The story of a dysfunctional Todmorden family that

ends in murder most foul

Our story begins in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales area of Bainbridge, takes us to the mill town of Todmorden and ends on the gallows at the New Bailey Prison, Salford, with a public hanging.

St. Oswald's at Askrigg

James Weatherill was born in Bainbridge, Yorkshire, in 1784, the son of Miles Weatherill. He had brothers Miles born in 1787 and Richard born in 1789. He also had two sisters, Ann and Peggy, born in 1777 and 1778 respectively. All were baptised at St. Oswald's in Askrigg, as there is no Anglican church in Bainbridge. The village is only served by a chapel and a Friends Meeting House.
Askrigg is a fair way to walk to church, so the family more than likely attended the chapel in Bainbridge, which is possibly where James picked up his Wesleyan leanings. He became a stonemason and what prompted him to move to Todmorden is unknown, but whatever the reason was, it was a decision that sparked off a chain of events that would culminate in an act so horrific that it is still talked about today, and at the time even reached the ears of Queen Victoria herself.

By 1811, James had married a local Walsden girl, Nelly Newell, who was the sister of Thomas Newell of Strines in Walsden. James and Nelly settled down to family life and the children came along as they do, and were all duly baptised at Doghouse Wesleyan Chapel in Todmorden, the first being born in 1811.


Doghouse Weleyan Chapel - closed

about 1827 and converted to housing


James was a steady sort of chap, a good and honest worker, who liked a glass or two with his pals in the beer house after work, having a joke and a gossip and no doubt washing away the dust from his throat, the accumulation of the day's work. He knew when to stop, and was never known to be the worse for drink. Richard, their son, was born in the year 1818 and from the moment he arrived a curse seemed to descend on the Weatherill family.

Richard was a wayward lad and always into mischief of some sort or another. Most lads are when they are young and full of high spirits, but with Richard, it was as if he had been born full of devilment. He must have been a sore trial to his upright chapel going parents.

James got work on the building of the YORK STREET CHAPEL in 1827 and life revolved around attending chapel, having a bit of a social life where they could, and trying to make enough money to give their children a decent education, which James and Nelly somehow managed to do. Richard, or Dick as he became known, was sent to learn hand weaving at Priestwell.

York Street Wesleyan Chapel, now demolished


He was always in the thick of any fun that was going on and more likely than not, he would be the ring-leader. His mother got to hear of the goings on an threatened to give him a good thrashing and send him to bed without any supper on many occasions. Dick, being the apple of her eye, knew exactly how to get round her, and on going upstairs he would say "Mother, let's pray!" She would be completely taken in as always, and Dick would be let off the thrashing, but would have to forego his supper. A small price to pay.


He later became a stonemason like his father and was a good worker, a trait inherited from his father. There the likeness ended, as Dick liked his ale and was usually to be found in company of the town's less respectable inhabitants.


In the severe winters that sometimes come to this part of the north, when the masons and their labourers were "frozen out", he was always on the look out for ways to make an easy penny. One of his tricks was to cut up a newspaper in the form of a ballad and he would stroll down the street, singing and selling the sheets at a halfpenny each. As it was winter, the streets were dark and the customers couldn't see exactly what they were buying until they got home. Most of them couldn't help but have a good laugh at his audacity and ingenuity.


One of his more audacious antics took place just after the new clock and bell had been installed at Christ Church about 1837, and it could have had a more serious outcome than a thrashing and bed without supper!! Travis the historian records it thus:

"The bell ringer at the time was John Midgley, who was also the "dog whipper" for the town. The bell weighed one ton and John had trouble with this. He wasn't a very adept ringer and had overturned the bell a couple of times, when the rope had drawn him up to a platform in the steeple and then dropped him to the floor with a wollop.

A few young lads heard about this and decided to have a go. They would creep up into the belfry, but when the service began would join the congregation, having had their fun.

Richard Weatherill, was a wayward sort of boy, up to all sorts and always on the look out for any mischief to be found. He, and a couple of friends decided to stay in the belfry and they spied an archway, way up in the tower, which led over the flat part of the church roof.

They foolishly decided to investigate and went forward, with only couple of narrow planks of wood for support. Richard, being his usual adventurous self, found himself over the communion space and at that moment, he dislodged a plaster ornament which fell from the ceiling, heading directly for the head of the vicar, Rev. Cowell, who was preaching the sermon, oblivious to what was about to descend on his head.

