Buckinghamshire's earliest serial killers?

The Ostrich, Colnbrook, ref phIver42

This is the Ostrich in Colnbrook, the former home of what might just be Buckinghamshire’s first serial killers. A husband and wife team by the name of Jarman ran the inn during the 17th century. Colnbrook was on the main road to Windsor before the coming of the railways and many eminent people had stayed in the village. Their number reputedly included Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth I, and Prince Rupert. The village was a thoroughfare for wealthy travellers whose riches the Jarmans coveted. Rather than just robbing those people of means who stayed with them, the couple sought to minimise the number of witnesses by murdering them as well. Their preferred victims were people carrying money but travelling alone. Jarman would tell his wife that 'a fat pig' was to be had. She would ask him to put the traveller ‘in the hogsty till the morrow’. The unfortunate victim would be given the Blue Room, in which a trapdoor had been installed. As they slept in the middle of the night, the trapdoor would be released and the victim dropped into boiling water to their death. The Jarmans were then free to help themselves to any possessions they could find before disposing of the corpse in the nearby river. Any travellers enquiring about the victim the next day would be told that they had saddled up early and ridden away.

The Blue Room, ref phIver41

The Jarmans were finally brought to justice when they were undone by carelessness. Their final victim was Thomas Cole, who met his end in the Blue Room in the usual way. However, the stable door had been left open and Cole’s horse escaped. It was found wandering the highway, and enquiries revealing that its owner was last seen entering the Ostrich. Cole’s body was discovered in the stream soon afterwards. The Jarmans were caught and confessed their crimes. They met their end on the gallows. The number of their victims is uncertain, with the Victoria County History (VCH) setting the number at 13 and the pub’s website at over 60. The stream where Cole’s body was found became known as ‘Colebrook’, which has evolved over time to today’s Colnbrook.

As some of Buckinghamshire’s foremost pedants and killjoys, we’re unable to just let a nice story like this lie. The lack of details in key areas seemed suspicious – neither landlord nor his wife are given a first name for instance, while the dates involved are peculiarly vague. Different sources date the offences to different times, with dates of the 12th, 14th and 17th centuries being given in various places the story has appeared. In addition, the method of dispatching their victims seemed overly complex. Many other options were available to them that did not require a large fire burning for a long time to heat the water or the risk of a trapdoor either being discovered or failing to deliver the victim properly. The method would also be unlikely to result in the quick silent death that such a pair would require without waking the rest of the inhabitants of the inn. Richard Roose (boiled alive for poisoning in 1531) is recorded as having ‘roared mighty loud’, which might not be desirable with other guests staying at the inn. That so many men of wealth and influence should disappear after staying at the same inn with none of their family members or business associates asking any questions also stretches credulity.

Much of this is still circumstantial, but the main cause for scepticism is that the vast majority of the details are taken from a work of fiction, with no corroboration from other sources. The names of the landlord, the method of death, the fat pig/hogsty comments, the final victim, and the way the villains are unmasked are all taken wholesale from Thomas Deloney’s novel ‘Thomas of Reading’  published in 1632. The book tells the story of the fate of nine clothiers in the reign of Henry I (1100-1135). The titular Thomas is Thomas Cole, final victim of the Jarmans. In the novel, the crimes take place in an inn called the Crane. Cole’s horse is discovered by his servant wandering the streets, and Cole’s wife sends a man on horseback to find him. The Jarmans fled, Mrs Jarman being captured first and her husband being taken in Windsor Forest afterwards. They confessed to the murder of sixty persons under questioning. The case made the King so sad he couldn’t work for seven days and prompted him to order that it be burned to the ground and that ‘no Man should ever build upon that cursed Ground’. The story of the naming of the village also comes from Deloney, though the VCH found evidence that it was already known as Colebroc in the 11th century before Henry ascended the throne.

So is it totally fictional? Not quite. The 1577 return of vintners, innholders and alehouse keepers for Buckinghamshire records eight innholders in Colnbrook. Unfortunately the return doesn’t give the names of the inns for which each innholder was responsible, but the section of the village in the parish of Langley includes one John Jarman. Though the novel was published in 1632 Deloney himself had died in 1600. The actual time it was written is uncertain. We like to think that Deloney had stayed in Jarman’s inn and had fallen out with him. Without recourse to TripAdvisor, he delivered the most serious burn he was able; including Jarman in his upcoming novel as a mass murderer. We’ve no evidence for this, but when has that got in the way of a good story?

1577 return of innkeepers showing John Jarman

The 1577 return of innkeepers, ref: D-X423 (original at the National Archives). John Jarman indicated with red arrow in the section for 'Colbroke in Langley'.


Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies

October 2019

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