The Orton Murder


Heather Ballantyne

One Saturday in 1837 in the quiet parish of Orton the crime of murder was committed. It was the 18th November and the local carrier, Thomas Hunter, was on his way home to Archer Hill from Kendal when he was killed and robbed of his money.

He had left Kendal at about 2.30 that day with another carrier and made calls at various houses and farms on his way. When they reached the Cross Keys in Tebay the men went their own separate ways with Thomas Hunter, horse and cart heading towards Gaisgill and Longdale to his home in Archer Hill.

At home his wife their three children and his widowed father were waiting for him.

Also waiting or him was John Beck at Cotegill who had been expecting a parcel to come from Kendal. By now it was dark and at about 9.30 when Hunters cart should have been passing Cotegill, Beck heard a gun fire but thought it was probably poachers. In the quiet of the night cart wheels could be heard but no carrier arrived. Beck went outside to see if he could find out what was happening where he found the horse and cart at the side of the track but not sign of Thomas Hunter. Beck ran back to get his neighbour and together they returned to look for the carrier. In a lane leading down to the River Lune they found his body with his whip in one hand and his lamp in the other. The back of his head had been blown off and his money stolen.

Kendal Police were informed and two people, William Wills, a poacher, and John Sisson, a hawker, were arrested.

It came to light that Thomas Hunter had suspected for some weeks that he was being followed and he had, for that reason, appointed a man to meet him on the last lonely stretch home but this man had left his service a few weeks earlier.

This is a murder that has not been solved. Sisson was discharged and no evidence was available against Wills. The authorities offered a reward of £100 for information which would lead to the arrest of the murderer but this was not claimed.

Extract from the THE KENDAL MERCURY


Dated Saturday, February 24, 1838


The commission for the holding of the Assizes for County of Westmorland opened on Saturday last, at Appleby, and on Sunday the Judges (Mr Justice Coleridge and Mr Justice Patteson) proceeded, according to usual custom, to the church of St. Lawrence, where an impressive and appropriate sermon was preached by the Rev. Threlkeld of Milburn, from the 5th Chapter and 9th Verse of the gospel of St. Matthew.

On Monday the learned Judges proceeded from their lodgings, Appleby Castle, and entered the Court House at eleven o’clock, when the business commenced.

Mt Justice Coleridge presided in the Criminal, and Mr Justice Patteson in the Nisi Prius Court.


This court was thronged to excess, strong interest having been excited in the public mind by the expected trial of Wills, the man who has been in custody for some time on suspicion of having murdered Thomas Hunter, the Orton Carrier. So great was the pressure from the crowd, and such the extreme noise created, that Mr. Justice Coleridge, after several admonitions, ordered the constables to partially clear the court. It will be seen, however, that there was no bill found in Wills’ case, who was consequently discharged, and, as we understand, went to his father’s at Tebay, that evening. Our readers will learn the chief facts brought out in the course of the several examinations which he underwent, from Mr Justice Coleridge’s charge to the jury.

The customary forms having been gone through, the following gentlemen were sworn of the Grand Jury;_

Sir George Musgrave, of Eden Hall, bart., Foreman

Matthew Atkinson, Esq of Templesowerby.

E.W. Hasell, Esq., of Dalmain,

John Hill Esq., of Bank Foot.

Edward Wilson Esq., Of Abbot Hall.

William Crackanthorpe, Esq., of Newbiggin Hall.

Richard Burn Esq., of Orton Hall.

Martin Irving, Esq., of Soulby

John Wakefield, Esq., of Sedgwick.

Wm. Wybergh, Esq., of Clifton Hall.

Arthur Shepherd, Esq., of Shaw End

Daniel Harrison, Esq., of Kendal

John Crosby, Esq., of Kirkbythore.

Thomas Gibson, Esq., of Oddendale.

Sackville Ropin, Esq., of Acorn Bank.

The proclamation against vice and immorality was then read, and the Grand Jury having been sworn,

