The Bill o’Jack’s Murders: An introduction

At some time late on 2 April 1832, two men were brutally attacked in their home on the edge of Saddleworth Moor. They lived in a public house, known locally as “Bill o’Jack’s” which was beside the road from Greenfield to Holmfirth – the modern A635. The men – a father and son, William and Thomas Bradbury – died soon after. Their murderers were never found, but the mystery has continued to fascinate people in the local area and far beyond for almost 200 years. Perhaps interest has been sustained through a combination of the murders remaining unsolved, the remote location or the undeniable brutality of the attack upon both men.

The area where the men were killed has not been without other tragedies since, not least the Moors Murders and a plane crash in 1949 that killed 24 people. More recently, the mysterious suicide of a man near Dovestones Reservoir, relatively close to the site of the 1832 murders, brought the area back into the news and highlighted its chequered past. It was in reading about this story of “Neil Dovestone” (later discovered to be a man named David Lytton) that I first came across the story of the “Bill o’Jack’s” murders. Subsequent research revealed that this was a fairly well-known story in outline, but digging further I discovered that the story had not been investigated in too much depth, and not since the late 1980s had anything lengthy been written about it. The availability of so many online newspaper archives and other sources means that we can now paint a much fuller picture of this story.

It is hardly a surprise that there have been many attempts over the last hundred years and more to identify the murderer or murderers; these have ranged from the ingenious to the fanciful to the frankly bizarre. Anyone expecting a neat solution to such an old mystery is deluding themselves. Finding the answer now is impossible: some reasons for this are obvious and others will become clear. However, it is possible to a surprising extend to reconstruct what happened and to identify some possible reasons. If we cannot say exactly why the two men died, it is possible to at least sketch out a range of possible motives for whoever killed them, even if we can never say who did it.

The aim of the following series of posts is to set out, as definitively as possible, the story of what happened, and what evidence is available. Some suggestions as to what may have occurred will also be put forward. But very few definite answers. Technically, this murder is outside the scope of a blog on “Victorian Crime” as it predates the Victorian era by five years. However, the story is simply too interesting to leave alone.

As we go through the story and the evidence, I will identify all the sources and where they can be found (many of which are available online, although some cost is involved for some). There are also one or two further lines of enquiry which may reveal something if an expert who is suitably interested can be found. My own researches could go no further, but someone may be able to offer more insight. These areas too will be highlighted.

Finally, it is worth setting the scene a little before we start. Although the house in which William and Thomas Bradbury died is long gone, the area around it is in many ways unchanged even today. The biggest difference is that several reservoirs now occupy the site of what were once rivers and fields. The former site of the house is inaccessible to the public but can be seen quite plainly from the road; the path that led to it is still visible today. The grave of the two men is still there and evidently has many visitors as a minor local attraction. Many who visit the area may describe it as desolate (which is not necessarily a pejorative description); the reports from 1832 used similar words. And the events that have taken place since then have left the area with a mixed reputation which Saddleworth and its inhabitants have had no part in creating. But this hardly helps the feeling that a visitor might have looking at the site of the 1832 murder and its surroundings.

What cannot have helped those viewing the scene at the time is that the Bill o’Jack’s murders took place in a time of considerable upheaval and turmoil. As these events only touch tangentially on the murders, they will not really play a part in retelling the story. I do not know enough about this period to offer any analysis, but Marjie Bloy’s “Causes of the Discontent and Distress, 1812-22”, part of her Web of English History, contains some very useful background. The Napoleonic Wars were only twenty years before; the cost of living had risen sharply; trade was depressed, affecting wages; there were droughts and bad harvests. A succession of Acts of Parliament caused upheaval, including the Corn Laws and the Game Laws. On the matter of Parliamentary reform, the Peterloo Massacre had taken place in 1819; the Great Reform Bill was an ongoing controversy at the time of the murders. “Machine-wrecking riots” were spreading as mechanised mills threatened the traditional industry of handloom weaving. Other problems included a growing population, the sudden demobilisation of soldiers and sailors after the end of the war in 1815, and discontent at the number of Irish labourers who had come to England offering cheap work. In Saddleworth itself, the main industry was handloom weaving. Common land had been Enclosed in 1815; as Vera Winterbottom, in one of the more thorough later accounts, wrote in 1960: “It is small wonder that men like Thomas Bradbury … still looked upon the land around their homes as their own, an important factor in the crime.” The road through Saddleworth that passed Bill o’Jack’s – the Greenfield and Shepley Lane Head Turnpike Road – was only created in the 1820s and as part of our story touches on workers in the area, work may still have been ongoing in 1832. Otherwise, with no railway at the time, Saddleworth was largely isolated. There were few newspapers, and the only means of rapid travel were the canals or the turnpike roads, the fares for which were too expensive for most locals. Nevertheless, the area was undergoing considerable growth: several new schools and churches had been built; industry was starting to boom and there were a growing number of mills in the area.

It was against this background that a twelve-year-old girl headed up the hill from Greenfield to Bill o’Jack’s on a fairly mild Tuesday morning in 1832. And that is where our story begins.

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