Published: 00:00, 27 January 2014
| Updated: 15:20, 27 January 2014
Shortly before midnight on a Saturday in August an angry drunk asked the ferryman at Snodland to take him across the River Medway.
Labourer Thomas Atkins, who was using the ferry to get home to Burham, was seething about a run-in with the local bobby.
He cursed as he told the ferryman how the policeman had hustled him off the street – and he threatened to mark the bobby if he ever got the chance.
That “chance” came a week later- and it ended in bloody murder.
Atkins, known by his landlord and workmates to be a quiet, good-natured young man, got drunk the following Saturday, again in Snodland.
The village bobby, PC Israel May, was outside the Bull Inn as Atkins staggered about. He refused help and leant against the wall complaining loudly about the officer and making drunken threats.
About half an hour after midnight, Atkins passed out beside the hedge just along the road from the Bull and near Snodland’s turnpike-gate. PC May tried shaking him awake but couldn’t rouse him so carried on with his patrol.
He said goodnight to a woman in Ham Hill at about 1.30am that Sunday morning and she remembered how his uniform buttons were shining in the darkness as he strolled back towards Snodland.
About an hour after that PC May was dead.
It was Sunday August 24, 1873, and he went down in criminal history as the first Kent police officer to be murdered on duty.
A bricklayer on his way to work at 6.15 spotted the body in a turnip field behind the hedge where the drunken Atkins had collapsed. He sent a friend to get PC May, not realising it was the officer’s body.
The constable had been beaten about the head with a blunt instrument, probably his own truncheon, which was missing. There were signs of a “desperate struggle” and any one of five blows could have killed him.
Near the hedge were the constable’s police cap and handcuffs and a man’s blood-stained cloth cap. In the field, near the body, was one of a pair of braces, probably wrenched from the assailant during the fight.
There was blood on that, blood on the road beside the hedge, blood on the ground and on PC May’s muddy uniform. His watch was still in his pocket – stopped at 2.40.
By the time the local superintendent arrived between 100 and 200 people were tramping over the crime scene.
Nevertheless a set of bloody footprints was found leading away from the body towards Malling.
PC May, who had joined the Kent Constabulary a year or two after it was formed in 1857, was married and had three children. His death triggered a massive manhunt.
The following day an inquest was held at the Bull, where the body was being kept, and the jury quickly returned a verdict of wilful murder.
The SE Gazette immediately predicted a speedy arrest.
Barges on the river were searched. Two soldiers seen acting suspiciously in Snodland at the critical time were tracked to London but turned out to be deserters. A reward was posted for the return of the missing truncheon.
But from the outset the main suspect as the “barbarous assailant” was 27-year-old Atkins. He hadn’t returned to his lodgings in Burham that Sunday. A warrant was issued for his arrest and his description was circulated nationwide.
As the manhunt went on PC May was buried in the churchyard of All Saints, Snodland, on August 28. Chief Constable John Ruxton and detachments of uniformed police officers attended the ceremony. All wore crepe armbands.
Four officers carried the coffin into the crowded church. The Gazette reported that “hardly an eye was dry”.
The officer’s widow was not allowed to attend for fear that she would be overcome by melancholy.
The Rector, the Rev Gaspard Le M Carey, praised the widow’s forbearance in a letter to the Gazette in which he asked every family in Kent to make a generous subscription to an appeal fund for the family.
“This brave woman has three children and it is but a little thing to ask that neither she nor her children should know want,” he wrote.
Six days after the murder, on August 30, the Gazette’s tone had changed.
It was “somewhat remarkable” that the suspect had not been captured. His description was all over the country and he had no funds so could not travel with speed or leave the country.
The chance of him being captured diminished with every passing day, said the paper.
By the time most people had read the article Atkins was already in custody after being found that Saturday morning at Kingsdown, near Wrotham.
His clothes told a grisly tale – his vest and tattered shirt were blood-stained, an attempt had been made to clean blood off his trousers which were held up by one brace – which matched the braces found at the murder scene.
But Atkins, who had a cut on his head and the remains of a black eye, told police that PC May had struck the first blow, starting the fight which ended in the policeman’s death.
The full story of the crime came out at Atkins trial at Kent Assize in December. It was reported in detail by the Gazette which devoted two broadsheet columns to the hearing.
Atkins pleaded not guilty to murder and “cried bitterly” as he stuck to his story that the officer struck the first blow, hitting him on his head with his truncheon. They struggled and fell through the hedge into the field.
He confessed he had got the “staff” from PC May and hit him on the head – five or six times. He threw away the truncheon.
The defence argued that there had been no “malice aforethought” which was necessary if Atkins was to be convicted of murder.
The jury found him not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter, so sparing Atkins from a mandatory death sentence.
The judge agreed it was a “different matter” if the officer had inflicted the first injury but said there must have been a moment when Atkins realised he was killing the policeman or at least inflicting severe injuries.
He jailed him for 20 years.
Note: A memorial to PC May, erected by voluntary subscriptions, still stands near the north-west corner of the churchyard of All Saints.
Sources: August 26, 1873, page 4; August 30 1873, page 2; December 6, 1873, page 4.
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