Black Sheep Sunday – John Britliff (The Killing Field)

John Britliff is my wife’s 3x great grandfather. His name appears in records under various spellings – Britliff, Britliffe and Britcliffe. There are also numerous transcription interpretations from the census returns on both Ancestry and Find My Past. This certainly makes finding and following the family a bit tricky sometimes.

John was born about 1800 in or around Bonby, North Lincolnshire. I have his mother as Mary Britliff but have not been able to find a record of who his father might be.

On 26 November 1821 John married Sarah Rack in North Kelsey, Lincolnshire. They had at least ten children between 1824 and 1840.

In the 1841 census the family are living at North Owersby, Lincolnshire and John is working as an agricultural labourer. There are eight children at home.

Lincolnshire Chronicle Dec 1842

About twenty months later tragedy occurred as reported in the Lincolnshire Chronicle on Friday 2 December 1842.

A Wife killed by her Husband – On Sunday last, a tragical event took place at North Gullum farm, in the parish of North Owersby, near Market Rasen. A labourer of the name of John Britcliffe had some angry words with his wife, when in the moment of passion, he first beat her with a leathern belt, and then brutally kicked her on the lower part of the body. The unfortunate woman, who was far advanced in pregnancy, survived this ill-treatment but a few hours. An inquest was held on the deceased on Monday, before Mr. Marris, coroner, and a post mortem examination of the body by Mr. Smith and Mr. Hutchinson, of Caistor, surgeons, and after a long and patient investigation, the jury returned a verdict of manslaughter, and Britcliffe has been committed under the coroner’s warrant for trial at the next assizes. A family of nine children are left to mourn the loss of both parents.

We can never know what happened between John and Sarah to cause this terrible tragedy but certainly the lives of all the family were changed for ever.

In January 1843 a report in the Lincolnshire Chronicle says that “the seven children of John Britliffe, late of North Owersby, at present a prisoner in Lincoln Castle, on a charge of manslaughter, chargeable to the parish of North Owersby, were ordered to be removed to Nettleton, being their last legal settlement”.

The children are likely to have been taken to the Caistor Workhouse.

John next appears in court on Wednesday 8 March 1843. The report of the hearing is in the Lincolnshire Chronicle of Friday 10 March 1843.

Manslaughter at North Owersby

John Britcliffe, 42, pleaded guilty to an indictment charging him with the manslaughter of his wife, Sarah Britcliffe. The prisoner received a good character from Mr. Brooks, a farmer at Croxby. 10 year’s transportation.

He was held in Lincoln Castle until the beginning of April 1843 when he was removed for transportation together with a number of other prisoners as the following report from the Lincoln Chronicle of Friday 7 April 1843 says.

TRANSPORTS – On Friday last, Lieut. Nicholson, governor of Lincoln castle, removed from thence the first portion of convicts sentenced to transportation at the last assizes, viz: to the Warrior hulk, Woolwich, John Nicholson, John Sims, John North, Edwd. Copeland, and John Butting for life; John Britcliffe, Leonard Boyall, and Ambrose Brown for ten years; David Dickenson and James Smith for seven years; to Pentonville model prison, William Potts and Hy. Scott.

There are various sets of records about convicts and transportation on family history and other websites. However I have not yet been able to find John Britcliffe in any of these. So  I don’t know where he was transported to – I am guessing Australia or Tasmania.

I really wanted to try and find out what happened after his transportation because eight years later John appears to be back in Lincolnshire. I have him in the 1851 census living at Hayes Farm in Redbourn and working as a shepherd.

This raises a whole host of questions for me, for example:-

  • Did he really get transported?
  • If he did get transported for 10 years how come he is back in England after 8 years?
  • Did he get a “certificate of freedom” for good behaviour after serving part of his sentence?
  • How did he afford the fare back to England?

Also in the 1851 census two of his children – Joseph (b 1840) and William (b 1839) are still at the Union Workhouse in Caistor.

The story becomes more interesting when this article about the Lindsey court sessions of 4 & 5 July appears in the Stamford Mercury on Friday 11 July 1851.

Stamford Mercury Jul 1851

John Britliff, 50, who had been three times before in custody, was brought up, having been committed as “an incorrigible rogue and vagabond” for refusing to maintain his children. It appeared that the prisoner had left his family a burthen to the parish, which had spent £250 in their maintenance; but since he had been in prison he had paid  £5, and as he now promised to do his duty to the children, he was liberated upon the promise, being warned that if he neglected to carry it out he would be liable to be committed again.

In 1857 John married Esther Smith at Caistor. And in the 1861 census they are living at Town Street, Waddingham, Lincolnshire. Also living with them is John’s unmarried daughter Jane Britcliffe (b1839) and her daughter Sarah C Britcliffe (b1859).

John died sometime in the September quarter of 1862 – almost twenty years after killing his wife.

There is so much more to this story that I wish I could discover.

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6 comments

  1. A great story. I hope you find some of the answers you are looking for. Every family has a few like your 3x grandfather John. They tend to spice up our genealogy.

  2. These kind of stories are always so interesting. I know no one wants to think they ever have any “black sheep” in their families, maybe it embarrasses them. But, being an amateur genealogist for 20 yrs now, you can get a little bored with all those “farmer”s who died of “cerebral hemorrhage” or “myocarditis” (or other common causes). When you find something like this it’s so interesting that it gets your juices flowing again. It makes it interesting and fun. And, of course, once you do the work and have the story you can’t wait to tell someone! I was always able to put my little nieces and nephews (now grown adults) to sleep with my soothing voice and “boring” family stories. And now, my little grandnieces and grandnephews! My sisters say, “Here take the baby and tell them the story about Uncle Whosits to put them to sleep.” But no one goes to sleep when I tell these kind of stories!

  3. Hello Mike, what an amazing and yet very tragic story. John Britliff was also my 3x great grandfather, so it would appear your wife and I share an ancestry. I have emailed you some information I hope may help answer some of your queries about John Britliff.

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