The Bill o’Jack’s Murders: Finding a Motive

A postcard of Bill o’Jack’s, date unknown, looking up towards the Holmfirth Road (Image: via wessyman137.wordpress.com).

The murder of William and Thomas Bradbury at Bill o’Jack’s in 1832 was generally believed to have been an attempted theft that escalated into a violent struggle. Based on this assumption, the prime suspects were the three Irishmen seen the night before the discovery of the attack. As a result, many men were arrested simply because they were – or were suspected to be – Irish, only to be released when there was no evidence to support their involvement. The supposed confession reported in a Huddersfield newspaper in 1853 also indicated that an interrupted theft was the motive for the murders. But there are one or two problems with this interpretation, not least that there is little evidence that a theft took place. More importantly, despite the initial silence in newspaper accounts of the murder, it appears that there may have been many people with a grudge of one sort or another against Thomas and William Bradbury.

Early accounts were clear that theft was the motive. Butterworth’s notes state that “money, usually in the drawer, had been taken from behind them” and give the family as his source. The newspaper reports derived from Butterworth go further, stating that £7 was taken (worth around £640 in 2020). Non-Butterworth sources express this more cautiously. The Manchester Guardian makes clear that the family only suspected that money was taken but were not certain how much: “The booty they obtained in money would, according to the statement of near relatives, not exceed seven or eight pounds”. Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle is more cautious still: “It cannot be ascertained whether they found any money, but the respectability of the old man and the extent of his custom would naturally lead them to a supposition that he had property. He is stated to have told one of his family that he had laid by £7, which would perhaps do to bury him but at present it is impossible to ascertain whether he had any, and if any, how much money.” In other words, the family did not know that money was taken, but believed William may have had roughly £7 around the house. And “family” in this case probably meant William’s daughter Nancy and Thomas’ wife Ann – both of whom were at Bill o’Jack’s when the news spread through the locality.

The inquest did not discuss if anything was taken, being concerned with more important matters. But other sources at the very least imply that theft took place. The letter of Thomas Smith and the sworn statement of Ammon Platt describe damage to a set of drawers – where Butterworth said the money was kept – in the main room, as if they had been smashed open. Similarly, Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle described how “two small drawers, at the top of a chest which stands in the public room, were found broken open.” And when the reporter for the Manchester Times accompanied the inquest jury on their inspection of Bill o’Jack’s, he reported: “The drawers, which had been forced open with the kitchen poker, were also smeared with blood”.

Other items may also have been stolen. Butterworth noted that “several suits of clothes and wearing apparel” were taken. Thomas Smith – in the Liverpool Mercury version of his letter – stated that “every portable article in the house was carried off”. The Manchester Guardian said that, presumably unhappy with the meagre amount of money they found, the attackers “burdened themselves with the plunder of almost every portable article of value the house contained: such as clothes, bedding, &c.” Wheeler’s Manchester Guardian went further: “It does not appear that [the attackers] went up-stairs, but from different parts of the house they have taken a black coat and waistcoat, a pair of drab kerseymere trousers, three shirts, two sheets, three bolster-covers, and two India silk handkerchiefs, red and yellow.”

These are odd items to take, and as the Manchester Guardian noted, would have burdened any getaway as well as being an obvious sign of guilt. If theft was the primary motive, why did the attackers not go upstairs? And given that there were only three rooms downstairs, one of which was the bar area, where were all these items of clothing kept? Is that what was in the drawers? Furthermore, these lists of missing items are based on the possibly faulty memories of family members – none of whom lived at Bill o’Jack’s – they may have been mistaken. While robbery certainly cannot be discounted as the motive, there is no conclusive evidence to support it.

Can any other potential motives be grounded in contemporary evidence? To answer that, we need to look at what else is known about William and Thomas Bradbury. Later accounts concentrated more on the facts of their deaths than on their life beforehand, but a few things can be established.

