When Joseph Holden walked along Railway Street situated over in Radcliffe, he was fully aware of the ramifications his recent actions would have not just on his own life, but also on the lives of all those close to him.
Making his way along the cobbled road just off Blackburn Street, he saw the figure of Sergeant Thomas. As they reached each other, Holden stopped Thomas and what came next was as confusing as it would eventually turn out to be shocking.
“Lock me up!” Holden would ask of the Sergeant.
A little bemused as to what Holden had just said, Sergeant Thomas took a couple of seconds before asking, “What for?”
“You’ll see.” replied Holden.
Both men then made their way to the police station which was a few seconds walk away from where they stood and back inside the station, Holden would again ask be to ‘locked up’.
When asked by Thomas why he was insistent on being locked up, Holden would unravel a story that would go on to shock not only the police officers present in the station, but also that of an entire nation as the story would soon spread to all major news outlets of a man who had killed his grandson and the manner in which he had committed the crime would prove to be just as disturbing.
For this story we need to go back to Tuesday, 21st August 1900 and to number 48 Ingham Street, Bury.
Joseph had gone to visit the home of his daughter Fanny Eldred and whilst there he asked if his nine year old grandson, George, would like to go with him over to nearby Birtle to collect two pigeons. George loved birds and would have been excited by his grandfather’s kind gesture. Also, everything had seemed innocent enough as Joseph had previously spent a lot of time with his grandsons, often taking them out for the afternoon before returning them home later on in the day.
Joseph and George soon made their way over to Birtle, not too far from a quarry that was situated there.
Sitting down in one of the fields, Joseph asked George if he could cut him some tobacco, something which George had done on plenty of occasions before. Taking hold of a knife Joseph had taken from one of his pockets, George sat with his back to his grandfather, oblivious to what was to come next.
Behind him, Joseph began searching for something on the floor whilst George had begun cutting at the tobacco. Finally, Joseph found what he was looking for. It was a large stone.
Joseph then walked over and lifting the heavy stone in one swoop, he heaved it towards George’s head.
George was forced forwards onto the ground and the damage was instant as blood poured from the wound created from the blow of the stone. However, he was alive and fully conscious as Joseph looked down at him.
“Grandfather did it on purpose!” George shouted.
Joseph quickly denied any wrong doing, insisting he was trying to throw the stone but had inadvertently caught poor George in the process.
Taking a handkerchief from his pocket, Joseph wrapped it around George’s head and both then headed down the hill towards the main street. Arriving back on Walmsley Road, Joseph placed George inside a tram and sent him on his way back to his home, all alone. Meanwhile Joseph would make his own way home.
When George arrived back home, his mother, Fanny, would be shocked to see him in such a poor way. After explaining what had happened and how his grandfather had hurt him on purpose, Fanny soon made her way around to her father’s house.
“It was an accident. I picked up a stone and said, ‘Georgie, watch it roll’. It had clay on and slipped out of my hand.” Joseph would tell Fanny.
Seemingly satisfied with this explanation, Fanny left Joseph’s home, and whilst obviously not happy with her son being injured, she nonetheless didn’t take it any further
Unfortunately, George’s health would take a turn for the worse and by Thursday 23rd August, he would suffer from blood poisoning as well as erysipelas, an infection of the upper layers of the skin that results in a fiery red looking rash with raised edges that can be easily distinguishable from the skin around it. Reports at the time would later say that George would remain in a critical condition for some time.
Meanwhile, Joseph, it seems, would carry on with his life just as he had done prior to the events on the 21st August. He would visit the local public houses in and around the area he lived, but it seems his relationship with some of his family had deteriorated which had left him slightly aggrieved.
Aged 57, Joseph Holden had, until 1896 been a hardworking, respectable family man. At the age of 21 and on the 8th June 1863, he would marry Alice Hannah Hall at St. Pauls Church, Bury and together they would go on to have ten children – seven boys and three girls.
For many years he and his family would live at number 81 Ingham Street, Bury and in 1895 he was employed as an ironturner at Robert Hope’s Iron Foundary that was once located on George Street.
