Date Of Execution: 21 Jul 1903
Crime Location: Sileby
Execution Place: Leicester
Executioner: William Billington
Thomas Porter and Thomas Preston were convicted of the murder of William Adiel Wilkinson and sentenced to death.
William Wilkinson was a police constable.
They shot him at the gate to St Mary's Church in Sileby, Leicestershire at about 10.50pm on 25 May 1903.
Thomas Porter and Thomas Preston claimed that they had been out poaching for hares on the night of 25 May 1903 but had given up their expedition and had come home through the churchyard when they saw someone and tried to scare them by firing. Thomas Preston said he went one way and that Thomas Porter had gone another when he heard someone say, 'Who's there?', and then heard the rapport of a gun. He said that he then re-joined Thomas Porter and they went back to his home.
Thomas Porter said that it wasn't his intention to hurt anyone and he had only fired the gun to scare people away.
In their defence they said that they were drunk at the time.
However, it was said that the evidence showed that they had probably not been out poaching at all that night and had probably gone to the churchyard to lay in wait for William Wilkinson and his colleague who were known to meet there each night between 10pm and 11pm.
William Wilkinson was said to have been shot from a range of about 5 to 6 yards. When he was found in the road outside the Plough Inn he was dead.
The case was controversial because there was no evidence that Thomas Preston had held the gun or participated with Thomas Porter in the act of firing although he had made incriminating statements.
There had been trouble locally with poachers and William Wilkinson had previously given evidence against Thomas Porter and Thomas Preston in court on a number of charges and it was heard that they had talked about shooting William Wilkinson and his colleague and it was thought that in the excitement of the drink that they had taken during the afternoon that they had decided to put their thoughts in to action.
At the time William Wilkinson had been standing near the churchyard entrance talking to a butcher. It was noted that the place where they were standing was a common meeting point for people in the village that had nothing to do.
The butcher said that when they perceived a movement among the gravestones William Wilkinson called out 'Who's there?' and was then immediately shot in the abdomen.
Suspicion fell on Thomas Porter and Thomas Preston who were described as two shoe operatives and the police went to Thomas Porter's home at 18 Swan Street where they forced an entrance but were confronted by Thomas Porter who had a gun. The police then withdrew and Thomas Porter and Thomas Preston barricaded themselves in. They threatened the police outside and fired a gun into the air, however, they later gave themselves up at 7am.
The timeline of known events are:
William Wilkinson was the village policeman and had been standing in the High Street in Sileby near the church gate at about 10.50pm talking to the butcher. Their attention was then attracted by a noise in the churchyard and William Wilkinson went up to the gate and a man behind a tombstone fired a charge of shot at him, killing him, the shot penetrating his heart and lungs.
The butcher said that when he had looked he had seen two men standing behind a tombstone by the church just up on the right from the gate, noting that it was the gravestone on which there were figurings.
The shot was heard by a fishmonger that lived in King Street and whose window was open at the time. He said that he heard the shot and then heard someone cry out, 'Help, help, I'm shot'.
After the shot was fired the butcher ran off and William Wilkinson managed to get to the Plough Inn where he collapsed and was later found face down on the ground dead. He was said to have had 40 wounds from the gun shot that had perforated his ribs on the right side and fractured the 5th rib on his left side. A doctor that examined him said that he found his lungs full of patches of bleeding and that he extracted seven pieces of shot from both lungs.
He said that his heart was full of blood and two chambers were perforated and that he extracted four pieces of shot from there.
He gave his cause of death as being syncope caused by gunshot wounds.
It was said that there was no doubt that the fatal shot had been fired by Thomas Porter and that he had been accompanied by Thomas Preston and that the only possible questions were whether it was a planned and deliberate murder and whether Thomas Preston had been in the full sense an accomplice.
It was heard that there was evidence to show that both Thomas Porter and Thomas Preston bore some ill-will towards William Wilkinson and another police constable on account of proceedings taken against them, especially against Thomas Preston, for being drunk and disorderly and that they had on one or two occasions used threats.
For example the other police constable said that on one occasion in February 1903, when a case was heard in which Thomas Porter was a witness for the defence and William Wilkinson was a witness for the prosecution that Thomas Porter met William Wilkinson in the passage of the Court and said, 'You've had your turn today, mine will not be long coming, I shall shoot you'.
It was also heard that on another occasion that Thomas Preston had said to William Wilkinson, 'I am sick and tired to death of having to go to Loughborough Bench for 'drunk and disorderly'. It's always 'drunk and disorderly'. I tell you b-----y well straight I shall shoot the pair of you'.
