WARNING - Article contains graphic content that some may find distressing

The Pebmarsh Beheading

Illustrated Police News 1896





A MOST revolting murder was committed early on Wednesday morning at Pebmarsh, a village near Halstead, in Essex. The victim was a farm steward named Cockerill, and the murderer was his employer, Samuel Collis, a well-known farmer. The determined ferocity with which the crime was carried out may be estimated from the fact that the victim was decapitated and the head carried about the farm in a bowl by the manic murderer.

Collis is a middle-aged man, and lived on a farm adjoining that occupied by his mother. He had lately been concerned in bankruptcy proceedings, and there can be no doubt that financial worries had affected his reason. For some time past he had been strange in manner, frequently going about the neighbourhood with a gun, and vowing vengeance against imaginary enemies. There is reason to believe that he did not go to bed the night before the crime, but prowled about the district quite alone. Early in the morning shots were heard in the vicinity of Hill Farm, where his mother resides, and he was apparently bent upon bloodshed, for a couple of dogs have since been found shot dead on the farm, together with a number of fowls, and when arrested Collis had quite an armoury of weapons upon his person.

About six o'clock on Wednesday morning Collis encountered his married sister Mrs. Turpin, of whom he was known to be jealous. The two met at the back of the farmhouse, and Collis immediately seized his sister, uttering furious cries. He certainly would have killed the woman but for the fortunate arrival of one of the farm's hands, who pulled the madman away from her. Thus providentially released, Mrs. Turpin fled into the house, as affording the safest asylum, and locked the door. Seeing himself baulked of his prey, Collis began to batter in the windows with his gun, the stock of which was broken in the effort. Observing his sister at one of the windows, he aimed at her an iron bar, which crashed through the glass, but missed its intended victim, and struck a piece of furniture on the opposite side of the room. Though a powerful man, weighing some sixteen stone, Collis failed to force an entrance to the house, and thereby two lives were saved, for there cannot be the shadow of a doubt that in his mad frenzy he would have murdered both his sister and his aged mother.

At this critical juncture, when Collis seemed consumed with lust of blood, the unhappy man Cockerill appeared upon the scene, having arrived this early to start the farm servants upon the work of the day. Collis had conceived a great hatred of the steward, believing that he had supplanted him with the management of his mother's farm. What passed between the two men will never be known, as the man who came to Mrs. Turpin's assistance, and might have been an eye-witness of the tragedy which was destined to follow, had left the farm precincts to fetch the police.

There is no doubt, however, that Collis first shot Cockerill and then beat him with the butt end of his rifle. Having thus rendered his victim insensible, Collis, with a large knife with which he had provided himself, deliberately severed Cockerill's head from his body and placed it in a bowl. Dr. Pallett, of Earl's Colne, who afterwards saw the body, informed a correspondent that tremendous force must have been used, as the head was clean severed from the trunk, and part of the beard or whiskers was cut off as though by a keen-edged razor.

Meanwhile the farm hand before-mentioned had conveyed news of what was going on to the police at Halstead, and Police-constable Cook went to the farm, and, after a long chase, captured the desperate man.


An inquest was held on Thursday on the body of Robert John Cockerill.

The first witness called was Mrs. Ellen Turpin, a married woman, of Old Hill Farm, who deposed that the man in custody was her brother, and that she resided with her mother at the above address. On Wednesday morning at five o'clock, on looking out of her bedroom window, she was surprised to see her brother walking on stilts and acting very strangely in the garden. She did not hear the discharge of firearms. About six a.m. she went into the garden, and after a few words with her brother she turned to go back to the house, when he, without provocation, caught hold of her violently by the arm and flung her to the ground. Witness shouted out "Walter," and a man named Warren came up. He at once sent for a policeman, and the next she saw was Police-constable Cook at the front of the house carrying a carving-knife (produced) and the barrels of a gun (produced), which he asked her to cake care of.

Her brother a short time since was confined in a lunatic asylum for eleven months, but was discharged as cured. Since that time he had done several things for a livelihood, and eventually settled at Valiant's Farm, Pebmarsh, where he lived alone.

Police-constable Charles Henry Cook, of the Essex Constabulary, stationed at Halstead, stated that, being called by Warren, he went to Hill Farm on a bicycle. On arriving there he met the prisoner at the gate with a bowl (produced) under his left arm and some dead chickens and a gun barrel in his right hand.

