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Forum Home > The Ultimate Crime. > Canal Murders.1820, 1839, 1881.

Alaska.
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Posts: 1404

Rugeley Canal Murder, Christina Collins, James Owen, George Thomas. 1839.


James Owen, at 39, the "Captain " of a canal boat named  'The Staffordshire Knot ', which was owned by a company who became a household name, Pickfords. Owen came from Brinklow, near Rugby, and had spent the best part of his life so far, on the inland waterways of the country. His mate, William Ellis, ( alias William Lambert ) also came from Brinklow, and they had been together for some years. The third adult crew member was George Thomas, ( alias George Dobell ), who hailed from the village of Wombourne, and lived near to Smestow Bridge. On board was a young cabin boy named Isaac Mann, who had just turned 12 years of age, and came from Can Lane, Hurst Hill, Sedgeley. ( Can Lane being the old name for Hurst Road )  About the 16th June, 1839, having loaded a fresh cargo at Preston, Lancashire, they set out on route to London, having also taken on board a passenger, a young married woman, Mrs Christina Collins. Now just why she booked a passage with such a motley crew, we shall never know, but one things certain, she was unaware of the rough character that was James Owen. His reputation amongst the bargemen was well known, a man who enjoyed getting drunk, fighting, and was a bully to boot. His two crewmen were no better, and they had blazed a trail of bad behaviour, wherever they went. She arrived to board the " Flyboat " at dawn, and settled down as best she could amid the cargo of Rum and other goods. The crew, as usual, were still drunk from the excesses of the night before. Mrs Collins put up with the terrible vile language, and drunken antics, until the boat reached Stoke-on-Trent.


She went straight to Pickfords Office, and complained to the porters about the language, and the increasing attention being paid to her by James Owen. She then asked if it was possible to board one of the stage coaches, as she was feeling very uncomforable in the flyboats crews company. The London coach was already full, so rather reluctantly, she got back on the boat. The situation did not improve, and when the barge arrived at Stone, Staffordshire, she again went to speak to a canal official. This time it was Mr Henry Caldwell, who was the checking clerk of the Trent and Mersey Canal Company, but he, knowing only to well the vicious nature of James Owen, declined to help her, but did advise her to report the matter to Pickfords. She never got the chance. The boat left after the brief stop, and the cabin boy, Isaac Munn, was ordered to go to bed. Around 5 am on the Monday morning, the boat was nearing  Colwich Locks, about a mile from the town of Rugeley, when the cabin boy was woken, and told to take the horses futher down the canal while they negotiated the locks. During the night, the crew had broken open a cask of the Rum being carried, and were roaring drunk, it was a matter of opinion, whether or not they could actually work the lock gates. James Owen may not have been that bothered, he had his eye, and his mind, on something else.


The lock keeper and his wife, were disturbed by all the noise, and alarmed by the screams of a woman. Seeking to find out what was going on, they were assured by Owen, that the screams came from his wife, who was drunk, and they observed a women being hurriedly bundled into the barges tiny cabin. They went back to bed. Young Isaac was a bit surprised when Owen appeared behind him and said that the woman had somehow gone missing, and that they would have to go back and search for her. They found nothing, so continued towards London. Arriving at Hoo Mill Lock, the young lad, no doubt possible frightened for his own safety, told the lock keeper what had transpired. The keeper, also well aware of Owen's reputation, but being made of sterner stuff than most, asked Owen where the woman was. Not believing what he had been told, and when the boat was out of sight, he hurried off to report the matter to the police. Isaac Munn, deserted the boat and ran back to Hoo Mill, the crew of the Staffordshire Knot, fearing the game was up, after finding the boy missing, fled the scene, abandoning the boat a short distance away. The Police traced the route of the boat, and after a dragging a length of the canal, found the body of Christina Collins, wrapped in a section of chain, which was later proved to be part of the boats equipment. The hunt for the three men began immediately, but it would be many months before they would be apprehended and bought to justice, which will be the subject of the last part of the story.


