The Bill o’Jack’s Murders: The Hunt for Suspects

On the morning of Tuesday 3 April 1832, William and Thomas Bradbury were found severely injured and barely alive inside Bill o’Jack’s, their beer house in Saddleworth. They died soon after, sparking a hunt for their murderers amid shock and revulsion at the brutal nature of the killings. The local authorities were involved from the start, although their efforts were hampered through the initial absence of the local magistrates at the Pontefract Sessions. By the time of the inquest, a reward of £100 had been offered for information leading to the capture of the murderers. The magistrates had also asked the Home Office for further funds to increase this amount. In the first days after the murders, almost any stranger in the area was suspected of involvement.

Reuben Platt’s description of three suspicious men seen by him and Thomas Bradbury on the Monday night led to a frenzied search for almost any Irishmen in the vicinity. The earliest report, written by Edwin Butterworth, said that John Pollard, “a young man living at Lees but working in the neighbourhood” saw “five Irishmen in a public house at Upper Mill before dusk on Monday evening.” They had been drinking there until they had “spent up”. Butterworth recorded: “In consequence of what had been adduced, suspicions have fallen on either the three or five Irishmen seen as the perpetrators of the deed and the disappearance of the two Emeralders [presumably Irishmen] who were working on the new road to Huddersfield, which passed through Greenfield, has excited still stronger suspicions”. Butterworth reported that an “active search after the villains has ensued” and he seemed confident that there would be bloody marks on the clothing of anyone involved, or that there would be some sign on them of the violent struggle. Failing that, he hoped they could be identified through having items or money stolen from Bill o’Jack’s.

Many newspapers printed this but also added different, perhaps more up-to-date information. The Manchester Courier said that a man matching the description of one of Platt’s Irishmen was being held at Delph. The Leeds Mercury recorded: “Suspicion attaches to two Irishmen, who have been apprehended”. Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle reported that, on Monday 2 April, a man called Garside, the constable of Stalybridge, saw three men – who “had most villainous looks” and whom he deduced were Irish – talking to two Irishmen with whom he had dealt previously. Although the newcomers were unfamiliar to him, he suspected they were up to no good and so observed them carefully. Garside did not see them again, but remembered them when he heard of the murders on Wednesday. According to Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle, he believed they were the three men seen by Platt based on the descriptions circulated.

Dobcross in 1854 (Image: Ordinance Survey 6-inch map for 1854, reproduced by the National Library of Scotland under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence)

A more promising suspect emerged on Thursday when an Irishman called Charles Mullen was detained at Dobcross. He had been seen near Marsden and immediately aroused suspicion as he had “black eyes, and his clothes were bloody”. At this point, a local man approached Mullen to investigate his story; still suspicious, the man ran to get help from nearby Dobcross. When a group of men arrived to apprehend him, Mullen sat down in despair next to the road and simply said: “I’m not the man you want.” He was taken to Dobcross and examined at the George the Fourth public house where blood was found on his shirt. Someone sent for a constable who searched Mullen but only found a sixpence and a threepence on him rather than anything incriminating.

At this point, several people who had got into the room before the constable arrived refused to leave and began to cause trouble. This crowd had predetermined Mullen’s guilt. Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle recorded: “Several individuals thought proper to pronounce their opinions upon the man in language which did little credit either to their feelings or their understandings.” One man wanted to take Mullen outside and hang him; another wished to take him to the next room and “pugilistically prove that he … was one of the murderers”; a third threatened to stab him. Other onlookers shouted questions at Mullen. When he replied with “uncivil answers”, they seem to have been somewhat surprised! Eventually, the onlookers were removed from the room, with some difficulty.

In an attempt to identify Mullen as one of the attackers, or at least as one of the strangers seen on Monday night, Reuben Platt was called for. However, Platt was unable to identify him for certain; he said that Mullen may possibly have been the man wearing a “blue slop” who kept his face hidden but he was far from sure. Others who had seen the three men in the area were also called. A waggoner named Placow had seen them at Road End around 6pm; a man called Thomas Bradbury (presumably no relation of the victim; Bradbury was a very common name in the area) also saw them nearby. Both witnesses agreed that Mullen might have been the man in blue. But others who were summoned because they had seen the three men did not recognise Mullen at all.

