The Liversedge Mystery: The Body in the Boiler House

One chilly and cloudy Sunday morning in the autumn of 1883, two young men met to go for a walk in Hightown, an area of Liversedge in West Yorkshire. Hightown was, and still is, a small village surrounded by fields and farms. But even in 1883 it was connected to the world, lying within easy walking distance of railway stations at Liversedge and Cleckheaton, which led to such places as Huddersfield or Dewsbury and, from there, Leeds, Manchester or beyond. The area’s most famous resident had probably been Patrick Brontë, father of the Brontë sisters, who lived briefly in Hightown at the top of Clough Lane when he was the assistant curate at Hartshead from 1811 until 1815.

Most men in the area worked in mills or local mines. These two men on that Sunday were no exception. The 1881 census fills in some detail on their lives: William Sowden, aged twenty-one, worked as a machine apprentice in a mill; the other, eighteen-year-old Samuel Mellor, was a hurrier in a mine. Both men still lived with their parents in Hightown: Sowden on Quaker Lane, just off the main road through Hightown; Mellor on the main road.

That morning, 30 September 1883, the pair met around 11am. There had been heavy rain for days, and several places in Yorkshire had flooded on Saturday. The ground was doubtless still wet as the two walked over the fields. Their destination was a derelict cotton mill on Clough Lane, a quiet road which led to nearby Roberttown. This mill – known as Clough Mill and situated on Clough Beck (a small stream) – had burned down three years earlier in a major fire caused by overheating cotton. The seven-hour blaze caused around £7,000 worth of damage. While insurance protected the owner, the mill had been left ruined and the owner had not repaired it. The mill was not visible from Hightown itself, although it was only around 200 metres along Clough Lane. Although there were a few houses and an oil works near the mill, further along the road there was nothing but a few isolated houses.

Clough Lane seems to have changed very little since then. The site of the former mill is now a farm with a coffee shop.

Sowden and Mellor had been to the ruins several times, perhaps to see if there was anything worth salvaging. For their explorations that day, they chose the old boiler house, in which they had not been before. It was roofless and boarded up. Their explanations for what they were doing remained vague. The first accounts recording what happened claimed they wanted to see if the brass fittings on the boiler were still there (possibly with a view to taking them), but Mellor subsequently claimed they were just looking for “sticks”. After pulling away the planks blocking the doorway, the men explored the dark ruins. Sowden was the braver of the two and went ahead leaving Mellor by the entrance.

Sowden inspected the front of the boiler and noticed a cover at the front of the boiler had been partially removed. Looking inside the pan underneath the plates, he noticed something strange. Poking into the hole with his stick, he said, “What’s this Sammy?” Going over, Mellor could see nothing so told Sowden to remove the other plate from the boiler. They saw bones, which they assumed to be those of some animal. The pair used a rake (presumably left behind after the fire) to reach into the exposed pan, which had eight inches of water at the bottom. It immediately brought up some clothing to the surface of the water. They also saw a skull which was obviously human; Sowden said “I will bet it’s a woman”, then sent Mellor to fetch his mother. When Mrs Mellor was unable to say if it was a human body or not, Mellor went to the local police constable, William Semper, at around 1pm. By this stage, several locals were at the scene.

PC William Semper, according to the 1881 census, was a 32-year-old originally from Lincolnshire who lived in Hightown with his 25-year-old, Somerset-born wife. On arrival, he noticed that the plates of the boiler had been removed to reveal the pan, but only saw the body with some difficultly owing to the darkness of the old boiler house. Eventually, he found it in the corner of the pan, face downwards and largely intact.

Perhaps realising himself to be slightly out of his depth, he sent for Sergeant Martin Sykes, who was from Camblesforth near Selby. Sykes, then aged 37, had recently transferred from Laughton-en-le-Morthen near Rotherham; so popular had he been there that he was the beneficiary of a 20-guinea subscription when he transferred to Liversedge. When his Superintendent moved him on again in 1886, the former was petitioned by Liversedge people who did not want to lose Sykes. Married to a wife from Sowerby, he had five children.

Hightown in 1894. The site of Clough Mills is next to the word “Clough” on the map. (Image: Ordinance Survey 6 inch map for 1894, reproduced by the National Library of Scotland under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence)

The two policemen now removed the metal plates from the boiler. Struggling with both the darkness and a pipe across the entrance to the pan that impeded their access, they found it difficult to remove the body. They were assisted by the growing number of bystanders, but some of the bones became detached as they were removed from the pan. Eventually, the policemen were left with a  pile of bones which they placed in canvas sacks and then inside a “box” (perhaps a coffin). In this way, the body was taken to a nearby inn, the Cross Keys (which is still there) and left in a shed. Although some skin remained attached to the body and skull, the head was unrecognisable and no-one knew who this person could be. There were, however, immediate suspicions and a lot of gossip. The consensus was that the body was that of Marion Lake, a woman from Norfolk who disappeared three years previously, shortly after the fire at the mill and whose family left the area soon after.

