Rugeley as depicted in the newspapers

Rugeley “Rubbished” by the Newspapers in 1856

The Maypole in Rugeley 1856 from the Illustrated Times 2nd February 1856 and the Times Report of the Trial of William Palmer published 1856
The Maypole in Rugeley 1856 from the Illustrated Times 2nd February 1856 and the Times Report of the Trial of William Palmer published 1856

Many of the newspaper descriptions of Rugeley around the time of the Palmer trial were less than flattering. Here are a couple of contrasting examples of what was being said in the press at the time. For further study another source of a description of Rugeley can be found in White’s Trade Directory of Staffordshire 1851 (copy in the County Record Office, Stafford).

Under a heading THE RUGELEY TRAGEDIES (from our Special correspondent), The Illustrated London News on January 19th 1856 (the trial did not start until May 14th that same year), had the following to say about Rugeley:

No account of the Rugeley tragedies would be complete or quite comprehensible without some slight description of the town of Rugeley itself. If cities have, as has been said, their destinies, as men have, then, unquestionably, Rugeley was built to be the scene of a tragedy. There are many towns of the kind in Holland-like Staffordshire. Seated in the centre of the railway system, the county, in the beginning, made great arrangements to develop itself. Every village made a rapid rush to be a town, and stopped half-way; and, at present, Staffordshire has only about two towns, neither of second class importance, while she is almost totally destitute of that beauty of less energetic shires – a village. Birkenhead has been described as a premature Palmyra, and, in a lesser way, Staffordshire is crowded with Birkenheads: places of pretension incompletely fulfilled, too big for the business, considerably “to let”. Rugeley is the worst of these; for it seems to have fallen back – from the staring red brick, perfectly modern, outworks that can get nothing to do – upon the old village street, which is built of sad, sullen-looking dirty-brown stone, miserable without the once-adjoining fields, and most disheartening to the passenger from the utterly unprosperous look of the place. You enter Rugeley from the station by a road that winds between two churchyards – an old and a new one – and which seem to compete with one another in dismal suggestiveness. The people are neither country people nor townsfolk, have neither rustic ease nor civic smartness, and the gloom of failure appears to pervade talk and “trade”.
An inn in a town is always a representative place. In Rugeley the inns are as miserably inconvenient, insufficient, and uncomfortable, as posthouse inns in Poland. Like the other houses, they are drear, the principle inn, looks like an aged gaol; and the next most melancholy building in Rugeley is that opposite – and that building is the house of William Palmer the surgeon. A deserted inn, as the Talbot Arms is, was not a healthy sight for a surgeon without practice, and heavy in debt, as Palmer was. “the Talbot Arms,” a dilapidated sign, swings in from, and its creaking at night must have wearied William Palmer’s wife when she lay dying.The motto of the Talbot’s – “Nihil humani alienum” – is emblazoned on the arms – a constant, benificent suggestion to the eyes of Mr. Palmer, but of which he availed himself in the manner sinister.

Compare the description above with the more flattering description found in the the Illustrated Times published on February 2nd 1856 and repeated word for word in the Illustrated Life and Career of William Palmer of Rugeley (published by Ward and Locke 1856) page 35.

