Farmhouse gunfight led to three death sentences

IN March 1852, 160 years ago this month, Huntingdon Assizes saw three men sentenced to death for burglary.

Burglary stopped being a capital offence not long afterwards, so they were among the last people to be condemned for it. As it turned out, they lived to a ripe old age.

The men had broken into Holborn House at Great Raveley one night, when they knew that the owner had taken money out of the bank at Ramsey to pay his farmworkers.

Thomas Fairley, 69 years old and alone in the isolated house with his elderly wife, must have seemed an easy target. But when he heard the break-in downstairs he came out of his bedroom with a horse pistol in one hand and a revolver in the other.

The robbers had guns too and for a while the farmhouse resembled the OK Corral. Mr Fairley fired shots down the stairs and the burglars fired back from the doorways of the ground floor rooms.

When that didn’t work they heaped straw at the bottom of the stairs and set fire to it, filling the house with choking smoke.

Mrs Fairley’s contribution to the gunfight had been to keep telling her husband, “take steady aim,” advice he could probably have done without. Now she tried to escape by running downstairs through the flames, but was seized by the robbers.

Most Read

With his wife held hostage Mr Fairley had no choice but to surrender. The couple were sent back to their bedroom while the burglars ransacked the house.

They left at 3am and Mr Fairley rode to Upwood to raise the alarm. But his wine cellar had done the job for him. Two of the men were found drunk in roadside ditches.

A third man got as far as Leicester before being arrested and a fourth was taken prisoner at Nottingham. Brought back to Peterborough by a local constable he was met by a policeman from Ramsey – but while the two constables argued about splitting up the reward for his arrest, he escaped and was never recaptured.

The other three had their death sentences commuted to transportation for life, but one of them was found to be insane while awaiting a ship for Australia. He ended up in Broadmoor and died there in March 1905, aged 86, after more than 50 years under lock and key.