The Bill o’Jack’s Murders: The Night Before

Bill o’Jacks photographed some time between 1902 and 1909
(Image: via wessyman137.wordpress.com)

William and Thomas Bradbury were discovered at the Bill o’Jack’s inn in Saddleworth 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 there was widespread newspaper coverage of the events following the discovery. But over the course of the hours and days that followed, only a tentative outline was ever sketched out of what had happened the night before. Almost everything we know comes from several similar accounts given by the only person who spent any time with the Bradburys on the night of Monday 2 April. Reuben Platt, a friend of Thomas Bradbury, walked with him from Bill o’Jack’s to a shop at Road End. During their journey, they met three men who became prime suspects in the immediate aftermath of the murders. Platt was the principal witness; although others may have seen them in the neighbourhood, he was the only witness at the inquest who gave any information about what Thomas did that night.

As time passed, Platt’s reliability as a witness – in fact, his entire role in the events – was called into question. In the eyes of some, he even became a suspect. However, it is not clear when these suspicions first arose, nor how widespread they were.

As far as the events of Monday 2 April went, Platt’s story was fairly consistent – and he told it several times. Of all the witnesses whose accounts were given in the newspapers before the inquest, only Platt appears in every report. More interesting is that fact that he appears to have spoken to all three journalists – both the Manchester Guardian and Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle include very detailed accounts of his evidence and his story is the only one told by Butterworth which closely matches the details of the inquest. But each account is subtly different in minor details, although containing the same narrative, as if each journalist had spoken to him separately. The story even found its way into the sworn statement of (the unrelated) Ammon Platt, who could even recount some words spoken by Thomas Bradbury the night before. Only Thomas Smith’s letter omits Reuben Platt’s story; but Smith does include part of Platt’s description of one of the men wearing “fustian”.

Can we draw any conclusions from this? Only that Reuben Platt had quickly told people about the night before; by the time Ammon Platt arrived with Higginbottom at Bill o’Jack’s in the afternoon, the tale was in general circulation as the only indication of who might have been responsible. Maybe even before Smith arrived if he knew what one of the “attackers” looked like. And the press reported what Platt said as it was the only clue they had. Perhaps Platt, like one or two others in the story, was also engaging in some harmless self-publicity.

There is one oddity. The report in the Manchester Guardian on 7 April describes extensively what Platt saw, but tells the story twice in the same article. There is no obvious reason for it; the most likely explanation is poor writing in which the first version is intended as an overview and the second version provides more detail. The other possibility is that this represents two versions of Platt’s story clumsily joined together.

Primrose Hill Farm, generally known simply as Primrose, the hamlet where Reuben Platt lived: the whitewashed building on the right may date to the early 1700s and all these buildings were likely there at the time of the murders. The Platt family were associated with Primrose from the mid-18th Century. (Image: britishlistedbuildings.co.uk)

So who was Platt and what did he say happened on the night of 2 April?

Platt was born around 1791 and at the time of the murders was a woollen weaver (although the Manchester Times inaccurately reported at the inquest that he was a carter; it also, questionably, called him a young man) who lived at Primrose, an area near Saddleworth Church. Using modern roads, Primrose is three miles from Bill o’Jack’s, but at the time there was a direct path across the moors of no more than a mile. Around 4pm, Platt took this route – the Manchester Guardian recorded that he planned to watch two men exercising their dogs but missed them – and spent some time at a quarry en route, watching men loading stone onto a waggon. He then followed the waggon down to the main road by Bill o’Jack’s, where he met Thomas Bradbury. According to the Manchester Guardian (7 April):

“When near Bill o’Jack’s [Platt] saw the younger Bradbury, who was standing by the road side. They were old friends, Platt being ‘a bit of a sportsman himself,’ and having occasionally assisted the Bradburys in waiting on company when they were crowded. Tom said to him, ‘How far art ‘o for this way, lad, to neet? [How far are you going tonight?]’ Platt said, ‘I think I shall go down by th’ Road End, an by th’ Upper Mill.’ Tom said he was going down to th’ shop, and would be company for him to Daniel Whitehead’s [shop]. Platt and Tom then went down to the house and Platt had a pint of beer which he drank and paid for, whilst Tom was preparing for his errands. When they came off, Tom said to the old man, ‘Father, I’ll leave you sixpence in silver and some copper, lest any one should want change whilst I am away.'”

