The Bill o’Jack’s Murders: Suspicion Falls on Reuben Platt

Bill o’Jack’s, in an undated photo but probably taken around 1905 (Image: Dovestone Heritage)

Following the murders of Thomas and William Bradbury at Bill o’Jack’s beer house in April 1832, no-one was ever charged with the crime. Generally, the motive was believed to be theft, although there may have been other reasons that people may have wished the two men dead. But after a flurry of enquiries and some doubtful arrests, the case gently fizzled out by the end of the month. The main problem was that there was nothing that could clearly identify a suspect. Other than the testimony of Reuben Platt, there was only one other piece of direct evidence to say who was responsible. Although Thomas Bradbury never spoke before he died, William Bradbury was conscious for some time on 3 April. From the time that James Whitehead discovered him lying in bed, several people asked who had caused his injuries. His answer, if he actually gave one, is the closest we can come to identifying who was responsible. But not everyone agreed that he was capable of speaking.

The only definitive statement that William Bradbury spoke intelligibly came from James Whitehead at the inquest. Most newspapers said that Whitehead claimed to have heard “Pats, Pats”, although the Manchester Times had the subtly different “The Pats, the Pats.” Whitehead admitted at the inquest that it was difficult to understand Bradbury though (and, further complicating the issue, Butterworth’s notes recorded that Whitehead himself was difficult to hear clearly when he spoke at the inquest as he spoke “in so low a tone”).  Whitehead assumed this to mean that Irishmen had caused his injuries. He then asked Bradbury if his son had been there; the latter indicated that he had been (the Manchester Times said that Whitehead got no reply to this). However, not every newspaper gives the same wording.

It would seem risky to build too much of a case on this. Whitehead certainly thought he heard Bradbury say “Pats”, which he took to mean some Irishmen: he gave Higginbottom the impression that the person lying on the floor was Irish. But whether that is what he actually said is another matter; Whitehead could, in the circumstances, have been mistaken, and wrongly interpreted the noises that he made as words.

The site of Upperwood, where Joseph Matthews and Abraham Dawson lived, photographed in 2014 from the Holmfirth Road, which continues behind the pictured buildings. Saddleworth Moor is in the background. (Image: Photo © Peter McDermott [cc-by-sa/2.0])

Other than possibly replying “Aye”, did William Bradbury speak again? Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle states that Bradbury was “repeatedly interrogated by the surgeon and others, but though he betrayed, by muttering, a consciousness of the questions, not a sound escaped his lips which was at all distinguishable”. But there were two suggestions to the contrary. Thomas Smith, in his letter, claimed to speak directly to Bradbury. As we have seen, it is more likely that Smith was merely reporting the stories he heard around Bill o’Jack’s, and embroidered his own role in affairs. The other claim that the old man spoke appeared in the Manchester Guardian on 14 April. After reporting the inquest and mentioning the burial of the Bradburys, the writer casually mentions that “Joseph Matthews, a stone-cutter, residing in a small hut on the road towards Holmfirth, states that, hearing of the murders, he went down to Bradbury’s, where he found Tom on the floor, and spoke to him but he did not answer. He asked the old man who had done it, and he said four or five ‘Irish Pats.’ He asked him what time, and he said ‘Soon at night’; he also said that one had a dark, ragged, torn coat on, and another a blue frock [coat].”

Matthews’ claim is somewhat compromised by coming so late, a week after the murders. His story is similar to what Thomas Smith claims to have heard, but also includes Bradbury identifying “Pats” – doubtless by then a well-known detail locally, and something he could have read in the newspapers. This is probably enough to dismiss Matthews’ evidence. But the phrase “soon at night” does not quite make sense in response to the question of when he was attacked, and if Matthews was making it up, why not just “at night”? It may be what a confused, mortally injured old man might say. But perhaps Matthews only thought this was what he had said. Or maybe the whole thing was a fabrication. Whichever way, we cannot rely on this.

Incidentally, Abraham Dawson, who heard the disturbance at Bill o’Jack’s, was staying with Matthews, who lived in a hut at Upperwood in 1832. It was to Matthews that Dawson observed that “old Bradbury had some rough company”. The 1841 census records Joseph Matthews, a 38-year-old stone cutter, still living at Upper Wood with his wife and three children. There are two buildings there, the larger of which has two families living in it. Perhaps this hut was similar structure to the one William Bradbury built when his landlord had evicted him from Bill o’Jack’s, and may indicate a similar dispute.

