The Bill o’Jack’s Murders: The Scene of the Crime

William and Thomas Bradbury were found severely injured on 3 April 1832 at their home, the beerhouse known as Bill o’Jack’s. Although there was a widespread search for the perpetrators, no-one was ever charged with the crime. In the days, months and years that followed, suspicion fell on several people: three Irishmen seen in the vicinity the night before; the Red Bradburys, a family of local poachers; and Reuben Platt, the last person to see Thomas Bradbury alive the night before. There were also several people who may have held a grudge against one or other of the Bradburys. But despite a dubious confession from Australia, there was little indication of who might have been responsible. The only evidence we have not yet considered is what confronted those who first found the Bradburys: the bloody downstairs room, and the injuries to the two men.

Both of these were thoroughly described – with a certain macabre delight – in newspapers at the time, and at the inquest. We can get a fairly full picture of the scene on that first morning.

The layout of Bill o’Jack’s as presented in the Manchester Guardian on 7 April 1832

The downstairs layout of Bill o’Jack’s seems to have been fairly simple. Detailed descriptions appeared in the Manchester Guardian and Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle. Additionally the Manchester Guardian printed a plan of the interior which was reproduced in several other newspapers. This plan, however, is slightly misleading in terms of the size of the rooms, making them look larger than they actually were. 

The layout of Bill o’Jacks at the time of the murders (left) and in 1923 (right) as given in Tales of a Pennine People by AJ Howcroft

A more accurate plan was drawn for inclusion in A. J. Howcroft’s Tales of a Pennine People  (1923). Two plans were included: one of the inn as it looked at the time of the murder, and a second showing its layout when the book was published. The interior had been remodelled with an extension added to the structure that stood at the time of the murders. The staircase had also been moved and a living room, inaccessible to the public, created. Not visible on the plan, but clear from the photographs taken of the exterior of the inn, other buildings had also been added to the site since the murders, one of which was probably a dancing shed that Joseph Bradbury described as “a disgrace to the establishment”.

The interior of Bill o’Jack’s shortly before its closure; a similar photograph was printed in the Leeds Mercury on 9 April 1936

Howcroft’s plan looks more realistically proportioned. Thomas Smith, in his letter, described the room as merely ten feet square (just over three metres square). That the room was small is also apparent from the only surviving photograph (seen above) of the interior of the inn, taken shortly before it finally closed in the 1930s. The picture appears to have been taken next to a window by a fireplace – and the only matching part of the building (based on the plan given by Howcroft) is the fireplace in the “murder room”. Therefore the photograph must have been taken in the place where the Bradburys were attacked: it is likely that the corner of the table at which the couple are sitting – the one nearest to the camera – marks the spot where Thomas Bradbury was found. It is evidently not a large room, and looks to be, as Smith said, around three metres square. This may explain how blood was to find its way onto almost every surface and also why the scene would have appeared so horrific. It is not clear what furniture was in the room in 1832: there were certainly some wooden drawers, a wooden settle and an armchair, but only Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle mentions any tables and chairs.

However, the author of that report in Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle mixed up the rooms slightly. The other reports, and the evidence of the witnesses at the inquest, describe a small pantry (or buttery) at the back of the main room where Thomas was found, as seen on the plans above, and only accessible from that room. The other downstairs room, on the left of the main entrance was called the “bar” – presumably where customers went. Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle switches these around, calling the small room the bar and the larger one the pantry.

Turning our attention to the room as it appeared on Tuesday morning, there is plenty of description. Although little was said about it at the inquest other than a broad impression – presumably as the jury would have viewed the scene in person – earlier press reports went into gruesome detail. There was blood everywhere, and those first on the scene said that the floor was literally swimming with it. There were also marks, including “spurts” of blood, up and down the walls. The hob of the stove was covered, while the fireplace, mantlepiece, window and the wall opposite the doorway had been splashed with blood. Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle adds that the space above the stove was also covered, as if someone’s head had been put there (which the author suggests was for protection, although that would have been a strange thing to do). The seats under the window, and the nearby walls, also had a heavier concentration. According to Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle, there were bloody fingermarks around the walls, as if someone had needed to steady himself by reaching out a hand. Additionally, there were bloody footprints leading upstairs, left by someone only wearing stockings, as well as equivalent traces along the wall where someone – almost certainly William Bradbury – had supported himself. These led to the bed in which the older man was found upstairs.

