Domestic abuse or “wife beating” was a prominent occurrence in Victorian England with many victims having to put up with abuse on a daily basis. It was socially acceptable for that period and was seen by many as nothing more than a lower class issue.
It’s been written in many publications that during the Victorian era, religion played a big part in culture and that for a woman to be virtuous and to serve god, they must follow the lead of her husband. This of course seemingly gave the nod for husbands to control and do whatever they deemed appropriate to their wives, which, in many instances, meant physical violence.
With that said, let’s get into today’s story and we are travelling way back to the early morning of Saturday, 19th August, 1899 and to the small town of Whitworth which resides between Bacup and Rochdale in the parish of Rossendale, England.
Ellen Dowdle, a 35 year weaver and mother to five children had spent a couple of hours working at the Whitworth Co-Op Mill, covering for another worker who was off sick. She had agreed to work three days a week, taking on four looms in doing so and with the promise of more work to follow.
By mid-morning, she was working alongside another mill employee when she spoke about being worried about going home, saying; “A fear there’s bound to be trouble for me” to which the other employee replied; “Oh don’t think that Mrs Dowdle; it’ll be dinner time soon an’ then the work’ll be done.“
Finishing work at around noon, Ellen made her way to Grove Terrace where she had been living for the past week with Mr and Mrs O’Brien after having left her marital home at 20 Copeland Street the week before, following a huge row with her husband, Michael.
She would stay there for much of the afternoon until around 3.00pm – when it was reported that after her husband called at the house, and after a short discussion between the pair, she was persuaded by Michael to return back home with him.
This would be the last time the O’Brien’s would ever see their friend, Ellen, alive ever again.
Michael and Ellen Dowdle had lived at number 20 Copeland Street for the past two years along with their five children – Thomas aged 14, John aged 10, William aged 5, Edward aged 18 months and daughter, Bridget aged 8.
And prior to living in Whitworth, they had lived for ten years in Ashworth Street, Fulledge in Burnley.
But this isn’t where their story began. Michael, a native of Carrick-on-Suir, Ireland had enlisted into the army in 1878 with the 18th Royal Irish Regiment but within 14 months had requested a transfer into the 24th Regiment of Foot which was then in Africa. However, upon arriving in Cape Town he found that the 24th had a full complement of men and he was consequently moved onto the 21st Regiment of Foot.
Dowdle would soon find himself embroiled in the Zulu war and fought in the Battle of Ulundi on the 4th July 1879. He would go on to suffer from an injury to his thigh and was subsequently discharged from the army on the 20th April 1880 and sent to Netley Hospital in England before returning back home to Ireland where he would stay until around 1884; when he would relocate to Whitworth in the North West of England.
Ellen Norris had lived in Waterford, Ireland prior to her moving to England where she found abode living in Waterside, Bacup. Sometime around 1883, she moved to Whitworth to work as a weaver at Kay’s Mill and it was here should would make acquaintances with Mrs. Margaret O’Brien a year later and they would go on to become closest of friends.
It’s not clear as to when, but Michael and Ellen’s paths would eventually cross and after a short courtship they would eventually go on to get married, sometime around 1885, at the Roman Catholic Chapel in Whitworth.
The first three years of their marriage were spent in Whitworth before they would eventually move to Burnley. And it was in Burnley that Michael would develop a bad temper and selfish attitude towards Ellen and eight years after having moved, and having become worn down by Michaels behavior, Ellen would pack some of her belongings and return back to Whitworth, taking her children with her, where she would stay with life-long friend, Mrs. O’Brien.
18 months would pass before Michael himself returned back to Whitworth. Here, he would reconcile with Ellen and together, with their children, they would become lodgers within the O’Brian’s house, before finally moving into number 20 Copeland Street some months later. However, their short time living in Copeland Street would see them argue on a constant basis with Ellen moving out on many occasions due to Michaels drinking and abusive nature towards her. The shouting and screaming coming from their house would become a normal occurrence and something the neighbours would have to unfortunately, get used too.
So this now brings us up to-date, sort of, and a week before Ellen’s murder.
On Saturday the 12th of August, Ellen had walked to the New Inn pub where Michael was drinking. She had gone to ask for some money but instead of giving her any, Michael threatened her saying he would do her harm once he returned home. Because of his threatening behavior and having a history of violence towards her, Ellen was too afraid to return home and despite it being quite late in the evening, around 10pm, she made her way to the O’Brien’s where she would stay for the following week.
The following morning, on Sunday the 13th, Michael sent his youngest son, Edward – who was only 18 months old, to the O’Brien’s to be cared for.
