Life for a farm labourer was hard in the early half of the 19th century. It was a constant struggle to survive – the meagre wages paid for some things, but no luxuries. The labourer’s houses were more often than not built from dry stone and thatched with heather and rushes. The keeping of a cow, a few hens and maybe a few sheep on the common land helped to make life bearable. There was no school at Harbottle until 1834, which meant that the majority of such labourers were illiterate. It was almost impossible to break out of the spiral of poverty, although some did manage and went on to be farm and land owners or tradesmen.
William Pringle was the son of Thomas and Ann Pringle and was born at Burradon in 1820. His father was a farm labourer and William was an only child. He grew up in typically austere surroundings but learnt about farm work and the ways of the countryside from his parents.
In similar circumstances was the boy who would meet his death at the hand of Pringle. Robert Brown was the son of James and Christiana Brown and was born in 1823. His father was also a farm labourer but had 5 other children to provide for – Robert, Alexander, Andrew, Isabella and James.
The boys grew up as neighbours, played together and roamed the hills and valleys of Coquetdale, taking the odd fish from the river and the odd rabbit and hare when the gamekeeper wasn’t about. But all young men reach a certain age when they discover that drinking and carousing is fine sport and such was the occupation on Wednesday, 21st June 1843. The thunderstorms and rain of the previous months had given way to a spell of hot weather and a hard day at work was carried over into a night of drinking.
Gideon Pitloh was the landlord at the Star Inn at Harbottle. At that time, there were two pubs, the other being the Forsters Arms, where Thomas Common was in charge.
A group of the farm lads were drinking, and had been going from one pub to the other until only the Star was left open. Pitloh was quite happy to sell them beer – he was a big fellow and well able to handle any trouble. Besides, the boys were just having fun and a few of the local girls were with them.
As the night wore on, the drunkenness increased, and as is the case even today, words were exchanged. Young men have always tried to impress the girls with their prowess at drinking and fighting, and this night was no different. John Brown and William Pringle argued over some trivial drunken dispute and as the voices were raised they were thrown out into the street by the landlord. Once there, the argument turned to blows and Brown struck Pringle, then turned and made to go back into the inn via the back door. Recovering from the strike, Pringle followed him and as he was about to go through the door, struck him a blow to the head from behind, causing him to fall against the door and strike his head against the frame. He fell to the ground unconscious and within 5 minutes he was dead. The village surgeon, Mr. George Paton was called but by the time he arrived, Robert Brown was beyond all mortal aid. He was buried on Alwinton Churchyard on the 24th June, the service being conducted by the Rev. Proctor, who, in January of that year had also buried Brown’s Aunt Mary and her 4 week old son barely a week apart.
William Pringle was arrested the following day and indicted for the murder of Robert Brown. He was committed for trial on the 12th July and on August the 5th he appeared at the Northumberland summer assizes before his Lordship, Mr. Justice Cresswell. The prosecution case was presented by Mr. Granger and Mr. Ramshaw defended Pringle. By this time, the charge had been reduced to one of manslaughter.
The facts were outlined and after a favourable summing up, the jury retired for a short time. They returned and pronounced a verdict of guilty. His Lordship heard excellent character testimonials and declared that, as no instrument was used and there were no factors of aggravation, a sentence of one month’s imprisonment with hard labour would be sufficient to satisfy public justice. He remarked, however, that he hoped the magistrates would look at the case of the publican, who had allowed such rowdy behaviour.
On that day in the court, nine other cases were heard. The case following Pringle was that of a man from Amble who stole 9d from a pub. He was convicted and sentenced to three months hard labour. Even in those days, justice was somewhat erratic.
William Pringle served his sentence and remained at Burradon, marrying his childhood sweetheart, Isabella. He took up trade as a stone-waller, then a mason and had two sons. He lived to the age of 78, dying in the autumn of 1895. He survived Isabella by 4 years. Right up to his death, he remained at Burradon, having spent his entire life in the same house.