When I was a kid in Bradford, one of my favourite weekend outings was to York. Among its attractions was the Castle Museum and the condemned cell, where I first came across the story of Eugene Aram. At that time, it had no significance beyond being a gruesome tale; my only connection with East Anglia was that Bradford City signed a goalkeeper, Johnny Downey, from Wisbech Town, and I had no idea where Wisbech was anyway.
Recently, a pal of mine, Simon Beer, mentioned the story. Simon is something of a polymath, in some areas, self-taught, much as Eugene Aram was.
Eugene was born in 1704 in the village of Ramsgill, near Harrogate. He came from a humble family, his father being a gardener, but Eugene was something of a genius, teaching himself Latin and Greek, and later researching Hebrew and Celtic.
After spending some time without success in London, he returned to Knaresborough and became a teacher, marrying and fathering seven children. Then things went sour.
He made the acquaintance of a shoe-maker, Daniel Clark, whose wife was a woman of means.
Clark began spending lavishly, running up debts with local traders. On February 7 1744 Clark vanished.
At first it was thought he had run away to escape his debts. Nevertheless, Aram’s property was searched. Some of Clark’s booty was found in Aram’s garden as well as those of other friends. Aram stated that Clarke had left the goods there.
Clark remained unaccounted for, even a ‘no questions asked’ reward of £15 (more than £3,000 in today’s money) was offered for information.
Aram started to clear his debts, which set tongues wagging. By April 1745, Aram was starting to feel insecure, and he abandoned his wife and children, moving from town to town working as a teacher.
Turning once more to the minutes and memoranda of the King’s Lynn Town Council in the Hall Books, (in this story, KL/C 7/13), we find on folio 378v a note of Aram’s appointment as an usher at King’s Lynn Grammar School in February 1758:
At that time the school housed above the 14th-century Charnel Chapel, alongside St Margaret’s Church on Saturday Market Place. The chapel, demolished in 1779, was originally built in medieval times to house the bones of the dead.
In his finding aid, “Borough of King’s Lynn, 1524-1835: Chronological lists of Mayors, Aldermen, Common Councillors, Officials & some others”, Peter Sykes gives us a list of Grammar School Ushers:
Jumping ahead in the story, it is worth noting that Aram was the last usher to be appointed by the Counsel, the responsibility thereafter residing with the Headmaster, as Peter Sykes points out:
Mike Walker, in his book King Edward VII School: A Centenary Celebration, also refers to this:
Unfortunately for Aram, a visiting horse trader recognised him, and the wheels of justice began to turn. In the same year, a skeleton was discovered in St Robert’s Cave near Knaresborough.
Information board, remains of a chapel built at the cave, and the entrance to the cave, my thanks to Simon Beer for the pictures.
Truly, as the saying goes, “hell hath no fury…” and Mrs Aram, Eugene’s abandoned wife, was quick to accuse him of the murder of Daniel Clark. There were rumours of an affair between her and Clark, which added fuel to the flames. Aram was taken back to Yorkshire and tried for murder. In spite of a clever attempt at defending himself, he was found guilty and executed in York Castle in 1759, his body being publicly exhibited in a gibbet “pour encourager les autres”, as was said of the unfortunate Admiral Byng. At the start of the Seven Years’ War, Admiral Byng, a successful naval officer, was sent to relieve a British garrison at the Siege of Minorca; ill equipped, he failed and withdrew. He was court martialled “for failing to do his utmost”, and executed by firing squad as an example.
There are three last bits to the story. For anyone interested, the Stories of Lynn Museum, next door to the Archives, has, in the old gaol cells, Aram’s skull, a fragment of Clark’s skull, and a small pill box made of the wood from the gallows on which Aram was hung.
Returning to the Hall Book previously cited, we find an entry for 1st July 1760, on folio 423, of a “Certificate of Mr Knox’s Character. Mr Knox, as detailed in the first Hall Book reference above, was Headmaster of the Grammar School:
This seems at first to be a propos of nothing, but then on folio 428, we find a note of the appointment of David Lloyd as Headmaster, noting that Mr Knox had moved to Holt:
And there our story of King’s Lynn’s criminal Schoolteacher ends. Or does it? Eugene Aram and Simon Beer could both be called polymaths, and both were in some areas self-taught. Eugene came from Knaresborough to teach at the Grammar School in Lynn; Simon taught for a time at King Edward VII School and then went back to Yorkshire to live in Knaresborough. Both grew up in small Yorkshire villages. Now, I’ve never subscribed to the theory of reincarnation, but…
Written by Pete Widdows, NRO Research Blogger