If you ever venture into St. Lawrence’s Church in Hungerford and have a sniff around, you will find on the wall of the north aisle a memorial plaque made of marble which immortalises William and Ann Cheney who were brutally murdered in Hungerford. Although the inscription dates back to 1762, it can be clearly read which suggests that it was erected some years later by family members, probably the Bartons. (see below)
So who were the Cheneys, where did they live and what happened?
William Cheney was born in 1679, his wife Ann in 1691, however there are no references to the birth or marriage of William in the local parish registers or to the birth of any children, so it might be assumed that the couple were childless. In her will, Ann Cheney left her property to her cousin Catherine Barton, the wife of the Reverend Dr Phillip Barton. Phillip was Canon at Christchurch, Oxford.
William must have been quite a wealthy man since he owned at least three properties in Hungerford at the time of his murder. Research undertaken by Norman Hidden and Dr.Hugh Philens identify these as 88, 114 and 122 High Street.
One of the properties he owned had been previously owned by Matthew Loder who was the Lord of the Manor of Hungerford, supporting the assumptions that William was a wealthy man and perhaps that robbery was the reason for these murders.
Newspapers reported that the elderly couple were found on Sunday morning of 12th November 1762 at their home and in all probability, this was 114 High Street, Hungerford. At the time, Hungerford was situated in Wiltshire.
Mr. Cheney was found dead in his chair having had his head split open and his brains beaten out. His wife Ann, who was barely alive, was found in a pool of blood caused by a series of wounds to her head and face. She was unable to speak and tell the police what happened. Their servant girl had been away from the house that day and upon her return she found that all the doors were shut and she was unable to wake her employers. That night she slept at a neighbour’s house and on the following Sunday morning she reported the matter.
Sadly, Ann died of her wounds. The estimated time of death was 9 pm on Saturday 11th December, the night before.
Although robbery may have been the motive, the murderers took very little in the way of booty apart from an old silver watch and several rings belonging to their victims. Common items on display in the house such as plates were left untouched.
Locals had reportedly been under the assumption that the Cheneys kept a large sum of money in their home but this was not the case; when a neighbour had called around seeking change for a 30s bank note, Mr. Cheney was not able to help. It also seems that the Cheneys were very frugal (or perhaps just parsimonious) as they would not allow an older maid who lived with them to heat her accommodation and she was forced to seek the shelter of a neighbour’s house on a number of occasions in order to keep warm.
The only possible lead as to the perpetrators of these heinous murders was that a couple of strangers had been seen around the town several days earlier and had enquired specifically by name about the whereabouts of the Cheneys, although it was believed they never paid a call upon them.
Following the murders, a diligent and thorough search of the town was made for the strangers but alas, to no avail. At the time, even some local people were suspected, but again nothing became of the suspicions.
One interesting fact about the murder was that all doors to the house were locked when the maid tried to enter the premises on returning from her day off. Another couple of possible leads to who did this dastardly deed can be found in the literature.
In a report two years later, a gypsy was arrested in Salisbury on suspicion of having carried out the murders but after having been interviewed was released without charge. In those days, gypsies and in particular travelling gypsies would often conveniently be blamed for all manner of unsolved crimes!
Seventeen years after the event a woman named Mary Howard, who was a seller of ballads (in other words a street busker) went before the Mayor of Kingston-Upon-Thames and confessed that she and her accomplice Isaac Jones, a pedlar, had killed the elderly couple. Despite one newspaper report that she was taken into custody and a search made for her accomplice, there was no subsequent court case to be found in the literature. She may simply have been seeking fame.
The Berkshire Directory (1762)
The Gentlemans Magazine (1762)
The Gentlemans Magazine (1764)
Aspects of the Early History of Hungerford (Hidden)
Hampshire Chronicle (1780)