Murder in the dockyard hellhole

By Diane Nicholls

The still afternoon air was broken by the steady clash of iron on stone. A gang of men struggled and sweated in the heat as their hammers drove smashing blows into the rock. Then, without warning, the rhythm changed. A dull thud and a scream broke the pattern. A prison warder lay helpless as a convict rained blow after sickening blow upon his shattered head.

Prisoner James Fletcher had hate in his mind. A warder’s report had earned him two days’ solitary confinement. Sweating alone in the summer heat of his cell he nursed a grudge against another James.

Warder James Boyle had reported the prisoner for swearing at a fellow inmate of the hellhole that was Chatham’s dockyard prison. The evil place was euphemistically known as St Mary’s prison, but there was nothing saintly about it.

Fletcher's temper snapped and he lashed out at the hated warder

Fresh from his lonely cell, where he had been given only bread and water, Fletcher emerged blinking in the glare of the September sun. His fellow convicts, who included a man of 70, had been set to work on the back-breaking task of smashing stones.

Fletcher laboured with them throughout that afternoon in 1866 until his temper snapped. Without warning he lashed out at the warder he blamed for his torment and dealt him a fatal blow.

Boyle had no time to draw his sword. And although he was surrounded by convicts, not one of them came to his aid. Only one man, a fellow officer, rushed to help. He attacked Fletcher in time to stop him smashing his sledgehammer down for the fourth time on Boyle’s head.

The convict was stabbed in the scuffle and he and Boyle were taken to the prison infirmary. Fletcher, a powerful ex-miner hardened by the rigours of life as a convict, recovered. But 37-year-old Boyle lived on in agony for three days before he died.

A magistrate was hastily summoned to his bedside for an impromptu court, but Boyle never regained sufficient consciousness to make a statement. As Boyle’s body began to grow stiff and cold, Fletcher must have known that the odds were stacked against him. He could not escape the hangman’s noose.

The inquest, the committal proceedings at Chatham court and the trial at Maidstone Assizes were virtually formalities. Fletcher’s record stood against him and public opinion demanded he should pay the supreme price for flouting authority.

It was impossible for those trying the case to forget that the tough 23-year-old in the dock had been sentenced at Newgate to seven years’ hard labour for highway robbery with violence. Throughout the proceedings, Fletcher maintained he had killed Boyle because the officer was continually reporting the men for no reason and picking on them. He made dramatic claims that the convicts had to eat candles and soap to compensate for their meagre diet and that conditions were so bad he knew he would not survive his sentence.

The convict told the court: “I thought I would do this and get shot of my life, as I was sick and tired of it.”

Fletcher’s counsel said the prisoner had been smarting under a sense of injustice. He added that Fletcher had been holding the murder weapon before the attack and he asked the jury to return a verdict of manslaughter. But the judge instructed the jury that he could see no circumstances which could reduce the crime from murder. The jury did not even leave the box to consider their verdict. They found the prisoner guilty.

The judge put on the black cap and said: “It is necessary for the tranquillity of the country, for the preservation of peace and for the protection of property that persons who are convicted of offences should be placed in prison … and it is essentially necessary to protect the lives of those persons who are placed in charge over them.”

Then he sentenced Fletcher to death. There was no chance of a reprieve. Fletcher didn’t seem to care. He regarded death as a friend. Ever since he killed the warder he had been prepared to face the hangman. After his conviction he appeared to be deeply penitent and begged the dead man’s wife for forgiveness.

A big crowd outside Maidstone Jail watched Fletcher die without a struggle on the gallows only four months after his victim. Public opinion was placated.

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