The congregation watched in open-mouthed horror as the ornament continued on its downward path. Luckily, it smashed onto the sounding board above the vicar's head and was fragmented into pieces, which flew in every direction. It was miracle that no one was hurt and that Richard himself didn't fall from his precarious perch.

He and his associates hot- footed it, but a couple of wardens chased them and identified who they were. Richard was identified as the main culprit, no doubt shopped by his "friends" to save themselves from any repercussions.

The Reverend Cowell and the wardens were all for prosecuting the lad, but with entreaties from his distraught parents, being respectable and staunch Wesleyans, that he wouldn't do it again, and would be kept away from the church tower, it was agreed not to take any further action."


It is not recorded if his mother gave him the thrashing he had long avoided.


In 1838, at the time of the TODMORDEN RIOTS there were dragoon soldiers billeted at the inns where there was enough stabling for their horses and one company of foot soldiers were stationed at Salford. That particular winter was a harsh one and the canal, which went by the soldier's quarters, had been frozen over for 14 weeks. The ice was very thick and the work people had to cross over it on their way to work every day, using it just like a road. Soon, the ice-boat was able to get through and break up the ice. Dick was watching, along with some soldiers and a few other people. He couldn't resist showing off and proceeded to run back and forth across the canal on the broken bits of ice, using them like stepping-stones. He continued his antics, even though the ice pieces were drifting away, no doubt encouraged and urged on by the crowd, who may have been secretly hoping that he would fall in.

Later on, in about 1843, when Dick was married, he was working with his father at Knowlwood Bottom for Mr. Robertshaw, putting new chimneys on the houses, when his mother arrived with their dinners. It started to rain and she noticed that James was working without his coat, so she told Dick to tell him it was raining. Dick replied, in a joking manner, that if he couldn't tell for himself then he would get wet!!


He was never known to refuse a dare and became a well known figure, often to be seen on the rooftops of Todmorden, demanding money from his family and threatening to throw himself off if they didn't comply. It isn't known if he ever got any money from them, but he never threw himself off.


St. Botolph's at Horsehouse in Coverdale

Richard married Alice Horner, a farmer's daughter from Coverdale in Yorkshire, in 1839, and they set up home in Union Street in Todmorden. It is possible that Alice's family knew the Weatherills, as Coverdale is only 10 miles away from Bainbridge, and it seems strange that a girl from so far away would be in Todmorden unless she knew someone who lived there. She had been baptised at St. Botolph's at Horsehouse in Coverdale in 1815.

The children came along and their first son John was born in 1841 followed by Miles in 1845 and then a daughter Sarah Ann in 1850. Married life didn't change Richard's ways and he continued to carry on as before. His behaviour became more and more eccentric and at one point he locked baby Miles in a drawer and told his wife that a tramp had taken him away. Alice must have been distraught at the thought of her baby in a tramp's hands. Anything could happen to him; he could be sold, killed, left to die or something worse. How relieved she must have been when he was found and how she must have wondered how she came to have married such a man as Richard.


His lifestyle caught up with him before long and he developed phthisis, which led to his death on the 13th September 1850 at York Street, Todmorden. He was 32 years old. At his side when he died was his married sister Sarah Lawson of Union Street. An early grave for a man who had lived life as he wanted, without regard for others.


Union Street


York Street

Brook Street


His brothers and sisters did a little better for themselves. William became a tailor and his sister Sarah became a dressmaker, married John Lawson, a tea dealer from Bradford, and ran a business in Union Street. In 1851, all the families are living near to each other in York Steet, Union Street and Back Brook Street.

Photos by kind permission of Roger Birch

Old James Weatherill was 75 when he died, accidentally killed in July 1859 when the joiner's shop on Union Street belonging to John Holden collapsed, killing himself and Abraham Crossley (Old Tickler) who were working there at the time. Even at 75 James was working, evidence of his diligent and hard working nature. His wife, Nelly, suffered such a shock when she the news of this accident that she never recovered from it and died two months later. They are buried together in the graveyard at Christ Church.

