Mrs. Phipps and the Newgate Calendar

A book which used to be considered a major classic in the 18th and 19th centuries, but which seems to have passed into relative obscurity, is The Newgate Calendar. This work is subtitled “The Malefactors’ Bloody Register.” At one time, parents encouraged their children to read the gory accounts of crime and punishment, the aim being that it might scare the wits out of kids so that they would never considering committing crimes.

Some editions are greatly abridged. One of the horrendous stories of heinous crimes which was included, however, involved the infamous murder of a woman named Phipps, apparently Sarah Phipps, by William Taunton on 4 August 1769.

She is called simply “Mrs. Phipps” in The Newgate Calendar but court testimony calls her Sarah Phipps. A news item in the Oxford Magazine, however, calls her Margaret Phipps.

The story runs as follows:

William Taunton was born in Gloucestershire. He had been a husbandman, but gave it up to work as an “ostler” (hostler, or one who took care of horses at an inn) at Tewkesbury. Tewkesbury is a town and civil parish in Gloucestershire. He then came to London.

“After this,” as the story goes, he worked for the widow referred to as Mrs. Phipps, at her establishment in Colnbrook called the Lamb Inn. This Colnbrook is presumably the village of that name in Berkshire. At one time it was the historic county of Buckinghamshire. (Historic counties are distinguished from administrative counties.)

An online transcription of testimony from the Old Bailey refers to “the Lamb inn, in the parish of Stanwell, near Colebrook,” but evidently Colnbrook was meant. Colnbrook is near the village of Stanwell in the shire county of Surrey. A report of the execution in the Oxford Magazine calls the location Colnbrook.

Even though she had “several children,” Mrs. Phipps entered into what was termed a “scandalous intimacy” with this man, William Taunton. For “some years” they lived together as though they were married, and strangers visiting the inn assumed that he was her husband. Court testimony indicated that they lived as though man and wife.

They quarreled constantly, however, and often this came to blows. This was the case to the point that it negatively affected how the community saw Mrs. Phipps and even injured her business.

At one point, Taunton left her and returned to his native Gloucestershire. After arriving there, however, he received a letter from Mrs. Phipps, asking that he return. The battles between them became just as frequent as before, however.

One night they sat down to dinner, and Mrs. Phipps asked William Taunton if she should pare him a cucumber. He grabbed the kitchen fireplace or stove poker and told her to grab the other end of it. She was puzzled as to why he asked her to do this, but eventually complied.

When she asked Taunton what she was supposed to do with the poker, he told her, “You must knock out my brains.” To this she replied, “No, Taunton, I will not hurt a hair of your head.” Taunton then told her, “If you will not knock my brains out, I will knock your brains out.”

He then struck with tremendous force. Taunton called for a doctor, who dressed the wound but who told Taunton that if he had murdered her, he would have to be apprehended as a murderer. Taunton said that he knew that, but still wanted the doctor to tend to the wound.

The doctor attended to her for five days. On the 5th day, she told her daughter, “Peggy, you may go out of the room, for I want to sleep.” While the daughter was out of the room, Taunton walked in and struck Mrs. Phipps on the head again, this time with a hatchet or axe. He then went about a mile away to a public house in order to drink, according to the book, but about a mile and a half away according to testimony.

The doctor, once he saw the state of Mrs. Phipps, sent two others out in search of Taunton, who was apprehended. The coroner’s jury found Taunton guilty. He was taken before a magistrate who committed him to New Prison. This was located in central London, in the Clerkenwell area.

When asked later why he had done such a thing, Taunton said that it was because she had slandered him in the neighborhood. He was sorry for what he had done, but said that it was too late.

At his trial at the Old Bailey, testimony was introduced to show that he sometimes acted out of his head. He had tried to kill himself by drowning, it was said, as well as by hanging.

He was found guilty, however, on 9 September 1769, and was scheduled for execution the following Monday, the 11th. That day was said to have been characterized by “a most extraordinary shower of rain.”

Nevertheless, the execution was carried out. The body was later taken to Surgeon’s Hall for dissection.

The story noted that, “It is very seldom that we hear of unmarried persons living together as man and wife any tolerable degree of happiness,” adding that “there is no happiness in this life equal to that which is to be found in the married state.”

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