The true story of the 1840 murder of Nevell Norway, a Cornishman is a famous Cornish murder. Nevell Norway was the great grandfather of author Neville Shute (1899-1960). Although the murder itself was unremarkable in itself, it had great media coverage at the time and a strange psychic twist. The murder, on 8 February 1840, was by brothers William Lightfoot and James Lightfoot.
Nevell Norway was the great grandfather of the famous author Neville Shute, which has since made it a murder that has continued to draw people’s attention. It was a murder which Conan Doyle detailed in his book “The Edge of the Unknown”.
Mr Nevell Norway was a well-known, popular and philanthropist and well-established timber importer and general shipping merchant who lived at Wadebridge, Cornwall. Born in 1801 and baptized in Egloshayle Church on 5 November, he was the son of William & Mary Norway, of Court Place, Egloshayle. Nevell’s father, William Norway, had died in 1819 aged 45. His mother, Mary, died in 1855.
Nevell was the second of nine children baptised at Egloshayle by William and Mary, the others were: William King Norway/1799, John Norway/1802, Samuel Norway/1806, Edmund Norway/1808, Thomas Norway/1809, Horatio Fillis Norway/1810, Edmund Norway/1810, Henry Norway/1812.
Nevell Norway or Nevill Norway?
The correct spelling of Nevell Norway’s name, as inscribed on his gravestone and confirmed by his great-grandson, the author Neville Shute, is NEVELL,
The title of books and films have incorrectly followed the original mis-spelling, having taken the wrong spelling from the court transcriptions and media reports at the time.
As a timber and shipping merchant, Nevell, aged 39, travelled regularly round the local markets, buying and selling. He had a very good reputation locally, his family having traded in the area for generations.
On 8 April 1840 Nevell travelled to Bodmin market on horseback, the normal mode of transport for the time.
At about 4pm Nevell Norway bought some goods and emptied the contents of his purse out into his hand, he had quite a collection of gold and silver coins – which was seen by William Lightfoot of Burlorn, Egloshayle, who was at the market with his brother James Lightfoot, and passing by.
Once Bodmin market closed for the day, Nevell Norway didn’t go straight home, but stayed in Bodmin until just before 10pm. His home in Wadebridge was about 9 miles away, the road was dark and lonely, passing through a lot of woodland and past Dunmeer Wood and Pencarrow Estate.
Nevell was riding a grey horse and started his journey with a companion, Mr Hambly, who was with him for the first three miles, but then branched off in another direction at Mount Charles gate. This left Nevell alone on the road.
A little later, John Hicks, a farmer from St Minver, and a Mr Christopher Bowen, were returning from Bodmin market to Wadebridge on horseback saw a horse in the road at Clapper, saddled and bridled, but without a rider. The horse galloped off and, intrigued, when they encountered two separate men further along the road near Egloshayle. Mr Hicks asked them if they’d seen the horse. Both had and the second man said he thought that the grey horse belonged to Mr Norway.
Hicks knew where Nevell lived, but didn’t want to knock on his door that late at night – but noticed a light on at the stables, one of Mr Norway’s waggoners, so they called in and asked if Mr Norway was about and told the story of the horse they’d seen. .
Mr Gregory, the waggoner, got a lantern and went out for a look – the grey horse was standing near the stable gate. The horse was checked over and spots of blood were spotted on the saddle. Mr Gregory went off up the road to search for Mr Norway, he was joined by Edward Cavell, one of Mr Norway’s servants who lived at Mr Norway’s house. Mr Hicks went to alert the local Doctor, Mr Tickell, before heading back towards Bodmin. By now it was past 11pm and the body of Mr Norway had been found just the far side of Sladesbridge and was being brought back the two miles to Wadebridge.
The body of Nevell Norway had been found in the stream, at Northill, lying on his back, with his feet towards the road. He was dead. Doctor Tickell performed an examination.