In Memory of James and Nelly Weatherill

Who after living together in each others affections for 54 years, departed this life as follows
James was killed July 5th 1859

Aged 75 years
Nelly died September 18th 1859

Aged 77 years

Their bodies shall slumber in Jesus awhile
Till the trumpet resounds thro the sky
Then bursting the fetters of death with a smile They shall enter the mansions on high


More tragedy was to come.


When Richard died, leaving Alice a widow, she moved to Back Brook Street and made her living as a charwoman. With children to feed and school, she also took in lodgers to supplement her income. This was not a particularly nice area of the town at that time and there were lodging houses in every street, full with characters from all walks of life, much as in any other mill town of that period.

Miles grew up in these streets, with only a vague recollection of his father, as he was only five when he died. He would have been spoiled by his grandparents, much as his father had been before him and he had been named after his great grandfather, so would have no doubt have had a special place in his grandfather's affections. His mother, being a charwoman and running a lodging house, would have left Miles and his siblings plenty of time to get into all sorts of mischief and no doubt they did. It wasn't the best start in life for a child, but many others would be in the same predicament and all would grow up very "street wise." Many thought that he was going to grow up with his father's inclination for trouble and watched with interest as the young Miles grew into manhood.

He became a weaver and maybe the turning point in his life came with the death of his grandparents when he was 14. It is an impressionable age and no doubt left a feeling of great loss in his life. He now had his mother and sister Sarah, to look after. Both were said to be a little backward, so as not to be able to do the simplest of work.

He started to discover that there was more to life than playing around and Miles wanted to better himself. He taught himself to read and write, which in the days when education was not compulsory, was no mean feat. Once he got the taste for learning, he would haunt the reading rooms, keeping himself up to date with news of the day and he attended Sunday school and church regularly. He became a Sunday School teacher and was very well thought of by the vicar. He was a smart, well groomed and not bad looking man, who obviously looked after himself. Then in 1867, he fell in love.


Miles Weatherill


The object of his affections was Sarah Elizabeth Bell, a sixteen year old cook at the vicarage. Her home was in York, about 60 miles away, and the vicar, Mr. Plow, had assured her family that he would look after and take responsibility for her whilst she was in his service.

Miles, wanting to do things in the proper manner, asked the vicar's permission to court Sarah, but the vicar refused him his request.

He also refused to let Sarah have her usual Sundays out, when they could have met away from the vicarage, and the Reverend's eyes. Love found a way, as it does, and Miles and Sarah continued to meet clandestinely. Sarah, being only 16, and unable to keep their meetings a secret, told Jane Smith, another maid at the vicarage. The outcome was that Jane told Mrs. Plow, who in turn told Mr. Plow.

The vicar immediately sent Sarah back to her home in York, saying that she had disobeyed his orders and was not to be trusted. This was on November 1st. 1867. Sarah was later to deny this and say that she left of her own accord.

She and Miles kept in touch by letters, which didn't satisfy him at all, and he urged Sarah to come back to Todmorden and get another job there, then they could show the Plows that they couldn't be separated. However, Sarah was happy where she was in the new post that she had acquired, so Miles had to be content with that.

Sarah Bell


At the end of February 1868, Miles paid a weekend visit to York to see Sarah and to try and get to the bottom of her leaving Todmorden in the first place. She told him of the part that Jane Smith had played, with her telling tales to the vicar about their secret meetings.

What frame of mind Miles left York in we can only guess at, but in all probability he would have been very angry, and the journey home by train would only serve to give him time to brood more on the awful injustices dealt to them by the Plow family and Jane Smith in particular.

He left York and caught the 7-50 Todmorden train on Monday 2nd March, and by the time he reached home he had formed his plan for the revenge of his doomed love affair. Between his arrival at Todmorden and 10pm that evening, his friends said he was his usual self. He met up with them and they had their usual evening out and Miles left them at 10pm saying he was going home, but instead he went to the Black Swan for a whisky, with his plan ready to be carried out. He had 4 pistols and a hatchet, carried in a leather belt specially cut so as to hold them. They were concealed by his overcoat. He had earlier bought some caps and shot from Houldsworth's ironmongers.


The vicarage and church in 1868

He made his way to the vicarage and proceeded to tie the scullery door and the back door together with strong twine, so that nobody from inside could get out that way. Jane Smith heard the noises and informed Mr. Plow, who went out of the front door to see what was going on. He encountered Miles and a scuffle ensued in which the Reverend Plow was shot at, but as the pistol didn't fire Miles set about him with the hatchet.

