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John Shaftoe Wilthew; Skeletons in the closet (from ‘Bisset Generations’)

September 8, 2011

[Originally published 02 March 2011, Bisset Generations]

John Shaftoe Wilthew, my 4th Great Grand Uncle, was executed for murder on 11th August 1859. On the following day, The Times reported:

The Times Newspaper, 12th August 1859

The Times Newspaper, 12th August 1859

John Shaftoe Wilthew had married his wife, Susannah Charlton (widow of William Bell) on 12th December 1831. This was reported in issue 8186 of the Newcastle Courant on the 17th of that month:

“On the 11th inst. at Whickham, Mr. John Wilthew of Dunston, to Mrs. Susannah Bell, widow of Mr William Bell, of this town, sail-maker”

The Bishop’s transcript record of the marriage indicates they were married by licence.

At the time of the census of 1841, they are recorded as residing in Whickham, Gateshead, County Durham with seven children. Two of these children (Barbara (15) and Anthony Charlton (13)) were in fact the children of Susannah and her first husband William Bell. The other five were (dates from parish register indexes and Bishop’s transcripts):

  • Susannah Wilthew (born c.1830, aged 11 at the time of the census)
  • John Shaftoe Wilthew (Jnr – baptised 21st July 1833, aged 8 at the time of the census)
  • Charlton Wilthew (baptised 5th July 1835, aged 6 at the time of the census)
  • Isabella Wilthew (baptised 2nd December 1838, aged 2 at the time of the census)
  • Elizabeth Ann Wilthew (baptised 19th September 1841, aged 3 months at the time of the census)
John Shaftoe Wilthew and family in the 1841 census

John Shaftoe Wilthew and family in the 1841 census

It is unclear what John Shaftoe’s occupation was from the census, but he is recorded as being an ‘agent’ or ‘clerk’ in the baptism records for each of his children up to that date, and at the baptisms of two of his subsequent children (George Edward Wilthew, baptised 30th July 1843 and William Willmett Wilthew, baptised 8th February 1846) he is recorded as an ‘agent’ and a ‘clerk in a factory’ respectively.

[Class: HO107; Piece 302; Book: 13; Civil Parish: Whickham; County: Durham; Enumeration District: 5; Folio: 18; Page: 30; Line: 13; GSU roll: 241349.]

Bearing his occupation, name and residence at recorded at the time of his marriage, he is also probably the “John Wilthew, Clerk, Dunston” recorded in a list of subscribers to “A descriptive and historical account of the town & county of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, including the borough of Gateshead”, a local history publication of 1827 written by Eneas Mackenzie. If so, then John Shaftoe Wilthew was at least literate (as you wuld expect of a Clerk!) but also was interested, or at least wished to appear interested, in educating himself.

In 1851, John and his family are recorded as residing in Bassaleg, on the western outskirts of Newport, Monmouthshire.

[Class: HO107; Piece: 2453; Folio: 84; Page: 12; GSU roll: 104194.]

Modern day Map of Bassaleg, Monmouthshire

Modern day Map of Bassaleg, Monmouthshire

Here, he is listed as living with his wife and 7 of his children. Susannah and John Shaftoe Junior are not present, and his two step children are also absent. All of these 4 children would have been adults by this time. in addition to Charlton, Isabella and Elizabeth Ann from the 1841 census, we also now have George Edward Wilthew (8), William Willmett Wilthew (5), Henry Wilthew (3) and Eliza Jessy Wilthew (5 months). His occupation is recorded as being a ‘[Castiron?] foundry master, employing 13 people’. If true, he appears to have done well for himself.

However, by the late 1850’s he was back and living in the north east of England, and in the summer of 1859 he was charged, convicted and hanged for the murder of his wife and mother of his 7 children. The Times Newspaper, on Thursday 21st July 1859 reported:

“SHOCKING MURDER – In the midst of a storm of rain and thunder which broke over the Tyne on Tuesday morning a fearful amount of excitement was created in the manufacturing village of Jarrow, near South Shields, by screams and cries of murder which came from a dwelling near the railway station in that village…”

The Manchester Guardian reported the initial grisly details, which were then reprinted in local dailies across the country on Thursday 21st July 1859, in Edinburgh, Leeds, Hull, Birmingham, Lancashire and London.

“A man named John Shafto Wilthew murdered his wife by cutting her throat with a razor, and afterwards made a similar attempt on his own life… [he] and his wife occupied two small rooms in Drewett’s buildings near the railway station, Jarrow, for which they payed a rent of 3s. a week. Residing with them were three of their children, namely a girl, 17 years of age, and two boys, one 12 and the other 13 years of age; and a brother of the deceased, named George Charlton”

The children were Elizabeth Ann Wilthew, William Willmett Wilthew and Henry Wilthew. The Leeds Mercury of the same day (issue 6980) additionally recorded that:

“the prisoner had allowed his victim to be in a profound sleep, her little daughter lying beside her, when he got up, procured his razors and cut his wife’s throat ion a most fearful manner.”

