Bristol man finally laid to rest - 190 years after his death
A TRAGIC tale that began with unrequited love and led to a teenager being hanged for murder 190 years ago has finally ended after his family laid his remains to rest.
John Horwood, from Hanham, was just 18 when he was executed at the New Bristol Gaol in 1821 for killing his former girlfriend Eliza Balsom – a death brought about by the throwing of a single pebble.
The young man's body was kept by a surgeon, Dr Richard Smith, from the Bristol Royal Infirmary, who publicly dissected it, used the skin to bind a book about the incident and kept the skeleton in his Park Street home.
Horwood's descendants discovered his remains were in a cupboard under some stairs at the University of Bristol while researching their family history.
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Yesterday they finally took him home, burying him in a grave alongside his father Thomas at 1.30pm – 190 years to the minute from when he was hanged.
Mary Halliwell, whose great-great-great-grandfather was Horwood's brother, led a procession of mourners down Hanham High Street on the short journey to Christ Church, a bright red rose clasped in her hands to add a splash of colour to the sombre occasion.
The young man was carried in a simple black coffin covered with a velvet drape, carried along the roads on a wheeled bier – a wooden cart not unlike those that might have been used in funerals two centuries ago.
About 60 people attended the service, including eight direct relatives of Horwood's family.
After Canon David Adams welcomed them to what he called "an opportunity to reflect on the life and death of a native of Hanham, and a day of closure", Mrs Halliwell, who lives in Leigh, Lancashire, thanked everyone for coming.
Turning from the congregation, Mrs Halliwell tenderly touched the coffin and spoke directly to her ancestor.
She said: "Well John, you have finally come home to Hanham, the place of your birth. We have brought you home to lie in rest with your father, Thomas. Rest in peace, John, and God bless you."
Martin Loughran, who helped the family research the story, told them a "great injustice" had been done to the young man.
He said: "Today there is a profound sense of a spiritual and moral justice for a family who for nearly two years have been denied the right to pay their respects to a loved one. His father Thomas fought long and hard to get his remains for a decent Christian burial, and that was denied him.
"Was John guilty? Yes. He threw a stone and brought about a chain of events that he was partly responsible for. But was he culpable on his own? I think the majority of you would feel not.
"John was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he paid the ultimate price for what he had done, with his life."
After the service the mourners filed slowly into the graveyard, and at precisely 1.30pm John Horwood was lowered into a grave to lie next to his father.
Just yards away, under a blossoming cherry tree, lies another Horwood grave, that of John's brother Joseph and his family.
After Canon Adams dedicated Horwood to the ground, each of his relatives threw a red rose onto the coffin and said their last goodbyes.
As she said her final farewell, Mrs Halliwell said: "God bless him", her husband David adding: "Rest in peace, John, you are finally home." Speaking afterwards, Mrs Halliwell, 68, said: "I feel like I have finally ended a story that began 190 years ago.
"The most important thing was that we carried out the wishes of his parents, for him to be buried properly, and now we have done that there is a sense of closure.
"In a funny way during the procession I was imagining I was his mother. I was doing his mother's job, really, that is how I felt. It touches me very much that things like that did happen, that mothers laid their sons to rest like that.
"The service was very sincere, very reverent, and I was touched by what the Canon said. When he was telling John's story it made me think back and imagine what had happened to him.
"I was just thinking 'you are now with your dad'. He is finally with his father, who fought so hard for him 190 years ago.
"I feel there is some sort of absolution. I am not saying he was innocent of any crime at all, but I think that Dr Smith made him a scapegoat.
"If he wouldn't let him be buried, I certainly wanted to make sure he was, and I've tried over the last two years to fulfil his parents' wishes.
"I just want to thank everyone who made it all possible, especially Austin Williams at the funeral directors, who paid for it all."
Mr Halliwell, who carried out so much of the research, said: "To get to here puts final closure on it. No longer do we have a skeleton hanging on a hook in a dusty cupboard, we have a person we have laid to rest.
"The main reason we wanted to do this was to adhere to his parents' wishes, but also our own. But the journey has brought our family together, and we have discovered a new branch of the family, who live in Birmingham and descended from another brother of John's."
Mr Williams, from EC Alderwick & Sons, is the fourth generation of his family to provide funerals for the people of Kingswood and Hanham.
He said: "For us to get the opportunity to put something back into the Hanham community and lay someone to rest that is a part of Hanham history means a lot. To actually bring a closure to something and an end to all this work the Halliwell family have done, is an absolute privilege. A Christian burial has given them a level of understanding, if not forgiveness, for John."
The story of John Horwood has been something of a folk tale in Bristol, that has resurfaced a number of times over the years.
In 1983 Neil Beddow wrote a play about the story called Smith, focusing on the life of the macabre Bristol surgeon. Chris Millman played the young Horwood 28 years ago, and was among those who saw him finally buried.
Mr Millman, 52, from Coombe Dingle, said: "At the time we did the play we were aware that it was a true story. I had never heard of it before the writer, Neil Beddow, sat down and told us the tale. I was very affected by playing John Horwood back then, and really put myself into the role. I feel he didn't really get justice by modern standards, and it is right that we have been able to lay him to rest in the way that he and his family wanted."