Elizabeth Spink, a servant living at the vicarage at the time, grappled with Miles and grabbed hold of his hair to pull him away from Mr. Plow. She entreated him to "be quiet, do", to no avail. They struggled between themselves until they reached the dining room, which is where things got a little confused, but what likely took place is that Jane Smith came to help and on seeing her, Miles was confronted with the object of all his anger and hatred.

He lunged at her in a fury of blows with the hatchet to the head, and she was bleeding profusely as she managed to stagger back into the dining room and shut the door. Miles had dropped the hatchet and another servant, Mary Hodgson, had picked it up. Mr. Plow had also managed to wrench the pistol from him, so no doubt they would feel that they were safe.

How wrong they were. At this point Miles produced a second pistol and aimed a shot at the Reverend Plow who managed to wrench the pistol from him. He staggered out of the house and arrived at the home of William Greenwood, the church organist, in Well Lane. What a shock he must have had when he opened the door to find the vicar standing there, covered in blood, with no hat or shoes on.


Back at the vicarage, Elizabeth Spink was trying her best to make Miles see reason, but he was too enraged. He picked up a pistol that he had dropped, flung her to one side, threw open the dining room door and shot Jane Smith. Jane screamed and Elizabeth ran out of the vicarage to Dr. Cockroft, who lived about 250 yards away, for help.

Jane was dead. Miles then ran up the stairs to find Mrs. Plow. She was in bed with her month old daughter, Hilda Catherine. The monthly nurse she had employed, Margaret Ball, was with them. They had heard the noises and Margaret had gone part way down the stairs to see what was happening.

Jane Smith


Having seen the commotion and the fighting, Margaret ran back to Mrs. Plow and the baby and they then heard the shot which had killed Jane Smith. From the landing, Margaret Ball saw Miles cleaning and reloading his pistol, and start up the stairs with a poker in one hand and a pistol in the other.

She tried to stop Miles getting into the bedroom, standing with her back against the door, but she was no match for his strength, heightened by his now insane rage. He pushed open the door and Margaret ran out and down the stairs to open the front door to the people who were now banging on it.

Miles removed the baby in it's cradle from the bed and shot Mrs. Plow twice through the bedclothes. She tried desperately to get away from him and pleaded with him not to harm the baby. She got trapped between the wall and the bed in her efforts to escape him and he set upon her with the poker. He inflicted terrible injuries on her before she had the presence of mind to feign death.


By this time the house was full of police and helpers, summoned by Mr. Plow and Elizabeth Spink. George Stansfield, the Parish Clerk, was first on the scene and took hold of Miles by the arm and led him downstairs where he gave him into the custody of the Constable, Mr. Binks. Miles was a spent force, the anger and hate had gone to be replaced by a sense of the inevitability of the outcome.


Dr. Cockroft, who was also on the scene, attended to Mrs. Plow and her husband. Mrs. Plow was back in her bed and when he examined her he found that she was bleeding from severe wounds on her forehead and nose. She was in great pain and was breathing through the wound in her nose, caused by the attack.


The baby had to be taken from Mrs. Plow as she was in no fit state to look after her and she was taken to the house of Mr. Molesworth, the Deputy Coroner.


Miles was kept overnight in the lock up at the bottom of Ferney Lee and brought before the magistrates the following day, Tuesday March the 3rd at 5pm. He was in the charge of Superintendent Pickering of Rochdale, attended by Sergeant Riding of the local police force. The examination was opened at 5-30pm. by the magistrates, Abraham Ormerod, John Fielden and Joshua Fielden. It was adjourned until Friday March 6th .


Jane Smith was buried on Tuesday March 3rd at Christ Church. They brought the body from the vicarage to the church, and walked in procession as the choir sang a hymn.