Around 1830, William Bradbury had been involved in a serious dispute with his landlord. The only surviving information comes from Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle in its report of the murder. By this account, Bradbury had attempted to “set himself up as owner of the house, his title being founded upon long exemption from rent. He persevered pertinaciously in his determination to remain master of the building, until legal proceedings were adopted by the owner of the property.” Bradbury was removed from the house but he and his son Thomas “immediately set about the erection of a hut close to the house, and in it they lived for some time.” Around a year before the murder, some kind of understanding was reached and the Bradburys moved back in as tenants. But according to Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle, “the publican’s licence had been forfeited, and he was only enabled to practise as a retailer of beer” under the “New Beer Act” – presumably the Beerhouse Act of 1830. Although this meant that Bradbury would only have been able to sell beer as opposed to other alcoholic drinks such as gin, it also meant that there would be less supervision from local authorities; regulations were more lax for beer houses than for establishments with a full licence. The hut in which Bradbury and his son had lived was still standing unoccupied at the time of the murder.

Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle also gave more information on the two men, the only newspaper to give any biographical information. “Though in his earlier days [William] was remarkably stout, his age had of course rendered him feeble.” He was “known through all the surrounding country. He was designated ‘Bill o’Jack’s,’ and from the repute of his house and certain personal peculiarities his violent death has excited more general sympathy than any similar occurrence for a series of years.” Both men had earlier worked as stone cutters. Thomas had more recently “worked for Mr James Bottomley of Greenfield Mills, in the vicinity. The proceeds of the house, however, were the main support of the two men.” In previous years, “William Bradbury has been the keeper of what is styled a ‘hush shop,’ [an unlicensed ale house] upon the very premises of which he now lies a corpse … When driven from his house he declared that if he must leave Greenfield he would be carried away, heels foremost.”

Therefore, it was well-known that William Bradbury had a creative relationship with licensing laws: first running a “hush shop” before acquiring a legitimate licence, then later content to lose his licence and operate under the “New Beer Act” with its looser regulations. What else may have been happening under Bradbury’s roof? Interestingly, several sources, including the statement of Ammon Platt and the letter written by magistrates to the Home Office, make very clear that Bill o’Jack’s was a “new beer house” – referring to its licence. Was there some relevance in their minds?

There are one or two other fragments we can use written about them at the time. In 1978, Neil Barrow identified an account by someone who knew both William and Thomas Bradbury – Matthew Marsh. Writing up his discovery in the Bulletin of the Saddleworth Historical Society, Barrow notes that Marsh’s information was written on a manuscript which was damaged so that part of the writing is lost. However, Barrow says that Marsh “confirms that Tom Bradbury ‘was a wild sort of a man’ spending a lot of time on the moors where ‘he made a living out of the game that he killed’. He recounts a tale (most of it lost from the manuscript) of Tom’s nearly beating a besom-maker to death on the moors.”

The Isle of Skye Hotel, date unknown; Matthew Marsh believed that the murder could be traced to Thomas Bradbury’s activities while returning home drunk from this public house (Image: Via Dovestone Heritage).

Marsh believed he knew the cause of the murder: “On the 13th August 1831, Tom o’Bill’s was returning home from a stroll towards the Isle of Skye [a public house on the moors]. At that time, a new road from Greenfield to Holmfirth was being made, and the navvies who were Irish had built a house or a hut of sods in which to dwell … This formed a shelter at night for about 12 or 15 navvies engaged in the making of the new road. Tom o’Bill’s who was partly drunk and thought he would have an act with the Irish as he returned home, so instead of quietly passing about his own business went and pushed the House of Sods over and nearly the whole mass of dirt and timber fell on the quiet and harmless sleepers. Some were slightly hurt but none badly injured or killed. Three or four of them got away and ran after Tom o’Bill’s but were not able to catch him, though they said that they would murder him if they did. They knew it was him who had pushed the hut over, and they vowed to murder him before they left England.”

This is direct evidence that Thomas Bradbury may not have been particularly popular. It also explicitly identifies him as a poacher who made a living from the moors, and a violent man.

Another contemporary source discovered by Barrow is also enlightening. A local man, George Shaw, kept a diary at this time. His entry for 12 August 1829, which was the date the hunting season opened recorded how four or five dogs had been poisoned with “small pieces of muffin” which had leather buttons concealed inside. These “had been evidently scattered about on purpose for mischief” near Bill o’Jack’s. According to Shaw, “It is supposed that Thom [sic] o’Bill’s has been the author of this diabolical action in revenge for being fined for shooting last year”. A week later Shaw recorded that Thomas had appeared before magistrates at Dobcross but as there was no evidence against him, he went free. This is another indication that not only was Thomas a poacher, but he had been in trouble with the authorities.