It seemed that Joseph had enjoyed a relatively normal life and enjoyed spending time with his grandchildren, often taking them out for the day on walks around the surrounding moorland. However, tragedy would hit at the heart of his idyllic surroundings as during 1896, his wife, Alice would sadly pass away.
With his world now turned upside down, Joseph would turn to drink and it wouldn’t take long before his drinking habits got to a point where several family members turned their backs on him.
He would also lose his job the same year, most probably, again, due to his drinking habits and things would escalate to such a point that by 1897 he would be sent to the Bury Union Workhouse for being of unsound mind and simply wandering around for large periods of time.
Mr. William Bailey, Master of the Workhouse, would tell of Joseph being an ordinary inmate who would do as he was asked, but he would often look upon him as simple-minded. Joseph would stay at the workhouse for around 14 days before a doctor certified him fit for release.
Joseph would remain in and out of the workhouse for several months, often returning to them within days of being released. He would visit the workhouse six times from 1897 up until 1900 as well as spend some time living with his daughter, Fanny at number 48 Ingham Street. However, it seems Fanny’s husband, George, was beginning to tire of Joseph and his drinking to the point of George finally throwing Joseph out of his home and onto the street.
It seems that from reading at all the newspaper articles from the time, Joseph had began to blame his family for many of his troubles as he felt many of them had turned their backs on him when he needed them the most.
This then brings us to Wednesday, September 5th 1900.
Joseph had been released from the workhouse only a week prior and had been staying with one of his daughters, Sarah, and her three children Robert, John and Mary at number 18 Nuttall Street, Bury.
It was reported that Sarah had been separated from her husband, John Henry Dawes from sometime around 1896 and in that time she had struggled to raise her three children. To try and raise money, she took in other people’s washing, but day-to-day life was extremely harsh and to add to the hardship she herself was suffering from, she also had to contend with the death of her mother as well as her father who had turned to drink as well as losing his job.
But on the day in question, Joseph had been over to see his other daughter Fanny Eldred, and after having some lunch, he would leave at around 1.45pm, saying he was going for a walk.
Instead, Joseph made his way back to Sarah’s home but upon arriving he had missed her by only a few minutes. It seems that she had given her son, John – who was aged eight, some lunch at around 1pm before sending him to school at around 1.45pm and she had left her house shortly after, most likely to do a few errands.
Joseph himself then left the house and from what the news articles tell us, it seems that he may have been wandering around until around 3.20pm in the afternoon before finally arriving at St. Thomas’s School in Pimhole, just a few minutes’ walk from where both Sarah and Fanny lived in nearby streets.
Inside, Joseph was met by teacher Jane Robinson, who asked him why he was in the school. Joseph replied telling her that he needed to remove John Dawes from his class. She then went to speak with the headmaster, Edwin Ashton, who himself would ask Joseph what his purpose was and why he needed to take John out of school.
Joseph would tell him that John’s mother, Sarah, had an important errand for John at the Sun Dial just off Walmersley Road and if Joseph would go down to the school to fetch him.
Edwin asked Joseph why he couldn’t do the errand himself to which Joseph replied saying that he couldn’t as he had to go on over to Heywood.
Seemingly happy with the reply, John was allowed to leave school and it was reported that he left with a contented look on his face.
What transpired over the next few hours, none of us can ever imagine.
Both Joseph and his grandson, John, would slowly make their way to a place called Limefield Quarry that is to the North of Bury and just off Walmersley Road.
Passing by the Sun Dial, as mentioned by Joseph to headteacher Edwin Ashton, both would began their assent up towards the disused stone quarry at a place called Top o’th Hill.
At this point, even to John, this may not have seemed an unusual event as Joseph had spent many a happy time, as already mentioned, going for walks with his grandchildren and apart from being taken out of school, we can only speculate as to what Joseph may have told John if questioned on why they were going for a walk during school time.
Arriving at the quarry at around 5.30pm, both Joseph and John arrived at the top of an outcrop and below, roughly forty foot or so, was a pool of water around six foot deep.