As the local doctor was away, the locum tenens Doctor Musgrave performed the post mortem on Monday 1 October. That same day, Sykes and/or Semper returned to the boiler house (perhaps with a light this time as they found things more easily). They discovered some hair attached to the pipe across the entrance to the pan and a portion of scalp and hair floating in the water.

Already that day, stories had appeared in the press: on the Monday, the Leeds Mercury and the Bradford Daily Telegraph carried detailed reports, and versions of the story (some a little garbled: for example, some reports said the body was found in a well; another that the two who found it were responsible for the maintenance of the ruins) as far away as London, Bristol and Aberdeen. They had headlines such as “The Liversedge Mystery” or “Suspected Murder at Liversedge.” All these reports said that the body was likely to be Marion Lake, based on little more than rumour. But Sergeant Sykes traced the family of Marion Lake and spoke to them that evening and returned to Liversedge with some solid evidence.

The Cross Keys Inn, pictured around 1900, but still in business in 2019. (Image: John James Stead [1842-1919]; from Kirklees Image Archive)

The inquest took place the following day, Tuesday 2 October, at the Cross Keys Inn, Hightown, under the Coroner Thomas Taylor. There are problems with the inquest. First, inquest records are not the most extensive. As it happens, the notes for this one survive and are viewable on Ancestry.co.uk (and available at the West Yorkshire Archives) but unfortunately whoever scanned the images missed out two pages from the report. However, what is viewable on that website merely confirms what was written in the press. Secondly, neither this report, nor those in the press, were written verbatim (presumably no one was available with the appropriate skills such as shorthand). Therefore the published accounts do not tally precisely. However, most of them give the same overall story with only minor differences in detail. Combining the different reports gives what is likely to be a fairly accurate account of the inquest. Finally, it should be noted that inquests in 1883 were different to modern ones. A Doctoral Thesis by Pamela Jane Fisher goes into the subject in some depth, but the main issue is that inquest juries at the time were required to view the body, which meant that they were invariably drawn from local men. Also, there were representatives for the police, and anyone present, including the jury, was allowed to question witnesses.

The jury initially inspected both the body and the ruined boiler house on Clough Lane. As the ruin is long gone, it is hard to know the layout of the place. The inquest proceeded after the jury had inspected it themselves and therefore witnesses spoke in the knowledge that the jury knew what they were talking about without further explanation. We have no such luxuries, so must rely on press descriptions, which had been quite detailed even before the inquest.

The best description of the boiler came in the Bradford Daily Telegraph account of the inquest: “The hole in which the body was discovered is situated immediately in front of the boilers, and was used as a receptacle for the contents of ashes from the flues, as well as being the entrance to the bottom flue … A strong stench emanated from the place. Portions of human hair were found on the bottom of the exhaust pipe which crosses the aperture.” This pipe, which crossed the pan, was what made access difficult. Other witnesses described the “hole” as a tapping pan, and it seemed to have some connection with tapping the boiler to release pressure. Another newspaper said that it was designed to allow access to the flues of the boiler to clean them. Several newspapers described the hole itself: 4½ feet long, 2 feet wide and 3 feet deep. The top was covered by two heavy iron plates, each being 2 feet square and around an inch thick.

A J&J Horsfield Boiler from around 1910 (Image: Albert Lyles [1867-1942]; from Kirklees Image Archive)

It is actually possible to identify the type of boiler in which the body was found owing to another episode in its rather unfortunate history. The Dewsbury Reporter relates that in 1879, the new boiler purchased for Clough Mill had rolled away and demolished the front of a nearby house when the mound of earth onto which it was unloaded collapsed. The newspaper reported that the manufacturers were J&J Horsfield, a respected boiler manufacturers based at the Vulcan Iron Works in Dewsbury. While photographs survive of Horsfield Boilers, they do not particularly shed any light on where the body might have been found.

The consensus in the press (and presumably of those who spoke to the reporters) was that this could not have been a suicide as someone would have needed to lower the two heavy plates from the outside. According to the Bradford Daily Telegraph, the jury agreed when they inspected the site: “It appeared to be the general opinion of the jury that to commit suicide in such as position was practically impossible.”

When the inquest party returned to the Cross Keys, the first witness was Samuel Mellor (it seems odd that he, rather than the older Sowden, was a witness, but there was probably a simple explanation). He took the jury through the events of that Sunday morning (his evidence forms the basis of the above account). One interesting point is that he attributed almost all actions to Sowden, perhaps seeking to minimise any trouble for himself. Someone on the jury evidently wondered if the boys knew more than they were telling: questioned by the foreman, Mellor denied having been in the boiler house previously, or returning there since.

The most important point that the inquest needed to establish was the position of the body, which was obviously crucial in determining how it came to be in the boiler. Mellor clarified, after being vague in his evidence, that he and Sowden had seen the skull before the police arrived: “It was at the centre of one end of the pan and under the pipe.” The police at this point asked Mellor to say more about what he saw, and he replied that the woman “appeared to be laid on her side. Her face was towards the door [i.e. facing outwards from the boiler].” Although they lifted up the clothing when trying to establish what was in the pan, Mellor claimed that they had not disturbed the body, and it was unmoved when the police saw it. He was evidently asked if he had seen anyone around the ruins and answered with obvious frustration and a hint of sarcasm: “I have never seen anybody enter the boiler-house, either on a Sunday or any other day.” Asked another question by the jury, he said that the body was almost completely submerged.