Unfortunately, Shaw was away at the time of the murders, and only discovered what had happened when he read it in a Manchester newspaper on April 8. The following day, he arrived home in Uppermill and confirmed the story for himself. On 21 April, he travelled to Greenfield and went to Bill o’Jack’s. He observed: “There was a great number of people at Old Bill’s today. The Struggle which deprived these poor unfortunate people of their lives must have been most terrific as Tom stood 6 feet ½ inch in height and was an extremely powerful man … It seems very improbable that the murderers will ever be found out now.”

The modern plantation near Bill o’Jack’s, photographed in 2006, where Thomas Bradbury may have made several enemies (Photo © John Topping [cc-by-sa/2.0]).

The Manchester Guardian also shed some light on the Bradburys in the conclusion to its report on the inquest printed on 14 April: “Tom is said to have incurred the hatred of a number of Irish, who, in summer, visited the moors for the purpose of cutting heath to make into brooms. Whenever he found them, he pretended to have a right to the heath, and demanded an acknowledgement for what they had cut, and if they refused, or were unable to pay him, he would set fire to it, or cut the cords and scatter it abroad. On such occasions they would sullenly depart, vowing deep revenge.” A similar story appears in Butterworth’s notes, part of his report on the Red Bradburys, written sometime between 19 April and 22 April: “An opinion is speedily gaining ground that the atrocious murders recently committed in Saddleworth were an act of revenge perpetrated by poachers and other unlawful visitors to the moors, with whom the younger Bradbury always interfered when they took too much liberty with game, gathering bilberries or cutting fern for brooms.” This was not reproduced in every newspaper that used the report – for example, the Manchester Courier omitted it.

One of the many odd things about Joseph Bradbury’s Saddleworth Sketches is how he completely overlooks the faults of William and Thomas as reported at the time. Indeed, the author adds some legitimacy to Thomas’ actions in describing him – inaccurately – as a “gamekeeper”. But among the many rumours he repeats, Bradbury never mentions Thomas’ actions on the moor – not even the dispute with “broom collectors” widely published in newspapers. Alongside his determination to portray the Red Bradburys as the murders, and his determination – as we shall see – to cast suspicion on Reuben Platt, this raises the possibility that his aim, for whatever reason, was to whitewash the reputation of Thomas Bradbury.

After this, any information about the Bradburys comes many years after the events and must therefore be treated with much more caution. Joseph Thornton, in New Saddleworth Sketches (published in 1967 but written at some unknown date before 1924 when Thornton died) had this to say: “The fact was that there were too many unwilling witnesses, some of whom could have hanged the culprit on their own evidence. Many declined to come forward with substantial facts on account of the unfriendly behaviour of the Bradburys towards those who had to travel on the road from Greenfield to Holmfirth. The gamekeeper was a terror to the pedestrians as well as to the poacher.” He concluded: “Statements have since been made that if the tragedy had not taken place on the above date, it would have taken place shortly afterwards.” It is not clear when he wrote this, but it could be almost a hundred years after the murder. However, it does tally with the scanty contemporary evidence (which Thornton does not appear to have used) about Thomas Bradbury’s behaviour.

If Thomas Bradbury was a violent poacher who terrorised residents of the moor and other passers-by, this greatly increases a potential motive for his killing. It may also explain why his father’s injuries were less serious – albeit still fatal, on account of his age. Rather than disturbing an attempted robbery, perhaps Thomas was the target all along.

Foulrakes (or as it is now known, Foul Rake House), Kinders Lane

There may have been another reason for someone in the area to be angry with Thomas Bradbury at this time; another incident from early April 1832 may have tangentially involved him. The Bradbury inquest on 7 April 1832 was the second to be held at the William the Fourth that day. The first – which newspapers also recorded – took place in the morning. The story is a straightforward, albeit unhappy one. The body of a newly-born baby girl had been found hidden in a privy (outdoor toilet) at the house of Samuel Wrigley of Foulrakes in Saddleworth.

It was quickly discovered that the mother was one of Wrigley’s servants, Esther Porritt. Butterworth describes her as “a tall lusty woman” while Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle says she was “a fine-looking woman, and does not appear to be more than twenty years of age.” At her trial later in the year, Porritt said she was twenty-six. According to the Manchester Guardian, she was “a native of Chapel-en-le-Firth, Derbyshire” and “a remarkably fine young woman”. The latter newspaper related that she had lived “at Mr Garforth’s, of Low Side, near Oldham” before moving to live with Wrigley as a house servant.

