Just before 6.30am on Sunday, 29th September 1895, the residents of Shakespeare Street in Padiham were awoken from their early morning slumber by the shouts of “murder!” coming from somewhere on the back streets.

Inside number 24, 41 year old Mary Ann Marsden was making her way down from her bedroom, dazed and in some considerably pain, and as she stumbled out onto the cobbled pathway, neighbours, who had rushed out from their beds to see what the commotion was, froze in fear at the sight that confronted them.

Covered in blood and holding a hatchet, Mary walked a few steps before finally succumbing to the shock and obvious pain she was suffering from.

Mary and William Marsden had been married for around 18 years and apart from the last twelve months, where they had been living together in a relatively happy fashion, they had been separated for the previous ten years due to an argument attributed to Williams health.

At the age of 19, William suffered from a fall that left him with a serious head injury which in turn, would lead to a life suffering from severe depression as well as the odd violent outburst.  Attended by Dr. Duerdan, he spent his early years living in Great Harwood where he would eventually meet Mary and they would eventually go on to being married.

Unfortunately, after five years of marriage, Mary and William would separate and William would go on to live with his sister in Great Harwood before relocating to Padiham to live with Mr and Mrs Lingard, partners of Jubilee Mill, where he was employed as a weaver.   Meanwhile, Mary had moved in with her mother, Catherine, who also lived in Padiham.

When Mrs. Lingard passed away several years later, Mary took William back and both lived together at number 24 Shakespeare Street, only a few minutes’ walk from where he worked at nearby Jubilee Mill.

William was a quiet, inoffensive man and was much respected by all those he came in contact with.  He was at one time a drummer for the Salvation Army Brass Band, being one of the last to walk behind them when participating in a procession.

On Thursday, 26th September 1895, William visited his sister in Great Harwood, but feeling unwell he told her his head was “like a lump of wood!” and that he could never remember things.  He would also tell her, “I would give £1,000 if my head was right.”

Acting and sounding strange, as well as looking lost, his sister was worried about his mental state of health but rather than try and seek help, William left shortly after to make his way back home.

Prior to this visit, Mary, William and their only son, 16 years old Joseph spent a week in Blackpool on the advice of Dr. Grant, who had been treating William for melancholy for the past 3 weeks.  He thought a break would help William.

But unfortunately, on the 29th September, just one week after their mini-break, things would take a terrible change for the worse.

At around 10pm the evening before, both Mary and William retired to bed.  They had spent the early part of the evening out purchasing vegetables from the local market.  Everything had seemed fine and both enjoyed the evening out.  There was never any signs of quarrelling or uneasiness for either of the pair.

Their son, Joseph as well as their niece who was staying over at their home had both gone to bed a little earlier in the evening and they occupied the front bedroom.

Throughout the night, William was restless, getting out of bed on several occasions, waking Mary each time.  She enquired about his health, asking him how his head felt.  He replied saying it was no better.  After the last time she spoke to him, he laid back down on his back, making groaning sounds.

At 6.30am, Mary was woken from her sleep by a sudden and painful blow to her face.  Looking up, she saw William kneeling over her with his left hand on her chest. In his right hand, he was holding a hatchet which he was raising above his head.

“Oh my God!” she screamed, and with a desperate struggle, Mary somehow managed to throw William off her as she rolled out of her bed and onto the floor.

Dazed and unable to pick herself up, she lay there in panic.  As for William, he clambered off the bed and leant over Mary, seizing hold of one of her hands and pinning her down with his knees.

“Joe, your father is murdering me!” shouted Mary as she struggled to ward off her husband.

Raising the hatchet, he struck Mary several times on the back side of the head, with blow after blow raining down on her.  Miraculously, she somehow summoned the strength to wrestle the hatchet from his hand and in the ensuing struggle, she picked it up and tried to throw it out of the bedroom door. 

The hatchet didn’t make it that far, instead it hit the door and bounced back onto the floor.

