The Bill o’Jack’s Murders: The Morning After

A postcard of Bill o’Jack’s, date unknown, looking up towards the Holmfirth Road. The rear part of the house was an extension built several years after the murders but the door through which Amelia Winterbottom entered was still there (Image: via wessyman137.wordpress.com)

Between 10am and 11am on Tuesday 3 April 1832, a young girl, aged around twelve, walked up from the village of Greenfield along the relatively new road which climbed towards Saddleworth Moor and eventually reached Holmfirth. Amelia Winterbottom had been sent to collect some yeast from her grandfather’s house. She lived around three miles away at Fernlee and so the walk, which was up a considerable hill, would have taken about an hour.

Her grandfather was the 85-year-old William Bradbury, more commonly known in the area as “Bill o’Jack’s”, his “warty-name”. This was a local custom whereby people were identified by the name of their father; so William, son of Jack, became “Bill o’Jack’s”. Bradbury lived in an old farm house which he operated as a Beer House under the terms of the 1831 Beer Act. It was one of the last buildings on the Holmfirth road before Saddleworth Moor and occupied a very isolated position, at least half a mile from other houses. The establishment had a somewhat chequered history, but was well-known locally. Bradbury had applied for a licence to convert his farm into a public house at some point before 1818 (when it is listed in Pigot’s Directory). This may have coincided with construction of the road to Holmfirth, planning for which began around 1810. He initially called it the Shooter’s Arms; it was popular with sportsmen hunting game in the summer and with those who just wished to view the spectacular scenery of the area. By 1828, although officially called The Cherry Tree, it was better known as “Bill o’Jack’s” after its landlord. Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle observed that “the place has been the resort of the surrounding population on the Sabbath day, and has also derived considerable custom from the visits of such strangers as have been attracted by the beauty and grandeur of the surrounding country.” Incidentally, modern accounts often call the house The Moorcock, but it was not known by this name until after the murders.

The scenery around it was spectacular; a journalist for the Manchester Guardian wrote: “The traveller finds himself amid scenery of the most wild and desolate description. On his left is the summit of the hill called Oaderman [the hill is actually called Alderman’s], along the side of which the road is carried. On his right is a deep and narrow glen, bounded by rocks and extensive moors, in a state of irreclaimable sterility.”

The area in which Bradbury lived had undergone remarkable changes within his lifetime. Pigot’s directory from 1828 notes that the Saddleworth area had developed in recent years. “From a barren and almost uninhabited spot it has become well inhabited, highly cultivated, and abounding with woollen and cotton manufacturers, and has gained considerable celebrity from the excellent quality of the articles produced in the district, as being equal to any made in the county.” Nearby Uppermill is described as “a thriving little hamlet”. Next village along is Greenfield: “The natural curiosities that may be contemplated in this romantic district are very interesting, especially those at Greenfield, where are immense caverns under the various hills, stupendous rocks, and several druidical remains, and the valley of Greenfield presents scenery picturesque and beautiful beyond description. In a sequestered situation at the extremity of this interesting vale, is a house of entertainment, well known by the name ‘Bill o’Jack’s,’ to which parties resort in the summer months, when upon an excursion to explore the natural wonders and romantic beauties of Greenfield.” But if the Saddleworth area was increasingly prosperous, the village of Greenfield was at the extreme east of the developed area; “Bill O’Jack’s” itself was isolated on the very edge of the still-desolate Saddleworth Moor.

By 1832, one of William Bradbury’s children had moved back in with him – possibly after the former’s wife died in 1827: Thomas Bradbury, or “Tom o’Bill’s”, was 47 and married with several children. His family lived lower down the hill at Roadend, around a mile away, while he lived with his father to assist in the running of the public house.

Left: The Bill o’Jack’s public house on the 1854 Ordnance Survey Map of the area; the path from the main road to the house can be clearly seen (Image: Ordinance Survey 6-inch map for 1854, reproduced by the National Library of Scotland under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence). Right: The scene in 2019, looking down the hill towards Greenfield. The path which led down to the house is visible on the upper right.

As Amelia Winterbottom walked up the steep Holmfirth road on 3 April, and with the Alderman’s Hill to her left, she would have eventually reached her grandfather’s house. It was set a little below the road to the right, around one hundred yards from the road itself and reached by a pathway. Perhaps she called out for her grandfather. Perhaps she knocked. In any case, when she tried the door, it was unlocked.