Whoever arranged the witnesses obviously intended to establish how long the body could have been in the boiler. The next person to speak was Jacob Blacker (not every newspaper report included Blacker’s evidence; it is not clear if the Coroner wrote it down), who had been the engineman at the mill when it was destroyed. Incidentally, it was almost exactly three years since the fire, which took place on Tuesday 5 October 1880; Mellor mistakenly said that the anniversary fell on the day of the inquest itself. Blacker looked after the ruins until he moved to Millbridge around March 1883; he told the inquest that he rarely went inside the boiler house after the fire, merely replacing any damaged or displaced wooden planks and boards used to seal up the building. He remembered entering the room on the night of the fire: on the instructions one of the firemen, he removed the metal plate from the front of the boiler in order to drain the water to prevent an explosion. He had left the cover leaning against a wall and did not know if anyone had moved it afterwards. Asked when he had last looked inside the old boiler, Blacker said that although he had not inspected it after the fire, he knew that two men from Leeds came to look at it in 1881, when they were contemplating buying it. After some questions about how water could have filled the pan where the body was found (it was concluded that rain was the culprit), the next witness was called.

Police Constable Semper of the West Riding Constabulary described what had happened after he arrived on the scene (again, already detailed above). Once more, the inquest sought to establish the position of the body when he saw it. Semper said: “The head was in one corner, and the body lay chest downwards, and partly on the knees. One of the leg bones was turned up. The body was partly covered with clothing.” He didn’t think that the body had been disturbed recently but one of the feet was missing. Semper also saw: part of a shawl, part of a dress and “stays” (presumably undergarments such as a corset) around the body. Semper said that after the clothing had been inspected later, he identified the shawl as having a black-and-white plaid design often worn by mill workers. The dress was grey and black. Also present were “a pair of laced boots, a pair of grey woollen stockings, and elastic garters”. In the pocket of the dress was a purse containing nineteen shillings and a penny in coins (two half-crowns, five florins, two shillings and a penny); the most recent coin was a shilling dated 1881. The purse also contained a pair of gold earrings. He had not found any form of note or writing among the remains. He mentioned finding part of the scalp on the pipe across the entrance of the hole on the Monday; most of the hair was found in the “folds of the woman’s shawl. It appeared as if the head had been covered with a shawl when the body was placed in the tank.” He showed the jury the hair, which was a light-brown colour, found among the clothes.

A detailed map of the former site of Clough Mill, surveyed around 1890 (Image: Ordinance Survey 6 inch map for 1894, reproduced by the National Library of Scotland under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence)

This position of the body, face down in the water on its knees, was agreed upon by Mellor and Semper. Earlier accounts, presumably based on interviews that locals gave to journalists, said that the body was in a sitting position with one leg drawn up. The Dewsbury Reporter, printed the following weekend, merged all the reports from the week together to give a slightly confusing and contradictory overview. But these early accounts plausibly claimed that the parts of the body exposed above the water had been reduced to a skeleton, while those still submerged, although in a “ghastly” state, were better preserved. Perhaps the contradictions are explained by unnerved and/or ghoulishly excited local witnesses eager to give their story to the men from the newspapers.

The next and effectively final witness was Doctor Musgrave, who had performed the post mortem. Revealing the difficulties that the policemen had encountered in removing and transporting the body, and showing why the inquest wanted to clarify the position of the body, he said that “a good many of the bones were detached … and they appeared to be banded together in a confused heap.” He stated that all the bones were present, although many were “free from flesh”, and the flesh present was loose. He could find no signs of fracture or injury, nor any sign of violence, and he could not identify the stomach to ascertain if the body had been drugged or poisoned. In fact, he stated that he could not give any cause of death. The only identifiable organ was the womb: she was not pregnant and Doctor Musgrave thought she had never been pregnant (there was a reason this was important, as we shall see later). The corpse was around 5 feet 5 inches tall and was aged between 20 and 40. There were only two teeth present in the upper jaw and one (or two, depending on which account is read) in the lower; there may have been two others present in the upper jaw lost shortly before or after death and five lost shortly before or after death in the lower jaw. Questioned by the jury, Musgrave admitted that a concussion or strangulation could have been the cause of death, but these would not have left any indication on the bones. Further questions drew out suggestions that she was a “moderately strong” woman and that there was no sign of a blow having removed her teeth as the jaw was not broken.

The Coroner’s notes concluded here, but further discussion took place. This was connected to the supposed identity of the body, Marion Lake. But as Sergeant Sykes had discovered, and as he told the inquest, the body was not her. The discussion at the inquest, the question of who Miss Lake was, and the conclusions of the jury can be told next time.

Note: All sources will be listed at the end of the final article

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