Lightfoot Brothers: The 1840 Murder of Nevell Norway

The Lightfoot brothers (23-year-old James and 36-year-old William) were both born in the Parish of St. Breock to John Lightfoot and Elizabeth Penaligon. As adults, James and William worked long hours. James maintained that he and William were working in Pencarrow Wood when a man suggested they could “enrich” themselves in a much easier way than doing physical labor. He suggested they commit robberies and when they learned that they could escape detection, they found the idea so tempting they decided to turn to a life of crime. They thus began committing robberies about a year before Nevell Norway was murdered in 1840.

Lightfoot brothers

Drawing of James and William Lightfoot. Author’s collection.

Norway was a popular and highly respected timber importer and shipping merchant, who lived in Wadebridge, Cornwall. He was also popular as a philanthropist. In addition, he would be well-known not only because of his murder but also because he was the great-grandfather of the English novelist and aeronautical engineer, Neville Shute Norway, who was born in 1899.

Neville Shute Norway. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Nevell Norway’s murder by the Lightfoot brothers happened in 1840, the same year that Madame Récamier hosted a soirée and raised 4,390 francs to help flood victims in Lyons. Norway’s death happened on 8 February as he was riding his horse home from the civil parish and historic English town known as Bodmin. The Cornwall market of Bodmin was one of the regular places that he visited to buy and sell goods and it was the same market that the Lightfoot brothers visited that day.

William was supposedly within five feet of Norway and saw him empty out his brown nankeen purse that held many gold and silver coins. The idea then occurred to him that Norway was a good person to rob. However, the Lightfoot brothers would later maintain that they had intended to rob Reverend William Molesworth of St. Breock until William saw Norway with so much money.

Norway left Bodin for his home in Wadebridge around 10pm. It was about a 9 mile ride, and he left in the company of Abraham Hambly. They rode together and met Ralph Tinney, who rode with part of the way. At some point Hambly took a different route and Norway was then left riding alone. Soon after Norway and Hambly separated, John Hicks and Christopher Bowen left Bodmin also returning to Wadebridge. When they reached Clapper Road they saw a gray riderless horse that was saddle and bridled. When they meet two other men on the road near Egloshayle, Hicks being curious asked them if they had seen it. One of the men mentioned that he thought the horse belonged to Norway.

Because Hicks knew where Norway lived, he went to his house. It was dark when he arrived but there was a light on in the stables. He found one of Norway’s waggoners, Thomas Gregory, working and told him what he had seen. Gregory then took a lantern, and the men went to the stable gate where Gregory found the gray riderless horse waiting. Alarmed the men checked the horse and discovered two blood stains on the saddle. Gregory then went in search of Norway accompanied by Edward Cavell, one of Norway’s house servants. In the meantime, Hicks set off to get the local physician, a Dr. Trehane Symons Tickell, and then he headed back to Bodmin in search of Norway.

It was past 11pm when Norway’s body was discovered by Gregory and Cavell. Norway was lying on his back in a stream with his feet pointing towards the road. His great coat was unbuttoned and his hat missing. His body was on the far side of the Sladesbridge and was about two miles away from Wadebridge. The Royal Cornwall Gazette reported:

“[T]he body of the unfortunate gentleman was found lying on the side of the road, in a dreadful mutilated state, with the head almost beaten to pieces. The pockets had been rifled; and a considerable sum taken of money, which the deceased had received … it appeared Mr. Norway must have struggled desperately with his assailants. The [pistol lock] of the gun was found near the body; and it is hoped that it may lead to the detection of the murderer.”[1]  

Norway’s body was returned to Wadebridge on his horse. At his house his clothes were removed, and his body checked for evidence. It was noted by those present that the “tablet” he used to enter his receipts, along with his nankeen purse and money, were missing. Tickell also examined the body and reported that he discovered several wounds on Norway:

“I … found a severe wound of the chin of an irregular form, lacerated and deep, but without any fracture. There was a wound which had penetrated but not divided the under lip, and had injured the interior of the upper lip. There were two or three wounds on the upper eye lid about an inch in length extending to the bone and communicating underneath the integuments with a long transverse wound of the forehead which fractured the bone. There were several blows in the brow as from a blunt instrument, without laceration of the integuments, and fracturing the bone underneath. The left side of the head was beaten and fractured to a very great extent. Towards the hind part of the head there was severe lacerated wound accompanied by a fracture extending deeply into the brain. The injury was sufficient to have caused immediate death.”[2]

About two o’clock the morning of the murder, Tickell, William Norway (Norway’s brother), Robert Goodfellow, John Docking, Gregory, and Cavell returned to the murder scene. They went with lanterns and saw hoof marks near a hedge and marks in the road that looked as if a “scrambling” had occurred. They claimed it was obvious two men had been involved in the murder. In addition, they also located Norway’s hat in a field surrounded by distinguishable footprints.

When Norway’s funeral was held on 13 February around 3,000 persons attended. His coffin was followed by a black carriage containing his family, which was in turn followed by a long train of friends that included local magistrates and gentry of the neighborhood. Reverend T.S. Carlyon performed the service as the assembled multitude sat in “solemn silence” and then Norway was buried in St. Petroc’s Churchyard.

In hopes of catching the culprits an advertisement was placed in the newspaper the day after Norway’s funeral. It was printed in the Royal Cornwall Gazette and stated that Norway had been “barbarously murdered” on Saturday, 8 February 1840. A reward of £100 was being offered by government along with another £100 offered by the Secretary to the Society for the prosecution of Felons at Egloshayle. In addition, the advertisement stated that a pardon would be granted “to any ACCOMPLICE not being the actual perpetrator … who shall give evidence as shall lead [to the conviction of the murderer or murderers.]”[3]

Reverend William Molesworth, Rector at St. Breoke, wanted to know who had done such a horrible deed and attempted to ferret out the culprits. He owed bloodhounds and used them to sniff out the trail of the killers. This was a noteworthy act as it was the first instance of bloodhounds being used in a manhunt in England. Unfortunately, Molesworth’s bloodhounds lost the scent, and the trail went cold.

Norway left behind a widow and six children and to help the now destitute family, a “Meeting of the Friends” was held on 29 February 1840. It was held pursuant to an advertisement placed by Molesworth about the event. The respectable sum of £3,400 was raised and indicated how many friends Norway had and how highly respected he was in the area.

Although the murder seemed somewhat ordinary it generated much excitement. Numerous suspects were arrested but none of them were identified as the culprits. Newspaper reporters also noted that a dog was observed watching the spot where Norway was killed and that several neighbors unsuccessfully attempted to catch it hoping that it would lead to some discovery. In addition, a lot of rumors circulated but they were so contradictory people didn’t know what to believe or what to repeat.

The Lightfoot brothers came into focus as the killers after a shoemaker named John Harris said he had noticed them on the night Norway was killed loitering near a small, uninhabited cottage, between Pencarrow Mill and Sladesbridge on the right side of the road when heading to Bodmin. In addition, Richard Ayres, a blacksmith and neighbor to James, told authorities that he heard James come home on the night of the murder and he heard James’s wife crying. James then said, “Lie still, folks will hear thee,”[4] and his wife retorted, “They shall hear me!”[5]

These reports resulted in the police searching James’s cottage and finding a pistol hidden in a ceiling beam with its pistol lock missing. With that evidence and because James was also acting suspicious, police arrested him on 14 February. Three days later, on 17 February, William was arrested. Their arrests then intensified public interest in Norway’s murder case.

On 30 March 1840 the Lightfoot brothers were tried at Bodmin in Cornwall before Justice Coltman. They were both charged with “wilful murder.” The courthouse was packed with spectators wanting to catch a glimpse of them and hear all the horrendous details. Newspaper reports noted that James was not more than about 5 feet 4 inches tall and looked very young but was muscular in build. His brother William was noted to be a little taller and to have behaved much less jovial than James throughout the proceedings.