From the various reports of the inquest – which are brief and a little contradictory – and the subsequent trial at York on 4 September 1832, it appears that Wrigley and his wife had suspected Porritt of being pregnant in February and March, but she denied it. On Sunday 1 April, Wrigley and his wife travelled to Oldham for a few days. Poritt shared a room and bed with Hannah Woffinden, a fellow servant. Around midnight on Sunday, Porritt got out of bed and went downstairs for some time, being heard in the kitchen. Challenged about this when she returned, she said that she had been extremely thirsty. The following morning, Woffinden saw that Porritt’s appearance had changed enormously, and she accused her of having given birth. Porritt denied this, but when the Wrigleys returned on Thursday, Woffinden told them of her suspicions. The house was searched and on the Friday, Woffinden herself found the dead child in the drain of the privy behind the house. Porritt admitted giving birth but said the baby had been born dead, and she had hidden the body to conceal the fact that she had been pregnant.

A constable was called and Porritt was detained until the inquest, at which she repeated her denial of having murdered the child. Two surgeons who examined the body on the morning of the inquest were not certain, but according to the Guardian “both pronounced an opinion, though very guardedly, that the child had breathed after birth.” The jury gave a verdict of “wilful murder” and Porrit was sent to York where she would be tried for it. Butterworth, not fully understanding how an inquest operated, reported that the jury had found Porrit guilty – something beyond the powers of an inquest jury.

At the summer sessions of York Assizes, Esther Porritt was sentenced to six months hard labour for “concealing the birth of her infant”. The York Herald reported on 8 September that “The prisoner had been committed for the wilful murder of the child, but the Grand Jury ignored the bill, there being no evidence that the child was born alive.” Similar events were quite common in the 19th century as servants and other women attempted to conceal illegitimate births.

Although interesting, there is still nothing relevant or remarkable about this. Until we turn to the Manchester Guardian. Having given the fullest account of this particular inquest, the writer adds a little more detail – though giving no indication where this information came from: “This same woman, some time since, bore a child by Thomas Bradbury, the particulars of whose murder we have been detailing; she then lived at a public inn, at Ashton-under-Lyne, and, probably, removed from Low Side to Foulrakes, in order to be again in his neighbourhood. The child, as she confessed, was born on the night of Sunday the first of April, and she might probably conceal it in order to prevent Tom from knowing she had again been pregnant. But a catastrophe still more dreadful cut him off from all knowledge of the circumstances, his murder having taken place on the night following.”

We should be clear on one thing: no other contemporary account links the child murder and Thomas Bradbury (although this Manchester Guardian report was reproduced in several newspapers, no other independent account mentions it). Even Joseph Bradbury is silent in Saddleworth Sketches, possibly because he used the Manchester Courier as his source, which makes no such connection. Maybe this indicates that no rumours surrounded the death of the child, and the story had not been passed down like others had. Or maybe it did not fit the story that Bradbury wanted to tell.

Are there any facts which might back up the Guardian’s claims? Not really; although there is nothing to refute the idea, there is nothing to support it either. There is no definitive trace of our Esther Porritt on the census. If her age given at the trial is correct, she was born around 1806; if the Guardian was correct, she was from Chapel-en-Frith. The closest candidate is an Esther Porritt, who was born at Chinley in 1805 to Jonathan and Malley Porritt; Chinley is fairly close to Chapel-en-la-Frith. Perhaps this was her, but there is no further obvious trace of her in the records, and certainly nothing to corroborate the claims made in the Manchester Guardian except for one extraordinarily flimsy hint. In 1826, in Ashton-under-Lyne, a child was baptised – James Bradbury, the son of Esther, a spinster of Stalybridge; no father is named. The location, date and first name of the mother and surname Bradbury fit the rumour. As usual in the Bill o’Jack’s story, there is no clear trace of any of these people afterwards. If this was Esther Porritt and Thomas Bradbury’s child, there is no way to prove it.

