Joe the Quilter’s murder cottage found

The evening of Tuesday, January 3rd, 1826, began like so many others for Joseph Hedley. He bought a pound of sugar, picked up a pitcher of fresh milk, a sheep’s head and pluck (an offal package of heart, liver, spleen, sweetbread and lungs often sold with the head) from Mrs. Colbeck, the wife of a local farmer, and headed home to his secluded cottage on the outskirts of Warden, Northumberland. At 6:00 PM, labourer William Herdman stopped by the cottage on his way back from his job at the paper mill and spent a few moments visiting with Joe. They sat by the fire and chatted while Joe prepared some potatoes for his dinner. At around 7:00 PM a peddler named Mrs. Biggs asked Joe for directions having missed her turn in the dark. That was the last time he was seen alive, except by his murderer.

Four days later, some of his neighbors grew so concerned by their elderly friend’s absence that they broke into his house. They found the food he’d gotten Tuesday evening on the table as if he’d just walked in and set it down. They found Joseph lying a pool of blood in a small inner room where he kept his chickens and wood for the fire. He had been cut 44 times on his head, face, chest and neck. His hands had deep defensive wounds inflicted during the old man’s desperate struggle to fend off his attacker. A garden hoe with blood and grey hairs on the handle and head lay across his chest.

The cottage bore the evidence of his brutal last struggle. The bed tester was torn down. Blood was found on the door lintels, the chimney, the walls, the plates on the table, and splattered on the walls and floor. His clogs were found outside, lost in a futile attempt to flee, an attempt also testified to by the muddy state of his clothes.

The tiny cottage had been ransacked. All of the drawers and containers were open and the contents strewn about, but as far as could be ascertained, only a handful of Hedley’s few possessions — two silver table spoons, four tea spoons, two silver salt cellars — seemed to be missing. Authorities suspected the motive for the murder and destruction was theft. Despite his humble means, there was a completely unfounded rumor going around that the 75-year-old man on parish relief had secret riches stashed in the house. It seemed someone of malicious intent had heard the gossip and was willing to chop an old man to ribbons to get to the non-existent treasure.

The brutal murder of Joseph Hedley made news around the country. A widower who had cared tenderly for his bed-ridden wife for eight years before her death, Hedley was reputedly a kind, charitable man who gave to those in need even though he himself had very little and relied on the likes of Mrs. Colbeck and the support of the parish to survive. He was more than gainfully employed, however. In fact, he was widely known as Joe the Quilter due to his gifts with the needle.

Joe the Quilter started out as a tailor, but didn’t take to the trade. Pattern-cutting and seam-sewing were not for him. Decorative stitching, on the other hand, was. He became adept at stitching floral patterns, geometrics and figures onto linen and cotton. He would cut the patterns on cardboard, put the template on the fabric stretched across a frame and pencil through the holes, creating the outline of the design on the textile. Over time Joe developed an impressive collection of designs for his clients to pick from when ordering a quilt. And order they did, from Ireland and the United States as well as closer to home. Very few of his works have survived. The ones that have are in museums.

His fame as an artisan ensured the government made a genuine effort to find the perpetrator of this heinous crime. Home Secretary Robert Peel offered His Majesty’s full pardon to any accomplices who came forward with information, as long as they were not ones who wielded the weapon. The Overseers of the Poor of Warden offered a 100 guinea reward for information leading to the capture of the culprit. A few people were arrested on suspicion of involvement in the murder, but they were released shortly thereafter. The trail went cold and the murder of Joe the Quilter was never solved.

The cottage was demolished in 1872. By 1887, the location of the cottage was lost. Last year, student archaeologists from University College London and Newcastle University and local volunteers led by experts from the Beamish Museum began looking for the cottage. Because of the sensational murder, the cottage was recorded in architectural detail by police, journalists and others, giving researchers today rare insight into the living quarters of the working poor in Georgian England who did not, as a rule, have elevations and floor plans of their hovels drawn up for posterity.

The initial exploration in November of 2014 discovered promising clues that they might have found the cottage site. It was covered for the winter and excavation resumed last September. The dig has unearthed the bases of three walls, part of the flagstone floor, one side of the brick fireplace, evidence of a wooden partition that once separated the main room from the chicken room. About one third of the width of the cottage, including what would have been the front wall, was trimmed off when a field boundary cut through the home’s footprint. The cottage turns out to have been slightly larger than reported, about 30 feet long by 20 feet wide, or 600 square feet total surface area.

The team has also found hundreds of pottery fragments, iron nails, buttons, a four-penny silver groat used for Maundy money (charitable giving) and a bone pick, a tool used by quilters. One key artifact discovered is a copper alloy name badge inscribed “Rev R. Clarke, Walwick.” A Reverend Clarke is known to have trudged through almost impassable snow to bring succor to Joe when he was trapped by the snow and “perishing of want” during the winter of 1823. The copper plate probably came off his saddle.