The same day as George Brian “Beau” Brummell, the original dandy and Regency man of fashion died, Monday, 30 March 1840, was also the same day that the Lightfoot brothers’ trial began. The brothers obvious dislike and mistrust of one another was evident to everyone in the courtroom. Authorities had kept them separated but now seeing each and facing the idea of being found guilty each one tried to blame the other for Norway’s murder. However, it quickly became clear from the evidence presented that both Lightfoot brothers had been involved.

Lightfoot brothers

Lightfoot brothers at trial. Courtesy of

A turnkey, Thomas Dungey, testified that William confessed his part in the murder because he was supposedly “burdened in his mind.” Dungey stated that William said that he and James were waiting to rob Norway and when Dungey asked William if their intent was to kill him, William said they had “determined” they would take the money of anyone who came along. The Royal Cornwall Gazette summed up Dungey’s testimony stating:

“[William] said ‘they knew Mr. Norway by his gray pony.’ When Mr. Norway came up, they went out and said, ‘I have something for you Mr. Norway.’ Then he took Mr. Norway’s bridle in his life hand; and James came up and snapped a pistol at him twice. William then gave him a blow with a stick. He described the stick to witness as a white thorn, a little more than a yard long, and about the size of a small hand-shaft … Mr. Norway fell off on the other side. He was stunned with the blow, but recovered and got on his legs. He went a few steps quite erect. Then he fell all a sudden. The two prisoners both ran up. William struck him with stick, and he thought James struck him with the pistol. That was all.”[6]

The jury’s consideration of the prisoners guilty or innocence amounted to less than five minutes of consultation before they rendered a resounding verdict of “guilty” against both prisoners. The judge, after a brief pause, put on his black cap and asked the Lightfoot brothers if they had anything to say before he passed judgement. Silence enveloped the courtroom. The judge then proceeded to state that the trial had been “painful and prolonged” and that the brothers had committed their crime with “recklessness and indifference.” He also remarked that the Lightfoot brothers should be ready to immediately meet God and he then sentenced them to be hanged by the neck until dead.

“The prisoners received the verdict and sentence with an appearance of great indifference; evincing far less of regret and contrition by their demeanour, than many whom we have heard sentenced to short terms of imprisonment.”[7]

Newspapers reports later that day stated that the brothers appeared “much more penitent” by evening. Additionally, after being sentenced, the brothers were put in the same cell. They soon began arguing, fighting, and blaming each other. They were therefore separated and placed in individual prison cells to contemplate their part in the murder and to await their fate.

After the conviction of the Lightfoot brothers, reporters maintained that William appeared to be more honest than James. They also alleged that James had been more actively guilty in the crime than what he was willing to confess. Moreover, reporters maintained that it was James who first struck Norway, that he did so with the butt end of the pistol, and that after Norway somewhat recovered, James was the one who first struck him again.

After the guilty finding, James confessed the following, again blaming William for Norway’s murder:

“I admit that I snapped the pistol twice at poor Mr. Norway; and I deeply regret that I should have denied this fact previously to my trial. The pistol I stole …  on finding that it missed fire, my brother struck Mr. Norway the first blow with a stick. I followed up this with blows from the butt-end of the pistol; and though I have hitherto said otherwise, I assisted in dragging the body across the road into the stream.”[8]

William seemed somewhat sorry for his part in the crime. In his confession, hoping to explain why the murder might have happened, he provided information about his life. He stated that he had been married eight years and had four young children. He also maintained:

