Death in the beck – A Worth Valley mystery of 1877

Stanbury road
Seen here with worshippers returning from an Edwardian chapel anniversary, the road from Stanbury winds down the hill. Ponden Bridge lies out of sight in the valley bottom, with the road to Scar Top continuing up the hill beyond.

On the last Thursday night in March, 1877, five working men sat drinking ale and whisky in the New Inn at Stanbury, near Haworth, until turned out at eleven o’clock to make their drunken ways home.

Early next morning – which happened to be Good Friday – one of their number was found dead in the River Worth, while another was suspected of having caused his death. This may seem a relatively unedifying case, yet it provoked huge local interest and filled columns of small newspaper print.

Sunderland Murgatroyd, a middle-aged blacksmith and staunch Primitive Methodist at neighbouring Oakworth, kept a homely diary in 1877 and caught the mood of excitement (I include his own
misspelling, strange punctuation and other idiosyncrasies): “Their as been a man found Dead in Spring Head Beck this morning it is reported that he as beene killed by some Person or Persons, he lives at Ponden.”

There had been other drinkers in the Stanbury Inn that Thursday night, but the quintet relevant to our story were Robert Moore, a shoemaker from Oldfield; John Pickles, a navvy on the Keighley waterworks then under construction; John Horsfall, a Scartop labourer; John Holmes, an Oldfield warp dresser; and William Smith, a Slack weaver.

Smith was to describe what they drank: “They had two pints of whisky mixed with a quart of beer about half an hour before they left. They had had beer before that.” Unsurprisingly, they would not prove the most reliable witnesses as to how Pickles ended up dead in the river and whether or not Moore had helped put him there. Sunderland Murgatroyd’s summary of the ‘Inquiest’ hints at its difficulties: “Their virdick is an open one they sat from 10 Oclock to About 7 Oclock in the Evening.”

But local newspaper headlines were already using the emotive word ‘Murder,’ and the inquest, having suspected Moore of having caused Pickles’ death, was followed by a twoday hearing before the Keighley magistrates.

“I have beene to the Coat house to heare the Triel of Robert Moore,” wrote Sunderland Murgatroyd after the first day, “But i could not Get in their was so many. But he is not found Gilty yeat & is come home But on 200£ Bail till next friday.”

Five magistrates sat on the case, including John Brigg, a worsted manufacturer who was to become Member of Parliament for the Keighley Division and die in office as Sir John Brigg in 1911. His obituary would mention his “sketches in water—colours of more than average ability: amply borne out by doodles among the notes he made while sitting on the bench.”

When the topers had left the New Inn that Thursday night, Holmes and Smith were in front, supporting Horsfall on either side. Just past Ponden Bridge he fell on his knees in the road, and while they were helping him up Moore joined them, alone. There are variations on what Moore then said, but Mr Brigg, writing as Horsfall gave his evidence, forthrightly recorded the crux: “I’ve done for one old Bugger and I’ll do for thee.”

According to Smith and Holmes he had also threatened to ‘pawse’ – or kick – Horsfall. They also thought he had said: “Pickles has fallen over the wall and killed himself.”

Neither thought anything about this at the time, assuming he was joking and not knowing which wall he meant.

They borrowed a handcart to wheel Horsfall home. He didn’t remember being put into the handcart, but he recalled Moore going on up the road shouting “Cockles alive!” while he was in it. Reaching his home at Scartop they ‘shovelled’ him up and took him inside, where by the light of a candle and a good fire they sat up with Horsfall’s daughter until eventually she put him to bed and Smith went home. Moore and Holmes stayed all night.

Nothing particular was said about Pickles, who in any case would have left the party for his home before Scartop.

When they left next morning, however, Moore, now sobered up and seeming troubled, called at Pickles’ house to see if he had come home. He hadn’t.

Meanwhile, early that Good Friday, labourer James Greenwood found Pickles’ cap near Ponden Bridge. Questioned by the magistrates, he raised the only laugh of the proceedings. “It was nothing unusual for caps to be lost about there,” he explained. “He had lost his own many a time.”