Thomas Porter and Thomas Preston had spent the afternoon and evening in one another's company drinking, but they were not drunk and it was said that there was some evidence to show that they had formed the intention of committing the murder. It was heard that they had been drinking with a third man and that at about 10pm that they had sent him home, with Thomas Preston saying, 'You go home, we don't want you to get in any bother', along with Thomas Porter saying, 'You might hear of something in the morning'. However, the man said that he understood them to be referring to poaching.
Another witness, a shoe finisher, said that he had heard Thomas Preston at 10.15pm say 'We will both be hung together for the b----'s' and then afterwards to say, 'I'll shoot' to which Thomas Porter then said, 'No, I'll shoot'. He said that he had been walking home along High Street at the time and that Thomas Porter and Thomas Preston had been walking behind him talking together, but said that they were not whispering, but shouting loud enough for him to have heard them from a distance of 25 to 30 yards away. He said that when he got home that he stopped by his gate whilst they passed which he said was about a minute and a half and that when they did he didn't see them with a gun. He said that he didn't think it was serious and that he thought they were going poaching.
Additionally it was noted that at 1am on the morning after the murder that both Thomas Porter and Thomas Preston had been in Thomas Preston's house in Swan Street having not gone to bed and that when the police burst their door open they drove the police back with a gun and then stationed themselves in an upper room at a window and kept the police at bay until 7am when they surrendered.
It was also noted that whilst they were guarding the window that they talked a great deal to the police and made statements that the police, after warning them, took down in writing. Some specimens of their statements were:
Thomas Porter: They have driven me to it. It was too good for him. I don't care if I am b----y well hung.
Thomas Porter: I have got nowt to bother about and nobody to live for. I meant to kill both the b-----s at one shot. If you rush the house someone else has got to come under the hammer.
Thomas Porter: We ought to have shot them both. I should have died happy if we had them both. I missed fire or I should have had them both. I am the man who shot the man.
Thomas Preston: It was a bad job we did not do them both. We meant them.
Additionally, according to the evidence of the police inspector, the following exchange was heard:
Thomas Porter: I shot him, you did not do anything.
Thomas Preston: I was there and did as much as you, and we will do some more if they will come here.
The superintendent of police for the district said that William Wilkinson and the other constable were both stationed at Sileby and that it was customary for them to meet at the church gate at 10pm and then again at 11pm and that if he wanted to see them that that was where he would go.
He said that when he got a message concerning the shooting in the early hours of 25 May 1903 that he went to the Plough Inn where he saw the body of William Wilkinson. He said that he then went to the church yard where he made a search and that after he went to Thomas Preston's house but found it all in darkness but that Thomas Preston's father let them in and they had a look around but found that neither Thomas Porter or Thomas Preston were there. He said that by that time it was a few minutes to 1pm.
He said that they then went to Thomas Porter's house in Swan Street with six others but found it to be in darkness and that they got no answer to their knocking. He said that when they looked in that he could see that the key was inside and that when they went round the back they also saw the key was inside there too.
He said that they then went round to the front to knock again by which time the neighbours were up and aware of what was happening and that they then burst the door open and went into the living room but found that there was no one there.
He said that he then opened the opposite door and saw Thomas Porter and Thomas Preston standing close together by the door at the other side by the light of his lamp. He said that one of them, who he thought was Thomas Porter, had his gun to his shoulder and was pointing it at him and then immediately shut the door and went into the living room where he waited for 2 to 3 minutes before going back out of the house.
He said that when he got out that Thomas Porter and Thomas Preston appeared at the bedroom window and threatened to shoot anyone that came.
The inspector said that there was a scullery there by which he could stand and be sheltered from the window and that he could plainly hear what they were saying and heard them shouting about what they had been doing. He noted that the chief constable warned them a number of times about what they were saying and told them not to incriminate themselves.
He said that he heard Thomas Porter say, 'They have driven me to it. It was too good for him. I don't care if I am b--y well hung. I have been drove to this but he has done his duty. I was not half so hasty with him as I was with you. I have got nowt to bother about and nobody to live for. The first man that's got the best heart will get the prize. I meant to kill both the b--s at one shot. If you rush the house someone else has got to come under the hammer'.
He said that Thomas Porter had had the gun and that he was pointing it at people outside as they showed themselves.
He said that they were often asked to surrender and said that Thomas Preston said, 'I know what we've got to have when we surrender. We have done one, we don't want to have to do no more.
He said that Thomas Porter said, 'We ought to have shot them both. I should have died happy if we had them both. I missed fire or I should have had them both. I am the man who shot the man. I don't want to lay it on to no one'.
He said that Thomas Preston then said, 'It was a bad job we did not do them both. We meant them. One got away. We did not use very good judgement'.