“I attribute all my present affliction to bad company, and keeping unholy the Lord’s day. Many of my bad companions used to bring to my house rabbits, hares, and poultry, which my wife prepared for supper. During the evening they played at cards, and stayed to a late hour; sometimes I used to go to bed, and leave my wife with the party down stairs. … We had no intention of attacking Mr. Nevel Norway, any other person who might in our opinion have been possessed of money, would have shared the same fate, if he had been equally unprotected. … I regret that I have often misled the chaplain as to the manner in which I disposed of the money taken from Mr. Norway, I hid it under the root of an ash tree, in a hedge near the village of Burlawn; but I did not acknowledge until I had given my wife a hint as to where it was to be found. I communicated this too her soon after my apprehension. I am deeply sorry that I should have told so many falsehood on the subject since. From this profane and wretched course of life we date all our sins and misery, the horrid murder we have committed, and the dreadful death which awaits us.”[9]  

The brothers were executed on 13 April in front of the Bodmin gaol. Newspapers reported various numbers of people in attendance at the execution that ranged from 10,000 to 40,000. Moreover, the Bodmin and Wadebridge Railway provided three excursion trains that traveled to Bodmin carrying approximately 1,100 passengers, who went specifically to see the Lightfoot brothers hanged. Of the event, the London Evening Standard provided the following details:

“Monday morning, shortly before 11, Mr. Smith, the under-sheriff, proceeded to the cell, when portions of scripture were read by the Rev. Mr. Kendall, and the sacrament administered … During the whole of this trying scene, the brothers evinced the greatest fortitude. They were then conducted across the yard to the place of execution … The unhappy men were ghastly pale, but were perfectly collected, walked with a firm step, and ascended the ladder without the slightest assistance. William, the eldest, appeared to maintain greater composer than his brother, whose lips moved in prayer … but there was nothing in his demeanour which could lead one to suppose otherwise than that the was fully aware of the awful punishment which he was about to suffer. Before being placed on the drop, they shook hands with the persons around them, and thanked the clergymen and others for their kindness … After the ropes had been adjusted, and the caps pulled over their faces, William asked for the Rev. Mr. Cole, and said, ‘Remember me to my wife and children, and say I died happy.’ James also said – ‘Remember me to my wife, and say I died happy, and tell her that I hope she will go to church regularly, and prepare to meet her God.’ The fatal bolt was then drawn, and in a few seconds the unhappy brothers ceased to exist.”[10]  

Lightfoot brothers execution

Drawing of the Lightfoot brothers execution. Courtesy of

There was one other interest fact about Norway’s murder that helped to generate much public interest in the case. It involved Norway’s sea faring brother Edmund Norway and his psychic abilities. On the night of Norway’s murder Edmund was in command of a merchant vessel named the Orient and was voyaging from Manila to Cadiz. When Edmund went to sleep, he had a vivid dream about the murder of his brother. He would learn later how accurate his dream was when he compared what he wrote in the ship’s log against the facts:

“About twenty minutes or a quarter before ten o’clock went to bed; fell asleep, and dreamt I saw two men attack my brother and murder him. One caught the horse by the bridle and fired a pistol twice, but I heard no report; he then struck him a blow, and he fell off his horse. They struck him several blows, and dragged him by the shoulders across the road and left him. In my dream there was a house on the left-hand side of the road. At four o’clock I was called, and went on deck to take charge of the ship. I told the second officer, Mr. Henry Wren, that I had had a dreadful dream―namely that my brother Nevell was murdered by two men on the road from St Columb to Wadebridge; but I was sure it could not be there, as the house there would have been on the right-hand side of the road, but it must have been somewhere else.”[11]


  • [1] Royal Cornwall Gazette, “Dreadful Murder at Wadebridge,” February 14, 1840, p. 2.
  • [2] Murder of Mr. Nevell Norway, “Murder of Mr. Nevell Norway,” February 21, 1840, p. 2.
  • [3] Royal Cornwall Gazette, “£260 Reward,” February 14, 1840, p. 5.
  • [4] Royal Cornwall Gazette, “Cornwall Lent Assizes,” April 3, 1840, p. 2.
  • [5] ibid.
  • [6] ibid.
  • [7] ibid.
  • [8] London Evening Standard, “Execution of James and William Lightfoot for Murder,” April 18, 1840, p. 3.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] The North British Review XXXV (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1861), p. 134.

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