THE headline reflected how the provincial Victorian press termed a burglary at the fairly isolated home of an elderly spinster threatened with violence from thugs.

"Cool and deliberate" was how it was then reported. Today her ordeal would be rightly viewed as nothing less than "terrifying."

Elderly Jeanette Hoyes and her three maids had long retired for the night at Yew Cottage that stood on a narrow lane, forming part of Bitterne Village that lay two miles outside the Southampton boundary, virtually unfrequented at night - but not on November 30, 1854, when four masked men broke in, separating to scour the bedrooms.

One less than skilful intruder made so much noise that he immediately disturbed Hoyes who began shrieking loudly.

The Hampshire Independent claimed he bludgeoned her twice on the head to silence her screaming, demanding to know where she kept her money valuables and money to save him searching.

She directed him to a drawer where he removed £13 but convinced there was more, furiously tore and wrenched open any item that had a clasp.

A fellow burglar hearing the furore, told her to "fork up," otherwise she would be "finished" thrusting a firearm at her head. Ransacking the entire property, they fled with a gold watch, a quantity of plate and about £15 in cash.

Determined to evade justice, one lit a paper which he shoved under the bed in the hope of burning down the house and all the terrified occupants. Fortunately it was quickly extinguished.

So shocking was the publicity it sparked the remarkably large reward of £100 being put up for information leading to the arrest and punishment of the gang, with the local inhabitants' fears intensified by reports of several other robberies in the area, believed to have been orchestrated by a respectable looking inspector who called at homes with a tale of distress and begging for cash in exchanger for matches.

Less a month later, four men had been arrested, the police having concentrated their inquiries on the notorious Royal Tan beer house, the haunt of the town's low life and frequented amongst others by George Hallett, who had only recently been locked up for brazenly passing dud money in the town, and unsavoury characters as Trunkey Bill and Ginger Jack.

But evidence against the more colourfully named was insufficient and they with much gloating were discharged by magistrates, leading to just Hallett, a 30-year-old labourer, and hawker Henry Hutchins, also 30, aka Vile, appearing at Hampshire Assizes on March 6 the following year, accused of burglary with violence.

Much of the facts was agreed, the case in part resting on identification and evidence from a publican.

As defence counsel Mr Collier accepted:" I fully concur as to the character of this burglary, for it is undoubtedly one of an atrocious character which can neither be defended, nor palliated, and the perpetrators of which deserve, and which no doubt suffer, exemplary punishment."

Hoyes recalled how she had paid particular heed to four men she had seen hours before the burglary on her return from church, her attention drawn by one conspicuously fiddling with a shoe.

She recounted how her bedroom was burst open and entered by the gang, one speaking in a rough voice threatening: "Give me your money or I will kill you." Another pushed her maid Olive Prowting aside.

"They forced me down on the bed, put the bedclothes over my head, demanded my money and commenced ransacking the house while one stood beside me. One gave me violent blows with something black about two feet long and like what is called a life-preserver.

"They allowed me to raise my head to point out the drawer where my money was. The men then asked for some drink before they went away."

Essential to the Crown's case was Edward Futcher who kept the Forrester's Arms near the gas works, telling the court how Vile had admitted to him having cased the house the day of the robbery and how he had seen Hoyes returning home from church. He also mentioned a conversation with a man called Adams who ran the Royal Tar whether he had heard what was in the local paper.

"He said 'yes, he saw some of it. Vile said, 'it's said in the paper there was a gold watch amongst the things we had over at Bitterne. If there was, George must have stuck to it, for I never saw it from first to last."

But in his closing speech, Collier entreated the prosecution had failed to prove Hallett had been at the scene: "There is no proof to enable you to return a conviction, or which hereafter would justify such a verdict. The prosecution has not only failed to distinctly give the slighest proof as to his identity, but if the evidence is to be believed, the contrary is the fact, for the prisoners are about the same height, whereas those who committed the burglary were not so," claiming at the time Hallett had been walking with his wife and child in The Avenue.

"He is a stranger in Southampton and knew nothing about the surrounding localities. He went there to ascertain if there was an opening for him in the public house or beer shop," not only dismissing Futcher's conversation evidence but also condemning him as an unreliable witness. "If he is not one of the perpetrators of this burglary, he has a great deal of knowledge of it."

The same theme was taken up by W M Cooke who on behalf of Hutchins submitted there was no proof of identity and he had no made no attempt to "fly from justice" by remaining in Southampton after the break-in.

Accusing Futcher of perjury, the lawyer claimed: "He came into the box to make a statement which he knew to be false. He has conjured up this story for the purposing of sacrificing Vile and exculpating himself."

The judge, Mr Justice Crowder, concurred there was no evidence of identity.

"The prosecution has therefore attempted to show that the prisoners acted together in concert with Trunkey Bill and Ginger jack, and being found at Adams's, one of those beer shops that frequently were the places in which matters of this kind are concocted and where people connected with them meet togethr. If you believe Futcher, you are bound to find Vile guilty."

Jurors, after a short retirement, remarkably found both men guilty of the lesser charge of simple burglary and not with violence.

"You are well known as being the worst of characters," scorned the judge, ordering their transportation overseas for life.

And that seemed to be the end of the affair. But for once, not so. There was to be a dramatic twist from an unlikely source. Hallett's wife was arrested and charged with receiving some of the jewellery.

In turn, her confession led to the arrest of Trunkey Bill and Ginger Jack whose real names were William Holdsworth and Thomas Cole.

At their trial, she testified of conversations her husband and the two men had about several homes including that of Hoyes and how they were going "a little way into the country. I knew that night they were going to commit a depredation. Afterwards I knew they were engaged in some affair of that kind."

She told jurors she did not see them until the following morning when she accompanied them to London, her husband carrying parcels containing jewellery and plate. "But I did not know it was taken from that house in Bitterne until we arrived in London."

Jurors heard she was soon arrested and charged with robbery but it was later dropped in favour of receiving.

Though Mr Poulden was said to have made a powerful speech at their trial in July, the pair were convicted. Trunkey Bill was also ordered to be transported overseas for life but Cole, deemed to have played a lesser role, was jailed for 20 years.