On the morning of Monday, November 10th 1890, 21-year old Elizabeth Holt had left her home in Dunscar to make her usual trek over to the school she was employed at in Belmont, which was roughly three miles away. But this would be the last time she would ever make the journey, and a tragedy so brutal in nature would soon unravel which would shock the residents of Bolton and nearby towns and villages.
As head mistress at Belmont National School near to Bolton, 21-year old, Elizabeth made the routinely walk from her home at number 532 Darwen Road, Turton and head towards an unfrequented country road known as Longworth Lane, a walk that would take around fifteen to twenty minutes to complete.
From here, it would take at least another hour or so before she would have reached the school.
But not long into the walk, Elizabeth would encounter something so sinister, so horrible to even contemplate, it would go unknown for almost 5 days – until that is, when her body would be discovered buried underneath an overhanging crag and covered in dead leaves and ferns.
It was Elizabeth’s practice to leave her home on a Monday morning and return on the Friday evening. But it appears that the schoolmaster had assumed Elizabeth had been ill and she was not well enough to inform the school of her non-arrival.
Meanwhile, back at her home, her family thought nothing different and that Elizabeth had, as she had always done, arrived safely in Belmont and her place of work.
Four days past, and when Elizabeth failed to return home the following Friday, it was not until Saturday morning, 15th November, when Elizabeth’s mother and sister became anxious about her absence.
Just after noon, a young friend of of Elizabeth’s family had been sent over to Belmont on his bicycle to inquire about Elizabeth’s whereabout’s. After quickly hearing that she had not been to school at all during the week, he rushed back to inform her mother and sister.
OS Maps showing location of Longworth Hall and that of Longworth Lane
A search was instituted that afternoon and it appears that an eleven year-old boy called Clement Talbot, residing at Langworth Hall had come across an umbrella in a place called ‘The Wood’ on Thursday, 13th November. His dog had began barking at something on the side of the path and when he went to investigate, and after finding the umbrella, he thought that there was perhaps someone around so didn’t make too much of a fuss over it, instead deciding to go home and say nothing about the matter.
After hearing of Elizabeth’s disappearance, the Clement’s older brother, John, went to the same spot as to where the umbrella was and a little further down and near to a ravine, he noticed evidence of a struggle having taken place and a track through some long grass as if something had been dragged through. He also came across a variety of articles that had been strewn around the area. These included a packet of tea and coffee, some butter wrapped in a piece of paper, buttons from a woman’s cloak, a hat and a pair of slippers.
Following the trail further down an extremely steep incline, he recoiled in terror as the body of Elizabeth was discovered buried amongst the dead leaves and ferns.
Upon further investigation, Elizabeth’s partially naked body was lying on her side, with her head inclined slightly below the rest of her body and to the right. Some of her clothing was also found close to her body.
Help was soon found, but it was not until her body had been removed and taken up and placed onto a sheet that the true extent of her injuries would be fully known.
Elizabeth had suffered from a series of dreadful injuries that included a deep gash along her throat, just beneath her chin which had been partially concealed by clinging ferns. She had also been stabbed three times in the neck as well as to the back of her head.
The right side of her head was completely smashed in, more than likely from a series of kicks.
Her wrists had become discoloured, indicating that her arm had been tightly grasped by a blood-stained hand and her lip was swollen.
As for her belongings, a scarf had been found that seemed to have been cut and this had a piece of flesh attached to it. Several buttons torn from her attire had been found along the trail where it appears she had been dragged feet-first.
Sketch showing location of Elizabeth Holt’s body
The post-mortem, which had been conducted by Dr. Robinson, of Dunscar would later reveal that Elizabeth had not raped, with Dr. Robinson saying ; “The girl was not outraged. There is not the slightest appearance of that, and there can be no doubt about the fact. There had been an attempt, no doubt. The man had evidently torn open her dress and cut away a portion of the underclothing, but owing to some arrangement of the underclothing, further outrage, though intended, did not take place. Whether she was dead before the attempt was made or not I cannot tell.”
The doctor would also reveal further horrific injuries she had sustained. “Her throat was cut subsequently to the kicks, which would be fatal in themselves. The throat is severed on the right side, and all the muscles and arteries have been cut right down to the spine. The neck was stabbed in three other places, and there is also a stab on the back of the head.”
Interestingly, and immediately after the discovery of Elizabeth’s body, suspicion fell upon a man named Thomas Macdonald who was aged 33 years old.
He had already been arrested on the 16th September that same year for causing the death of a man called Thomas Mather, who had been found drowned in a lodge in Dunscar. However, after a brief trial, the jury acquitted Macdonald, stating that there had been insufficient evidence to connect him with the death of Mather.
Oddily though, it would later emerge that on the night of the drowning case of Mather, Macdonald had returned home later that evening and broke all of the furniture. Worse still, after seeing a canary in its cage, he said ; “I’ll teach you to stare at me!” before proceeding to set the bird on fire.
At 33 years of age, Macdonald bore all the hallmarks of being a “ne’er-do-well” or what we would call a “wrong -un” today.
