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LECTURE: The Story of Edward Duke and the Amesbury Oliver


A talk by Peter Maggs about Edward Duke, a 19th Century cleric and magistrate — when he became involved in the new court at Devizes; his antiquarian ‘researches’, including his bizarre published theory regarding the origins of Stonehenge, Avebury, and Silbury Hill; and a secret four-day ’trial’ at Amesbury, when he wrote to the Home Secretary accusing the master of the workhouse of the manslaughter of a crippled, consumptive, boy. He is quite a character!

Edward Duke was a wealthy 19th-Century Oxford-educated cleric with time on his hands. In 1840 he published an extraordinary theory explaining that Stonehenge, Avebury, and Silbury Hill formed part of a great stationary planetarium on Salisbury Plain simulating the Sun, Moon, Earth, and planets. Stonehenge represented Saturn, and Duke concluded that the ancient Britons must have possessed telescopes, because the ratio of the diameter of the stone circle to the ditch at Stonehenge, was identical to that of Saturn to its rings...

Mr Duke was not only an antiquarian, but also a Wiltshire magistrate and ex officio guardian of the Amesbury Union Workhouse. He carried on an increasingly bitter series of disputes with both his brother guardians and the Poor Law Commissioners. In 1844 he wrote to the Home Secretary charging that the master of the workhouse acted with extreme physical cruelty towards one of the inmates – a crippled and consumptive orphan boy. This, Duke claimed, led within a few weeks to the boy's death. No account of the resulting secret four-day judicial enquiry into the case has ever previously been published.

Peter Maggs is a retired engineer who has written extensively on nineteenth century social history with an emphasis on criminal investigations. He is a regular contributor to Genealogists’ Magazine. His great-grandfather, Frank Maggs, was born in Rollestone near Stonehenge, and came to London in the 1880s to seek his fortune. Details of Peter’s writing and a CV can be found here:

Tickets: £8 (£5 WANHS members; £5 students) – booking essential.

Date: Saturday 28 October

Time: Start 2.30 pm

Location: Wiltshire Museum (we are not able to make this a 'hybrid' event)

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