William Wreford of Clannaborough (1781-1852)

The Wrefords

The Wrefords were a large influential farming family who owned several farms in Mid Devon in the 18/19th centuries.

William Wreford was born 14th December 1781 at the family home Clannaborough Barton, between Copplestone and Bow.

When he was 32, his father John died and he inherited the 260 acre farm where 8 farm workers were employed.

In October 1820 he eloped to Gretna Green in Scotland to marry Miss Selina Southwell from Plymouth. By then he was a 40 year old bachelor, she 18; presumably her father did not approve. This was in the days before railways and the journey to Scotland would have taken at least four days each way by stagecoach.

(They were married a second time at Clannaborough Church on 1 Jan 1821, presumably with her father's approval.)

They had two sons, John, born in 1823, who died in 1848 of typhus, and William, born in 1826.


Thursday 25th November 1852: William Wreford now aged 71 and his son left their home in Clannaborough and took the train to the cattle show in Taunton. He returned to Exeter, arriving at Queen Street station at 2.45 p.m. His son continued home by train.


At three o’clock, just as it was closing, he called at the West of England and South Wales District Bank on Fore Street. He had £87 with him in cash and a cheque. He paid £24 into the bank.

At 4 o’clock he had tea in the Seven Stars Inn near Exe Bridge and then retraced his steps back up Fore Street to the shop of John Osment, silversmith at The Mint. It seems that he then went back down Fore Street and crossed the river. He was next sighted close to the gas works by the canal.

“About a quarter before six the same evening, a tall elderly gentleman, with a cloak, was noticed by some men working at the New Gas Works, at the Exeter  Basin, to pass down the road in front of the Gas Works in the direction of the Haven Banks.  Several yards behind the gentleman, a female was seen. Her dress indicated rather humble circumstances.”


Samuel Skoines, 39, who lived in Cowick Street, was a stone mason at the gas works. “On Thursday night I left work a quarter before six. Going up with my mate, Stone, by the basin, on our way home, we met a gentleman going downward. We then saw a woman walking three or four land yards behind him.

"They were going apparently to the Haven Banks Inn, but I don't believe the deceased ever reached it. He appeared to be perfectly sober."

Edmund Stamp, of Painter's Row, St. Thomas, joiner and block maker, said,—“On Thursday evening, between five and six, I was at work getting out some planks near the basin; I heard a woman scream, four or five men were with me. One of them said he thought there was someone in the water. The woman screamed three or four times, and I then ran to the spot. I found a female, she said —" Oh my uncle, Oh my uncle, he's in the water. I sung out to my men to get the grapnel, they could not find it, I went myself and found it. I returned and dropped it in the water at the spot the woman had pointed out, and took the corpse immediately. The body was then carried to the house where it now lies, and I sent for a doctor.

"I asked the girl who it was, she kept saying it was her uncle, she said her own name was Slee, she did not mention her Christian name. I understood her to say his name was "Breford," but she was crying and sobbing.”

­They sent for a doctor. One of the men noticed a label in the dead man’s hat with the name “Braund” on it, so took it to Mr John Braund’s draper’s shop in the High Street. Mr Braund recognised the hat as one he had supplied to William Wreford. The Constable Ratcliffe, upon being brought acquainted with the circumstances, made an active search for the woman throughout the night, but without success.

Next day the press had got hold of the sensational news

“Our city was terrified this morning by the report that William Wreford, Esq., of Clannaborough, had been found murdered near the Canal Basin last evening.” lead the headlines in the Western Times. “Mr Wreford was a man advanced in years, being nearly 70. But he was a powerful resolute man, of most energetic and determined character. In youth he was considered the strongest man in the county, and was equal to any amount of exertion to which the human frame could be subjected. He was a man of powerful intellect, clear headed and sagacious to an eminent degree—an unswerving Liberal, always at his post, and contributing largely to uphold his principles—he was extensively known and widely respected.”

"Two of the City Police, Inspectors Fulford and Woolcott, have also been engaged this morning in endeavouring to obtain some clue as to [the girl's] whereabouts, but as yet without success. Mr Wreford was said to be worth between £60-70,000."


On Saturday afternoon the inquest was held back at the Seven Stars Inn, St Thomas, before Richard R. Crosse, Esq., deputy coroner.

Mr. William Robert Warren, surgeon of Bow, stated that he had known the deceased for ten years, and identified the body as that of the deceased. He had examined the body with other surgeons, and saw no marks of violence. Mr. James Lyddon, surgeon of Exe Bridge-street, St. Thomas then confirmed that he had been called to the Haven Banks Inn, where saw a body lying on the table, dead. He pronounced the body to be dead, and from the appearance he supposed death had taken place from drowning.

“Today, I have at the request of the Coroner with Mr. William Mackenzie, Mr. William Warren, and Mr Frederick Farrant examined the external part of the body. We found a whiteness peculiar to drowned persons, no marks of violence or injuries to induce us to believe he had sustained any injury before he got into the water."

(Frederick Granby Farrant (1801-1859) was a surgeon in St Sidwell’s Exeter. His wife Harriet (nee Radford) had died of Cholera during the 1832 epidemic. His daughter married William Jenny Pengelley, a captain in the Royal Marines. By a strange coincidence his granddaughter Ida Myra Pengelley inherited Fair Park on the death of Thomas Reynolds Arscott in 1881.)

The Coroner said he would need to call several other witnesses including the mother of the young woman who was with the deceased, and the young woman herself. It was agreed to adjourn until Monday morning at eleven o' clock.

Resumed Inquest—Monday

Maria Slee, the young woman who was seen with deceased was then sworn. She said “I reside in Heavitree —but I am now in service at the Acorn Inn, in Magdalen-street Exeter. My mother came for me on Thursday evening; she said she had a note from Mr. Wreford, and I was to go and meet him in the Lower Market [in Fore St] - this between five and six o'clock. I went alone to the Lower Market, and when I came to the head of the Market there he stood. He said—" You go to the place where I've seen you before." I made no answer; he went on, and I went after, and then I heard "the rouse." Then I run fore, and heard him call for help twice. I was five or six yards behind him, and I screeched for help. l did not see him fall in. The first who came to me was a man who I did not know—he asked me what was the matter, I said—" There's some one falled into the water." The man then took out the cloak with a pole, and then a hat, and then the body. They said —What's the man's name, and I said — " Mr. Wreford." I never considered Mr. Wreford to be my uncle

I then went home. I went directly home to Heavitree.

My mother said nothing to me about the accident then - I heard nothing more of it until I was going to dinner, when the policemen came and asked me if I knew anything about Mr. Wreford, and I said yes. They said I was to go with them, and I went with them to the Guildhall. They asked me if I had a note from Mr. Wreford, and I said my mother had received a note from Mr. Wreford.

In reply to a question by the Foreman of the jury —I was once at Powlesland's with deceased before, about three or four months since. I am 18 years old, I can't read nor write."

The Coroner then read over her evidence, as he did that of each witness, and asked her if it was true. She replied in the affirmative, but as she could not read nor write, she affirmed it with her mark.

Maria Slee, mother of the former witness, was then examined. She said, "Sir, I fetched my girl. I had a letter come on Thursday last, for my girl to meet 'un in the lower market, between five and six that evening. I went to the Acorn, where she was living, and asked her mistress to please to give her leave of absence for the night, which she did, and I took she there to the lower market, and when I come with she this gentleman was there, and I delivered she to him." [sensation]. Said the witness, with great composure.


" I went away home then."


A letter was put in, which witness identified as the one she had received on Thursday.

The Coroner read the letter, of which the following is a copy:- "Must be at Lower Market-on Thursday evening, from five to six, and stop -all night.", It was directed: Maria Slee, Heavitree Turnpike Gate, near Exeter.  Witness received the letter produced from Mr. Wreford on Thursday morning last; She received one from the same person, for the same purpose, about five weeks ago. She couldn’t read the letters, but got them read. Witness has lived at Heavitree about twelve months. Witness did not know her daughter’s age, nor did she know how long she had been married.


The Coroner said this was all the evidence. All they had to enquire was the cause of death. There seemed no evidence to criminate the young woman or anyone else. If they believed the young woman, and undoubtedly she was contradicted in some points by other witnesses, he thought they could not hesitate in coming to the conclusion that the deceased was “accidentally drowned”. If, however, they disbelieved her statement, then perhaps it would be more advisable to return an open verdict of “found drowned”. The Jury returned. The foreman stated that they had agreed on a verdict of “Found Drowned." The indentures were then signed, and the enquiry, as far as the cause of the death of the deceased is concerned, terminated. The girl was then removed in custody, but she has since been liberated.



From about 1840 The Haven Banks pub was run by Robert Powlesland, born in Spreyton in about 1781. He was an old soldier and had picked up 10 medals serving in the Peninsular War including the Battle of Coruna. When he died in November 1863 he was 83 and a Chelsea Pensioner. He died after falling down some stairs. Ironically the inquest was held in his old pub the “Haven Banks Inn” which was by then called the “Welcome Inn”. The building still exists in front of the Gas Works. He had been living on his own.  His widow, Angelica, known as “Frenchie” (but born in Hannover) died a week later.

So how did William Wreford know Maria Slee?


Her parents, Francis, a farm labourer, and Maria (nee Clement) were both from Down St Mary. They were living at Ash Farm near Copplestone when Maria, the third of their 12 children, was born. She was christened in Down St Mary in 1836, so at the time of Wreford's death she was probably under 18. The family were living in Bow in 1851, therefore William Warren the surgeon would have known them.


Slightly more sinister is that in the 1851 census the young Maria’s elder brother William (b.1834) is shown as a farm labourer working for William Wreford at Clannaborough Barton, which may explain why Maria referred to William Wreford as “uncle”. He had probably known the Slee family for a long time.



At the time of the drowning the family was living in Heavitree, Exeter, at the bottom of Quarry Lane, where they remained for more than 30 years.

In 1866 Maria's mother, sister and sister-in-law were caught helping themselves to a few turnip tops in Mr. W. Newberry's field at Heavitree. “Hope your Honours will not be very hard upon them,” pleaded the prosecutor “they are poor working people.” They admitted the offence, and were required to pay 5s each to cover costs. “The expenses are high,” said the Chairman, “but there's no help for that.”­

Her mother Maria died aged about 90 in 1899.


The story has hints of embarrassment and a cover-up. Some of the newspapers did not report the contents of his letter. The funeral went unreported. Maria, although suspected of having stolen his money and watch, was never charged.


Five years later, in 1857, his remaining son William died at Clannaborough aged 31. Amongst the mourners at his funeral were William Warren and Robert Arscott, surgeons of Bow and Exeter, and the brothers Drs Samuel and Christian Budd of Exeter and North Tawton. He left the Clannaborough estate to a distant cousin, John Wreford of Cleavanger, Nymet Rowland.


Selina, William Wreford's widow, paid for the restoration of Clannaborough Church and moved to Ilfracombe and then Clifton, Bristol, where she died aged 89 in 1892. She was buried with the rest of her family in a vault outside the church, within a few yards of the Barton, where they had once lived.