IT was the inside job carried out at one of Hampshire’s most fashionable houses – at Millbrook, then deep in the countryside, distant from the suburbs of Southampton. The day a noblewoman was robbed of hundreds of pounds worth of jewels and cash in a supposed burglary.

The plan was so botched that the butler and the maid soon came under suspicion but what made the case so astounding was the remarkable evidence of a material witness who implicated a highly regarded Winchester solicitor, claiming that he had been given a treasure trove by the lawyer as to the whereabouts of the buried loot which was duly recovered as indicated.

Yet strangely the solicitor, who held an unblemished reputation in Winchester, chose not to attend the trial in the city which had generated massive publicity and attracted a hugely attended public gallery when it opened on March 3, 1843.

It led the Hampshire Independent to comment: “To be silent under such circumstances would imply either a consciousness of guilt or an indifference to the value of an unstained reputation which an honourable man can hardly feel.”

In the dock were butler William Barnes, 36, and Elizabeth Pollard, a 32-year-old maid, who denied stealing jewellery and cash worth £2,000 from Sarah Dysart, Baroness Lady Lisle.

The robbery was staged on September 1, 1842, when Lady Lisle, who was sitting in the drawing room with friend Matilda Knox, told Pollard to light the candle in her bedroom, but when she returned, Pollard in a very calm and measured voice told her it had been ransacked.

“Is her ladyship’s writing desk gone?” Knox asked.

“Yes,” she replied, saying she had gone to see Barnes in the kitchen.

Knox then ran into the kitchen where she found the butler sitting down and facing the window.

“Barnes,” she demanded. “Did you know here ladyship’s room has been ransacked?”

Millbrook in the early 1900s.

Millbrook in the early 1900s.

He then followed her into the room where Lady Lisle pulled back the curtains, exclaiming: “Here’s the mischief” by revealing a ladder propped up against a window but it was obvious a burglar could not have got in as the window opened outwards and the ladder was only just a bit wider.

Jurors heard the trinket box had been emptied and another was on the floor with its contents of letters and papers strewn around.

Significantly, it appeared to have been opened with a key.

The room otherwise looked undisturbed. There were no footprints in the room, yet the ladder had been propped up on soil.

Knox, who lived at the house, told the court she always came downstairs at night after the servants had retired to ensure it was safe and was puzzled to see a key in the door of housekeeper’s room where store plates and other valuables were kept.

“I went in and found a ladder at the window. It moved as though someone was carrying it away. I ran to tell the butler of it but he was not in his room or the pantry. I then went down again to Barnes’s room and called Barnes three times. He answered me the last time. I asked him where he had been but he said he did not know.”

Barnes, on Lady Lisle’s instructions, then went to fetch the police.

PC James Pope had been duty near the house that starlit night and on the way to the house saw a man dressed in a light cloak with a hat, walking fast towards the canal.

The officer then waited for a colleague to join him before they went to the mansion, by which time Barnes had returned.

“I found the house in great confusion,” he told the court. “Barnes said to me ‘There’s the ladder with which they got into the house.’ I replied ‘You must have heard something of it” but he said ‘they must have done it very quietly’.”

Picture on Wnchester from an old postcard. Circa 1912.

Picture on Wnchester from an old postcard. Circa 1912.

Pope then continued his investigation outside which confirmed his belief the theft had not been carried out by an intruder. “It was impossible for anyone to have got into the window as the ladder stood,” he explained.

The following morning upholsterer Edward Shakell was returning to Southampton from Salisbury when he saw a box in the canal with a rope tied around it and looking as though it had been weighed down with a stone.

He took it the police where it was opened by Superintendent John Enright and found to contain a half-banknote for £100 and some trinkets.

Enright went to Lady Lisle’s and, examining the drawing room, deduced the window had been broken from the inside and not outside. He then went to the butler’s room with Sgt Terry and found a light cloak and cap. The sergeant also discovered cord with two pieces of thread about it which corresponded with the canal rope.

Further damning evidence against Butler came from Pollard’s two sisters who testified how he has asked them to get copies of Lady Lisle’s keys.

Charles Young then stepped into the witness box where he told the extraordinary story how in January he had ridden in a gig on the Southampton-to-Romsey road with a Winchester solicitor called Caiger.

“When he got out, he gave me a paper and wished me good-bye. It was a plan of Lady Lisle’s premises in the prisoner’s hand-writing, showing me where the property was buried.”

The place, he insisted, had been pointed out to him by the solicitor and he found a blacking bottle, bank notes and necklaces. He admitted using the money for his own purposes but on two consecutive nights he feared someone had come after him.

However, he managed to conceal the paper and went to Winchester where he stayed with the solicitor’s clerk, “communicating” on several occasions with Caiger.

Young said he eventually handed the paper to his brother who in turn gave it to the solicitor for the police. Together they followed the plan and discovered jewellery, a gold watch, two pots and money.

Knox and lady Lisle, who valued the recovered property at between £1,500 and £2,000, both identified the handwriting on the note as being that of Barnes.

In his summing up to the jury, the judge, Sergeant Artcherley, spoke of his shock that Caiger had not been in court to defend himself.

“If he did not know that his conduct was intended to be impugned, it is remarkable that he should be absent today, but if he had knowledge there was something to be said that would involve him personally, I tell you what he should have done.

“If he had reason to believe that Young or any other person was going to involve his character, that should have been the very circumstance which, at almost the point of death, should have made him anxious to be on the spot today.

“It is remarkable and most unfortunate for him, if he is an innocent man, that circumstances unexplained should have rendered him incapable of being here today and that he should have left the conduct of the trial to his clerk.”

The judge then directed the jury to acquit Pollard as he considered there was insufficient evidence to warrant her being convicted.

The jury accordingly did do and found Barnes guilty. He was ordered to be transported abroad for 15 years.