Tuesday, December 28, 1909, marks a dark and chilling day in the history of Burnley, a quaint town in Lancashire, England. The events of this day unfolded in a way that sent shockwaves through the community and forever scarred the lives of those involved. In the midst of a cold, wet afternoon, a heinous crime took place that would not only claim the life of a young innocent child but would also expose the depths of human darkness. This is the story of Joseph Wren, a former naval stoker, who committed a brutal murder that would forever haunt the memory of Burnley.
On that fateful afternoon, three-year-old John Collins was entrusted by his father, William Collins, to meet his mother, Sarah Collins, after her day’s work. Shortly after 5.30pm, and as the rain soaked the streets of Burnley, John embarked on what should have been a routine errand. Tragically, this simple task would mark the beginning of an unimaginable nightmare for the Collins family.
Sarah Collins returned home to 9, Maltkiln Street, only to discover that her son had never arrived. Desperation and fear soon gripped the hearts of both Sarah and William as they tirelessly searched the streets for their missing child. As the hours passed and their frantic search yielded no results, they made the harrowing decision to involve the authorities.
Unbeknownst to the heartbroken Collins family, and just over an hour after the disappearance of their son, Joseph Wren had entered the Burnley police station on Parker Lane with Police Sergeant Appleby. In a chilling and candid confession, Wren admitted to the gruesome murder of three-year-old John Collins. He recounted in unsettling detail how he had taken the life of the innocent child and then abandoned the lifeless body near Queen’s Park, close to the Bank Hall Colliery.
It was at around 6.15pm when Wren approached Police Sergeant Appleby, who was walking along Victoria-road. When asked for details by the bewildered officer, he responded with “Come along with me, I have done it.”
When pressed further on what he had done, and after Wren had informed the officer that the body of a little boy was lying lifeless on a slag heap at nearby Bank Hall Colliery, the officer escorted Wren to the police station on Parker Lane.
Wren then asked an unsettling request for a drink and a cigarette before delving into the horrifying account of his actions.
As he smoked and sipped water, Wren began to recount the horrifying sequence of events that had led to the death of young John Collins. He described encountering the innocent boy near Queen’s Park at around 5.45pm. In stark and disturbing terms, Wren confessed to carrying the child to a siding at Bank Hall before strangling him with his bare hands and slashing his throat with a knife. The grisly description continued with the revelation that he had waited to ensure the boy’s demise before inflicting further violence upon him.
In a shocking turn of events, police officers travelled to the location described by Wren and discovered the lifeless body of John Collins precisely where he had left it, at the bottom of a field and close to a slag heap a short distance from Victoria Road. The scene was a grim tableau of horror, with a blood-soaked knife and a bloody handkerchief nearby. The boy’s neck had been slashed from “ear to ear,” leaving a deeply jagged scar that severed vital structures within his neck. Wren’s attempt to strangle the boy had left two visible bruises on his neck, serving as grim reminders of the violence that had occurred.
Wren’s confession was marked by a chilling lack of motive. He claimed to be unable to explain why he had committed such a heinous act, leaving law enforcement and the community struggling to comprehend the depths of his depravity. His concluding words, “I don’t know what made me do it. I don’t want to say anything more just yet,” only added to the sense of confusion and horror surrounding the case.
Dr. Watson, the police surgeon, confirmed the extent of the boy’s injuries, describing a gruesome wound that severed critical structures in his neck, with a deep laceration reaching down to the spinal column. The evidence was irrefutable, and Joseph Wren was promptly arrested and remanded in court, leaving Burnley in a state of shock and mourning for the young life lost so tragically.
Wren’s confession did not end there; he disturbingly revealed went on to say; “After I had done that (the murder), I went back to the body three or four times and felt it. I knew then that it was dead. I then got on to Queen Victoria Road and got quietly away. A man came running after me, and I thought he had seen me doing this, but he simply asked me for a match and ran on again. I then went up to Higgin Street, and waited for an opportunity to see my own child, but could not see it. Through family troubles I really intended to make away with my child, and not the one I have done. I knew that it was impossible to get work, and marry my girlfriend, and my mind unhinged, and bad thoughts were within me. If I had seen my child and in my then condition, I would have undoubtedly taken its life. I fully understand the predicament my girlfriend was in and to save her from disgrace, I would have done anything, though really I think, I was not in my right senses. I am now fully sorry for what I have done, and hope that I shall be forgiven by the child’s parents. I know what the penalty is now, and am fully prepared for it.’
The murder of John Collins sent shockwaves throughout Burnley and beyond, prompting questions about the depths of human depravity. Joseph Wren’s confession was a disturbing glimpse into a mind capable of unspeakable violence, leaving a community in disbelief and mourning the loss of a young life.
