The gruesome murder of a Soberton man near Hambledon which made legal history

Hambledon Murder of Soberton Man in 1782 Marker

The grisly murder of a Soberton man marked one of the first convictions for murder based on purely circumstantial evidence, with the accused man convicted of murder by a jury at Winchester Assizes and hanged, without ever admitting his guilt.

In the late afternoon sun on Wednesday 21st August 1782, James Stares, a 46-year-old rural labourer, walked from his home in Soberton to Hambledon via a bucolic lane known as Cams Hill.

He had arranged to meet a local man in The New Inn pub to collect payment for some recent labours. After pocketing his wage in the bar, he enjoyed a convivial evening drinking with the male company.

Late in the evening as he prepared to leave he was joined by a young blacksmith, John Taylor, who lived in the hamlet of Hoe Cross. John said that as he was also going home via Cams Hill they should walk together for company and safety – so, after the farewells, they made their way home through the warm night…

Early the following morning a group of labourers walking along Cams Hill on their way to work found an alarming scene. What looked like a large pile of bloody rags, on closer inspection, was found to be the battered corpse of a male.

Several of the group remained at the scene while the others ran to Hambledon to raise the alarm.

A couple of hours later a group of parish officials and local men inspected the scene. Organised and regulated policing as we know it didn’t come in for another half-century or so; but these rural, part-time officials, were still a force to be reckoned with.

Although they had never heard of crime scene examination, forensic recovery or the judicial rules of evidence, they were practical, intelligent men fortified with the zeal of protecting their own community and loved ones.

They could make logical and balanced assumptions and operated under various statutes, in particular Common Law, which gave them the right to force entry and seize individuals suspected of a crime. In addition, they would have been armed with cutlasses and staves, and possibly firearms.

The corpse was examined and was found to have extensive lacerations to the face and head. He had been brutally beaten. His throat had then been cut laterally but this had apparently not been deep enough to stop him screaming or calling for help, so a vertical cut had been made from his chin to his upper sternum, presumably to destroy his vocal chords.

There was no money on the body and his metal buttons and shoe buckles had been taken. Someone in the group identified the corpse as James Stares. Nearby was a broken, blood covered, thick wooden pole, variously described as a ‘broom stick’ or ‘walking stick’, which was recognised as having been in the possession of the blacksmith John Taylor the previous evening.

Some men were detailed to take the body of James Stares to his home village of Soberton while the remainder descended on Taylor’s small smithy at Hoe Cross.

John Taylor denied any foul play claiming that he and Stares had walked together a while and parted ways for their respective destinations. The smithy and adjacent cottage were searched and, although nothing stolen from the body was found, secreted behind the forge a blood-spattered rural worker’s long white smock was located.

These smocks were hand-stitched and often made by family members so could be quite individual. Taylor denied any knowledge of the smock, but any lingering chance of convincing the officials of his innocence evaporated when they administered an evidential coup de grace.

They had his mother identify the smock as belonging to her son. She gave this statement probably knowing she was sending her son to the gallows; but such was the gravitas of the incident and her fear of the community’s collective reaction, that she felt compelled to condemn him.

Taylor never admitted guilt but was swiftly convicted of murder by a jury of his peers at the local assizes and publicly hung shortly afterwards. It is not recorded what happened to the broken-hearted mother whose evidence helped convict her own son.

The devastated Stares family buried their loved one in Soberton village church where his gravestone can be seen to this day. They then paid for a memorial stone to be erected at the murder site and although it’s inscription has been lost with time one source states it began, “Let future generations know…”.

Why did an apparently respectable member of a small, close-knit rural community commit such a violent unprovoked deed? We will never know for certain; but these people were the same as us and, as we can see from our own times, the combination of avarice and alcohol can lead many astray.

A Grade II listed monument stone in Hambledon marking murder was severely damaged in June 2020. It is unknown how the stone was damaged. James Stares is buried beneath the large stained glass window in Soberton churchyard.