LITTLE can be discerned on the grave's inscription, the sad epitaph ravaged by time as it forever lies under the shade of creaking yew tree, occupying a darkened corner of God's acre.

But it simply reads:

'A Faithful Friend, A Father Dear,

An unfortunate husband Lieth Here,

The Lord Removed his Earthly clay

Into Realms of Everlasting Day.'

It marks the resting place of John Hughes who was hanged almost 200 years ago when horse rustling invariably meant sentence of death.

His only consolation was that the Rev Robert Knight, Rector of Itchen Abbas, promised him in the condemned cell he would purchase his body after execution and place it alongside his infant daughter in the church yard, instead of being dissected for the supposed advancement of medical science.

Hughes, also known as Smith, was a colourful gypsy who had set up camp near the hamlet in a long lost lane called The Greenaway. Unlike most of his descendants he was rather well liked by the local community and wore a distinctive coat with large silver buttons composed of crown pieces. Other buttons adorning his waistcoat were made of shillings.

Though he professed to be a rat catcher and a basket maker, the local community were probably unaware of his predilection for theft and robbery. His depredations were not confined to one county or to any type of property, extending to house breaking and sheep stealing.

Eventually Hughes, 26, took one risk too many when he stole a horse in the locality, riding it north through Surrey onto London where he was detained and escorted back to Winchester by a posse of agricultural workers, armed with pitchforks and scythes while undergoing the ignominy of having to stand in a farm dung cart.

He was convicted at the Hampshire Lent Sessions of 1825 and sentenced to death with no hope of a reprieve.

Passing sentence, Sir James Burroughs told him: "The crime of horse stealing prevails to such an extent that it is necessary the severest penalty should be inflicted to deter others from this commission.

"I have tried 30-40 horse stealers myself - others have been tried by my fellow judges - and those convicted have been transported abroad for life but this has been insufficient to check it. An example is necessary to repress this crime and your case is one of that description which merits the severest penalty by law."

The Rev Wright, a champion of the poor, took up his case and rode to London - there being no railway at the time - to have the sentence reduced. But all in vain, he was hanged on March 25.

Hughes however did not die alone.

Alongside him were brothers labourers James and William Dawes who came from Binsted near Alton and had been convicted of burglary. They all acknowledged their guilt and the justice of their sentence. The brothers admitted the break-in had been planned and committed by themselves alone, and as part of their plans had left a letter at the scene for the purpose of exciting suspicion against another.

All three bewailed their criminal history in jail, blaming their downfall on Sabbath-breaking and poaching, with the elder Dawes confessing although he had made money out of the latter practice, it had done him no good.

Smith was said to have scaled the scaffold steps firmly, became truely penitent and the last words he uttered were: "Almighty God, forgive my offences."