His Lordship addressed them nearly to the following effect:- He said that, although the number of cases on the calendar was not greater than ordinary, he was sorry to state that it contained a charge of one of the most serious offences that could be committed – that of wilful murder. The charges altogether were limited to three: the first was one of obtaining money under false pretences, and the second a charge of sheep-stealing. With regard to this charge, although the loss of the sheep could be proved by Mr. Bourne, the question that would involve the prisoner’s guilt or innocence would turn upon the identity of the skin. A quantity of mutton has been found in the prisoner’s house, and a portion of the tail part had been found to fit part of the skin. If this should appear to the jury to be established, there would be no difficulty in forming their decision. – With respect to the charge against the prisoner for obtaining money under false pretences, it presented no difficulty. The prisoner (who had been liberated from the jail) went to the father of another prisoner (William Wills) now in confinement, and informed him that he had supplied his son from time to time with tobacco, to the value of 10s 2d. His Lordship here explained the statutes enacted for such offences in the reign of George the Second and of George the Fourth, and then proceeded to say, that Robert Wills – the party applied to – had given money to the prisoner, whose statement he had afterwards discovered to be false. The learned judge next adverted to the consideration of the competency of the prisoner (Wm. Wills) to bear evidence in this case. Having briefly gone over the principal points in these charges, his Lordship drew the attention of the jury to the case to which he had alluded at the beginning of his charge – that if wilful murder. He said he had little doubt that, from the attention this case had excited in the neighbourhood, and especially from the acquaintance most of them have with the local administration of justice, they were aware of the circumstances of the murder; but at the same time he should give a short outline of the facts. And, in the first place, it appeared to him that the depositions did not sufficiently explain the local position of places in the district where the murder occurred, nor did the depositions enter with clearness into the circumstances under which the case occurred. The facts seemed to be these:- The person murdered had been a carrier, who travelled betwixt Archer Hill and the town of Kendal, he usually left his house (Archer Hill) on Friday, and after transacting business in Kendal and various places on the road, returned on Saturday. As he drew near to Archer Hill, he had to go through several narrow lanes, and, from the circumstance that had happened about a month before his death, he came under a degree of alarm, which induced him to employ a man, who was his servant, to come and meet him. On the night in question when the carrier was killed, the man, who had left the carrier’s employment, did not meet him; Hunter had been seen in the neighbourhood of the lanes between nine and ten o’clock – and, said his lordship, it is not an unimportant matter that in this case they had the precise dates. About ten o’clock it would be stated to them, a shot was heard in the lane, and shortly afterwards the carrier’s neighbours went out and found him lying dead in the road. On his person was found some money in copper, one or two shillings loose about his clothes, his money-bag was found empty, and a pocket book, which he had had in the inside pocket of an inner waistcoat, was taken away. The carrier’s wife would state that when he went away he carried it with him. There could be no doubt that the man was murdered, and if the jury were to find a verdict with respect to the party charged with the crime, there could be no question that it must be either a verdict of wilful murder or no offence at all. He need not trouble them with any remakes on the law; there could be no reduction of the crime; it could not be other than a crime of wilful murder. His lordship then adverted to the evidence as it bore upon Wills being on the spot at the time when the murder was committed; that evidence was entirely of a circumstantial nature, and there were one or two circumstances that appeared to him to be material, and which should have been more fully investigated. First, it should have been ascertained whether the deceased carried money with him during that day, and from whom he had received it; and, if he had received any provincial bank notes, whether such had been recognised. In the next place, the prisoner was found to have had in his possession forty-one shillings and seventeen sixpences, and it was material to inquire if the deceased had got such money from any parties. The manner of his coming into possession of this money was material; the prisoner had accounted for it as having been received from different individuals who had employed him; if that were found to be a true statement, it would weigh most materially in the prisoner’s favour; but if it were found to be true, then it would, on the other hand, be a material circumstance against him. There had, however, been little light thrown on various matters connected with the case, and he must take that opportunity of stating, that in this remote county, where the roads are lonely, and but few houses intervene between the towns and villages, it was very much to be regretted the police establishment in the rural districts was composed of persons whose educations and habits rendered them inadequate for their duties. In the case in question, the assistance of meant much more experienced should have been obtained. His Lordship now referred to what might appear the inculpatory evidence against the prisoner. The first inquiry would naturally be. Was Wills on the spot? – had he means to commit murder? – the gun – if he had the gun? – what was his conduct after the deed was effected, and whether the account that he gives himself tallies with the evidence of other parties? It appeared from the evidence that the prisoner lived in a place called Tebay, not far distant from the place where the murder had taken place; that he had been seen with a gun in the course of that day, going with the view to look for ducks. Before going to the road he returned, and on his return he unscrewed the gun and put it in his pocket, when he called at a smithy and seemed not to have had any instrument. About seven he was at a woman’s named Margaret Saunderson, from who he bought some tobacco. Next was the evidence of the prisoner’s father and mother, which stated that he was at home at eight o’clock; that he then went out for about half and hour, returned, and sat at the fire for another half hour, after which he went to bed. The father and mother stated that the prisoner remained in the house; the mother had averred that she had seen her son go upstairs to bed. But there was a separate door at which he could go out, and this evidence therefore no certain proof of his remaining in. The father stated that it would take more than half an hour to walk from his house to the spot where the deceased was murdered, yet this was not very decidedly in favour of his son’s being in the house at the time. I appear also that besides the possession of the gun, the prisoner had bought that day a larger kind of slug, but the surgeon who had examined the deceased’s body had not found any shot in it. Another circumstance worthy of remark was that, near the spot of the murder, was found a larch stick, which a woman had stated the prisoner had pulled from off a tree in her garden, but it was not shown by any witness that he had carried a stick on the day in question. So much for the evidence against him that night. And, then, as to his own conduct. While conversing on Sunday about the murder of the carrier, a person observed that any one who could do such a thing must have had a hard conscience; to which the prisoner had replied in some such words as these – “they who could do that, would think no more of it than of shooting a dog.” He went away next day from Tebay, and on parties talking to him again of the murder of the Orton carrier, he denied any knowledge of having heard of it, but his own declaration shewed that it was hardly possible he could have forgotten the circumstances. Another circumstance that weighed against him was his affirming that he had not had a gun that day, while a witness swears that he had that day seen him cleaning a gun. These were the strongest points to be noticed in proof of his guilt. There was likewise another circumstance to which the learned judge requested attention – the manner in which the prisoner’s father and mother had dealt with the gun, and if some suspicion attached to the possession of it. The gun was first hid by the father after the report spread of the carrier’s death; and then it was taken at an unseasonable hour to the house of a neighbour, (Sisson), who declined taking it in. His Lordship said he had thus stated at length what appeared the most important points for the serious consideration of the jury. If they should find a bill, and it ultimately occurred, after trial, that a verdict of acquittal were returned, the prisoner could never be charged again with this offence; but if they should deem the evidence the evidence sufficient for finding a bill, he could at a future period be brought to trial. Justice sometimes travelled at a slow space, but generally with a sure one, and circumstances would probably lead to such a discovery of the offender as should bring him to justice. He (the learned judge) gave only his own view – it was for them (the jury) to decide; but unless they saw the facts in a different way from what he did, they would serve the interests better by ignoring the bill. This, however, was thrown out merely as a suggestion to them. There was one consideration with which he would conclude by reminding them of. The number on the present jury was but small – only fifteen- and to find a bill, there must be a majority of twelve.