So James Owen, William Ellis, and George Thomas, despite extensive enquiries, vanished from sight. The family of Thomas, who had resided in Wombourne for many generations, had been respectable farm workers, although the only one still left at the house, when the Police arrived, was his elderly mother. Being so close to Smestow Bridge and the canal, it had come as no surprise, when the young George had gone off to work on the barges. He did also have another reason. Something of a family " Black Sheep ", he had been caught poaching on the Earl of Dudley's land, and there was still in exsistance, a warrant for his arrest dated 1827. No wonder he ran, on a bad day in court, he could have faced being hung or transported. The searchers though, found nothing, and left. It was to be many months before any of the three were found, the first being William Ellis. He was apprehended near his home in Brinklow, and at first denied that any murder had occured, and said that the woman had possible simply fallen overboard. He was taken into custody. In a further statement, he disclosed that George Thomas had told him of a " hidey hole he used, which was adjacent to his mothers cottage. The police went back to Smestow, and this time they found him in a small chamber cut into the soft sandstone cliff in the rear wall of the property on the Bridgenorth Road. It had been disguised by the placing of a high backed bench. He went into custody as well. Thankfully, his very ill mother, died before he could be charged with murder, sparing her any future anguish. Early in 1840, while sneaking back to visit his wife at Brinklow, James Owen was finally captured, and he then joined the other two in Stafford Gaol, to await their trial, which was then set for the first week in April, 1840.


A key witness at the trial, was one Joseph Barnsley, who had a chainworks in Cradley Heath. He quickly identified the chain that had been wrapped around the unfortunate Mrs Collins, as being made and marked by him, on the instructions of the boats owners, Pickfords. Thieving from the boats was rife, and was concidered, by the crews to be a high accomplishment when it went undetected. There was no trouble selling the stolen goods, the canal apparently swarmed with men, who had plenty of money to buy anything. Pickfords, and other companies, marked or stamped, every item on the boats, that could not either be screwed or bolted down. In some cases, even the fully laden boats were stolen. Indeed, the very Rum that they had got drunk on, had been syphoned from the casks by the crafty Owen. The end result was a foregone conclusion, and all three of them were found guilty of the Wilful Murder of Mrs Christine Collins. The boats captain, James Owen,39, and George Thomas, ( alias Dobell ) 27, were hanged a few days after the trial. To the surprise of many, just before the event, William Ellis,28, was reprieved. This was maybe because he was the first to fully confess to the crime, and got his story of what happened on the boat, put down in writing before the others. Long before the time of the execution, ( arranged for 12 noon ) a very large crowd had gathered to witness the triple event. There was much displeasure, when, on the 11th April, only two were led up to the platform, where the frock coated George Smith was waiting, with a couple of short length's of rough rope. Still, the assembled throng got their monies worth, the pair kicked and struggled for many minutes before life was finally extinguished. Not very widely reported this murder, although  over 10,000 turned up on the day. I suppose it didn't have the gory details of a good old throat slitting, or the horrible discriptions of someone being dismembered with a big axe. " An eye for an eye " says the good book, and so it was with the law, except for the very lucky William Ellis.

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A wonderful thing is work, I could watch it all day.  ( See my Blog entry )

November 22, 2011 at 4:49 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Alaska.
Site Owner
Posts: 1404

Staffordshire Canal Murder, Tixall, James Williams, Elizabeth Bagnall, 1856.


The name of this murderer is already in the list of Staffordshire Hangings, a fate which, after reading what he did, you may heartily agree with.


James Williams was born in the pretty little hamlet of Hixon, Staffordshire, in 1856. He was fortunate at birth, his father being a Tailor, and for him, that meant a trade, not a lifetime as a common Agricultural Labourer. This would also mean that he was an attraction for the local ladies, for he was never short of work or money, and had good prospects of taking over his fathers small business. This may have been the reason, why a young domestic servant, Elizabeth Bagnall, decided to " step out " with Williams in the summer of 1880. Like him, she had been born locally, at nearby Haywood, in 1857, and was presently employed with a local Butcher at Pasture Field, Stowe, a short distance north of Hixon. In late December, there was a Servants Fair at Stafford, a place where employment could be gained, and she, accompanied by Williams, attended. It was here, that the young woman whispered in the young mans ear, that he was the father of the child she now found herself carrying. A time for joy you may think, but far from it, for James was very angry, and denied having fathered the child, and accused her of going with other men. He calmed down after a few drinks, and agreed to go to her families home at Haywood, to announce the good news, and arrange of course, a quick marriage. James carried on drinking. The road back took them alongside the Trent and Mersey Canal, and when they got to Tixall, not far from Shugborough Hall, without a seconds thought, he threw her, into the icy waters. No one heard her screams, and she didn't manage to get out, possibly because he made sure she couldn't. Raising the alarm, ( after she was dead ) it was first thought to be an accident, but the Coroners Jury, hearing she was pregnant, and having heard from witness's at the Fair of his anger, decided otherwise, and he was charged with Wilful Murder. He maintained his innocence throughout his trial, and pleaded provocation, but again was dis-believed, and it was only when he was led to the scaffold, did he finally confess, and ask for forgiveness. All to late for James Williams, who had callously slain his trusting, and pregnant girlfriend. He was hanged on 22nd February, 1881, in his prison clothes, stitched up you might say, by the Law.

