CLARA LAW (1866 to 1891)

a love story that ended in murder and suicide



Clara's house in Dale Street

Mary and Clara Law were sisters, close enough in age to be best friends, especially as they had no other siblings. They were born on Dale Street in the centre of Todmorden, Mary in 1864 and Clara two years later. They were luckier than many other children of the times as their father, William, was an industrious man determined to make his own living doing what he knew best - engineering.

His own father, Elijah Law, had been a shoe maker on Back Brook Street in the town, but both William and his only brother, Jeremiah, decided on engineering for a profession. William did a full apprenticeship to become a Master machine maker, and by 1881 he was employing 5 men and 3 boys in his own firm, making machinery for the cotton industry. He earned enough money to provide for his small family, and ensured that his two girls were kept out of the mills.

Rear of the house where William's engineering works were


The sisters, like all Victorian girls in their teens, were on the lookout for husbands. Mary found the man of her dreams one day when she met Tom Marshall. He was a clerk for a solicitor, destined to do well in life. Meanwhile, 17-year old Clara took up company with a young man from Victoria Terrace, Eastwood, which is a couple of miles from Todmorden in the direction of Hebden Bridge. He was John William Halstead, a well-educated young man who was training to be a butcher. John William's father, John Halstead, was a stone merchant and his two brothers, Frank and Edmund, also worked in the stone trade.


Rear of Victoria Terrace

Victoria Terrace comprises a row of what were known as "back to earth" houses. From the front, they appear to be normal two-storey houses, but as the ground slopes downwards away from the houses at the back, the rear aspect has three storeys, with the bottom rooms built into the earth.
At the time the Halsteads lived there, the bottom floor would have housed one family, whlist the upper floors would have housed another family. This photo shows the front and side of the terrace.

The blue painted house is where Mary lived

Mary Law married her man about 1885. Together they set up home at 42, Garden Street in Todmorden, and before long, their daughter Hilda Mary Marshall was born. Mary's happiness was complete. Her sister Clara became engaged to be married to John William. They continued with their courtship for a total of five years, but by 1888 the relationship didn't seem to be progressing and the couple broke off the engagement.
The following year, Clara obtained a position working as the Manageress of the confectionery department in the Todmorden Co-operative store on Dale Street, very close to her home. This was a prestigious position, and her family was very proud of her.

The butchers department in 1896

By coincidence, John William also obtained a position at the Co-op., as Assistant Manager in the butchers department. The butchers department happened to be next door to the confectioners, and the two kept up an acquaintance, although the official courtship was over.

John William had another lady-friend by this time, Mary Hodson. They were engaged to be married, but this didn't stop John William from continuing to enjoy the company of his first love. Clara never transferred her affections to another man, still holding a torch for John William. She and John William met at work, and also kept company outside the work place when circumstances allowed. Clara's mother knew about this, and it seems the assignations, at least in the work place, were observed by others.


Clara's assistant in the confectioners, Emily Helliwell, and butchers assistant, Sam Midgley, knew the pair were "very friendly", as they were seen together often in the kitchen that was positioned between their two departments at the back. There was a boiler in this kitchen that must have been a comfort on cold winter days. One particular day, Emily and Sam saw the couple in the kitchen, talking about something. They decided not to disturb them, but as a joke, kept peeping in and teasing the couple. It was evident to Emily that John William was upset at the intrusion and he asked her if she had seen anything, then curbed his anger by saying that it didn't matter if she had. Emily carried on with the teasing after John William left, and accused Clara of kissing him. She admitted she had.


One evening, in April 1891, Clara returned to her home on Dale Street in tears. Her concerned mother listened to her story and was shocked to discover that Clara was pregnant by John William. This was a disaster for any girl in those times, and more so in Clara's case because John William was reluctant to marry her and was continuing to keep company with Mary Hodson. Clara continued to meet John William, who tried to convince her that an abortion would be the best way out. He obtained certain preparations that would cause such an abortion and gave them to Clara. She was distraught and showed them to her mother. This happened on two occasions. The first time, her mother confiscated and destroyed them and on the second occasion Clara returned the preparations to John William.


By July 1891, Clara's mother was becoming anxious for her daughter, whose pregnancy would soon be noticed. It would be necessary for her to tell her employers as soon as possible, and that would mean losing her job. Something had to be sorted before it became too late. It appears that Thursday 6th August was the day she would be required to hand in her notice.


Clara and John William agreed to meet at Sandholme on the evening of Saturday, 1st August 1891, to discuss the predicament. Clara told her mother she was going to ask him if he intended to marry her. When she returned home, she was crying and told her mother that John William had been very nice to her and had promised to sort something out before the following Thursday. John William had further told her to see a doctor and that he would pay the expenses, that he would pay for the costs of the birth providing she went away, and that if it came to it, he would marry her.


On Monday, 3rd August 1891, both Clara and John William went to work at the Co-op. That morning, John William appeared in the kitchen and was joined by Clara. The meeting didn't last very long, and no one overheard the conversation.

Living round the corner from the Law family, at 9 Water Street, were the Bowdens. Anthony Bowden and his wife, Hannah Sutcliffe, were typical of the Victorian middle-class society in Todmorden. They had seven children, although their fifth child, Samuel, died at the age of 8. They lived in the house shown in the middle of the photograph.

Anthony Bowden

Anthony, born in 1831, had his own business as a house painter and decorator. He was also an amateur artist and photographer, and the family members were keen musicians. The girls - four of them, Alice, Mary, Grace and Hannah, were brought up to be genteel young ladies and in 1891 the eldest three were earning a living as milliners and dress makers, in keeping with their status in life.

