Murder in Wychwood Forest
16 March 2021 (Updated 8 September 2021)
Gamekeeper Joseph Millin was walking in Wychwood Forest on the evening of 15 June 1824 when he heard a gunshot and a cry from a short distance away through the trees. This was not an uncommon occurrence, both he and his brother (and fellow gamekeeper) James were carrying guns in the forest that night.
"It sounded more like 'murder'"
Joseph headed towards the sound of the gunshot and met two men, Henry Pittaway and William James, who spoke to him. Henry commented that he had heard a man shout 'Halloa!', though William commented darkly that it sounded to him more like 'Murder!'
Joseph hurried onwards and found his brother lying in a pool of his own blood with a gunshot wound in his thigh. James Millin told his brother that he had been shot by poachers. Joseph managed to get his brother home, but he soon died of his injuries.
Pittaway and James's trial
At the midsummer Assizes in July 1824, both Pittaway and James were tried for James Millin's murder. The case against them looked black. Regulars at The Hit and Miss public house reported that Pittaway and James had entered the pub on the evening of 15 June claiming that there had been an accident and that James Millin had been shot. A man named Sims testified that William James's wife had approached him the next day and asked him to hide her husband's gun in his hayloft, as they expected their house to be searched by police.
A man named James Pratley was called to the stand to recount a conversation he had with William James on the day he was apprehended in which they had discussed the likelihood that the perpetrator of such a crime would be hanged. William James had commented, "My neck is but very short now, perhaps it may be longer at midsummer!"
It came to light that there had been a history of bad blood between William James and James Millin, stemming from previous verbal clashes regarding William James's poaching activities. A few nights before the murder William James was overheard in The Hit and Miss saying that he would "... chop off Millin's head on a block tonight for he was sure he would do it to him."
Guilty of murder
After deliberating for just 15 minutes the jury found Henry Pittaway and William James guilty of murder, and they were sentenced to be hanged.
Despite the damning evidence, the pair protested their innocence right up until the day of their executions, which took place on 2 August 1824.
- 'Oxfordshire Murders' by Len Woodley (The Wychwood Press, 2005, ISBN: 9781902279213)