Ian Dewhirst

Murder at the Toll Bar

by Ian Dewhirst

Written by Ian Dewhirst – resident historian

The Hawkcliffe toll bar stood till 1877 astride the Keighley and Kendal Turnpike Road where it curves below Hawkcliffe Wood. There are some colourful tales about toll bars, but a grim one about this; for, on Monday, June 10th, 1861, it was the scene of a murder.

John Holdsworth, aged about 37, a woolcomber turned toll-collector, had kept the Hawkcliffe bar for some three years. It was a troubled household in 1861. Holdsworth had been acting strangely for several months, quarrelsome, bickering about money, periodically subject to what the locality called ‘girds’ in his head.

On June 8th his wife Elizabeth – who came of a tollkeeping family – was worried enough to send their 17-year-old daughter to the Foulridge bar to fetch her brother Joseph.

Joseph Snowden came over to Hawkcliffe and stopped all night. “I did not sleep, however,” he would recall, “till five o’clock from fear by what I had heard during the day.”

Ian Dewhirst

Now a private residence, the former Hawcliffe toll-house appears on the right of this photograph. c.1900

Next morning he went to Silsden, but his sister called him back at once. Holdsworth was persuaded to visit his father at Aden that Sunday, but he was back at the bar-house before Monday dinner.

“He said he had had a good night’s rest. He did not threaten anything,” according to Snowden. “He said he could do without me. I did not go.”

Poor Snowden spent an uncomfortable afternoon. A resentful Holdsworth kept giving him his hat and telling him to go home. “I did not go,” Snowden reiterated, “because my sister was afraid.”

About five o’clock that evening John Sugden, a Keighley cattle-dealer, stopped his gig at the bar. Holdsworth went out to him and they began arguing about some cattle which had gone through a fortnight earlier – the toll, said Mrs Holdsworth, was still owing. Joseph Snowden came out too – with Holdsworth pressing his hat into his hand and telling him to go home.

Local history does not record who won the cattle-toll dispute, soon to be forgotten in the face of larger events. For, as the wheels and hoofs of Sugden’s gig diminished along the road, the moment of decision came for Snowden and the Holdsworths.

Snowden decided to go, but told his sister to leave with him. “She was unwilling,” he would admit, “but I took hold of her and dragged her away.”

Holdsworth leaned over the lower half of the toll-house door and called: “Come back, lass, and let him go.”

Mrs Holdsworth and her brother now succumbed to a natural but fatal indecision. A hundred yards away on the Steeton side, nearly at the house where neighbour Thomas Shires was working in his garden, they stopped. Mrs Holdsworth was frightened her husband would burn her dresses, so they turned back to the bar.

Snowden sought a way out of his dilemma by asking if he should fetch a policeman (one had just passed, walking towards Steeton). Mr Holdsworth was equally nonplussed: “Is he to fetch a policeman?” she called to her husband. “He may fetch as many as he likes,” retorted Holdsworth, bolting the top half of the door too.

They left the toll-house and began to walk away along the footpath, close together, Snowden next to the wall. They were about thirty yards off when a shot rang out. Elizabeth Holdsworth fell dead
across the gutter with her head in the road, eleven pellets in her lungs and ribs. Snowden, blood streaming down his face (he had been hit in six places), ran on ‘shouting’ – the idea most recent in
his mind – ‘of the policeman.’

Charles Garforth, a 12-year-old schoolboy riding to Steeton on his pony, had gone by the toll-house a few minutes before, passing the time of day with Holdsworth, who had been leaning over the door smoking a pipe. At the sound of the shot, his pony bolted. Garforth may have been a sharp lad, or he may, by the inquest, have embroidered his reactions: he said he shouted that “the bar-man had shot his wife.”

Police Constable 172 Miles Lister, walking into Steeton in the calm of the evening, was rudely awakened, accosted first by the boy on the runaway pony, then by Snowden streaming blood, both crying a murder. He doubled back towards the bar, charging – as was his prerogative – grocer Joel Wright to accompany him. Wright entered into his sudden role with some zest, and the pair tackled the situation with a lucky promptness, if with what might now seem an enthusiastic disregard for the preservation of evidence.

First they came upon Mrs. Holdsworth’s body, and carried it into the toll-house and laid it on the floor. The doors were open, the house empty – Thomas Shires had seen Holdsworth climbing up the fields to the woods. Lister left Joel Wright in charge at the bar while he set off after the murderer.

Upstairs, Wright found five broken panes and a double-barrelled gun leaning against the window: one barrel had been fired, the other was loaded and cocked. “If he had shot straight through the window he would have missed them,” Wright later opined. “He must have fired with the gun aslant.”

The admirable Wright gave the weapon “to Mr Paget’s man to take it away for safety” – who, timorous of his charge, “put it behind the door in the parlour” at neighbour Paget’s, whence Sergeant McDonald retrieved it later in the evening. By then there was little for the sergeant to do, save help carry the body upstairs and take care of £46.4s.10d that was in the house.

Meanwhile, Constable Lister was following his man. He spotted him at Summer House, above Eastburn Crag, and trailed him, first to his brother’s then to his father’s at Aden, where Holdsworth was appre hended. “He said ‘I have shot her’,” the policeman reported, “and pointing to a beam in the house continued ‘Hang me just where I am’.” He was taken to the lock-up at Keighley.

There was an inquest on June 12th, where the jury returned a verdict of wilful murder. Two days later John Holdsworth was committed for trial at the York Assizes.

He had little to say for himself: “I can’t remember aught about it,” was his answer to every question; and once, when drawn further than usual: “I have been very bad in my head. I can’t say whether the gun was upstairs or down. I remember having it in my hand and it went off.” In the absence of more precise psychiatric data, the ‘English Dialect Dictionary’ defines a ‘gird’ as ‘an intermittent spasm of pain; a fit.’

On a plea of insanity, John Holdsworth was found not guilty, and confined during Her Majesty’s pleasure.