The Bill o’Jack’s Murders: The Red Bradburys

Bill o’Jack’s and the surrounding moorland, photographed around 1930 (Image) via

Following the murder of William and Thomas Bradbury at the Bill o’Jack’s beer house on 3 April 1832, a frenzied hunt for suspects resulted in several arrests on very flimsy grounds. Only one man, Charles Mullen, was held for the inquest, which took place on 7 April; the evidence against him was extremely slight and he was released as soon as he had been questioned by the jury. William and Thomas Bradbury were buried on 9 April without anyone being much wiser about who had killed them. The only suspects to that point had been the three men who Reuben Platt had seen, in company with Thomas Bradbury, on the evening of 2 April. However, two new suspects, with a very different motive than the presumed one of theft, were about to enter the story. But while the case against them seems strong, perhaps all is not what it appears.

Over the following weeks, more suspects were arrested but nothing was taken any further. By Thursday 12 April, the Leeds Intelligencer recorded that “several other individuals have been taken into custody in various places, two in Manchester, under circumstances of some suspicion, but on subsequent inquiries, it was found that there was no ground whatever to detain them on this charge, and no one now remains in custody.” On Friday 13 April, the Liverpool Mercury concluded its report on the inquest by saying: “Two men answering the description of the persons near the cottage on the night of the murder were apprehended on Monday evening, at Rotherham, in Yorkshire, and are still in custody.”

Butterworth wrote in more detail about the events at Rotherham. On Wednesday 11 April, two constables – Mr Hudson of Rotherham and Mr Dalton of Huddersfield – told magistrates at Dobcross how they had apprehended two men “applying for relief at the vagrant office in Rotherham” because their clothes looked like the description given by Reuben Platt. The magistrates consulted Platt, who said that the description of one of the arrested men – Samuel Jarvis – matched that of one of the men he saw. Platt was less certain about the other man – William Stevenson – but there may have been some similarities in their appearance. The constables reported that “they refuse to say where they were on the fatal night. One of them describes himself as a joiner, from Manchester. They spoke neither pure English nor Irish, though the taller looked like an Irishman.” Neither man in custody had any bruises on their face or hands nor possessed anything suspicious, and when they finally gave a satisfactory alibi, they were released.

Butterworth also recorded twice in his notebook the story of some men seen at Hooley Hill near Ashton-under-Lyne which seems to have reached him via two different police officers. Both officers had received letters about three Irishmen arriving at a public house around midnight on Monday, covered in blood and displaying signs of having been fighting. They asked for a drink and the landlord gave it to them after they promised to drink up quickly and leave. Butterworth also recorded on Wednesday 11 April that “the constables of Huddersfield are in active pursuit of three suspected persons living near that town.” 

Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle carried Butterworth’s story but concluded: “The man whose apprehension in this town was mentioned in the last Chronicle has been discharged. It was reported yesterday that three men were in custody in Liverpool, but such is not the fact.” A man was also arrested at Tadcaster the following week; the Huddersfield and Halifax Express said that the he was an Irishman who had with him “an instrument used in tobacco cutting, and said he was a cigar maker.” The man claimed to work in York, but this “proved untrue”, which along with his tobacco cutter and nationality may have been enough to arouse suspicion. But as with the other suspects, nothing further came of this. Two men were also arrested and discharged in Liverpool.

With so many arrests coming to nothing, it began to look as if the culprits would never be found. The Huddersfield and Halifax Express eventually concluded: “There can be no doubt but that the wretches would have been secured, had not all the police of the district been called off to Pontefract Sessions.” Given the number of suspects investigated, the obsession with finding Irishmen, and the lack of definitive evidence against anyone, this seems unlikely.

The next development, and perhaps the most important one, came on Monday 16 April when two men, a father and son, were arrested at Holme near Huddersfield. They lived in Bradshaw, near Holmfirth. Unlike every other suspect, these men were believed to have a motive other than robbery. They were also called Bradbury – the Manchester Courier on 21 April claimed that they were no relation to William and Thomas, but the Huddersfield and Halifax Express on the same date identified them as “distant relations”. They were commonly known, according to the Manchester Courier as the “Red Tom Bredburys”; no other account of the time gives them this name but we will stick with it to distinguish them from the victims.