Incidentally, Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle is the only report to go into such detail about Mullen’s capture; while it says he was held at the George the Fourth Public House, there is no record of any establishment of that name at Dobcross. The most likely place to be held there would have been the King’s Head – sometimes known then and later as The Swan Inn – which may have at one time been called “The George”.

The Swan Inn, Dobcross, photographed in 2011. This may have been where Charles Mullen was held after he was apprehended. (Photo © David Dixon [cc-by-sa/2.0])

Mullen claimed to be a navigator who had been working on a canal near Methley, Wakefield. Having been involved in a fight while drunk, he had lost his job and was travelling towards Manchester to look for work. He had been employed on the construction of the Greenfield road several years before, so was familiar with the Saddleworth area, although he did not know Dobcross nor the area near Bill o’Jack’s. Some locals wondered if the hat he was wearing may have belonged to William Bradbury, but Mullen said he had picked it up after his fight having lost his own; two neighbours of Bradbury confirmed the hat was not his. Meanwhile, attempts were made to check Mullen’s tale. By a coincidence, a “respectable merchant” from Methley was in Dobcross and after questioning Mullen was satisfied that he had been working where he said. And the Saddleworth constable, a man called Waterhouse, went to Methley on Friday to check out his story.

None of this looked especially promising in terms of having found one of the murderers – even Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle judged that the charges against Mullen were “vague” – but he was taken to a magistrate; there were problems finding someone in authority as two magistrates were at the Pontefract Sessions and a third, the Reverend Evans of Grasscroft – around four miles from Dobcross – was “seriously indisposed”. Eventually, Evans agreed to question Mullen, and around 4pm the prisoner was conveyed to Evans’ house. On the way, he was “followed by a great concourse of people. All the inhabitants of the surrounding country flocked to the road side, and influenced by his [Mullen’s] ungainly exterior, pronounced condemnation as he passed.” The Chronicle reporter said: “The women were, as usual, the least measured in their epithets. Several elderly dames expressed their readiness to undertake the task of execution, and to spare the labour of the gallows-building by appropriating the next tree to the unholy office.” Evans remanded him in custody until the inquest could decide what to do; Mullen grumbled about the threats he had received and Evans told the constable to make sure there were no recurrences. Mullen was taken to be held at the William the Fourth public house at Roadend. On the way, he was once more jeered by the crowd, “notwithstanding the strenuous interference of the constable”, although not as severely as before.

Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle also details some other suspects. A man was being held in Huddersfield on the Friday, although the writer did not think anything would come of this; similarly a man in Manchester was expected to be released from custody imminently.  Another man called Francis Barker was also being detained at Shudehill on the grounds that he had tried to change a £10 note at the Lower Ship public house and had left a slop there early on Tuesday morning. The alarm was raised later that day, but when Barker was located on Thursday, he denied having so much money. Although the authorities who questioned him suspected he had indeed possessed £10, they discovered that he had not left a slop on Tuesday. Instead, he had left a different item of clothing two weeks earlier. Even though he refused to account for his movements on Monday, the police lost interest.

If these confusing and contradictory accounts suggest an element of chaos had entered proceedings, that is probably accurate. In a state of heightened tension, any stranger in the area was probably going to be a suspect. Bradbury, in Saddleworth Sketches, observes of his five men from the game of pitch-and-toss: “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”. At the time there was enormous suspicion against the Irish, particularly in Manchester where an area of extreme poverty and deprivation was known as “Little Ireland” on account of its large Irish population. The 1851 census recorded that 13.1 per cent of the population of Manchester and Salford was Irish-born. The same census records 213 people living in Saddleworth who were born in Ireland (out of a population of 17,799, just over 1 per cent). The Irish were blamed for many ills, including disease, and mistrusted on the grounds of “moral degeneracy”, their willingness to work for lower wages than locals and the increase in poor rates to account for the high number of Irish paupers.

