A Shocking Case of Wife Murder
by Ian Dewhirst
The newspaper headline at the time summed it up. It was indeed ‘a shocking case of wife murder’, and behind the brutal facts of the slaying of Margaret Blades are some squalid but fascinating details of social history at the time; the poverty, the drunkenness, the violence, no coal in the fire grate and a diet of bread and dripping…
Thirty-five-year-old Henry Blades was a leather currier in 1880. A native of Bradley, he had lived in Skipton since serving his apprenticeship there. Married for 18 years, he had five children – the oldest was eighteen – and a miserable domesticity. “The prisoner,” his indictment would succinctly set the scene, “is naturally a quiet inoffensive man, civil and well behaved, except that when enraged by the faithless or drunken conduct of his wife (the deceased) he would take liquor and commit assaults for which the deceased was not loth to bring him before the Magistrates”.
Mrs Margaret Blades, it appears, was “a bad-tongued woman, addicted to drink and immoral conduct.” The police, her husband’s solicitor was to scribble in his brief, had “seen her about the streets late at night – 2 or 3 o’clock in morning.” Despite a judicial separation awarded the previous year, the couple continued to live together, “but very unhappily”.
On April 23rd, 1880, Blades quarrelled with his wife for breaking into their eldest son’s money-box and taking his savings; whereupon she left home till the 28th. “If she doesn’t come home,” Blades told an acquaintance, “I’ll kill her. If I can raise as much money as will buy a razor, I’ll cut her throat.”
Somehow patching up their differences, however, they spent Friday, April 30th, “flitting” from “near Mr. Walton’s mill” (Alexandra Works in Keighley Road) into Russell Street in that part of Skipton known, at the time, as Middletown.
Their intention, after spending the night in their new home, had been to “go next morning and flit the remainder of their goods”, but that Saturday Mrs Blades disappeared again – she had concocted a story of trying to sell a pawn ticket, but Henry Blades sought her all day in vain.
“She had the money with her,” he would tellingly explain, “and we had no coals in the house nor anything else only bread.” By evening he was following her trail via the Bay Horse and the Albion Inn. He tried to borrow two shillings off a relative, but got instead a pot of dripping “for our bread”.
At last, “at the Star Inn Yard end” after eleven o’clock, he came across one Isabella Fowler and Elizabeth Fagan with news of his roving wife. Mrs Fowler told him she “appeared to have had a little drink”, Mrs Fagan more descriptively that she was “fresh.”
It was with difficulty that these ladies had just persuaded a reluctant Mrs Blades to go home, she having – they would later testify – expressed a fear that her husband “would kill her if she went home.”
And indeed, Henry Blades now remarked to Mrs Fagan: “I’ll do her job tonight before I sleep.”
(“I didn’t think anything about the threats,” Mrs Fagan would subsequently explain, “as I have heard him threaten the deceased in the same way many times before.” And Blades: “It is possible I might have said what she says as it is a common thing for folks in Skipton to use such words when not pleased, without meaning anything bad.”)
According to the observant Mrs Fagan, Henry Blades too “had had a little beer.” Returning to the house in Russell Street about half past eleven, Blades found his wife going to bed. “I asked her where she had been all the day. She said, ‘Not with thee’,” he would detail his own version of events.
“I said to her the children wanted looking after. She answered she did not care a damn for them and I had no need to care for them as I was not the father to one of them.”
Despite which stunning rejoinder, their quarrel – again according to Blades – developed over the money Mrs Blades had spent. He made to look in her dress pocket, she tried to hit him with a brass candlestick, he grabbed her, “and my passion getting the better of me I seized her by the side of her neck and we struggled for some time. Before I left off we both fell on to the bed which was on the ground, and I fell on to her side with my knee. She fell sick and was so for a while.” He made her some tea, he said, but sometime in the early morning she “gave over breathing.”
Witnesses could add a little more. Twelve-year-old daughter Elizabeth heard “a biggish blow struck” followed by “a murmuring noise” for half an hour; then Blades came into his children’s bedroom and “said he would kill us if we got out of bed.”
Patience Pullan, a labourer’s wife in the kitchen next door (the Blades’ bedroom “adjoins the room over our kitchen”) heard a sound “like a groan or as if some person could not get their breath”, and young Elizabeth cry out “Oh, don’t, father!” and Blades reply “I’ll kill you if you don’t make a less noise”. And afterwards, said Mrs Pullan, “all was quiet.”
On Sunday morning – May 2nd, 1880 – Henry Blades woke his children at eight o’clock. He stayed in their bedroom as they got dressed, and stood at his own bedroom door while they went downstairs. Elizabeth wanted to go in for her bodice, but he told her that her mother was “poorly and can’t bide bothering”.
At dinner-time he took some food (bread and dripping?) upstairs to his wife, but brought it down again and ate it himself in the back kitchen.
