The Bill o’Jack’s Murders: The Tales of Thomas Smith, Ammon Platt and Joseph Bradbury

The oldest known photograph of Bill o’Jacks, taken around 1862 – before Joseph Bradbury wrote his Saddleworth Sketches (Image: via wessyman137.wordpress.com)

William and Thomas Bradbury were discovered on 3 April 1832, beaten almost to death, and they did not survive long. The brutal murders were a huge story in this isolated area and newspaper reporters soon arrived to retell the story to a wider audience. Between the accounts of the inquest and these initial newspaper reports, we can construct a fairly detailed account of what happened on the morning that the two men were discovered. But there are other accounts from people who were at the scene on that first day.

The first – and unless it was a complete forgery, almost certainly the earliest – piece of evidence was printed in several newspapers but was not written by a journalist. It was a letter written by a man who claimed to have been at Bill o’Jack’s around midday on Tuesday. Two versions of this letter were printed, originating from the Liverpool Mercury on 6 April and the Manchester Courier on 7 April. Both are clearly the same letter with minor differences. The former was reprinted in several other newspapers (including Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle) but, as indicated in the accompanying article, had been modified slightly. The changes were mainly for dramatic effect – such as printing “horrid bruises” rather than “bruises” – but were also done to provide a little more context for the reader. The Manchester Courier letter was accompanied by Butterworth’s report and so required no background explanation. Therefore this latter version may be closer to the original.

The version from the Liverpool Mercury did not include the name of the author, but the Manchester Courier version was signed Thomas Smith and gave an address: “My house is No. 16, Maskill-street, Chorlton Row, and warehouse, No. 17, Back George-street.” Although there was no Thomas Smith at Maskell Street in Manchester listed on the 1841 census, Pigott’s directory for Manchester in 1829 does indeed list Thomas Smith at 16 Maskell Street. Prior to this, a man of the same name who worked as a bookkeeper is listed at number 18 Maskell Street in Pigot & Dean’s New Directory of Manchester and Salford for 1821.

According to the Manchester Courier, the letter had been “received by our deputy-constable, from a gentleman who happened to be passing by the spot where the murder was committed, shortly after its discovery”. The Liverpool Mercury stated that the letter had been received in that town on the Thursday morning, “addressed to the Mayor by one of the Manchester constables, who seems to think that the murderers have fled in this direction with a view to escape to Ireland… we subjoin a copy of the letter received by the Magistrates, with a few verbal amendments.” Both versions of the letter are dated 3 April and sent from Huddersfield; the version in the Manchester Courier is addressed to Mr S Lavender.

The site of Bill o’Jack’s on a modern satellite image; Smith was travelling north along what is the modern A635.

According to the letter, Smith was travelling from Stalybridge to Holmfirth, via Greenfield on the morning of 3 April. He noticed a crowd of people around a “lonely house” and, asking what had happened, was informed that a murder had taken place. He went in and saw “a room about ten feet square, with a flagged floor”. Blood covered almost every surface of the room, and a set of mahogany drawers that had been smashed open. Following bloody footprints up the stairs, Smith found more people gathered around two severely injured men who were lying in bed. He was told they had been found around ten that morning and that a surgeon had seen them but could not do anything for them. At that time, they were both still alive, albeit barely.

Thomas Smith stated that the younger Bradbury had not spoken, but he claims that William Bradbury had spoken to identify his attackers as Irishmen; he also suggests that he himself spoke to William, who gave him a description of the men. The two versions of the letter differ slightly here. The Liverpool Mercury has Smith reporting a direct conversation: “He said that…” and “On my asking him… he said”. The Manchester Courier is a little more vague: “The old man was almost incapable of speaking. I understand that he had said …” This suggests he was merely relating what others had said. But this version also implies that Bradbury personally gave Smith a description of the men: he “was unable to tell me the colour” of one man’s coat. It seems certain that the original letter said – or at least heavily implied – that its author had a conversation with William Bradbury.

Another important difference is in who Smith says was responsible. In the Manchester Courier, we have: “I understand that he had said that six Irishmen had come upon them in the early part of the evening, and had committed the deed and robbed the house.” The Liverpool Mercury version says: “It is said that there were four or six of them, apparently Irishmen, engaged in the deed.” Perhaps the editor of the Courier thought that changing the number to an unambiguous  “six” was clearer for his readers. It is also interesting to compare it to Butterworth’s notes which report that Bradbury “stated that he and his son were attacked by Irishmen”; Butterworth had crossed out the number five but this number was included in the reports based on his writing.

There are several aspects of this letter to which we shall return. For now, it is sufficient to say that Smith saw crowds gathered outside Bill o’Jack’s early on the Tuesday afternoon (as Thomas Bradbury was still alive when Smith was at the scene). Perhaps more importantly, it indicates that literally anyone could walk in and look around at the bloodstained room and even go upstairs to see the victims.

