If we can be certain of one thing, it is that the identity of the person or people responsible for the murder of William and Thomas Bradbury will never be found. It is quite likely that the name(s) of the culprit(s) is lost to history, and it is unlikely to have been anyone named as a suspect in 1832. All we can do in the end is to look back at the theories, suspects and motives that have been in circulation since that first morning on 3 April 1832.
From the beginning, theft has been perhaps the most likely motive of all. A quiet public house on the edge of the moors, a quarter of a mile from the nearest house and further from the nearest village. An old man left alone for some hours. Suspicious characters seen in the vicinity. Items and possibly money taken from the house. This theory remains as plausible as it was from the start. With theft as a motive, the most likely murderers would have been the three Irishmen seen walking towards Holmfirth. Their suspicious behaviour, and the possible discovery of a hat worn by one of the men inside Bill o’Jack’s certainly points in their direction. However, there are some questions over the timing of the murders as it may have been impossible for Thomas to have lived the 12 hours required if these three were his killers. And at the time, the mere fact of their nationality would have made them suspects, whatever the evidence might have said.
Perhaps other itinerants in the area such as the hawker who supposedly confessed in Australia could have attempted a theft, which got out of hand. It is the only realistic motive for Reuben Platt, if he is considered to be a serious suspect. In favour of this motive would be the items taken from the house – though it cannot be conclusively established that anything was taken.
There are, however, a few facts which cast doubt on the idea. First is the ferocity of the attack on both men: they were severely injured, far more than would have been necessary to subdue them if a quick getaway was all that was required. It is possible that Thomas put up strong resistance, but even if he did, he must have been attacked until long after he was capable of fighting back. And why attack his father? Second, would an opportunistic robber bring a loaded pistol? Third, from the dropped flour by the door, Thomas must have disturbed the attackers when he returned home. Why would robbers not simply flee, especially if they were by the door? And how did the fight take them to the pantry if Thomas was entering through the main door? Maybe he simply overpowered them, but that seems unlikely as they were armed. Fourth, it does not seem that there was much worth taking, and the murderers got away with trifles, unless there was more money on the premises than the bereaved family had been aware of.
Could it have been Reuben Platt? The only evidence against him appears to have been a suspicion that William Bradbury said “Platts” and not “Pats”; if we can believe Joseph Bradbury, this caused people to believe that Platt was involved. But as many writers have since pointed out, he had no motive whatsoever and his actions in accompanying Thomas to Road End would have made no sense if theft and murder were his intentions.
Our only other named suspects, such as Charles Mullen, were all discounted at the time as they had alibis solid enough for the authorities to lose interest. There is no reason to suspect any of them given that only their nationality appears to have made them suspects at all.
Revenge against the Bradburys
Rather than being an opportunistic robbery, could it have been a targeted attack against one or both men? There are several potential motivations here. When we consider the obviously fairly unpleasant character of Thomas, his clash with poachers or the Irish workers, or his attempt to poison the dogs hunting on the moor, there would have been plenty of people in the area who were none-too-sorry to hear of his brutal death. This may also account for Joseph Thornton’s suggestion, years later, that witnesses did not come forward simply because Bradbury was so hated. Perhaps the most likely cause would have been his pseudo-gamekeeping actions preventing the use of the moor, and quite possibly demanding payment for people to have access.
Here, the Red Bradbury family would also be prime suspects if the motivation was revenge. But the case against them seems completely unproven: even if we discount that the magistrates simply let them go despite what the press suggested was a mountain of evidence against them, and despite all the later claims in Saddleworth Sketches, there is still an almost irrefutable argument in their favour. There is no record of their attendance at the Pontefract Sessions at which Thomas Bradbury was alleged to be giving evidence. It also seems unlikely that someone of Thomas Bradbury’s questionable reputation would be called as a witness in such a case as he most likely indulged in poaching himself. But that does not discount the possibility of some kind of poaching feud. Could they have been involved? Perhaps. But there is no evidence that they were.
Another possible motive was the pregnancy of Esther Porritt. Someone connected with her could have confronted and then attacked Thomas over his treatment of her. But again, we are faced with doubtful evidence: only one article, that in the Manchester Guardian, made any connection between Bradbury and Porritt, and even that veered into speculation. There is no other evidence to support Bradbury being the father of her child. A. J. Howcroft’s theory that her father was the killer is interesting, but like so much else, has nothing to support it.