As she entered through the door, the bar area for customers was on her left. Ahead of her, a flight of stairs led to the single-room on the upper floor. There were no windows in the entrance passageway, so she may not have noticed the set of bloody footprints on the stairs. To her right was the main room of the house, where her grandfather and uncle would usually have been found. It was not a large room – perhaps ten feet square as someone estimated (around 3 square metres). William usually sat on a wooden bench near the doorway. Perhaps she saw the blood spattered in this area. More likely the scene before her took all of her attention. Directly across from the doorway through which she entered was a window; a chair was in its usual place on the right hand side of the window and next to the fireplace. But on the floor by this chair, in front of the blood-spattered stove, was a pool of blood. And in the middle of the pool, a man lay face down on the floor. Blood poured from a wound in the side of his head. Beside him was a dog (the girl did not recognise the dog, but he belonged to her grandfather). Not knowing who this man was, and thinking it could be her grandfather, she reached to touch him. At this point, the dog barked and sprang at her; this was perhaps the final straw. Terrified by all that she had seen, she fled. Hurtling back down the hill in a blind panic, she reached Binn Green cottage, the home of a 52-year-old woollen weaver called James Whitehead who lived with his wife and four children (one of whom was ill that morning), around half-a-mile from her grandfather’s. Having told the horrified occupants what had happened, she returned home.

The view at Binn Green in 2019, looking towards the site of James Whitehead’s house; the reservoir in the distance would not have been there in 1832.

When Amelia Winterbottom arrived, Whitehead later recounted that she “alarmed his family” by her account – and quite possibly her demeanour as she can hardly have been calm herself – of “a man bleeding to death on her grandfather’s floor”. Whitehead set out for the Bill O’Jack’s, accompanied by his wife and another man (not identified at the inquest; the closest we can get is his description in Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle that he was a “neighbouring man”). When they entered, the dog came out barking at them; Whitehead recognised him as belonging to William Bradbury and calmed him down by calling his name – “Laddie”. They found the man sprawled face down on the floor as Amelia Winterbottom had said. Whitehead did not recognise the man, who was covered in blood and with severe head injuries which would have made him hard to identify; they initially thought him to be dead but he began to groan. He never spoke any recognisable words, but continued groaning. 

The main locations on the 1854 Ordnance Survey Map: A) Bill o’Jack’s; B) Binn Green, where James Whitehead lived; C) Fernlee, where Amelia Winterbottom lived; D) Roadend, where Thomas Bradbury’s wife and family lived. (Image: Ordinance Survey 6-inch map for 1854, reproduced by the National Library of Scotland under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence)

More moaning from upstairs alerted them to the presence of someone else in the house. Whitehead went to investigate alone. He found William Bradbury, severely injured and half-dressed, lying in his bed. Whitehead, who presumably knew the elder Bradbury through living relatively close, asked him what had happened. According to Whitehead at the inquest, Bradbury was difficult to understand but said what sounded to Whitehead to be “Pats, pats” (the Manchester Times recorded this as “The Pats, the Pats”). Whitehead assumed this to mean that Irishmen had caused his injuries. He then asked Bradbury if his son had been there; the latter indicated that he had been (the Manchester Times said that Whitehead got no reply to this).

Returning downstairs, Whitehead and his unidentified friend re-examined the first man. They turned him onto his back, but he was too bloody and bruised to identify and could only groan. They seem to have assumed him to be one of the assailants and attributed his injuries to the actions of Thomas Bradbury. The room was covered in blood, and they noticed part of a pistol – the lock mechanism – and a bloody poker on the floor. Determining that help was needed, Whitehead went for the surgeon and the other man went to find a constable. It is not clear what Whitehead’s wife did, but if she remained at the house it is unlikely she was alone for long as the news spread.

Whitehead had already called the local surgeon, Samuel Higginbottom, to his house earlier that morning. Whitehead’s daughter (probably Esther, who was seven at the time) had been ill and required a doctor. Hurrying home to Binn Green, he found Higginbottom was still there and told him what had happened. According to the doctor’s recollection, Whitehead informed him that an Irishman was bleeding to death. The two men returned to Bill o’Jack’s, arriving around 11:20am. 

When Higginbottom (sometimes rendered as Hegginbottom) entered the building, the wounded man was still lying on the floor of the main room, although Whitehead noticed that he had rolled back onto his stomach. Those who were at the scene – as well as Mrs Whitehead, it is possible that more people had arrived by this point – had left him on the floor, too terrified to do more. Higginbottom quickly realised that he was not an Irishman: from his clothes, the surgeon recognised the dying man as Thomas Bradbury. Examining him, Higginbottom identified numerous wounds to his scalp, several of which penetrated to the bone. His head and face were extremely swollen and he was incapable of speech. Although practically unconscious, Bradbury unsuccessfully tried several times to get up. Higginbottom could not find a pulse at the man’s wrist and so ordered that he should be washed, have his head shaved and be put to bed. 