Doctor Tickell found that the deceased had received injuries about the face and head, produced by heavy and repeated blows from some blunt instrument, which had undoubtedly been the cause of death. A wound was discovered under the chin, into which it appeared as if some powder had been carried; and the bones of the nose, the forehead, the left side of the head and the back of the skull were frightfully fractured.
A further examination was made of the spot where the body had been found – and on the left-hand side of the road they found a pool of blood and evidence of a body being dragged from that point, across the road and into the stream. Footprints of more than one person were in the mud and it was deduced that whoever had made the footprints was heavy. There was also evidence of a huge struggle at the scene.
Two separate sets of footmarks could be traced of men pacing up and down behind a hedge in an orchard next to an empty house – evidence of men lying in wait for their intended victim.
A short distance from the pool of blood was found the hammer of a pistol that had been recently broken off.
They checked Nevell Norway’s pockets and realized that the motive must have been robbery as his purse, a tablet and a bunch of keys were missing.
Route and Murder Place: This map shows the route from Bodmin (A) to Wadebridge (F) and the murder spot (C)
- A: Bodmin town
- B: Mount Charles Gate, where Nevell Norway was alone
- C: Murder 1/4 of a mile before Sladesbridge
- D: Clapper, where the horse was seen by some
- E: Egloshayle
- F: Wadebridge
Purple square: Where the Lightfoot brothers lived. They covered the distance from (C) to here across the fields.
This map was compiled using Google Maps and the exact route taken at the time isn’t known, but, from local knowledge and seeing where the streams currently run, it will be a fair estimation.
The Cornish Murder Hunt: £100 Reward
A reward of £100 was offered for any information that would lead to the murderers being caught, but nobody knew anything. Eventually, a detective from London, called Charles Jackson, was sent for. Jackson managed to find the murderers as he found a Mr Harris, a shoemaker, who said he had seen James and William Lightfoot loitering around the empty cottage at Northill late that night after Bodmin fair.
The next door neighbour of James Lightfoot, Mr Ayres, a blacksmith, said he had heard James coming home very late that night and say something to his wife and child and that Mr Ayres could then hear them crying. Mr Ayres said “The bedroom wall partitions are very thin and there are holes in them. I heard James Lightfoot’s wife and child crying. James Lightfoot said, ‘Lie still! The folks will hear thee, damn thee!’ The wife said, ‘I won’t lie still – they shall hear me and I don’t care if they do!’”
On 14 February, the police searched James Lightfoot’s cottage and found a pistol, without a lock, hidden in a hole in one of the ceiling beams. Lightfoot was acting guiltily so was arrested.
Three days later, on 17 February, James’ brother William was arrested because he had told a Mr Vercoe that it was both of them that had been involved in the murder.
At a hearing before a magistrate William made a confession:
Scene of the Crime
An etching was produced for the Court to show the crime scene. It included marks (labelled A-E), which are not present any more, indicating:
- A. The small stream of water into which the body was thrown, after the murder had been perpetrated.
- B. Cottage, at the time uninhabited.
- C. Part of the road where the attack was commenced.
- D. Entrance to the field where the murderers waited for some time for their victim.
- E. Field in which Mr. Norway’s hat was found.
William Lightfoot’s Confession:
Three days later, on 17 February, James’ brother William was arrested because he had told a Mr Vercoe that it was both of them that had been involved in the murder. At a hearing before a magistrate William made a confession:
“I went to Bodmin last Saturday week, the 8th instant, and on returning I met my brother James just at the head of Dunmeer Hill. It was just come dim-like. My brother had been to Burlorn, Egloshayle, to buy potatoes. Something had been said about meeting; but I was not certain about that. My brother was not in Bodmin on that day. Mr. Vercoe overtook us between Mount Charles Turnpike Gate at the top of Dunmeer Hill and a place called Lane End.
We came on the turnpike road all the way till we came to the house near the spot where the murder was committed. We did not go into the house, but hid ourselves in a field.