William got onto his feet, dragging Mary up and pinning her to the bedroom wall.  He stood, motionless for a few seconds before losing hold of Mary, and in doing so, she fell back down to the ground, slumped against the wall.

Just as he had done only seconds earlier, he took hold of the hatchet and again grabbed hold of one of her hands.

Hearing the screaming coming from the back bedroom, Joseph and Mary Ann Lingard, 16 year old niece of Mary and William came rushing into the room.  William turned around, starting at the pair who were now stood petrified at the scenes they seeing.

Noticing the hatchet, Joseph panicked thinking his father would come after him.  Running downstairs, he fled through the kitchen and out onto the back streets where he would begin shouting “Murder!”.

Mary Ann Lingard soon followed, also running outside to raise the alarm.

Richard Shutt and his son, who resided at number 18, alarmed at the noise now reverberating around the street quickly got dressed and made their way outside.

Amazingly, and after a few minutes elapsed, Mary who was clearly dazed and exhausted, came stumbling out of the backyard and onto the cobbles.  Her head, face and clothing were saturated in blood and she was holding the hatchet that had been used on her.

Mr. Shutt, upon seeing Mary appear from the backyard, quickly went over to assist her, still unaware of what had happened in her house.  Taking her into his house, he sat Mary down in the kitchen and tried to stem the flow of blood coming from the deep wounds on her head.  Meanwhile, Dr. Grant had been sent for and it wouldn’t take too long for him to arrive.

It was around 6.45am, when P.C. Birk who was on-duty walking along Burnley Road was told of the attack on Mary and upon reaching the home of Richard Shutt, he was met by P.C. Smith.   Not too long after, Dr. Grant arrived but only after visiting the home of Mary and William first.

Dr. Grant entered number 24 and upon making his way up the staircase, he noticed blood marks all the way up.  Inside the back bedroom, there were more pools of blood, showing signs of an obvious struggle and there were splashes of blood also covering sections of wallpaper.   The bed was also in a dis-arranged state.

Leaving the bedroom and still unsure as to the full extent of the horrors that occurred in the room, Dr. Grant made his way to the home of Richard Shutt where he would tend to the wounds inflicted upon Mary.  Whilst there he would tell both P.C. Birk and P.C. Smith of what he had seen at number 24 and upon being given this information, P.C. Smith left to see for himself.

Just as Dr. Grant had stated, P.C. Smith saw for himself the true horror of what had occurred only 20 or so minutes prior and as he made his way from the scene of the attack, and upon entering the front bedroom, he saw William sat on the bed.

“Hello, what’s been to do here?” asked P.C. Smith.

“I do not know.” replied a bewildered William, whose hands, both covered in blood, were trembling.

After a brief pause, P.C. Smith took hold of William and escorted him to the local police station where he would later that afternoon be charged with the attempted murder of his wife, Mary.  William made no reply to the charge.

On Monday, 30th September, the case would be heard before a large bench of Jurors within the Burnley Police Court.  William took his place in the dock and sat throughout as several witnesses gave their version of the events that took place on the previous morning.

Mr. Southern, the Clerk to the Magistrates read the depositions of key witnesses, such as one made by Mary Marsden who was absent from the court due to the substantial injuries she had suffered by her husband.

In her deposition, which was taken on the evening of the attack, the bench would hear that she was 41 years of age and her husband was 48 years old.  They had married in St. Bartholomew’s, Great Harwood on the 23rd July 1877 and had previously lived at West View, Hapton.   The court would also be told of the head injury William had sustained when he was around 19 years old and ever since he had suffered from depression as well as frequent mood swings.

Police Inspector Neild, facing the bench, would mention that Mary was so ill that it was unlikely that she would recover, but the bench said it would be desirable that they should have further evidence as to why Mary was unable to attend.

P.C. Birk, one of the first police officers to attend the scene on the previous morning would tell them of what he had encountered and he would also remind them that he had also seen Mary at 10am on the same day as the court hearing, but she was very weak and ill and therefore unable to attend court.

Inspector Neild then asked the bench for a remand for a further eight days, which was subsequently granted.

