The story begins during 1866 when a young Miles Weatherhill, a weaver who lived with his mother and sister on Back Brook Street, Todmorden, fell in love with Sarah Bell, a cook working for the Reverend Anthony John Plow at the local vicarage.
A self-educated, well groomed, smart looking man, Miles had also taken on a teaching role for a local Sunday School which was run by the Reverend John Plow – and it would seem at this point in his life he had everything to live for. He had a respected job, was well liked by most of the people he came into contact with and he had fallen in love.
And whilst the months between 1866 leading up to November of 1867 would be filled with joy and hope for the future, his world would ultimately come crashing down around him, escalating into violence and with horrific consequences.
Sarah Elizabeth Bell had moved from York to work as a cook within the vicarage that was occupied by the Reverend John Plow and his wife, Harriet. Plow had promised her parents that he would look after Sarah, as he would with his own children, so when Miles approached him to ask for permission to court Sarah, Plow told Miles he would speak with his wife Harriet and to seek her thoughts on the matter.
Miles was an intelligent man and wanted to do things the proper way and to not go behind the back of Plow by dating Sarah without his blessing, so as you can imagine, Miles was taken aback when, after waiting a day or two for Plow’s answer only to be told that he and Harriet had spoken about the matter and decided that it would be best for Sarah never to meet with Miles again. He reasoned that not only was their age an issue – Sarah was just 16 whereas Miles was 21 at the time – but Plow also stated that he didn’t want a long courtship within his home.
Stunned by this rejection, Miles went away fuming at the prospect of never being able to see Sarah again.
Meanwhile, Plow made it clear to Sarah that she had a job to do at the vicarage and that she would not be allowed to meet with Miles ever again.
Obviously, it goes without saying that true love will always find a way and it did so as Miles and Sarah would meet up in secret on a regular bases and over the course of many months.
Things would change though, as working within the vicarage, Sarah would often speak of her meetings with Miles to another maid by the name of Jane Smith. The outcome being Jane speaking of Sarah’s secret liaisons with Harriet Plow, wife to John Plow.
Outraged by this news, Harriet mentioned all she had heard to her husband John and it wasn’t too long after, November the 1st 1867, that Sarah was made to pack her belongings and she was sent to Newby Whiske, near Thirsk where her mother lived. Plow told Sarah he was disappointed that she had disobeyed his orders and that she could no longer be trusted.
Sarah would later deny this being the case and that she had left the vicarage on her own accord.
For three months, Sarah and Miles would keep in touch by letter but this wasn’t enough to satisfy Miles and although he would visit her by train, the trips where costly as well as difficult to arrange on a regular basis.
Pleading with her to come back to Todmorden, he said to Sarah that they could live happily ever after and show the Plows that they would never be separated, but Sarah refused, saying she was quite happy living in York and was settled into her new job at the Friends Retreat.
It was at the back end of February, 1868 that things would quickly escalate and turn into deadly violence.
Miles would spend the Sunday visiting Sarah and it was during that time Sarah spoke of her telling Jane Smith about her secret meetings with Miles. It became obvious to Miles that it was Janes involvement with the Plows that had led to Sarah being sent back to York as she would inevitably have told them of the stories Sarah had told her.
The train journey back to Todmorden would give Miles plenty of time to stew on the hatred he now had for the Plows and also that of Jane Smith. It’s hard to guess what was going through his mind at this point and we can only speculate, but perhaps it was during the trip back home that the first seeds of revenge had started to sprout.
Miles arrived back in Todmorden on Monday 2nd March 1868, and as some of his friends would later recollect, he seemed his usual self as drank a glass of whiskey in the Black Swan with them. He would soon leave, around 10pm and it’s at this point he would make his short journey towards the vicarage. A 5 to 10 minute walk at best.
No-one can quite know for sure where Miles picked up the weapons he would later go on to use, but at some point he had picked up four pistols and a hatchet that he had cleverly concealed beneath a long overcoat he was wearing that evening. The guns and the hatchet all fixed to a belt around his waist.
What we do know is that he bought the powder, shot and caps for use with the pistols from an ironmongers called Houldsworth’s at around 8pm that evening and at some point shortly after he met up with a companion by the name of Lord at the County-bridge where he was quoted as saying; “I could be a happy man if yon lass was at Todmorden.”
Over at the Vicarage, John Plow would return home at around 9.30pm and after having his supper he would ring the bell for prayers.
It was whilst in the kitchen, Plow heard some noises coming from the scullery door and upon investigating, he found the door seemingly fastened from the outside. Making his way out of the vicarage via the front entrance, he walked around to the backyard to see what was going on. It was here that Miles had tied the door with a piece of string to prevent it from being opened from the inside.
As Plow neared the scullery door, Miles approached him, aiming one of his pistol’s at Plow’s head but as he pulled the trigger, only the cap went off. Already armed with the hatchet, Miles struck Plow over the head as well as over his face causing severe damage in the process.
