The Staffield Murder of 1856

The Staffield Murder of 1856 filled a lot of column inches in newspapers: likely the first and last time this little Cumbrian hamlet featured on the wider public consciousness.


While TV dramas and written fiction thrive on murder mysteries, most real murders are actually no mystery at all.

Most murders (in this journalist’s experience) are spur-of-the-moment, rather than the result of careful planning and clever fake alibis. A family member ‘snaps’, an argument gets out of hand. The killer is in custody within 24 hours and the judicial procedings take their course.

The Staffield Murder of 1856 wasn’t really an exception to that ‘modern rule’. But nor was it simple to secure a conviction.

The Staffield murder protagonists

On Saturday, November 15, 1856, gamekeeper Thomas Simpson, 26, left his pregnant wife Margaret and their toddler to go on watch.

Thomas Simpson, ‘a man of great courage’ was from Bolton, Westmorland, and had taken the job of gamekeeper at Staffield Hall the previous summer.

When he failed to return home, his wife sounded the alarm. And on the Sunday, a search found his coat, blood, and a trail that led to the river Eden, where his body was discovered. He had been  battered to death, with several blows to his head.

On Monday, November 17, police went to Langdales, and arrested brothers William Graham and Henry Graham. Another brother, Joseph, was arrested later. Their mother Nanny Graham was in the act of burning a gun stock when the police arrived at their home.

The Grahams were ‘notorious poachers’ and William Graham had, a few months previously, been convicted of assaulting Clem Richardson – the previous gamekeeper of Staffield Hall. 

It was suggested in the Carlisle Journal that Clem Richardson had given up his job because of William Graham, ‘being afraid to pass the winter near such a character’.

Deemed remote – even by folk in Carlisle

The Carlisle Patriot waxed lyrical about the ‘wild and romantic scenery’ of the ‘remote district’ of Ainstable.

The river Eden winds it devious course towards Carlisle, now dashing furiously amongst the rocks which for the most part compose its uneasy bed…

and on it went.

The Staffield murder reward

Proceedings took their course, but the investigation into the Staffield murder wasn’t getting very far. So, in December 1856, the magistrates offered a reward of £100 for the conviction of the offender(s). While the Secretary of State for the Home Department offered to pardon any accomplice to the act (but not the actual murderer) who gave evidence to secure a conviction.

There is a suggestion that a lot of people who might know were either related to the Grahams (part of a large family in the Ainstable area) or afraid of them.

It was reported that there were around 13 families in Langdales (the censuses suggest 17 dwellings). A tinker named Hogarth had ‘built a sod hut and made a living making tins’. His sons and daughters grew up, married ‘and as it has become an invariable rule that none of them should leave the place of their nativity to settle elsewhere, it has become a very numerous family’.

But £100 was a huge sum.

A confession

Meanwhile, the three brothers were being kept in separate cells in Penrith House of Correction. Where William Graham’s health went to pieces. He became ‘fretful and nervous’ and could barely walk into the court room for one preliminary hearing. His features were ‘care-worn,’ his voice ‘tremulous’ (the Kendal Mercury reported).

The Bible became William Graham’s constant companion (according to the Carlisle Journal), and by Christmas, he had confessed to the killing. 

By now, he was ‘in an exhausted state, drained of colour, and emaciated’.

The Mercury reported he hadn’t slept for three weeks, and his ‘once muscular and manly frame’ had wasted away ‘to a skeleton’.

The Mercury thought the ‘hand of death was upon him.’

Damning, but dubious evidence

And there was now a witness.

Francis Boustead, labourer, claimed he’d been thrashing corn for Mr Goulding of Baser Dyke when William Graham had come in and said he was going out that night to shoot game.

Francis Boustead claimed William Graham had told him:

If that bloody keeper comes to me, out goes’ the b——-’s brains. I neither fear heaven nor hell, God nor devil…. Mark my words this night, this very night, I will be that b——-’s end…. There never shall be a b——r about Staffield Hall take me. I will never die with my shoes off…. I do not care a d—n if I am hanged tomorrow.

