You all know the amateur detectives in fiction. Miss Marple, the village busybody; Lord Peter Wimsey, the literary aristocrat; and Father Brown, the little Catholic priest who solved crimes and saved souls.
Hoo St Werburgh had its own Father Brown — but the Rev Richard Jordan was more of a blood-and-thunder Anglican who stepped in out of a sense of justice when the police failed.
On the night of Sunday, 11 December, 1808, one of his parishioners, William White, was shot through the head as he sat beside his living-room fire at Crockham Farm in the village.
He died instantly and the Rochester coroner recorded an open verdict. Two Bow Street runners were sent to investigate. They questioned a great many villagers, but in common with the official police force of crime fiction, got absolutely nowhere.
The planning of the murder was ingenious. After dark, the murderer made a hurdle in the farmhouse’s back garden, rested the gun upon it and aimed through the open scullery window, straight at the farmer’s fireside chair.
It was done by someone with local knowledge; somebody who knew that on a Sunday evening farmer White would be alone, without domestic servants. It was done by somebody who knew that the shot could be disguised by another sound — a salvo of shots fired from the nearby convict hulks to mark 8pm.
Under the cover of this noise, the murderer pulled the trigger, hid the gun in a nearby barn, and disappeared into the winter night. White’s body was found five or 10 minutes later by his younger children, whose cries and screams could be heard drifting over Hoo’s hedgeless fields.
Suspicion immediately fell upon White’s eldest son, George. He had been heard to threaten his father and was known to be after the farm. William White was also considering making a new will. But 24-year-old George satisfied the Bow Street Runners as to his innocence and provided a cast-iron” alibi: he was a good half-an hour away from the farmhouse in Hoo village during the murder.
A public dinner – and a statement from the suspect
The Rev Richard Jordan, however, was unconvinced and set about his own investigations. On 26 January, Mr Jordan preached a bloodcurdling sermon during which he said he had placed a book in the vestry in which each male parishioner must enter his name, stating — with the name of a witness — where he had been at 8pm on 11 December.
A week later, the vicar issued a broadsheet asking for information from “strangers” who might have been in the area that fateful evening. A week later, he systematically questioned the villages — even more rigorously than the official detectives.
On 26 March he ordered George White to call a vestry meeting for the purpose of “clearing himself from the suspicion entertained of his having murdered his father”. On Easter Monday, when 40 parishioners dined together at the Bells Inn after a meeting to settle the parish accounts, the vicar again forced the unwilling George to make a public statement.
This was a vicar with a mission. His inquiries shook the young man’s alibi severely. The vicar was able to prove that George White, on leaving the farmhouse at 6.50pm to walk to Hoo with a waggoner’s mate had not turned back — as he said — to fetch a handkerchief from his bedroom. In fact he had gone into the back garden to set up the hurdle. The handkerchief alibi failed. George had no handkerchief when he first saw his father’s body. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.
George White had also claimed he had bought a bag of nuts at the village shop at 7.45 — but Mr Jordan was able to provide a witness who had seen him cracking and eating them at 7.40. George had also said that he was standing at the yard gate of the Bells pub when the salvo fired at 8pm. The priest was able to prove that had taken place a quarter of an hour earlier — giving plenty of time for an active young man to run to the farm and kill his father and double back to the village.
In fact, the vicar’s housekeeper had noticed George was out of breath when he came to the back door of the vicarage. So did the cleric’s evidence manage to hang one of his parishioners? No. George White was never brought to trial. He soon emigrated to Australia – leaving his inheritance, and his accusers behind.
* Jordan’s investigations were noted down, but later disappeared. A local historian saw it in the 1890s and copied its contents. This feature is based on a précis of the book made by an unnamed correspondent to The Times in 1965.