|Thirlmere, with the draw-off building below Helvellyn.|
With the construction of the Thirlmere reservoir commencing in 1886, by the Manchester Waterworks, a huge team of workers, Navvies, 'navigators', were required on a semi-permanent employment basis. Of course, such a team, spread down the length of the pipeline, from below the Wythburn fells to Manchester, would require housing and communities of huts to be built to house the men, many with families. One such site was near the reservoir itself, at Dunmail Raise, the boundary between Cumberland to the north, and Westmorland to the south. In May 1888, one of the huts was occupied by an engine driver, 37 year old William Gill, who originated from the Sheffield and Doncaster area; he was married to a local woman by the name of Agnes Harrison on 5th June 1871. She came from Soulby, near Kirkby Stephen and they were married there. There first child, William, was born at Ulverston in the first quarter of 1877, with Agnes their first daughter, being born at Barrow-in-Furness in 1879. These were followed by Florence, Samuel, and Rose, the latter was born in 1887, now in the Grasmere area, so William was clearly working on the reservoir construction then, albeit the initial stages. Part of the hut system was that the occupants could take in a number of lodgers, which he Gill's did.
|The view of Thirlmere from Blencathra|
|Looking towards the northern section of the reservoir, from the ascent Browncove Crags ascent of Helvellyn.|
In the afternoon of Sunday 13th May 1888, William and some of the other reservoir workers went into Grasmere, returning worse the wear with alcohol; which they also brought back to the huts. Two of the lodgers were a Thomas Peak and Thomas Forrest. They all had dinner and later Agnes herself went to bed upstairs; Thomas Peak, in his stocking feet, also went to his room. William was in a drunken state and remained downstairs but it was not long before he himself decided to make his way to bed. When he went into the room he found a sight he did not expect, Peak was in the bed with Agnes. Peak quickly left the room, and William, clearly furious with the sight he had been confronted with, went back downstairs, grabbed a loaded shotgun and returned to the bedroom with a wild look in his eye. The others heard the discharge of the gun and both Peak and Forrest dashed into the bedroom to find William stood over his injured wife, reloading the weapon. Both men immediately jumped on Gill and it was then found that on the discharge of the gun he had peppered his wife's face with the shot. She had tried to dash out but William had either aimed poorly, or Agnes had ducked or fallen; the main shot hit the bedroom door. The bulk of the discharge missed her but she was still struck in the face and scarred. Although no official report by Agnes was made to the police about her husband shooting her, news quickly spread, and the Grasmere constable heard about the incident that night, and detained William for an offence of Attempted Murder.
He was brought before the Ambleside Magistrates on Monday, and then again on Wednesday, for the purpose of examination. The chief witness was Agnes herself, but it soon became obvious when questioned by police superintendent Shields that she was unwilling to give any evidence that incriminated her husband in such a charge of attempting to murder her. She at first stated that she was unsure of William had fired the gun when she was still in the bedroom. She had to be threatened by the court with imprisonment before she admitted that it was, but again said that she could not say whether he did it to try and injure or kill her, or merely to frighten her. Better evidence came from the two lodgers, Peak and Forrest, who gave their accounts. Peak had admitted following Agnes to the bedroom and being caught in bed with her by William. Neither could say whether the aggrieved husband's intent was to wound or merely frighten his wife. The magistrates were satisfied that he should stand trial and remanded William to appear at the Summer Westmorland Assizes.
That William found himself in a situation not of his own making, was obvious, but it was clear he should not have taken the violent, life threatening action that he did. Sympathy was clearly felt towards him, displayed firstly by his errant wife, but also by the courts themselves. On Monday 4th June, his solicitor put the remand before Mr. Justice Charles, of the Queen's Bench. Having then looked at the circumstances he decided to release William on Tuesday, on his own recognisances of £100, and two other sureties of £100 each.
The case was then before Mr. Justice Stephen at Westmorland Assizes Court, held at Appleby on Wednesday 4th July. The judge took his seat at 10am and went through the case summaries after swearing in the Grand Jury. He outlined the case of William Gill, who was charged with attempting to murder his own wife. He said that it was a strange case, but appeared more formidable than it really was. That the gun had been discharged was without doubt, but whether it was with the intention of killing his wife or merely to frighten her was in question. He said that the accused's wife and the lodger both gave very confusing accounts at the hearing; he commented that the latter ought to have been thoroughly ashamed of himself. He made the final point that although a serious incident, there had been great provocation, and that this, he expected would have an affect on their judgement. The Grand Jury agreed and decided that there was no case to answer, and returned a 'No Bill' judgement, meaning no trial took place.
One could think that this was a story of a spurned husband losing his mind and trying the take the life of his errant wife who was unfaithful to him; it is not, it is a story of true love winning out!
By the census of 1891 the Gill's were still at the Lake Foot Huts, and there were ten lodgers (Thomas Peak was now not one of them). William and Agnes added to their family with the birth of another son, Joseph Henry, born in the second quarter of 1889. William no doubt did the maths and was satisfied that the birth was far enough beyond the 9 months gestation period to have been the result of Agnes's infidelity. They were still together in 1901 and were in the Burrington area of Hereford; William was still an engine driver.