Screaming for his life, Plow pleaded as loud as he could for someone to try and open the door. Upon hearing the commotion coming from outside, it was Jane Smith who somehow managed to cut the string holding the door shut and as the two men bustled their way into the kitchen, several of the women servants tried to break up the melee. Amongst Jane Smith was Elizabeth Spink and Mary Hodgson, who all tried to hold Miles back and away from Plow.
However, Miles was too strong for them and during all the commotion, he noticed Jane Smith standing their next to him. She was just one of three people whom Miles had utter hatred for. Turning his violence towards her, he began to attack her with the hatchet and after striking her with a couple of blows, Mary Hodgson managed to wrestle the hatchet off Miles.
Meanwhile, Plow had managed to pick up the pistol Miles had tried to use to shoot him with and had fled out of the kitchen to make his way to parish clerks house a few yards nearby.
Back in the vicarage, a badly bleeding Jane Smith had staggered into the dining room where she tried in vain to close the door behind her but Miles, full of anger, had taken hold of the hatchet and forced his way into the room. As she fell to her knees, she begged Miles for Mercy to which Miles asked her; “What about my Sarah!” In doing so, he fired two bullets into Jane’s head from the second of the four pistols he was carrying, killing her instantaneously.
The extent of Jane’s injuries where horrific. She would later be found to be lying in a pool of blood, not only with two bullets wounds to her head but also with one of her arms almost completely severed with the hatchet lying beneath her. Reports state that Miles had hacked at Jane’s body with the hatchet after shooting her in the head.
Satisfied Jane was dead, Miles would make his way up the stairs and towards the room where Mrs. Plow was lying in bed. She had been recently confined to her bed due to an illness and was being attended to by a nurse who visited her on a monthly basis.
It’s hard to imagine the fear that both Mrs. Plow and the nurse would have been feeling during the disturbance coming from downstairs and fearing for their lives, but the nurse tried to keep Miles out of Mrs. Plow’s room by putting her back towards the bedroom door. Miles would be too strong as he managed to push his way into the room as the nurse fled to try and find help.
After trying (and failing) to secure the door, Miles struck a light with a match and made his way over to the foot of the bed where Mrs. Plow was lying. He flung back the bed covers and fired a shot from another pistol towards the bed. Somehow it seems the bullet missed Mrs. Plow as it ripped through her clothes but not actually hit her body.
Somehow, Mrs. Plow managed to flee the bed to make for the door but Miles was too quick for her, forcing her into a recess between the bed and a wall.
Taking hold of a poker that was in the room, Miles began inflicting brutal injuries on her body, breaking her nose in the process. She held her hands to cover her face but the shear pain she felt with each blow compelled her to remove them, resulting in her head and face taking the full force of the poker.
Quick thinking on her part, Mrs. Plow laid down and pretended to be still. This itself was a courageous act as Miles could easily have carried on with the beating, but instead, he dropped the poker onto the floor, thinking he had fulfilled in his mission. He did not strike her again.
During all of the commotion, the alarm had obviously been rang and as Miles was being dragged downstairs by a parish clerk by the name of George Stansfield and several police constables, he seemed to be in a perfectly calm demeanor.
When Elizabeth Spink told him; “Do you know you have killed my master!”, he simply smiled and said to Mary Hodgson; “he had seen her (Jane), and it would be a warning to Mary to tell no more tales.”
Witnesses also told of Miles saying; “If it had not been for those two damned pistols, there would have been two more deaths.” after being reprimanded by Stansfield.
Miles was kept overnight in a police station at the bottom of Ferney Lee and brought before the magistrates the following afternoon on Tuesday 3rd March.
That same day, the body of Jane Smith was buried within the grounds of Christ Church, Todmorden. They brought her body from the vicarage just opposite the church and a procession followed as a choir sang a hymn.
The procession consisted of young boys, then the men and then a surgeon. Jane’s coffin followed next which was carried by four men. The mourners followed, along with teachers and elderly scholars. Janes coffin was made of elm and a large cross was carved in relief over the length and breadth of it. The inscription read ; “Jane Smith, she fell asleep in Jesus, March 2nd 1868.”
On Friday 6th March, an investigation took place in the Black Swan and was attended by Mr Plow, Margaret Ball, Sarah Elizabeth Bell, George Houldsworth (ironmonger) and Dr. Cockroft.
Miles was brought to court and evidence was given to which Miles would be finally committed to trial at the Manchester magistrates on counts of murder.
A week later, on Friday 13th March – Mr Plow died from the injuries he sustained at the hands of Miles. At one point, he seemed to be getting better, even to the point he managed to give evidence in court. However, inflammation to his brain led to him becoming delirious. On the same day, his new born baby – whom he and his wife had already named Hilda Catherine, sadly passed away. It is unknown if the baby died due to the attack on Harriet.
