'Oh, John, would that I had died at Waterloo; you then would never have been born to this disgrace, and I never should have committed this dreadful crime.' 1
On Tuesday, 4th June 1844, the inhabitants of the town of Weston-super-Mare in Somerset were thrown into a state of awful excitement following the report of a terrible murder having being committed at the Devonshire Inn, in High Street. The victim was one Mary Hyatt, a woman of fifty-four years of age; the murderer was her husband, Joel Fisher, aged fifty-two.2
Joel Fisher had a military background. Having signed up with the 7th Hussars in 1811, he fought at Orthes and Vittoria, and at other battles in which his regiment engaged until 1814. He then fought at Waterloo, after which he remained with his regiment until 1836. He served a total of twenty-three years, acquiring not a single blemish on his military record or stain upon his character. His Colonel retired from the regiment in 1836 and Fisher went with him as his servant, remaining in his service for a period of nine months.3 It's thought that he married around 1834, but that his wife died in 1837 leaving him with two small children to look after. It was soon after her death that he met Mary Hyatt.
Mary Hyatt was the daughter of Solomon Betty and Mary Bromfield of Uffculme in Devon.4 Hyatt had been married twice before meeting Joel Fisher. Her first husband, a known crook by the name of Hall, had gone missing in 1817. Her second husband, a fellow called Thomas Hyatt, had died in 1837 leaving her with two children. Joel Fisher and Mary Hyatt were married on the 30th September 1838 at St. Mary Redcliffe Church in Bristol.5 They lived initially in Backwell, in Somerset.
The couple began arguing only months after the marriage took place, and Mary Hyatt soon left Fisher. Hyatt met up with her first husband, Hill, at this point. Apparently, Hyatt had told Fisher that Hill was a poor cripple, emaciated by disease; he, however, turned up in full health, demanding furniture that Fisher had received upon marrying Mary Hyatt. Fisher refused Hill's demands, and the latter appears to have vanished again within two months never to return. Hyatt subsequently returned to Fisher, who agreed to take her back, but their life together was far from happy.
In 1841, the couple moved to Weston-super-Mare and bought the Devonshire Inn. Unfortunately, the arguments took place even more frequently following the move, and they became more violent. Hyatt regularly left Fisher, taking possessions from their home with her, but each time she'd return and Fisher would take her back. A year before her murder, she made off to Bath with a quantity of linen and twenty pounds in cash, and Fisher had to go after her with a policeman. Still, upon promising to mend her ways, she was again taken back in by Fisher. To a certain extent, he probably felt he had no choice but to take her back; he, being illiterate, relied upon his wife to take care of his affairs at the inn and could not run the business effectively without her. Ultimately, the couple had one violent argument too many; Fisher hit his wife over the head with an iron bar and then cut her throat in one of the bedrooms of the Devonshire Inn.
The Devonshire Inn was situated in High Street, the oldest road in Weston-super-Mare. It was later replaced by the London Inn,6 and the map below (made in 1886) shows you where that establishment was situated, next to Rossiter Watches, a little above the junction with Waterloo Road. The London Inn still exists in the same position; the Wiltshire and Dorset Bank is now Lloyd's Bank.
Joel Fisher's trial took place on the 12th August 1844, with Mr Justice Patteson presiding. Mr Stone conducted the prosecution, and Mr Cockburn and Mr Prideaux conducted the defence.
Mr Stone opened his case with a statement of the facts, then called his witnesses. Ann Evans, a servant at the Devonshire Inn for only two weeks before the murder took place, explained that there had been only two lodgers at the Devonshire: Peter Baker and William Upsall. On the 3rd June, Joel Fisher had gone out and left Mary Hyatt in charge of the inn. Hyatt had proceeded to have an argument with Baker, which resulted in the latter moving out. This, of course, halved the inn's income from letting rooms, so Fisher was understandably upset when he returned home and discovered what had happened. But Hyatt was not bothered about this at all and said she wished their only remaining lodger would leave too. According to Ann Evans, Fisher told his wife 'he would give it to her bye and bye - she was asking for it'.7
At about ten o'clock in the evening, Ann Evans went up to bed. Mary Hyatt followed her up with a glass of wine and said she intended to sleep in Evans' room that night; Fisher's two young children, both boys, joined them. Upon hearing Fisher come up the stairs, his wife said 'Oh, that rascal! I'll never sleep with him again'.8 Fisher banged on the door and the couple went on arguing on either side of it. He threatened to kill his wife, at which point she tried to jump out of the bedroom window, but Evans prevented her from doing so. This argument went on until about one o'clock in the morning, then all went quiet.
To be continued...
1 The Bristol Mercury, 7th September 1844.
2 According to the register of births and christenings, Joel Fisher was born on the 10th June 1792 at Wick St. Lawrence, in Somerset. His parents were John and Susanna Fisher.
3 The Times, 5th Spetember 1844.
4 According to the register of England Marriages, Mary Hyatt's parents were married on the 5th January 1790.
5 Bristol Parish Registers.
6 The London Inn actually got a mention in Wilkie Collins' The Cruise of the Tomtit, that was published in Household Words on the 22nd December 1855 (pp. 490-499). It was renamed the Metropolitan Inn by Collins, and Weston-super-Mare was renamed Mangerton-on-the-Mud. The Cruise of the Tomtit was an account of a twelve-day sailing trip from Weston-super-Mare to the Scilly Isles during the September of 1855, made by Collins and his friend Edward Francis Smyth Pigott (1824-1895).
7, 8 The Bristol Mercury, 17th August 1844.