Places around the room told a little of the story. At the door to the small pantry, there was what Higginbottom described at the inquest as “two pounds of coagulated blood”. Where Thomas was found lying, a large pool of blood stretched from the window to the fireplace. Inside the pantry, there was a mark in the wall opposite the entrance and near the window, as if it had been struck by something sharp. Nearby was what the Manchester Guardian called “a mark as if a bloody head had been dashed against the plastering; the walls all around are spotted with blood.” Some crushed candles, that Thomas had bought the previous evening, were still inside his pocket, suggesting that he had been attacked after coming through the door. Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle reported that William’s granddaughter found beer brewing outside the entrance. The same article also said that a bag of flour had been abandoned by the entrance which would also indicate Thomas was attacked immediately he arrived. No other source mentions this flour, but Ammon Platt reported that Thomas had purchased a bag of flour; the only way he could have known was if he had seen it, which implies it was in the house somewhere.

Finally, we have a description of some of the probable weapons. The Manchester Times reporter was present when the inquest jury visited the scene. He saw: “Three bludgeons, covered with blood, the largest about a yard long and between two or three inches thick”. James Whitehead said at the inquest that he found “part of the lock of a pistol lying on the floor, covered with blood. The fire poker lay on the floor, near the body of the son”. Higginbottom told the inquest how he found “a sword-stick of beech” and, outside the house, a broken pistol. This stick, it transpired, was a kind of walking stick that had been hollowed out; holes had been pierced into the sides to transform it into a large flute. This musical walking stick had been a gift to Thomas Bradbury from a friend. It had been broken, as if it had been used to hit someone repeatedly.

The pistol as shown on a postcard of “relics” from the murder, date unknown

The best description of the weapons came in the Manchester Guardian report of 7 April: an old spade which was already worn, broken from its handle and “from its appearance might have been dipped in blood”; a “bent and bloody poker”; an angur (a type of drill, possibly similar to an auger, but not a misprint as there was such an implement as an angur), the handle of which was “covered in blood”; and a cavalry pistol with its hammer, trigger guard and butt-end broken off but with the trigger and pan still intact. This pistol was loaded with powder and ball, but it had evidently been used to strike someone – the “lock, stock, and barrel were covered with blood, and betwixt the stock and the head of one of the screws was a portion of hair, known by its light sandy colour to have belonged to Thomas Bradbury.” The pistol was described as “old and clumsy”; it had brass mounting and the guard was marked with the number 21. On the plate of the lock was a crown and the lettering G. R. and further markings of the letters “D’EGG”. The markings most likely show that the pistol had been made by Durs Egg (1748-1831), a Swiss gun-maker who opened a shop in London in 1772; his clients included George IV when he was the Prince of Wales.

The spade supposed to have been used in the murder, displayed in Saddleworth Museum

Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle has a similar list of weapons, but adds an old spade shaft, covered in blood. It says the gun was an “old horse pistol” covered with blood and hair from which the stock was broken off, and the guard and hammer shattered. The pistol barrel was nine inches long and there was powder but no ball inside it. But a bullet had been found in the small pantry next to the main room – the Chronicle reporter speculated that the gun would not fire and so was used instead as a bludgeon, which caused the ball to drop out.

This pistol is interesting. Its ownership was not clarified at the inquest, nor was it discussed to any extent except how it had been used as a bludgeon. The Manchester Guardian report on 7 April, however, explicitly stated: “It is known not to have belonged to the Bradburys”. It seems to have remained in Higginbottom’s possession; had it belonged to the Bradbury family, it is unlikely he would have kept it. What happened to it afterwards is unknown, although from a postcard produced at an unknown date it appears at some time to have formed part of a display of the murder weapons. No description as detailed as the one in the Manchester Guardian was produced elsewhere, but it was variously described as a cavalry pistol or a horse pistol.