The doctor, briefly examining the room, then followed a set of bloody footprints – evidently from someone wearing stockings who had stepped in a pool of blood – upstairs to find William Bradbury still in bed, but now having undressed himself fully. The old man was bleeding heavily from a wound in the left side of his head and also had an injury to the right side. Higginbottom attempted to question him but the old man’s replies were unintelligible. The surgeon examined the older Bradbury and noted several injuries to his hands and arms, including one to his upper left arm where the muscle was cut through to the bone.

The site of Bill o’Jack’s in the 1920s or 1930s (when the building was still standing and still used as a public house) and in 2014. This is the view looking up the hill; the road is heading towards Holmfirth. Left: Image via wessyman137.wordpress.com Right: Photo © Michael Fox (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Higginbottom left the house around 12 in order to return home for his instruments, and noted when he went downstairs that Thomas was now fainting and almost dead. As Higginbottom was leaving, a boy brought him a broken pistol he had found near the inn (presumably a crowd had already gathered) which he took home with him; it was covered in blood and human hair, suggesting it had been used in the attacks. William, meanwhile was ill throughout the afternoon and did not eat (which perhaps implies that food was offered and refused). By the time Higginbottom returned, both men were in the same bed and he dressed their wounds. Around 3pm, Thomas Bradbury died while Higginbottom was still there. At some point – it is unclear if this took place before or after Thomas’ death – Higginbottom used his surgical knife to examine his injuries, identifying two fatal skull fractures. The doctor believed that William could have survived his wounds but for his extreme age; instead, he lingered for the rest of the day before dying at 1am on the Wednesday morning (4 April).

The Manchester Guardian described the double murder as causing a “sensation” on the Tuesday and Wednesday: “The house was visited by many hundreds of persons of both sexes, and of all ranks in society”. By Wednesday, the bodies had been washed and laid out in an “ante-chamber” ready for the inquest. The general interest and number of people visiting the house is further evidenced by a letter published in some newspapers which described a crowd of people standing outside the house as early as midday on Tuesday, and a good number of people inside it. Anyone passing by could access the house and view the dying men.

Interest continued to grow. Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle reported that weekend on the crowds in attendance: “The house has been visited by several thousand persons, nearly all of whom contributed their mite in aid of the funeral and other expenses. The various roads to the scene of the murder have been actually crowded by vehicles and pedestrians throughout the week, and it is probably that the place will continue for some time to be an object of attraction. So eager has been the desire to obtain admission to the house, that the greatest difficulty has been experienced in preserving anything like order. So late as yesterday (Friday) there was positive fighting for precedence.” By this stage, most of the signs of the murder had been cleaned up; however the bloody clothes the two men had been wearing had been left on display in the main room, as had the presumed murder weapons. The bodies, cleaned up and with the wounds dressed, were in “a still smaller room, of which the roof at one part is only about a yard high”. Only their faces were visible, so “their appearance is not peculiarly striking.” Edwin Butterworth, a journalist who covered the story, noted that “hundreds of people have daily flocked to visit the scene of this barbarous tragedy.”  

According to the Manchester Guardian, Saturday, the day of the inquest, was very wet and so “few persons, comparatively speaking, visited the scene of the murders”. But Sunday, “a clear, though cold day” saw the valley “thronged by an immense number of visitors” from the regions around Manchester and over the hills from Yorkshire. The journalist described people arriving by horse, by carriage and on foot; there were long queues outside Bill o’Jack’s and “it is computed by those who were on the spot, that 30,000 persons visited it on Sunday alone. The crowd was so great, that it was found necessary to place constables at the door to the house, who admitted visitors by twelve or fourteen at a time. Fortunately no accident happened, and, with the approach of night, the multitude gradually disappeared, and the wilds resumed their wonted loneliness and silence.”

This account is as close as we can get to the certain truth of what happened in the Bill o’Jack’s murders. Apart from some descriptions from the newspaper coverage of the story, all the information above is derived from the evidence of the witnesses – Amelia Winterbottom, James Whitehead and Samuel Higginbottom – at the inquest who described what they found on that Tuesday morning. Fortunately, apart from some minor differences in wording, all the newspaper reports agree on who said what at the proceedings, which makes it likely that they were accurately giving the main essence of the evidence. The witnesses also described the scene inside Bill o’Jack’s that morning, and gave in some detail a list of the injuries inflicted on William and Thomas Bradbury. We shall return to these matters later. The only other witness called at the inquest, Reuben Platt, spoke about events of the night before; however, we shall leave him and his evidence for a little longer.

Everything else, particularly what had happened the night before, is open to question and the subject of contradictory reports. Rumours were stated as facts and cases built – then and even up to the present – on the flimsiest of evidence. Therefore, what was said at the inquest must be our starting point. From there, it is necessary to look at what other evidence there is. Who wrote it, and how reliable is it? Can we uncover any relevant detail from the thousands of words written over the following months about the Bradbury murders? The answer is yes, a surprising amount. But first we must look closely at the sources…

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