His Mother in Law – alcohol or poison?

One of the “Rugeley Tragedies.” Annie Palmer’s mother was a dreadful woman called Ann Thornton (in later life called Mary Thornton) who was the housekeeper and mistress of a retired Indian Army Officer Colonel Brookes with whom she had a daughter called Annie who later became Palmer’s wife.
Mary was regularly drunk and rowing with the Colonel cursing him for never having married her and blaming him for driving her to drink. Colonel Brookes eventually, in 1834, put a pistol to his head and shot himself. Later, because of Mary’s drinking, Annie her daughter was made a Ward in Chancery and sent to live with one of her guardians Charles Dawson.

After her husband’s death Mary’s drinking became worse. She lived in a house behind St. Mary’s Church in Stafford. Although she was then fairly wealthy she had no servants. She was in a poor state by now and her diet was said to consist of large draughts of gin with very little food to go with it. Her swarm of cats was left to fend for themselves. She did not like Palmer and, in spite of him arranging for her house to be repaired, she would regularly swear at him in a vile way and accuse him of poisoning her many cats that swarmed around her house.

On the 6th January 1849 Mary was found stretched out straight in a state of delirium due to an excess of alcohol. Palmer had her taken to his house where she died twelve days later on January 18th 1849 aged fifty. Mary was buried at Rugeley on January 22nd 1849.

The nine houses that Colonel Brookes owned, which stood behind St. Mary’s Church in Stafford and which Brookes left to Mary Thornton, were not inherited by Annie Palmer or William Palmer. Instead the Chancery Court ordered that the property be given to Mr. Shallcross Colonel Brookes’ next heir. (For details of one of the 9 houses, the Noah’s Ark Inn, owned by Colonel Brookes see the bottom of this web page)

A damning newspaper report: On January 19th 1856 The Illustrated Times said only that his mother-in-law died soon after Palmer married. But on February 2nd 1856 three months before Palmer’s trial the same newspaper carried the following damning report:-

The reader will not be surprised to learn that Mrs. Thornton, the mother of Mrs. Palmer, was a person of eccentric habits. She still lived at Stafford, not keeping any servants, though possessed of property. Some little time after Palmer’s marriage, he called upon her, and requested her to lend him some money. He also invited her to go and live with her daughter. She refused to give him money, and he left her much incensed. The poor woman afterwards, fearing that Palmer would ill-treat her daughter on his return home if she did not comply with his request, went to the bank, and having procured £20, forwarded it to him. She is reported to have said, that if she went to reside under the same roof with him, she would not live a fortnight. These forebodings proved to be true, for she subsequently went to live with her daughter, and four days afterwards she was a corpse. In accordance with Colonel Brooke’s will, her property descended to her daughter, whose husband thus became possessed of a respectable income

The last sentence is not true, the property went to Mr. Shallcross. Gossips however said that Palmer didn’t realise that this would happen and had assumed the property would become the property of his wife and that was a motive for him to murder his mother-in-law.

There were also reports that as Landlord Mary needed to repair the buildings. Mary was in such a poor state due to her drinking that Palmer, because he assumed that he would inherit the property, had arranged for repairs to be carried out on the properties. It was further reported that Mr. Shallcross refused to reimburse Palmer for the money he had spent on the repairs.

In the newspaper report there was no mention of the heavy drinking of Palmer’s mother-in-law. Mary had had a drink problem for most of her adult life but we will never know if drink caused her death or whether Palmer’s poison ‘helped’ her on her way.

Oil painting of the Noah's Ark on Crabbery Street
Oil painting of the Noah’s Ark on Crabbery Street

The Noah’s Ark Inn (in the year 2001 ) known as “The Surgery Cafe Bar and Lounge”. It was named the Surgery because of its historical links with Dr. William Palmer and stands in Crabbery Street beside the Guildhall Shopping Centre, Stafford. The Noah’s Ark was never actually owned by William Palmer but by his father-in-law who died in 1834 (and never met Palmer). Col. Brookes had bought the Noah’s Ark from George Keeling on November 11th 1831. It was one of the nine houses left in his will to his mistress Mary Thornton who was to become the mother-in-law of Palmer. As owner of the property Mary Thornton would have been the ‘licensee’ of the Inn even though she took no part in running the establishment.


In 1877 the Noah’s Ark was sold to the Corporation, who within a few years took down part of it and rebuilt it as it is today. The whole of the ancient structure from the right hand bay window has disappeared, to be replaced by the curving wall of the modern building. The alterations were dictated, by the need to widen Albion Street, then a comparatively narrow alley, this unfortunately swept away some of the most characteristic features of the place, including the half- timbered projecting open porch, with its room above having a three-gabled roof. This Porch was a way through to a large courtyard with stables and an old tree in the centre. The old stones were used as a facing for the new curving wall and the Meat Market entrance which was part of the original building.

The Noah’s Ark Inn remained open until 1964. In 1964 the Town Council announced they were ending the tenancy of Butlers Brewery and that the Noah’s Ark would be demolished, in the near future, to provide an unloading bay for market store-holders, and, although it was a listed building, no Ministry objections were expected. By 1966 “still standing” Noah’s Ark became Stafford’s Weights & Measures Department and the Market Superintendents Office. Weights & Measures moved out in late 1974, and finally the Market Superintendent left leaving the building empty in October 1989.

The Noah’s Ark’s other claim to fame is that it was once visited by Queen Elizabeth I who stopped at the house and took wine there on her way through the town on August 8th 1575. The municipal archives say that “shee passed alonge throughe the Market Place, and so on in at the Croberie Lane to the Broadey, going directlie to Stafford Castle”. The owner in 2001, Kevin Smith, claims that parts of the building were built even earlier than Stafford’s Ancient High House which is said by some to be the oldest private dwelling in Stafford.