The Bill o’Jack’s Murders: The Three Journalists

Bill o’Jack’s, in an undated photo but probably taken around 1905 (Image: Dovestone Heritage)

As Amelia Winterbottom, who had found her uncle dying on the floor of the Bill o’Jack’s public house, ran in terror down the hill towards Greenfield on 3 April 1832, she was the unwitting harbinger of a tale which would cause shock and sensation throughout the area. From that moment – as people gathered at her grandfather’s inn – to the present day, there has been enormous fascination with the murder of William and Thomas Bradbury. Who killed them and why? The answers to those questions are unfortunately as opaque now as they were to the first people to arrive at the scene. Last time, we looked at the account given at the inquest by those first witnesses. In the whole case, this is the only evidence which we can really consider to be completely reliable.

This evidence was given in front of the Coroner and subject to questioning by him and the jury. It is not hearsay and we can identify exactly where each piece of evidence has come from. Nor did any of these three main witnesses have any reason to lie or to exaggerate their part in affairs (although Higginbottom does come across as vaguely self-important). The only questionable aspect, to which we shall return, is what exactly Whitehead heard William Bradbury say – if he actually spoke at all.

When this story has been re-told over the years, evidence from the inquest has been neglected. Instead, the newspaper reports published immediately after the murder – and before the inquest – have formed the basis of most later writing, leading to a slightly skewed version of events. However, we cannot discard them completely as they contain important information that was never mentioned at the inquest and which, if correct, would be important in working out what may have happened. But it is not straightforward: the different newspaper accounts contradict each other, and at times contradict the inquest. Nor do the writers make clear from where their information comes, making it less trustworthy than that from the inquest.

In determining what evidence we can use, we must start by looking at these first reports. Over the following weeks, many newspapers across Britain reported the sensational murder. As was the common practice at the time, most simply copied from other newspapers with minor changes in wording. In fact, most were based on two original articles. Digging a little further reveals that most likely no more than three journalists arrived at Greenfield to report on the murders. Every subsequent report can ultimately be traced back to two of these three men; the third was neglected at the time and for years after.

The first report was printed on Friday 6 April in the Liverpool Mercury. Several other newspapers covered the story on Saturday 7 April including the Manchester Guardian, the Lancaster Gazette (a straightforward reprint of the Liverpool Mercury article), the Manchester Times, the Leeds Mercury, and the Manchester Courier. On the following days, more newspapers joined in, but simply reprinted the earlier reports: for example, the Times reprinted (and, a rarity at the time, acknowledged their source) the article from the Leeds Mercury on 9 April; the 12 April edition of the Leeds Intelligencer printed the Manchester Guardian article from the 7 April without any attribution, as did the Leeds Patriot and Yorkshire Advertiser on 14 April. This pattern was repeated over the following month until the reports had spread across the country.

Who wrote these stories? The only journalist present whose name we know was called Edwin Butterworth; the coroner addressed him directly at the inquest (as reported in the Manchester Guardian). His notebooks, including those containing his reports on the Bradbury murders, have been transcribed and are available to read at the Oldham Local Studies Library. From these, it is possible to identify which newspapers used him as their source. We also know a little about Butterworth which can help us to assess how reliable he is. 

Edwin Butterworth (1812-1848), Historian of Oldham by Edwin Parr; Photo Credit: Gallery Oldham licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