Witness said, "What have you been up to?" and he replied, "I have shot a sheep, and here is the head," handing at the same time the bowl. Witness at first thought it was a sheep's head, but on looking closer saw it was the head of Cockerill, whom he knew well. Witness said, "Whatever have you been doing? You have killed poor old Cockerill", and he replied, "I shot a cock pheasant, and he came down with it." Witness said, "What shall I do?" and Collis replied, "let me kiss you." Witness drew back, at the same time, noticing the carving-knife sticking out of his inside coat pocket. Witness took it away as well as the gun. Collis at once shouted, "I am going to have that knife." Witness said he should keep it, and if he came near him he would knock him down. Witness persuaded him to go to the back of the house, but there he could get no assistance, although he knocked and called for help. Eventually, Mrs. Turpin came out and he handed her the weapons. While witness's attention was drawn in that direction Collis made a dash over the gate and across the field. Witness gave chase and passed on his way the headless body of Cockerill, and also met Warren, who indicated the way he had gone. Witness eventually caught Collis up and said, "It is no use your running; you will not get away from me." The accused then drew a revolver, and witness told him he would knock him down if he did not put it away, and Collis replied, "I'll shoot you, you -----, if you touch me." Witness made a rush at him, and threatened to split his head open with his truncheon, and Collis clasped his hands and said, "For God's sake don't hit me like that," putting his revolver in his pocket at the same time. Witness threw him to the ground and took the revolver from him. Collis seized hold of his truncheon, but witness held him, and with assistance bound him with a cord. Collis then said, "I want my razor," and witness searched him, and found one in his trousers pocket. At Halstead Police Station, where he was conveyed, he shouted, "I am Prince Napolean and Pitt". I killed a girl a week or two ago; I've been to Hell but I found no one to keep me company, so I came back." Amongst other rambling statements were, "I mean to settle all the lot this morning," and "Where is the ---- Turpin? I'll have him next." Witness found that two chambers had been discharged from the revolver.

A few weeks ago Collis had filed his petition in bankruptcy. Afterwards witness found the stock of the gun in the yard, some dead chickens and rabbits, an apple tied on string, and the accused's favourite dog, shot dead in a box.

Dr. Thomas Pallett, of Colne, said that he examined the body and found three bullet wounds - one in front of the right ear, another 2in behind, and a third in front of the left ear. The revolver must have been fired at some distance, as there was no singeing. The head must have been severed after death.

The jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against Collis, and, addressing Police-constable Cook, the Coroner said: "Cook, the jury ask me to say they commend you for your action in the case. They think you have acted in a very plucky manner, considering the prisoner was armed in the way he was."

Cook: "Thank you, sir."

A painful sequel has followed the terrible murder reported above. The horrible nature of the crime so preyed upon the mind of the wife of Police-constable Cook, who arrested the murderer, Collis, after a dangerous struggle that she has gone out of her mind. Mrs. Cook, who is a native of Prittlewell, near Southend, is about twenty-seven years of age, and has two children.

The husband who was commended by the Coroner for the plucky way in which he dealt with Collis, is two years her senior, and has been stationed for the last three years at Pebmarsh, having been previously at Chelmsford, Brentwood, Saffron Walden and Halstead. He is an active, painstaking officer and a first-class cyclist, and was on his bicycle when he came on the scene of the tragedy. His father was also in the police force, and was stationed for twenty-nine years at the neighbouring village of Toppesfield. He enjoyed his pension for some fifteen years after forty years' service in the force.

Mrs. Cockerill, the wide of the murdered man, is dangerously ill, and is not yet aware of the full extent of the crime. Two of her sons from Walthamstow arrived at Pebmarsh on Sunday afternoon. Special prayers were offered at the village church for the bereaved family.



Samuel Bentall Collis, the farmer who murdered John Cockerel, his mother's farm bailiff, at Pebmarsh, near Halstead, by shooting him and cutting his head off with a razor, and who was to have been brought before the Halstead County Bench on Monday morning, has been certified by the Home Office experts to be insane. The Home Secretary has, therefore, taken the somewhat unusual course of stopping the criminal proceedings, and ordering the man's removal to Broadmoor Asylum as a criminal lunatic. The murderer is at Springfield Gaol, where since his incarceration he has given no trouble whatever to the warders. A fund has bene opened for the benefit of the widow of the murdered man, who has eight children.