The Shelford Arsonist

Let me tell you a story...

On 14 November 1828, at about 6.30 am, the inhabitants of High Green would just have been getting up for their day's work. It was pitch dark. Or it should have been... There was a glow coming from William Headly's ricks near Browning House, fortunately at some distance from the house, but a source of worry nonetheless. It was so dark that the flames were spotted from Cambridge, and so the fire engines arrived of their own accord and soon the fire was under control. But by that time it had spread from the straw-stack to the cornricks to the farm buildings. It was a mess. Fortunately, Headly was insured, so the loss, which amounted to £600 or so, was not his to bear alone.  The fire was declared the act of an Incendiary.

Incendiarism, as it was then called, had become a commonplace all over England. The word had the same force as "terrrorism" does today. The farmers must have uttered a groan - it has come to Shelford. It was a symptom of deep social unrest.

Six months passed.

27 April 1829. At 9.10pm a fire began in Mr Stacey’s haulm-stack (haulms are the dried stems of peas and beans and would, I think, have been used for cattle feed). It soon spread to a barn containing about 30 loads of wheat.
Imagine how dark the world was then. No street lamps, no electricity, no gas – just oil lamps or rush lights or candles. It was so dark that the fire could be seen from St Neots and March. Trumpington Road was soon lined with sightseers.
The Shelford fire engine arrived promptly. Now don’t imagine a large red motor vehicle with a siren and a huge, powered hose. This was a machine operated by hand, a pump with a water tank powered by 6 or so labourers which was supplied by men with leather buckets from a pond or river. It was stored in the church. The labourers were paid 6s 6d for each outing. It was very hard work.
The Shelford engine was shortly followed by five more from Cambridge, all owned by insurance companies – the Hertford, Norwich, Royal Exchange, Phoenix and Sun engines. People often say to me that they thought the fire engines in those days would only come out if you had a fire badge – there is one on Oak Cottage in the High Street. But it seems that all the engines turned out regardless. You can see that it would be in each company’s interest to cooperate with the others – these engines weren’t very efficient, so the more the better.
Again, the fire was brought under control. The losses amounted to £200, again insured. The fire, commented the newspaper, was “the diabolical act of an incendiary”. The emotional temperature of Shelford was rising.

The Sun insurance badge on Oak Cottage

Two and a half years pass.

15 December 1831. At about 6am a fire breaks out at Henry Headly’s farm (Rectory Farm). Being so near the river, there is a good supply of water, and the fire is soon under control, but it continued burning for the rest of the day. This time the damage amounted to £3,000.
A few days later, a reward of £400 is advertised for information leading to the apprehension of the culprit. Almost immediately Joseph Ellerm (more usually spelt Ellum these days) is arrested, then John Ostler. Ostler is soon released, but Ellerm appears at the Cambridgeshire Assizes. The Grand Jury return a finding of “No True Bill” - meaning there was no case to answer. Joseph Ellerm must have breathed a sigh of relief as the prospect of the noose receded! Arson was a hanging offence.

Again, things go quiet.

And then, at the beginning of 1833, a little diversion occurs. Mr Wilkinson, a farmer of Little Shelford is the target. Straw stack, wheat and a barn are all consumed, and the damage amounts to some £800. The brave boys of the Shelford fire engine quickly do their work. But before this fire there is an ugly scene. The labourers use threatening language to the farmer, although we don’t know what their grievance was. When fire breaks out, three of them are arrested - Joseph Shearing, John Ansell and Robert Elborne.
There follows an eventful week. A Bow Street runner – a London detective – has been brought in to help the local police. On 7 February, at the very time that the magistrate is examining witnesses in Little Shelford, there are two more fires. Is someone having a laugh?
The two fires are in Great Shelford. Henry Headly is targetted again, though only his haulm stack is burned. Meanwhile a stable, gig-house and storerooms belonging to Mr Carter are consumed.  Fire. That’s all that’s in everyone’s minds. A reward is offered again. Meanwhile, at the County Gaol, our three labourers attempt a break-out, having made themselves wooden skeleton keys. They are later released. A sense of bathos is introduced when the fire at Mr Carter’s is found to be the fault of a lad who accidentally left a candle burning, and was too frightened to own up.
And then it seems that madness sets in.

25 February 1833. Mid-afternoon. Henry Headly’s cart shed is destroyed.

13 April 1833. At 11am Joseph Payne, a small farmer, finds a fire in his barn. Much damage is caused to the premises of a poor man, John Adams, next door. At 6pm William Headly’s haulm stack is destroyed.

27 April 1833. The property of William Cambridge is targeted. A barn is destroyed, but mercifully the two small cottages which constitute the rest of the farm are untouched – the inhabitants are in bed asleep.

