This article is from "Aspects of the Early History of Hungerford" by Norman Hidden, 2009.
It is in the nature of their crime that murders attract so much more attention than other kinds of mortality. Newspaper reporting of a local murder is assured of a large readership, enabling the reporter to give in great detail the social and local background to the dread event. To genealogists this opens and lights up a window into the life of the community in which many others than victim and perpetrator - witnesses especially - are shown in roles which may put flesh on the dry bones of skeleton biographies derived merely from parish register entries.
Such illumination was provided by ex-Chief Inspector Godfrey’s account (in BFHS magazine vol.10, parts 11 & 12 ) of the murder of a police officer at Hungerford on 11 December,1876. Godfrey mentions as a coincidence that the date of this murder was the anniversary of another murder in Hungerford 115 years previously.
This was the murder of William and Ann Cheyney; but about this murder nothing like the same amount of information is available. Such horror did it arouse, however, that some 34 years after the crime The Universal Directory described the occurrence in its entry of factual material concerning the town of Hungerford.
‘In the year 1762 a shocking murder was committed in this town, on the bodies of Mr. Cheney and his wife, an old couple who for many years had resided here: the murder was supposed to have been perpetrated about nine o’clock in the evening, but was not discovered until the next morning. Many persons were suspected, but no proofs appeared of their guilt. Diligent search was made after the author or authors, but without success, nor have they ever been discovered.’
In setting out to find what further information I could about the unfortunate couple, I based my research on the usual genealogical resources. First, the parish register. This records the burial of the murdered couple on 16th. December 1762 and goes on to add ‘both barbarously murdered in their own house on the evening of Saturday 11th inst’. I checked also Hayward’s list of memorial inscriptions in the parish church to see if there was a memorial inscription and if so whether it gave any additional information. It did indeed, and most usefully provided the respective ages of the unfortunate pair, William being 83 and his wife Ann 71. This was vital information in enabling me to search for baptismal entries in the parish register in or around 1679 for William and in or around 1691 for Ann. Alas! there was no baptism registered in Hungerford for William, and Ann’s maiden name I did not know. A check on marriages revealed no marriage to Ann, but there was a marriage on April 25, 1721 of William Cheney and Elizabeth Mills, both of Hungerford. As there was no other Cheyney or Cheney known to be in Hungerford at this time, it seemed likely that this was the murdered man. But Elizabeth? Had the marriage register mistaken her name? Or had she died and William re-married? And if she had died, why was there no burial entry for her? Perhaps there were children, but the Baptisms register gave no Cheyney baptisms whatever from 1700 to 1799.
The only conclusions I could draw were that the Cheyneys (both pairs) were a childless couple, and that William must have moved into the parish from outside, proba bly as a young man; and that Ann too came from outside the parish. In this connection the words of the Universal Directory account became particularly significant: ‘an old couple,who for many years had resided here’, a clear indication that Hungerford had not always been their home. I tried the Mormon micro-fiches for Berkshire Cheyneys, but as William and Ann had no children there was little help to be gained from these. The nearest entry I found was to the birth of a William Cheyney at Hurst in 1678.
The next source a genealogist might turn to was wills, and there was no difficulty in finding a P.C.C. will for William. This gave no new biographical information, though it had other interesting information which may best be treated of later. Over the years I have compiled a complete record of all known Hungerford wills - testators, beneficiaries, witnesses etc.-up to 18571. The index runs to many hundreds of names. It came in handy in this particular inquiry as it has done for me in so many others. William appeared in the wills, admons, or inventories of a number of influential local families (Robinson 1711/12, Simpkins 1717/18, Thistlethwayte 1734, Toe 1738). This shows that he had a high standing and that he was active in the town from at least 1711/12. Important, too, was the will of widow Rebecca Mills in January 1725/6, who bequeathed all her goods to her ‘daughter-in-law’ [i.e. stepdaughter] Elizabeth, wife of William Cheyney of Hungerford, mercer’. William was made executor and was granted probate in 1726.
My third source of information has usually been property records, and I searched various places where I hoped I might find some of these. The town quit rent rolls for Hungerford are extant for the years 1676, 1753, and 1774. There are no properties on which an earlier Cheyney might have paid quit rent in 1676, but in 1753 there are three houses in his name, two of which recur as ‘late Cheyney’s’ in 1774. The details of the 1753 quit rent roll correspond reasonably well with the properties mentioned in Cheyney’s will ( although a fourth property occurs in the will, presumably acquired after 1753).
All the properties are in the High Street and are separate (i.e. not adjoining or sub-divided messuages). Their sites can be roughly identified, and they are probably the same houses, though no doubt adapted and altered, that stand there today. Which one, though, was the house in which the old couple were murdered?
While I was pondering on this matter of local identification, I searched to find any additional contemporaneous account of the murder. Since The Reading Mercury began publication in 1726 and copies from the very first date are kept in the Local History section of the Berkshire County Library at Reading, I had high hopes. Alas! - one of the very few gaps in the Library’s early issues of The Mercury included the very date that I was seeking and the subsequent period. The only other possible hope for some printed account that I could think of lay in the back issue file of The Gentleman’s Magazine, a journal which has always seemed to me to combine quite delightfully the characteristics of The Times with those of The News of the World.