It also appears that he had been in trouble with the authorities in his early twenties when he had been charged with the rape of a young girl who was aged just nine. In 1882 he was sentenced to 10 years’ penal servitude for that assault, which occurred over at nearby Turton. However, he had been released on a ticket-of-leave in April 1890.
On Monday, 17th November, the inquest into the death of Elizabeth Holt was opened before Mr. S. F. Butcher, the district coroner.
The only witness called was the mother of Elizabeth Ann Holt, who also shared the same name as her daughter. She would confirm to the jury that she had lived at number 532 Darwen-road, Turton, along with her deceased daughter. Elizabeth confirmed that she was a widow of James Carr Holt and that the body was that of her daughter Elizabeth Ann Holt, who was 21 years of age at the time of her death. She would also confirm that her daughter had been head mistress at Belmont National School, near Bolton.
On Tuesday, 18th November, Macdonald was brought up at the local police-court and charged with the murder of Elizabeth Ann Holt. A remand was asked for and Macdonald, who was calm and collected, protested his innocence, saying he did not see why he should not be tried there and then as he was not guilty of the crime.
However, a remand was granted and Macdonald would be returned back to the prison cells until he brought before the county justices on Thursday, 20th November.
Undefended, Macdonald appeared extremely nervous. He tried to conceal himself from the scrutiny of the public gaze by getting close to the rails of the dock.
Prosecuting on behald of the Treasury, Messrs, Hall and Son, applied for another remand until the following Monday, so to give the police more time to complete their investigations. However, the presiding magistrate, Captain Greg, thought that some evidence should be offered, but Mr. Hall declined to offer any.
Macdonald, when asked if he had anything to say, replied ; “I do not wish this case to go forward until I am supplied with suitable clothing which has been taken away from me. I want the case to be adjourned.”
Upon this, the remand was granted and Sergeant Shackleton was instructed to provide a suit of clothing for Macdonald.
This was all the evidence given, and the inquest was then adjourned until Saturday, 22nd November.
Sketch showing Elizabeth Ann Holt, Honore Bann and Thomas Macdonald
One of the first witnesses to speak at the next inquest was that of Mary Collier who stated that on the morning of 10th November, the Monday when Elizabeth had left her home, Elizabeth had passed Mary’s house alongside Blackburn Road, Egerton and going in the direction of Longworth Lane. She also said she had seen nothing of Macdonald that morning and that he only lived around 20 yards in the distance on the same raod.
Robert Scholes, a farmer of Longworth, spoke of seeing Elizabeth at around eight o’clock that same morning as he was proceeding along Longworth Lane. He bade her “Good morning, to which she replied. About 150 yards further, he had passed Macdonald, whome he knew. Macdonald and Elizabeth were the only two persons he met in the neighbourhood and they were both going into the direction of Longworth Hall.
Scholes told the jury that the morning had been wet and foggy and that Macdonald was walking at a quick pace. He would also confirm that where Elizabeth’s body was found was around a mile away from where he had met her that morning.
Another man, by the name of Robert Simpson also stated that he had seen Macdonald that same morning as he was returning from his milk delivery. Macdonald had overtaken him on the road to Belmont and remarked to him that it was a wet morning. Simpson went on to tell the jury that he had known Elizabeth for many years and could recognise her by her clothing. She was about 200 yards away and Macdonald had been roughly 100 yards nearer.
Perhaps the strangest of testimonies came from the aunt of Macdonald – a lady called Honor Bann, who confirmed that Macdonald had lived with her for just over seven months and she had looked after him whilst he was out of employment during the last twelve weeks.
She would also tell the jury that on Monday 10th November, as she was working in the mill of Messrs. Ashworth at Egerton, a message was brought to her that she was wanted.
On going outside, Macdonald , who had appeared to be in a frenzied state of mind, met her and then told her that someone had come from America. He then said ; “Aunt, I am after committing a murder.”
She asked him who had been murdered and he replied ; “Lizzie Holt.”
Bizarrely, she then told him to go and drown himself before bringing any more scandal upon her. And then she asked if he was going to murder her too, to which Macdonald replied ; “No!”
Macdonald told her he was going to Bolton to give himself up, and asked her for 3d, but she had no money.
After learning that his story of someone coming from America was untrue, she went back into the mill.
Later that evening, she claimed to have seen a knife on table in her home but could not say whether or not it was clean or whether at the time if there were any smears on the handle.
On the Tuesday evening, she asked Macdonald if he been over to Bolton to give himself up and he had told her he had been let out on bail until the Thursday. He then had asked her for his knife and tobacco-box.
Macdonald continued to live with her until Saturday, and nothing was said again regarding the murder of Elizabeth Holt.
Census records of Elizabeth Ann Holt.
The funeral of Elizabeth was held on the afternoon of Tuesday, 18th November and took place at Walmsley Parish Church. It was reported that around 15,000 spectators had attended the proceedings, all wishing to pay their respects. The coffin was covered with wreaths, with one bearing the inscription :- “From her true and loving George, with heartbroken sympathy and love.” This had been sent by a gentleman from Birmingham.
Census records of Elizabeth Ann Holt
Grave of Elizabeth Ann Holt. Photo courtesy of Chris and Vickie Dunn 2022.
