Austin Barnett 1848 - 1926
A bit like the pantomime villain, Austin Barnett is one of those rare characters who seems to have few redeeming qualities. Obnoxious gardening neighbour, feckless husband and bullying employer - were his cantankerous outbursts just an aspect of his colourful personality or were they early signs of serious instability?
AUSTIN BARNETT is born in 1848 in St Martin's to wheelwright father, Thomas, and school-mistress mother, Sarah. Austin is the eldest of seven siblings, including a brother with the intriguing forename Alderman. His early years are spent in his mother's native King's Cliffe, where she teaches at the local dame school. Austin first appears in the Stamford Mercury aged seventeen, charged with disturbing the peace kicking a fire-ball down Crown Lane on the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. He gets away with a stern admonition from the Bench.(1)
In 1869 we find Austin newly married to Susan Gammon, a Devon girl, and lodging in rooms at The Castle public house. For ten years Austin works variously as a groom and a dairyman and we hear little of him, but by the 1880s he is in and out of court like a yo-yo; sometimes as the defendant but just as often as the complainant.
In 1880 Austin sues his Castle Street neighbour, Charles Baxter, for wilful damage to an out-house. The bewildered magistrates struggle to understand Austin's motive for litigation given that Mr Baxter has already apologised for the accident, offered to make good the damage and said he is willing to cover any additional expenses. By the time of the April 1881 census Austin and Susan have moved to 2 Church Lane, next door to the Red Cow Inn, and have been joined by 20 year old coachsmith, Frederick Gammon (possibly Susan's younger brother) and a four year old boarder, Mary Haynes, whose connection with the family is unclear.
In 1883 Austin receives a court warning after the Borough Surveyor and Veterinary Inspector report he is failing to keep his cattle in 'proper and humane accommodation'. And the following year we find Austin embroiled in another dispute over cattle - this time at the gardens when he refuses to bury a putrid carcass. All attempts at persuasion fail, with Austin telling neighbour Charles Evans 'I shall not bury the carcass for a devil like you'. The Bench is unamused by Austin's claim that the calf in question was long-buried and that someone must have thrown another dead beast into his plot.
Five years later Austin appears as a witness for the prosecution when two young girls steal blueberries, raspberries and currants from his plot, along with peas and onions from another gardening neighbour, John Skellett.
In the meantime, Austin has a career change, becoming the new landlord of the Sun and Railway Inn in Church Street and woe betide any employee who gets on the wrong side of him. In June 1885 he takes Thomas Morgan of Malting Yard to court for theft of 2st 10lb of potatoes from the pub cellar. That same December, Austin accuses barmaid Elizabeth Fishpool of stealing two linen aprons, then fails to appear in court for the hearing.
The Candlesticks restaurant now occupies the site of both The Red Cow and No 2 Church Lane. The buildings date back to 1730. The landlord when Austin lived next door was Henry Hobbiss.
The otherwise rare forename, Austin, was not uncommon in Victorian Stamford; presumably an homage to the long-disbanded Austin Friars.
Perhaps Austin is distracted by more important matters, for on 27 November his little nephew and namesake, Herbert Austin Barnett, had died in a tragic drowning accident.
'An inquest was held by Mr Atter on Monday evening on the body of Herbert Austin Barnett, a boy six years old. Sunday afternoon, about 1.30, the deceased was seen playing on the wall on Bath-row, Stamford and was jumping over a card-box when he slipped into the river. Another boy ran to him and just touched his clothes, but could not hold him, as the current was strong. A boat was obtained, but it was then too late. Deceased had been seen playing by the river side in the morning and he was then warned of the danger. Herbert Barnett identified the body as that of his son. A verdict of "accidental death" was returned. The coroner mentioned that it was more than a year since they had had an inquest in Stamford.' Stamford Mercury 4 Dec 1885 (1)
Perhaps this tragedy is the catalyst for Austin's disappearance from Stamford. He re-emerges in the 1891 census living in Morley near Leeds with a widow by the name of Nancy Cook and working in his original occupation of groom. Susan, meanwhile, has taken the job of cook to an elderly gentlewoman in Aldwincle, near Oundle. Whether Austin and
Susan become reconciled we do not know, but Austin returns to Stamford briefly and triumphantly in 1893, winning second prize of £2 for the 'best store pig by a cottager with less than an acre of land' at the town's July agricultural show. At that point he is living at 2 Norton's Terrace, St Peter's Street, but quickly seems to vanish again.
Where Austin goes initially is a mystery, but between 26 March and 24 November 1897 he is an inpatient in Birmingham's Berrywood Lunatic Asylum. It sadly marks the start of a long career for Austin in mental health institutions.
The 1901 census shows Austin back up north, working as a domestic gardener and living with new wife, Annie Elizabeth (who hailed from Greetham) in Haslingden, Lancashire. The reason for Austin putting distance between himself and his home town is possibly
explained by the fact first wife Susan Barnett, née Gammon, is still very much alive. Unsurprisingly for the era, there is no record of Austin and Susan ever having divorced and she remains in Stamford until her death in December 1932. Austin does not seem to have children by either relationship.
How or why Austin finds himself in the South-East the following year is anybody's guess, for on 6 June he is admitted to Kent Asylum, where he remains until 24 January 1903.
In 1911 he is back with Annie in Haslingden but in October 1915 is again admitted to hospital, this time to Storthes Asylum in Huddersfield, being discharged on 2 February 1916.
Austin's admissions follow a pattern: they are long and they are almost always far from home, but without further research we do not know the nature of his illness. Sadly, in 1926 Austin dies in Rauceby Asylum (officially, Kesteven County Asylum), near Sleaford, where he is buried. It is unclear how long he was a patient. Wife Susan is living alone at Freeman's Cottages, Melancholy Walk, whilst Annie Elizabeth at some point moves to Scunthorpe where she dies in 1942.
Father's Alleged Involvement in Gruesome Murder Case
In 1860 Austin's father, Thomas Barnett, had been accused of involvement in the notorious 'Murder in Saint Martin's' case. The gruesome murder of Miss Elizabeth Pulley in her High Street, St Martin's home, had originally been mis-attributed to spontaneous human combustion. Another of our gardeners, Sergt John Harrison, was the investigating officer.
John Hibbins, a key witness, gave the following statement: 'I saw Hy Corby and Thos Barnett (the wheelwright) going in the direction of the Red Cow. Corby, when opposite the premises of Miss Pulley (the victim), halted, faced the garden wall, and bowed several times. Barnett walked on. Corby was up and down the back-lane many times a day during the week. This, together with what I had seen, led me to believe Barnett had a hand in it.' Stamford Mercury 20 April 1860 (1).
A search of Thomas Barnett's home revealed nothing and the police dropped that line of enquiry. Henry Corby was convicted of the murder and committed suicide whilst in police custody.
SOURCES AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:
(1) The British Newspaper Archive © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. All Rights Reserved.
(2) Kind courtesy of the Lincolnshire Museums Service.
Copyright © Karen Meadows 2018