Shockingly, Joseph took hold of John by the scruff of his neck, grabbing hold of his breeches in the process and instantly threw him over the ledge of the quarry.
John would plummet quickly down onto the surface below, but somehow he survived the fall, but only just.
Making his way down towards the water, Joseph soon found John lying on the floor. He had survived by landing on some soft soil but it was obvious to Joseph that he was seriously injured as he was bleeding from the back of his head and had multiple cuts and bruises to his head, face and hands.
Without any remorse, Joseph took hold of the injured boy, and after carrying him close to the water’s edge, he threw him into the water a few feet away.
Around five hours later, Joseph had for reasons unknown, travelled over to Radcliffe. Had he travelled all that way simply to hand himself over to the police? If so, why Radcliffe and not somewhere closer to home in Bury? Was he toying with the idea of handing himself over after committing such a cruel act on his grandson or was he just wandering around before eventually arriving in Radcliffe?
Whatever his reasoning was, we do know that he did indeed hand himself over to the police in Radcliffe at around 10.30pm that evening after asking Sergeant Thomas to ‘lock him up.’
Inside the police station, he would tell startled police officers what had transpired earlier in the evening.
“I have murdered a boy in Bury. I have thrown him down a stone quarry, near to Sun Dial, about half past five this afternoon.”
When cautioned in the usual way, Joseph said, “It is true. His name is John Dawes, of Nuttall Street, Bury and I am grandfather to him.”
Sergeant Swainbank, stationed at Bury and after a telephone conversation from the officers at Radcliffe Station, he would begin a search of the quarry at around midnight with other officers.
It wouldn’t be easy and it would take around five hours before their search would finally come across the body of poor John Dawes.
He was fully dressed except for his cap and a right clog that were both missing.
Meanwhile Joseph would be transported from Radcliffe back over to Bury and upon his arrival, he would ask Sergeant Swainbank if they had found the boys cap to which Swainbank answered ‘no’.
“It’s there. His cap and clog came off as he fell down the quarry.” replied Joseph.
Swainbank would revisit the quarry later that morning and after a little searching he would find the right clog as well as John’s cap. He would also come across a quantity of blood on a large stone near to where the clog had fallen. Blood was also to be seen for a distance of eight feet from the water’s edge.
The inquest into the death of John Dawes would take place on Friday, 7th September, within Bury Town Hall and held by Mr. S. F. Butcher, Bury County Coroner.
Superintendent Noblett would go over the details of the case for the information for the bench and the first witness to take to the stand would be that of Sarah Dawes, mother to John.
In a pitiful state and showing signs of exhaustion, she would confirm the identification of the body as that of being her son, John. She would also tell the jury that she never desired her father, Joseph, to visit the school and remove John to run an errand for her.
The coroner then asked Joseph, “Have you heard what she says?” to which Joseph replied, “Yes.”
Asking if he had anything else to say, Joseph replied; “It is a bad job who warn’t theer, or she’d a’ had to go down instead o’ t’ child!”.
Hearing this, Sarah fainted in the dock and had to be escorted out of the room by two officers.
Dr. Peel Nuttall of Bury would take to the stand and describe the postmortem results as being that the wounds on the child must either have been caused by being struck or by falling. Death was due to drowning, and the external injuries were sustained either immediately before or after death.
When asked by the corner if he had anything else to add, Joseph nonchalantly replied; “What they’ve got they’ve asked for, and have for been doing for this last three years. There’s nobody will cry about the job as matters owt. Some people can tell when they hurt, but they cannot tell when they are hurting folk. That’s all the evidence I have to give.”
The coroner, in addressing the jury, said that as to Holden’s mental condition that was a question for a higher court and that the prisoner had made very specific statements, and if he had committed the crime he must be sent for trial on the capital charge of murder.
After a brief deliberation, the jury would return a verdict of “willful murder” against Joseph Holden, and he was formally committed for trial at the Manchester Assizes.
