Date Of Execution: 22 Jul 1902
Execution Place: Winchester
Executioner: William Billington
William Churcher was convicted of the murder of his partner Sophia Jane Hepworth 30 and sentenced to death.
He stabbed her to death on 10 April 1902 at their home at 16 Clarence Buildings, North Street, Gosport.
Sophia Hepworth had been drinking earlier in the evening and had gone into the river near where they lived but William Churcher, who had come home at 11pm, had gone in and fished Sophia Hepworth out of the river and taken her back home after which they argued.
He later stabbed her 33 times in the throat and the next morning left the house. The police were later called on 11 April 1902 after Sophia Hepworth failed to turn up for an appointment and neighbours later said that they had heard Sophia Hepworth begging for her life and they broke in the find Sophia Hepworth dead with a towel around her head. William Churcher had laid out Sophia Hepworth's body on the floor ready for burial.
When William Churcher was arrested he made a full confession.
William Churcher said that he had acted in self-defence after Sophia Hepworth had attacked him with a knife but the judge noted that he had stabbed her 33 times and had not gone straight to the police.
William Churcher was noted for having attempted to commit suicide whilst in police custody by jumping into the sea handcuffed. He was being conveyed by two warders across Portsmouth Harbour in a steam launch on the morning of Thursday 17 April 1902 to attend the inquest into Sophia Hepworth's death when he suddenly broke from the warders an jumped overboard. As he was handcuffed he sank immediately and when he was rescued he was nearly dead. He was brought back to life by means of artificial respiration and recovered sufficiently to attend the inquest.
William Churcher was a labourer and Sophia Hepworth had been a married woman but they had been cohabiting for between 12 and 13 years although Sophia Hepworth had from time to time gone back to live with her husband but at the time William Churcher and Sophia Hepworth were living at Clarence Buildings. It was said that Sophia Hepworth 's husband would receive her whenever she returned to him but that William Churcher would not let her alone when she did so.
Sophia Hepworth's husband had lived in Trinity Row, South Street, Gosport.
It was not known what the inducement was for Sophia Hepworth to live with William Churcher as her husband said that Sophia Hepworth had told him that William Churcher used to threaten 'to rip her up' and that she would often come back to him with black eyes.
The Police report to the Secretary of State on the crime starts off, 'The same sad, squalid scene of immorality, drink, passion, fighting, ending in the tragedy of murder, which so often comes before the Home Office'.
They had lived in 16 Clarence Buildings, Alverstone, which was described as being small dwellings that formed a sort of court in the lower part of Gosport that were occupied by a low class of persons. The means of entry and exit into the court were at either end, one leading into North Street and the other to the harbour.
On the night of the murder Sophia Hepworth had been drinking with her neighbours and when William Churcher returned late at night she used vile language to him and there was a struggle during which he pushed her down and fell on her. Sophia Hepworth had a fit after that, but soon recovered, and then started swearing at William Churcher and accused him of being with another person. Sophia Hepworth then made a dash for the water, which was only knee deep, to frighten William Churcher, going in head first and followed by William Churcher who however pulled her out after which they went back and resumed quarrelling.
One neighbour said, 'She screamed and raved all the way and made attempted to get at him. He also made several attempts to get at her. He did not appear to be drunk. She was very excited. She had some drink but was not drunk'.
It was heard that just before one neighbour left them for the night that she said to Sophia Hepworth, in William Churcher's presence, 'If he bangs you it serves you right'.
Another woman described the quarrel, saying, 'She flew at him, he said 'Soph, you won't listen to reason'. She went at him as though she was going to take hold of him. I pulled Churcher back to prevent her catching hold of him, she attempted to do this more than once. I advised her to go to bed but she continued to fly at him'.
William Churcher and Sophia Hepworth were then left alone and nothing more was heard of them until about 15 minutes later when her neighbours heard Sophia Hepworth say, 'Oh Bill, my back, don't murder me Bill, don't murder me Bill', after which they heard Sophia Hepworth give a very hoarse screech. Another neighbour said that they heard a similar exclamation, saying that Sophia Hepworth cried out, 'Don't Bill, Don't Bill', but nothing else.
The police report stated, 'The wretched deceased was covered with wounds, her throat was cut to the spinal cord, there was another wound on the neck, one on the eyebrow, several stabs on the upper right arm, a wound in the collar bone, both hands were extensively lacerated, showing the terrible struggle to ward off the murderous stabs. There were also punctured wounds at the back of the shoulder'.
It was submitted that it would never be known what actually happened after William Churcher and Sophia Hepworth had been left alone, but according to William Churcher, Sophia Hepworth threw a vase at him and said, 'I'll do for you and that she then went for a lamp. He said to another constable, 'I pleaded guilty to it that night, she accused me of something I was not guilty of and I done the dead and I'll stand to it. I have lived with her for about 16 years'.
A doctor that examined Sophia Hepworth's body said that from the wounds on her hands that he was of the opinion that there had been a violent struggle on the part of Sophia Hepworth in self-defence, but that it must have been very short.
William Churcher was convicted with a strong recommendation to mercy on the grounds that he had received great provocation, but the judge said that he did not support the view of the jury and he considered that the doctors evidence showed that the deed must have been committed with great deliberation and cruelty. However, whilst the police report concurred that it had been done with great cruelty, the report added that the numerous stabs in so many parts of her body looked more like a murder committed with great passion rather than with deliberation.
As such, the police report concluded that the only question for consideration was that of provocation which it was stated was certainly very great in the earlier part of the evening. However, it was noted that there was no evidence to show whether the provocation continued after they were left alone, for it was noted that the neighbours had said that after they had left them and said goodnight that nothing more was heard until the last sad exclamation of Sophia Hepworth when the final deed was being done.
It was additionally noted that William Churcher did not seem a subject for much sympathy, it being noted that he would not let Sophia Hepworth alone with her husband, but continually enticed her away from him and then threatened and ill-treated her, though it was also considered that she probably did much to earn the ill-treatment.
The police report to the Home Office stated that there seemed to be no sufficient ground for interference with it being additionally noted that there had been no petition or application received for a reprieve on William Churcher's behalf.
William Churcher was executed at Winchester on 22 July 1902. Two representatives of the press were allowed to witness the execution but no black flag was hoisted and the prison bell rang after the execution in accordance with the new regulations.
see National Archives - HO 144/580/A63488
see Cambridge Daily News - Wednesday 23 April 1902
see Edinburgh Evening News - Thursday 17 April 1902
see Sheffield Evening Telegraph - Tuesday 22 July 1902