It was reported that the funeral of Mr Plow was the grandest Todmorden had ever known. His body was placed in state on Saturday 14th March and was covered in a silk cassock. Flowers where laid over his body from head to foot, having been provided by the neighboring gentry.
His body was watched night and day by visiting clergy, and two candles where kept burning whilst the body of his baby lay next to him, covered in white flowers.
Mr Plows body was buried on Monday, March 16th on a day that was bitterly cold and wet. The coffins of Plow and his baby were of elm and Mr Plows had a violet pall worked with a cross of red and yellow. The baby’s coffin was covered in a while pall with a red cross. After the service, over a thousand people would later pay their respects at the graves whilst all the shops in Todmorden would lock their doors and close the blinds between 10am and 12.00pm to pay their respects.
That same week, on Friday, March 20th – Miles appeared before the magistrates charged with the willful murder of Jane Smith. Mr Torr (defending Miles) tried to put forward a case of insanity but this was flatly refused by his lordship as, in his summing up he invited the attention of the jury to the danger Miles posed to society and he failed to see anything in the case which could reason as to why a verdict other than guilty should not be given.
The jury almost immediately returned a verdict of guilty and the judge, having assumed the traditional black cap said : “It would have been a deplorable thing if the jury had yielded to the arguments advanced in your favour and acquitted you on the ground of insanity. I see no little evidence or anything to show that your mind was ever effected by any other thing but had vindictive feelings.”
He went on to say ; “You will have time and opportunity for repentance and I pray for you to take advantage of the aid that will be afforded to you to find grace of heart and sincere repentance before you are banished into eternity.”
Whilst in court, several letters that Miles had written to Sarah Bell before the murders took place where read out to the jury. One in particular gives an insight into Miles state of mind :
“My dear Sarah Elizabeth – you must excuse me for writing so much, but this will be the last time for a bit. I have such a row with master and mistress. I heard she had given you a character, so I asked her about it, and she put in it what you told me she would. “
The letter went on to say ; “In the afternoon I saw master. He called us anything but Christians and he spoke of you as not being a respectable girl. He made my blood boil and I will have my revenge for the girl I love, unless you can come to Todmorden or within a mile or two of it.”
This letter was written by Miles on the 19th November 1867 – some four months prior to his murderous actions within the parsonage. And things seemed to have escalated between himself and that of John Plow right up to the frightful events that took place on the 2nd March 1868.
Before the magistrates, Miles made the following statement ;
“I wish to say a few words. It will amount to nothing; it will matter nought. When I began to keep company with Sarah, at first I thought I would act as an honorable man. One night I waited for Mr. Plow coming out of church. I told him I wanted a favor of him, and hoped he would grant it me. He said, ‘what is it?’ I said, ‘I wanted to keep company with Sarah.’ He asked me, ‘How long have you been after her?’ I said, ‘I had my eye on the girl ever since the first time she came.’ He said that was quite natural. I asked him if he would grant me that favour. He said ‘Oh, no. I could not think of such a thing.’ I said, ‘I thought I would come and ask you in a right way. I little thought you would deny me.’ I told him I did not like coming whistling up and down the back yard and that my intentions were good. He said, ‘Yes, I have always taken you to be a respectable man.’ He said that Sarah was a good girl. He then said he would talk to his wife about the affair before he would give me a decided answer, and he would see me again before long. I made it in my way to see him a day or two after. He said they had talked the matter over, and they could not give their consent, but they were very well pleased for the honorable way in which I had acted but could not let me come to the house. I asked that she might be able to come out if he would not allow me to come in. I found it was of no use; he would not give me the privilege I asked for. So I was determined to go, and did go till Jane told about us in keeping company together. Then there was a stop put to it right away. Since then I have been on my way to ruin, and ever will be. I will die like a dog. But, after all, I am glad Mr and Mrs Plow is not dead. I hope they will forgive me.”
Miles was removed from the dock , having never shown any remorse or emotion throughout the proceedings.
Miles wrote several letters whilst in jail, many to his sweetheart, Sarah Bell and one in particular to his mother and sister :
My dear mother and sister,
It must be very painful to you to know I am in prison and what is worse, condemned to die. Well, you must bear it as well as you can. You will be allowed to see me once or twice more in my cell, then you must bid me farewell for ever.. You will be very sorry when you hear I have not repented of my sins, but I will try my best to meet both you and Sarah in heaven. You must not think it hard of me because I write to Sarah more than you. You know I look upon that good girl as my wife, though she is not, but I think she would be if I was only free. I think that you will have found it out before now that she is a good girl. Ah! She is too good for me…I will draw to a close, and hope we may all meet in heaven.
From yours, dear mother and sister, affectionately.