23 May 1833. In the late afternoon a barn and two straw-stacks belonging to William Kirby are destroyed. One of the barns has been standing less than a year.

29 May 1833. One of the watchmen on his round discovers a fire in Thomas Pearson’s barn.

5 June 1833. At 5am there is a fire in the sheep yard of Peter Grain on the Green.

On each occasion the Shelford fire engine does sterling work. Tension in Shelford has risen to fever-pitch. Then there is a break-through.

On 12 June 1833, a stack belonging to poulterer William Dean was fired. The fire was soon put out, but a ball of rags and two matches were discovered high up in the thatch. A labourer called John Stallan had been loitering in the area. The rags were traced back to his wife, Elizabeth. Stallan was arrested. He was a Shelford labourer, aged 33. He immediately claimed his wife was the arsonist. He was sent to the Assizes at Cambridge for trial.
It is at the trial that we start to see small vivid glimpses of Shelford as it was in 1833 as witness after witness is called.

William Dean was a poulterer (someone dealing in poultry) and labourer, who kept a few cows. He was showing his son, a lad of 13, how to do a job when he noticed smoke coming from his cart shed. He used his cart in his business, he said, and would be lost without it.
It was a very windy, heavy day, and the fire was smoke rather than flames. Dean lived on Tunwells Lane, and opposite was Mr Headly’s field, where Stallan and Richard Jeffrey were working. Mr Headly leans over the hawthorn hedge to see what’s going on, and sees the Deans examining a bundle of rags that have been used to start a fire. The Deans remember that they have seen Stallan loitering about several times. The rags are given to Mr Headly, who gives them to Mr Grain – the chief farmer and a man of authority in the village. He traces them to the Stallans. This is a face-to-face society. You may be the richest farmer in Shelford, but you know who everyone is, rich or poor.

At the trial Stallan challenged witnesses who had seen him set the fire. He loudly proclaimed his innocence:
“I am as guilty of the offence of which I am charged, as our blessed Saviour who perished for the wickedness of man”.
His protestations were, according to the newspaper, “extremely pathetic”, but at times incoherent. Stallan was in a real panic. He was found guilty and sentenced to hang. The judge was very stern –the crime of destroying property and spreading terror was heinous, and there could be no mercy.  Stallan’s defence tried to argue a technicality which led to his sentence hanging fire for almost six months. In prison he confessed to 11 fires, but not to the one at Mr Stacey’s. He claimed he set them because each time he worked the fire engine – being one of the team – he earned 6s 6d, more than half a week’s wages. He set five fires at Henry Headly’s (for whom he worked), because this was most convenient for him. He stated nevertheless that Headly was “the best of masters”.
His death sentence was, of course, a warning to the others. Other incendiaries continued ”almost nightly to spread devastation” across the country, so this was an important message.
The week before his execution, his wife and family were allowed to visit him to say goodbye. “There was an immense concourse of spectators present; the streets were literally swarming with persons, and had very much the appearance of a living current. We regret to add that females formed the great majority!” (Shades of the Life of Brian! The use of the term “person” indicates that these were lower class persons, whose interest was considered in poor taste).
The day of his execution was described in great detail. An execution is always a momentous event. Not surprisingly, since a man was going to die. But people experienced a morbid fascination too, as the crowds show.
We are told that Stallan’s conduct had been for a length of time “uniformly becoming”. At 9am he took communion, and attended service in the gaol chapel with the other prisoners. He said a few words to them, apparently warning them not to pursue his course and to seek the Lord. However, he said he did not feel equal to shaking hands with them. These were the first signs of his fear and distress. He was led from his cell and towards the scaffold. However, his courage failed him as he reached the platform, and he needed support. The chaplain prayed with him, but Stallan could barely mouth the Lord’s Prayer. The drop fell, and Stallan died immediately, a warning to us all.
There were stories afterwards in the London papers that the execution hadn’t been well conducted. Our Cambridge press informs us that the “wind being very high and strong, the body when suspended was moved about by the wind, which might have led some persons to have imagined that the culprit was struggling”. Disturbingly graphic. The execution was, of course, held in public.
It was an example, a set piece to demonstrate the power of the law, and the consequences of crime.
He was brought to Great Shelford to be buried. The funeral was the occasion of another set piece – a sermon preached by the Rev. Edward Baines MA, Fellow of Christ’s College, which was afterwards published ( and can be found in the Cambridgeshire Collection). It was an important occasion to ram home the moral lesson of Stallan’s end, and also to reinforce the social order. Baines’ text was: “If thou warn the wicked and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity”, Ez. III. 19. The sermon is a call to repentance: “It is a fearful thing when one is made a warning to his fellows – when a bitter doom falls upon one whom we have known, the neighbour of many...”. He was indeed a neighbour of many. According to the Cambridge Independent Press, “Stallan was a man greatly esteemed in Shelford by his brother villagers until his crimes were known, and was always considered a steady, industrious person; and although he attempted to lay the blame on his wife, when he was first charged with the offence, she avows that a more affectionate husband or tender father never existed”.
But let us return for a moment to Baines’ sermon. A bitter doom had certainly fallen on Elizabeth Stallan, left with two children, one only a year old, and the shame of being the widow of a hanged man. No easy life. She was still in Shelford in 1841, living in a cottage which belonged to the parish. Where else would she go after all? She died in 1848 aged 53.