Thomas Porter then said, 'I meant having two at a shot, then I should have died easy. I ought to have waited till they came through the gate. Then I should have had them both. Tommy is all right'.
He said that Thomas Preston then said, 'Send that battle twig across here' to which the inspector asked, 'What do you mean?' and that Thomas Preston replied, 'I mean the other constable, we will then put him right, let us have a shot at him, we will then surrender'.
He said that he then told them that they were lucky in not killing the butcher and that they both replied that they knew it was not the butcher and that it had been the other constable that had been with William Wilkinson at the gate.
He said that during the course of the siege that many attempts were made to get them to surrender.
However, he said that at about 7am that Thomas Porter fired one barrel off and that the other missed and that he then laid the gun on the sill and hit it with a hammer and then threw it out of the window.
He said that he then went in and arrested them. He said that after he charged them that Thomas Porter said that it was done and that it was hard lines and could not be helped.
It was thought that their reason for going to the churchyard to commit the murder was that the two constables, William Wilkinson and his colleague, would always meet there just outside the gate between 10pm and 11pm and that it was quite clear that Thomas Porter and Thomas Preston meant to kill both of them and had imagined that the butcher that William Wilkinson was speaking to was actually the other constable. It was also noted that when they were told that the other person had been the butcher that they refused to believe that it was not the other constable.
When Thomas Preston gave a statement he said that he had been working for Maud King and Stevens for two years and had been in the militia for four years and had been to South Africa where he was in the regimental police. He said that he had several convictions for drunkenness but that he was not concerned with those cases and had no ill-feeling against the police.
He said that he had been questioned by the police on 23 May 1903 but didn't know what about as he had been drunk.
He said that on 25 May 1903 that he had been at work until 11.45am and that he went to the bridge where he later met Thomas Porter at about 12.15pm and that they then went to the Sir General Moore In where they stayed until 8.30pm. He said that he had had 1/9 on him but that Thomas Porter's grandfather gave him 4/- which he spent on beer along with the 1/9 and noted that they also had beer that they didn't pay for.
He said that several others came in and that they were playing tipet and darts and that Thomas Porter said that they should go and get a hare.
He said that they then went to the Railway Inn where they had four quarts of beer and that Thomas Porter talked about going to get hares but said that he told him that they were too drunk.
He said that they then went off towards the church where they parted with another of their friends and then went to Thomas Porter's house where Thomas Porter got a gun along with two bottles of stout.
He said that they then went up King Street and down Mount Sorrel Lane about 500 yards, noting that it was a very dark night and that Thomas Porter then loaded the gun.
However, he said that they then gave it up and had some drink and then came back and went into the churchyard because they thought that it was the best way to get home because there were generally a lot of chaps about.
He said that they then stopped on the porch and had another drink and that they then left to go home, he going off to the right and Thomas Porter going left.
He said that he was then close to the wall when he heard someone shout, 'Who's there?' and then saw a light shine in Thomas Porter's direction and then heard the gun.
He said that he then shouted, 'Come back' and then saw two men run down the street close by him.
He said that he wondered what the matter was and that they then went off down Mount Sorrel Lane, noting that he thought that people would have heard the shot from a long way off, and that they then saw a woman’s dog which Thomas Porter fired at but missed.
He said that they then went home.
He said that he didn't remember what had been said during the siege but said that the first that he knew that William Wilkinson was dead was between 3am and 4am.
He said that he had had no intention of doing murder or injuring either of the policemen and noted that he had no motive at all.
At the trial it was heard that the real question was what the object of the expedition on which Thomas Porter and Thomas Preston had set out on that night was in that whether they had intended to go poaching and given up as they said or whether they had gone to the churchyard with the intention of inflicting harm on the policemen.
Both Thomas Porter and Thomas Preston denied the murder at their trial but they were both convicted and sentenced to death. The jury retired for 40 minutes before returning with their verdict.
A petition was made in support of the reprieve of Thomas Preston but the Home Secretary didn't interfere with his sentence.
They were both executed at Leicester on the morning of Tuesday 21 July 1903. They were said to have slept fairly well the previous night and to have walked with remarkable firmness to the scaffold. It was said that when Thomas Porter neared the gallows that he said, 'I am innocent' to which Thomas Preston immediately repeated, 'I am innocent'.
It was said that their deaths were both instantaneous.
see National Archives - ASSI 13/33, HO 144/713/109423
see Sileby Village
see Manchester Evening News - Thursday 16 July 1903
see Western Times - Friday 03 July 1903
see Dundee Evening Post - Tuesday 26 May 1903
see Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette - Tuesday 21 July 1903