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A wonderful thing is work, I could watch it all day.  ( See my Blog entry )

November 19, 2012 at 3:09 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Alaska.
Site Owner
Posts: 1404

Abel Hill, Glasshouse Bridge, Bradley, Bilston.


Abel Hill, was one of those characters it would have been hard to miss in the early part of the 1800s. He was reported to be brash, loud, and above all, arrogant, thats not to mention the drinking and womanising. As near as can be said,, he was born in 1781, possible in Princes End, Tipton, and earned his beer money in the Iron trade, as a labourer. In 1813, he met a young woman, Mary Malton, and by the next year, they were living as man and wife, in Bradley, Bilston.  All was fine it seemed, until Mary gave birth to a boy, Thomas,  in November, 1818. Abel was not pleased, and given what came later, may have tried to get the child aborted. He left the house, and refused to recognise the child as his, also refusing to pay any sum towards it upkeep. This left Mary with no choice but to seek help from the Parish, who promptly hauled Abel up before the Magistrates, who imposed payment on him. As in so many other cases, this reduced his beer money, but reluctantly, he paid up. Mary, knowing already what he like, now made a fatal error, and had him back in the house. In January, 1820, it became clear that Mary was again pregnant, and, according to what Mary told her friends, he forced her to take some vile tasting medicine. If this was intended to abort the child, it failed, so Abel made other plans.


On the 23rd February,1820, following a few weeks of arguments, Abel arranged to meet Mary in Bilston, after agreeing to buy his son Thomas, some new clothes. She left home about 6 pm, and set off for the Town, with the youngster in tow, and it was the last anyone saw of her until 3rd March. A man, presumed to be fishing in the Canal, hooked more than he bargained for on this day, and ran quickly for the local Policeman, Constable Fellows. He didn't have far to run, for Fellows was the landlord of a nearby Public house, " The Blazing Stump ". Bradley wasn't that big at the time, and the bodies fished out of the Canal were soon recognised, and Fellows didn't waste any time in arresting Abel Hill. Word had spread rapidly about the murder, and maybe with an eye to a bit of profit, Fellows chained Hill to the heavy fireplace in the pub. This attracted a great many, and a roaring trade soon developed. At no time during this rather novel, and unusual method of restraint, did Hill utter one word of any remorse, nor indeed did he during his trial. There was no doubt it was murder, Mary had many marks on her body, as did the child, and Hill had been seen that evening, soaked to the waist, not far from the Glasshouse Bridge, Bradley. ( The scene of the crime ) He proclaimed his innocence from the start, never once thinking that he would be found guilty, and treated the Court with as much disdain as he could muster. it wasn't the first time he had been in trouble with the law, but the Jury made sure it would be the last. They found him guilty of Wilful Murder, and the Judge sentenced him to death.


There are a couple of things of interest in this case. While awaiting his fate in Stafford Gaol, word reached him that bets were being made on whether he would die with his boots on, or off. He quickly realished, that those who had bet for, would be in the front row when he was due to meet his maker. On the day, 27th July,1820, he was reputed to have shouted, " any of yoe Bilston men who bet as I'd die wi' me boots, an' 'av cum ter see the job dun 'av lost yer bets ". And whith that done, he then kicked off his boots, and plunged to his doom down the trap. They may have lost their bets, but many went home smiling, for Abel Hill had lived up to his reputation as being a bit of a " card ". The other thing, was the Judge's finally words, that the body should be sent to the medical men for display, then dissection, and lastly, anatomised. There is a story, that his skeleton was preserved, and in 1890, was in the care of a policeman, Chief Superintendant Longden, of the Bilston Police. Now I don't know if the story is true, but if it is, Abel Hill is still hanging around somewhere.

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A wonderful thing is work, I could watch it all day.  ( See my Blog entry )

March 3, 2013 at 2:49 PM Flag Quote & Reply

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