Platt’s probable route from Primrose to Bill o’Jack’s. It is quite likely that the quarry at which Platt viewed the men working is the one called Greenfield Hall Quarries (assuming it was called that at the time – the map is was surveyed nearly 20 years after the murders) which was on a direct route between Primrose and the Bradbury’s house. (Image: Ordinance Survey 6-inch map for 1854, reproduced by the National Library of Scotland under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence)

All the versions of Platt’s story agree that he spent some time in Bill o’Jack’s waiting for Thomas to be ready. All agree that Thomas left money for his father. Butterworth reported that Thomas Bradbury needed some candles – but it is not clear if his information came from Platt or because candles were later found in Thomas’ pockets. The two men left for Road End, where the shop was, between 6pm and 7pm, just as dusk was falling.

Not far along the road into Greenfield, they encountered three men who were apparently resting at the side of the road – according to the Manchester Guardian (7 April), “at a considerable pile of stones, cut and squared for building”. At the inquest, Platt said (according to Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle) that Thomas, seeing them, remarked: “There are three Irishmen there. I don’t like them, and am afeard of leaving my father by hisself.” The clear indication is that Bradbury already knew them, or he would not have known they were Irish.

As Bradbury and Platt approached, one of the three men asked how far it was to Holmfirth (the distance, as the pair informed them, is around eight miles). The Manchester Guardian (7 April) added: “They seemed to be men on travel and out of work, spade men or navigators, and Tom mentioned a person who had a job of cutting stone near Holmfirth, and said they might perhaps get work with him. They then went away slowly, as if tired and foot sore, and Tom said he did not like them”. Every version of Platt’s story is clear that only one of the three men spoke; the others were notably silent. At the inquest, Platt appears to have said that the conversation lasted five minutes, which seems a long time for what was reported. Most versions agree that Platt and Bradbury watched the three men make their way up the hill – which Butterworth (and the reports derived from him) recorded as: “appeared to skulk away their time considerably by stopping and sitting down on the walls and stones lining the road”. This was also the impression given in the Manchester Guardian’s description of them as “tired and foot sore”. The latter article also recorded that Bradbury, while they were waiting for the men to move on, “began to measure the stones by his step, as if he were employed in making a calculation.” It is not quite clear what this meant, or why the reporter included it.

Bradbury explained to Platt that he believed one of the three men had stolen a pair of stockings from his father’s house – some versions say that the stockings belonged to Thomas, others that his father owned them. According to Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle (7 April), Thomas also said the man had stolen a shilling from his father, but this is not repeated elsewhere. Again, Platt’s evidence clearly suggests that Thomas knew the men, and that they had spent time in Bill o’Jack’s.

However, the story Platt told the newspapers had subtly changed by the time of the inquest. At first, he simply said that only one man spoke and the others kept quiet, but as Butterworth recorded, “Platt positively asserts that the men were Irish”. The only version that went any further than this came when the Manchester Guardian reported Bradbury’s observation to Platt that the suspected thief “could not face me”. By the time of the inquest, Platt did not think that the man who spoke had an Irish accent but was convinced that one of the others was Irish (even though he never spoke); furthermore, Platt now said that the suspected thief kept his back turned the whole time so that neither he nor Bradbury even saw his face. Although his earlier certainty that they were Irish had either vanished, or been mis-reported in the first place, Platt seemed sure of the nationality of at least one of the men. Did he know them too?