At 8.00am on Saturday 4th April 1868 and in front of New Baily Prison, Manchester – the stage was set for the execution of Miles Weatherhill. He hadn’t slept much the night prior to his execution, tossing and turning and wandering around his cell. There was a lot of noise coming from outside of the prison walls as spectators had been arriving for several hours (and indeed days) prior to the execution date. Many sleeping on the narrow streets and inside doorways. It was reported that he may have slept, perhaps, for only a couple of hours but after being awoken at around 2am, he slept no more.
The preparations for his execution followed similar patterns to other hangings in the 1800s, with the gallows upon a platform being draped with a black cloth and which was also designed in such a way that once the condemned criminal fell to his or her death, only the head and shoulders would be visible to the watching crowds.
A large crowd had assembled with people having travelled from as far away as Leeds just to get a brief glimpse of Miles as he made the short walk from his cell to the gallows. Estimates had the size of crowd anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 people which was three times the amount of people who would usually turn up to an execution.
A thick haze that had fallen within the area prior to the 8.00am execution had started to lift as hangman, William Calcraft made his final inspection of the drop.
Miles Weatherhill wasn’t the only man to be hanged that morning. Another criminal by the name of Timothy Faherty had been sentenced to death after being found guilty of beating his sweatheart to death with a poker was the first to make his way to the gallows. He was deadly pale and he could be heard faintly uttering a prayer as he stood on the drop. When the notorious white cap was slowly placed over his head by Calcraft, his praying become much louder and more fervently.
Miles soon followed, and accompanied by two gaol officers he made his way toward the gallows. The officers seemed to have hold of his elbows as in trying to stop him losing his balance as Miles, who was clutching at a prayer book was loudly reciting prayers.
William Calcraft took a minute or two to adjust the white cap over Miles’ head and after shaking the hands of both prisoners he withdrew the bolt that held the floor beneath their feet, sending both prisoners into the abyss below.
Their bodies, after hanging for over an hour would be cut down and they would be buried in a quick and orderly fashion and by 10.00am, once the crowds had dispersed, the normality of life in Manchester would resume as normal.
As for the victims and all those effected by the atrocity committed by Miles, it would be just twelve months and two days to the day that Harriet Plow would pass away in Wantage, Berkshire on the 19th March 1869.
Miles mother and sister, well, they would have to live their lives with people talking behind their backs and hearing constant sniping when they were around others. Sideways glances and stares when they left their homes would become a regular occurrence. His mother, Alice, passed away on the 18th June 1881 but she may have found some comfort in seeing her daughter, Sarah Ann giving birth to two sons – Robert and Wilford in 1870 and 1880 respectively.
Looking at this story and some may say it’s a tragic crime led by tragic events. You have a man who was well thought of in his community. A man who educated himself and who helped so many people. He had fallen in love with a girl who had just arrived at the parsonage and they met on many occasions without John Plow knowing, but when Miles went to Plow and asked for his permission to date Sarah – well, this was the beginning of the end as far as Miles was concerned.
Whether or not Miles was indeed insane, as Mr Torr tried to convince the jury with remains to be debated over. But one thing is for sure, Monday the 2nd March 1868 is truly, one day of horror.
Thanks very much for listening. I hope you enjoyed this story and if you want more please show some support and comment down below. You can follow me on twitter and instagram – links are also down below – but in the meantime, take care and I will be back soon with another story from the past.
Many sources have been used to research the story behind Miles Weatherhill. Newspapers printed at the time and sourced using the British Newspaper Archive – www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk
Also, thanks to Nic Jones for the use of his song – Miles Weatherhill, taken from the album “The Noah’s Ark Trap” – www.youtube.com/watch?v=dwr_TtRxLj0&t=1371s
Also, freepages rootsweb – http://freepages.rootsweb.com/~todmordenandwalsden/genealogy/milesweatherill.htm
Thanks also to the Todmorden Antiquarian Society for use of the pictures of Miles, Sarah, John and Harriet Plow. Unfortunately I could not find a contact address to ask for permission to use their photos but if someone from the society reads this then please get in touch with me here.
Please follow me over on Twitter and Instagram for regular updates on the stories I am currently researching!
I used to live in Todmorden over 20 years ago and had drank in the Black swan also. I found this story captivating. Paul.
Cheers Paul. It means a lot when people tell me they enjoy listening (and hopefully reading) these podcasts. I’ve a few more stories that surround Todmorden that I will soon be writing so please keep an eye out for them
Really enjoyed your presentation. I remember my grandmother telling this story. Her maiden name was Plow. Her grandfather, James Plow and Rev Anthony Plow were first cousins. My branch of the Plow family moved to Canada and one became the first lady Mount Stephens married to Lord Mount Stephens responsible for First CP railroad across Canada. Another was Edward Chester Plow Lieutenant Govenor of Nova Scotia. I now live west of Toronto.