by Frank E Earp
The murder of a young Papplewick girl on the Mansfield Road in 1817 is one that still resonates with us today. It is perhaps for this reason that over the past few years it has become one of the best known ‘Tales from the Mansfield Road’. It is also yet another story where the Road itself runs like a thread through it narrative and the lives of all those involved. The murder is well documented and I have a number of accounts to build up an accurate picture of the events that happened nearly 200 years ago.
Elizabeth Shepherd, familiarly known as ‘Bessie’, is described in the hand bill produced at the time of the execution of her murderer as ‘…an interesting girl about 17 years of age and the daughter of a woman residing at Papplewick’. Other accounts suggest her to be a pretty girl and an average teenager of her time.
On the 7th July 1817, Bessie left her home at about mid-day to walk to Mansfield, where she was hoping to find employment in service. She was dressed in her ‘Sunday best’ and was wearing a new pair of shoes and carrying a yellow umbrella, – items that will be mentioned again later in the story. Bessie was successful in her endeavours and witnesses saw her leaving Mansfield at around 6 p.m. that evening.
Bessie mother waited patiently for her daughter’s return, but as evening began to draw on she set-out to meet her on the road. Taking Mrs Shepherd’s account of events, she had walked a good distance towards Mansfield and must have passed the spot by the side of the road where her daughter’s body was later found. It was around this point that she saw a familiar figure on the road some distance ahead. Thinking that Bessie had also seen her and would hurry to catch-up, Mrs Shepherd turned and began to walk home. She was later to recall that shortly after turning for home she passed a stranger, who was later identified as Charles Rotherham. She could not have known then that her daughter would also meet with Rotherham, an encounter that she would not survive.
Charles Rotherham was a 33 year old ex-soldier from Sheffield. Given the date it is likely that he was one of those men who had fought in the Napoleonic Wars. Many had been with the Duke of Wellington for 9 years in the Peninsular Campaign. Some men were volunteers, who had joined the army in and attempt to escape poverty, whilst others had been forced to join as an alternative to penal-servitude. At the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Wellington described the British army as ‘the scum of the earth and the dregs of society’.
With cessation of hostilities, the army was returned to its peace time levels and thousands of men were discharged back into society by an ungrateful Government and left to wonder the country looking for work. Even by 1817 these ex-soldiers were regarded as a problem to decent society. Using whatever skills they had acquired, these men made a living as best they could. Certainly, Rotherham, a married man with children presented himself as a itinerant ‘scissor sharpener’.
Witnesses state that Rotherham had been drinking in the Hutt that afternoon and had left shortly before he was seen by Mrs Shepherd. From the accounts he was heading towards Mansfield. Coming in the opposite direction was young Bessie, happy with the news that she had found work. We do not know if she had seen her mother and had quickened her pace. What we do know is that she met Charles Rotherham at a point on the Mansfield Road where it emerges from the southern side of Harlow Wood.
He attacked poor Bessie as she returned after successfully finding work in Mansfield, beating her repeatedly about the head with a hedge stake, before throwing her body into a ditch and robbing her of her umbrella and a pair of shoes; he also tried to take off her gown, but could not accomplish it. She was found by quarrymen the next day who noticed odd coins on the ground and an immediate search for the perpetrator was undertaken. He had proceeded to the Three Crowns at Redhill where he had disposed of the shoes, and sung 2 songs. He had already tried to dispose of the shoes at the Ginger Beer House near the Seventh Mile Stone. He was captured on route to Loughborough looking over a canal bridge into the water. The girl’s mother said later that she had passed Rotherham whilst out looking for, her daughter. He was found guilty, after he confessed to the crime, and duly hanged on Gallows Hill, Nottingham (near where St Andrews Church stands today at the junction of Forest Road and Mansfield Road) on the 28th July, 1817.
The horrific tale of Elizabeth Sheppard (or Shepherd) was recounted in a broadsheet at the time. A transcript of this account can be viewed here:
A full and particular Account
Life and Execution of
Who was executed at Nottingham, this day (Monday), July 28, 1817, for the Wilful Murder of ELIZABETH SHEPHERD, by beating out her brains with a Hedge Stake, on the road between Nottingham and Mansfield.
A stone was erected Febuary 1819, near to the spot of where Bessie Shepherd was murdered, between Thieves Wood and Rickets Lane on the east side of the A60. It was paid for by Mr Buckles and other Mansfield residents. Bessie’s body was interred in Papplewick church yard near the church tower.
The tale of Bessie Shepherd does not end there. Legend has it that if the stone is disturbed, the ghost of the dead girl will appear. In the late 1930s, the stone was moved back a few yards when the road was widened. For several days after, a ghostly apparition was seen in the area. In the early 1950s the memorial was again disturbed when it was struck by a passing car. For a short time later, a young couple on their way to Mansfield reported seeing a white figure hovering over the stone. Perhaps the strangest incident happened in April of 1988. It was noticed that the headstone of Elizabeth’s headstone was missing. To publicise the missing headstone, two police men from Hucknall posed for an Evening Post photographer by the stone. One of the policemen felt an overpowering urge to touch the stone and was immediately inspired to return to the churchyard. The missing headstone was found underneath undergrowth just sixty yards from the grave site.