First came the boys, then the men, then the surgeon, followed by the corpse carried by four men. The mourners came next, then the teachers and the elder scholars. The coffin was made of elm and a cross was carved in relief over the length and breadth of it. The inscription read "Jane Smith, she fell asleep in Jesus, March 2nd. 1868
The examination held on Friday 6th March at the Black Swan was attended by Mr. Plow, Margaret Ball, Sarah Elizabeth Bell, George Houldsworth (ironmonger) and Dr. Cockroft.
Miles was brought to the courthouse in a cab and there was such a large crowd gathered to see him, that the magistrates, the officials of the court, and the reporters couldn't get in. Evidence was given by all the witnesses called and Miles was committed to trial at Manchester Assizes on the charge of murder.

The Black Swan. Photo by kind permission of Roger Birch



Rev. Anthony John Plow

A week later, on Friday the 13th March, Mr. Plow died from the results of his injuries. He had seemed to be rallying and had appeared to be much better when he gave evidence at the court. It would seem that he suffered an inflammation of the brain and became delirious. Many said that he should never have been called to give evidence, but being the sort of man that he was, he was adamant that he should. It would have been a neglect of duty on his part, not to do so. On the same day, baby Hilda Catherine also died, though whether from any effects of the murders or from other causes is not known.

However, it seems another innocent victim was added to the list of deaths. An inquest had to be held on the death of Rev. Plow and again it was held at the Black Swan, where a jury brought in the verdict of murder by Miles Weatherill.


The news of this murder reached far and wide and even the Queen got to hear of it. She gave Lady Augusta Stanley leave to express Her Majesty's sympathy to the widow of the late Reverend Plow.


The funeral of the Rev. Plow was the grandest that Todmorden could give. He had a lying in state on Saturday March 14th and the body was covered in a silk cassock and covered in flowers from head to foot, the flowers having been provided by the neighbouring gentry.

The body was watched night and day by visiting clergy, (requested by Mr. Plow before he died), and two lights were kept burning all the while. The baby was at his side, covered in pure white flowers.

On the Saturday evening, all the senior members of the choir, the scholars of the Sunday School and Wadsworth Mill Mission paid there respects to the body and on the Sunday, about one hundred of the congregation were allowed to view it. He was buried on Monday March 16th., a day which was bitterly cold, with occasional showers of hail.

The church opened it's doors at 9am and was filled almost immediately. There were also 26 clergymen, 2 choirs, Sunday School pupils, the general public and 6 chief mourners.

The coffins of Mr. Plow and his baby daughter were of elm and Mr. Plow's was draped with a violet pall worked with a cross of red and yellow. The baby's was covered with a white pall with a red cross on it. After the service over a thousand people viewed the grave. To show respect, all the shops in Todmorden drew their blinds between 10 and 12 o'clock. They were buried in a grave near to Jane Smith.
Miles was held in the prison at the NEW BAILEY IN SALFORD until his trial at the Manchester Assizes on March 20th 1868.

Manchester Assizes 1868 photo with kind permission of Manchester Library and Information Service: Manchester Archives and Local Studies.

Sarah Elizabeth Bell was the main interest on the part of the crowd in the court. All were wanting to see this innocent cause of the murders. They were to be disappointed as she was dressed in black with a veil over her face and her face looking downwards all the time. She never looked at Miles. She seemed older than her 17 years, no doubt the events had taken their toll on her.

Another of the witnesses was Elizabeth Spink, who along with Mary Hodgson had fought bravely to try and protect their master and mistress from the frantic blows that Miles was delivering. The judge awarded Elizabeth £5 and Mary £2.10s.0d for their bravery. After summing up, the jury returned a verdict of guilty and the judge sentenced Miles to death by hanging.


There were various comments in the newspapers about Miles and the outcome of the trial. One, a phrenologist, said that he would be dangerous if thwarted and another report stated that it was thought he must have been either mad or drunk to have committed such crimes, bur no evidence of either was found. Some likened him to a Jekyll and Hyde character, quiet and thoughtful, a regular attendant at church, school and reading room one minute and transformed into a raging fiend the next.

One letter to the press, written on Monday March 30th 1868 and published in the Manchester Examiner and Times was later reprinted in the Todmorden Advertiser on April 4th by an unnamed "Todmordian" who had employed Miles for three years, and who clearly thought that Miles had a taint of insanity and that the facts of this had not been made known to his counsel. He was sure that if they had been fully known, then the jury would have been instructed to recommend mercy. He says that he had written the letter in the hope that the matter would be looked into and a petition sent to the Home Secretary in the means of obtaining a commutation of the death sentence. He was basing his insanity theory on the outrageous behaviour of Miles' father Richard, and also said that Miles' mother was "weak in intellect." It was also common knowledge that his sister was regarded as nearly "idiotic." None of this appeared to have any effect on the verdict, and it stood.