This prejudice can be seen in the reports written at the time, such as Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle’s observation when recounting Mullen’s story: “On Monday he and his fellow workmen, having got drunk, like all other Irishmen fell to fighting”. Therefore, while a large number of suspects were identified by the press and by witnesses, and investigated by the police, it is likely that there was no evidence against them other than that they were, or were suspected to be, Irish. None of these men were likely to have been involved.

With Mullen still in custody, the inquest into the murders was held at the William the Fourth public house, Roadend, on Saturday 7 April. It had not been held earlier as the coroner, Michael Stocks Jr of Halifax, had been at the Pontefract Sessions. His absence, along with two of the three local magistrates, meant there was little direction from authority and on the Thursday, “Mr Buckley, the head Constable of Dobcross” travelled to Pontefract to ask what he should do before they returned. This may have been when Stocks arranged for the inquest to be held.

Two photos of the King William the Fourth public house where the inquest took place. Left (undated): From the Talk Saddleworth Twitter account. Right (2019): Photo © Graham Hogg (cc-by-sa/2.0).

In this period, inquests were usually called if the police informed the coroner that a death was suspicious. Most coroners were responsible for a wide area and travelled around, often holding inquests in public houses. A local jury was selected, summoned by the parish or police constable. Jury sizes ranged from twelve to twenty-three, decided by the coroner. There were no restrictions on who could serve; there was, for instance, no property qualification. The function of an inquest jury was to identify a cause of death: they were required to view the bodies of those deceased and to inspect any relevant places; they could question witnesses; on occasion, they could even call witnesses themselves. However, the main purpose of an inquest was simply to say when and how a person died. Further questions were matters for other courts. The coroner did not investigate more deeply because that was not his role. According to Pamela Jane Fisher: “In cases of homicide, it was expected that the jury would name the assailant wherever possible, and the inquisition [the document signed by the coroner and jurors recording the proceedings and verdict] completed by the coroner at the conclusion of his inquiry could serve as the indictment for a subsequent criminal trial.”

The coroner at the Bill o’Jack’s inquest, Michael Stocks Junior, was an unusual man. A magistrate and solicitor in Halifax, he was involved in a huge dispute in 1831 when an attempt was made to remove him as magistrate because of his views as a Radical. His resignation as Halifax Coroner in 1837 also seems to have been controversial.

The inquest began at 9am at the William IV public house with the swearing-in of the jury, after which they went to Bill o’ Jack’s to see the two victims for themselves and to look at where the murders took place. The Manchester Times was the only newspaper to record this part of proceedings: “There a most melancholy scene presented itself. The bodies of father and son lay side by side on a bed in the back room, literally covered with plaisters [sic] laid over the wounds which they had received in this most sanguinary struggle … the great quantity of blood that lay up and down [the house], formed a sight the most horrible that has ever been witnessed in that part of the country.” After this, the jury returned to the William the Fourth.

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

The reporter for the Manchester Guardian does not seem to have accompanied the jury, but was there when they returned, and described an odd exchange before the witnesses were called: “A young man of the name of Butterworth, from Oldham, who occasionally furnishes information to the newspapers at Manchester, entered the room, and being questioned by the coroner on his business, stated that he was ‘professionally employed,’ and on being further questioned, said he was a reporter, on which the coroner took the opportunity of saying that he did not object to the presence of reporters, but must request that the names of witnesses, and the evidence in full, might not be given in the papers; such a course might be hurtful, and could not be attended with beneficial effects, and in his opinion, it would be sufficient if the public knew the narrative of the evidence, without going into particulars.” Stocks perhaps recognised Butterworth, but may have been unaware that other journalists were already present. 

