Beams in the spire of the Godalming Parish Church
A rubbing of the inscription
George Chennell and William Chalcraft were executed on the 14 August 1818 at Godalming, on the Lammas Lands, for the murders of George Chennell, senior, and Elizabeth Wilson, his housekeeper. They were also under suspicion for two other murders. They were the only Surrey persons not to have been executed in the Surrey Gaol in Horsemonger-lane, Southwark c.1800-1827.
The execution took place two days after the trial. They were brought from Guildford gaol to Godalming where the gallows were erected on a corner of Overgone Meadow part of the Lammas Lands, where Borough Road meets Chalk Road. Neither made a confession and both protested their innocence. Chalcraft was hung by the rope first. The bodies hung for one hour and carried through Godalming back to Chennell senior’s house where the murders had taken place. The bodies were laid out for dissection by Mr William Parson and Mr Haines, two surgeons of Godalming, and viewed by the public (The Murder Act of 1752 ensured that bodies of executed criminals could be delivered to surgeons to be dissected and anatomised, as this was the only legal supply of cadavers then available for study of anatomy by medical schools. The Anatomy Act of 1832 ended dissection of criminals).
The murders had taken place on Monday the 11 November 1817 between 9 and 10pm, and the bodies discovered about 7am on the Tuesday morning. Chennell, a shoemaker, was found in his house in the High Street in his bed upstairs, and Wilson on the kitchen floor. They had cut throats and fractured skulls, a knife and hammer were both found, and money had been taken. The house was on the left hand side of where Waterstones’ have their entrance, No 70, and the right hand side was then the Little George Inn.
The above plan of the house is from the Godalming Museum Local Studies Library. Suspicion fell on Chennell’s son, also named George, who had made threats against his father and was short of money, and his close friend, William Chalcraft. Chennell, junior, was charged with parricide, murder of a relative, and both were charged with the murders and taken into custody.
While awaiting trial they were examined for the murder in June 1816 in Frensham, on the borders of the Alice Holt Forest. An elderly man, Stillwell, was found in his house, his body cut, and knives used by a shoemaker found. It was known that penurious Stillwell had money, and the house had been broken into. Chennell and Chalcraft came under suspicion. At the time they were employed by Mr Marshall to work at Alice Holt, no more than two-thirds of a mile from Stillwell’s house. The knives were identified by an employee of Chennell, senior.
The second murder took place in 1817, in the hay season, near Petersfield. William Searson had deep cuts made with a long knife, and his hat found near Godalming. Chennell and Chalcraft had been seen on the night of the murder, and a blood-stained shirt and linen articles were found in Mr Chennell senior’s warehouse. Money was found to be missing. George Chalcraft, brother of William Chalcraft, who was also in Horsemonger-lane Gaol, came under suspicion as a bloodstained shirt was found on the mill wheel, and clothing in the mill pond at Eashing Mill where he worked.
Nine months after the Godalming murders, on Wednesday the 12th August 1818 at the Summer Assize in Guildford, they were brought to trial. The trial took over eleven hours in which 38 witnesses were called and examined by the Counsel for the Prosecution, and the jury took only three minutes to return a verdict of guilty. Thus they never came to trial for the other two murders.
Chennell and Chalcraft were brought back to Godalming, due to public justice and public feeling, and crowds gathered to watch on the Lammas Lands and the surrounding hillside to witness their punishment.
The beam of the gallows was exposed in the restoration of St Peter and St Paul where it had been used as a rafter in the spire, and a rubbing of the inscription hangs in the ringing chamber (see images above).
During the period 1800-1827 there were 2,338 public executions in the country with 87 Surrey executions all taking place at Horsemonger-lane, except for Chennell and Chalcraft. Murder, was then second to the principal crime of burglary.
A statement in The Observer and published in The Times on the 1st December and 8th December 1817 mentioned the other two murders. The 1822 edition of The Newgate Calendar ‘being interesting memoirs of notorious characters, who have been convicted of offences against the laws of England’ also referred to the other two murders.