Starting with the mysterious murder of Mary Ashford in 1817 and following a trail of blood through the Victorian and Edwardian eras—up to the controversial execution of the young James Farrell in 1949—these true crime stories provide a different kind of history of this city in the English Midlands.
Drawn from newspapers and periodicals of the time, these stories reflect the way our attitudes to different crimes and punishments have evolved over the years, yet also explore some things that never seem to change: jealousy, lust, anger, and greed. Discover the facts behind those who have carved themselves a place in local history—usually with a wickedly sharp knife—as well as tales of the vicious thugs whose violent robberies left widows and orphans in their wake, whether in the 1830s or the 1930s.
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The Tragic End of Mary Ashford 1817
Her clothes were covered in mud, and old oak leaves covered her face.
Life in the district of Birmingham a couple of centuries ago may seem very different to our modern world, but in some respects it wasn't that different at all. Then, as now, there were parties, young lovers and, unfortunately, maniacs. The sudden death of Mary Ashford in 1817 has become one of the most famous in Birmingham's history, but possibly for the wrong reasons. The evidence surrounding her death showed fairly clearly who was responsible, but the legal system of the day was labyrinthine in its complexity and this enabled the culprit to walk from court a free man on two occasions. In the few detailed accounts, the story seems to be all about the legal side of the affair, but the evidence presented brings life around Erdington in 1817 into sharp focus. This was a world before the emergence of a city, it was a landscape of fields, where people earnt their living from the land; and yet even then there were the manufactories where metal was forged and drawn, but they were set amongst hedges and trees. The central story, however, remains the horrific fate of an attractive young woman.
Mary Ashford was just twenty in 1817. She was the very pretty daughter of a gardener who lived in a small cottage by the Cross Keys in Erdington. She was a vivacious girl who had a sweet nature and was considered by all who knew her to be a very virtuous and honest character. She was about 5 feet 4 inches tall. A couple of years before, she moved away from her father's overcrowded home to her uncle's farm at Langley Heath. Here, at Mr Coleman's, she was part of the household and regularly went to market in Birmingham to sell the fruit and vegetables from the farm.
On Whit Monday, 26 May 1817, Mary set off from the farm to go to the market. On her way she called to see her best friend, Hannah Cox. Hannah was working for Mr Machin in the tiny hamlet of Erdington at the time. Mary left a bundle of evening clothes with Hannah whilst she went off shopping. The two talked about the dance they wanted to go to that evening. It was the culmination of one of the Friendly Society's annual meetings and was to be held at Tyburn House near Castle Bromwich. Everyone who was anyone would be there. Mary went off to the market and came back to Hannah's home at about 6.00 pm. The two of them changed into their best clothes. Mary had worn a pink cotton frock and scarlet spencer (a high waisted and low neckline jacket) together with a straw bonnet and black stockings and half boots during the day; now she put on a clean frock, white spencer and white stockings. Hannah had collected a new pair of shoes for Mary, especially for the dance.
The two of them set off from Hannah's mother's house at about 7.00 pm and got to Daniel Clarke's public house, The Three Tuns, at about 8.30 pm. Both girls went into the dance hall in Tyburn House for a twirl, but Hannah had enough after about fifteen minutes and went into the bar to be with Benjamin Carter instead, leaving Mary dancing with Abraham Thornton.
Abraham was a supremely fit young man, considered by many to be the fittest and strongest man in the county. He was immensely stocky, with a thick-set neck and muscles bulging almost to the point of deformity. He was 5 feet 7 inches tall and appeared quite menacing because of his bulk. His face was very fat, and shining with sweat most of the time but he was agile and athletic. His father was a bricklayer and Abraham had been brought up in the family business. Bricklaying in the early 1800s was a lucrative profession; the huge number of canals being built meant they could virtually name their own price. Abraham was twenty-nine years old and a very eligible bachelor but he had a reputation for being something of a lothario.
Not long after Mary arrived, Abraham stopped dancing with the landlord's daughter and went up to Mr Cottrell to ask who the beautiful girl was. In his reply he said that she was 'old Ashford's' daughter.
Abraham replied: 'I know a sister of hers and have been connected with her three times, and I'll will with her, or I'll die by it.'
