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The Poisoning of William Cotesworth, 1725

Joyce Ellis describes how, among the mine-owners of Tyneside, there was bitter animosity of which the successful William Cotesworth was nearly a victim.

Early on June 10th, 1725, at Gateshead Park in County Durham, the country seat of William Cotesworth esquire, the peaceful household routine was disturbed by the news that the master of the house had been taken ill. Cotesworth, who was an elderly man by the standards of his time, was recovering from a severe attack of a recurrent illness so that a relapse might have been expected.

The violence of his symptoms, however, raised immediate suspicions, which were confirmed when the gardener broke down and confessed that he had been persuaded by the butler to supply a large dose of arsenic, administered to the victim in his morning cup of chocolate. Cotesworth survived this attack and both men were tried for attempted murder, being sentenced to a whipping and the pillory on the anniversary of the offence.

Yet this was not the end of the matter, for their motives remained a mystery and both the judge and the Bishop of Durham declared publicly that ‘so great and so vile an attempt was not the produce of the fellows’ own brains’. John Brown, the butler, had indeed promised his accomplice that they ‘should live bravely’ if they could get their employer out of the way, while Cotesworth’s friends found it significant that the culprits were sustained during their imprisonment by the agents and servants of one of his greatest rivals in the coal industry. When this rival hastened to protest his innocence, their suspicions hardened.

Such suspicions are given a certain credibility by the twisted and often violent intrigues that characterized the Tyneside coal industry in the early eighteenth century. By this time coal within easy reach of exploitation had been exhausted, making it necessary for mine-owners to increase their commitments in an already notoriously expensive and risky industry by investing in Newcomen pumps to drain deep workings and elaborate waggonways to carry coal down to the river.

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