However, it is highly improbable that William spoke to Smith; all other sources agree that William was incapable of being understood at this stage. It would be an incredible coincidence if the only person to whom William spoke, other than James Whitehead, was a random passer-by who recorded the information in a letter published in the press. Far more likely is that Smith, whoever he was, wished to exaggerate his own role in the tale and so fabricated the conversation. But even this is useful. Smith’s tale matches parts of the account given by Butterworth: that the attackers were Irishmen and numbered around five and that robbery was the object. He wrote that one attacker was wearing “fustian”; as we shall see, this partially matches the description of a potential suspect seen the night before. Smith is unlikely to have lingered to interview witnesses, and presumably continued on his journey to Holmfirth after viewing the victims. He could not have read anything in the press: his letter was printed in the newspapers before any account of the murder had been published. The most likely explanation is that he is reporting the rumour and gossip in circulation around the house as the men lay dying; he simply spoke to the crowds gathered around or inside the house, and they told him what everyone was saying. He then claimed this to be first-hand information. When we read Smith’s letter, we are reading the rather garbled initial version of the story that spread almost as soon as Amelia Winterbottom found her uncle.

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

There is one other aspect to consider. Edwin Butterworth’s account expands on this basic outline given by Smith, and contradicts much of the inquest and the more-detailed reports in the Manchester Guardian and Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle. As we saw, it is not unreasonable to assume that Butterworth did not in fact interview any witnesses. Maybe he too was merely reporting the gossipy story in circulation outside Bill o’Jack’s on Tuesday morning. Maybe his incredibly detailed notes on the inquest were an attempt to make up for somewhat lazy reporting that was comprehensively trumped by the Manchester Guardian and Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle reporters.

This now gives us four probable sources: the Manchester Guardian reporter; Edwin Butterworth; the Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle reporter; and Thomas Smith who just happened to be passing by. Chronologically, it is likely that Smith’s letter was written first; probably Butterworth was written next as it is the most basic newspaper account and was used in the Liverpool Mercury on Friday, followed by the Manchester Guardian; perhaps the Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle report came last as it seems to have taken the widest view and the author makes clear he was writing just before the inquest.

There are, however, two more sources which do not seem to have been used before in retelling the story but are available to download from the National Archives. They are connected with a reward which was offered for information about the murders. Even before the inquest, local authorities had offered a reward of £100 and requested that the Home Office increase the reward to £200. To this end, three magistrates – James Buckley of Saddleworth, along with Lewis Fenton of Spring Grove, Huddersfield and Joseph Walker – sent a letter from Pontefract, where they were sitting at the Spring Assizes, on 5 April. The letter began: “A circumstance of most atrocious desperation has just been perpetrated in Greenfield in Saddleworth”. It set out how William and Thomas Bradbury, “joint occupiers of a Beer House under the new act” had been found around 11am on Tuesday. The letter specified that neither man had spoken: the younger died “almost immediately” and the older “expired the following morning, being both unable to relate anything which might give a clue to the discovery of the Perpetrators of so desperate a deed.” The three men who sent the letter, “being acting magistrates for the above District”, had “just received by express a statement of the above melancholy event.” They had also been sent a copy of the poster offering £100 reward sent from Saddleworth and dated 3 April. 

The magistrates also sent to the Home Office a statement sworn before James Buckley and John Armytage, “two of his Majesty’s Justices of the Peace” and also dated 5 April, the Thursday after the discovery. This was made by Ammon Platt, a merchant “of Heathfields in the Township of Quick”. Ammon Platt does not appear in any of the accounts written at the time, nor in any subsequent retellings. But he gives some very useful information. Although it is not entirely clear who he was – there were a surprising number of men sharing his name in the region – he was most likely born around 1785 and married to Esther Buckley. A later census return simply gives his occupation as “landed proprietor”.

Ammon Platt related to the magistrates how, around noon on 3 April, he had called on the house of Samuel Higginbottom, who informed him that William and Thomas Bradbury had been “so dreadfully injured at their House in Upperwood Greenfield … that he expected that they would both die very soon.” Higginbottom showed him the pistol that he had brought from the scene, still covered in blood and hair. Platt accompanied Higginbottom back to Bill o’Jack’s and the pair arrived shortly after one o’clock. There, Platt said, he saw the bodies of the two Bradburys “lying upon a Bed in the Chamber” and he described the blood-spattered room in which Thomas had been found, which he examined carefully. Then “he went again upstairs and saw Dr Higginbottom dress the wounds of Thomas Bradbury who had from twelve to fourteen severe wounds on his Head. That his (Thomas’) Eyes were swollen up.” He detailed how Higginbottom examined the wounds and skull of Thomas, determining that it was fractured, and then examined William. Thomas was “in a complete state of insensibility” and died while Platt was still in the house. Platt reported that William “was speechless” before he died, and he had heard that William died early the following morning.