Foulrakes 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)

The only other vaguely circumstantial piece of evidence is the location of Foulrakes. It was very close to Road End, along Kinders Lane; this rather isolated road leads to a place called Tunstead, from which several paths travel back down the hill to the Holmfirth Road, very close to Side Bank where Thomas Bradbury’s wife lived in 1832.

It was not until 1926 that anyone resurrected in print the claim in the Manchester Guardian. An Oldham councillor, A. J. Howcroft, wrote a rather romanticised account of the murders suggesting that the outraged father of Esther Porritt murdered the Bradburys. We shall return to Howcroft’s version later.

Others have since examined Porritt’s story as a possible motive. Neil Barrow and Terry Wyke wrote in 1987: “Once again direct evidence is unavailable but these particulars [on the father of Porritt’s child], if true, place the murder of Tom Bradbury in a rather different light. Clearly it would not be beyond the bounds of possibility to infer that the relationship between Esther Porritt and Tom Bradbury had soured, and that she, or, more likely, a close friend or relative confronted Bradbury with the consequences of his treatment of Esther, an argument broke out and the result was a frenzied attack on him … If their relationship had finished, it is possible to envisage that a psychologically disturbed woman, even one who had recently experienced the trauma of secret childbirth, was responsible, or that a relative or close friend, incensed by Tom’s treatment of Esther, carried out the attack. Clearly in this theory, unlike the conventional scenario of the crime, Tom Bradbury is the target and William Bradbury was probably attacked as he came to the assistance of his son. Indeed, the extremely savage nature of the attack on Tom … might be seen as supporting the view that revenge not robbery was the motive behind the crime … Naturally against these views it might be argued that the love affair between Tom Bradbury and Esther Porritt was a simple coincidence but in cases of murder it would be foolish to dismiss such coincidences.”

But to go this far, we need to make a dangerous number of assumptions. And the biggest assumption is that Thomas Bradbury really was the father of the child from the inquest or actually had a previous child with Porritt. Even the article in the Manchester Guardian is careful to avoid stating outright that the dead child was Bradbury’s, although the implication is there. But this caution on the part of the writer – and remember, the Guardian was thorough and accurate in reporting the Bill o’Jack’s murders – may make the case stronger. He is certain that Porritt and Bradbury had an earlier child; he differentiates the other suggestions – that Porritt moved to be closer to Bradbury or that she concealed the pregnancy so that he did not find out – as conjecture.

Other than those few lines in that single report, there is no other contemporary claim that there was any connection between Porritt and Bradbury. Can we trust the single journalist who reported it? Maybe it could be argued that the coroner had asked the journalists to keep some details from the newspapers, and only the Manchester Guardian ignored him.  Or was this based in fact, or mere local gossip, such as that which dominated the early days of the story? It may be relevant that Butterworth, after recording the inquest, wrote in his notes: “Rumour, with her thousand tongues, has spread around a multitude of unfounded assertions and in this mass of falsehoods it is difficult and vain to cull out the truth, and though it is generally mixed up with error both are inseparable”; which, given his earlier careless reporting, seems a little hypocritical.

If (and it is a big if) that the story in the Manchester Guardian is true – that there was a relationship and a resulting child or children – then yes, we could have a possible motive for murder. The dates match to some extent – the child was born on Sunday night or Monday morning, the Bradburys were attacked on Monday night. As Neil Barrow and Terry Wyke point out, a relationship would also explain why Thomas Bradbury and his wife lived separately – as several journalists note in an almost pointed way. But this is only a possible motive based on facts that must be carefully handled. And there is no indication why Bradbury would have been in Ashton-under-Lyne to have a relationship with Porritt.

Therefore, we have several possible motives: theft; a connection with the dispute William Bradbury had over ownership of Bill o’Jack’s; revenge against Thomas Bradbury, whether for his own poaching activities, or his actions against those using the moor; and events related to the death of Esther Porritt’s child. And maybe Thomas Bradbury’s involvement with the Red Bradburys. Overall it seems that William and, in particular, Thomas Bradbury may not have been too popular in the area before their deaths. This, more than a simple theft, would account for the frenzied nature of the attack in Bill o’Jack’s.

Before we look more closely at what that attack involved, there is one final person upon whom suspicion has fallen. Despite having no clear motive, and although the evidence against him is questionable, this man has remained high on several writers’ lists of possible murderers. It is time to return to Reuben Platt…

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