The trial that followed Joseph Wren’s confession would further delve into the motivations behind his heinous act. While some speculated about his mental state and potential underlying reasons for the crime, the profound senselessness of the act left many struggling to comprehend how anyone could commit such an atrocious act against a defenceless child.
As Wren stood in the dock on February 4th, 1910, the community was confronted with the horrifying details of his actions, while his defence pleaded insanity as an explanation for his incomprehensible act. The trial unfolded with questions about Wren’s mental state, his motives, and the struggle to understand how such a heinous crime could occur.
When his charges were called out, he remained silent. The defence pleaded insanity, weaving a narrative that sought to shed light on Wren’s mental state. They highlighted his lack of employment, his troubled relationship with his girlfriend, and the birth of his child out of wedlock as contributing factors that may have strained his mental well-being.
The jury would also hear that on the day of the murder, Joseph had walked from Accrington to Burnley to meet his brother Ernest. Wren told Ernest that he hadn’t eaten in three days and that he would rather go to prison then spend any more time suffering from starvation and living in poverty.
When the brothers parted, it was only a matter of minutes later before Joseph saw young John Collins heading in his direction.
The central point of contention lay in the question of Wren’s state of mind. While his guilt in committing the crime was undeniable, the defence sought to present a case where Wren’s mental instability might have played a crucial role in the tragic events that transpired.
During the trial, the dead boy’s father, William Collins, offered his perspective, stating that he saw no apparent grievances between his family and Wren that could have led to such a horrifying act. This lack of apparent motive only deepened the mystery surrounding the case.
Wren’s own relatives and friends were called upon to testify, painting a picture of a man who had been grappling with mental anguish. Wren himself claimed that his depression had plunged him into moments of unawareness, particularly on the night of the murder. He admitted to being sorry for his crime and even sought forgiveness from the boy’s grieving family. However, his account of visiting his girlfriend immediately after the murder seemed to be at odds with the timeline of events, raising doubts about the authenticity of his claims.
Despite the efforts to portray Wren as suffering from mental instability, the jury deliberated for a mere 45 minutes before delivering a guilty verdict. The court condemned Joseph Wren to death, ending the trial with a chilling acknowledgment of his heinous act.
The trial left a lasting impact on all involved, and when Wren’s solicitor, Mr. H. Ogden, organised a petition for a reprieve, it was a young Winston Churchill, who was tasked with having the final say on his sentence.
The reprieve failed and Joseph Wren would become the very first person to be executed that had been signed off by Churchill.
As the sentence was carried out, Joseph Wren’s journey from a seemingly calm confession to a conviction of guilt reached its tragic conclusion.
The Northern Telegraph reported that on the 23rd January, Wren had attempted to take his own life in his cell by hanging from a ventilator using the sheets from his bed, and whilst this attempt at suicide may have failed, Wren would get his wish nearly a month to-the-day when he was finally executed within the confines of Strangeways Prison, Manchester on the 22nd February 1910.
Led from his cell by Henry Pierrepoint, he faced the ultimate consequence for his actions.
The body of poor John Collins was interred over at nearby Burnley Cemetery on Saturday, 1st January 1910 and despite drizzling rain, hundreds of people lined the streets to pay their respects as the small cortege of family members passed-by whilst making their way towards the cemetery.
The plot in which his body now rests is numbered as A15851. He is also joined by a lady called Mary Ann Collins who we think may well be his grandmother. She was 79 years-old when she passed away and was buried alongside John Collins on the 14 March 1934.
Both parents of John are laid to rest next to him in plot number A15850. His mother, Sarah was buried on the 15 October 1954 at the age of 67 and his father, William, was interred in the same plot on the 3 September 1930 aged 51.
Whilst we have covered the tragic events of that horrific mid-afternoon back on the 28th December 1909, it was the years prior that we need to take a brief look into if we are to try and find anything which we could argue was the turning point in Wren’s life.
We know Joseph had enrolled in the navy sometime from 1901 to 1907 and he had left by 1908. His brother, Ernest, would tell during Joseph’s trial that his brother had left the navy due to suffering from a fit whilst working and that he had struggled to find work after being discharged. He would often be seen wandering the streets of Accrington and Burnley but would be turned away from even the most mundane of jobs.
We also know that Joseph had met a young lady by the name of Sarah Anne Calvert, who would shortly later fall pregnant to him. However, due to his inability to find work, and with no funds to marry Sarah, things had become troublesome between the couple and eventually they would break up, meaning access to his child was limited.
It would also emerge in court that Joseph had often struggled with depression, as well as having to deal with fits that could last between 15 and 20 minutes at a time.
The story of Joseph Wren and the murder of three-year-old John Collins is a chilling chapter in Burnley’s history that will forever evoke a sense of horror and sadness.
The tragic events of December 28, 1909, serve as a reminder that the human capacity for evil can shatter lives and communities.