Today’s story has been recommended to me by Eddie Beetham, a direct descendant of Miss Alice Beetham with whom this next story is all about.
Shortly after 8am on Tuesday, July 23rd 1912 – the sound of the tolling bell from inside Stangeways Gaol closed the final chapter of a story that first began in the cotton manufacturers of Jubilee Mill in early May of the same year.
Outside the walls of the prison, over 700 people, mainly women, had congregated outside to show their disproval at the sentence handed down to 22 year old Arthur Birkett and as the sound of the bell echoed inside the cold, damp walls of the prison, tears flowed not only in Manchester but also on the streets of Blackburn as hundreds of well-wishers and supporters had made their way to Birkett’s home at number 54 Riley Street.
From 7am that morning, there where pitiful scenes outside his house as supporters sang hymns that included “Nearer, my God, to Thee” and “Safe in the arms of Jesus” as well as “God be with you till we meet again” and inside the house, Mrs Birkett and Arthurs brother as well as Mrs Beetham (Isobella) were being comforted by the Reverand F. G. Chevassut.
Many women began weeping as a Salvation Army officer mounted a chair and began conducting a service near the front door and when Birkett’s mother and brother both came outside, their tear stained faces showing extreme signs of distress, the crowd could not hide their grief, singing even louder as the music to “Nearer, my God, to Thee” began to play once more.
But behind all this emotion and indeed sadness lies a truly horrific tale that began, simply, because of rejection.
Arthur Birkett and Alice Beetham, as well as being work collegues, had been seeing each other for around five weeks prior to the events that would take place on Monday, 20th May 1912.
And whilst they may have been what you would call, a “couple”, Alice herself would usually catch the eye of other young men due to her natural beauty and outwards personality and perhaps this may have at times rankled Arthur to some extent.
Two weeks prior too and on the 5th May, Alice was seen talking to Arthur by her father, Thomas, as he was making his way home after a long shift at work. On the corner of Billinge Street and just off Lambeth Street, both Alice and Arthur where deep in conversation.
“Hey, I do not like street corner courters. You’d better take her home to our house.” Thomas stopped and spoke to the couple.
“She will take no harm with me, mister.” replied Arthur.
Watching the couple as they began walking away from the street corner, Thomas would go on to say, “Well, she will take less if you take her up home.”
As Alice and Arthur both made their way towards Alice’s home, Thomas followed on behind them.
Arthur would stay for around an hour, when Thomas would interrupt the couple. “I think it was time you were making towards home” he would tell Arthur.
This would be the first and last time he would see Arthur.
On Thursday, 16th May, things had soured between Alice and Arthur and for reasons we can only speculate about, Alice informed Arthur that she no longer wanted to be with him and that their courtship should cease.
And on Friday, 17th May, Alice had spoken with a Mrs Lily Wagg, a friend as well as a work collegue over at Jubilee Mill. She told Lily that she was going to “..give up Arthur,” and later that evening Arthur himself called at Lily’s home and obviously upset by the break-up, he told Lily that Alice had, “chucked him.”
Arthur also mentioned of going to a “picture palace” (old movie theatre). Here, they saw pictures of young lovers quarrelling, and after, in the main hall, Arthur had said to Alice, “We’re not like that, are we Alice?” She shook her head but never spoke.
Lily’s husband, Walter, trying to cheer Arthur up later that evening told him, “there are plenty of women beside her.” But Arthur was having none of it, replying, “but none like Alice to me!”
Lily would also try to console Arthur, saying to him, “there are plenty more.” but Arthur, visibly upset replied, “I’ll chop her head off!”
This at first seemed more of an off the cuff remark, but it would later prove to be significant.
It was obvious from the very beginning of their courtship that Arthur was in love with Alice, as he had told a colleague by the name of Slater that, “it is surprising what some men will do for women. There is only one woman for me; if I don’t get her, I’ll have none.”
Slater replied, telling Arthur, “She is a good girl, no matter who gets her.”
At 6am on Monday, 20th May, both Alice and Arthur had made their way into work at nearby Jubilee Mill that was, and still is to some extent, situated on Gate Street, Blackburn.
Mrs. Ellen Wilkinson, a colleague of Arthur’s asked him, “You look crammed, what’s to do?” to which Arthur would tell her that both he and Alice had broken-up.