The 8th August 1891 was Grace Bowden's 21st birthday, which was to be celebrated in the café above the confectionery department at the Co-op on Monday evening, 3rd August 1891. All the family was invited - the parents, sisters, and brothers, Robert and Anthony John. Robert was the only sibling to be married at this time, and his wife Harriet would also no doubt be invited, along with many friends, including Sam Greenwood, the sweetheart of Grace's oldest sister, Alice. Sam was a train driver on the Sowerby Bridge to Manchester route. There would be music and dancing, and party food, probably prepared in the confectionery department below by Clara and Emily. This may explain why Clara remained behind at work later than was normal for a Monday night.


When Clara failed to arrive home at her accustomed time, her parents began to worry that something had happened to her. Elizabeth Ann and William Law contacted her sister Mary and other family and friends, but no one had seen her. William strolled the streets without luck. As midnight approached, he and Elizabeth Ann were frantic with worry. William ran to the Co-op and woke the caretaker. By this time, Grace's birthday party was over, and all the guests had gone, leaving the building dark and empty. The two men entered the confectionery shop and were horrified to find Clara lying on the floor, quite dead. There were three knife wounds in her throat. Her arms were by her side, and her clothes were saturated with blood. A couple of feet from her body was a large carving knife, normally used by Clara and Emily for cutting sandwiches. The blade had been wiped clean and there was one bloodstain on the handle.


The police and Dr. Holden were called to the scene at once. Sometime later, Clara's lifeless body was carried back to her home on Dale Street. Grace Bowden would have been sound asleep, dreaming of her elegant party, and quite unaware of the tragedy that occurred in the room below. Her sister Alice would also be fast asleep, dreaming perhaps of her own sweetheart, Sam Greenwood. Mary Hodson knew nothing of the events of the evening, and only John William Halstead knew where he had been all evening.


The following morning, John William turned up for work as normal. On being told of the gruesome discovery he seemed quite affected and was observed to be very quiet about his work. The police arrived to question him about his movements the previous evening, and whatever he said, the police accepted for the time being. However, gossip and tittle-tattle abounded, and the Co-op Manager found it necessary to suspend John William from his duties pending the outcome of the Inquest. He returned to his home in Eastwood.


On Tuesday night, Sergeant Watkins of the West Riding Constabulary interviewed John William and took a statement from him. He told the Sergeant that he saw Clara at about 5pm the previous day when she went in to the butchers shop to order an ox tail and a kidney. He said that no conversation took place between them. He next saw her at about 8-15pm passing from the kitchen and past the back door to the passage, and did not see her again. He stated he left the premises shortly after this. He denied all knowledge of her pregnancy, said he had never promised to marry her and that he had not been out with her during the past five years, and definitely not the preceding Saturday evening. John William remained calm, cool and collected throughout the interview apart from one brief moment when he snapped at the Sergeant, saying: "Why do you bother me about her? There's many more that have had as much to do with her as I have."


John William stayed home that night and talked to his brother, Frank. Frank asked him if he knew anything at all about the matter, to which John William replied: "No, I am innocent." Frank then asked him if he had spoken to Clara recently, to which the reply was: "Yes, but only when she came into the shop to give orders. People look to be against me."


John William woke on Wednesday morning, 5th August, apparently in his usual health and spirits. He left the house on Victoria Terrace at ten minutes to eight, and shortly afterwards bumped in to his brother, Edward, who enquired as to where he was going. He said he was going for a walk and set off in the direction of Todmorden.  Before long, John William left the road and continued his walk along the railway line towards the tunnel at Horsfall.


Horsfall Tunnel

At that moment, a pilot engine was emerging from the tunnel in the direction of Eastwood, heading towards the walking John William, who was on the opposite track. When the engine arrived just a few yards away from him, John William deliberately crossed to the other side of the line and threw himself in front of the engine, at the same time holding up both hands.

There was nothing the driver could do to avoid him. The wheels of the locomotive passed over the man and severed his body. As soon as it was possible to do so, the engine was brought to a standstill. The driver? . Sam Greenwood, future husband of Alice Bowden, sister of the party girl. The mangled body was picked up and conveyed to the Halstead home at Eastwood. In one of John William's pockets, there was a letter addressed to his brothers and sister. The letter, written by John William, expressed his intention of committing suicide and left directions as to some of his belongings. There was no reference in the letter to the death of Clara Law. 

The following day, the Inquest opened on the bodies of Clara Law and John William Halstead at the York Hotel, Todmorden. The Coroner was Mr. Bairstow. The verdict on John William was that he committed suicide by throwing himself under the wheels of a railway engine. The Inquest on Clara was adjourned. She was buried the following afternoon at St. Paul's Church, Cross Stone. She was 25 years old.

York Hotel as it was at the time of the Inquest


On Tuesday 11th August, the Inquest resumed at the York Hotel. After hearing evidence from many witnesses, including Clara's mother, Elizabeth Ann, who was obliged to tell the court and the general public about her daughter's affair with John William in full knowledge he was engaged to another, and worse than that, she had to admit to her daughter's pregnancy and the abortion preparations. William Law had to give details of how he found his daughter's blood covered body. Frank Halstead was called to give his evidence, and likewise Emily Helliwell gave hers. There were statements about bloodstains on the confectionery shop door and also on the key to the door, of cups being left on the table in the kitchen, about the three knives regularly used in the shop, and John William's own statements were read. Mr. Bairstow summed up at considerable length before the jury retired. It took them just half an hour to reach a verdict -


"We are of the opinion that the deceased, Clara Law, was murdered, but that there is not sufficient evidence to show by whom the wound in the throat which caused her death was inflicted."


Local papers had a field day with headlines such as "Terrible Tragedies - Tragic Love Affair at Todmorden" and "The Love Tragedy at Todmorden". I don't think there was any doubt in the minds of the people of the town as to who murdered Clara.