As detailed in an article by Michael Winstanley in the Manchester Region History Review, Butterworth was born in Oldham in 1812, the son of a local historian, writer and school teacher. Butterworth’s first printed work, a book of biographies of famous men from Manchester, was published in 1829. From then, he produced press reports for many newspapers and wrote several local histories. He also contributed extensively as a research assistant to Edward Baines’ History of Lancashire in 1836. He later worked as a registrar in Chadderton. Of more interest to us, his father occasionally worked as a court reporter to supplement his income; Edwin stood in for him when his health failed, and from there forged a career as a reporter. He signed agreements to write news reports for several local newspapers in 1831 (when he would have been just eighteen): the Manchester GuardianWheeler’s Manchester Chronicle, the Manchester Times and the Manchester Advertiser. At the time, many newspapers desperately needed new writers to cover the ongoing Reform Crisis, and these events formed the bulk of his work in this period. Some of his reports even appeared in the Liverpool Mercury and Leeds Mercury. He later attempted, unsuccessfully, to establish contacts with newspapers outside of Manchester. However, only the Manchester Advertiser, Manchester Courier and Manchester Times offered a fixed wage; other newspapers paid him by the number of lines they printed. As a result, Butterworth may have struggled financially. Even so, he covered a huge range of topics and events in his writing. Many of his notes survive, which is useful when, as in the case of the Bill o’Jack’s murder, they contain details not printed in his final reports. He was not the only source of news in the area, although we do not know who his rivals were. Certainly stories appeared from the Oldham area which did not come from him. Therefore, even if a story appeared in one of the newspapers for which he worked, it was not necessarily written by him. There were also occasional complaints about the accuracy of his reporting; however, there is no way to establish how this compared to the experiences of other journalists.

Butterworth was certainly in Saddleworth during the week of the murders; in everything that followed it should be remembered that he was only nineteen at the time. His notebooks contain several reports on events. The first, which covers the events of the first morning, is undated but is placed in his notebook between two reports written on 2 April and 5 April. He described the scene as a “remote, wild and dreary position of Saddleworth. The loneliness of the dwelling and the arid appearance of the surrounding hills seemed suited as a place of horror for the execution of such a shocking deed.” Comparing this report from his notebook to the various newspaper accounts reveals that many of them can be attributed solely to him. Some followed him very closely while others were more heavily rewritten.

In his notebooks, Butterworth wrote of “a little girl, granddaughter to the old man” sent by her mother to get “some barm [yeast] she had ordered the evening before”. In this account, the granddaughter is unnamed. When she went in, according to Butterworth, she found both men “weltering in their own gore”. On her way to the “next dwelling” she “accidentally met a person called James Whitaker who fetched her Samuel Hegginbottom, surgeon of Uppermill and two other persons”. Butterworth records that William Bradbury “stated that he and his son were attacked by [here, Butterworth had crossed out the number five] Irishmen” . He lists items that the family of the two men discovered to be missing in the aftermath and includes information from Abraham Dawson, a man who walked past Bill o’Jack’s on the Monday night; Reuben Platt, the only one of his witnesses to be called to the inquest; and James Whitehead who, according to Butterworth, saw the younger Bradbury the previous evening.

There are some obvious errors in Butterworth’s notes. He mentions a “James Whitaker”, who is found in no other account of the story, as a person the granddaughter met on the road; in the newspaper reports which are based on his notes this name is changed to Samuel Higginbottom. Perhaps Whitaker was a completely independent person who chose to keep out of the subsequent limelight; he may even have been the anonymous man who accompanied James Whitehead and his wife to see what was happening at the inn (there are people of that name later recorded as living in the area, but there are no obvious candidates). Or perhaps more likely, Butterworth misheard or mis-transcribed the name James Whitehead. Other mistakes include the suggestion that the granddaughter found both men when she went in, and that James Whitehead was a witness of what happened the previous evening rather than one of the first on the scene the morning after.

None of these details matter especially but must cast some doubt on any information solely provided by Butterworth. It raises the question of who Butterworth spoke to: he may have interviewed Higginbottom, but cannot have personally spoken to James Whitehead. In fact, his account is so different to that given at the inquest that there is only one reasonable explanation for the great number of errors in his report – errors which would not have arisen had he spoken to the people involved. He must only have spoken to the people in the vicinity who told the story as they had heard it from others; maybe he was just repeating what was in general circulation at the time, rather than real facts. In short, he was reporting hearsay, which makes his account far less reliable than others that we have. He may not have investigated anything at all. As we shall see, there is also an independent account which almost certainly contains the gossip being passed around the area in the hours after the discovery of the Bradburys; this is remarkably similar to Butterworth’s account, further suggesting he was not the most rigorous of reporters and must be handled with care.