It is easy to take the story of John Stallan at face value: he was a man who set fires for the money. But is that all there is to it? I don’t think so.
I didn’t know much about arsonists, so I did a little reading about the subject. Firesetting can be the consequence of personal problems – a cry for help. It can be done for reasons of revenge and anger. It is, of course, a covert act, the product of a burning but suppressed anger.
I also tried to find out a little about John Stallan. This is not easy – members of the labouring classes leave few traces of their stay on earth, and Stallan’s only claim to fame is his trial.

Stallan was baptised in Great Shelford on Dec 14 1800. He was the son of James and Ann Stallon. He was one of a family of seven. He married Elizabeth Patman on January 25 1820, a shotgun wedding (as was common enough among their class). Their daughter Ann was baptized on April 2 the same year, but she died in September of the following year, aged 1. Another son was born in 1824, and another in 1832. Mrs Stallan, according to the court report, was very short – 4 feet tall and “rather deformed”.
On 20 April 1827, the Cambridge Chronicle tells us that his cottage was up for sale – “to be sold by auction, 2 copyhold tenements occupied by James Wright and John Stallion, with a common right over the valuable common of Gr Shelford. Enquire Wm Cambridge”. He would only have rented this cottage, and presumably this represented a change of landlord.
His elder brother William was killed in December 1832 in a fight in Trumpington.

Is there anything among this scatter of events to suggest emotional distress enough to set him fire-setting? It is hard to say.

This was a dark period in English history. The labouring classes were poorly paid. Their wages barely covered the expense of feeding and clothing their families, and the chief item in their diet was bread, unrelenting bread, not the roast beef of old England. Yet all around them they could see wealthy farmers, with their carriages and their fancy clothes. They were sullenly resentful. But any unrest was dealt with by some very rough justice. Men (and women too) were transported for seven years, or even hanged, for crimes which were often driven by need. So acts of rebellion or revenge were subterranean - animal mutilation, arson, destruction of orchard trees – you will see all these reported in the Cambridge Independent Press. Here is a typical example:
“A few days since some miscreant entered the orchard of an industrious  individual at Diton, and cut down and entirely destroyed 119 fruit trees, of 7 years’ growth.”
This crime expresses hate. So many fires, animals maimed and crops damaged, this argues something more is happening than  a series of inexplicable mysteries, which is all the newspapers of the time suggest.

It is my opinion that Shelford, like the rest of the country, had a population of labourers who were very angry, but too afraid to openly show the fact. When interviewed by a Poor Law investigator, Peter Grain confirms this view (Class War in Shelford), saying that the working people protected Stallan. It is suggested, too, by the fire at Little Shelford where there is bad feeling shown between the farmer and labourers. There is also the question of who set the fire at Mr Stacey’s? Stallan denied it was him. It seems there was another arsonist.

Stallan himself seems to have been a well-respected man, who turned aside from his normal deferential habit to became an arsonist. All his fires damaged property and produce but avoided people (as was commonly the case). Stallan’s transformation, once arrested and in prison, back to a frightened and contrite religious man suggest someone who was neither bold, nor openly rebellious. I see him as a man driven by resentment out of his normal behaviour. His six months in prison, and the accompanying terror, ground him back down into a man who accepted the unjust social order.
The men of property bore considerable responsibility for what happened. They were, of course, men of their time, and behaved as those of their class did all across the country. They accepted the rightness of their privileged position in society, and the subordinate role of the labouring class. They demanded submission and deference from those labourers. They treated them with injustice and a lack of respect. Disrespect engenders disrespect. Injustice engenders anger. Stallan committed crimes, but he was a victim too. Like that other victim, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, he paid with his life.

There is an interesting article entitled “Rural Unrest” by Michael Woodhouse. It discusses arson in East Anglia and notes that “it is highly likely that arson, the reality and the threat became the primary strategy whereby labourers sought to influence wages and employment”. This was certainly the case in Shelford. Farmer Peter Grain says as much (Class War in Shelford). So don’t imagine the story of the Shelford arsonist is just a local anomaly!
    Michael Woodhouse's paper can be found in "An Atlas of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire History", eds. T. Kirby & S. Oosthuizen. It is article no. 64.