their lot at being cursed with the avaricious parson George Parker.
My favourite of the chapters in Damn His Blood is the eponymous fifth one. Here’s how it starts:
Oddingley, May/June 1806
At about midnight on Saturday 24 May, Sarah Lloyd, a 24-year-old farm worker, was sitting up with her younger sister at their family home, a labourer’s cottage, when they were disturbed by a noise from outside. The Lloyds’ cottage stood by the crossroads, surrounded by clover fields and an area of open grassy pastures known locally as the Hulls. In the hours since the sun had set at nine o’clock the village had quietened as work had finished for the day and labourers had returned to their homes and beds. The noise was loud and peculiar enough to wrest Sarah’s attention from her conversation and draw her outside. She opened the cottage door and stepped out into the night. In the garden she heard the noise again – it was drunken voices, all of them raised and jeering. The sounds came from the direction of the Pigeon House, a squat brick outhouse which was owned by the Barnett family, who used it as a summer house and a store for their finest cider. Sarah crept through the spring air towards the building. Once within earshot, she hid herself ‘under a tree which was nearly down’.
From here Sarah could distinguish the voices of a number of local farmers. ‘I heard several toasts drank and several persons named’, she recalled, among whom were Captain Evans, John Barnett, Thomas Clewes, George Banks and Mr Davis of Dunhampstead. She recognised each man distinctly and recalled Thomas Clewes’s voice particularly. She heard the master of Netherwood Farm propose a toast: ‘Let us drink damnation to him, he will not be here long to trouble us – and let us drink it left handed!’ Sarah listened as each of the men repeated Clewes’s charge. She had ‘no doubt’ that Reverend Parker was the subject of the toasts, as there was, as she put it, a ‘misunderstanding’ between the parties.
The toasts continued for some time as Sarah remained concealed 20 yards away behind the collapsed tree, shielded from view in the darkness. But she was not alone in the Pigeon House Meadow that night. A farm dog that belonged to one of the Barnett brothers had been tethered outside the building and, hearing her cough, began to bark. In panic, Sarah scarmbled up and started for her cottage, but the moment she moved, the wooden door of the Pigeon House burst open behind her and two men flew out into the night in pursuit. They made after Sarah, who charged desperately through the grass. She reached her cottage before then and pushed the door closed.
‘I wish we had catched her!’ she heard Davis say to George Banks. ‘Damn her blood! We would have mopped her up.’
‘Damn her eyes!’ Banks replied. ‘I wish we had and catched her.’
I wrote that scene in 2010 or so, and constructed it from the subsequent court records (exactly a month later Reverend George Parker would be dead). Having at last got hold of this image of the ‘pigeon house’ – I am pretty sure this is the building described – I am not entirely convinced my description of it as a ‘squat brick outhouse’ stands any longer. Still, it’s satisfying to see a visual representation of the scene. That there’s a tree ‘nearly down’ on the right hand side of the frame makes it all the easier to imagine the unfortunate Sarah Lloyd squatting just behind.
There is always more to be said on the extraordinary Oddingley story. Those interested might also want to have a look at this Princeton blog post. It is another of the fresh things that have turned up over the past six years.