The week quickly passed by and on Saturday the 19th August, Michael walked the quarter-or-so mile to Grove Street where Ellen was staying with the O’Brien’s. It was just after 4.00pm in the afternoon, and after spending some time with Ellen, he somehow managed to coax her away with promises of never hurting her again. The O’Brien’s testified in the subsequent hearings that they had overheard Michael saying to Ellen; “Are you not coming back to look after your poor children?” to which Ellen replied ; “If I go home you will beat me.“
Michael sat himself down and in a forgiving tone said ; “If you’ll come home, I’ll do nought to you.“
For whatever reasons we will never know, Ellen was convinced by Michael to return home. Taking hold of Edward in her arms, the three of them made to short walk across town and back to number 20 Copeland Street. On the way, a lady by the name of Mrs. Flynn said she spoke to Ellen in passing, asking her how she was. Ellen simply replied ; “Only middling.” Mrs. Flynn however wasn’t convinced by Ellen’s demeanor and had a feeling that Ellen was fearful as to what harm Michael could or perhaps would do to her on her return home.
According to their son, Thomas; Ellen and Michael arrived back at their house at around 4.15pm and all seemed fine. But just after 4.30pm, Thomas said he went out to play with his brothers and sister and ten minutes later, at around 4.45pm, the arguing would soon begin. From witness accounts, neighbours corroborated what Thomas had said by saying they heard screams of “murder!” coming from the Dowdles house at around this time.
Caroline Gibbons of 23 Church-Street was stood against her kitchen door leading to the outside when she heard a commotion coming from the Dowdles and soon after, Bridget Dowdle came running towards her shouting; “There’s my mother crying out. Will you come in?“
Caroline didn’t go into their house but instead went over and stood just outside and peered through the open door. Inside she saw Michael Dowdle kneeling over Ellen who was lying on the floor. With his back facing her, Caroline said Michael had his hands around Ellen’s neck and whilst she couldn’t make out what he was using, it was obvious he was cutting at her neck.
Fearing for the worse, she ran to a neighboring house to raise the alarm.
A boy by the name of Robert Taylor, who as just 12 years old, had also heard the screaming coming from the Dowdles house. Making his way from nearby East Street, he saw Caroline standing in the doorway of the Dowdles and after witnessing Michael attacking Mrs. Dowdle, he ran back to his home and told his mother what he had seen before making his way to the Police station to get help.
Meanwhile, Michael was still kneeling over his defenseless wife, hacking away at her throat whilst stabbing her multiple time in the process.
Along with Caroline, a small number of people had heard the ensuing commotion and had started to congregate just outside of the Dowdles house and yet nobody had tried to intervene and save Ellen’ life – all fearing for their own safety.
Two to three minutes passed and satisfied with his work, Michael stood up and dropped the weapon he had used to butcher his wife onto a slopstone.
Caroline shouted to him; “You bad man, you are killing your wife!“
Another boy by the name of Robert Colver, aged 17 of Church-Street, had also seen the attack and shouted to Michael; “Come out you brute!” to which Michael replied; “I’m not a brute.“
Another witness cried out; “Fetch the police!” and again Michael replied; “I’ll go to the police.”
Not saying a word, Michael turned and walked past Caroline and out into the street. Those that had witnessed the attack on Ellen simply stood-aside allowing Michael to pass them.
On the street was his daughter, Bridget, who was holding her brother, Edward in her arms. Upon seeing her he calmly walked over to her, knelt down and give her a kiss on her cheek. She was frightened and hysterical, shrieking at the sight of her blood covered father.
A few seconds passed before he stood up and, followed by a crowd of women and children, he casually made his way down the road and towards the police station. Somebody shouted to him; “You old murderer! You old villian!” to which he replied; “I’m goin’ now.”
Having already been alerted by witnesses, Sergeant Butler and Inspector Leedale had left the police station with two accompanying police officers and within minutes they had caught up with Michael who was then swiftly apprehended in the street.
Taking hold of him, Michael was reported to have said; “Don’t hold me so tight, Sergeant. I am going down to the police station.” Michael was then handed over to the constables and taken into the police station whilst Butler and Leedale made their way to Dowdles house.
Upon entering the Dowdles house, Butler saw Ellen Dowdle lying on the floor at full length, her feet towards the center of the room with her head against a cupboard which was situated close to a fireplace. She was lying partly on her right side with her back against the fireplace fender. A large pool of blood was covering the floor, along with areas of walls and scantly placed furniture that was close by to her body.
