illustration: Eva Brudenell
Mansfield Road: The Elizabeth (Bessie) Shepherd Murder
The well-documented murder of a young Papplewick girl on Mansfield Road in 1817 is one that still resonates today. On 7 July, Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Shepherd left her home around midday to walk to Mansfield, where she was hoping to find employment in service. She was dressed in her Sunday best, wearing a new pair of shoes and carrying a yellow umbrella. Successful in her endeavours, witnesses saw her leaving Mansfield at around 6pm.
Bessie’s mother waited for her daughter’s return, but as evening began to draw on she set out to meet her. Taking Mrs Shepherd’s account of events, she walked a good distance towards Mansfield and saw the familiar figure of her daughter on the road some distance ahead. Thinking that Bessie had also seen her and would hurry to catch up, Mrs Shepherd turned and began to walk home. Shortly after turning for home she passed a stranger, who was later identified as Charles Rotherham. She could not have known then that her daughter would also meet him, an encounter she would not survive.
Witnesses state that Rotherham, a 33-year-old ex-soldier from Sheffield, was drinking in The Hutt and had left shortly before he was seen by Mrs Shepherd. Encountering poor Bessie at the point on the Mansfield Road where it emerges from the southern side of Harlow Wood, he attacked her. Beating her repeatedly about the head with a hedge stake, he then threw her body into a ditch and robbed her of her umbrella and shoes. He also tried, but failed, to take off her gown.
She was found by quarrymen the next day and an immediate search for the perpetrator was undertaken. He was captured on route to Loughborough. Confessing to the crime, he was found guilty and hanged on Gallows Hill, Nottingham (at the junction of Forest Road and Mansfield Road) on 28 July 1817.
A stone was erected in 1819 near to the spot of where Bessie met her end, and her body was interred in Papplewick church yard. Legend has it that if the stone is disturbed, her ghost will appear. In the late thirties, the stone was moved a few yards when the road was widened, and for several days after, a ghostly apparition was seen in the area. In the early fifties the memorial was again disturbed when it was struck by a car, and shortly after, a young couple on their way to Mansfield reported seeing a white figure hovering over the stone.
Perhaps the strangest incident was in April of 1988. It was noticed that Bessie’s headstone was missing. To publicise it, two policemen from Hucknall posed for an Evening Post photographer by the roadside stone. One of them felt an overpowering urge to touch it and was immediately inspired to return to the churchyard. The missing headstone was found underneath undergrowth just sixty yards from the grave site.
For more on Nottingham history, check out the Nottingham Hidden History website.