Unfortunately, Butterworth’s account dominated the press coverage (and therefore subsequent writing). The Leeds Mercury, with some minor variations in wording, follows him closely but merges the various witness accounts into a generic paragraph consisting of “information of the [unnamed] neighbours”. The Manchester Courier is closest to Butterworth’s original notebook account in structure and phrasing, and includes all of his witnesses. While the Liverpool Mercury and Manchester Times reports have been altered more, their content unmistakably is derived from Butterworth’s notebooks and much of the original phrasing survives. Each report changes the information about “James Whitaker” to say that the granddaughter met Higginbottom while fleeing; additionally, they all list five Irishmen (which Butterworth had crossed out) and say that £7 had been taken by the murderers from behind the drawers – a detail absent from the notebooks. The Liverpool Mercury and Manchester Courier also print another source of information – a letter from a passer-by that we shall examine later.

Incidentally, when the newspapers reported the inquest a week later, Butterworth’s account was used far less widely. The Manchester Times either did not use him at all or heavily edited his writing. Similarly the Manchester Courier report does not resemble Butterworth’s notes but is almost the same as the text in the Liverpool Mercury (there are a few alterations in phrasing and emphasis); these accounts may have used Butterworth to some extent as there are several phrases in common – but this could just be because both accurately transcribed words spoken at the inquest. The Leeds Mercury has only a very brief summary of the inquest, omitting all the evidence given. Ironically, Butterworth’s notes on the inquest are more extensive than those printed in any newspaper, and when compared to other versions seem to be very accurate.

Butterworth was not the only reporter in the area. Someone wrote a very detailed initial account for the Manchester Guardian; as well as including detailed information about the building itself and the “crime scene”, it also includes a much-reproduced but slightly inaccurate plan of Bill o’Jack’s. The author of this piece does not seem to have used Butterworth as there is little information in common. He also appears to have spoken directly to Higginbottom as the report contains several medical and other details repeated by the doctor at the inquest. He also spoke to a witness, Reuben Platt, to whom we shall return. This report says that the granddaughter (who was also unnamed in this account) went upstairs after finding Thomas on the floor, where she found her grandfather; but this contradicts the evidence of Amelia Winterbottom herself at the inquest and may be either a misunderstanding or a conflation of her account and that of James Whitehead. Although it says that she ran to the house of Whitehead, the report does not dwell on his part in the affair: the Manchester Guardian merely states that Whitehead and his family found “the facts to be as the girl stated”. It then recounts what Higginbottom found in some detail, which matches what he said at the inquest, apart from the subtly different observation that William Bradbury was “talking incoherently” rather than “muttering” as stated at the inquest. Otherwise, this account almost exactly matches what was said at the inquest (to the point where the author of the Guardian’s report on the inquest somewhat smugly remarks that little new was said that was not in the newspaper’s previous account), and adds some important extra details to which we shall return.

The headline and opening paragraph from Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle, 7 April 1832

The longest report from before the inquest came in the pages of Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle. Although published on the Saturday like most of the other reports, it seems to have been written a little later than the others; and while it uses details from Butterworth, it is not a simple re-write. Instead, it weaves Butterworth’s information into its own narrative and either included information from the Manchester Guardian report (in which case, the author completely rewrote it) or independently used the same source. We know that Butterworth wrote for Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle, but he was not the author of this piece. There is no overlap with any of his notes, and the style is completely different. Oddly, this report does not seem to have been reprinted anywhere else and in later years was completely neglected by those writing about the murders. This may have been because the newspaper ceased publication in 1842 and was perhaps more obscure than the others.

This author was far more cautious than the other journalists. He begins: “As the judicial investigation of the affair has been unavoidably deferred to the termination of the week, we have not been able to condense such a narrative as may be totally free from question, but it is believed that the circumstanced detailed below are generally correct.” And the account that follows is very close to that given at the inquest and shows some development from the story circulated by Butterworth. It begins by setting the scene, but shows far more awareness of the locality in discussing some of the history of Bill o’Jack’s, and later discusses some of the personal history of the two Bradburys that no other account included. We shall return to this part of the report later.