How this affected each of the children present (and perhaps in the same bed, if not certainly in the same or an adjoiing room) would certainly be interesting to investigate – William Willmett Wilthew later emmigrated to Australia and New Zealand, although I am unsure if this was because he was orphaned or to escape the stigma attached to his family’s name by his father’s actions.

The report continues…

“About four yesterday morning, Charlton, who slept in the kitchen, was greatly alarmed on seeing his sister enter from the other room in her night-dress holding her hand to her throat, from which the blood was flowing profusely. She was unable to speak and presented a fearful spectacle … Presently her husband, having only his trousers on, came running through into the yard. In a few minutes he returned, when Charlton, suspecting from his appearance that he had done or meant to do himself some injury, left his sister for a moment and followed him into the other room, where he found him lying on his face in a pool of blood. He returned to the kitchen to attend his sister, who was sitting on the floor, with her head resting on a stool. Blood was flowing very fast from her. By this time several of the neighbours entered the house. Dr. Saunders was sent for, and on his arrival he immediately attended to the deceased, who was considered to be in a most dangerous condition. He found that she had received a severe wound in the throat. ON Dr. Saunders commencing to dress the deceased’s throat, she looked imploringly to him, and gasped rather than spoke the words “Oh, Doctor Saunders, I didn’t deserve this! She was getting weaker and a few minutes after the doctor had stitched up and bound her wound she expired.”

Of course, John Shaftoe Wilthew survived his attempt to slash his own neck… or survived long enough at least to go to trial and be hung from it 3 weeks later.

The inquest and trial took place over the following days, and was reported on in the local newspapers. The following is an amalgamation of reports in the Newcastle Courant of 22nd and 29th July 1859, and the Leeds Mercury of Saturday 23rd July.

“the prisoner had ill-used the unfortunate woman and threatened to murder her before he committed the crime, and that he subsequently admitted that he murdered her though jealousy… He had no drink that night. His wife had often told him [her brother George Charlton] that [the] prisoner had threatened to take her life. A son that has gone to be a soldier some time ago, took a razor from him. [The] Prisoner was a violent man when he was drunk, and used to break ans smash everything in the house when he came home.”

One neighbour, a Jane Hart, said;

“She had heard the prisoner threaten to take her life some time before … if she would not give him money. He laid her down and “rifled her pockets”. He took the money out of her pockets and kicked her… Deceased never reported on the prisoner, but took it all quietly.”

John Shaftoe Wilthew was widely reported as seeming very calm during most of his committal hearing and trial, and felt justified in his actions;

“[On the following morning, he] was reading a chapter in Ezekiel. He said that he felt justified in the act. He felt justified owing to his wife’s guilt. Prisoner left a note explaining his actions as “all was not right between her [his wife] and the Irishman who lived below, and he thought they had been using bricks and pop bottles outside the window to ‘send signals’ to each other.”

The jury took half an hour to find him guilty of wilful murder at his trial, and he was sentenced to…

“be hanged by the neck until you are dead; your body thereafter shall by interred within the precincts of the prison; and may the Lord have mercy upon you.”

John Shaftoe Wilthew was recorded as being 55 and native of Dunston. He was a gatekeeper at Palmer’s yard at the time of the murder (records held by various, see the National Archives), and whilst the trial was heard in a packed courthouse and his neighbours had little sympathy for him, there seems to be some impression that through drink he had fallen on hard times (this would certainly seem so, having been recorded as a ‘master employing 13’ in the 1851 census in Wales, to being a drunken, wife-beating gatekeeper for a shipbuilder’s yard yard by 1859).

Questions to follow;

  • How did this affect his children?
  • Which was the son who took the razor off him when he had ‘left to join the army some years ago’?
  • Did any major event contribute to the family falling on hard times (their daughter, Eliza Jessy Wilthew had died in 1859)?
3 Comments leave one →
  1. Elaine Shaftoe permalink
    August 26, 2013 10:23 am

    Hi I was just searching my family on line & came across your information. I am Elaine Shaftoe, borne in easington Co. Durham 1952.. I do not know very much about family history – my grandfather John Shaftoe did work in the Sunderland shipyards – my father was a builder.

    • November 6, 2014 9:52 pm

      Thanks Elaine. My apologies for not replying sooner; I took an extended break due to having my first child, moving home and changing job. The origin of John Shaftoe Wilthew’s middle name remains a mystery so far, as I have not yet found any Shaftoe who married in to the family, which would usually be the explanation for someone having a surname for a middle name.


  1. When is a Wilthew not a Wilthew? (1: Anthony Charlton Wilthew) « Wilthew One-Name Study

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