Miles was kept in the NEW BAILEY PRISON until the day of his execution, April 4th 1868. He was allowed visitors, but only certain ones were allowed to see him. Joseph Firth snr., who had known Miles a long time was not allowed in, but John Dawson, a local preacher and magistrate, was, and he remarked that Miles had gloated, "I will open Jane's secrets before all Todmorden." However, he said nothing about the reason for his attack on her and the Plow family.


The secret Miles knew about Jane was that she had an illegitimate child. Her parents, George and Elizabeth, had five children one of whom was Jane born 1843. George died in 1848 leaving Elizabeth, his wife to raise the young family. She opened a dame school. Jane had an illegitimate daughter, who she left in the care of her mother whilst she went out to work. This was the secret that Miles knew but never revealed.


Miles wrote letters whilst in jail and two are worth the reading. The first one to his mother and sister and the second to a friend.


My dear mother and sister,

It must be very painful to you to know I am in prison and what is worse, condemned to die. Well, you must bear it as well as you can. You will be allowed to see me once or twice more in my cell, then you must bid me farewell for ever.. You will be very sorry when you hear I have not repented of my sins, but I will try my best to meet both you and Sarah in heaven. You must not think it hard of me because I write to Sarah more than you. You know I look upon that good girl as my wife, though she is not, but I think she would be if I was only free. I think that you will have found it out before now that she is a good girl. Ah! She is too good for me...I will draw to a close, and hope we may all meet in heaven.

From yours, dear mother and sister, affectionately.

Miles Weatherill


Dear Friend,

I thought I would write a few lines to you as you have been so kind. I suppose you know I have been found guilty, and that I shall have to be hung. It is an awful and shameful death to die, but I have deserved it and there is no chance left. I was very sorry when I heard that Mr. Plow and the babe were dead. Oh! I hope there will be no more to die, it is so terrible to think of. I wish he had given me the privilege of keeping company with Sarah. I would not have cared for going into the house if he had only let her have her Sunday outs, but he would not, and oh, what has it come to. If he had given me the chance, what a different man I should have been. I should have been a teacher in the Sunday School, a communicant in the Church, and if I had once more taken of that Holy feast, it would have been a heavenly feast to my soul, for I would not have taken that Holy Communion in mockery as a cloak to make people think I was good. No, I should have taken an interest in doing what good I could for the school and church, and in the long run he would have found me a useful man. And what a comfort I should have been to my poor mother and sister and how happy my Sarah would have been. We did not want to get married just then, but I would have married her before she left Todmorden had she been willing. No, I wanted to get a better trade and make a little more money than I had. Then I would have married her and been happy with her, but when she left Todmorden, there was a turning point in me. Yes, I turned wild, I cared little what I did. I spent all my money, I saw nothing but poverty and despair and now I am condemned to die. Ah I was a changed man when she left, ah, I am sorry to say, changed for the worse.

I shall soon be parted from her for ever in this world but I will try to meet her in heaven, but there is only poor signs yet of me, for my heart is yet hardened, but I will try to die a true penitent. See you live for another and better world for Christ has died to save us all, and may we all meet in heaven.

From yours sincerely

Miles Weatherill

PS. You can do as you like with this letter, I will find no fault with you if you publish it. I am not ashamed.

So it seems that Miles admitted that he had turned a bit wild when Sarah left Todmorden. Maybe the balance of his mind was affected by this and the crime was indeed committed whilst he was in a state of insanity. Whatever the reason, the fact remained that he was to be hung on Saturday, April 4th. 1868 outside the New Bailey Prison.

The New Bailey Prison


As the day of the execution drew near, crowds started gathering, anxious to get good places from which to view the grisly scene. Shop keepers in New Bailey Street were letting out their windows for large sums of money and on the Friday afternoon, people from the country districts started to arrive. Many people from Todmorden had walked to Manchester overnight to see the hanging, one being Willie Crowther, the Church sexton.