Therefore, we have just two questionable pieces of evidence that William Bradbury spoke to anyone other than Whitehead. In complete contrast, the magistrates’ letter asking for an increased reward from the Home Office, and the testimony of Ammon Platt explicitly state that William did not speak, a view supported by Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle’s statement that he was repeatedly questioned to no avail. One possible solution to these contradictory accounts may be that when Whitehead found him, William was still, albeit barely, capable of being understood. When the others, such as Higginbottom and Platt, arrived, he was completely unintelligible.

In Saddleworth Sketches, when discussing the reliability of the letter by Thomas Smith, Joseph Bradbury wrote: “Had his details [of William Bradbury speaking] been correct, or even partly trustworthy, many other persons who flocked to the place on hearing of the catastrophe must have heard the old man speak, but not one of them has affirmed that the dying man could answer any question, or do more than mutter indistinctly the word Pats or Platts. Not a few of them are living at the present time (1871), and they agree in denying the old man’s ability to converse or answer any question put to him.” The author goes on to cite someone who was present as saying that William “could not speak when found, and that he never spoke as to be understood up to the moment of his death. His lips moved as if he was trying to say something, and a feeble mutter was detected, but no well-defined word passed his lips, so that those who alleged that he had made use of the words ‘Pats, Pats,’ several times might well be mistaken.” Although these claims must have been based on forty-year-old memories of someone who had been there, it does agree with the other sources to some extent.

However, Joseph Bradbury goes on to use William Bradbury’s supposed final words to cast suspicion on another target. Saddleworth Sketches offers a theory about what happened, which the author labours at length over the course of many, many pages. His argument wanders around in circles, does not always make sense, and never succeeds in being convincing. Because his prime suspect was Reuben Platt.

We have already seen what Platt had to say, and he was the key to identifying possible suspects given that he was the main witness who saw the mysterious Irishmen heading towards Holmfirth. Yet for Joseph Bradbury, he was the key in another way. 

First, Bradbury questions what James Whitehead heard William Bradbury say. Observing that if had he said “Pats, Pats”, it would lead to the deduction that Irishmen were responsible, the author states: “It was much questioned at the time in the neighbourhood whether the words were “Pats, Pats” or “Platts, Platts”. The old man could only speak with extreme difficulty, and very indistinctly, so that the bystanders might easily mistake the one for the other.” From this the author points out that if the latter was the case, William Bradbury may have been identifying at least one of his attackers as having the surname Platt. According to Saddleworth Sketches, “this idea has not yet died out in the district, and strong suspicions, founded mainly, if not solely, upon that slight hypothesis, were directed towards Reuben Platt”.

No contemporary sources indicate that Reuben Platt was even remotely suspected; in fact, he was consulted several times to see if he any apprehended suspects were the men he saw with Thomas Bradbury. Additionally, Joseph Bradbury does not even hint at any possible motive that Platt may have had for the murders. The suspicions, if they existed, must have come in later years. But the suggestion may be circumstantially supported by the line “‘the thousand and one’ dark insinuations which are aimed at certain families in the locality” from the 1853 confession report in the Huddersfield Chronicle (although it is more likely this refers to the Red Bradburys).

Joseph Bradbury then spends quite a lot of time trying to dismantle Platt’s credibility as a witness. He suggests that Platt was the only person to see the three Irishmen walking towards Holmfirth and questions why no-one was called to corroborate this at the inquest. His argument is that the Coroner would have felt compelled to call witnesses who could describe the men if any such witnesses had existed: “Yet no such witnesses were called before the coroner, and it is, therefore, tolerably evident that if the three Irishmen were not a myth, the testimony of Reuben Platt alone established their presence in the neighbourhood.” He dismisses the line in the Manchester Courier about others having seen the men as “merely one of those flying reports engendered in a neighbourhood whenever events of a startling and mysterious character take place.”