“I saw him,” Elizabeth Blades captured the atmosphere, “through the nick in the door.” “Your mother,” he told his children, “has eaten it all.”
That Sunday, Mrs Fagan came visiting Margaret Blades, to be informed that she was in bed asleep. “Don’t wake her for me,” whispered Mrs Fagan, and “came gently out.”
During the afternoon, Blades cut some rope off a bed-cord – the house-hold’s beds, in the middle of their haphazard removal, were all on the floor – and tied it to a hook in the kitchen ceiling, “to hang something on”.
Then he wrote on a slate: “Dear frends i hope you will never let my poor Childer go to the Workhouse for they will do someone good not finer cilder Born in the world than thim for Working so i hope to the Lord you will do your Best to them and i think thay do the same to you it is hart breeking to leve them But we must Part so I hope it will be a warning to you all not to get to the same fate as this so i hope you will do your best to my cildering for its hard work parting with them thay are standing over me the time i am writing so i will say no more for me hart is Bursting to see
At this point, his daughter tried to read the slate but he “clicked” it out of her hand. He continued to write on an envelope: “I cannot live aney longer the way things is goying on so i will bid you all good by hopeing to live in peace for it as being a troublesome life and i hope all friends will look over it. So i remain your sorrow full hart good by to all.”
In the evening he locked his children out of the house. He had intended to hang himself with the bed-cord, “but I changed my mind.”
The Blades children went straight to their Aunt Lizzie Chester’s, who recruited two neighbours to reconnoitre the situation at Russell Street. Precocious Elizabeth got there first and told her father they were coming, whereupon he left the house. Ellen Dawson, who knew Mrs Blades, went upstairs with a Mrs Emmott. It was dark, so Mrs Emmott lit a candle.
Margaret Blades lay on her back in her bed on the floor, covered by the bedclothes – a blanket and a quilt – so that “nothing but a portion of her hair was to be seen”. Drawing back the bedclothes
from her face, they saw that she was dead. They both touched her shoulder; she was cold.
Ellen Dawson sped for Sergeant Robert Collins of the West Riding Constabulary, on duty in Middletown, who in turn fetched William Wylie, M.D., Medical Officer of Police and the Union Workhouse.
“I found,” the doctor would testify, “on the left side of the neck an ecchymosed mark four inches long below the jaw extending ay far as the windpipe…”
“What do you mean by an ecchymosed mark?” he would be asked at the magistrates’ court.
“Where an effusion of blood is found beneath the skin… also on the right side below the angle of the shoulder-blade a large ecchymosed mark the size of the front part of the sole of a boot and somewhat the same shape… There was a frothy mucus exuding from the nose and mouth. I believe the cause of death was strangulation… The post mortem confirmed that opinion.”
Mrs Blades, throttled and probably kicked, had been lying dead all through Sunday.
The missing leather currier was accordingly advertised after – “5 ft 7 in high, fresh complexion, brownish hair, blue eyes, bald fore part of head, no whiskers, slight light moustache, and is dressed in a blue pilot cloth jacket, fustian trousers, black top billycock hat, and strong lace-up boots.”
At approximately a quarter past two on Wednesday morning, May 5th, police under Sergeant Alexander Chisholm were searching outbuildings at a farm near Bradley belonging to Stephen Blades, uncle of the suspect, when they surprised a man lying on some straw in a hay-loft.
“What is your name?” he was asked.
“Where do you come from?”
“I apprehend you on a charge of sleeping in an outbuilding,” Sergeant Chisholm warned, “but if you are the person I think you are, I have a more serious charge against you.”
The prisoner was escorted forthwith to the Snaygill Public House (where “they had not gone to bed”), but he announced “You need not take me in there. I am the man you want.” He said he
had been hiding behind a wall on Rombalds Moor, from Sunday till Tuesday night; although, since he spoke of hearing a clock strike at Carleton, his sense of topography might have been faulty. He had not eaten since Sunday noon.
Henry Blades was tried for wilful murder at the West Riding Summer Assizes at Leeds Town Hall on August 3rd, 1880. The main facts of the case were clear and, in all conscience, bad enough, with Dr Wylie disposed to make them even worse: “The deceased was a healthy person… The windpipe was compressed laterally. I don’t think that amount of compression of the windpipe could be caused by the hand. I thought the mark on the neck had been caused by a rope.”
“You say the mark was made by a rope?” the court stressed this vital point.
“I do not say it was made by a rope,” explained the careful Dr Wylie, “but it looks very like it.”
In the event. Blades was perhaps lucky to be found guilty only of manslaughter, albeit sentenced to 20 years’ penal servitude.
However, we shall let Sergeant Collins have the last word, whose evidence nicely combines an incidental snippet of Skipton life with a telling sketch of the unhappy Mrs Blades “on the night before her death, when a regiment of artillery was passing through the town. She was standing near where the guns were drawn up, and there were soldiers about…”