Accrington, a relatively quiet town in Lancashire, was plunged into shock and sorrow on Thursday, 25th August 1904, when the lifeless body of 78-year-old Susan Westwell was discovered in her humble abode at number 24 Hyndburn Road. This brutal act of violence against a beloved member of the community left everyone reeling with unanswered questions and a deep sense of grief.
Susan Westwell was known for her independent and solitary life. She would often supply hot water for the cotton mill girls’ meals, establishing a bond of familiarity and care within the neighborhood. However, on that fateful Thursday morning, when the mill girls arrived at her house just before 6 a.m. to leave their breakfast tins, they were puzzled to find the door locked and the lights still burning. This was unusual, as Susan was typically awake and dressed by 4 a.m. Her absence sparked concern among the mill girls, who suspected that something was amiss.
Determined to seek help, the mill girls ventured back to the mill where they found John Rankin, an engine tenter. He then accompanied the girls back to the common yard around the back of Susan’s house. To their surprise, they found the gate open and the back door unlocked. As they cautiously entered the premises, the gas lights inside continued to burn, casting an eerie glow on the scene. Their calls for Susan went unanswered, intensifying their growing suspicion that something terrible had happened.
Driven by a sense of foreboding, the mill girls conducted a thorough search of the house. It was during this unsettling exploration that they made the gruesome discovery—Susan Westwell’s lifeless body lying in a pool of blood on the floor. In a moment of hope, she emitted a single moan, indicating that she was still alive. Medical help was summoned immediately, but despite the best efforts of the attending doctor, Susan Westwell succumbed to her injuries a few minutes later, leaving the community devastated by the brutal crime that had unfolded within their midst.
The motive behind Susan’s murder remained unclear, although robbery seemed to be a plausible explanation. It was widely known that she kept a significant sum of money in her home, leading investigators to suspect that the perpetrator(s) had targeted her for financial gain.
The money she had received for serving the mill workers with hot water was carefully hoarded and hidden in various parts of the house. Old stockings were used for purses, and she acted as banker to several of the workers at Entwistle Mill. When neighbours were out of work or short of money, she would purchase food for them from the co-operative stores, and when they repaid her – as they invariably did – she was quite content to receive only the ‘divi’ which she had made by the purchases.
The fact that she never made it a secret that she had money may well have been her downfall.
The police, on searching the house, found over £6 in the most unlikely of places all over the premises. In an old bucket covered over with a saucer, was found a shilling, and an old tin can on the back kitchen fireplace contained a sovereign’s worth of copper. Many drawers were found open, but there didn’t appear to have been a great deal of ransacking of the house.
Dr. Greenhalgh and Dr. Geddie, who performed the postmortem examination, attested to the brutal nature of Susan’s injuries. Her head bore at least seven distinct blows, including fractures to the skull. A swollen right eye, reminiscent of the size of an egg, further indicated the violence she had endured. The extent of the injuries suggested that she had been kicked or struck with a heavy stick, resulting in her untimely death. Surprisingly, no traces of blood were found on any potential weapons within the house, adding another layer of mystery to the crime.
As investigators delved deeper into the case, witnesses Mrs. Theresa Todd and Mrs. Elizabeth Buckley came forward during the inquest to share their encounters with two young men inside that of Susan Westwell’s home on the 24th of August. Mrs. Todd visited Susan at approximately 8 p.m., followed by Mrs. Buckley an hour later. Both ladies recalled seeing the young men, aged between 16 and 18, inside the house. However, due to their positioning with their backs to the door, identification proved impossible. and whilst their presence raised suspicion, it fell short of providing definitive leads.
It would appear that Susan was struck down whilst trying to unlock the door during the attack on her. The backyard door was found slightly open, through which an easy escape could be made into the street, and if the murder was done immediately after Elizabeth Buckley left, it would be very easy for anyone to come out of the back premises unperceived, and join ordinary passers-by in Hyndburn-lane.
The inquest, which concluded on Monday, 5th September 1904, delivered a verdict of wilful murder against some person or persons unknown.
And despite the efforts of law enforcement, the case took a perplexing turn when a vagrant named Arthur Seal, also known as “Jackson,” made a statement to the Newcastle police in January 1905.
While staying at the Newcastle Workhouse, Seal confessed to the murder of a woman in a cottage near Accrington. However, subsequent investigations revealed that he had made similar confessions during his stays in Knutsford and Stockton. His history of admitting himself into multiple asylums cast doubt on the veracity of his claims, and the police did not attach significant importance to his confession regarding Susan Westwell’s murder.
Nevertheless, Seal’s confession contained intriguing details, such as attempting to open a locked door before finding an open window to gain entry. He claimed to have encountered a sleeping woman by the fire, and when she awoke and questioned him, he responded that he had come for money. A struggle ensued, during which he allegedly grabbed her by the neck and beat her with a poker. Although he referred to her by the incorrect surname, ‘Wilnslow’, his confession displayed certain specific elements that raised questions about his potential involvement in the crime.
Susan’s body was interred within the grounds of Burnley Cemetery on Monday, 29th August 1904.
The police appeared at around one-o’clock in the afternoon, carrying the coffin of Susan out from the Police mortuary and placing it into a waiting hearse. The coffin was made of polished pitch pine with brass mountings, and the plate bore the following inscription :
Died 25th Aug., 1904
Aged 78 years.
At the grave side, the coffin, which had been carried by her stepson, Mr. B. T. Westwell and Mr. Z. Barnes as well as others, was slowly lowered into the ground. Interred in the same grave is the body of Dorothy Jackson, who died on December 14th 1875 aged 73 years and a child of Mr. and Mrs. Singleton, the latter a niece of Susan Westwell.
The mystery surrounding Susan Westwell’s murder has thus far remained unsolved. Her tragic fate served as a stark reminder of the vulnerability that exists even within seemingly safe environments. Accrington mourned the loss of a woman who had lived a quiet and self-reliant life, clinging to the hope that justice would eventually prevail and bring closure to this brutal crime.
Susan Westwell, the 78-year-old lady who lived alone at number 24 Hyndburn Road, Accrington, will forever be remembered as a victim of a senseless act of violence.