According to Philip Spooner of West Street Antiques in Dorking, who kindly responded to a request for information, the markings suggest that it was a Light Cavalry Volunteers pistol, manufactured between 1810 and 1820. It would have been used by a trooper in the Yeomanry Cavalry; such pistols were still in active use until the mid-1830s. However, the pistol was described as old when it was found; it may not have been in official use anymore. If the gun was not the property of either Bradbury (assuming the Guardian reporter was correct), it must have belonged to their murderer(s). The yeomanry was generally recruited from more respectable members of society, but not exclusively. Whoever it belonged to, the connection of the pistol with the Yeomanry Cavalry never seems to have been investigated. Was a member of the local Yeomanry, perhaps a person of some social standing, angry with Thomas or William? Was this somehow connected to poaching? Or did someone simply get hold of an old pistol? If they did, they must also have acquired bullets and any other apparatus needed to keep it working (although that it misfired suggests that either it was in poor repair, or the wielder did not know what he was doing). And it may be important that the attacker(s) dropped it outside, suggesting it had little value to him.

A Light Cavalry Volunteers pistol (Image provided by Philip Spooner of West Street Antiques, Dorking)

The Manchester Guardian (7 April) made the only attempt at the time to reconstruct what might have happened. The author noted that William often “reclined” on the wooden settle near the door, resting his head on the hob. The author conjectured that the attackers found him there and struck him with the spade until it broke, William attempting to defend himself with his left arm. The author then speculates that the attackers were surprised while “plundering” by the arrival of Thomas; the pistol misfired and “the stock was broken by a blow”. His version has Thomas then retreating to the pantry, where his attackers followed and overpowered him. At this point, he fell and left the pool of blood by the door. The author continues to reconstruct: Thomas then “rallied” and “rushed into the house, probably fighting in his own country way with his hands and his feet, or with some weapon snatched in the moment of desperation.” He notes signs of a struggle on the wall of the pantry, and another near the “two armed chair” by the fireplace, where “a bundle of feathers tied in paper, and depending [sic] from the ceiling, seem to have caught a descending blow, of such force that the paper is cut as if with scissors.” The author concludes that this is where he was “pent up and finally overcome”, and the place where he was found the following morning. The author also emphasised the idea that Thomas was attacked as soon as he entered.

Some of this seems reasonable – that the blood around the fireplace belonged to William as this was his usual seat. But the Guardian author’s ideas about the pantry have a few problems. If Thomas was attacked as soon as he entered, why would he retreat to the pantry? It would have made more sense to go back outside if he entered the house and found himself attacked.

At this point, the issue of the pistol bullet becomes important: if Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle is accurate, there was a bullet in the pantry. This is the only source to say so (although Butterworth records that a bullet was found in the house without specifying where) and given that the author mixed up the rooms of the house, there must be some question over its reliability. Other sources agree that the pistol contained powder, so it is a reasonable assumption that it was loaded before the struggle. If we assume that the gun did not belong to the Bradburys, perhaps whoever was in the room when Thomas returned pointed it at him. In the course of a confrontation, Thomas retreated to the pantry. If this is where the pistol misfired, with someone pressed into the far corner, perhaps then the attacker decided to use it as a bludgeon until it fell apart. This would explain the gouge mark in the wall. And judging by the further markings, Thomas’ head was smashed into the wall, at which point he collapsed.

Another possibility is that Thomas’ attacker was the one who retreated to the pantry. A final possibility is that Thomas was attacked outside, as he was returning home, and retreated through the house with his attackers following him inside.

In any case, Thomas recovered sufficiently from his ordeal in the pantry to make his way out into the main room, where a further struggle took place as shown by other signs around the walls and floor. Perhaps here, his attacker(s) repeatedly hit him with the pistol to in a desperate attempt to make him stay down. Perhaps the poker – found near his body – was also used here, but it may have been wielded by Thomas himself.

There is also a possibility that some of the blood – even some of the greater amounts around the room – was from the attacker or attackers. At least four weapons were used – the pistol, the poker, the spade and the walking stick – and it seems implausible that at least one of the Bradburys did not wield one. Another indication that the attackers may have been injured is the items reported as missing in Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle – sheets, covers and handkerchiefs – could have been used to dress wounds or stop bleeding; otherwise, these seem strange (although not impossible – they presumably had value) items to have taken.