Butterworth actually wrote two accounts of the inquest: a longer, very detailed version which does not seem to have been used by any newspapers; and a shorter, abridged one which he seems to have written later. Of the newspapers to cover the inquest in depth, the Manchester Courier used Butterworth’s abridged version of the story and the Liverpool Mercury report seems at least partially based on Butterworth as well. The reports in the Manchester Guardian, Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle and the Manchester Times are sufficiently different and with different emphases to suggest that each publication had its own journalist present.

Stocks’ request for discretion and anonymity from the journalists is also strange given how much had been written in the press over the preceding days. Apart from William Bradbury’s granddaughter – who until this point had not been named in a newspaper – all the other witnesses’ names had been widely published across the whole country. This may have been why the newspapers ignored the coroner’s advice: most published very full accounts, and only Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle omitted the name Amelia Winterbottom – presumably as she had not been named before.

Before the inquest into the death of the Bradburys took place, there was another inquest into the death of a young child whose body had been found – an inquest to which we shall return later. This took up the morning and Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle reports that the Bradbury inquest began at 2pm and lasted for around three hours. The witnesses – Amelia Winterbottom, James Whitehead, Samuel Higginbottom – then gave their evidence, which we have already looked at. This was their final part in the affair. For two of them, it is quite hard to say what happened next.

As far as Amelia Winterbottom goes, there is one curiosity about her story. The reports of the inquest – other than Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle, which left her nameless – agree that her name was Amelia. Her mother must have been Nancy Winterbottom, William’s daughter who attended Bill o’Jack’s on Tuesday afternoon. However, there is no record of Nancy and her husband Benjamin having a daughter called Amelia. Given the haphazard nature of records that survive from this period, it is hard to make definitive statements, and the absence of a written record does not mean that Nancy did not have a daughter called Amelia. However, she certainly did have a daughter called Mary, baptised in September 1820. This would make her the right age for the girl who first entered Bill o’Jack’s on Tuesday morning; the newspaper accounts of the inquest agreed she was approximately twelve years old. And there is another curiosity about William Bradbury’s granddaughter, found in the pages of Saddleworth Sketches.

As we have seen, Joseph Bradbury reproduced the 1832 reports from the Manchester Courier to tell the story of the discovery of the crime and the inquest. Yet there is a discrepancy between the Courier account of the inquest and the reprint in Saddleworth Sketches. Like all the other accounts, the Courier names William’s granddaughter as Amelia Winterbottom. But Saddleworth Sketches changes the name in the report to Mary Winterbottom. It also calls her Mary throughout. If the girl’s real name was Mary, someone may have told Joseph Bradbury and he changed the text; alternatively, Bradbury may have relied on a transcribed report from the Courier, and whoever wrote it out “corrected” the name.

If, as seems likely, the girl who raised the alarm was Mary Winterbottom, why was she called Amelia at the inquest? Possibly, it was an attempt by newspapers to follow the instructions of Michael Stocks and keep her identity hidden. Or perhaps she was known, for whatever reason, as Amelia although her real name was Mary. A further curiosity is that Thomas Bradbury and his wife had a daughter called Amelia, baptised at Saddleworth Parish Church in 1814. There is no further record of her, and she is not present with her mother and siblings on the 1841 census. It is unclear whether she was alive in 1832, but would have been too old to be mistaken for a twelve-year-old.

Mary Winterbottom continued to live with her mother at Fernlee until the latter’s death in 1863. She subsequently disappears from the census, although several women called Mary Winterbottom married in Saddleworth afterwards, one of whom may have been her. Alternatively, a Mary Winterbottom died at Saddleworth at the age of 46 in 1869. It is even possible that the girl who unwittingly began the sensation of the Bill o’Jack’s murders was actually called Amelia, and her identity and fate is lost to history. But it is unlikely she ever forgot what she saw that Tuesday morning in April 1832.

Incidentally, William Bradbury had another daughter. She was also called Mary, and she married John Winterbottom, the brother of Nancy’s husband Benjamin. Therefore she, too, was called Mary Winterbottom. But she and her husband did not have any identifiable daughters called Amelia, nor any who were aged around twelve in 1832.

