Luther Constable (1849-1936) was born and died in Barcombe. He was a bricklayer and was my great-great-great Uncle.
In June 1893 Luther was a victim of crime when one of his chickens was stolen from the coop at the family home in Hamsey Road, Barcombe. At 2/6d the chicken was quite valuable and Luther suspected the culprit was 51-year-old Sarah Rooke who lived in Church Road.
Luther had checked that his chicken was cheerful the night before but the following morning he saw Sarah nearby and shortly after realised that there had been ‘fowl play’ (excuse the pun!) He called on the local policeman, Sergeant Allman of the East Sussex Constabulary to investigate.
Later that day Sergeant Allman visited the home of Sarah Rooke where she lived alone, her elderly mother having died a few months earlier. He rapped on the door but although it was only 7pm, Sarah opened her bedroom window wearing her nightdress. He told her to get dressed and let him inside but when she opened the front door she was still wearing her nightgown with a petticoat wrapped around her.
Not wanting to search the house of an improperly dressed suspect, the good Sergeant called upon the nearby cottage of Peter Hoadley and asked his wife Sarah to assist him. The Sergeant and his newly found assistant returned to Sarah’s cottage and she was told that the house would be searched for a stolen chicken. Sarah said “You can search where you like – I got nothing!”
During the search Sarah suddenly rushed upstairs and ran into her bedroom, locking the door. Sergeant Allman managed to get the door open and found Sarah on the bed but he noticed that there were loose feathers on the floor ‘which corresponded to those of the missing bird’. Something was moving under Sarah’s nightgown. Mrs Hoadley quickly lifted it up – and there was the chicken – tied to the top of her leg with string!
Sarah immediately claimed “The fowl is mine! I bought it and I paid for it, so I did.” (However she didn’t seem to explain why, if the poor bird was indeed legitimately hers, why it had been hidden, strapped to her thigh under her nightgown!)
Mrs Hoadley kept an eye on Sarah whilst Sergeant Allman took the chicken to Luther Constable who formally identified it as his own property. He then returned to Sarah’s cottage and arrested her, asking Mrs Hoadley to dress her before she was taken to Lewes Police Station.
Sarah Rook was charged with hen-napping and appeared before Lewes Magistrates a few days later. The case was put to the bench. Sarah was clearly disturbed and her only defence seemed to be that she had recently purchased some crockery which had been broken!
Superintendent Coppard, prosecuting admitted that the defendant seemed to be in a “queer and exhausted” state but she received no mercy from the bench and was sentenced to 14 days in Lewes Gaol.
It seems odd today that a clearly mentally disturbed woman would be punished with a prison sentence, especially when she was mourning for her recently deceased mother. It is also interesting to see that, in the days before policewoman, how Mrs Hoadley had been used to assist the Constabulary with both the house search and supervising and dressing the suspect. I wonder if she was paid for her trouble?
I feel sorry for Sarah but I am pleased that my ancestor Luther Constable got his stolen property back. I hope the chicken was OK as it must have traumatic for the poor creature to have been strapped to the thigh of a woman and hidden under her nightdress!
My thanks to Barcombe Historian Ian Hilder for the photograph of Luther Constable.
The Photo of the chickens was taken by my grandmother, Bessie Roberts at Litlington in 1926.
The painting of the chickens is on display at Bowes Museum.