The inquest was again adjourned, this time until Monday 24th November. Honor Bann again gave evidence to the same effect as that at the inquest on the 22nd November. Several other statements were made by other witnesses and the case was adjourned until Tuesday, 25th November.
Macdonald asked that the coroner should stop any cutting remarks made in court by any persons without proof but the coroner replied replied, saying he thought that people’s general good sense would prevent that and that the prisoner must not be too thin-skinned!
Interestingly, Dr. Robinson was re-called and for over an hour, he was cross-examined by Macdonald, who was defending himself, as to the wounds on Elizabeth’s body.
Macdonald then intimated that he wished to call a witness to speak as to the condition of the knife found upon him during his arrest.
Evidence was then given similar to that given before the magistrates.
And whatever was said during this period had a profound effect on Macdonald as he would shortly make a full confession in writing, which was later read in court.
It read ; “On the 10th of November, at eight o”clock in the morning, I started from home to go to Belmont, to see the manager. On my way, at the spot that has been mentioned, I overtook her. I got hold of her by the shoulder. I asked her what she had been telling lies about me for. I told her that I followed her for a few week ago for the purpose of doing her some harm. She told me to let go her shoulder. I told her I would not do so until she retracted what she had said. She jerked her shoulder out of my hand, shut her umbrella, took hold of the small end of it, and struck me with the handle across the brow. I became enraged, threw her down, and caused those wound in her head, through being in a violent passion. I then cut her throat, dragged her across the footpath down the ravine in which she was found. I made the marks in her neck after making the wounds in her throat, to destroy all evidence against me. When I took her into the hollow I tore and cut open her clothes to see if her heart beat. I found it did not beat. I then covered her with fern fronds and oak leaves.”
The coroner having summed up, the jury had no option but to return a verdict of “wilful murder” against him and Macdonald was comitted, on the coroner’s warrant, to take his trial at the Liverpool assize.
On Friday, 12th December 1890, the trial of Thomas Macdonald, charged with the murder of Elizabeth Ann Holt commenced at Liverpool.
The court was crowded, mainly because of the peculiar atrocity of the crime that had aroused great excitement and indignation in the district.
Strangely, Macdonald pleaded not guilty, having withdrawn his original confession in order, as he stated, that the evidence “might be gone over again.”
In the course of the trial, a constable said that Macdonald had made a statement to him as follows :- “Man, I had a job with her. When she struck me on the head with the umbrella she might easily have got away, for I was quite blind for a few minutes. The first time that I knocked her down she got up again, and I have to put my leg in behind hers before I could get her down a second time. I soon finished her off then with my clogs and my knife. When I took her to the bottom of the slough, I was nearly making a mess of myself, as when I was part way home I was looking for my knife to cut some bacca, and I had to go right back for it, and when I got back I gound it right underneath her body.”
Defending Macdonald, Mr. Cottingham admitted that the crime had been committed by the prisoner, but argued that in view of the sudden passion caused by the blow which Elizabeth had struck him, the jury would be justified in finding a verdict of manslaughter. He pleaded not for an aquittal, but simply to save the prisoner from the gallows, and to give him the opportunity of repentance.
However, Macdonald interrupted Cottingham, shouting from the dock ; “I don’t want it ; I am guilty!”
After several minutes of deliberations, the jury returned a verdict of wilful murder. His Lordship, after passing down the sentence of death in the usual manner, observed that he (Macdonald) had put the woman to death in a brutal and inhuman manner.
The week leading up to his execution, Macdonald had spent most of his time ill and lying in his bed at Kirkdale jail.
On an extremely cold and dark morning, at eight o’clock on Tuesday, 30th December 1890, Macdonald was led from his prison cell and into the chamber of death, casting furtive and anxious glances at the reporters who had assembled to cover the story. He made no speech and the only words he uttered were responses of the “Litany of the Dead”, which were ; “Lord, have mercy on my soul.”
James Berry, executioner, after strapping Macdonald’s legs and placing a white cap over his head, immediately drew the bolt, sending Macdonald into the abysss below. Death being instantaneous.
However, Macdonald would still have the last word, as his aunt, Honor Bann shorlty received a letter, written by Madconald the day before his execution.
“Dear Aunt, – When you go to the chapel to-morrow think of who it was that came into this world to redeem up poor sinners. He came not as a prince or emperor, but as a weak and lowly babe, to show us how humble we should be, also to be on our guard against getting into a violent passion. You see what my passions have brought me to! Nothing less than a disgraceful death. But it is no good murmuring. Let us hope God, who is all merciful, will show His mercy to me at the hour of my death. I hope you will all pray earnesstly for me the next few days, not only with your lips, but with your hearts, and God will surely bless you all. – So no more from your unworthy nephew, THOMAS M’DONALD.”
Sources used in this story;
Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper – Sunday 23 November 1890
Worcestershire Chronicle – Saturday 22 November 1890
Leeds Times – Saturday 22 November 1890
Liverpool Weekly Courier – Saturday 13 December 1890
+ many more courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive – www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk and www.ancestry.co.uk
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