Old Town Hall, Pontefract, where the Quarter Sessions would have been held in 1832 and where the Red Bradburys supposedly incriminated themselves (Image: British listed Buildings)

The rest of the Courier article and its equivalent in Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle is based on a report by Butterworth, who records that the two men were remanded by magistrates until the weekend. They were known in the area to be poachers who often hunted on Saddleworth Moor. Shortly before the murders, the older Red Bradbury was charged with “unlawfully chasing a hare on the Greenfield plantation”. The case was to be heard at the Pontefract Sessions during the week of the murders; the principle witness appearing against them was Thomas Bradbury, who had reported them in the first place. Butterworth is vague on dates: he says the Sessions began “a few days after” the murders. The Manchester Courier, although otherwise clearly following Butterworth’s account, says that the Sessions started the day after the murder. Both are wrong: they actually commenced on Monday 2 April. Butterworth then records that, at the Sessions, the accused “claimed an acquittal on the ground that his accuser could not appear against him as he had been murdered.” The magistrates had not heard of the murders at that stage and were very surprised and not a little suspicious at how the defendant knew of it so early. As a result, both Bradburys were arrested around a week after the inquest; their house was searched but did not reveal anything incriminating.

The reports said that both men had been seen near Saddleworth on Monday 5 April, at the New Inn public house near Saddleworth church, which was later renamed as the Church Inn. They had called in around 7pm and had a drink before saying they were on their way to Holmfirth – the road to which passed Bill o’Jack’s. However, Butterworth (but neither of the two newspaper reports which used his story) added: “A publican at Holmfirth has said that they were at his house before the time the murder was committed.” The two Red Bradburys appeared before Huddersfield magistrates on Saturday 21 April but were able to produce an alibi and explanation which resulted in their discharge. Incidentally, it is likely that the magistrates investigated thoroughly; they would not have dismissed the case against known poachers lightly, especially amid the clamour surrounding the murders.

The modern plantation near Bill o’Jack’s, photographed in 2006, where the Red Bradburys were suspected of poaching (Photo © John Topping [cc-by-sa/2.0])

No other details were given at the time about the “Red Bradburys”, but it appears that suspicion lingered around them for many years. The next mention of their case in print comes in an obscure article in the Huddersfield Chronicle in 1851, nearly twenty years later, which discusses the death of a James Bradbury. He was from Whitewalls in Austonley, and the Chronicle observed that he “had always been suspected of being concerned in a most dreadful murder which took place in Greenfield, Saddleworth, about nineteen or twenty years ago.” 

The article explains: “The exact reason why suspicion clung to this man we are not prepared to give. Some individuals assign one [reason], some another, but the one we have most frequently heard is that at the time of the murder a law suit was pending between James Bradbury and some one else, and that Bill o’Jack’s, his son, or both of them, were to appear in evidence against the said James Bradbury.” The report continues with the tale of how James Bradbury informed the Pontefract Sessions the next morning – following the line taken by the Manchester Courier at the time that Bradbury’s trial was scheduled for the day after the murders. The Chronicle hints at some rumours in circulation: “Popular report further says that some time ago [James Bradbury’s son] died, and that during his illness the father would not allow any body to visit him. Another reason which we have heard … is that he has always, ever since the occurrence alluded to, had the appearance of being miserable, of having a weight on his mind, but this might be only a vulgar conjecture arising from the fact of his being suspected.” Further rumours in both Saddleworth and Holmfirth suggested that he had confessed to the murders while under the influence of drink but although these were proven false, the stigma did not fade. The reporter said that the newspaper had investigated a few other rumours but could find no evidence of any confession. The article doubted that he had made a confession, as was further rumoured, to family members on the not unreasonable grounds that the family would be unlikely to leak the story to the public.

The most detailed account of the Red Bradbury’s part in proceedings came many years later in Joseph Bradbury’s Saddleworth Sketches. At this point, caution is needed because, as we have seen, this author was not above altering the facts slightly to suit his purposes and his book was written nearly 40 years after the events it described. His story seems to build on what was reported in the Huddersfield Chronicle but he claims that there was information on the trial of the Red Bradburys among the documents which had belonged to “Owd Kedlock”: “old faded manuscripts” in which “it is asserted that upon the adjournment of the first trial, ‘Red Tom’ spoke out boldly in public, and said that Tom o’Bill’s o’Jack’s would not appear against him at the sessions; and the sequel proved him right.” This is the first suggestion that one of the Red Bradbury’s had effectively threatened Thomas Bradbury beforehand; no previous account, including the one in the Chronicle mentioned this. The Saddleworth Sketches continued: “The Saddleworth people even yet associate them [“Red Tom” and Thomas Bradbury] and it is said that when ‘Red Tom’ departed this life, near Holmfirth, some years since, he died in extraordinary agony, and constantly mentioning the murder of the two Bradburys.”