On Monday, the 21st August 1899, Michael Dowdle was brought up before the Rochdale Magistrates Court. The hearing was brief, lasting around 30 minutes.
As soon as the doors to the court room opened, and due to the large interest in the case, people rushed in to take their seats, mainly men with only a small handful of women being present.
It was around 10:30am when Dowdle was brought into the dock and, despite the charges being put before him, he sat in a calm and quite manner.
Ten minutes later, magistrate Mr. T. Smithson and Mr. A. Brierley made their appearances. Dowdle was told to stand up, which he promptly did. He was then formally charged with the willful murder of his wife, Ellen, by cutting and stabbing her about the face, neck and head with a carving or bread knife.
Superintendent McQueen started the proceedings by going through the facts of the case, followed by Sergeant Butler who would also talk, step by step into the events leading up to and after the murder of Ellen Dowdle.
After the opening statements made by McQueen and Butler, the clerk (Mr. G. L. Collins) asked Dowdle if he had any questions to ask to which he replied, “No Sir.”
With that, the Clerk remanded Dowdle until Friday the 25th August where he would officially stand trial.
Four days later, and again, at around 10:30am, the inquest into the murder of Ellen Dowdle would take place within the club room of the New Inn, Whitworth and would be conducted by the coroner, Mr. F.N. Molesworth-Hepworth.
With a cool and solid demeanor, Michael Dowdle took a seat at the coroners table. Flanked either side of him where two representatives of the press as well as two police officers who stood directly behind him.
He sat in his chair, listening closely to all of the evidence from the witnesses as one by one they gave their own version of events. Now and again, he would turn his attention towards the two press officers who were making sketchings within inches of him.
Meanwhile, outside of the New Inn, the feelings towards Dowdle where manifesting. He had been taken from the Rochdale police station to the inquest by a cab and was greeted by loud booing and yelling from the crowds that had lined the route he had taken. Outside the New Inn, hundreds of people had gathered, mostly women, all awaiting his arrival. One or two violent clashes erupted as soon as his cab pulled up, but Dowdle was escorted into the building via the back entrance. The loud cries of “Murderer!” filled the now toxic air, along with more booing and cat calls.
Margaret O’Brien would be the first to give evidence, followed by Caroline Gibbons. Both would go into detail not only on what happened on the day Ellen Dowdle was murdered, but would also give evidence to what life was life for Ellen leading up to her murder. Both would say she was a kind, hardworking and forgiving lady who lived for her children. Whilst the family may not have had the best starts in life, Ellen would always make sure her children where well dressed, well-mannered and looked after. And yet, beneath her exterior, inside she was a lady broken from the constant abuse at the hands of her husband and the fearing of her own life.
Other witnesses came forwards, including neighbors on Church Street who would back up what O’Brien and Gibbons had already said. They would also tell of the regular shouting and quarreling that could be heard coming from the Dowdles house late in the evenings and the times when Ellen had walked out, partly dressed and seemingly in fear of her life.
Sergeant Butler and Inspector Leedale would be brought into question and they would again, go into detail as to what they encountered when they made their way into Dowdles home. Upon finding Ellen Dowdle, they stated that she was still alive but barely able to breathe. She gasped a few times but would die around a minute or so after being found lying on the floor. Meanwhile, a large carving knife was found to be left lying on a slopstone nearby, covered in blood and hair. This was produced at the inquest as evidence.
Dr. Forbes, a surgeon from Whitworth was next to be called upon. He had made a postmortem on Ellen Dowdle and gave a careful description of the wounds on her body. On the right side of her neck there was a large, gaping wound around 3 1/2″ long. It was skin deep to begin with but went deeper towards the opposite end, somewhere in the region of 1 1/4″ deep. The jugular vein had been opened, and the softer parts over it had been opened. On the back of the neck were two incised wounds passing vertically into the muscles. She also had two deep wounds that would be associated to stab wounds.
She had also suffered from cuts to her forehead and a deep cut under her right eye that exposed the bone. One the palm side of her right hand fingers there were seven wounds. Her left hand fingers contained a further five more wounds. This indicated that she had fought for her life to the bitter end.
The jury would enter into a private consultation which would last just seven minutes and upon their return they gave a verdict of willful murder.
Outside the club room, the crowd had swelled to treble the size it was and as Dowdle was escorted to his cab for his removal to catch the six-o’ clock train back to Rochdale. A perfect storm of booing flooded the air with many shouting; “Brute!“, “Coward!” and “Murderer!“. All along the route taken by the cab, an angry mob followed, rushing it on more than one occasion. Sergeant Butler and Inspector Leedale, along with five police officers struggled to maintain order and inside the cab, Dowdle sat, and for the first time since his arrest he looked pale and frightened as he cast glances at the baying mob outside.