John Cooke, standing close by, was shocked at the bluntness of the statement, but he wasn't going to remonstrate with Thornton, not at the risk of getting his neck broken. Thornton went into the hall and asked Mary to dance. She accepted and they danced on through the evening. Hannah stayed in the bar with her boyfriend.
By about 11.30 pm, Hannah was ready to go home. She popped into the dance and told Mary she would be waiting outside by the canal bridge. Benjamin Carter came out and kept her company for fifteen minutes. Hannah was getting impatient and got Benjamin to go in and hurry Mary up. Eventually, Mary and Abraham came out and the four of them walked towards Erdington along the London & Chester Turnpike road. Hannah realised she had forgotten her bracelet and Benjamin ran back to the pub to get it for her, getting back to Hannah after about ten minutes. Benjamin walked along with Hannah for a while, but he had to get back home and left her to catch up with Mary and Abraham. This she did by the time the couple had walked as far as the junction of the lane that ran south-west towards Erdington (Grange Road is part of this old foot track today). It was at this junction that Hannah had to say goodbye, and she hurried back to her mother's house and went to bed.
Mary and Abraham walked on alone in the warm May night. The only account of what happened next is that of Abraham. Apparently, they walked on down the Chester Road to the junction with Bell Lane (now Orphanage Road). Here were two cottages, one home to Mary's grandfather and the other the Freeman family. The young couple turned right and walked down to a footpath running out into the fields. This path (Holifast Road) took them across four or five fields. They spent quite some time in these fields before walking back the way they had come. At the stile on Bell Lane they sat talking. A man with a brown jacket walked along the lane and bid them a polite 'good morning'. Abraham thought it was about 3.00 am by then. In the dim pre-dawn light it was difficult to see who it was. Abraham asked Mary who the man was, and she said she wasn't sure but thought she had seen him at the dance. She had hidden her face from him to avoid any gossip about what they had been up to. In fact it was a man called John Umpage and he had been in a house just the other side of the road from where they had been in the fields. He had heard them talking from a little after 2.00 until 2.45. He had left the house in Penn Lane at about that time and their paths crossed by the stile on the edge of Bell Lane. John Umpage had clearly recognised Abraham Thornton, but not Mary. John had heard nothing that raised his suspicions, no raised voices, protests or suchlike, during the whole hour that they were within his earshot. He may not have been paying much attention to what they were saying because he was in deep conversation with the young lady of the house, Miss Reynolds.
The night was wearing thin and, according to Abraham, the pair of them walked back down Bell Lane towards Erdington as far as its junction with Holly Lane. Here, Abraham bid Mary good night, leaving her to walk the last few hundred yards to Hannah Cox's house alone. He said that he then waited a short while and walked down to Erdington Workhouse to see if he could see Mary again, but then decided that it was high time he went home to Castle Bromwich.
Mary walked briskly to Hannah's house. She was still wearing her dance clothes and wanted to get changed before returning home. Thomas Asprey saw her walking very fast towards the house at about 3.30 am. At about 4.00 am, Mary woke up Hannah and went into her room. Hannah noticed that her mother's clock stated it was 4.40 am. The two of them chatted away whilst Mary changed into her ordinary day clothes and wrapped up her dancing gown and white spencer around her black boots into a bundle that would be easy to carry. The sugar and other oddments she had bought at Birmingham market the day before also went into the bundle. Hannah noticed nothing unusual about Mary; she was as calm and cheerful as usual. Mary told Hannah that she had spent the night at her grandfather's house. Perhaps Hannah was a little suspicious of what had really been going on because she asked Mary how long Abraham had stayed with her and got the coy reply: 'A good bit.'
Mary did up her straw bonnet and left Hannah at about 5.00 am, according to the clock in the house. In fact the clock was at least forty minutes fast; Hannah's mother kept it fast so she wouldn't be late for any appointments. Mary was in a contented mood and despite the long night of dancing, set off on the road back towards her grandfather's at a good pace. John Kesterton had just harnessed up his horses and was driving down Bell Lane towards Birmingham when he saw Mary come out of Hannah's mother's house and set off at a fast walk towards her grandfather's. He cracked the whip and she turned and looked at him. He reckoned it was 4.15 am. At much the same time, but a little further up Bell Lane, Mary passed Joseph Dawson. They both said: 'How do you do?', and on she walked, very fast, towards her grandfather's house.
The casual exchange with Joseph Dawson was the last time anyone but her murderer saw her alive.
