Sarah Huntingford: Things that go bump in the night

Portsea, 1818

By 1818 Portsea was improving in status since the formation of the Portsea Improvements Commission in 1747. Slowly transforming what was little more than a slum for dockworkers into a tidy, if not entirely respectable urban area. They had ensured many of the streets, including Orange Street were paved, and hired a man with the unenviable title of “the scavenger”. His role was to walk around the streets of Portsea, ringing a bell and pulling a cart. Households would dump their rubbish into the cart in was sounds like a prototype for modern day refuse collection. Given most of the rubbish generated by households at the time was organic, the scavenger could then sell it on as fertiliser.  Whilst the area was definitely improving it was still a couple of years away from luxuries like street lighting and as a result most of the residents of the area were victims of crime fairly regularly.

Thomas and Sarah Huntingford had been married for forty years. They had the same troubles as any couple, some arguments but never anything physical. He was a retired master shipwright who had spent a lifetime at the local docks. She, ten years his junior, had only recently retired from running a local grocers shop. The shared a room at a boarding house in Orange Street. The other residents of the house were Louisa Jennings, the landlady, and three single lodgers; Samuel Bately who, like Thomas was a shipwright at the docks and had known the Huntingford’s for over twenty years. The final resident was a Ms Turnball, whose forename changes in every account, she does however appear to have been a midwife.

Louisa had enjoyed her evening meal in the communal area with Sarah and Thomas. She always enjoyed their company. Despite their love of strong drink, they were never disorderly or gregarious. There had been no alcohol tonight, it being a few days before any money was to come their way. About nine o’clock she bid the couple a good night and retired to her room which was up the stairs and at the front of the house. A short time later she heard Thomas and Sarah softly ascend the stairs and close the door to their room.

Samuel was in a bad mood. He had left work late and had to attend a later mass at the chapel because of it. As a result, he didn’t get home until gone eleven o’clock. Too tired to eat, and increasingly aware he had to be up early again for work he retired directly to his room. At three o’clock he was awoken by a heavy thumping on the stairs, he heard someone move to the door and into the yard. Still in a foul mood he ran to his window and threw it open to determine which of his housemates needed an education in nocturnal etiquette. Gazing down into the yard he saw a figure pacing, clearly female, wearing only a nightshift and something covering her head. He called out and got no response. Swiftly dressing he left his room to investigate and bumped into Sarah Huntingford returning from the yard, dressed as he had seen the figure from his window. On hearing his voice, she was so startled she dropped her candle, and it went out. “Oh Samuel, I am murdered and robbed” she exclaimed. Realising he could achieve nothing in the darkness he scooped up the candle and knocked on Louisa’s door for a light, they both retuned to Sarah, she was shivering with the cold and deathly pale but seemed uninjured. They agreed she had probably had a nightmare and Louisa supported her back to the room she shared with Thomas. And then, A scream. Samuel sprinted to the Huntingford’s room where he found a scene that was, very red. Thomas lay in the bed and if it weren’t for the blood soaking the bed, pooling on the floor and covering two of the walls he could well be sleeping. Someone had placed a handkerchief over his face.
He quickly roused their neighbour and asked the he fetch the Surgeon. Whilst they were waiting Sarah was calming enough to speak. “Oh Sarah, what has happened here?” Louisa was the first to ask. “Men, two men intruders were upon us, they wanted money, when Tom resisted, they murdered him”.  She explained the two men, one tall and one squat roused them from their sleep, one had a tomahawk and the other a lantern, they looked for all the world like chimney sweeps, all in black with blackened faces and they had no shoes.

The surgeon arrived, accounts vary regarding where in the spectrum of ineptitude. He made his initial survey of the scene. Clearly in no mood for great complexity at this time in the morning, doing nothing more than looking in the direction of the body determined that the cause of death was a ruptured artery.  As an after through he removed the handkerchief from Thomas’s face, revealing a concave depression and visible brain matter. Hastily reassessing his diagnosis, he advised Samuel to go and fetch the constables.

The police arrived in the form of Constables Way and Carter whose report of their search of the property remains and is held by Portsmouth City Council Archives. They noted that a chest in the Huntingford’s room was open, and a small box with a broken lid was found inside which Sarah reported was where Thomas sometimes kept his money. The chest was confirmed to have been open when the surgeon arrived, and the key was found in Thomas’s pockets when he and the other residents of the house turned out his pockets on first finding the body.
They next took statements from the residents, much was as described above however, Louisa was certain the doors had been fastened prior to her retiring for the night. Sarah reported that Thomas had gotten up to go to the yard, presumably needing the toilet and must have forgotten to fasten the door again. During this interaction the PC Carter noted there was small specks of what looked like blood on Sarah’s petticoat, she claimed they were just dirt.

Next a search of the house was conducted and the officers found a billhook, a heavy bladed item, found discarded in the coal bin, near where Samuel bumped into Sarah. The blade was reported to contain specks of blood. Whilst billhooks were common items particularly in households with craftsmen, no one recognised this specific billhook.

Sarah was arrested, and in short order found herself in front of a magistrate. The court records at the time indicate she appeared entirely apathetic to the crime, and this may have influenced the jury and judge. She was sentenced to death by hanging. Her sentence was carried out on the morning of 8th March 1819. Over a thousand people were in attendance, such was the public awareness of this murder. After the hanging her body was committed to the surgeons for dissection as ordered by the judge at her sentencing.


There was a lot of talk during this case of Sarah becoming increasingly absent minded. She would go to the shops and forget what she needed. The Huntingford’s fondness for alcohol was noted and it transpired that Sarah had been pawning communal objects from the property and some silverware and clothes belonging to Thomas in order to buy gin. Had Thomas discovered this it would provide a possible motive however you would imagine the murder would escalate from a verbal argument which wasn’t reported by the other residents of the house. I do wonder if there was some element of dementia presenting itself here, possibly secondary to alcohol related brain damage. There were no reports of psychotic episodes and if there was an impairment of her mind it was only mild and emerging.
It is impossible to say if the door to the yard had been locked at the time of the murder as Sarah had clearly exited to the yard and returned leaving the door unfastened.

Given the fact the room was flooded with Thomas’s blood and the murder weapon required close contact. I am unsure how Sarah could only have two tiny specks of blood on her clothes.

None of this is to say that Sarah Huntingford was innocent of this crime however there appear to have been several key questions that don’t appear to have been asked. Which makes the sentence of death and dissection feel rather mean.

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