Pettit-Stallan-Wedding 1914

Dian’s maternal grandmother was Ruth Stallan born at  Sawston Cambs.  in 1891. She was the 7th child , the daughter of William Stallan and Cathrine Freeman .

We have traced the Stallan family line back to John b 1625.

Stallan Chart :

Here is an interesting story about a John Stallan

We cannot be sure if this our John or not as there were several living in sawston at this time . Interesting that another possible ancestor William Dean is involved.

On 12 June 1833, a stack belonging to poulterer William Dean was fired. The fire was soon put out, but a ball of rags and two matches were discovered high up in the thatch. A labourer called John Stallan had been loitering in the area. The rags were traced back to his wife, Elizabeth. Stallan was arrested. He was a Shelford labourer, aged 33. He immediately claimed his wife was the arsonist. He was sent to the Assizes at Cambridge for trial.

It is at the trial that we start to see small vivid glimpses of Shelford as it was in 1833 as witness after witness is called.

William Dean was a poulterer (someone dealing in poultry) and labourer, who kept a few cows. He was showing his son, a lad of 13, how to do a job when he noticed smoke coming from his cart shed. He used his cart in his business, he said, and would be lost without it.
It was a very windy, heavy day, and the fire was smoke rather than flames. Dean lived on Tunwells Lane, and opposite was Mr Headly’s field, where Stallan and Richard Jeffrey were working. Mr Headly leans over the hawthorn hedge to see what’s going on, and sees the Deans examining a bundle of rags that have been used to start a fire. The Deans remember that they have seen Stallan loitering about several times. The rags are given to Mr Headly, who gives them to Mr Grain – the chief farmer and a man of authority in the village. He traces them to the Stallans. This is a face-to-face society. You may be the richest farmer in Shelford, but you know who everyone is, rich or poor.

At the trial Stallan challenged witnesses who had seen him set the fire. He loudly proclaimed his innocence:
“I am as guilty of the offence of which I am charged, as our blessed Saviour who perished for the wickedness of man”.
His protestations were, according to the newspaper, “extremely pathetic”, but at times incoherent. Stallan was in a real panic. He was found guilty and sentenced to hang. The judge was very stern –the crime of destroying property and spreading terror was heinous, and there could be no mercy.  Stallan’s defence tried to argue a technicality which led to his sentence hanging fire for almost six months. In prison he confessed to 11 fires, but not to the one at Mr Stacey’s. He claimed he set them because each time he worked the fire engine – being one of the team – he earned 6s 6d, more than half a week’s wages. He set five fires at Henry Headly’s (for whom he worked), because this was most convenient for him. He stated nevertheless that Headly was “the best of masters”.
His death sentence was, of course, a warning to the others. Other incendiaries continued ”almost nightly to spread devastation” across the country, so this was an important message.
The week before his execution, his wife and family were allowed to visit him to say goodbye. “There was an immense concourse of spectators present; the streets were literally swarming with persons, and had very much the appearance of a living current. We regret to add that females formed the great majority!” (Shades of the Life of Brian! The use of the term “person” indicates that these were lower class persons, whose interest was considered in poor taste).
The day of his execution was described in great detail. An execution is always a momentous event. Not surprisingly, since a man was going to die. But people experienced a morbid fascination too, as the crowds show.
We are told that Stallan’s conduct had been for a length of time “uniformly becoming”. At 9am he took communion, and attended service in the gaol chapel with the other prisoners. He said a few words to them, apparently warning them not to pursue his course and to seek the Lord. However, he said he did not feel equal to shaking hands with them. These were the first signs of his fear and distress. He was led from his cell and towards the scaffold. However, his courage failed him as he reached the platform, and he needed support. The chaplain prayed with him, but Stallan could barely mouth the Lord’s Prayer. The drop fell, and Stallan died immediately, a warning to us all.
There were stories afterwards in the London papers that the execution hadn’t been well conducted. Our Cambridge press informs us that the “wind being very high and strong, the body when suspended was moved about by the wind, which might have led some persons to have imagined that the culprit was struggling”. Disturbingly graphic. The execution was, of course, held in public.
It was an example, a set piece to demonstrate the power of the law, and the consequences of crime.
He was brought to Great Shelford to be buried. The funeral was the occasion of another set piece – a sermon preached by the Rev. Edward Baines MA, Fellow of Christ’s College, which was afterwards published ( and can be found in the Cambridgeshire Collection). It was an important occasion to ram home the moral lesson of Stallan’s end, and also to reinforce the social order. Baines’ text was: “If thou warn the wicked and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity”, Ez. III. 19. The sermon is a call to repentance: “It is a fearful thing when one is made a warning to his fellows – when a bitter doom falls upon one whom we have known, the neighbour of many…”. He was indeed a neighbour of many. According to the Cambridge Independent Press, “Stallan was a man greatly esteemed in Shelford by his brother villagers until his crimes were known, and was always considered a steady, industrious person; and although he attempted to lay the blame on his wife, when he was first charged with the offence, she avows that a more affectionate husband or tender father never existed”.
But let us return for a moment to Baines’ sermon. A bitter doom had certainly fallen on Elizabeth Stallan, left with two children, one only a year old, and the shame of being the widow of a hanged man. No easy life. She was still in Shelford in 1841, living in a cottage which belonged to the parish. Where else would she go after all? She died in 1848 aged 53.

It is easy to take the story of John Stallan at face value: he was a man who set fires for the money. But is that all there is to it? I don’t think so.
I didn’t know much about arsonists, so I did a little reading about the subject. Firesetting can be the consequence of personal problems – a cry for help. It can be done for reasons of revenge and anger. It is, of course, a covert act, the product of a burning but suppressed anger.
I also tried to find out a little about John Stallan. This is not easy – members of the labouring classes leave few traces of their stay on earth, and Stallan’s only claim to fame is his trial.


Stallan was baptised in Great Shelford on Dec 14 1800. He was the son of James and Ann Stallon. He was one of a family of seven. He married Elizabeth Patman on January 25 1820, a shotgun wedding (as was common enough among their class). Their daughter Ann was baptized on April 2 the same year, but she died in September of the following year, aged 1. Another son was born in 1824, and another in 1832. Mrs Stallan, according to the court report, was very short – 4 feet tall and “rather deformed”.
On 20 April 1827, the Cambridge Chronicle tells us that his cottage was up for sale – “to be sold by auction, 2 copyhold tenements occupied by James Wright and John Stallion, with a common right over the valuable common of Gr Shelford. Enquire Wm Cambridge”. He would only have rented this cottage, and presumably this represented a change of landlord.
His elder brother William was killed in December 1832 in a fight in Trumpington.
Is there anything among this scatter of events to suggest emotional distress enough to set him fire-setting? It is hard to say.