Finally, does this offer any clues as to how many attackers there were? No matter how strong Thomas Bradbury was, it is unlikely there would have been such a struggle if there were three attackers, unless they held him in (or dragged him to) different parts of the room before finishing him off. With two attackers, that may explain the struggle, although if it was William and Thomas against two others, would there not have been an even greater amount of blood and more places where there were signs of fighting? And in which case, why would the struggle have been confined to one room? Also, if one of the attackers had a pistol, and it failed to go off, why would they use it to strike at Thomas if there was an accomplice who was armed with a bludgeon? At the time, the idea of one attacker seems to have been dismissed on the grounds of Thomas’ strength – but if it was one attacker brandishing a loaded pistol who had Thomas cornered before it failed to go off, and there was a desperate fight afterwards, that would fit to some extent.

But there are no definite answers. There are not even any indications of whether William was attacked at the same time as Thomas. The best we can do here is to provide some broad possible outlines.

The injuries to the two men may reveal a little more. Again it is possible to fully describe their injuries. The fullest account came from Samuel Higginbottom at the inquest; the various reports have some differences but the overall picture is the same.

William Bradbury had the lesser injuries. He was found in bed. From the footprints on the steps, he appeared to have been attacked downstairs before struggling upstairs and getting into bed. Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle on 7 April described “bloody traces all along the wall; on the stairs the impression of feet, his stockings being saturated with blood, were distinctly visible. He had experienced great difficulty in mounting the stairs, and seemed only to have effected this by crawling on his hands and knees, step by step, and dragging one foot after the other.” Ammon Platt also hints at this, describing “footmarks of blood on every step” and that it was believed that William “scrambled upstairs with difficulty after he was bruised and wounded never having come down again.” He had partially undressed as Higginbottom reported that he had removed his coat and waistcoat. Higginbottom found him lying on his right side in bed: he had a “severe cut” to the left side of his head that was bleeding heavily and “opened to the temporal artery”; there was a lesser wound on his right side that Higginbottom discovered when turning him over. Turning down the bed covers, Higginbottom discovered more wounds: he had lacerations on his left arm, the muscles in his upper arm being cut through to the bone; the fingers of his left hand were also lacerated; his knee was severely bruised. Higginbottom believed that the wounds were caused by the pistol he found: he thought an indentation in the old man’s head matched the lock of the pistol, and that the injuries to his fingers looked like the pistol had caused them.

Some of the earlier newspaper reports were obviously based on first-hand observation as well. For example, the Manchester Guardian (whose reporter may have interviewed Higginbottom) said that William’s fingers on his left hand “were cut to pieces” and his left wrist and elbow were “cut and mangled in a shocking manner, the muscles being cut through to the bone, which was broken to pieces”. He was covered “from head to foot” in bruises. This report however suggests that the spade, broken from its handle, was the most likely weapon used on the old man. Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle also contained a description in its first report: his left arm was almost “battered to a mummy” (which was apparently an expression at the time) from the elbow to the wrist and he had been struck on the forehead above his eyes by “a blow … which must have immediately blinded him” and had also “completely closed his eyes”. Ammon Platt also stated that William’s eyes were severely swollen.

As we have seen, William attempted to speak and appeared to be trying to answer questions put to him. But although James Whitehead claimed to understand him when he was first discovered, William’s later attempts at speech were most likely unintelligible. Higginbottom told the inquest that William had died through blood loss, but would likely have survived his injuries had he been a younger man.

Thomas was much more severely injured. Higginbottom told the inquest that his head had swollen so much that “they could scarcely touch it with their fingers and without putting it into a wound”, which was why he was unrecognisable when he was discovered (James Whitehead also told the inquest that Thomas’ face was “marked with bruises and streaming with blood”). He had “15 or 16 holes” of varying sizes on his scalp which were cut down to the bone, the largest of which was four inches long and the others around half an inch. Higginbottom stated that the “holes” were around half an inch deep. All the wounds were bleeding heavily when Higginbottom saw them. When discovered, he was lying face down; James Whitehead turned him over but by the time Higginbottom arrived, he had returned to his front once more.

Higginbottom examined Thomas when he returned with his instruments, when his head had been shaved. Using his surgeon’s knife, he enlarged the openings in his scalp and discovered two fractures: one on the right side was four inches long and “cut down to the parietal bone”, the lower part of which was “much depressed”. The second was on his forehead; his os frontis was shattered – which may match up to the mark on the pantry wall. Both of these fractures, said Higginbottom, would have been fatal – the second in particular would have been deadly. Higginbottom also reported that Thomas was bleeding a great deal from his ears and nose. He also had a severely fractured finger on his left hand, and like his father had other marks on his fingers. Higginbottom believed that the pistol had been used to inflict the injuries. The Manchester Courier’s report on the inquest believed that other items had also been used – including the pokers, the “sword-stick” and the shovel.