“It isn’t you, it’s her.” Arthur would say. And when asked by Ellen if he had been with Alice over the weekend he replied, “No! It’s all through her father. I’ve given up everything for her. If I done wrong once it does not say I have always done wrong.”
Throughout the morning, Alice would have to pass Arthur when carrying weft to take to the weavers who were waiting for the raw material in the weaving shed, but after ignoring Arthur on more than one occasion, it seems rage had got the better of him.
At around 8:45am, and as Alice passed Arthur one last time, he took hold of her and said something that seemed to annoy her. Susie Tattersall saw him grab Alice from behind, jerking her head backwards using his left arm. At first, Susie just thought he was going to give Alice a kiss on her cheek, only because both Alice and Arthur had at one point been seeing each other.
However, and unbeknownst to Susie and indeed other witnesses, in his right hand Arthur was holding a razor which he quickly drew across Alice’s neck, almost severing her head from her body such was the force he used.
Alice dropped to the floor and in doing so, Arthur turned the razor onto himself, twice cutting into his own throat.
Witnesses at the scene stood still, shocked at what they had just seen. John Edward Dewhurst who was just one of them, upon seeing the attack on Alice, was the first to react. He quickly ran over to Arthur, who was now attempting to cut his own throat, and knocked him down to the ground.
Other bystanders quickly ran over to help Alice and an alarm was raised. Within seconds, the mill workers were put into a state of panic.
One of the witnesses would try help Alice from the floor. She was barely alive but would sadly pass away almost instantly when attended too.
As for Arthur, he was still breathing and was being carried out into the yard. Mr. S. Smith, mill manager was promptly called for and he would dress the wounds on Arthur’s neck. Arthur gave no resistance whilst having his wounds bandaged up, sitting quietly throughout.
James Galloway, an overlooker at the mill, asked Arthur were the knife was but he nonchalantly replied, “I’ve done it with something sharper.”
Meanwhile, Alice’s body, which had also been taken out into the mill yard, was transferred back into the mill and subsequently covered over.
With everything happening so quickly, police had been sent for and it would take them only a few minutes to arrive, in which time Arthur was to be found sitting on a skip outside of the mill, surrounded by fellow mill workers.
Upon his arrest, the mill would be closed for the rest of the day and Alice’s body was later transferred to nearby Copy Nook Police Station.
Arthur was transported to Blackburn Infirmary to have his wounds attended too and he would be escorted by Police Constable Bellis.
Arthur’s mother who worked at Audley Bridge Mill which wasn’t too far from Jubilee Mill, after being informed of the events that had taken place was taken home, overwhelmed by grief and the realisation of the situation her son was now in.
Accompanied by several neighbours, she sat in her living room whilst being interviewed.
“My son has said nothing at all to me, though I have noticed he has seemed very quiet and depressed from some days. He was as good a lad at home as you could wish to see, and he was passionately fond of Alice.”
She also spoke of how Alice had been at her home a few times over the previous weeks for tea and that both Alice and her son seemed happy and fond of each other.
“Since he has been courting,” she continued, “he has been teetotal. His father is dead, and his only brother is in Canada.”
The inquest into the death of Alice would take place the next day at Copy Nook Police Station, on Tuesday 21st May and opened by Mr. H. J. Robinson, the East Lancashire Coroner with Superintendent Hodgson who was representing the police.
The small jury would hear that as well as Alice ending the relationship with Arthur, he had become somewhat moody and difficult to not only talk too but also work alongside.
It was reported that he had told a colleague that she, Alice, had, “..thrown me over.”
Alice’s father, Thomas would also speak at the inquest, explaining how he had met Arthur just the once on the night when he had seen the pair of them talking on the street corner close to his home.
The initial inquest wouldn’t last long and it would be adjourned until Friday, the 31st May.
Arthur, who had spent the last week under police guard at the Blackburn and East Lancashire Infirmary, would be discharged on Thursday, 30th May and be made available for the resumed inquest that would take place the next morning.
The funeral of Alice would take place on Saturday, 25th May 1912.
During the week leading up to the funeral, hundreds of people had viewed the body and it took a large police presence to organize the nightly queues that had gathered.
Several hundreds of people had gathered in the vicinity of her home in Billinge Street to pay their last respects as Father Cobb headed the procession and eight mill friends walked alongside the hearse.