My brother knocked Mr. Norway down; he snapped a pistol at him twice, and it did not go off. Then he knocked him down with the pistol. He was struck whilst on horseback. It was on the turnpike road between Pencarrow Mill and the directing-post towards Wadebridge. I cannot say at what time of the night it was.
We left the body in the water on the left side of the road coming to Wadebridge. We took money in a purse, but I do not know how much it was. It was a brownish purse. There were some papers, which my brother took and pitched away in a field on the left-hand side of the road, into some browse or furze. The purse was hid by me in my garden, and afterwards I threw it over Pendavey Bridge. My brother drew the body across the road to the water. We did not know whom we stopped till when my brother snapped the pistol at him. Mr. Norway said, ‘I know what you are about. I see you.’
We went home across the fields. We were not disturbed by any one. The pistol belonged to my brother. I don’t know whether it was broken; I never saw it afterwards; and I do not know what became of it. I don’t know whether it was soiled with blood. I did not see any blood on my brother’s clothes.
We returned together, crossing the river at Pendavey Bridge and the Treraren fields to Burlorn village. My brother then went to his house and I to mine. I think it was handy about eleven o’clock. I saw my brother again on the Sunday morning. He came to my house. There was nobody there but my own family. He said, ‘Dear me, Mr. Norway is killed.’ I did not make any reply.”
William was then remanded in Bodmin Gaol and en route to the gaol William pointed out the furze bush where Nevell’s belongings were thrown. James was already being held at Bodmin Gaol, where he too had since also made a confession. In James’ confession he blamed William for the murder.
Tried and Sentenced to Hang
The two Lightfoot brothers were tried at Bodmin on 30 March 1840, before Mr. Justice Coltman, and found guilty. They were sentenced to death by hanging. William Lightfoot was 36 years old and his brother James Lightfoot was 23.
Up to this point the brothers had not had any chance to communicate, so the differences in their stories showed each was trying to save his own skin and frame the other.
Once sentenced, they were put into the same cell – and immediately started arguing and fighting, so they had to be separated and put into separate cells.
Intended to Rob Reverend William Molesworth, St Breock
After sentencing, when in prison, William admitted that his confession been a lie and that they had both arranged to meet, with the purpose of robbing the Reverend William Molesworth, of St Breock, but when William had seen Nevell’s purse full of gold and silver at the market they decided to rob him instead. However, when James had fired his pistol twice at Mr Norway, William had struck Nevell with a stick on the back of his head and knocked him off his horse. James had then battered his head and face with the pistol.
Hanged at Bodmin Gaol
On 7 April 1840 their families came to say their final goodbyes and on the following Monday, 13 April, William Lightfoot (36) and James Lightfoot (23) were hanged in front of Bodmin Gaol.
A report from the time said 10,000 people went to watch the execution, fuelled partly by the recent arrival of the railway line to Bodmin, but additionally because the Bodmin & Wadebridge Railway ran three special excursion trains to Bodmin on 13 April, carrying 1100 passengers to observe the hanging of William and James Lightfoot
James Lightfoot Genealogy:
- Born: 1815 in St Breock, Cornwall
- Married: Maria Carveth/Carvett on 5 August 1838 at St Breock, Cornwall.
- Children: Maria and James had one daughter between them, Mary Jane Lightfoot, born in 1839 and possibly a son, Charles, born first quarter of 1840. Mary Jane emigrated on 18 September 1855 to Australia where she married John Myers on 6 August 1859 at Balmain, NSW.
- Mary Jane changed her surname to that of her mother’s maiden name by the time of the 1851 Census, so was married under the name of Mary Jane Carveth.
The Last Words of William Lightfoot
The execution was reported in the Cornish Guardian on 17 April 1840, along with portraits of the murderers being printed. The local newspaper reported that the prisoners “ate their breakfasts with an appetite and relish which surprised even their attendants, whose long association with criminals had never before made them acquainted with two mortals so indifferent to their approaching death.”
