IN 1850 several newspapers printed a report under the heading, “Romantic and Mysterious Affair”, the gist of which is as follows.

On February 12, 1850, a young man named Richard Soper, who held a post at Her Majesty’s Dockyard in Woolwich on a salary of £100 a year, arrived at the Justice Room at the Mansion House to seek advice. In the absence of the Lord Mayor, he saw Alderman Carden.

He told the alderman that the lady he was going to marry died suddenly in the middle of January. He had been courting her for some time and they were planning to get married in a few days, but her mother and her stepfather, who were opposed to the match, “had placed her under violent constraint”. He suspected that his future bride “had been prematurely hurried out of the world”.

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Basingstoke Gazette: Church Square, Basingstoke

Richard told the alderman his suspicions were intensified when he heard that one of the servants had been dismissed for alleging that the young lady had been cruelly beaten by her mother and that her stepfather “had sworn that he would hang her rather than that the marriage should take place”.

Convinced that she had not died a natural death, Richard had asked the local coroner to hold an inquest, but the coroner refused to do so on the advice of the family doctor. Richard suspected that there was a conspiracy to cover up the truth as the coroner, the doctor, and the stepfather were all part of the same circle.

He saw little point in applying to the local magistrates as they were also members of the town elite. However, the alderman told him that his case was outside the Lord Mayor’s jurisdiction and if he wanted to take his case further, his only recourse was to apply to the magistrates where the lady died. It is not known what, if any, further action Richard took after his interview with Alderman Carden.

The young lady was Mary Martha Ruth Leigh. The records show that she died in Basingstoke on 16 January 1850 aged 26 of a disease of the brain after an illness of three days. She was the daughter of the late William Leigh, Esquire, of Overton. After William Leigh died, Mary’s mother married James Warne, a solicitor and three times Mayor of Basingstoke. Mary and her mother moved into James Warne’s house in Church Square.

Mary’s funeral was held at Overton church on January 21. She was buried in the Leigh family vault. The following morning, someone noticed the church door had been broken open.

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Basingstoke Gazette: North British Daily Mail, February 26 1850

Further investigation showed that the brick arch over the vault had been disturbed, the oaken lid of Mary’s coffin had been removed and the lead coffin had been cut open to expose the head and face, “so as to discover a portion of the features of the deceased, and to enable some locks of hair to be removed”. A wax candle had been taken from the pulpit which appeared to have been burning for nearly two hours.  

On the news that “the sacred edifice had been desecrated, and the abode of the dead violated, the greatest horror, excitement, and conjecture prevailed throughout the village of Overton”.

As it was known that Richard and Mary were planning to run away together and arrange a clandestine marriage before their plans were discovered, it seemed almost certain that it was Richard who broke into the crypt. He had attended the funeral, although uninvited, and was seen hanging around the churchyard after the mourners had left.

He was arrested and taken to Kingsclere and locked in the police cells until his appearance before the magistrates at the petty court held at the Swan Inn, Kingsclere, on January 25 where he was charged with damaging the Overton church door. However, he was acquitted because all the evidence was circumstantial. There was no proof that he caused the damage.

The intended elopement, the suspicions about Mary’s sudden death, the despair of her lover, the breaking into the vault in the night and the opening of the coffin to have one last look at the face of his beloved, explain why the newspapers called it a “Romantic and Mysterious Affair”.

This article was written by Bob Clarke