What about the Burnplatters? There is certainly evidence that Thomas was involved with disputes with many people, including some whose description matches that of the Burnplatters. But no-one made the connection until 80 years after the murder, and unlike the suspicions against Reuben Platt and the Red Bradburys, there never seems to have been a rumour that this particular group was involved. Only more recent writers have found this an attractive theory. But there is nothing to support it.
It is not impossible that the target was William; his running of the inn and its new status as a beer house indicated that he may have had a complicated relationship with the authorities. Bill o’Jack’s hardly seems to have been a reputable establishment, then or later. Perhaps some unknown dispute connected to this, or his clash with his landlord, lay behind the attacks.
However, none of these possibilities account for the Cavalry Pistol; of the potential suspects, unless they came across it by chance, theft or through purchasing, few seem likely to have had legitimate possession of such a pistol. While it is not impossible that poachers or people working on the moors could have been members of the Yeomanry Cavalry, it seems highly unlikely. Perhaps an acquaintance of Porritt could have been.
A fight between father and son
This has been suggested in several places as a possibility: that father and son inflicted the injuries on each other. I mention it here merely for completeness, but the ferocity of the struggle, the greater number of wounds on the stronger man and the presence of the pistol (and possibly the hat) which likely did not belong to either man make this highly implausible. Perhaps all that can be said in its favour is it might explain how William Bradbury could have made his way back upstairs; the idea that William simply went to bed after seeing his son beaten almost to death by someone else is one of the stranger aspects of the case.
Possibly the answer may lie with the neglected Egg pistol. This was discussed at length earlier, but there is one interesting connection with the Yeomanry and Saddleworth. The Peterloo Massacre, which took place in Manchester in 1819, affected several men from the Saddleworth area. Briefly, the yeomanry cavalry charged a crowd of people gathered to demand parliamentary reform; 18 people died and over 400 were injured. This is not the place to go into detail, but one thing stands out from that story. One of the witnesses to give evidence about the events of that day was a man from Saddleworth called Thomas Bradbury. He was listed as a gamekeeper, and stated that he knew the identity of a man who had knocked someone off their horse. Our Thomas Bradbury would have been 34 at this time, but as we have seen, this was a common name around Saddleworth and despite the occupation of gamekeeper, there is no indication that it is the same man. But it may hint at a connection with the Yeomanry which could be explored further.
The murderer will not be found now, but at least a fresh look at the evidence can rule out some of the more outlandish theories. It can also suggest that some of the old tales about what might have happened did not have any basis in reality.
William Bradbury’s beer house later regained a full licence and made regular appearances in newspapers, not always for respectable reasons. It remained locally famous and somewhat notorious. Later landlords exploited the connection of their inn with the murders, even after the Ashton and District Waterworks Board acquired it in 1875. It was these owners who eventually decided that Bill o’Jack’s (or the Moorcock as it was officially called by then) was polluting the Yeoman Hey Reservoir, which was completed in 1880. Bill o’Jack’s closed for the last time on 21 April 1937 and was demolished the following year. The land appears to be currently owned by United Utilities, the operators of the reservoir. There is no public access to the site of the former inn, and other than the path down from the main road and the old cellar (which post-dates the murders), there are no signs of the former public house.
St Chad’s Churchyard, near the area of the Bradbury memorial, in 2019
Even after nearly 190 years, the murders continues to attract attention and comment. When I went to Saddleworth Museum in early 2019, a woman was visiting because she had discovered she was related to the Bradburys. And the path to the Bradbury grave in St Chad’s churchyard is remarkably clear in an otherwise wildly overgrown cemetery. On the rainy day I visited, the grass around it was trodden down as if I was not the only person to call. The memorial, photographed in almost every work on the story, is still easy to read, even if the stone is showing signs of age, and the metal rail which once surrounded it is all but gone:
Throughout the land wherever news is read
Intelligence of their sad end has spread.
Those now who talk of far-famed Greenfield hills
Will think of Bill o’ Jack’s and Tom o’ Bills.
Such interest did their tragic end excite
That, ere they were removed from human sight,
Thousands on thousands came to see
The bloody scene of catastrophe.
One house, one business, and one bed.
And one most shocking death they had.
One funeral came, one inquest past.
And now one grave they have at last.
The famous poem is a reminder of how violently the two men died. Thomas Bradbury cannot have suspected, as he set off down the hill on 2 April, that his walk with Reuben Platt would still be the subject of discussion after nearly 200 years. Nor that he and his father were about to achieve a macabre kind of immortality. Whatever it was that happened over the next twelve hours, we can still but only guess…