Samuel Higginbottom, although present in several directories in this period, disappears from the records. He most likely had married Esther Lawton at Saddleworth Parish Church in 1793; a man with the same name died at Saddleworth in 1845. Even his age in 1832 is something of a mystery.

The occupants of Binn Green are a little easier to trace as they still lived there in 1841; the census records that James Whitehead was born around 1781, and lived with his wife Betty and four of his children – Henry, Joseph, Esther and William. Butterworth’s account of the inquest described Whitehead as an old man who was hard to hear when he spoke – but Whitehead was only 52 at the time. He died in 1850, aged around 70, six years after his wife.

After these three witnesses had given their evidence, Reuben Platt was called and gave his story. Finally, he was questioned about Charles Mullen, the man in custody. Platt confirmed that he had seen him the previous day and reaffirmed his doubts, saying that if indeed he was one of the three men, he was the one who kept his face hidden: “The prisoner is about the same size, but the man was ‘hutch’d of a lump’ and we never saw his face.” The remainder of the inquest was taken up by deciding what was to be done about Mullen.

Waterhouse, the Saddleworth constable, reported that Mullen’s former overlooker confirmed most of his tale about being sacked for fighting and drunkenness. Waterhouse had also spoken to two men who had been with Mullen on Monday night. At this point, Mullen was brought in to answer questions; all the newspaper accounts describe him as a powerfully built man. He accounted for his movements between Saturday and his apprehension on Thursday – most of which seems to have involved an extended drinking session. After losing his job, he had stayed at a place he called “Nancy Piper’s” and remained there from Monday night until Wednesday when he set off towards Manchester with a view to either finding work, or joining his wife and family in Cumberland. He also related, again, how he had been involved in a fight which caused him to lose his hat and answered the questions put to him by the jury.

His tale corresponded well enough with the other evidence and Mullen was set free. The jury then went away to consider and shortly returned with two verdicts of “Wilful murder against some person or persons at present unknown.” By around 5pm, it was all over. Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle reported that between three and four hundred people were present at the William the Fourth through the day to follow the inquest. The Manchester Guardian noted with disapproval that the inn was “crowded to excess” by locals, “many of whom conducted themselves as if entirely unconscious that a tragedy so mournful had been enacted”.

The graveyard at St Chad’s Church, Uppermill. From left to right: the graveyard as viewed from close to the Bradbury’s grave; looking down towards the Bradbury grave – the furthest one from the camera, in the far corner (Image:; a close-up of the Bradbury grave with its engraved poem (Image: Wikipedia).

Finally, after a busy weekend where many people flocked to view Bill o’Jack’s, on Monday the bodies of the two Bradburys were taken by hearse to Saddleworth Church. The Manchester Guardian reported that “as the procession passed along the road, the dwellings were all deserted, and the people flocked together to bid a last farewell to Old Bill o’Jack’s and his son Tom. At Upper Mill the crowd increased and became still more numerous in the church yard”. At the church, a hymn was sung, “and few eyes remained dry during the ceremony”, before father and son  were buried together in the bottom corner of the churchyard. Nearly two hundred years later, their grave is still marked by a slab engraved with a poem memorialising their brutal murder.

The behaviour of the Bradbury family in the days after the murder is interesting. We know from Ammon Platt that Nancy Winterbottom, William’s daughter, and Ann Bradbury, Thomas’ wife, were at the house attempting to take care of the dying men on the Tuesday afternoon. Whether any of William’s other children, or Thomas’ children, were at the scene or became involved is unknown, but it seems that Nancy and Ann took the lead. Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle implied that those who visited the murder scene were encouraged to pay the “widow’s mite”. Butterworth’s notes (written during the week commencing 16 April) recorded: “The money collected on the spot by the relatives of the deceased from the multitudes who flocked every successive day to witness the brutal spectacle has been applied towards the expenses of the funeral and party [sic] divided amongst the relatives.” 