Here is their account dated 12 December 1762: ‘Mr. Cheney and his wife were both murdered in their house at Hungerford in Wiltshire; the former in his chair with his brains beat out; the latter on the floor, weltering in her blood, not yet dead but speechless, with several stabs and wounds in her body, of which she expired the next day. The villains do not appear to have got much booty, an old silver watch and some rings being all that is yet missing; it was reported that a large sum of money was in the house, but that has since been contradicted upon good authority, a neighbour having applied but a few days before for the change of a £30 bank note, which the old gentleman could not give; they were both old and reputed rich, but were very cross and very penurious, insomuch that the old maid who lived with them many years, was often obliged to spend her evening at a neighbours, because they would not allow her fire to keep her warm at home. She was abroad on this account the night the murder was perpetrated, of which no discovery has yet been made, except that two nights before two strangers were seen in the town, who enquired for the deceased by name, but did not call upon them, neither could it be learnt where they lay the night they were taken notice of, though diligent search had been made throughout the whole town.’
Whoever sent this account to The Gentleman’s Magazine in London was determined to make a good story of it and obviously had taken in a good deal of local gossip. Cheyney’s prosperity had clearly aroused local envy and although it is likely that he and his wife led a frugal life, as most elderly people do, the miserly image attributed to them may well have been exaggerated. A different picture may perhaps emerge from Cheyney’s will. For instance, he leaves a monetary bequest to his maid (though unfortunately he does not name her), the woman who presumably discovered the corpses in the morning.
Declaring in his will that he is of sound and perfect mind and memory, and as if to give credence to this, he states also that the will is in his own handwriting. A long religious pre -amble follows, which refers to the passion of Jesus Christ, showing (as will be confirmed later) that he had strong religious, indeed evangelical, principles. He leaves his property to his wife Ann, and makes many generous bequests to nieces and nephews as well as to godsons and to other persons apparently unrelated to him. A set of three separate parcels of land in Hungerford is left to trustees who are to apply the profits of these three parcels ‘in purchasing 7 Bibles of the Church of England with church prayers contained in them, and a further 10 common prayer books, the Bibles of 3s 6d. price each Bible and the prayer books of 18d. each book, and the overplus if any arising of the said lands to be gave to the poor of Childfrey, and the Bibles and prayer books to be gave to poor young youths and maids at the discretion of my trustees’.
After the decease of his wife, he declared, his freehold estate was to be absolute for 1000 years to come ‘with payment yearly of £3 to my reposed trust’. This £3 p.a. was ‘to be gave to poor widows and widowers, elderly maidens and old Batholomews to the number of 60 and 12 pence each person in money and not otherwise in any other manner whatsoever. And I do insist of these donations to be gave annually of 14th. February.’
Finally, he requests that his body be buried in church near the remains of his former wife ( i.e. Elizabeth) and that ‘ a monument be put up and fixed in the wall opposite the seat of Mr. Hanson’s, the model of it in the manner of Mr. Thomas Wells in the chancel’. He appointed his wife Ann as his executrix.
As Ann had been left the major proportion of his estate, some question might have arisen of who pre-deceased whom had not the evidence been clear that Ann had managed to survive until the morning. Administration was granted to Catherine Barton, wife of Rev. Philip Barton, clerk, doctor of laws, cousin german and next of kin of Ann Cheyney.
Almost exactly two years after the murder The Gentleman’s Magazine reports from its Salisbury correspondent that a travelling gypsy was committed to Salisbury gaol on suspicion of being accessory ‘to the horrid murder of Mr. Cheyney and his wife’. But, as The Universal Directory made clear, the murderer whoever he was had escaped detection and so suspicion of the gypsy could have been no more than the usual suspicion with which the travelling people have been so often regarded.
Where did the murder take place? In his will Cheyney leaves to his wife ‘the house which I now inhabit, held under Mr. Matthew Loder for term of lives’. Matthew Loder was lord of the manor of Hungerford Engleford, an estate of great antiquity deriving from the personal estate of the Hungerford family many centuries past. It contained some 15 or 16 houses in the town of Hungerford, most of which were let on long leaseholds. One of the houses in the Hungerford quit rent roll of 1753 attributed to William Cheyney and which could correspond with this is a house which must have been on the east side of the Hungerford High Street and in a central position, now occupied by a well-known firm. If this sounds a little vague, it is deliberately so since all identifications of past buildings with present day ones should be underaken with the utmost caution, there being many factors which can throw a speculative identification quite awry. It is better therefore merely to offer a suspicion as to the house or site in question and to await further evidence of a more definitive nature, rather than to allow a local myth to grow up as so many have done (inaccurately) in the past in other connections.
1 Norman Hidden: The Hidden Index: Names Extracted from Hungerford Wills.
In May 2022, Clark Cheney kindly emailed the Virtual Museum with some significant further information on the outcome of the murders. He said: "While researching my Cheney family line, I came across the curious story of the murder of William and Ann Cheyney in Hungerford in 1762. That lead me to Google these poor people, which lead me to Norman Hidden's article on your website, https://www.hungerfordvirtualmuseum.co.uk/index.php/39-publications/1035-the-murder-of-william-and-ann-cheyney
I thought I should pass along the epilogue to this sad tale as I came across it in the Oxford Journal.
In 1771, there was a tease of an indictment. Oxford Journal, August 31, 1771, first page:
I don't know what happened after the indictment, but apparently it did not lead to a conviction.
In 1779, 17 years after the murder, there was a break in the case: a confession! Oxford Journal, December 18, 1779, first page:
A month later, the other suspect was apprehended. Oxford Journal, January 22, 1780, page 3: