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The untimely death of William Armstrong….

Since our last post from Falkland, we have been back to Glasgow for a night, set off again and visited Leadhills, Moffat, Lochmaben and are now in the border town of Newcastleton, on the Scottish side of the Border.

Today, we set off on a three-mile walk up to Ettleton Cemetery in the nearby hills and back into town. The walk became a bit boggy in parts, but given the recent rain, that was no surprise! However, what was surprising was the centrepiece of the old graveyard, the monument to William Armstrong.

The inscription on the western face reads as follows (as far as I can decipher!):

“In this spot

Near which rest the ashes

Of his forefathers

Is interred

William Armstrong




To the great grief

Of the neighbourhood

Was shot

Without challenge

or warning

By the Rev Joseph Smith

Incumbent of Walton


On the night of Wednesday

The 16th of April 1851

In the 38th year of his age.”

I have found a fascinating account of William’s untimely demise written by Mr Tom Moss online, which reads as follows:

“In April 1851 William Armstrong of Sorbietrees, a man on the right side of forty years of age, married with four children, rode to Brampton, on the English side of the Border, a market town of considerable antiquity, to conduct negotiations for the purchase of some property. It was market day and Armstrong soon met up with friends and acquaintances from his home lands, specifically the Elliots of Liddesdale.

At the end of the day’s proceedings, the men of Liddesdale, no doubt happy with the outcomes of their business, wined and dined at one of the many local hostelries that abounded in Brampton at that day. ‘Sorbietrees, (so Armstrong was commonly called, after the border custom)…united with his friends around the alter dedicated to better acquaintance by the custom of his country – the dinner table- and poured out with them the usual libations’.

At about ten o’clock Armstrong and Elliot mounted their horses to return home. It was mid April and darkness would have been upon them before they had journeyed but a short way of the sixteen miles back to Liddesdale, a ride of at least four hours.

As they passed the hostelry which is now Cambeck Cottages at the junction of Walton Lane and the road from Brampton to Longtown, Armstrong, high in spirit, determined to leave his travelling companion, Elliot, and ride up the lane to Walton. At the parsonage there worked one, Anne Glendinning, a lady fairly advanced in years: a friend and former employee of the Armstrongs of Sorbietrees.

On reaching the parsonage, nigh on eleven o’clock, Armstrong was confronted with a quandary. Should he openly rap at the door at a time when most country folk, known for their early rising, would be languishing in the land of Nod, or should he, hoping that maybe the servants of the place were still up, tap at the window next to the main door. He chose the latter course.

Now the incumbent of Walton was the Rev. Joseph Smith, a small man with the valour of a mouse. He lived in the parsonage with a wife and four children, a pupil and two or three female servants; and what was he, one bit of a man, among so many weaker vessels?’ Just after eleven o’clock ‘the reverend master of the house remaining still below (when all others had retired) was stricken with horror by a noise. Somebody was knocking at the study window.

Smith obeyed the first impulse that arose to him as a timid minister of the gospel – seized his revolver (bought recently in Carlisle after a spate of robberies in the area), rushed to the street door, opened it rapidly, and before any alarm could be communicated to the person standing by the window, fired briskly one after another three volleys at him, or in the direction whence the noise had come, and then slammed the door and rushed up to his wife, as an affrighted hare to cover.

Next morning, early, the milkmaid, on approaching the parsonage, was astounded and terrified to find a dead man within the gate. The Rev. Joseph Smith was immediately summoned and openly proclaimed his guilt even though, like any man confronted with the dire thoughts and consequences of his actions, he endeavoured to justify the terror which had confronted him on the previous night.

Sixteen miles to the north and over the Border to Scotland, a wife and four bairns were beside themselves with worry as a result of the absence of a loving husband and father. Imagine their horror then when, from papers found in the dead man’s pocket and the identification of Anne Glendinning, they were eventually to learn of the extra-ordinary death of him whom they held so dear.

The folk of Newcastleton, the village slightly to the north of Sorbietrees, were aghast at the news of Armstrong’s death. It soon became clear, when frayed tempers had subsided and the thought of feud and its exacting terms of justice as in the Reiving days were put aside, that the death of the man was due to an unfortunate misunderstanding. He had shown a wanton disregard for the fears of the country folk of Walton in approaching the parsonage at an hour when no man was usually out of bed or out and about. The Rev. Joseph Smith had reacted with an abject terror consistent with the circumstances. Yet he could, after all, secure in the knowledge that the parsonage was locked and inaccessible, have waited for a more direct sign that his domain was about to be invaded, before firing off his gun.

But is any man right to censure in such cases?

Armstrong was buried in Ettleton cemetery; that he was well thought of and sadly missed is evident from the memorial that stands head and shoulders above all others in this ancient churchyard. He is buried in the vicinity of the ashes of his fore-fathers, the men who ruled in Liddesdale for centuries: the men who were feared by all, be they Scots or English.

And what of poor Joseph Smith, the incumbent reverend of Walton parish in north-east Cumbria?

He was tried for manslaughter before the illustrious judge, one Baron Platt. The facts were easily determined yet Platt, from the onset referred to the defendant as the ‘reverend gentleman’ rather than the prisoner at the Bar.

Smith pleaded not guilty.

Baron Platt, in summing up said: ‘After weighing the evidence it is for you (the Jury) to say whether, upon the occasion referred to, Mr Smith, bona fide, believed robbers were about to attack his house. If a man so conduct himself by making noises at untimely hours as to cause the inmates of the house to believe that it is going to be broken into, it is precisely the same as if the burglary was committed; and no question a man has a right to go forth and alarm persons so acting, either by shooting over their heads or in the direction in which he fancies they are, to prevent the burglary’.

The Reverend Joseph Smith was acquitted.

It is said, though there is no evidence that it was so, that Joseph Smith and his family left Walton soon after his acquittal.

An afterword.

Baron Platt was to try another man for murder at the same assizes in Carlisle. He had throttled another in front of witnesses in a hostelry following a dispute about wages. Baron Platt sentenced him to six months imprisonment with hard labour. On another occasion when two men came before Platt accused of robbery the proceeds of which were a clock, three cloaks and a shawl they were sentenced to ten years transportation.

Perhaps they were not the pillars of society that appealed to Baron Platt. The case of Reverend Joseph Smith appeared in the London Examiner of 1851 and again in the New York Times of September 1851 under the headline ‘English Judicial Decisions – Killing no Matter in English Courts’.

The conclusion of the New York Times article is as follows and begs a further consideration of the death that transpired at Walton on that fateful April night in 1851.

‘The report of the case (the two thieves) leaves much doubt on the mind as to the guilt of the persons charged; but they were found guilty and sentenced to ten years transportation by the learned Baron. Why they had not shot or strangled somebody, the foolish fellows’.

It is left to the reader to determine whether Joseph Smith was at the receiving end of true justice, whether Armstrong of Sorbietrees was the victim of a senseless crime.”

The website can be found here:

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Ed Boyle
Ed Boyle
04 apr

Heading down that way on Saturday, staying at Moffat campsite.

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The places curiosity takes one is a wonder.

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Graveyards can be fascinating!

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