The jury then retired to consider the cases.

Mr Morland made an application to the court to grant a Habeas Corpus to allow William Wills, the prisoner confined on the charge of murdering Thos. Hunter, to appear as a witness in the case of Richard Mackereth, accused of obtaining money under false pretences.

After a short conversation, the application was granted.


The Grand Jury were engaged in the investigation of the case of the murder of Thomas Hunter, the Orton carrier, for fully three hours, and eventually ignored the bill.

The learned JUDGE then briefly thanked the jury, and dismissed them, and the court broke up.

Who do you think was guilty?

On Sunday 26th November in All Saints Church The Rev William Holme Milner preached a sermon that was so popular that copies were printed by J. Brown of Penrith for private distribution. I know of one copy that has survived but there may be more out there somewhere.


This a poem about the murder writter by Jackie Huck

                            Jackie  Huck

The rumble of cart-wheels on stone-bed and rut,
Past farmstead and  hamlet, cottage and hut,
A-creaking, a-shaking, up valley and down
Came  Tom Hunter, the carrier, from old Kendal Town
Bringing parcels and papers,  candles and cloth,
Sugar and ‘bacci, and salt for the broth,
With his whip  and his whistle, and clatter of pan,
On that November day came the Carrier  Man.
As evening came creeping he reached the Cross Keys coach inn,
At the  village of Tebay, and he got the drinks in,
With a “Hi Tom” and “How’s  things?” and “What you got there?”
With pipe-smoke and ale chat, and gossip  to share,
Then with “See you next Monday” and a slap on the back,
It was  into the darkness and onto the track,
For his wife and two children, and a  widowed old crone,
At Archer Hill waited, to welcome him home.
Faithful hooves plodded, beneath a shy moon,
On one side the Howgills,  on the other The Lune,
Sounds of the river, an owl after prey,
Sheep and  the silence, as the miles stole away,
The swing of his lantern gave hedges  claws,
While wild things slipped by unseen, on supple paws,
Tom thought on  his supper and his wife warm in bed,
But danger was waiting, death lay up  ahead.
“Tom’s late this evening,” said John Beck of Cotegill,
He looked outside  his doorway, but all was quite still,
Then from out of the darkness a riffle  shot rang,
“Must be a poacher, Tom’ll be through a-fore lang.”
But no  carrier-wheel rumbled in the deep of that night,
When a worried John Beck  took a lantern for light
Back down the pathway, chilled to the bone
He  found, the horses and cart, standing alone.
A little way off, sprawled on his back
He found Tom with his brains  splattered over the track,
His lantern in one hand, in the other his  whip
Clutched tight in the hold of his final death grip,
His pocket-book  riffled, no notes or coin left,
His wife and two children made cruelly  bereft.
His uneaten supper would go cold in the pan
Foully murdered that  night, was the Carrier Man. 
Bill Wills the poacher was arrested next day,
And John Sissons a hawker  - but no-one would pay,
The charges were dropped, and life trundled on
And  apart from a few, folk forgot Carrier Tom.
You can still find his gravestone  in Orton Church Yard,
A bit of old history, that most disregard,
But up  Archer hill lane, on a night when winds moan,
You can hear the rumble of cart  wheels, as Tom journey’s home.

Copywrite Jackie Huck