Ammon Platt said that the two men had lived alone in the house they kept “under the new Beer Act”. However, while he was there, Nancy Winterbottom, the daughter of William Bradbury – and almost certainly the mother of the girl who sounded the alarm – and Ann Bradbury, the wife of Thomas – “who did not live with him” – were there taking care of the two injured men. When Platt inquired into what had happened, he was told of the discovery of the two men that morning by “a Grand daughter of William Bradbury going to the House for Yeast … Thomas Bradbury was found weltering in his blood on the Ground Floor of the first room on entering the House, and the Father was found with his clothes on (except his shoes) laid up on the Bed upstairs. That there were foot marks of blood on every step going up the stairs and it is believed old Bradbury scrambled up stairs with difficulty after he was bruised and wounded never having come down again.” This account of Ammon Platt given on the Thursday is the earliest witness account of what happened and has the advantage of being sworn in front of magistrates. It does not add much to what we already know but perhaps reinforces some of the facts. This was Ammon Platt’s only contribution to the story; he died in 1851.

In total then, we have six sources written within a few days of the murders as well as the inquest evidence.

There is one final source to consider: one which has perhaps been the most influential of all. A book by a local man called Joseph Bradbury (no relation to the victims) was published in 1871. Saddleworth Sketches was based on articles he had written for the Oldham Chronicle over the winter of 1870-71. While considerably later than the other sources – written over 40 years after the murders – the author had spoken to some surviving residents of the area who remembered the events. He also has interesting things to say about the other sources – although he is often mistaken, as we shall see.

Joseph Bradbury was a slightly mysterious character; though many people have used Saddleworth Sketches to discuss the Bill o’Jack’s murders, no-one has provided much information about its author. But it is possible to discover a little. Bradbury had written several other works, mainly fiction. An advertisement that appeared in the Heywood Advertiser in 1874 announced that the proprietor of that publication had “made arrangements at very considerable outlay, for the production of an ORIGINAL TALE of great local interest”. It was called The Honor of his House or the Knight of Heywood Halland was by “the popular author” of Saddleworth SketchesThe Terror of the PeakThe Ardernes of Arden Halland a “contributor” to “Cornhill and other magazines”. But the fullest account of his life comes from much further away.

The Isle of Man Times reported on 4 May 1895 that Dr Bradbury of Laxey on the Isle of Man had died after an accident in the frosts of the previous January; being housebound and “not being in robust health”, he became ill in the cold of that winter. His “ailments were chiefly of a bronchial nature” and eventually he died from them. The obituary stated that this Dr Bradbury was the author of several works, including the “well-written and popular” Saddleworth Sketches.

Laxey, on the Isle of Man, photographed in 2005 (Photo © Nigel Homer [cc-by-sa/2.0])

Given these details, we can trace Dr Bradbury in census returns to supplement the obituary. He was born on 7 May 1838, the son of Joseph and Hannah Bradbury. His father was a clothier, and must have died soon after he was born: the 1841 and 1851 census lists Bradbury, his mother and his older sister Elizabeth living at Dobcross. Bradbury is listed on the 1861 census living at Saddleworth with his mother, the latter listed as a “landed proprietor”. At the time he was a medical student. Soon after, he must have moved away. There is no trace of him on the 1871 census, but he married Annie Smalley in Essex in mid-1871. His obituary said that he had lived in various places including Essex, Cheshire, London and France. Around 1874, he moved to the Isle of Man. After a year, he settled at Laxey, where he was the only doctor. By 1881, Bradbury was living with his wife Annie and a servant. Still listed as a doctor in 1891, he and his wife had also taken in an eleven-year-old “waif” called William Thomas Soar.

Bradbury’s curiosity in local history exhibited itself as he researched local ancient remains and the history of the Manx people. He became a member of the Antiquarian Society and wrote for their magazine. As well his research, he continued to write fiction: among his works were listed “A Lost Name”, “Grace Barton”, and “Juan Beg, the Laxey Miner”. His last book, published shortly before his death, was First Davenport of Bramhill, a 300-page book about a “true knight’s faith and love.” He seems to have established a very good local reputation, including one for taking care of the poor. Bradbury died on 1 May 1895.

When Bradbury wrote his Saddleworth Sketches in 1870-71, he was presumably living some considerable distance from where he grew up, and returned there, as he writes in the book, after a heavy recent workload and feeling drained which prompted his decision to visit his place of birth. This must have been around the time of his marriage. But he had certainly lived in the area until at least 1861 and must have been very familiar with the story of the murders and the characters about whom he writes. It may well be a summary of the stories with which he grew up, and many years of idle gossip among the people of Saddleworth. Saddleworth Sketches as published contains twenty-three “sketches”, all but four of which were his articles republished from the Oldham Chronicle and which, in the words of the publisher, had been “to some extent condensed, and the whole carefully corrected, so that it is hoped errors in circumstances and dates have been minimised.”