Mr Brigg uncharitably jotted: “Feigned stupid.”

But Holmes Tidswell, a warp dresser on his way to work, had made a grimmer discovery in the shape of Pickles’ body at Spring Head, some two miles downstream from Ponden Bridge. He lay face down in six inches of water, his smock and vest over his head and his trousers over his boots.

Called to the scene, Police Constable Dearnley noted a detail – poignant, in view of Pickles’ common-law wife having last seen him leaving for work early on that fateful Thursday morning – he had “a leather strap over his right shoulder with his dinner can attached to it.” The body was removed to the Royal Oak Inn at Haworth, where the inquest was subsequently held.

Surgeon William Jack would twice give meticulous evidence, at both inquest and magistrates’ court, on his post-mortem examination; although Sunderland Murgatroyd’s retelling of the gossip of the day – “Their as 4 Doctors examined the man found in the beck their appinerion is gotton killed” – suggests that he had not worked alone.

From Mr Jack’s catalogue of injuries on the body, Mr. Brigg scribbled the more salient: “Goose skin appearance. Scratches on both knees, abrasion outside left leg below knee, scratch left side on rib, skin off nose and right eyebrow, wound on knee and above right eye one and three-quarter inch long, no blood present, a contused wound on the top of the head two and a quarter inch down to the bone this wound contained clotted blood…”

Mr Briggs' notebook
A page from Mr Briggs’s magistrate’s notebook, with a sketch of Moore in court. The standing figure was probably a member of the Keighley police force.

“The cause of death,” opined Mr. Jack, “was by drowning after being stunned.”

The River Worth, still in relative infancy below Stanbury, is more properly a beck, yet even drunken Horsfall remembered that it had been a dark and very wet night with the river swollen. Even so, Mr Jack doubted if the body’s head wounds could have been the result of falls, nor by the force of the river carrying it down. He thought they could have been caused by kicks or a man’s shoe – significant in view of Moore’s alleged threat to ‘pawse’ the inebriate Horsfall.

Policemen and inquisitive locals examined a prospective – and soon presumably well-trampled – crime scene at Ponden Bridge. On the road near a stile leading to the river they found “an appearance of there having been a struggle and a man laid on the road.” There were finger-marks on the road, the wall and the river-side, and the wall near the stile was ‘besmeared’ with mud.

On the other hand, in order to reach his home Pickles could have left the others at Ponden Bridge to follow the river-side. “If a man walked straight from the bridge to deceased’s house without turning,” the court was told, “he would walk straight into the beck, and there would be no wall or other obstacle to prevent him.”

But this was a route Pickles had followed many times in the dark, though he used to “get drunk every week or so,” according to Tamar Sunderland, his long-standing common-law wife and mother of 11 children. He was, she loyally declared, “as healthy and strong a man as ever walked in Keighley and Haworth.”

The magistrates retired to discuss this vexed case for half an hour, after which, before committing Moore to the Leeds Assizes on a charge of manslaughter, Mr. Brigg carefully wrote: “Death not by drowning according to Medical Testimony. Not any malice prior to quarrel if any. Other possibilities. Road to his home dangerous. Conflicting testimony of drunken men. Excuses may now be put into prisoner’s mind by counsel that will satisfy the wants of the case.”

Clearly giving Moore the benefit of any doubts, he was not meanwhile remanded into custody. He was, noted diarist Sunderland Murgatroyd, “Baled out with £200”

And by the time the Summer Assizes came round in July, a lot more water had flowed under Ponden Bridge. Away from local emotions, in the broader context of Leeds amid a plethora of other cases – robbery with violence, felonious assault, forgery, horse stealing, assaults on women, attempted poisoning – the Spring Head Beck mystery got short shrift:

“The Grand Jury ignored the bill against Robert Moore on bail, shoemaker, for the man-slaughter of John Pickles at Stanbury.”

One can only hope that Robert Moore emerged from his experiences as a wiser man.

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