The scaffold had been erected on the Thursday outside the New Bailey and all that was left was for it to be draped in black. Barriers were erected to stop the traffic and Stanley Street, where the entrance to the prison was situated, was closed by a 12 foot high barricade. A lot of people drifted off after 11 o'clock on Friday night, leaving a few groups of rough and ready scoundrels assembled near to the scaffold, about 200 in all, most of them straggling along the street and sleeping in the doorways.


One newspaper report paints a clear picture of the scene and gives an insight into the crowd at a public hanging:

"A good staff of police was in attendance, and the arrangements were such as to suppress any disturbance that might arise, but no interference was necessary. To have attempted to stop the ribald and disgusting behaviour, such as is customarily exhibited at public executions would have led to consequences of a by no means pleasant character, and the populace were allowed to indulge in the full flow of their spirits, coarse and vulgar as they were. Some of the popular songs of the day, mingled with jokes and attempted witticisms were the prevailing source of amusement"


Some enterprising folk were selling hot drinks from stalls, but the crowd became so dense that they had to leave for their own safety.


From midnight, 200 police were in attendance and by 7 o'clock in the morning the crowd had grown to 10,000. Between 7 and 8 o'clock this had increased to 20,000, filling everywhere as far as the eye could see and jamming into the shop windows, all jostling for a good view. Popular songs were still being sung to relieve the waiting, a scripture reader was lecturing near the railway bridge and in other parts people were shouting "Rule Britannia" It was a ribald crowd and the very lowest of society was there, their behaviour becoming more and more disgusting and the only saving grace was the general absence of women.


Miles, hearing all the commotion outside, couldn't sleep, but after about one in the morning, when it had abated somewhat, he managed an hour or so. He was awakened about 2, by the crowd, and slept no more. The prison chaplain, Rev. W. Caine and Mr. Thomas Wright were with him, and reported that Miles was in a better frame of mind than he had ever been, but it was deemed proper not to administer the Holy Sacrament. He expressed his sadness at the plight of the Plow family and was sorry for the ruin he had brought on them.


William Calcraft

He then spent the time in prayer and was praying when the executioner, William Calcraft, arrived to proceed with the operation of pinioning his arms. He won the admiration of the hangman with his attitude and dignity and Calcraft remarked that he had never met such nerve and resolution. Calcraft was the Chief Public Executioner, a post he had held for many years.

Miles kept up a conversation with the Rev. Caine and Mr. Wright during this process and seemed most cheerful. This was at a quarter to eight and at 8 o'clock precisely, when the prison bell tolled the hour, the procession came into view of the scaffold.

Timothy Faherty, a man who had murdered a Droylsden girl, was being executed along with Miles and he was the first to ascend the steps to the gallows, looking upwards all the time. He was wearing a cross on his breast and was attended by the Catholic Father Gadd.

Miles climbed the steps without the least hesitation, and seemed almost glad that the time had come. He prayed as he climbed, with a prayer book in his hand. He then had to wait until Calcraft, the hangman, had prepared Faherty for death by placing a white cap over his head and adjusting the noose around his neck. Miles seemed undaunted by this and watched intently as the hangman performed his awful task. He was heard to say, as one of the guards took him by the arm, "You need not hold me. I can stand by myself."

Calcraft then called Miles to the drop, an act which was the signal for an outburst of cries from the mob watching. He underwent the same preparations as Faherty, praying all the while. Calcraft shook hands with both men, then stepping from the platform, he withdrew the bolt. Miles died immediately but Faherty struggled slightly. Miles last words were "God have Mercy upon my soul."


The bodies were left to hang for an hour and then cut down and taken into the prison where they would be buried later that afternoon. This was the last public hanging in Manchester. The New Bailey Prison closed, Strangeways was opened, and executions took place behind closed doors.


Mrs. Plow didn't live long after the ordeal she had been through. She died at Wantage in Berkshire on the 19th March 1869, just 12 months and two days after seeing her husband and baby daughter buried.

Four sad deaths and a hanging, all victims of circumstance and fate. Miles' father no doubt contributed by passing on some of his wilder traits to his son, but only Miles would know why he had perpetrated such evil deeds on innocent people, and those he took to the grave.

Harriet Plow


Miles' mother would have had to endure the snide remarks, the sideways glances and the shame that always accompanies these tragic affairs. Her innocence would count for nothing once the town gossips got to work, and she was another innocent victim of the affair. His sister, Sarah Ann, would also suffer at the hands and tongues of the same gossips.

