The butcher who tried to kill a Lamb

The Mayor of Rye in 1743 was James Lamb.   As the Mayor of the ancient Cinque Port he was also responsible for law and order in the town and acted as the Chief Magistrate.    A particular problem for him was a local butcher, John Breads, who could regularly be found drinking at the Flushing Inn.  On one occasion the Mayor convicted Breads of using false weights to sell his meat. Breads was not happy and swore his revenge witnessed by several of his drinking pals.  He was known to be violent and had already appeared in court charged with stabbing a man in the arm.

On 17th March 1743, the Mayor’s son John, was due to leave Rye on his first voyage to France. A party had been arranged on board his ship which was berthed near the Fish Market in Rye Harbour.  The Mayor who was a widower was not feeling too well that evening and, when his former wife’s brother, Allen Grebell called in on him, he asked him to go to the party in his place.  Grebell, who had also served as the Rye Mayor, agreed.  As it was a cold night, Lamb lent his brother-in-law his coat.

Grebell attended his nephew’s party and no doubt had a merry old time, happily full of smuggled spirits and wine. He left the ship between 2am and 3am and returned home via the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin Church in the centre of the town.  He did not realise that Breads was waiting for him.  There was a violent and no doubt frenzied attack and Grebell was stabbed a number of times including two fatal penetrations into his lungs.  Breads threw his knife into some bushes before making his escape; this was a foolish thing to do – his name was carved into the handle.

The Scene of the Crime – Rye Churchyard

The injured Grebell managed to stagger home.  He told his servant that he had been attacked in the churchyard and fell into a chair.  It was the middle of the night and the servant, believing his master to be drunk left him and went to bed.

Meanwhile a short distance away, the Mayor, James Lamb was having a sleepless night.  In a dream his dead wife, Martha warned him no less than three times, that her brother was in trouble.  James got up and walked the short distance to Grebell’s house and roused the servant.  The two men found the body of Allen Grebell slumped in his chair in a pool of blood.   Several surgeons were called but there was nothing they could do.

An Inquest was held later in the day and the jury returned a verdict of Wilful Murder.  Initially the poor servant was suspected but soon the investigation had turned to the true culprit  – John Breads who, believing he had killed the Mayor had drunkenly boasted that ‘Butchers kill Lambs’.   He was arrested and held in the town gaol – now the Ypres Tower Museum where the ring he was chained to can still be seen.

170422 Ypres Tower.jpg
The Ypres Tower – where the murderer was held.

It is remarkable that when he appeared at court the judge was his intended victim, James Lamb who could hardly be said to be impartial!   Luckily there was not to be an unfair trial; at one point Breads shouted “I did not mean to kill Grebell – it was you I meant it for and I would murder you now if I could!”.

The sentence was a forgone conclusion. On 8th June 1743, the executioner collected Breads from his cell and took him to his place of execution the marsh just across the river from Rye Windmill.  They stopped briefly at the murderer’s favourite pub, the Flushing Inn so the condemned man could have one last drink.    The cost of the execution was £11 and 11pence which included the cost of the beer not only for the prisoner but for the executioner and his assistant!   The case was covered by the national press.

Screen Shot 2017-04-23 at 13.44.31

The next day the body of the murderer was removed and placed in the town gibbet – a metal cage – to be displayed as a warning for years to come.   It was to be the last body to be held in the Rye gibbet.  After 16 years, the body and skeleton slowly disappeared and the gibbet was removed to the church. It is said that local women would steal small pieces of bone to grind up to use in cures for rheumatism. Only the skull remained, stubbornly stuck into the top of the gibbet.Screen Shot 2017-04-23 at 13.50.06

Amazing the gibbet, still containing Breads skull, survives and is held in the attic of the Town Hall. It is not on show to the public but replicas can be seen in the Ypres Tower and in the room which houses the excellent Town Model at the Rye Heritage Centre.

In 1946 the original gibbet and skull were put on display at a police exhibition in Church Street, Brighton.  The Chief Constables Association were holding their 50th Conference in the town and many went to see the gruesome display which had been specially collated for their visit.

The murdered victim was buried in the North (Clare) chapel at Rye Church.  I visited the church yesterday and after some difficulty managed to find the memorial stone to Allen Grebell.  After moving a few chairs I was just able to read the inscription:


Here Lyeth the Body of


after having served the Office of

Mayor of this Town for ten

years with the Greatest Honour

and Integrity fell by the Cruel

Stab of a Sanguinary Butcher

on the 17th March 1742 aged 50.

He left issue of one Son and one Daughter.


Another reminder of the case is in the naming of the local council car-park and recycling centre just off the B2089 to the west of the town. It is called ‘Gibbet Car-Park’

Rye is a beautiful place and well worth a visit, but like many Sussex towns has a quirky past!


Sources:  Ypres Tower and Rye Heritage Centre. Sussex Today Magazine 1987. Report from a lecture given by Rye Councillor Vidler in 1929. Contemporary newspapers and the Tatler Magazine 1903. 


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