Platt described the three men several times. Butterworth recorded: “One wore a blue linen slop [outer garment], another a black coat and a third drab trousers and a fustian jacket.” A further description, which can only have come from Platt, was included in a reward poster offering £100 for information: “One man had on a drab and decayed Olive Velveteen Shooting Jacket, stout made, full red Face, and stood about five Feet, nine Inches high. Another Man had on a Blue Slop, slouch shabby hat; and another a tall thin Man, shabby Black Coat, short light coloured Trowsers [sic] and had on a pair of quarter Boots. One of the Men had a large Aquiline Nose, on which was a Scar.” At the inquest, Platt went a little further: “I noticed them more particularly through Thomas’s observations. One wore a torn shabby hat, blue slop and darkish coloured cotton trousers. One was a tall man and they looked like Irishmen. One wore light coloured trousers and half boots, an old shabby black coat and had a piece rent out of his hat. The third would not be seen and turned his back on us, because Thomas said to me, ‘I believe he is the man that once stole a pair of stockings of mine. The third had an olive fustian, velveteen jacket with large laps. The buttons of the jacket had a rim round their shanks.” He may have added (not all the reports mention this) that the tall man had a dark complexion.

Road End in Greenfield, photographed around 1910 (Image: via Saddleworth Independent)

After the three men had passed Bill o’Jack’s, Platt and Bradbury carried on. Only the Manchester Guardian (7 April) reported their subsequent movements in any detail: “They met a man with some hats in a sack, who was going to Holmfirth. Tom told him there were three men before; and ‘they were three bad ones, Irishmen;’ but if they had kept on the road, they were two miles before and he might not see them.” Bradbury and Platt parted company at a shop at Roadend belonging to a man called Daniel Whitehead, where the former went to make his purchases. The same article said that Bradbury bought some coffee, tea and half-a-pound of candles. These candles were found in his pocket after he died, “crushed and sodden in blood”, but the coffee and tea “are missing with the rest of the plunder.”

The route taken by Platt and Thomas Bradbury from Bill o’Jack’s (A) to Road End (D) where the latter went to Daniel Whitehead’s shop (which was actually a little before this, at Spring Grove). They must have encountered the three men somewhere close to B in order to be able to watch them pass the Bradbury’s house. If the three men were seen, as reported, at Road End earlier in the day, they probably followed the reverse route. Thomas Bradbury’s family lived at Sidebank (C). (Image: Ordinance Survey 6-inch map for 1854, reproduced by the National Library of Scotland under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence)

Meanwhile, Platt went past Road End to Upper Mill, “where he called at a beer shop kept by one James Bowker, and from thence he went home to his residence at Primrose, near Saddleworth church.”

Platt’s probable route from Road End (A) back home to Primrose (C), passing through Uppermill (B) where he called at a beer shop. (Image: Ordinance Survey 6-inch map for 1854, reproduced by the National Library of Scotland under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence)

Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle also had a little more on Bradbury’s subsequent actions, albeit with a different list of items purchased: “He then called at a shop and bought some flour, candles, etc. He has a wife and six or eight children, who, strange to say, have been in the habit of living not with him, but in a separate house at a place called Side Bank, about three-quarters-of-a-mile from his father’s. He called to see them after he had been at the provision shop, and left there for his father’s house about half-past eight o’clock.” The source for these later movements in both newspapers is unclear, and none of this was mentioned at the inquest. The hat-seller was never mentioned elsewhere.

Two images of Sidebank where Thomas Bradbury’s family lived, and where he probably visited the night he was attacked. Left: Postcard image (date unknown) looking along the Holmfirth road in the direction of Bill o’Jack’s. Right: Sidebank viewed from Dovestones Reservoir in 2017 (Photo © Peter McDermott [cc-by-sa/2.0]).

The biggest issue with Reuben Platt’s evidence – identified several times since, not least by Joseph Bradbury in Saddleworth Sketches – is finding corroboration that these Irishmen existed, and placing them near where he and Tom Bradbury walked on Monday evening. Even Platt’s own story does not have anyone else seeing them: the Manchester Guardian version has Platt and Bradbury meeting the hat-seller and warning him about the Irishmen, but not seeing them; the Manchester Times version of Platt’s evidence at the inquest said “on enquiry being made further along the road whether three men had passed, it was ascertained that they never had.” A throwaway comment in the Mancester Courier’s report states: “Two other persons saw the same three men on whom suspicion has fallen, lurking in the neighbourhood.” But no other details are given and the rest of the article is simply a reworking of Butterworth’s notes (which do not make this claim).