The narrative of the murder begins with an account of the previous evening (which we shall address later). The story continues with the events of Tuesday morning: Bradbury’s granddaughter (again unnamed) arrived around ten o’clock on a “trifling errand” and saw “some person lying insensible on the floor. The outer door was shut when she got there, and the only peculiarity was that the liquor which the old man and his son had been brewing on the previous day, and had put out to cool, was still standing at the entrance.” This tallies almost exactly with Amelia Winterbottom’s evidence at the inquest and is the only newspaper report from before the inquest was held to specify that she only saw Thomas and not William. The extra detail about the liquor is original – perhaps the author spoke to the girl? It continues saying that the “much alarmed” girl ran to the next house and told them that a man was bleeding to death at her grandfather’s. Whitehead is not named: it simply states that “a person went with the girl to the house” – this is the only account to suggest that she returned to the scene and contradicts the inquest – before returning to fetch Higginbottom, whom he told that “there was an Irishman bleeding to death in old William’s.” Upon returning together the unnamed Whitehead and the surgeon “immediately” identified Thomas Bradbury before searching the house for his father. They found him upstairs so the surgeon went for his instruments and returned with them – but also “accompanied by two or three gentlemen” – and dressed the wounds. 

The account goes on to describe the interior of Bill o’Jack’s in some detail, but seems to make a few mistakes, as if the author had not been there personally. For example, it identifies the building as being “upon the left hand from Dobcross” – Dobcross is to the north of Greenfield and there is no road that directly goes from Dobcross to the site of Bill o’Jack’s. Also, as we shall see, it ascribes a different function to two of the downstairs rooms to that given in the Manchester Guardian which is probably wrong. More accurate is the description of the men’s injuries – which almost exactly matches the evidence from the inquest – and details about the potential murder weapons found at the scene. There is also a list of items that were presumed stolen and a description of the damage done to some drawers. Finally, Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle reports a faintly ridiculous rumour that was not reproduced anywhere else: that “some toasted cheese is stated to have been found on the oven-top and part of a loaf upon the table, and it is conjectured that after accomplishing their main object in plundering the house, the murderers regaled themselves in the room where their victims were lying.” Although the article makes clear that it was impossible to verify this information, perhaps some food was left, but was not necessarily prepared by the murderers.

Our anonymous reporter is also able to expand on other details provided by other newspapers. He records that William Bradbury recovered to some extent on the afternoon that his son died and it was hoped that he could explain what had happened. He was “repeatedly interrogated by the surgeon and others, but though he betrayed, but muttering, a consciousness of the questions, not a sound escaped his lips which was at all distinguishable.” Putting aside the unanswerable question of who else was asking him, this contradicts what Butterworth said but suggests that the author did not speak to James Whitehead, who did claim that Bradbury said recognisable words.

What about the “five Irishmen”? Our reporter for Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle sheds some light on where this could have come from: “It was at first conjectured, from some cause with which we are not acquainted, that five persons had been engaged in the murder, but there is good reason now to believe that the party consisted only of three”. This number was derived from the evidence of Reuben Platt. So where did the number five initially come from? Perhaps it was just a rumour in circulation? Part of the issue may have been perceptions that Thomas Bradbury could not have been overpowered by just one or two people: he was “in the prime of his life: he was upwards of six feet high, a fine, stout, healthy fellow. It is the general opinion that he would have been able to overpower at least two ordinary men, unless taken without any weapon and off his guard.”

The report concludes with the same letter published in the Liverpool Mercury and Manchester Courier. However this letter is worth considering by itself next time.

Therefore, other than the inquest, we probably are relying on the reports of three different journalists, whose accounts have dominated all subsequent retellings. But there are other sources of information, some of which have been neglected in retelling the story and others of which have come to dominate the narrative. One of these is the letter from the newspaper. Another is the best-known account of the murders published in later years. But the last is the closest we come to another eyewitness statement outside of the inquest. Next time, we shall look at these other sources of evidence.

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