Hiram Archer was born in 1825 in Yorkley, West Dean, a parish in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, England. His mother Elizabeth was a widow and was forced to take in a lodger at their house in Pillowell to make ends meet. Hiram started work at the local colliery at Parkend at the age of thirteen and without any discipline from a father, he proved to be a very wayward boy, constantly in trouble. On the night of 29 July 1851 he had been drinking at the Nags Head in Yorkley with his friend James James. The other young men who joined them were George Charles, Richard Kear, Thomas James, Henry Shapcott and Thomas Stephens. They all worked in the local mines and often drank together. Fights were always breaking out in the pub and this night was no exception, the landlord William Charles having to send for the local constabulary again to break up a fight. A middle-aged woman called Mary McCarthy, who was visiting the area looking for her brother, was warming herself by a brazier outside the pub. Then events took a terrible turn. Mary was raped by each of the young men in turn, Hiram Archer being the ringleader.
On 1 August 1851 two of the men, Richard Kear and Thomas Stephens were arrested and taken to Littledean House of Correction, near Cinderford. James James and George Charles were arrested a couple of days later. The police then set out finding the other alleged offenders as Mary McCarthy had said a total of nine men had raped her. The Gloucester Journal reported the arrest of yet another man at Blaenavon in Wales. “We have now to announce the apprehension of another collier on the same charge named Hiram Archer, resident of Pillowell, who had absconded on the morning after the outrage. Mary McCarthy positively identified the prisoner as the man who first committed the assault upon her.”
The news of “The brutal outrage in the Forest” spread from house to house and filled the newspapers for many weeks. Seven of the nine men accused of rape on that Tuesday night of the 28th July 1851 had now been detained at Littledean House of Correction and were taken to the court at Newnham. It was no wonder that Hiram Archer had absconded as he had previously served a sentence of ten days for “absenting himself from his master’s service”. His previous record showed him to be of good character but he was now described as being “of bad character” and his description is given as 5 ft 2 in tall with black hair, dark eyes and a long dark face pitted from smallpox. He was also said to have been “the principal actor in the case” and was committed for trial at Gloucester along with the others.
Hiram Archer, James James, Richard Kear, Henry Shapcott and George Charles were sentenced to transportation for life. Thomas James and Thomas Stephens were each sentenced to fifteen years transportation. In 1853 they all left England for Bermuda after having served time in Millbank Prison, London.
Both Hiram and Thomas James died in October 1853 having contracted yellow fever. George Charles eventually returned to England in 1861 to serve the rest of his sentence there and died in 1875 in Oldcroft, Forest of Dean at the age of 47. James James was released in August 1863 and settled in Australia where he died in 1882. Thomas Stephens arrived back in England for release in 1857 but no more is known of him. Richard Kear and Henry Shapcott were released in 1863 and 1864, returned to the Forest, and both married and had children. They were able to tell the families of the other men of the trials and tribulations of the Bermuda imprisonment and the time spent in Millbank and Portland prisons before leaving England. Hiram’s widowed mother Elizabeth introduced the two men to her grandson and was proud to tell them that he had been named Hiram, after his uncle. Both were accepted back into the community and spent their days quietly until Richard’s death in 1901 and Henry’s in 1906. (The full story of the Forest of Dean convicts is related in ‘Bermuda Dick’ by Averil Kear.)