The coroner on behalf of himself and the jury expressed their deep sympathy with the bereaved mother saying he was sure they were expressing the same feelings as that of the community.
Later that same afternoon, further developments in connection with the murder of John Dawes came to light. From statements taken from relatives, information regarding the attack on his other grandson, George Eldred, that took place on the 21st August, would be written down by the police. It would also come to light the George had been in a serious condition and his mother, Fanny, had worried that he may not pull through.
The body of young John Dawes would be interred within the ground of Bury Cemetary on Monday, 10th September 1900 with hundreds of people all lining the streets to pay their final respects.
However, a sensational incident occurred as the courtage was making its way to the funeral. Turning around a corner that led up towards the cemetary, a greengrocers cart dashed into the front of the first carriage, which contained Sarah Dawes and other relatives. One of the shafts of the cart crashed through the open window into the carriage, splintering the sides, whilst the horses breast was dashed against the wheel, almost overturning the carriage.
Fortunately, no one was injured but Sarah Dawes fainted and the other relatives where, obviously, all shaken from the event.
George Eldred, whilst now recovering from the attack on him by Joseph was able to watch the cortege pass by him from his bedroom window, but he wasn’t fit or strong enough to make it into the cemetary.
Unlike many other plots within the cemetary, John does not have a statue or headstone, instead, his family could only afford a simple plaque that can still be found to this day.
On it, the words; “In loving memory of John Dawes who died Sept 5th 1900, aged 8 years. Thy Will Be Done.” were inscribed.
On Saturday, 8th September, Joseph was again charged with willfully murdering his grandson but this time an additional charge of attempting to murder his other grandson, George Eldred, was also made.
The courts were crowded with people all wanting to express their contempt towards the prisoner and as Joseph entered the room, it seemed as if he was oblivious to the situation he was in.
Mr. John Hall, clerk to the county magistrates who prosecuted on the instruction of the Treasury, offered no further evidence on the first charge and with Joseph having nothing to say, he was committed to the Assizes on the charge of murder.
As for the charge of attempted murder, George Eldred would be asked to give evidence. Whilst extremely weak and obviously still in a lot of pain, George, with his head bandaged up would tell the jury of how Joseph had taken him over to Birtle for two pigeons. He would also mention of being asked by his grandfather to cut some tobacco and whilst doing so a large stone was heaved at him, striking him on the back of the head.
When medical evidence had been given, the jury had no option but to commit Joseph to the Assizes, charging him with attempted murder.
The trial of Joseph Holden would formally take place on Tuesday, 13th November at the Manchester Assizes. Judge, Mr. Justice Darling would hear all the evidence put before him, from witness statements that included Sarah Holden, Fanny Eldred, Sergeant Swainbank, Sergeant Thomas and William Bailey as well as several other people.
Medical evidence was given to the effect that although Joseph was not of completely sound mind, he was able to plead and surprisingly when asked how he pleaded, he would reply to the court, “guilty.”
Having no other option but to enact the full and strongest of punishments down onto Joseph, Justice Darling, in the customary fashion, would pass down the sentence of death.
It was expected that a reprieve would be made based on Joseph not being responsible for his actions, but medical experts reported that he was not demented and had, for the last day or two, been reconciled to his fate and on Saturday, 1st December, the Home Secretary, Charles Richie, notified the Governor of Strangeways that he could see no reason for advising her Majesty to intervene in the case, so the date for Joseph’s execution would be set for Tuesday, 4th December.
During his imprisonment, Joseph had two visits with relatives, one being with his daughter, Fanny Eldred and his son Wilfred on the day before his execution. Fanny was accompanied by her son, George, but it was not deemed prudent to allow him to see Joseph.
The visit was said to have been a painful one and Joseph’s last words to Fanny where; “I’ve been a good father once, Fanny.” She replied; “Yes you have, father.”
On Tuesday, 4th December, a huge crowd of around 400 people had congregated outside the walls of Strangeways Prison where Joseph had spent his remaining days since the sentence of death was imposed on him at the Manchester Assizes. Drawn for the most parts by idle morbid curiosity, passers-by would delay their steps to watch and wait for the final outcome.