Apparently, this did not go as far as they hoped. Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle stated on 21 April: “The furniture of the Bradburys is to be sold for the benefit of the widow of ‘Tom o’Bill’s,’ and a rare harvest doubtless she will reap. It is stated that the proceeds of the exhibition at the house during the week succeeding the murder are by no means so great as those who were called upon to contribute have had reason to conjecture. Report says that the children of Thomas Bradbury insisted upon an equitable partition of the money, and that, consequently, the widow had for her share only about two pounds, fifteen shillings and fourpence.” In their 1987 summary of the case in the Saddleworth Historical Society Bulletin, Neil Barrow and Terry Wyke state about this particular report: “Clearly some tongues wagged about this behaviour, and Tom’s widow, Ann, felt it necessary to publicly announce how little money she had received from this ‘exhibition’.” An auction was advertised in the Manchester Guardian on 21 April for the following Friday (27 April) at noon, “for the benefit of the widow of Tom o’Bill’s” and to be held at Bill o’Jack’s itself. Listed for sale was the “whole of the furniture, consisting of drawers, tables, chairs, glasses, china, earthenware, brewing utensils, beds, bedding, and all the other goods, chattels, and effects, late the property of the above-named persons.”

If Ann Bradbury’s “equitable portion” of the takings from those who visited the crime scene amounted to £2 15s 4d (worth roughly £252 in 2020), it raises the question of how many people shared the money. The newspaper reports are surprisingly vague on how many children Thomas had; on the 1841 census, apart from Augustus Bradbury, there are three other Bradburys, all of whom were baptised as the sons of Thomas and Ann of Sidebank. There was also Amelia Bradbury, for whom there are no records other than her baptism. This makes five possible children, but there could be others as records in this period can be incomplete. But if there were five children, plus Ann, that would be splitting the money six ways, which means that they collected around £16 (around £1,500 today); this is around four thousand pence which may give some idea of how many “paying customers” came to view the scene. However we cannot know how the money was split: perhaps Nancy Winterbottom or William’s other children also asked for their share.

We can follow something of the fortunes of the family in subsequent years. A man called James Wood appears to have taken over Bill o’Jack’s after the murders, but around 1840, Thomas Bradbury’s son Augustus assumed control of the beer house and soon after acquired a full licence. 

In October 1855, an article was published in Household World, a magazine edited by Charles Dickens. Written by the novelist Geraldine Jewsbury, the article was about her visit to the Great Saddleworth Exhibition and she wrote of the slightly oppressive atmosphere at the edge of the moors. Her route to the exhibition took her to Bill o’ Jack’s where they had arranged to eat; the disappearance of all signs of life as she approached the building, and the hills surrounding it made her describe it as “the very spot where a murderer might take refuge to hide himself”. She gave a condensed and largely inaccurate account of the murders from 24 years previously – for example she said that William was found “dead upon the kitchen hearth” – but explained that the inn was still run by the same family. She was greeted by Ann Bradbury who was living there with her son and his wife. Ann Bradbury was described as “now an old woman, but erect and alert, She was extremely kind and friendly; but I fancied that she looked as if she had seen a horror which put a desperation between her and the rest of the world.” The inn was busy at the time of Jewsbury’s visit as “parties of country holiday-makers” were there, but the author was impressed by the food and hospitality. Even so, she “could not suppress a shudder” at being so close to the site of a murder.

Each census between 1841 and 1861 records Augustus living at Bill o’Jack’s (which had been renamed as the Moorcock Inn around this stage, but was still widely known by the name of his grandfather) with his family and his mother. Augustus’ son (also called Thomas) opened his own establishment, the Clarence Hotel, in 1861; Augustus and his family moved there shortly afterwards, where Joseph Bradbury met him while researching the Saddleworth Sketches. Ann lived until 1864, Augustus, until 1885. Nancy Winterbottom, the other family member involved in the aftermath of the murders, died in 1863.

Meanwhile, after the inquest, more suspects continued to emerge…

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