Beaten to Death at Eton - exclusive extract from 'Berkshire Tales of Mystery & Murder'
What you’re about read is an extract from Berkshire Tales of Mystery & Murder, and is reproduced here exactly as it appears in the book.
And a hay harvest breeze.
Blade on the feather,
Shade off the trees;
Swing, swing, together,
With you bodies between your knees
Eton Boating Song, 1863
Eton College. Its elite status and vast complex of historic buildings, founded by Henry VI, have made it world famous, but hidden in its past is a tragic episode highlighting a different side to an Eton education. This was the Eton before the start of "jolly boating weather", the Eton of 1825.
In simple terms, this is the case of two teenage boys who came to blows in their school playground and the sad consequences of that fight. Stated like that, it hardly seems a significant memory of old Eton, but this particular playground fight resulted in two boys facing a charge at Aylesbury Assizes of "killing and slaying" another.
The victim was the Honorable Ashley Cooper, son of the Earl of Shaftesbury. The boys who were charged were George Alexander Wood, son of Colonel Wood and nephew of the Marquis of Londonderry, and Alexander Wellesley Leith. These were the so-called noble stock of society. This was big news, a scandal that would hardly get a mention if fought by two Berkshire village boys in a dank schoolyard, but here was a chance to glimpse into the closed cloisters of another world, that of the aristocracy.
This time in the history of Eton College, there was a great deal of scandal of another kind concerning the standard and conditions of teaching at the school. Discipline was a major problem, with the pupils often left to their own devices, especially at night when they were locked in their dormitory. The headmaster was one Dr Keate, whose reputation for flogging the pupils was legendary. He was known also for wearing what could only be described as fancy dress, partly resembling the costume of Napoleon, partly that of a widow woman. It was therefore a school of dubious standards, and Dr Keate's mission, however misinformed to modern eyes, was to bring order and discipline to the boys in his care. He took it upon himself to teach 100 to 200 boys at any one time, using the spacious upper school as one massive classroom.
On Sunday, 27th February, 1825, around 2pm, an altercation took place in the school playground between the Hon. Ashley Cooper. and George Alexander Wood. It is not clear what was said, but insults were traded, which soon led to blows between the two boys. Although both lads were nearly 15, Wood was much bigger than Cooper. They fought for five minutes or so until the school captain was summoned to deal with them. In the Eton tradition, it was decided that they should meet the following afternoon for an agreed pugilistic contest to settle their differences.
At that time boxing was a sport, with rules laid down in 1743 by one James Broughton. Fights were with bare knuckles and each round lasted until one fighter was knocked down. The fight ended only when one of the opponents fell to the ground and failed to get up within 30 seconds. Broughton's Rules were tough, but then so was an Eton education. It wouldn't be until 1867 and the introduction of the Queensbury Rules that boxing gloves were brought in, and eventually the 12-round fight with timed rounds.
On Monday, 28th February, at 4pm, in front of a large crowd of cheering, jeering and shouting boys, the combatants stripped to the waist and began fighting. The smaller boy, Cooper, was agile, and, shouting that he would never give in, fought hard against the much taller Wood.
Both fighters' teams brought quantities of brandy with them for "medical assistance"
As Cooper fell and then got up again, the rounds were counted, and when they reached 10, it was clear the younger boy was in considerable trouble. He was weak and exhausted and the noise from the spectators was deafening. Both fighters had boys acting as "backers" or "seconds", and they had brought quantities of brandy with them for "medical assistance".
By the eleventh round, Cooper's second, a senior called Alexander Wellesley Leith, poured a large quantity of brandy down Cooper's throat, which did revive him temporarily. However, Cooper was repeatedly struck on the head by Wood, one heavy blow in particular hit his temple and he collapsed in agony. Wood's supporters cheered and proclaimed their man the better: but Cooper was revived once more by Leith, and the fight continued. It had begun at 4pm and two hours later they were still attempting to fight, both boys exhausted.
