William Giles Ruffell, 1797 – 1863

A story of a disagreement between William Giles Ruffell and Thomas Making in February 1839 which left one in gaol for a month and the other with a scar on his arm. Both men, as the sons of freemen, were entitled to be freemen by birth. William Giles Ruffell was admitted on June 17th, 1818, whilst Thomas Making became a freeman a few months after the events related below, on July 29th, 1839.

Blizzards in late January and early February 1839 left Sudbury covered with snow. Icy conditions encouraged people from the cottages and courts to congregate in the taprooms of public houses as many of their usual activities were suspended until the snow thawed.

Perhaps more beer than usual was consumed? Certainly, on the night of February 4th, 1839, a hairdresser named John Bulmer was ‘over-refreshed’ at ‘The Christopher’. Someone knocked him down and the tools of his trade – his razors, scissors and comb – went missing.

Bulmer left ‘The Christopher’ and made his way through the snow along Sepulchre Street, (now Gainsborough Street), until he reached ‘The Rose Inn’ at the junction of Gregory Street and Stour Street. (‘The Rose Inn’ was demolished in the 1880’s.)

Image of Gainsborough Street with a view of ‘The Christopher’ c.1912 and the route taken by Bulmer in the direction of ‘The Rose Inn’. (Image from The Sudbury Photo Archive)

He blamed Thomas Makin for the theft and found him drinking at ‘The Rose’. William Giles Ruffell, an ostler from Wolbys Yard, Friars Street, (of very respectable appearance), was in the tap room and he hinted a suspicion that Thomas Makin was as likely as anyone to have taken the razors. Strong words were exchanged between Bulmer and Making, who denied taking the hairdresser’s property.
Bulmer was very unsteady on his feet and asked Ruffell to take him home. Ruffell took him out of ‘The Rose’ and started to lead him home to his premises in North Street.

By this time a small crowd had collected and at the entrance to Plough Lane someone threw a snowball. More snowballs were thrown, and one was thrown so violently that it knocked off Bulmer’s hat. Ruffell turned around in a rage, accused Makin and hit him. Makin retreated to a wall but Ruffell followed and struck him with a sharp instrument on the arm. It bled so much that he was also unable to walk and had to be led home.

Mr. Stocking, pupil to Messrs. Anderson and Co. surgeons, sewed up the wound. It was three inches long and an inch deep, but not at all dangerous, according to Mr. Stocking. Fortunately, it healed well.

The day after the altercation, Making told Bulmer that the snowball had not been intended for him but for Ruffell. He also offered to ‘make up’ with Ruffell if he would give him 15 shillings. Ruffell refused and the case came before the Magistrates in Sudbury, one of whom was Charles Ray. It is possible that Charles Ray was Ruffell’s landlord as he owned property close to Wolby’s yard. Despite a glowing reference that the prisoner was ‘a man of quiet and peaceable disposition’ and some evidence that Thomas Makin’s supporters had encouraged him to attack Ruffell in Plough Lane, the case was heard at the Suffolk Lent assizes in April,1839.

After a long consultation the Jury returned a verdict of a common assault upon the person and Ruffell was put into the care of Mr. Orridge at Bury St. Edmunds Gaol and sentenced to be imprisoned for one month with hard labour.

View of the Old Gaol front in Southgate Street, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. Courtesy of the Spanton Jarman Collection, Bury St Edmunds Past and Present Society
John Orridge, 1773 – 1844

Mr. Orridge kept an orderly prison and had very strong views on prison management. Unless prevented by ill health every day during their confinement, (except Sunday, Christmas Day and Good Friday), prisoners sentenced to hard labour were expected to work for as many hours as daylight permitted in the different seasons of the year. Half hour breaks were allowed for breakfast and supper with an hour at dinner time.

One of the prison buildings contained a treadmill. Invented by Mr. William Cubbitt of Ipswich, it was a very cruel punishment as the work was monotonous and exhausting. No previous instruction or skill was needed because the work was just like walking up stairs. The weight of each prisoner on the steps would set in motion the machinery for grinding corn into flour but the prisoner would never climb any higher or lower as the steps rotated on the outside of a walking wheel.

An example of a penal treadmill.

Twenty-four people could work on the treadmill at one time; a warning bell would alert the governor and miller if the mill was moving too slowly and the prisoners were not doing their duty.

Whether or not employment on the treadmill had any effect on the moral character of William Giles Ruffell during his short period in Bury St. Edmunds Gaol is unknown. There is no doubt, however, that he was a man who was quick to anger.

In mid-19th century Sudbury, accommodation was often overcrowded with shared facilities for water pumps and toilets. There was a network of yards and alley ways containing cottages and courts behind the main streets of the town. Wolbys Yard, off Friars Street, the home of William Giles Ruffell was no exception.

Extract from the 1885 map of Sudbury showing a section of Friars Street and the entrance to Wolby’s Yard.
Location in Friars Street, Sudbury, of the old entrance to Wolby’s Yard which was once an alleyway leading to two cottages, long since demolished.

Living so close to other families could be a problem and ‘The Suffolk and Essex Free Press’ has many examples of conflict between neighbours. When Thomas Parsonson set up his basket making business in Friars Street, he may have had no idea of the volatile nature of the Ruffell family living at the back of his premises in Wolbys Yard. It was not just William Giles Ruffell who was short tempered but his wife as well. The tale of the difficult neighbours is still remembered by the Parsonson family today, 160 years later.