Her body had been placed inside an oak coffin which was covered in wreaths which included a token of love from Arthur. There was also a cross from neighbours, a harp from some friends and numerous flowers from work collegues, including from those who witnessed the attack. Arthur’s mother had also sent a floral tribute.
On the plate of the coffin lid was the simple inscription: “Alice Beetham Died May 20 1912. Aged 18 years. R.I.P.”
Crowds lined the route from her home to the cemetery and her father, mother and family sat in the first coach as they made their way to Blackburn Old Cemetery.
The Palatine Printing Company of Wigan printed several souvenir napkins to commemorate the life and death of Alice, showing a photograph of Alice, a short account of the tragedy and a poem. They also published commemroative souvenirs for other tragic events such as the sinking of the Titanic, also in 1912 as well as a local pit disaster in nearby Wigan in 1910.
The resumed inquest began in earnest on the 31st May 1912 with Mr. H.J. Robinson again opening the proceedings.
Thomas Beetham, father of Alice, would be one of the first witnesses to take to the stand and he would be asked if he could identify the man (Birkett) stood in the dock as the same person whom his daughter had been on friendly terms with.
Strangely, Thomas said he could not really tell if it was the same man, saying, “He is not in my mind at all.”
The coroner then asked, “Did you understand that the young man’s name was Arthur Birkett?” to which Edward replied, “I heard it afterwards.”
Lily Wagg and John Dewhurst would give detailed accounts of the events leading up to and on the day of the murder.
Lily, as we have already mentioned, would tell of trying to console Arthur on the 17th May and would tell the jury of the threat Arthur had made regarding cutting off her head.
When asked by the coroner if she had said anything to Arthur regarding his threat to “cutting off Alice’s head”, Lily had replied to Arthur, saying, “Don’t talk so silly!”
John Dewhurst would also be questioned, and he gave evidence, describing the scene in the weft’s warehouse that morning. He told the jury that Arthur had grabbed Alice from behind before cutting her throat.
Dewhurst, then told the jury that upon seeing the attack he had quickly made his way over to Arthur just as he had begun cutting into his own throat, knocking him to the ground.
He then ran into the watch room for assistance and when he returned both the bodies of Alice and Arthur had been moved into the mill yard.
Police Constable Bellis would also speak to the coroner and the jury, telling that whilst he was escorting Arthur to the hospital, Arthur had told him, “I have been off my head for two days. I have been crazy and did not know what I was doing. I did not intend to harm the girl; I only intended to take my own life. I walked about until one o’ clock on Sunday morning. When I saw Alice going for some weft this morning I asked her to make up again, and she would not. I got hold of her and do not remember what took place after that.”
A local saddler who owned a shop close to Jubilee Mill, over at Higher Eanem, spoke of Arthur visiting his shop shortly around 8am on the morning of the attack on Alice. He purchased a razor and the shop owner sold it to him with good intentions.
Dr. Bannister would be next to be questioned and he described the wound to Alice as being, “inflicted with considerable force. Death would be almost instantaneous.”
After all the evidence and witness testimonies had been given, the jury, without retiring found a verdict of “Willful murder” against Arthur and he was committed for trial at the Manchester Assizes.
Upon hearing the verdict, Arthur collapsed and had to be carried out of the dock by two policemen.
On Tuesday 4th June, 1912, Arthur was once again brought up before the towns magistrates and was remanded until Wednesday, 5th June whilst notes of the case where being transcribed. And just as he did on the 31st May when he appeared at the resumed inquest, Arthur would again need to be carried from the dock after appearing to collapse.
The trial for the murder of Alice Beetham began on Friday, 5th July 1912 and opened by judge Mr. Justice Bucknill.
Prosecuting were Mr. Gordon Hewart and Mr. A. R. Kennedy, with Mr. Lindon Riley defending.
When asked by the judge, Arthur, who appeared calm and collected, pleaded “Not guilty”
Mr. Gordon Hewart addressed the jury, telling them, “the facts of the case were comparatively few and quite free from complexity. It was difficult to see, if the evidence for the prosecution was accepted, how the jury could escape the conclusion that this was a deliberate and premeditated murder.”
“One or two things would have to be proved, first that by reason of infirmity of mind, due to mental disease, he did not know the quality or nature of the act, or that, if he did know, he did not know that the act he was doing was wrong.”