Wood, who had had the physical advantage from the start, was not at all badly off compared with Cooper, who was unable to focus or move with any degree of precision. He was in a complete daze. Each time a round was declared, they would both be plied with more brandy. At one point, rather bizarrely, Wood declared he had to attend a tutorial with his tutor Mr Ottery, and so would continue the fight with Cooper later. Cooper's second, Leith, said they should go another round as the fight had not been concluded. He appealed to Cooper's backers, one of whom exclaimed, "We will have another round, we are in no hurry".
Some reports claim that the boys fought an astonishing 60 rounds before it was finally over
And so they continued. In that round Wood struck a severe blow to Cooper that not only felled him, but Wood also toppled with the exertion and collapsed heavily on top of him. Some reports claim that the boys fought an astonishing 60 rounds before it was finally over for the Hon. Ashley Cooper, who crashed to the ground and lay quite still. Leith now insisted they made up their differences on the spot. Wood lifted Cooper's head, but seeing he was knocked senseless, said nothing and left the scene of the fight with his supporters.
Cooper had two brothers at the college. They picked him up and carried him to the house of the Reverend Knapp, where they put him straight to bed. One of Cooper's brothers stayed by his hide but it was four hours before any medical advice was sought. By the time a doctor did arrive, Cooper was dead.
The coroner and his jury visited the deceased boy at the Knapp’s house on Tuesday, 1st March, at 2pm. They found his temples, eves, and the upper part of his cheek bones were jet black with bruises and broken facial bones. His ribs and breast were severely damaged and had obviously been subjected to extreme violence. When the autopsy took place, it was found that he had sustained a rupture of the blood vessels in the brain.
The police were informed, and it was decided that Cooper had been unlawfully killed. Both Wood and Leith were to be indicted for his slaying.
We do not know what Dr Keate had to say about this tragic episode involving his boys, but he had organised some unusual legal arrangements on behalf of George Wood.
At a sombre roll call on the morning of Wednesday, 2nd March, the pupils answered to their names in the traditional manner. All were conscious of the fact that one name would never be called again: Ashley Cooper had literally been struck from the register. When Alexander Wellesley Leith's name was called, there was silence. He was absent, and others offered the information that his family had withdrawn him from the college. So Leith, Cooper's enthusiastic second in the fight, had been spirited away. However, when the name of Cooper's opponent was called, George Alexander Wood answered in the affirmative. He was immediately advised that he must consider himself in custody, but special arrangements had been made to keep him from being sent to the county gaol. He was to remain in the college, living at his tutor's house, together with a police officer, who would accompany him at all times. It seems Dr Keate's view was that, as Cooper's death occurred in college grounds in what some might regard as an honourable settlement of differences, the immediate requirements of the law could be accommodated within his jurisdiction.
Cooper's father, the Earl of Shaftesbury, had agreed with the arrangement. His son's funeral was to be that Sunday at the college chapel, so he did not wish to pursue an indictment against George Wood and Alexander Leith at that time but to leave them cited on the coroner's warrant as having unlawfully killed his son. An indictment for manslaughter would follow in due course.
On Wednesday, 9th March, 1825, Wood, aged 14, and Leith, aged 19, appeared at Aylesbury Assizes, charged with the "killing and slaying" of Cooper. They pleaded not guilty. However, the boys were not alone in the dock. Standing with them as "friends" were Lord Nugent, Colonel Browne, Colonel Wood, Sir John Dashwood King, the county magistrate, and several other "gentlemen of distinction".
A mysterious and sudden change of heart by the prosecution witnesses meant there was no case to answer
In a curious twist of fortune, the three named witnesses for the prosecution were unable to be present at court. We shall never know the precise role played by the "gentlemen of distinction", but a mysterious and sudden change of heart by the prosecution witnesses meant there was no case to answer. Mr Justice Gaseler ruled, “There is no prosecution and the prisoners must be discharged." The two boys bowed to the judge and immediately left the dock with their friends.
Boxing – of the official or the unofficial kind – no longer takes place at Eton College.
- Rory Batho