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200-year miscarriage of justice exposing ruling class
Jon Dale, Mansfield Socialist Party
Exactly 200 years ago a 17 year-old Nottinghamshire girl was murdered walking home to Papplewick village from nearby Mansfield. She had been looking for work. Three weeks later a former soldier was hanged for her murder.
Within two years a memorial stone was erected, inscribed: "To the memory of Elizabeth Sheppard of Papplewick who was murdered when passing this spot by Charles Rotherham July 7th 1817."
The Murder of Bessie Sheppard, by David Marshall, describes his 40-year investigation into this crime, completed in 2014. Why was Bessie killed - and why was the name of her killer commemorated alongside hers?
Marshall unearthed contemporary newspaper reports of the murder, trial and hanging. The more he researched, the stronger there seemed to have been a miscarriage of justice.
Today, Papplewick is a pretty village but when Bessie lived there with her mother and younger brother it was dominated by Robinson's cloth mills - which exploited child labour. Marshall comments: "Robinson was a very rich man. He was also, I concluded fairly quickly, a bastard."
New machinery threw hand-loom weavers into destitution, as well as soldiers returning from the Napoleonic wars who roamed the countryside.
Less than 24 hours after Bessie was brutally bludgeoned Charles Rotherham, a travelling scissor-grinder, was arrested on the outskirts of Loughborough, about 20 miles away.
As Marshall explains, police forces at this time were in their infancy, set up in response to growing civil unrest. How and why did the police make such a remarkably quick arrest?
Marshall shows contradictions in witness reports, throwing doubt on Rotherham's conviction, and questions why he apparently confessed to the crime immediately after arrest.
Marshall makes a good case for Rotherham's defence. But if it wasn't him, who else might have killed her?
Newspaper reports of the time say Bessie's mother thanked the "nobility and gentry of the town of Mansfield and its vicinity for the many favours and kind assistance she has received since the murder of her daughter."
He speculates that Bessie had been working as a prostitute to support her family and that Rotherham's rapid arrest, conviction and execution conveniently prevented further investigation of the 'nobility and gentry', who raised the finance for the memorial stone and had Rotherham's name inscribed on it.
The local gentry might also have been keen to see a poor stranger found guilty of the crime as four weeks earlier, barely ten miles away, 200 to 300 armed workers marched from Pentrich towards Nottingham, thinking they were taking part in a national uprising against the government. The leaders were awaiting trial in Derby gaol, later to be hanged or transported to Australia.
Justice, far from being a traditional right enjoyed by all, served the rich and well-connected. Working class people have had to fight for justice - and continue to do so, as the Hillsborough and Orgreave campaigns show.
In The Socialist 5 July 2017:
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