Mr. Riley, defending, gave no evidence but would address the jury, saying they had two alternatives to choose from. One being the fact that Arthur, at the moment of the attack on Alice was insane and the other being, based on the prosecution’s evidence and the witness testimonies, then a case of manslaughter should be regarded.
After the judge had finished his summoning up, the jury retired at around 2.45pm. When they returned back into court after just sixteen minutes of deliberations, a verdict of “Guilty by willful murder” was given.
As with many guilty charges of murder being received, the Judge donned the customary black cap and said “Arthur Birkett, you have been found guilty upon the clearest evidence of a very, very cruel murder – the murder of your sweetheart – a murder premeditated and determined and cruel… you have forfeited your life. Make your peace with your maker, I implore you.”
Upon hearing the sentence, Arthur collapsed and had to be escorted out of the court by two wardens to the loud sobs and crying coming from family members in the stands.
Arthur’s execution was set to take place on Tuesday, 23rd July 1912 but before that, his mother had wrote a letter to the Queen to ask for clemency for her son, saying he was the main breadwinner for the family.
The letter which was sent on Wednesday, 17th July read;
“Dear Queen Mary, It is almost with a broken heart I write this humble letter to ask you if you will use your influence on behalf of my son, Arthur Birkett, who is lying under sentence of death for the murder of his sweetheart, Alice Beetham.
“He was such a loving son and such a good lad at home that I feel sure he could not have been in his right senses as the moment he committed this awful deed. I do beg you and pray to God that you will see your way to help me in my terrible trouble. If the sentence if carried out I shall be left with my little child, 2½ years of age and another son, aged nineteen. Arthur was the main support of the family, as I am a widow. Do, dear Queen, try your best for me, I beseech you.
“Hoping you will grant this request for his poor heartbroken widowed mother, I remain your humble servant, Mrs Birkett.”
It seems that both Arthur’s mother and Alice’s mother had made their peace with one another. After all, both had lost someone dear to them, albeit in very different circumstances and on the same day Arthur’s mother had written to the Queen, Alice’s mother visited Arthur in prison. Here, she assured Arthur of her forgiveness and she also informed him that a petition for his reprieve had been started which had quickly gained around 66, 000 signatures – hers included. This petition would be sent at once to the Home Secretary by the members of the Parliament for the borough.
Some will question why Arthur had gotten so many signatures for a petition for his reprieve, but many think this was because he was a likable lad who rarely did anyone any harm. Whilst he may have had at times a moody temperament and at times, jealousy may have clouded his judgment, he was otherwise quite a normal young man.
So for him to act in the way he did on that Monday morning was completely out of character, leading many to believe he was possibly suffering from some form of mental illness, resulting in him not knowing what he was doing and that the death penalty was far too harsh a punishment.
Unfortunately for Arthur, the petition to save his life would eventually be turned down. On Saturday, 20th July, Mr. Backhouse, solicitor for Arthur, received information from the Home Secretary that a reprieve had been refused, despite the petition garnering well over 70,000 signatures.
On the morning of Tuesday, 23rd July 1912, Arthur was taken from his cell at Strangeways Prison to the place of his execution. It was only a few short strides that led to the gallows, and when he was placed on the trap, Ellis, who officiated as executioner, rapidly completed the necessary adjustments. Immediately afterwards Arthur Birkett passed into eternity and just after eight o’clock the solemn tolling of the prison bell intimated to the public that the sentence had been carried out.
Whilst in prison, Arthur wrote several letters to his mother, but the last one he wrote arrived at his home on the day of his execution.
The letter in parts said; “If it was not for leaving you all behind, troubling for me, I am the happiest fellow in the world. I know I am going to meet the Lord with Alice in Heaven, and I am more than thankful to the Lord that I have not got a reprieve. I know it will make you happy to know I am not suffering in this world.”
He ended the letter saying, “But I was like thousands of others in this world – a careless lad. I see my mistake now.”
Sources used in this story;
The Friends of Blackburn Old Cemetery – http://www.foboc.btck.co.uk/
The Friends of Blackburn Old Cemetery Facebook Page – https://www.facebook.com/groups/496715363690379/
Preston Herald – Saturday 25 May 1912
Shields Daily News – Friday 31 May 1912
Halifax Evening Courier – Friday 31 May 1912
Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper – Sunday 26 May 1912
Yorkshire Evening Post – Wednesday 10 July 1912
Weekly Dispatch (London) – Sunday 28 July 1912
+ many more courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive – www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk
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