Hoowood Lane, photographed in 2018 (Photo © Ian S [cc-by-sa/2.0])

Later in the chapter, with no obvious source, Joseph Bradbury expanded the story. Making clear that the two Red Bradburys were unrelated to the victims, he relates how the family lived in Hoowood, a village close to Bradshaw in the region of Holmfirth. Contradicting his earlier claim (from “Owd Kedlock’s” manuscript) that “Red Tom” was involved, he now named the involved parties as James (known as Jamie) Bradbury and his son Joe. In this version, Jamie’s father was Red Tom Bredbury from whom the family name derived. The whole family were known to be poachers; Saddleworth Sketches claims that “Jamie had the reputation of being a desperate poacher” who had a hostile relationship with the gamekeepers on the moors. Joseph Bradbury described him, somewhat dramatically, as “a strong, powerful man, rough, rude and uncultivated, a hard drinker, a hard hitter, and an implacable foe”. Joe was “silent, strong, dogged, ignorant, and capable of being led into any kind of mischief by one who, like his father, had ascendancy over him”.

Joseph Bradbury related once more how Jamie had been accused of poaching near Bill o’Jack’s, how the Red Bradburys were seen at the New Inn and the story of how they boasted that Thomas Bradbury would never give evidence. He also followed the line in the Manchester Courier that the Sessions began the day after the murder. Saddleworth Sketches makes clear that the men would have had a strong motive as they would have received considerable punishment had they been found guilty of poaching; the author concedes that there was no direct evidence against the Red Bradburys, but “circumstantial evidence was not wanting” that they were the murderers.

Saddleworth Sketches also includes some information that can only have been gossip from long after the event: “It was also believed in the neighbourhood by many people that when they returned home, some time after midnight [early on the Tuesday that the attack was discovered], their blood-stained garments were washed by Jamie’s eldest daughter, and it was remarked that the coat which her father had worn on the day of the murder was never seen again by any of the neighbours.” Another snippet, unrecorded elsewhere, was that “he passed through Meltham before eight o’clock in the morning, and while in that village he was heard to declare that Tom o’Bill’s would never appear against him at Pontefract, supplementing it with the remark that he believed he was in hell by that time.”

Joseph Bradbury argues that the Red Bradburys could not have heard of the murders before reaching Pontefract the following day: “The only inference that seemed to explain the point was that Jamie and his son were guilty of the crime of murdering William and Thomas Bradbury.”

According to Saddleworth Sketches, the father and son were acquitted owing to the “absence of direct evidence”. They had set up an alibi, the main evidence for which was given by Jamie’s eldest daughter: “She was ready with her testimony, of course, to the effect that she saw nothing suspicious about them when they came home on Monday night, the 2nd of April, and no doubt she was equally confident that the hour at which they reached Hoowood was only just late enough to enable them to travel from the Church Inn, in Saddleworth, without stopping anywhere.” Bradbury claimed that “Jamie and his son Joe, together with their party, were jubilant at the result , and their journey home from Huddersfield had some of the features of a triumphal procession. The reader may be quite certain that they did not forget to call at every public house on their road from Huddersfield.” Bradbury concludes his tale by echoing the rumour reported in the Huddersfield Chronicle saying that Jamie never set foot in another public house, the implication being that he was afraid of giving himself away while drunk. Also, “it was rumoured strongly in the neighbourhood that when one of the ‘Red Bredburys’ was on his deathbed he was anxious to confess his crimes, but that the family would not on any account allow anyone to enter the room where he lay.”

It is obvious that each subsequent retelling of the story added more evidence against the Red Bradburys, until Saddleworth Sketches made it appear as if the case against them was very strong. But these versions take us far from the original report, adding boasts and deathbed confessions that are almost certainly much later embellishments, either added through years of gossip and rumour, or embroidered by Joseph Bradbury himself. Most of what he says should be discounted completely. He may, however, have been at least accurate in giving the names of the men involved – which is the only evidence it is possible to corroborate faintly.