The trial of Michael Dowdle took place at the Manchester Azzises on Thursday, 16th November 1899. Prosecutors Mr. Foard and Mr. Pope took to the stand to put before the jury the facts of the case with Mr. Foard bringing many witnesses forward that included Margaret O’Brien and Caroline Gibbons.
Mr. Ambrose Jones, defending Michael, cross-examined Gibbons who would go on to state that whilst Michael was murdering his wife, he was completely oblivious to the shouting and screaming coming from those watching outside and once he had finished his evil deed, he stood up and dropped the carving knife onto the slopstone. Gibbons shouted for someone to go and fetch a policeman to which Dowdle nonchalantly replied; “Never you bother; I’ll fetch him myself.”
Dr. Forbes was brought to the stand to not only give details as to the injuries Ellen Dowdle suffered but would also be cross-examined by Mr. Jones about Michael and how he suffered in the months leading up to the murder of Ellen Dowdle. He would go on to mention that Michael had suffered from a serious accident in April whilst working in the quarries local to Whitworth and how, that while he may not have shown any ill effects whilst being examined at the time, the effects can manifest themselves at some point later in the future. He would also go on to prove that whilst he was in serving in Africa, Michael suffered from sunstroke which may have led to the violent tendencies he began to show several years after being discharged from the army.
Once all of the witnesses had been questioned and upon his summoning up, Mr. Jones addressed the jury and said it would be a waste of time to insult their common sense to say that Ellen Dowdle didn’t meet with her death at the hands of Michael Dowdle. He would also go on to say that whilst Michael was guilty, it would not be right for him to say he was insane at the time of the act of the murder.
Strangely though, he would ask the jury to take into count that he had no intention of taking away the life of his wife or inflict grievous bodily harm and that for some reason in such a dreadful and ungovernable passion that he did not appreciate the gravity of what he was doing. He would therefore ask them to say that Michael was guilty of the crime of manslaughter.
Mr. Jones would also ask the jury to take into consideration the head injury Michael had sustained whilst working in the quarries as well as the effects sunstroke may have had on him; saying that the prisoner did not do the act in cold blood but owing to some irresistible impulse for which he was more to be pitied than punished.
However, his lordship, in summoning up, said it was quite clear that the unhappy woman was butchered to death, and there was no reason to doubt that she met her death at the hands of the prisoner.
The jury returned a verdict of guilty and recommended the prisoner to mercy.
His lordship thought differently and after donning the custodial black cap, the sentence of death was passed down in the usual manner.
Michael would spend the last three weeks of his life within the walls of Strangeways Gaol where he would eventually be taken to the gallows and executed on Wednesday, 6th December 1899. A black flag was hoisted at 8am that morning to bring to an end a tragic story of how domestic abuse took the life of an innocent women whilst leaving five children parentless and a deep scar running throughout a small community.
Four of the Dowdle children would be adopted by Mr. J. Kerron of 9 Allan Street, Bacup where he would bring them up as his own. He at first took in two of them and then proposed to look after Bridget as well as the youngest child, Edward. It is unknown what happened to the fifth child.
Ellen Dowdle was interred within Facit Cemetery (known called Whitworth Cemetery) at around 4.00pm on Thursday, 24th August 1899, less than a week after her murder. A great deal of public sympathy followed, with a reported 10,000 people lining the streets from where her body was taken from her home and towards the cemetery which is roughly one mile away.
Her body was encased inside a handsome oak coffin which was conveyed on an open metropolitan cab. As it made its ways towards the cemetery, her five children would follow close behind, all weeping bitterly.
As for Michael Dowdle, he would be buried within the walls of Strangeways Gaol and would lie in the shadows until 1991 when, along with other executed criminals, his body would be dug and taken to Blackley Cemetery where his remains would be cremated. His ashes are now buried within one of two unmarked graves, simply numbered C2710 and C2711.
Thank you 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 on instagram – links are down below – but in the meantime, take care and I will be back soon with another tale from the past.
Sources used for this story;
Illustrated Police News – Saturday 26 August 1899
Heywood Advertiser – Friday 25 August 1899
Manchester Evening News – Thursday 16 November 1899
Manchester Times – Friday 25 August 1899
Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser – Saturday 1899
+ many more courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive – www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk
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