HORRIBLE HISTORY: THE PENDLETON MURDERS, 1817
By Tony Flynn With thanks to Keith Byrne
The case excited enormous public interest with its hints of sexual liaisons, the accusations of corruption against a deeply unpopular police chief, and the continued refusal of condemned men to admit their guilt.
On Saturday 26 April, wealthy Manchester merchant Thomas Littlewood and his wife returned home to find their house had been burgled.
Gaining entry through an upstairs window they found a scene of horror in front of them.
Two servants - Margaret Marsden, 75, and Hannah Partington, just 20 - had been bludgeoned to death with a poker and a cleaver, and were found covered in blood in the kitchen.
A search of the house revealed that a large amount of money had been stolen, some £160 in notes and silverware. an staggering amount of money in those times.
Witnesses soon came forward and gave the names of four men, James Ashcroft, 53, his son James, 32, David Ashcroft, 48, brother and uncle to the aforementioned men, and 47-year-old William Holden 47.
The men were arrested the next day by Joseph Nadin, the Deputy Constable of Manchester. Their rooms, in Silk Street, Salford and St George's Road, Manchester were searched, and cash was found, but although Nadin searched for any bloodied clothing, and pressed the men to disclose where such garments might be, none was ever found beyond a handkerchief with some blood on it, lying beneath David Ashcroft's bed.
On Monday 28 April the prisoners were taken to the scene of the crime and forced to look at the corpses. Holden in particular was reluctant to do so, and press reports of the time were quick to conclude that he and Hannah had been lovers.
The men were arrested, charged with the murders of Margaret Marsden and Hannah Partington and sent to Lancaster to for trial on 5 September.
At the trial, presided over by Sir Richard Richards, a succesion of witnesses testified to seing the Ashcrofts and William Holden leaving the house carrying bundles and they were later spotted in various public houses in Manchester.
One even said that he saw David Ashcroft with a pile of notes in one hand and silver coins in the other.
James Jnr and William Holden were seen later in the day in Hanover Street in Manchester betting large amounts (5 shillings a throw) on the toss of a coin. At no time did their demeanour suggest that they had recently, and savagely, murdered anyone.
Not one witness recalled seeing blood on any of their clothing, which was described in often minute detail, right down to the colour of their handkerchiefs and their boot tops, and yet the perpetrators of the crime would certainly have been stained quite severely, given the very nature of the murders.
The final prosecution witness was William Collins, a man James Snr had shared a cell with, and to whom he supposedly confessed.
In the face of this kind of testimony the defence counsel Mr Williams had little to offer.
Williams called a good number of witnesses, mostly to testify to the character of the men accused, or to place them well away from the scene of the crime, but a great many of the people called had criminal records themselves, and their evidence counted for very little.
One witness, Adam Halwell, had taken William Collins to prison after his arrest and happened to see him on the day he was released. Halwell asked Collins if Ashcroft had said anything to him about the murders, to which Collins replied that they were 'all as innocent as the child unborn.'
Cross-examined, Collins denied this.
Given a chance to speak the men all pleaded innocence.
Interestingly, both Holden and James Jnr mentioned being taken to see the bodies, and of being so shocked and moved by the sight that they kissed them. This would have been significant, as there was a belief at the time that a corpse would bleed anew at the touch of its killer!
David made a dramatic plea to the court that the evidence against them had been falsified, that witnesses had lied and that he and the others were innocent.
By now it was approaching 8pm and the jury retired to consider its verdict. They returned just two minutes later and pronounced that they had found all four men guilty.
Amid sobbing and screaming from wives and family members all four men loudly protested their innocence, so much so that the judge reprimanded them and the bailiffs and to struggle to regain order. The court finally fell silent as the sentences were passed.
The men would die in two days time, on Monday 8 September.
Amid more accusations of corruption, mostly levelled against Joseph Nadin, the men were finally removed from the dock and taken down to the cells below.
On the day of the execution the area around Hanging Corner outside Lancaster prison was thronged with people.
One by one the men were brought out onto the scaffold and one by one they reiterated their innocence.
Finally just before the trap fell they began to sing a hymn: 'I'll Praise My Maker While I've Breath' and when,
some four minutes later all four men were dead, there was said to be "scarcely a tearless eye among the crowd, while many of the women wept aloud".
Interestingly enough, some 26 years later a man called John Holden, who lived in Atherton, made a death bed confession saying that he had murdered the two women and that innocent men had been hung.
The truth of the 1817 Pendleton Murders would die with Holden, as he was to pass away the day later.
This article originally appeared on SalfordOnline on the 22nd May 2014, it is reproduced here with the permission of Eccles premier Bingo player, Tony '2 Fat Ladies' Flynn.