The remains of the cottage have been numbered brick by brick, stone by stone, and will be removed to storage at the Beamish Museum. Beamish is an open air museum telling the stories of daily life in north England in the 1820s, 1900s and 1940s. A new project entitled Remaking Beamish will expand the museum to include a new typical 1950s town and to enlarge the 1820s section. Joe the Quilter’s cottage will be rebuilt, complete with the original flagstones his clogs once trod, as part of the enlarged Georgian exhibition, a poor working’s man dwelling to contrast with the Pockerley manor house of the local gentleman farmer which is in the section.

For more about the discovery of the cottage and its significance, see the Beamish Buildings blog

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20 Comments »

Comment by dearieme
2016-01-08 07:26:39

Poor old Joe: a victim of the redistribution of wealth, albeit the wealth was illusory.

Comment by livius drusus
2016-01-13 15:23:08

Ya, more like poor-on-poor crime.

 
 
Comment by Wendy Caton Reed
2016-01-08 08:58:52

If I had to choose one historical figure to meet in person, I believe it would be Joe the Quilter. So happy to hear his cottage has been found.

Comment by livius drusus
2016-01-13 15:27:33

I didn’t realize his work is still so widely known and respected by quilters today. He seems to have been as lovely a person as he was accomplished. Now that I know a little about him, I’d love to add him to my favorite historical figures fantasy dinner. No sheep’s head and pluck on the menu, though.

 
 
Comment by Joe Cunningham
2016-01-08 12:16:40

I bought this domain when I wrote a musical quilt show about Joe the Quilter and “Joe Cunningham.com” was not available. Having been a quilter for 37 years, I have become known to many as Joe the Quilter in the US. When my uncle did research on the origins of our family, he found that one of my ancestors was from Northumberland, named Mary Headley! I am thrilled to hear about the rebuilding of Joe’s cottage and will come and visit when it is done.

Comment by livius drusus
2016-01-13 15:33:27

When I was researching this article, I typed “Joe the Quilter” into Google, as one does, and found pages and pages about you. You do your namesake (and maybe even ancestor!) proud.

Now how do I go about finding video of your musical quilt show? Because that checks off several of my nerd boxes.

 
 
Comment by susan
2016-01-08 20:30:16

Interesting–and the Beamish Building blog is yet another rabbit hole to go down!

Comment by livius drusus
2016-01-13 15:33:50

It sure is. :yes:

 
 
Comment by Laura Jones
2016-01-09 13:47:18

I immediately thought of Joe Cunningham when I read the story.

Comment by livius drusus
2016-01-13 15:34:07

Thankfully he is alive and well and commenting in this thread. :)

 
 
Comment by Sandra
2016-01-13 03:09:29

I originate from Northumberland but have to admit I have never heard this story before but find it very interesting.

Comment by livius drusus
2016-01-13 15:35:02

I hadn’t heard of it before either and it captured my interest in a big way. Have you been to Beamish?

 
 
Comment by Jan
2016-01-13 04:18:59

I first read about Joe when I visited Beamish Museum in 2003 and I met Lilian Hedley who may be one of Joe’s descendants. Lilian is an expert on wholecloth and north country quilting. It was because of the quilt she was working on at the musuem that I took up quilting in the first place. I’m glad that the cottage will be rebuilt now. It was a very sad story about Joe The Quilter indeed.

Comment by livius drusus
2016-01-13 15:37:33

Was Ms. Hedley doing a lecture or demonstration at Beamish or did you just happen to meet her and strike up conversation? Such a rich tradition of craftsmanship that inspired you to take up the needle.

 
 
Comment by Peggy Reeder
2016-01-13 13:30:11

This is amazing. You are one lucky guy. What a coincidence that yo found out about this story.

 
Comment by Pat Oberg
2016-01-14 17:58:25

I accidently came across this interesting story and everyone’s comments. My curiosity has been peaked and would love to learn more about Old Joe, the Beamish Museum and Northumberland. I guess I will be resorting to my favorite helper: Google. to find out more. Thank you.

 
Comment by Annie Delyth
2016-01-14 20:35:09

Oh my gosh! Sometimes I click back just to see what folks have to say on some of the posts I’m particularly interested in. Joe the Quilter both entranced me and saddened me. But then there was Joe Cunningham with a link to his quilts, and I realized he is the one whose quilts have been grabbing my eye at shows here in VT for years! I am gobflabbered. Those are the kind of quilts that you get up close to and study and then back away to see. Wow.

Comment by livius drusus
2016-01-14 22:39:07

You’re so lucky you got to see them in person! I’m jelly. Also :giggle: @ gobflabbered.

 
 
Comment by Sandra
2016-01-23 08:28:11

‘No, but it is on my bucket list!

 
Comment by anne carter
2016-01-26 22:00:36

I immediately thought of Lilian Hedley, a well known English quilter (and quilt historian I think) and wondered if she and Joe are related.

 
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