The closest to any authoritative corroboration comes in Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle, which reports: “They [the three men seen by Platt] were seen, however, at Road End about six o’clock and previously also at different points, before he and Platt met them. At each period they were loitering and their bearing was so remarkable as to attract the particular observation of everyone who encountered them.” The same accounts states that, when a suspect was being held later that week, the police called on several people who claimed to have seen the Irishmen on Monday night; they were named in the report as: Thomas Placow, a waggoner, who saw them around 6pm; Thomas Bradbury (Bradbury being a very common name in the area); and “several other persons.”

The Manchester Times also reported someone at the inquest – the wording is unclear who, but it may have been Platt – revealing that enquiries further along the Holmfirth road had shown that the three men did not pass by and therefore must have turned back. Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle stated on 7 April: “Although Thomas Bradbury watched the three men beyond his father’s dwelling, neither the persons in this house nor some people who were working upon the road and must have observed them had they gone forward, remember to have seen any such men pass.” Although this begs the question of why men were working on the road after dark, if these men did not pass on towards Holmfirth (and there is no real way to get off the road here) and instead turned around, where did they go? In any case, the road to Holmfirth was eight miles long, and crossing Saddleworth Moor after dark can hardly have been an attractive proposition, if that was their actual destination.

Another curiosity can be found in the Manchester Guardian report on the inquest: while reporting Platt’s description of the three Irishmen, specifically the one wearing a hat from which “a piece had been rent out”, it said: “A hat which had been found in the house was very much like the one the Irishman wore.” No other source records this hat being mentioned at the inquest – possibly for reasons of space. That report (and no other) says that hat was physically produced at this point of the proceedings: “It was a shabby, old, crumpled one, with part of the brim torn off; the witness [Platt] said, ‘This is the hat the Irishman had on.'” The only other mention of this hat is in Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle in the report before the inquest: “The murderers left nothing at or about the house that can afford any assistance in their detection except the pistol … and an old slouched hat which was found in the house and appears to correspond with that described to have been worn by one of the men whom Bradbury and Platt met.”

If this hat really was there – and there seems no reason to doubt it – does that make Platt’s story true, and does it place the Irishmen at the scene of the crime? It seems strange that more was not made of it at the time, or later. However, there are a few problems with the hat as incriminating evidence. The number of visitors to the scene in the days afterwards meant that the hat could have come from anywhere as we do not know when it was found. A curious onlooker may have left it. Nor do we know that it was the same hat as we have no description – it may have been a common design. And it is even possible, if Platt was inflating his own role, that he saw the hat in the house later on and decided to add it to his description of the men. The hat cannot prove that the three men had something to do with the murders, but it is does hint in that direction.

Writing nearly 40 years later in Saddleworth Sketches, Joseph Bradbury discussed a different set of Irishmen who were seen in the area. He argues that the initial reported number of five Irishmen may have arisen because “people from about Nook Steer were amongst the earliest visitors to the place after the alarm had been made”, and some of them had seen five men the previous evening. They had been passing a game of pitch-and-toss when one of them was accidentally struck by a coin and refused to return it. This escalated to an angry confrontation, which was still taking place as Bradbury and Platt passed by. According to Saddleworth Sketches: “The five men – whether Irishmen or not does not seem to be certain, but they would be likely enough to be regarded as such merely on the ground of being strangers – passed on in the opposite direction, as if going to Holmfirth, along the road leading nearly past Bill’s o’Jack’s. They had called at an alehouse at Roadend, then kept by a person named Hinchcliffe, where they had a pint or a quart of beer.” It is probably best to give little credence to this story: it was written 40 years later; part of the account includes a description of Thomas Bradbury’s clothes that contradicts a contemporary account; and no earlier source mentions these five men. We should treat it at best as a mis-remembered event told in the area, perhaps a distortion of the sightings of the three men later seen by Platt.

