By Gerald Hinks
Ellen Baker was fined a shilling at Chatham Police Court for damaging a jacket. Jane Ing got one month’s hard labour for stealing six sheets and a towel. William Smith was summoned for neglecting to pay 4 shillings, part of an 8 shilling loan from Chatham, Rochester and Strood Loan Society.
Crime in the Medway towns in that sultry August in 1873 hardly excited Victorian imaginations. That is until early on Sunday morning, 24 August, when bricklayer James Stone found the battered body of a man in a Snodland turnip field.
“Go and fetch Constable May,” he told his companion. But when he took a closer look at the mutilated body he realised it was no use sending for the village bobby. The dead man was Constable May.
James Stone’s discovery made Kent police history and led to the biggest manhunt the county had known. For 37-year-old Israel May was the first Kent policeman to be killed in the execution of his duty.
May was not the most likely candidate for immortality. He was described as a “civil, quiet and most temperate officer”. Single-handed he looked after the villages of Snodland and Burham and all the surrounding districts. His biggest problem seemed to be dealing with the drunks rather than hardened villains.
He left a widow and three children and the Rector of Snodland launched an appeal for money by writing to the Chatham News.
At the inquest the next day in Snodland’s Bull Hotel, a jury returned a verdict of “wilful murder against some person or persons unknown.” They heard that Israel May, a policeman for 14 years, had put up a valiant fight for his life. His truncheon was missing but near his hand was part of a pair of braces, apparently torn from his killer.
The first suspects were two soldiers, Sappers William Winfield and Walter Coote. They had been seen in Snodland a few hours before the killing. But their alibis were cast iron. They had gone on to Maidstone late on the Saturday night.
Their crime was being absent without leave. And on the Tuesday they appeared at Malling Police Court and were sent to Maidstone jail to await a military escort.
Meanwhile the large force of police investigating was piecing together vital clues from Snodland people. Canon Carey, whose home was within 100 yards of the scene of the crime — near the turnpike gate — said he had heard cries in the early hours of Sunday morning. At the time he thought they had come from “midnight brawlers.”
Mrs Selina Upton, a Ham Hill beerhouse keeper s wife, said she had seen PC May alive just after 1.30 on Sunday morning. May’s watch had stopped at 2.40am.
Gradually one man emerged as a clear suspect: bargeman Thomas Atkins. A man said he had seen Atkins lying in wait near the scene of the crime at about 1am on Sunday. Another had overheard Atkins, drunk and propped up against the wall of the Bull Inn, threaten the constable, who had twice cleared him off the streets for making a disturbance when he had too much to drink.
Atkins was a 27-year-old native of Malling. He was 5ft 7in tall, fair-haired and “rather good-looking”. And the name Atkins was not unknown to the police. In their records they found that some years earlier the suspect’s father had been tried for wife murder at Kent Assizes. He was found guilty but insane. Apparently a killing streak ran in the family.
The manhunt was stepped up and £100 was offered for information leading to his arrest. It was thought that Atkins may have sailed up the river on the Mary Fox. But when the barge reached London on Tuesday it was found that he had not been aboard.
The Medway Towns and all the surrounding villages were combed for Atkins. But there was no trace. On Thursday, police took time off to attend May’s funeral. The bushy-bearded Chief Constable Captain John Henry Ruxton, and more than 60 other police officers were among the mourners at All Saints’ Church.
Nearly every private house in the village had blinds drawn and every shop closed as a mark of respect for the dead constable.
Then it was back to the task of tracking down Atkins. By now the hunt had assumed vast proportions. And on Saturday morning — six days after the gruesome discovery in the turnip field – Atkins was spotted in Kingsdown. After a chase by a large number of policemen, Atkins was arrested by Constable Endon. He offered no resistance.
He just asked for something to eat. He said he had not tasted food for several days. Later the same morning he was taken to Malling and charged with the murder of Israel May. He said he had beaten May with the constable’s own truncheon but only after the policeman had hit him with it first.
That December, Atkins was tried at Maidstone. The jury believed his story that May had struck the first blow and he was convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter. He was jailed for 20 years. Atkins was released after 15 years and went to America. Some years later he returned to the area to see friends. But after going back to America he was never heard of again.
Snodland still has reminders of the crime. There is a plaque, too worn to read, at the scene of the killing. The erstwhile turnip field is now a built-tip area and the plaque is set into brickwork at the side of a stream which runs under the main street.
A memorial to May in the graveyard bears the inscription: “Found cruelly murdered.” The inscription is wrong of course. Manslaughter was the verdict.
But how could you suggest a brutal killer was libelled?