The murder of David Charteris was covered up by a semi-criminal network in 1787. 

On his way home from Abingdon's annual Michaelmas Fair, elderly man David Charteris was murdered. 

His death was covered up by a wide-ranging and well-organised criminal underworld that is said to have revealed potential and deliberate miscarriages of justice.

After leaving the Waterturnpike public house near the lock at the entrance to the Swift Ditch, the channel of the Thames that by-passed Abingdon, Charteris was robbed of the money in his pocket and murdered. 

When the Oxfordshire coroner, William Johnson, examined the body on October 11, 1787, three days after the murder, he was in no doubt about the cause of death.

Charteris was an elderly linen trader from Toot Baldon, his body had been discovered in a ditch on the edge of the Harcourt family’s Nuneham estate with his pockets emptied and ‘his head cut in a most shocking manner’.

The cause, Johnson concluded, was that he had been ‘wilfully and feloniously killed and murdered’ by some ‘evil disposed person or persons unknown, not having the fear of God before their eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil’.

Witness statements at the time revealed Charteris' last moments deducing that the attack occurred within a few minutes of him leaving the Waterturnpike pub. 

Immediate attention was focussed on other customers of the establishment, however, their alibis were convincing and no one on the premises was thought to have an obvious motive to kill the man. 

The case eventually dried up with no one coming forward with any more evidence for the authorities to follow-up.

It took more than two years for rumours from local bargemen to reach the police who arrested four men in connection with the murder.

The four men arrested included the sack-weaver, Richard Kilby, a Thames bargeman, John Castle, a labourer, Giles Freeman Covington and a former publican, Charles Evans Shury.

The background of these men is said to uncover evidence of a criminal network that operated in the area around the Oxfordshire side of the Thames during the 18th century.

The network is said to include lower-middle-class and upper-working class men who would dabble in petty-theft and through a well-manicured string of marriages and alliances, their criminality would go for the most-part unpunished. 

However, in March 1970 a notorious horse thief known as 'Oxford Tom' was hanged and before his execution, he gave damning evidence about the men in connection with Charteris' murder.  

Carelessly, a few days after the execution, Castle the bargeman, admitted to some friends that he knew a thing or two about the Charteris murder.

The group of bargemen were moored up in Goring at the time, but in little more than a week the news had spread rapidly to the authorities in Oxford, 30 miles upstream. 

However, it wasn't just for Castle that the four men were found guilty of the murder - the implicated sack weaver Kilby turned in evidence at the trial in return for his own acquittal and a new life in a different county

In his statements and evidence, Kilby implicated the other three men and ensured their fate of hanging above the main gateway into Oxford Castle Gaol in July 1790. 

The bodies of the three men were left here to be exposed to the public before being delivered to the students and professors at Oxford University Anatomy School. 

To find out more about this story visit Abingdon Council's website.