On the scaffold William Lightfoot told the chaplain:
“Remember me to my wife and family and request them to shun the path of vice that I have fallen into.” James Lightfoot said: “Tell my wife and child to go to church regularly.”
William Lightfoot’s Wife Maria
Nevell Norway was buried at Egloshayle parish church on 13 February. The parish registers include a note by the burial:”Murdered at North Hill, Feb 8, by the Lightfoots of St. Breocke, Burlawn – both sentenced to death at Bodmin”
After William’s death Maria Lightfoot lived with (but didn’t marry) Gershom Bennett and had four more children with the surname of Lightfoot:
- Nathaniel Lightfoot,
- Edwin Lightfoot,
- Elizabeth Ann Bennett Lightfoot,
- Anna Maria Lightfoot.
None of these children lived past the age of 3.
William Lightfoot Genealogy:
- Born: 1804 at Lower Treneague, St Breock, Cornwall, UK.
- Christened: 15 July 1804 at St Breock.
- Wife: Maria Harvey (born December 1813 at Downhill, St Eval).
- Married: 21 September 1833 at St Breock.
- Children of William:: William Henry Lightfoot, Maria Lightfoot, Elizabeth Lightfoot, Angelina Lightfoot.
- Parents: John Lightfoot and Elizabeth Penaligon.
The 1841 Census shows William’s wife and their three daughters living at St Columb Union Workhouse. The son of William/Maria was older and living at his grandparents house at Trenaig, St Breock.
Widow Sarah Norway and Six Children
After the murder, Mr. Norway’s wife, Sarah, and six children, had been left in severe financial straits and a collection had been made for them, raising £3,500 – equivalent in buying power of about £250k at today’s values, or (calculated based on average earnings) £2,5million. The inscription on Nevell Norway’s gravestone details this collection, or subscription as they refer to it.
A monument to the memory of Mr Norway was erected at Egloshayle Church.
The headstone is tall and can be found in the eastern corner of the cemetery, near the gate leading to the Church. Three years later, in 1843, C Carlyon wrote “Early Years” and included an update to the original story – the psychic premonition of Nevell’s brother Edmund Norway.
Edmund Norway’s Psychic Dream
A further tale came out of this tragedy – a tale of psychic ability. Edmund Norway, brother of Nevell, was at sea, as Chief Officer of the Orient, when the murder occurred – and he’d had a vivid dream showing him all the details of the event. Upon waking he mentioned his dream and wrote it in detail in the ship’s log. He didn’t find out about the murder until much later.
“… wrote a letter to my brother, Nevell Norway. About twenty minutes or a quarter before ten o’clock went to bed—fell asleep, and dreamt I saw two men attack my brother and murder him. One caught the horse by the bridle and fired a pistol twice, but I heard no report; he then struck him a blow, and he fell off the horse. They struck him several blows, and dragged him by the shoulders across the road and left him. In my dream there was a house on the left-hand side of the road.
At five o’clock I was called, and went on deck to take charge of the ship. I told the second officer, Mr. Henry Wren, that I had had a dreadful dream, and dreamt that my brother Nevell was murdered by two men on the road from S. Columb to Wadebridge; but I was sure it could not be there, as the house there would have been on the right-hand side of the road, but it must have been somewhere else.…
“Chief Officer, Ship Orient.”
The log-book of Edmund Norway is said to be still in existence.
There are some points which can be noted from this dream and the actual murder – in his dream Edmund Norway saw the house on the right hand of the road, and as he said, the cottage was on the left hand, he thought that if the dream was incorrect in one point it might be in the whole. However, what he couldn’t have known is that during his absence from England the road from Bodmin to Wadebridge had been moved, so that the position of the house was precisely as he saw it in his dream.
Although there is a time difference between where Edmund was and Bodmin, when you account for this his dream was at the moment his brother was being murdered.
Edmund probably didn’t know of his brother’s murder until he arrived back in England six months later.