The initial report in the Manchester Guardian adds a little about Thomas: “his head and face appeared to be a mass of clotted gore” and “though apparently unconscious, he made frequent attempts to rise from the floor, but each time sunk again into the pool of blood in which he had been lying.” The only other additional detail was that he was “cut and bruised all over the body” and died while his wounds were still being dressed. Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle’s first report added that he had cuts all over his legs, knees and feet, and one of his legs was particularly badly injured. The same report said that he was wearing a bloodied white apron, which he had been seen wearing the previous evening. Unlike his father, Thomas made no attempt to speak but merely groaned.

If gruesome, this level of detail is useful in attempting to reconstruct some of what happened. That both men had severe injuries to their hands and arms suggests that they were attempting to defend themselves from blows. William’s lesser injuries – many of which may have been caused while attempting to stop these blows – indicate that the intention was merely to disable him – perhaps while he attempted to shield his son? He was hit once on the head (perhaps the lesser head injury on the opposite side was caused by a fall after being struck) and remained conscious enough to move upstairs. Whether this came before or after the end of the fight we cannot know, but if it seems callous to have abandoned his son, he was suffering from a head injury and loss of blood which may have impaired his judgement.

The injuries to Thomas were far more vicious, and were such that his attacker(s) must have continued to strike him long after he was incapable of offering resistance. The ferocity of the attack may be further gauged by the damage to the pistol; perhaps the bent poker and shattered walking stick also give some clue as to how badly injured he must have been. The wounds to his legs reported in Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle (that the inquest somewhat passed over, perhaps because they would not have contributed to his death) also suggest that he was attacked while lying on the floor and kicking out in defence. There are two possible explanations: that this attack was driven by anger or a desire for revenge, or that he put up such a fierce resistance that he had to be subdued for a long time before he became still, and his attacker(s) wished to make sure.

But there is one curiosity. It was assumed that the attack took place around 10pm on Monday night, as evidenced by what Abraham Dawson heard at that time. Even if it was a little later, as Joseph Bradbury suggested (he gave a time between 10:30 and 11pm based on what he knew of Thomas’ habits, but he did not take into account what Dawson heard), it was supposed to have been before midnight as Thomas Bradbury entered the house, based on the evidence of the candles in his pocket (and perhaps items left by the door). Every subsequent retelling has taken this view: that Thomas was attacked that evening when he returned home. But he did not die until early afternoon on Tuesday. This means that he survived with a doubly fractured skull and severe blood loss for more than 12 hours. He was even conscious enough to make sounds and attempt to rise.

I mentioned to a doctor the injuries ascribed to Thomas, without giving any context. Both the blood coming from his nose and ears and the depressed fracture (which was different to his forehead injury which probably occurred in the pantry), suggests intercranial pressure. She thought that he was unlikely to survive for much more than an hour after falling unconscious. While she emphasised that this was obviously not definitive, it reinforces how remarkable it would have been for Thomas to live for 12 hours on the floor. There are three possible solutions: that he was medically remarkable, given his strong build, and survived far longer than he had any right to; that Higginbottom simply got it wrong, and his injuries were not as bad as reported (which seems unlikely given the state of the downstairs room and the shattered pistol); or that the attack took place much later than has generally been supposed. Is it possible that the attack took place on the morning of 3 April, not too long before Amelia Winterbottom arrived?

This would remove the three Irishmen from the picture completely (although it would not rule out a motive of theft). It would tidy up the (admittedly small) issue of how the dog “Laddie” could have been in the house that morning when he was seen outside by Abraham Dawson the night before. But in that case, what did Dawson hear on the Monday night? Maybe it was a coincidence. Or maybe the Bradburys had a guest that night, and the confrontation – or whatever it was – took place over an extended period. Is it even possible that Thomas did not arrive home until that morning, when the attack took place?

This can be no more than a tentative idea, with no real supporting evidence, and may reflect nothing more than a clumsy diagnosis by Higginbottom. But this, along with considerations of the pistol – its potential connection with the Yeomanry and who actually owned it – suggest that there may be possibilities relating to the murder that have not yet been considered.

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