However, as we have seen, several others saw the three Irishmen, including Thomas Placow and another Thomas Bradbury. But other than the line in the Manchester Courier, only Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle mentioned this. Joseph Bradbury, reliant on the Courier report, was apparently unaware of this. The author may also have misunderstood the function of an inquest, which would not have been concerned with these Irishmen except to establish whether Charles Mullen, the only man in custody, was one of them. That was why Platt was called at the inquest. He also questioned why the inquest did not look into the movements of Platt after leaving Thomas Bradbury – something the Coroner would have had no reason to do unless Platt was a suspect.

Bradbury continues in this fashion for several pages: how if Platt were guilty in some way (a hypothesis he provides no evidence for whatsoever), and worrying over what William Bradbury said – whether he actually was saying “Platts” – this would have induced him to invent a story about Irishmen to cover the elder Bradbury’s words. While casting doubt on their existence, he claims that the Irishmen could not have been the murderers as they would have completed their robbery long before Thomas Bradbury returned home unless they walked an implausible distance along the Holmfirth road before turning back: “They would have completed their diabolical crime quickly, and have been far away with their plunder long before half-past ten o’clock.” Nor would they have had an particular reason to harm William Bradbury.

However, Joseph Bradbury’s argument is somewhat hard to follow, veering wildly from one point to another across many pages. Having established in his own mind that the Irishmen – if they even existed – were not the guilty parties, he argues that Platt attempted to stoke up suspicion against them. He took issue with the claim that one of the men kept his face turned away – arguing rather implausibly that he must simply have been looking in the direction he was travelling. He criticised Platt’s description of the men as “skulking” – which only the Manchester Courier, following the shorter of Butterworth’s two reports on the inquest, used, suggesting the word was not Platt’s. He argued (on no clear grounds) that Platt invented Thomas Bradbury’s statement that one of the men had stolen things before. He even criticised him for not telling the Coroner more – again misunderstanding how an inquest worked. But perhaps his most absurd argument to cast doubt on Platt is that if Bradbury had said that one of the men was a thief, Platt would have questioned him extensively because of “the characteristics of the class to which they both belonged”. Because his account included no details he would have discovered through such questioning, the whole account must have been fabricated.

Joseph Bradbury concluded that Platt’s account “appears to be thoroughly untrustworthy in its details, as well as its main features,” and was put together perhaps to divert attention from Platt himself because William Bradbury had actually said “Platts”. He notes, in passing, that the “facts” which contradict Platt were “well known in the district”. However, as we have seen, Platt did not introduce Irishmen to the story. Their involvement was suspected from the moment James Whitehead told Samuel Higginbottom that an Irishman was wounded at Bill o’Jack’s. Certainly the notion that Irishmen were the guilty parties was in circulation by the time Thomas Smith passed by around noon – even before Thomas Bradbury had died. If anyone was responsible for the idea, it was James Whitehead.

Joseph Bradbury believed it to be suspicious that Reuben Platt travelled home via Road End, pictured here around 1910 (Image: via Saddleworth Independent)

In an attempt to make his case stronger, Joseph Bradbury noted that only Platt would have known that William Bradbury was alone and an “easy victim”. He claims that Platt took a suspiciously circuitous route home to Primrose (near Saddleworth Church) by travelling from the Bradbury’s house to Roadend, substantially lengthening his journey when he could have “crossed the hill – Church Moors – and by that route he was not very much over a mile from home”. Bradbury questions whether he went home or doubled back and “in conjunction with others” attacked the old man. Bradbury does not explain quite why Platt – assuming he intended mischief – would have accompanied Thomas rather than pretending to head straight home and doubling back when he was out of sight. This would have given him far longer to complete a robbery undisturbed. Nor does he mention Platt’s very believable suggestion that he went via Road End to drink at a public house in Uppermill.

At this point, Joseph Bradbury makes some claims about Thomas’ movements on that night – that he spent time with his family, as was his custom, and would have left no earlier than 10pm. He appears to be relying on local knowledge as the only source to suggest this is Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle, which he did not appear to have access to. He also mentions the candles that Thomas bought from the shop – which are not mentioned in the Manchester Courier, his main written source – although he mistakenly says they were scattered on the floor when they were actually found crushed in his pocket. Of course, he uses these ideas to accuse Platt of knowing where Bradbury would have been. But it may indicate that he was not simply making up his case as he went along, but was relying on the partially accurate memories of people in the local area.