Rugeley is a long straggling town of small houses, kept very clean, and occupied by persons extremely well to do in the world. It is about as large as Twickenham, and seems to have been built up without any apparent design beyond the whim of the bricklayer. Commercial travellers say it is a good place for business, and that accounts “are particularly safe”. It certainly is a peculiar little place, with its cottage shops and red-brick houses, with large leaden lights and big shutters. To those who like bustle and crowded pathways, of course the country quietude of the town would be oppressive and saddening. But to us there is a certain charm in the deserted thoroughfares, when the only persons to be seen are the housewives at the windows, behind the rows of geraniums, plying the needle, whilst the husband is working in the fields. We prefer the noise heard from the other end of the street, of Mr. Wright’s hammer, ringing on the anvil to the rumbling of bus and cab wheels under our windows. The young lady on the hot pony standing on the footway of bricks, close up to the shop-door, and giving her orders to the baker’s wife, turns nobody into the road, for nobody is out walking, and yet there are plenty of inhabitants – hard working people – who are earning their day’s hire at Bladen’s brass-foundry, or Hatfield’s manufactory.
Rugeley has a Town Hall, which occupies the centre of the Market-place, with its justice-room in the upper storey, and a literary institution and a savings’ bank on the ground-floor. It has three or four London-looking shops, and a hundred countryfied ones. There are butchers with only half a sheep as their stock in trade, and grocers that sell bread, and tailors that keep stays and bonnets for sale. It is a very curious little over-grown village, and too pretty to be abused.
Soon after you leave the railway station, and have crossed the bridge by the flour mill, and left Mrs. Palmer’s house and the two churches in the background, you come to the Talbot Inn; at the bend of the road, near the half-timbered cottage, is the shop of the only person who has benefited by Palmer’s ill deeds – Mr. Keeyes, the undertaker, for he has had the job of getting up all the funerals.
You are now in Market-street, where the new post-office is, which two dashing young gentlemen have come down from London to manage, in stead of Mr. Cheshire. Already you perceive in the distance the sign-board of the Talbot Arms Hotel swinging over the stone steps before the entrance door. The Talbot Arms is a bold-faced house, something like a cotton mill outside, only the windows are too large, with an acre of backyard, surrounded by stables and coach-houses, which no doubt are filled during the horse-fair, but are nearly empty for the remainder of the year. You will most likely see an old gentleman in drab breeches and cut-away coat standing at the door, supporting himself on a stick. that is Mr. Thomas Masters, who lived in the house for seventy-four years, and rides a brown mare, aged thirty. “We make a good bit over a hundred together,” he will tell you, if you like to go and chat with him.
William Palmer’s house is in front of the Talbot Arms, that stone-coloured building standing back, as if in shame, a little from the road. It will be a good time before that house lets again. The paper will peel off the damp walls, the tiles will become loose, and the little strip of neatly-kept garden at the back be choked up with weeds before the next tenant takes possession. We should not wonder if that house becomes haunted. However, the property belongs to Lord Lichfield, and he can afford the loss of rent.
You pass by other shops, and amongst them them Mr. Ben Thirlby’s, the prisoner’s assistant. Here too, is the crockery shop, where Palmer used to deal; there is the saddler’s, where his harness was repaired; there the tailor’s, where his clothes were made. Everything in Rugeley is Palmer now. Nothing else is talked of.
We come to the bank where Palmer kept his flickering account; now immense, from the £13,000; now down to almost nothing, from losses on the race-course. They do not seem to work very hard at country banks, for this one opens at ten and closes at three.
Now you are in Brook-street, where the horse-fair is held. It is as broad as Smithfield, and as long as Regent-street, with plenty of room for looking at the horses, even though they should chase down the road like a cavalry regiment. The tall pole facing you is called the Maypole, and although it is as high as a three-decker’s mast, it is said that boys sometimes climb up it; but it must hurt their legs, for half way is a quantity of iron hooping.
Now we see Rugeley in its beauty. The houses on both sides are large and comfortable, and country-looking. The trees that line the road give it a country air. The waggon before the miller’s door and the drove of sheep and cows raising the cloud odf dust in the distance, are sufficient to destroy the solitude of the landscape. In the far background are the dark hills of Cannock Chase framing-in the view.
“Rugeley,” observes an inhabitant to us, “is one of the prettiest places in Europe. The country around is most beautiful for miles. There are nothing else but noblemen’s mansions and grounds; and do you think they would come down and live here if it wasn’t a pretty spot? There is the Marquis of Anglesey’s within four miles – the beautiful desert, as they call it – Beau Desert, with the most lovely scenery, all along the road leading to it, you can imagine. There, in the other direction, is Lord Hatherton’s park and woods, from which half the navy dock-yards are supplied. Oaks, sir, as big round as cart-wheels. Then there is Lord Bagot’s; the finest woods in Europe Lord Bagot’s got. Then there is the Earl Talbot’s estate, and Weston Hall, and a hundred such. Bless you, sir, compared to Rugeley, Nottinghamshire is a fool to it. Then there’s Hagley Hall, within a hop skip, stride, and a jump of the town – only a mile, with the finest shrubberies in the world; and the Hon. Mr. Curzon is so kind as to allow the people of Rugeley to enjoy them. It’s only this Palmer that has set people against the place, or else everybody would be singing its praises.”
To the above smart description, we will add a few additional particulars:-
Rugeley contains 7,120 acres, and has a population of 4,500. Its principal fair – the Rugeley Cattle Fair – for which it is so famous, commences on the first of June, and closes on the 6th. The other fairs are the second Tuesday in April, the second Tuesday in December, and the 21st of October.
The Free Grammar School at Rugeley, to which William Palmer went, and which is the only school he ever attended, is supported by endowment from Queen Elizabeth: consisting of land in and about the town, the present annual value of which is about £400. Rugeley has nine schools, all endowed, and belonging to the Established Church. It has one Catholic school, not endowed; and one Wesleyan Methodist endowed.
The Free Grammar School is a square brick building, surrounded by a high brick wall. Premises have been recently built out from the house, which, from being pretentiously Gothic, are peculiarly unlike the plain square houses they are connected with. The scholars’ entrance is through an iron gate. There are some fine trees round the school-house, and holly has been trained along the top wall. Very little of the house can be seen from the road, as the wall is very high, and the trees very luxuriant in growth. It stands immediately opposite the grave of Palmer’s former friend – John Parsons Cook.

Rugeley Town Hall where the Inquest was held. From Illustrated Times 2nd February 1856
Rugeley Town Hall where the Inquest was held. From Illustrated Times 2nd February 1856