George Jackson set off to work from the top of Moor Street at 5.00 am. It was a long walk, through Erdington, up Bell Lane and along the footpath that Mary and Abraham walked some hours before. The path led diagonally across a field and on to a stile into Penn's Mill Lane. Close by the stile was a water-filled pit and on the edge of this George noticed a bundle of clothes, a straw bonnet and a pair of bloodstained shoes. Realising something was very wrong, he hurried along the road until he came to Mr Lavell's cottage next door to the Reynold's. Mr Lavell was just coming out of his front door and George insisted that he come straight to the pit and stand guard over the sinister find whilst he went and raised the alarm at Penn's Mills, a factory a bit further up the road.
William Lavell waited until his work mates arrived from the mill, and then scouted around the field to see what else he couldfind. As the field had been freshly harrowed, footsteps showed clearly in the tilled soil as well as in the dew that had fallen on the grass. It was now about 6.30 am and the dew would only be visible for another hour or so. William discovered deep prints of a man's feet leading to the pit and he tracked them back to a tree. Here were the marks of where there had been a struggle. Not only was there the clear impression in the soil of a woman's body but, more ominously, two pools of blood. He looked more carefully and realised that there was a trail of blood drops in the grass about a foot to the side of the footprints. Worse still, the drops seemed to start off heavy and frequent, but gradually petered out the closer he got to the pit. Back at the pit, there was a very deep single footprint right on the edge, as though someone had sought purchase to heave something heavy into the deep dark water. James Simmons, from the mill, raced home to get a rake and some long reins to drag the pond.
William continued his painstaking search. He could now easily recognise the man's footprints. The shoes were nailed with a special type of nail called a 'Sparrow', and the pattern of these was broken on the right shoe. There was a second trail of these distinct footprints running off across the field in the direction of Castle Bromwich. He followed them until they joined the main road. Back in the harrowed field, he could make out two sets of foot prints that appeared to show a desperate chase as a man pursued a woman, gradually catching up with her, how she dodged about as he got close, sprinted away, dodged again, ran some more and ended at the tree, her silhouette preserved in the grass, arms and legs extended out. William had the good sense to fetch some planks and preserve some of the footprints from any damage.
James Simmons got back to the scene at 7.00 am with his rake. It took several attempts but eventually they managed to drag out the body of Mary Ashford. Her clothes were covered with mud, and old oak leaves clung to her face. Her sad and bedraggled corpse was carried along the road to Mr Lavell's house and laid out. Mr Joseph Webster, the owner of Penn Mills, arrived there at 8.00 am. He had arrived in his night clothes such was the panic. He was the only one around with a watch. He checked the footprints with William Lavell and found that the woman's shoes found at the edge of the pit matched the prints in the field. Back at Lavell's house, Fanny Lavell had taken the spencer off Mary's body, revealing huge bruises on each of her arms. Mr Webster went home to get dressed while Fanny struggled to get the bloodstained and ripped clothes off the body.
By 10.30 am, the news was all about the district. Mary Smith, the local nurse, examined the corpse and confirmed that Mary had been brutally raped before being thrown into the pit. The bruises on her arms appeared to be those of hands. Other bruises and lacerations covered her body. Mary Smith arranged to get the body taken to Penn Mill for a surgeon to conduct a more detailed autopsy.
The news reached Daniel Clarke at Tyburn House very early. He immediately suspected Abraham Thornton and went out to look for him. He caught up with him on the turnpike road in Castle Bromwich, just by the chapel and said: 'What is become of the young woman that went away with you from my house last night?'
Thornton said nothing.
'She is murdered and thrown into a pit,' shouted Clarke.
'Murdered?' said Thornton.
'Yes, murdered,' confirmed Clarke.
'I [Thornton] was with her until 4 o'clock this morning.'
'Then you must go along with me and clear yourself,' said Clarke, in reply.
Thornton said he would do that, and the two of them rode back to Tyburn House. Neither of them mentioned the murder at all during the journey, just general chat about farming. Back at Tyburn House, the ponies were stabled and Thornton went inside to get something to eat and drink. He talked about walking over to Sutton in a while, but Thomas Dale had other ideas.
