William Graham, Poacher of Longdales and folk singer whose story of violence and transportation inspired its own folk song.


In 1856, when our tale begins, William lived in a rude cottage above the Eden Bridge with his parents and two of his adult brothers, sleeping three to a bed. He could scarcely read or write but he could compose songs that would still be sung a century on.  He'd already married twice with wives in Appleby and Edenhall, one bearing his child. 

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Young William was a notoriously drunk and belligerent poacher with little to his name and little to lose.

 In those days poachers and gamekeepers knew each other well: the lines between them oft blurred and roles changing on a landowner's whim. 

William had recently come to court accused of assaulting local keeper Clement Richardson.   Though found not to be guilty he left the district for some weeks, returning a day or two before the fateful night of 15 November.

That dark eve he went drinking and then, with powder and shot in hand and his gun on his shoulder, set out to Coombs Wood, behind Nunnery Mansion on the banks of the Eden.

 Graham's gun and the keeper Simpson's pistol

Graham's gun and the keeper Simpson's pistol

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Disturbed by the Keeper

In the woods Graham's sport was disturbed by Thomas Simpson, local poacher turned gamekeeper, who knew where to find him.

Simpson was unpopular among the poaching fraternity.  He'd turned Queen's evidence against some of his companions in an earlier case in 1849, ratting on his mates.   

No-one knows quite what happened next but there was a violent struggle. 

 

Brutal Assault

William claimed in court that Simpson took aim and fired his double barrelled pistol with murderous intent.

Apparently in fear of his life William grappled with Simpson over the firearm and got the upperhand, beating the keeper senseless with the stock of his gun, beating him until the gun fell apart with the violence of the impact.  The assault was brutal.  Fragments of gunstock, bone and brains were found above the river. 

Doubtless trembling with the aftershock of killing a man William dragged Simpson into the Eden and returned home to caution his brothers and mother to silence.  There was some attempt to cover things up.  William and brothers Joseph and Henry joined the search for Simpson's body.  His mother tried to burn the gunstock and they concealed the barrel in the thatch when the police came calling.  

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£100 Reward

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The offer of a 100 pound reward led Frank Bowsted, a local rival, to implicate Graham, claiming premeditation.  

Arrested, then imprisoned in Penrith and then Carlisle gaols William suffered anguish and ill-health. Convinced he was dying he confessed fully to the crime, exonerating his brothers.  The trial was a local sensation: crowds rushed for admission to a packed court house, clothing torn and women fainting.

'Vile Concoction'

With good counsel and a fair judge the verdict was manslaughter after the murder charge was undermined.  William escaped the gallows when the judge dismissed Bowsted's evidence as 'a vile concoction' but the sentence was still harsh - William was to be transported to Australia for life. Copies of the Carlisle Patriot held in the Cumbria Archive record the proceedings and the verdict.  

Penrith Wesleyan Jonathan Stalker took an interest in William's state while he awaited the boat to Freemantle, his regular letters playing a part in transforming William's character. 

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Transported

Eventually William sailed aboard the Edwin Fox from Plymouth to the Swan River Colony, the last person from Cumberland to make that journey for their crimes.

His dissolute days behind him, William served his time in Freemantle gaol and earned a conditional pardon and a "ticket of leave" - a fresh start and a new life beckoning.  

 

Sheep Farmer and Kangaroo Hunter

He took up as a sheep farmer, lime burner and kangaroo hunter in Western Australia. Fascinated by the flora and fauna of the outback and the Aboriginal people he wrote to Stalker, back in Castlegate, Penrith describing his experiences.

Forbidden to return to England, his death in 1891 is nevertheless commemorated on the family memorial in Ainstable churchyard.

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"Lish Young Buy-a-Broom", the folk song attributed to him, was recorded by Bewcastle artist Maddy Prior and was still sung in The Plough inn at Wreay 100 years after his trial.  His story inspired its own song and continues to inspire musicians today.  

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 Jonathan Stalker, a prominent Penrith Wesleyan

Jonathan Stalker, a prominent Penrith Wesleyan