The first sketch, entitled “Bill o’Jack’s and Greenfield” is the one that concerns us. It begins with the author deciding to go to Greenfield. After leaving the train station, he encountered an old man who, after three pages of dialogue made almost incomprehensible by Bradbury’s attempt to render the local dialect into print, reveals his name as “Owd Kedlock”. In the course of their conversation, Kedlock reveals that he has some old papers which had come to him through his father and some neighbours about the Bill o’Jack’s murders, including some “inquest pappers [sic]”, and various other items. In exchange for breakfast at the Moorcock Inn – better known as Bill o’Jack’s – Kedlock offered to bring the papers for the author to look at. The author, incidentally, was staying at the Clarence Hotel, whose landlord at that time was the well-known figure of “‘Gustus” Bradbury, the son of Thomas Bradbury.

After this conversation, Joseph Bradbury describes the scene on the walk to the “Bill o’Jack’s” – which is how most of the book is written, describing a series of journeys – for several pages before “arriving” and looking at Kedlock’s papers. These are supposedly reproduced: several articles from the Manchester Courier are printed next, before the author summarises the account of the inquest in Kedlock’s papers as having “no material difference” in how it told the story. Then there are seventeen pages of detailed argument presenting what Joseph Bradbury saw as the most important considerations and suspicious matters, and he goes on to give his solutions to the murder. He then continues on his journey up the hill and describes the scenery and gives something of the local history. But nothing else quite matches his account of the murder; nor does anything else in the whole book. It is a very strange chapter and the story is told in a very strange way.

A “Skedlock Cart” from an illustration in Rush-bearing (1891) by Alfred Burton

Incidentally, in a later “sketch”, the author once more encounters “Owd Kedlock”, who tells him that he read his account of the murders in the newspaper, and visits his house, named “Kedlock Ho”. Any last traces of plausibility vanish when the author reproduces a letter supposedly sent to him by Kedlock which is written in the exact manner as he had rendered the old man’s speech, including words such as “singin'”, complete with correct apostrophes. Incidentally, “Kedlock” or “Skedlock” was the local name given to ragwort and “skedlock carts” were a form of wheelbarrow or small wagon used by children to collect rushes and plants. Perhaps there is some hidden meaning to the name “Owd Kedlock”. The census reveals no-one of that name in the area; perhaps he did not exist outside of the author’s invention as a framing device to write about the murders. That Bradbury wrote fiction when not working as a doctor may explain why he embroidered the tale in this way.

Saddleworth Sketches contains some interesting detail, which we shall examine at the appropriate time, but must always carry two qualifications before we take what it says at face value. First, it was written long after the events it describes and any new information could have been the result of gossip or local invention. Second, Joseph Bradbury may be an unreliable narrator: apart from his unconvincing use of “Owd Kedlock” to introduce the tale, on a few occasions he changed what his sources said. He may have had an agenda of his own, which should affect how we view what he had to say about the events; we cannot trust him completely.

Bradbury reproduces the text from the Manchester Courier articles about the murders. But whether by accident or design, he does not always stay faithful to the original text. He includes the letter from Thomas Smith but makes some changes from the text given in the newspaper. Firstly, where the Courier printed “six Irishmen”, Bradbury had the number five – perhaps to match with the number five supposedly given by William Bradbury in the same article. Secondly, and more inexplicably, he omits the address of Thomas Smith as printed in the Courier. Bradbury actually draws attention to this and claims that the omission served to prevent Smith being questioned or called as a witness (though there would have been little realistic need to do so).

Bradbury – convincingly and probably correctly – goes on to cast doubt on the letter’s reliability, suggesting that “Mr Smith must have drawn very largely on his imagination for his facts, and … penned as matters within his own knowledge what was the merest hearsay, loosely floating about the crowd at the inn, swayed by horror, and in wild excitement making random guesses at the perpetrators of the appalling crime.” But while this argument is convincing, it is inaccurate to say that Smith missed out his address – it is clearly present in the original article – and so cannot be used to discredit him as a witness. Did Bradbury change the text himself to strengthen his argument? As we have seen, Smith did indeed live at the address he gave in the letter. There are three possible explanations: it was a simple, if unfortunate error; Bradbury altered the text himself deliberately; or he was relying on a copy of the text which had been transcribed incorrectly. We shall look at similar changes later.

So now we have all the evidence: the reports of the inquest, our three journalists, Thomas Smith, Ammon Platt and Joseph Bradbury. Using these, it is possible to find out a little about what happened the night before…

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