Constable Thomas Dale was the 'thief-taker' of Birmingham. This was long before the creation of the police force we have today. The magistrates had sent him on in advance to arrest Abraham. He found Daniel and some other men keeping him in the pub. Thomas Dale took him to an upstairs room, and William Benson and Mr Sadler joined him in searching Abraham. His shirt and underclothes were covered in dirt and bloodstained. When Thomas Dale asked how they had got into such as mess Abraham told him that he had made love to Mary – with her consent – that night. Mr Bedford, the magistrate, arrived at 11.00 am. Abraham Thornton was officially arrested for the rape and murder of Mary Ashford.
Doctor Freer arrived at Penn Mill so late in the day that there wasn't enough light for him to conduct his examination. Mary's body was moved to Tyburn House and the examination took place the next day. The magistrates and Mary's family then heard not only the ghastly facts that had already been uncovered; but yet more horror, Mary was not dead when she was thrown into the pond. She had drowned. More damning for Thornton was that his shoes were an exact match with the footprints in the field and there was blood on his clothes. He was sent to Warwick Gaol to await trial at the next assizes.
It looked like an open and shut case. On 8 August Warwick courthouse was packed to capacity as thousands travelled to see this wicked man condemned to death, and hopefully hanged. It was not to be, Abraham Thornton could afford a good counsel and pleaded not guilty on the grounds that he couldn't have been at the pit when the crime was committed because he had many and reliable witnesses to prove he was on his way back to Castle Bromwich. William and Martha Jennings were at Holden's Farm to get milk for sale in Birmingham. They were sure that they saw Abraham at 4.30 am, and they knew it was 4.30 since they had asked Jane Heaton who worked at the farm what the time was a bit earlier, and had milked a couple of cows by the time they saw Abraham walking casually down the road from the direction of Erdington. The defence then brought several other witnesses to confirm that Abraham Thornton had been closer and closer to Castle Bromwich as the morning wore on. This defence exploited the fact that there were virtually no reliable clocks in the countryside. It was common practice to note the time from the clock on St Martin's church; that was Birmingham time. The only way to set your clock at home was to first set a watch at St Martin's and then use that as a reference when you got home. Hardly anyone except the wealthy farmers and mill owners owned a watch, so it was just about impossible for most people to have any idea of the exact time. Just to make matters even more complicated, 'Birmingham time', as used in Erdington, was fifteen minutes behind of 'country time', as used in Castle Bromwich. Mr Webster made it his business to check all the times quoted by the various witnesses, by comparing their clocks to his reasonably accurate watch. He did not find any two that said the same time. Mrs Butler, Hannah's mother, had the most inaccurate clock, but they were all inaccurate to some degree. Mr Reader, Counsel for the Defence, used this ambiguity to wear down the prosecution case, but entirely omitted the possible errors when it came to the defence.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "More Foul Deeds & Suspicious Deaths in Birmingham"
Copyright © 2007 Nick Billingham.
Excerpted by permission of Pen and Sword Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 The Tragic End of Mary Ashford, 1817,
Chapter 2 The Wicked Robbery of Mr Painter, 1835,
Chapter 3 William Devey, 1838,
Chapter 4 Matthew Davies, 1848,
Chapter 5 Mary Turner, 1860,
Chapter 6 Francis Price, 1860,
Chapter 7 John Grayson Farquhar, 1861,
Chapter 8 The Tranter Street Murder, 1861,
Chapter 9 An Odd Year, 1861,
Chapter 10 Henry Carter, 1863,
Chapter 11 The Castle Street Murder, 1888,
Chapter 12 Harry Jones, 1888,
Chapter 13 John Davis, 1907,
Chapter 14 William Allen Butler, 1916,
Chapter 15 Henry Gaskin, the Hednesford Ripper, 1919,
Chapter 16 The Remarkable Story of Djang Djin Sung, 1919,
Chapter 17 Samuel Westwood, 1920,
Chapter 18 Elijah Pountney, 1922,
Chapter 19 The Small Heath Tragedy, 1926,
Chapter 20 Edwin Thick, 1930,
Chapter 21 Victor Betts, 1931,
Chapter 22 The Revenge of Jeremiah Hanbury, 1932,
Chapter 23 Stanley Hobday and the Value of Finger Prints, 1933,
Chapter 24 Eli Richards, 1941,
Chapter 25 Harold Oswald Merry, 1942,
Chapter 26 William Quayle, 1943,
Chapter 27 James Farrell and the end of Capital Punishment, 1948,