The centuries-old murder of a woman in a wood near Dunstable is still remembered thanks to an epitaph on her gravestone at Tilsworth churchyard.
Its inscription says: “This stone was created by subscription to the memory of a female unknown found murdered in Blackgrove Wood on Aug 13 1821.”
A poignant verse then follows, beginning:
Oh pause my friends and drop a silent tear
Attend and learn why I was buried here...
The headstone was recently cleaned and renovated, and flowers are regularly placed on the grave. But who was the unnamed victim? The best guess, after all these years, is that she was Mrs Janet Eastaffe, named Janet Lynch before her marriage.
Her husband, who had reason to want her dead, was accused of the crime seven years after the body was found. He was acquitted, principally because Janet’s mother was not present at the trial. Without the mother’s evidence, the judge and jury were left with an awful dilemma: What if the husband were convicted, and executed, and then his wife turned up, alive and well?
With death and burial records now transcribed online, it is much easier for family historians to search for documentation. So far, a death record for Janet Eastaffe has not been traced, which supports the theory that she is the unidentified lady buried at Tilsworth.
There have been numerous stories written about the crime, but very little about the apparent breakthrough in the case, seven years after the discovery of the body, when law officers became convinced about the identity of the victim, and believed that the murder had been committed by her husband, John Eastaffe.
The ancient Blackgrove Wood still exists (private property today) isolated in the fields almost opposite the church, between the village and Leighton bypass.
The woman was found, her throat cut, in a spot “peculiarly secluded and secret”, under a tree which became a morbid attraction for ghost-hunters and which was eventually felled and made into a sideboard.
The body was carried on a stable door, used as a make-shift stretcher, to a pub (presumably the Anchor) in the centre of Tilsworth where it was viewed by numerous local people. But her identity remained unknown despite a reward being offered and details of her clothes and appearance being published in many newspapers.
It was reported that she had protruding teeth and a crooked finger on her right hand - details which became important after March 1828 when Eastaffe was accused of her murder and brought before two Dunstable magistrates.
The fact that someone had been charged with the crime after such a long time was a sensational development and the preliminary hearing at Dunstable Corn Exchange was attended by a large crowd. The prisoner was remanded in custody at Bedford Gaol until his trial at Bedford Assizes in July that year.
Eastaffe, who came from Leighton Buzzard, had moved to London in 1819. In that year, at St James’s Church, Piccadilly, he married an Irish girl named Janet Lynch - without the consent of her mother.
John and Janet lived “very uncomfortable with each other” for just a short while. She became “so acquainted” with the soldiers at Knightsbridge barracks that he could not stay with her and went back home to live “in the hay country”.
He met another woman and was warned by a friend not to think about taking a second wife “otherwise they will transport you”. The prosecution claimed that a letter was written on his behalf to his wife asking her to come and see him.
By March 1828 he was living with another woman, who passed as his wife, at an address given in court as George Street, Battle-bridge (this location is a puzzle today). He told law officers that his previous wife was dead and was buried at Knightsbridge.
Janet’s mother, Mrs Downey (formerly Mrs Lynch) gave unsatisfactory evidence at the preliminary Dunstable hearing. She was said to be a very infirm woman, upwards of 70 years of age, and spectators remarked that she did not take the slightest notice of the prisoner.
Mrs Downey said she did not know anything at all of her daughter, or whether she was dead or alive. It was six or seven years since she had seen her. It could not be as little as four years – yet perhaps it might “her memory being very bad”.
When the trial began at Bedford, Eastaffe was charged specifically with murdering Janet Lynch rather than “an unknown woman”. But the prosecution failed to prove that the dead woman was actually Janet.
The evidence against Eastaffe largely depended on a series of witnesses who said they had seen him and someone resembling the dead woman at various places around Dunstable on August 13.
The couple had visited the Plough Inn (a pub, now disappeared, which stood somewhere near the Packhorse on the Watling Street near Kensworth), had been seen walking down the road by someone working “in Mr Gutteridge’s field”, had gone to the statty fair that night at Dunstable, had sought accommodation in Dunstable, and had called at the Black Horse (a pub in West Street later called the Plume of Feathers and now The Way community centre) where there had been dancing on the night of the fair. Finally, they had been seen at a stile leading into Blackgrove Wood, where the man had apparently threatened the woman with violence.
Eastaffe, on the other hand, denied all this. He said he had been reaping wheat in a field at Gads Hill, Leighton Buzzard, during the days of the Dunstable fair and had no knowledge of the woman found in the wood. He had not been among the vast numbers who had travelled to see her corpse at the Tilsworth pub.
Defence witnesses said that a Jane or Janet Lynch had been working in London, either as a shop assistant or a street walker, as late as 1824. This woman did not have the protruding teeth and crooked finger which had been noticed on the corpse of the victim.
Eastaffe had said that his wife had died in Knightsbridge but a solicitor instructed by the prosecution had searched through the burial records of the parish church of Knighsbridge and Chelsea from January 1821 to January 1826 and found no record of the death of Janet Lynch or Janet Eastaffe. And another solicitor, examining at the trial the clothes of the dead woman, made the previous unnoticed discovery that her shoes had, inside, the initials JE.
However, the trial judge said that clothes could be stolen or passed on. He commented that it was most regrettable that Mrs Downey, who had been examined in London and had given very important evidence, had not been produced as a witness. The crucial difficulty faced by the trial was that there did not appear to be satisfactory evidence that the woman found murdered was the daughter of Mrs Downey. He added: If Janet Lynch should be still alive, and should, after the conviction and execution of the prisoner, appear, what a dreadful condition would he and the jury be placed in!
The jury took just ten minutes to find Eastaffe not guilty of killing his wife and he was freed.
It means that the identity of the woman buried at Tilsworth remains unresolved. But, so far, no-one has discovered any records showing that Janet Lynch died elsewhere. Her aged mother, who might have resolved the matter to some extent, apparently went back to Ireland before the trial.