There was one other witness from Monday night who was not called to the inquest, a man called Abraham Dawson. Most mentions of him can be traced to Butterworth’s notes which identify him as a worker for the Huddersfield Canal Company. He was walking up the road (i.e. towards Holmfirth) between 9:30 and 9:45pm on Monday 2 April when he came across William Bradbury’s dog (with the implication the dog was heading down the hill). Continuing onwards, Dawson “heard as if company tippling in the house, and thinking it was the case he proceeded onwards, to a house a quarter of a mile further where he lodged.” It is unclear whether Butterworth spoke to Dawson, or whether his tale was in general circulation from Tuesday afternoon. That it is followed in his notes by the account stating that James Whitehead saw Bradbury the previous evening may suggest that Butterworth was reporting hearsay.

Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle has a very similar version of events, although Dawson is nameless and simply “a man … passing along the high-road”. While near the Bradbury’s house, he “fancied there must be some boisterous company within” because of the “great noise”. Not giving it much thought, he carried on up the road, where a “large dog which Bradbury kept came running from the house, apparently much frightened. When it had got some distance it lay down on the opposite side of the way.” This version of the encounter with the dog takes place after he passed Bill o’Jack’s, and is sufficiently different to Butterworth’s to suggest that the author may have spoken to Dawson himself.

Dawson seems to have heard a commotion at Bill o’Jack’s between 9:30 and 9:45 on Monday night, whether he was returning home from work or returning from having been elsewhere. What did he hear? He did not consider it to be out of the ordinary, and he thought it was drunk people having a good time. Presumably this mean raised voices and shouting, or the sounds of things being dropped or broken. It also suggests the sounds of several voices. It is unfortunate that Mr Dawson was never questioned at the inquest: if he heard an argument rather than a fight or shouting, that might have helped to ascertain what happened that night.

Also interesting is that Dawson encountered the Bradbury’s dog. Assuming it is the same dog that William Bradbury’s granddaughter found the following morning, perhaps it had been let out before the murder took place, accidentally or deliberately. It does raise the question of how he got back in after the attack, especially if the door was closed, as the girl indicated at the inquest.

Upperwood, where Abraham Dawson was sharing a hut with Joseph Matthews and his family. He passed Bill o’Jack’s on the way home at around 9:30pm on Monday, hearing a commotion inside. (Image: Ordinance Survey 6-inch map for 1854, reproduced by the National Library of Scotland under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence).

This is not the only appearance of Dawson. Although the Manchester Guardian did not mention him in its first report, he appears in the postscript to the inquest published on 14 April. The writer says that Dawson was either visiting or staying with a man, Joseph Matthews, who lived in at the top of the hill: “Abraham Dawson, a stone-cutter in the employ of Mr Patteson, of Manchester, went up the road at about half-past nine o’clock that night, and heard a noise in Bradbury’s house. On arriving at the hut of the above Joseph Matthews, he remarked that ‘he thought old Bradbury had some rough company.'”

Patteson’s was a Manchester firm of masons who also dabbled in making statues. So, did Dawson work on the canal or was he a stone cutter? And why did he apparently give contradictory accounts to Butterworth and to the Manchester Guardian reporter? In either case, both accounts match up as far as what he heard, and identify him as lodging further up the road past Bill o’Jack’s. We shall return to Joseph Matthews later, but he lived in a hut at Upperwood which was the next house along the road in the direction of Holmfirth, near the top of the hill.

For whatever reason, Dawson was not called to the inquest – possibly because the coroner was not too concerned with establishing when the murders took place as much as getting an idea of what happened. Yet his claims, which there seems to be no reason to doubt, give a potential time for the attacks to have taken place. Something was certainly happening in Bill o’Jack’s between 9:30 and 10pm.

There is quite a lot more to be said about Reuben Platt, but it may be worth first looking at what was done in Saddleworth in the lead-up to the inquest, and in the weeks that followed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s