A week later and on Thursday, 7th November, William Marsden would again be brought before the bench at the Burnley Police Court. 

This time, Mary, although obviously still very much traumatized by what had happened to her, would also be in attendance.  She would take a seat throughout the proceedings and speak with a low voice when answering questions.

She would tell the court that a week after the attack, she had moved in with her mother, Catherine Duxbury, over at Great Harwood. She would also go into detail as to what she remembered on the 29th September, explaining how she was woken up by a blow to her head and how she remembered seeing William crouched over her holding a hatchet in his hand.

Mary would also mention a letter that had been written by William. 

On the 30th September, Catherine had travelled over from Great Harwood to pay a visit with William and Mary, totally unaware of what had transpired the day before. She was therefore shocked at what she encountered when arriving at number 24 Shakespear Street. Without hesitation, Catherine told Mary she would stay with her to help with her recovery, no matter how long it would take.

And it was during the morning of October 1st, Catherine was helping by making the bed.  Upon turning over the mattress, Mary, who was seated close to her bed, had noticed a letter lying flat on the bed frame.  From the handwriting, it was clear it had been written by William.

It was the duty of William to attend to the beds whilst his wife and son were at work at the mills and it was thought that he may have written the letter the day before his attack on Mary, and placed it under the mattress before she arrived back at home later in the afternoon.

In the letter, William had referred to his wife as “His blessed lass.”  He also wrote, “Cut my head off.  I cannot live.  I want thee to go with me.”

Catherine would take the letter to the police station the next morning and it would be shown in court as part of the defence teams evidence to show that William was in an unfit state of mind on the morning of the attack on Mary.

Dr. Grant would go before the bench, describing the injuries inflicted upon Mary.  The description of her wounds were as follows :

“Bleeding profusely from the head and face, one wound on the face extended from the inner angle of the left eye downward to the right side, dividing the nose completely and penetrating the nasal organs.  It was 1.5” in length and three quarters of an inch deep at the deepest part.  At the back of the head were five contused wounds. “

Dr. Grant

The wounds looked to have been caused by a hacking instrument such as the hatchet that was produced as evidence in court.

Defending William was Mr. Steele, and he would use the testimony of Dr. Grant who spoke of seeing William in the lead up to the attack on his wife and how he was suffering from melancholia and possible dangerous symptoms.  He would mention how Dr. Grant had advised William to get away for a while and that Blackpool would be the ideal place to visit as he would get some fresh air quality and he would be able to relax more.

Dr. Steele, under cross-examination would also elicit that William’s melancholia was one of a homicidal kind and he would substantiate this with several facts, such as William’s peculiar conduct and change of character leading up to and on the day of the attack on his wife, Mary.

He would go on to say that there was no motive and William had even sat on the bed without ever trying to escape, even though he may have had an idea that he would be remanded.

After a short break in proceedings, the bench would return and commit William to the Liverpool Assizes on the charge of attempted murder at the next possible date.

On Monday, 18th November, William Marsden appeared at the Liverpool Azzizes on the charge of attempted murder of his wife, Mary Ann Marsden on the 29th of September.

Mr. Knowles, prosecuting outlined the details of the case as we have already spoken about but this time Dr. Beamish, medical officer at Walton Prison spoke to the jury, telling them that he had observed William since his arrival within the prison on the 8th November and was of opinion that he was unfit to understand the nature of the offence he had been charged with, stating that he was suffering from a deceased mind.

The jury, after a short delay, would formally find William unfit to make a plea and just like many other cases of similar nature during the Victorian era, the Judge had no other option other than to detain William during her majesty’s pleasure, therefore missing the death penalty.


Sources used in this story;

Burnley Express – Wednesday 02 October 1895

Blackburn Standard – Saturday 05 October 1895

Manchester Evening News – Monday 30 September 1895

Preston Herald – Saturday 09 November 1895

Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser – Tuesday 19 November 1895

+ many more courtesy of the British Newspaper Archivewww.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk


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