Bradshaw and Hoowood 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)

In Saddleworth Sketches, the Red Bradburys are said to come from Hoowood. Both Hoowood and Bradshaw fall into the region of Austonley. There is substantial evidence of people called Bredbury/Bradbury in that area. For example, in 1810 and 1817, a man called Job Bredbury is listed in the tax records for Austonley. In 1822, he is listed as Job Bradbury. He may have also been married to a Hannah Bradbury who lived in Bradshaw. In 1802, 1803 and 1805, the tax records include two men called Thomas Bradbury who lived at Austonley; one of these is listed as Thomas Bredbury in 1809. This may be important as the suspects from 1832 are called both Bradbury and Bredbury. In 1829, “Widow Bradbury” holds land at Austonley. But there is no way to be certain if any of these people are connected with the “Red Bradburys”, or if Thomas Bradbury/Bredbury is “Red Tom”.

Another possible connection can be found in the Quarter Session records for 1819, when a James Bradbury of Austonley was found guilty of assaulting a Joshua Schofield in Saddleworth to the point that “his life was greatly despaired of”; although Bradbury denied the charge, he was “fined sixpence and discharged”. Could this be Jamie Bradbury? As for his son (as named in Saddleworth Sketches) the 1841 census records Joseph Bradbury, born around 1806, living at Austonley in 1841. Could this be him?

Finally, the James Bradbury whose death was recorded in the Huddersfield Chronicle died on 29 September 1851 aged 59; he was buried at Almondbury the following week. A James Bradbury of the same age, born in Quick, Saddleworth, was imprisoned in York Castle when the 1851 census was taken. He was a “clothier and farmer” but was incarcerated as a debtor. Possibly the same James Bradbury was living at Fairbanks in Quick as a farmer in 1841 with his wife and several children. However, several details, including the place he lived, do not match with the death notice in the Chronicle, so this may be a different man.

In the end, we cannot definitively link any of these people to the Red Bradburys. All we can say is that while the biography given in Saddleworth Sketches cannot be verified, it is not impossible: there were plenty of Bradburys in the areas claimed, some of whom were called Thomas, James and Joseph.

But there is one vital point in considering the role of these men in the Bill o’Jack’s murders. The records of the 1832 Pontefract Sessions do not include any mentions of people called Bradbury. There is a Joseph Bradley (who was listed in one newspaper as connected with Sheffield) for whom “no bill” could be found on a charge of felony – in other words, the case was dismissed. But no Bradburys. This is the same in both the official record of the sessions, and in the newspapers which recorded it. Nor would such a case have been omitted from the records on the grounds of there being no prosecution: the newspapers list those acquitted and those for whom there was “no bill”. If the Bradburys were not at Pontefract when it was claimed, they can hardly have attracted the suspicion of the magistrates, nor had incriminating knowledge of the murder that could not be explained unless they were involved. Was the whole story (which dated back to 16 April 1832) another wild rumour that was reported as fact?

Even if we argue that the case against the Red Bradburys went unrecorded for an unknown reason, it is far from clear when it took place, and certainly not that it was heard the day after the murder: Butterworth believed it was “a few days after”, which is far less incriminating than knowing about the murder the next morning. And Butterworth himself gave them an alibi when he said they had been seen at Holmfirth at the time the attack at Bill o’Jack’s must have taken place. But subsequent accounts overlooked this detail.

Unlike the other stories though, this one lasted long enough to damage the reputation of the “Red Bradburys”, and to be retold decades later in Saddleworth Sketches. Similar rumours are recorded from a different source. At a later date, another writer, Joseph Thornton wrote a book, New Saddleworth Sketches that was unpublished in his lifetime (he lived from 1846 until 1924) but was published by his daughter in 1967. It is not clear when these sketches were written but he talks about how the murders had been discussed for “many generations” and the title of his work (and he refers to them as sketches, even if the title of the book was not his) implies that he was writing after Joseph Bradbury. Discussing a motive for the murder, he says: “Seemingly, it was the sequel to a poaching affair which occasioned one Jamie Bradshaw [sic] and another to be summoned to appear before the magistrate on the following court day. This action aroused great interest among pleasure-seekers, moorland ramblers, and lovers of game… In a taproom full of company Bradshaw proposed to lay any amount of money against any person in the room that neither Bill o’Jack’s nor Tom o’Bill’s would ever appear against him, and this statement proved to be true. Is it not strange that nothing more definite was done in connection with it?” Thornton has confused the names of the suspects, and appears unaware that they were examined by magistrates and released, but he is obviously referring to a version of the same story. He tells us little new, except that the Red Bradburys continued to come under suspicion for many years.

And even today, the two men are regarded as likely suspects. But the evidence against them vanishes if looked at closely. Realistically, they should be discounted. Their involvement was simply a rumour that got out of hand.