Sarah Ann was married in 1877 to William Beagle, a carpenter from Lincolnshire, and she, along with her mother, went to live in a small village called Whaplode Drove in Lincolnshire, in between Spalding and Wisbech, where William carried on the trade of carpenter and wheelwright. Alice returned to Todmorden sometime before June in 1881, which is when she passed away on the 18th. of that month at Baker Street, Harley Bank, aged 65. She lived long enough to see two grandsons born, Robert in 1879 and Wilford in 1880, which may have brought a little comfort to her.


Miles' grandparents had passed away before these events took place, which was a blessing, the shame would have been unbearable for two decent upright people who had tried in vain to keep Miles' father in check, but even his antics paled beside the enormity of what Miles had done and it would have broken their hearts.


There would be no "thrashing and upstairs with no supper" for Miles.


A post script to this story is a strange coincidence. A descendent of William Calcroft, the executioner, married a descendent of CANON EDWARD RUSSELL, who was vicar of Todmorden from 1883-1910.

At the time, it was normal to issue broadsheets commenting on current affairs and this is one that was being sold in the streets in 1868.



The Young Weaver

And his Sweetheart, Sarah Bell.

The prisoner, Weatherill, was executed at Manchester, on Saturday April 4th for the murder of Jane Smith, at Todmorden, a fellow servant of Sarah Bell.


Oh give attention, you pretty maidens,

A tale of love I will here unfold,

And you will say, when the same is mentioned,

'Tis as sad a story as ever yet was told:

Miles Weatherill was a brisk young weaver,

And at Todmorden did happy dwell,

He fell in love with a pretty maiden,

The parson's servant named Sarah Bell.


It was at Todmorden where these true lovers,

At the parson's house, tales of love did tell,

And none on earth could be more constant,

Than Miles the weaver and young Sarah Bell.


Deep in each heart was true love engrafted,

They had sworn for ever to happy be,

No power on earth could those lovers sever,

They met in joy and felicity;

But they parted, and broken hearted,

Separated was those true lovers far,

Those constant lovers adorned each other,

And love will penetrate through iron bars.


Miles Weatherill was but three and twenty,

His mind was noble, he good did mean,

And Sarah Bell was fair and virtuous,

Young blooming, aged seventeen;

They would have married, but tales were carried,

Which caused displeasure, as you shall hear,

Miles was refused to meet his lover,

And she left Todmorden, in Lancashire.


She left her true-love quite broken hearted,

And to her mother at York did go,

And when such a distance from each other parted,

Caused them sorrow, grief, pain, and woe;

In a fit of sadness, overcome with madness,

He made a deep and solemn vow,

If separated from his own tru lover,

He would be revenged on Parson Plow.


With loaded pistols, in a fit of frenzy,

Miles to the Vicarage did haste forethwith,

And with a weapon wounded the master,

And shot the maiden, named Jane Smith;

To the lady's bedchamber, in rage and anger,

Bent on destruction, with intent to kill,

He did ill treat her, with a poker and beat her,

And her crimson blood on the floor did spill.


Oh, God, in mercy guide evil passions,

Thou seest all things from heaven above,

Three innocent lives has been sacrificed,

And one serious injured all through true love,

If they'd not been parted, made broken hearted,

Those in the grave would be living now,

And Miles would not have died on the gallows,

For slaying the maiden and Parson Plow.


Young men and maidens, you constant lovers,

If true and honourable you make a vow,

Be just and upright, and oh, remember,

Todmorden Vicarage and Parson Plow;

And all good people, oh, pray consider,

Where true love is planted, there let it dwell,

And recollect the Todmorden murder,

Young Miles the weaver, and Sarah Bell.


Miles and the true love by death is parted,

In health and bloom, he the world did leave,

And his true love, quite broken hearted,

For Miles the weaver, in paid do grieve;

At the early age of three and twenty,

In the shades below, with the worms do dwell,

On the fatal drop, he cried, broken hearted,

May we meet in heaven, my sweet Sarah Bell.


(H. Disley, Printer, 57, High Street, St. Giles, London, W.C.)


We give our grateful thanks to the Todmorden Antiquarian Society for their help

and for the photographs of the main participants