During the previous evening, Joseph had a somewhat troubled night, often seen walking up and down inside his cell, unable to sleep due to the anxiety of what he knew was soon to come.
At half-past six in the morning, and after finally having some sleep, Joseph rose from his bed and by seven o’clock he was visited by the chaplain of the prison, Reverend C. Williams. Speaking to the chaplain, Joseph, whilst now acknowledging his fate, seemed full of remorse and was showing signs of sorrow.
His last meal would consist of just bread and butter with a cup of tea and not too long after, executioner James Billington and his assistant would visit Joseph to ready him for his execution. He would bore the pinioning quietly and did not utter a single word.
And two minutes past eight and with the hoisting of the traditional black flag, the public would finally get what they came for, intimation that the sentence of death by hanging had been carried into effect.
As usual, the execution was carried out in private and information was withheld from the public until the holding of the inquest later that afternoon. The prison doctor stated that death was instantaneous and the jury returned the usual verdict. It also transpired during the inquest that whilst Joseph had walked firmly to the scaffold, he was extremely penitent, showing signs of sorrow and possible regret for what he had done.
A few days after the execution of Joseph, Bolton MP, George Harwood asked the Home Secretary, Charles Richie, during a debate in the House of Commons, if he had read the evidence and information regarding the case. Mr. Richie replied that he had indeed and had appointed two gentlemen of great experience in criminal lunacy to hold and inquiry into Holden’s mental condition.
And according to Mr. Richie the two men concluded that Holden was sane and responsible for his actions at the time of examination and when the crime was committed.
The Home Secretary said: “The answer to the question is, of course, in the affirmative, but I may perhaps be allowed to explain that as the prisoner’s sanity was called in question I appointed two gentlemen of great experience in criminal lunacy to hold an inquiry, as prescribed by statute, into his mental condition, and that they came to the clear conclusion that he was sane and responsible for his actions at the time of their examination and when the crime was committed. The murder was a peculiarly brutal one, and after careful consideration of all the circumstances I did not feel justified in advising interference with the due course of law.”
However, Harwood asked Mr. Richie if he knew that Joseph had been confined into a workhouse and yet the judge accepted his guilty plea.
Mr. Richie replied saying that all information and circumstances regarding the matter had been laid before him.
Mid Lanarkshire MP, James Caldwell then asked the Home Secretary; “Do you accept a plea of guilty in the case of a lunatic?”
The Speaker of the house quickly shut down any further attempts to, what at the time, seemed to be an interrogation of the Home Secretary by bringing an end to the discussion with a call of order.
It seems many people during and after the execution of Joseph Holden all felt that his punishment was unfair and unjust as they felt that his mental state of mind was a big contributing factor as to why he committed the murder of his grandson John Dawes as well as the attack on his other grandson, George Eldred. They would speak of how his life had spiralled out of control on a downwards path after losing his wife in 1896 and how he felt that his family had deserted him. Was it any wonder he turned to drink and at times seemingly ‘lost his mind’, often wandering around the streets in a daze and not being fully aware of what he was doing.
No matter what, certain facts are clear – Joseph Holden was responsible for the death of John Dawes as well as the attack on George Eldred. But what isn’t truly clear is; was he in control of his actions and was the death penalty a far to heavy punishment to hand down to him.
You have also got to ask, was he ultimately let down by not only the legal system but also that of his family?
Joseph’s body would be buried within the grounds of Strangeways prison, but in 1991 his remains, along with many other executed criminals would be exhumed due to a rebuild of the prison, and sent to Blackley Cemetary where they would be cremated. His ashes, along with the others, are buried within unkmarked graves simply numbered C2710 and C2711.
Sources used in this story;
Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser – Saturday 08 September 1900
Sheffield Daily Telegraph – Friday 07 September 1900
Todmorden & District News – Friday 07 September 1900
Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser – Saturday 15 September 1900
Please follow me on social media;
Twitter – https://twitter.com/dohpods
Instagram – www.instagram.com/dohpods