With the reports on the Red Bradburys, the press and apparently the authorities lost interest; as an active case, the investigation into the murders of Thomas and William Bradbury was at an end. But there was one subsequent development: an apparent confession from the other side of the world. On 5 March 1853, a letter was printed in the Huddersfield Chronicle. It had been written by an anonymous man living in Australia to his brother who still lived in Huddersfield. The author gave his permission for the letter to be printed in newspapers; the article stated: “We do not give the name of the writer, yet we have every confidence in his veracity.”

The author was actually quoting someone else’s tale – he had been given a “statement” (it is not clear whether this was in a conversation, through a letter, or if he had read it somewhere else) in October 1852 from Robert Whitehead, a sheep farmer living in Australia at Springs Creek, “about 160 miles” from Melbourne. By a remarkable coincidence, Robert Whitehead was almost certainly the son of Daniel Whitehead, the owner of the shop that Thomas Bradbury visited the night he was attacked. The bulk of the letter was taken up with what appears to be a transcription of Whitehead’s statement.

Whitehead in turn had been told the story in late 1851 or early 1852 by a wool carrier to whom he spoke in a public house at “Port Fary” (presumably Port Fairy), a town in South-West Victoria, about 180 miles from Melbourne. The wool carrier entered and said to Whitehead: “I know you and I knew your uncles.” After asking if the murder at Saddleworth had ever been solved, the wool carrier told him that he had been working on the nearby canal at the time. He said the murderer was “a young man hawking tape in a basket in Saddleworth,” and related the hawker’s story to Whitehead.

Shortly after the murders, the hawker had been arrested for robbing a drover at Leicester and was therefore transported to Sydney in Australia. There, the hawker was later hung for a further murder in Hobart, but not before confessing to the wool carrier. According to this confession, the hawker had only intended to rob the Bradbury’s house and so sent William upstairs out of the way. However, the old man subsequently came back down. The hawker struck him on the head and Bradbury crawled back upstairs. At this stage, the narrative becomes muddled as it has Thomas Bradbury entering twice: as the hawker was searching the drawers and when he was about to leave. But it concludes: “Seeing Tom coming he turned back, and as Tom entered the door he knocked him down with the fire poker.”

As the basis for a confession, this is not a particularly robust source given the multiple levels of hearsay – the hawker told the wool carrier, who told Robert Whitehead, who told the anonymous author of the letter which was sent to the newspaper. Even if we believe that each person was telling the complete truth, the probability of garbled transmission would be high. While the basic tale seems plausible enough, as the writer of the article in the Huddersfield Chronicle remarked, it does not account for the violence of the attack on the Bradburys; nor does it mention all the implements used as weapons.

The “confession” was followed up in 1987 by Neil Barrow and Terry Wyke in the Saddleworth Historical Society Bulletin. Their research identified the most likely person to have made the confession as a man called James Hill. They identify him as the only man executed at Hobart in the 1830s and 1840s who was from Leicestershire. According to their research, Hill was baptised at Church Gresley in Derbyshire in 1810 and worked in various occupations before twice being convicted of theft; on the second occasion in 1841, his sentence was transportation to Australia. There, he briefly became more respectable until he was charged with the murder of an elderly woman in 1846 – although it is not clear why he did so, it is possible he was disturbed during a robbery. He was found guilty and hanged. When the judge passed sentence and concluded with the usual remark “May the Lord have mercy on your soul”, Hill muttered that “there was little chance of that.”

Barrow and Wyke suggest that Hill’s record “tends to support the verifiable details in Whitehead’s letter and it seems safe to assume that Hill was the convict referred to.” However, James Hill was a very common name – shared by many men transported to Australia – and we can never be certain whether all these facts relate to the same man. And even if they do, we will never know if James Hill actually made the reported confession, nor – if he did – whether it was genuine. With so many uncertainties, so much guesswork and the level of hearsay involved, it is unlikely that the solution to the murder is to be found in this confession.

There was one interesting passing comment at the end of the article: “In any case there should appear any reasonable grounds for hope that … this singularly brutal and most mysterious murder may be cleared up; and ‘the thousand and one’ dark insinuations which are aimed at certain families in the locality – as connected with this transaction – may thus be set at rest for ever.” Is this alluding to suspicions against the Red Bradbury family? Or against someone else?

The motive possibly given by James Hill was the same as many assumed at the time – robbery. But there may actually have been any number of people – other than the Red Bradburys – who held a considerable grudge against the occupants of Bill o’Jack’s. And there may be plenty of other motives.

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