It was damning evidence – if it was true. But the general opinion was that no one believed a word of it. Either Francis had over-egged the pudding, or made the whole thing up to get the reward.

It didn’t help matters that Thomas Simpson had been battered to death on November 15, but didn’t make his statement to the police until December 15 – a few days after the reward had been offered. And nor had he done anything to warn anyone at Staffield Hall that their gamekeeper was in danger.

For sure, William Graham had ‘form’ in assaulting gamekeepers. And the jury at the inquest found Thomas Simpson’s death to have been murder, at the hand of William Graham.

The Staffield murder trial

The criminal trial was set for Carlisle Assizes.

And William Graham got better. 

In February 1857, he pleaded ‘not guilty’ to murder.

Fighting to get a seat in court

The Carlisle Patriot was ‘painfully disgusted’ at the scrum of men, women and children battling to get into the court when the doors opened. It led to ‘torn clothes, and damaged limbs’ with court officials, the police, and counsel getting caught up in it. Once inside, it was so hot and airless that several persons fainted.

William Graham’s defence was that Thomas Simpson had come after him, and fired a pistol as he ran away. He’d tumbled, the gamekeeper had caught up with him, they had struggled – and Graham had struck him three times with the small end of his gun, kiling him.

The judge thought Francis Boustead’s evidence was ‘a vile concoction’ and told the jury if Thomas Simpson had fired a pistol at William Graham, then Graham was entitled to defend himself.

The jury found Graham guilty of manslaughter, rather than murder. The sentence was to be transported for life.

Francis Boustead defends his honour

Having been accused of making up a story that could have got William Graham hanged, Francis Boustead appeared before Penrith magistrates himself in March, to try to prove his case.

Francis called as witnesses his wife Sarah Boustead, neighbour Ann Harrison, Ann’s son Thomas Harrison, Isaac Barnes, and Jane McWhain. All of whom said that Francis Boustead had told them about William Graham’s threats well before the reward was offered.

Francis Boustead said had had kept quiet at first for two reasons. One, he worked for Mr Goulding – who was William Graham’s uncle – and was afraid of losing the work. And two, he was afraid of William Graham.

Penrith court was also told that when the story was put to William Graham by the latter’s solicitor, he’d said: “Yes, it’s true.” However R B Moore, the solicitor in question, wrote a letter to the Carlisle Journal in April saying that bit had not happened.

Who was Francis?

Francis Boustead was a farmer of just 24 acres (and a labourer). His address in 1861 was 1 Street House, Ainstable. So, while he may have feared the numerous relations of William Graham, it didn’t prompt him to leave the area.

He was then 34 and he and his wife Sarah had seven children to raise (they went on to have five more). In 1856, it would have been three, and £100 reward would have been roughly four or five years’ wages for him.

A closely linked community 

Francis’ employer was Joseph Goulding, a farmer of 150 acres.

Langdales, on the 1861 census, has a lot of Hogarths, who were of course also related to the Grahams.

At 1 Langdales, in 1861, were the Graham family: William’s parents William and Nanny, and several of their children and grandchildren. Including (killer) William’s brothers Henry, now 33, and Joseph, now 21 – who’d spent time in custody, on suspicion of helping William move the body. 


And Joseph Graham didn’t forget Francis Boustead’s testimony. For in November 1861, he was charged with assaulting Francis in the King’s Head, at Armathwaite.

Thou’s false sworn. If thou doesn’t tak care, thou’ll git what the keeper gat, and if I cannot deot mysell there will be them left behind that will deot for me.

Francis said if they did, they would have to go where the others had gone.

Joseph Graham gave him two black eyes, and admitted assault but not the threat. He was locked up till next day, when a fine of £5 was paid.


William Graham had a sister called Barbara. One of her descendants says:

Very interested to make contact with any family (Graham family, or descendants) in the area – or anything else about them. Happy to receive emails at

James also knows a lot more about what happened to William Graham after he was transported to Australia: it’s quite a story!