Bradbury finally conceded that “whether Reuben Platt was engaged in the crime or not will never be known”, and that the suspicions against him were based on little more than “the old man’s indistinct mutterings”, but “some people thought hardly of him as long as he lived”. Here, he finally leaves Platt alone, although still without offering the slightest hint of a motive after nine pages of discussion. Later in his narrative, when he apparently decided that the Red Bradburys were more likely suspects, he once more returned to Platt, suggesting that he had told them that William Bradbury was home alone.

Is there anything in Joseph Bradbury’s rambling and chaotic argument that should cause us to question the role of Platt? None of his criticism of Platt’s evidence stands up to scrutiny. There is no hint of a motive for Platt to attempt robbery or murder. It is extraordinarily unlikely he was involved. The only suspicious part of his evidence was his slightly shifting account of who the three men were: he may have become less adamant that they were Irish. Perhaps he actually recognised the men; maybe he wanted to protect them or maybe he was worried they would come after him. But if he had wanted to implicate someone outright, why cast doubt by saying that the man who spoke did not sound Irish? If the whole story was invented to divert attention from him, why not claim that one of the many men arrested was part of the group upon whom suspicion had fallen? Overall, there seems no convincing argument to say that Platt was not telling the truth.

Joseph Bradbury drew his story to a close by adding a few more of the rumours in circulation. One was that Thomas Bradbury was so strong that there must have been at least three men involved in his killing – although Bradbury was not convinced and argued that the Red Bradburys were strong enough to manage both Thomas and his father, particularly with the element of surprise. Another rumour was that there were traces of blood leading from the inn along the moors which came from one of the attackers who was wounded in the fight – but Bradbury noted that there was no reliable authority for this. This rumour had also been expanded into the wounded man being killed by his fellow murderers and buried in secret on the moors to facilitate a more rapid escape and leave no trail (note that no contemporary account mentions any trails of blood). There had also been rumours of confessions. One, that a man had confessed in Ireland, “proved to be a baseless story” upon investigation. A second, that one of the Red Bradburys had made a deathbed confession in Australia, was discredited by Joseph Bradbury on the grounds that neither of the suspected Bradburys seemed to have gone to Australia, although the eldest daughter (who provided the alibi in Joseph Bradbury’s version) emigrated there after her marriage. This rumour may have arisen from the reported Australian confession in 1853, where someone assumed it was a Red Bradbury who did so.

We are more-or-less finished with Joseph Bradbury now. What can we make of his strange account of the murder? His selective use of some facts makes him an unreliable storyteller. His determination to prove the guilt of the Red Bradburys and to establish Reuben Platt as a suspect leads him to twist and misinterpret many of the facts of the murders. His reasons for doing this are, like the real identity of the murderer, a mystery to us after so long. Can we trust his suggestion that Reuben Platt was suspected of involvement outside the pages of his book? Or did he invent this? If there were indeed genuine rumours against Platt, perhaps Bradbury was trying to explain them. Or perhaps he was trying to protect – or improve – the reputation of the murdered men. Perhaps we are seeing the echoes of a feud from long ago. Perhaps he was not a very good investigator. Or perhaps he simply wanted to tell a good story, and was not too concerned with the literal truth.

St Mary’s Gate, Uppermill

We are also finished with Reuben Platt. By the time of the 1841 census, when he was around fifty years old, he still lived at Primrose with his wife Alice. Several other Platt families lived in nearby houses, presumably relatives of his. He and his wife had at least three children (one of whom died young), but none lived with them in 1841. Platt died in 1849, aged 59, and was buried in the same churchyard as the Bradburys. His widow moved to Uppermill, where she ran a lodging house according to the 1851 census. She lived alone by the time of the 1861 census, and in 1871 her address was St Mary’s Gate, Uppermill; this is next to what is now Uppermill library and just a short walk from Saddleworth Museum, where the murder with which her husband had been associated still has a display. She died in 1874, at the age of 82. Somewhat horrifically, she lived long enough to have maybe read Saddleworth Sketches; if this book accurately described suspicion towards her husband, she may have endured forty years of rumours and whispering. At the very least, there could have been a few questioning looks at her after Joseph Bradbury’s unlikely theories were published in 1871.

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