How the Victorian press covered the story


Trial at the Assizes - the prosecution case

4th May 1887

The Spring Assizes opened in Manchester on Tuesday 26th April 1887 with Mr. Justice Wills presiding. On the Thursday, the Grand Jury reduced the charge against William Garner to one of manslaughter and on the Friday it was reported that the hearing was arranged for the following Wednesday.

Manchester Assize court, 1886In the Crown Court at the Manchester Assizes on Wednesday, before Mr. Justice Wills, William Garner, farmer, 44 years of age, was indicted for feloniously slaying one, Mary Garner, his wife, at Lower Darwen, on the 5th of March last. There was, secondly, a charge of wilful murder coming from the Coroner's inquisition. Thirdly, at the judge's suggestion, there was a further indictment of common assault, to all of which the prisoner pleaded not guilty. Mr Blair appeared for the Crown; and the prisoner was defended by Mr J. Addison, Q.C., M.P., and Mr Shee .

On the following Saturday, 7 May 1887, the two local weekly newspapers reported the trial extensively:

"It is scarcely necessary to recapitulate the incidents of this painful case, they being so fresh in the minds of our readers. From the commencement, the trial has created the greatest local interest, and speculation has run high as to the result." The Darwen News

"The court was not crowded at any time during the day, but there was a fair muster of spectators, several from Blackburn and Darwen, who took the greatest interest in the case. The prisoner, who looked but little the worse for his confinement, except, as might be expected, a little dejected, was accommodated with a seat in the dock, and during the whole of the day he seldom raised his eyes above the level of the dock rail. He certainly seemed to feel the serious position in which he was placed and showed signs of emotion when his three children were put in the box by the prosecution as witnesses against him." The Darwen Post

The Prosecution Case

Mr Blair, in opening the case said the jury had to inquire into the death of Mary Garner, and the issue before them was whether the prisoner by his illegal violence, falling short of murder, caused or accelerated the death of his wife. He should have to call that day two classes of witnesses; first those who were impartial, neighbours who had known the prisoner for a considerable time. On the other hand he had to call a number of persons related to the prisoner and the deceased by the closest ties, three children, of whom he was now, he regretted to say the sole surviving parent; the wife of his brother, and his brother.

He went on to outline the evidence he would be calling before the court. In conclusion the learned counsel, without unduly pressing the matter, directed the attention of the jury to the evidence of the members of the family, which he suggested might be toned down to favour the prisoner's case.

Nancy Eccles was the first called to give evidence. She said she knew Earnsdale Farm, kept by the prisoner and the deceased, his wife. They had six children, and the child born on the 25th was the seventh. She had known the deceased for a long time before her confinement. She had not been well for some weeks, suffering from varicose veins in the legs. On the morning of the 25th of February the witness was called by Margaret Garner, the daughter, and she went to the farm. The girl fetched her at ten minutes past six, and the witness got there about half-past. The deceased was then sat on a chair in the kitchen, but the prisoner was not then present. At seven o'clock deceased was confined in the kitchen, and just at that time Margaret Garner, the sister-in-law, came in. Dr. Matheson came an hour afterwards, but in the interval they had got the deceased to bed.

There was nothing unusual about the confinement - simply an ordinary one. When she got the deceased to bed she noticed her right eye was black, but the left was all right. The witness said she remained there until a quarter to twelve, when she went, leaving the prisoner, his mother, and four younger children there. About two o'clock the witness was in the Dingle and met two of the children - Margaret and Mary. She returned with them to the farm, and then noticed that the deceased had a bruise under the left eye and a scratch on the nose. She described the visit of the sister-in-law and the fetching of the brother Thomas, and then stated that the prisoner returned home about half-past two the worse for liquor.

Continuing, Mrs Eccles said that the deceased went on favourably until the Saturday afternoon, when she noticed that she was very poorly. She complained of pain under the left breast, but was perfectly sane and rational and knew what she was doing. Dr. Ballantyne attended her on that day, and on the following Monday and Tuesday, but not on the Sunday. On the Wednesday, whilst the witness was with the deceased, the prisoner came into the room. His wife said, "He's coming; don't let him touch me. Cover me up." When he got into the room she said to him, "You've done it. I shall never get better." He replied, "You mustn't say so; we can't do without you.

At that time the deceased showed great signs of fear of her husband. The husband came into the room at half-past nine, and immediately afterwards she began to ramble, and continued to do so at intervals up to the time of her death. On Friday the witness was present when Dr. Ballantyne visited the deceased, and, on moving her, the witness saw a large mark at the bottom of her back. It was quite black and resembled a knock. Mary Garner died at half-past four on Saturday morning, the witness being present. She washed and laid out the body, and then noticed that the deceased had two black eyes, and that at the back of the neck there was a long, black mark.

The Judge asked, "Had she shown any tenderness about the neck whilst you attended her?

The witness agreed and said that one of the legs was very bad, there being bruises upon it similar to that on the back.

The Jury asked "Was the skin broken?"

"Yes; the skin of one leg broke whilst she was in bed."

Witness said that she drew the attention of the prisoner to the mark on the back and asked him if he could give an account of it. He replied that he could not except that she had fallen down three steps on the morning of her confinement.

A Juryman asked "Were all the marks on the back of the body with the exception of the eyes?"


"None on the front?"


"Did she ever tell you whether she had fallen downstairs?"


"Did she tell anybody else that you know of?"


Witness said that at the inquest Thomas asked her to be as lenient as she could with his brother. She replied "I shall tell the truth." He then said "You might as well take a rope and put it round his neck."

Cross-examined about this by Mr. Addison, she said "At the inquest the prisoner took no part in the conversation. He did not ask me to do anything."

The deceased had suffered from varicose veins in the leg on which the skin was broken. From the Wednesday until the Saturday she was delirious and sensible - one as much as the other. The left eye was all right when the deceased was confined.

A Juryman asked, "Did she walk upstairs without difficulty?"

"No, we helped her."

The cross examination continued: "When Garner came home on Saturday afternoon he had to be helped into the house, he was so drunk. At half-past six he was also drunk." The confinement was not unexpected for she was taken poorly the day before when the prisoner went and warned the witness of her illness. "From the Saturday to the day she was taken ill the prisoner was in great distress about his wife, and was much put about. She had all she required. The eldest daughter used to work in the mill, but I cannot say how long it is since she left to wait on her mother. A fire was put in the bedroom before we took her up."

Margaret Garner, wife of Isaac Garner, residing at Lynwood Avenue, was next examined by Mr Blair. On the morning of the 25th of February the prisoner went to their house about six o'clock, and in consequence of what he said she at once went to Earnsdale Farm, and she found the deceased leaning on the front of a chair in the kitchen. Nancy Eccles was there. The deceased was soon afterwards delivered of a child. When they got her upstairs Nancy Eccles said the deceased had got a black eye, Her (the witness's) eyesight was bad, and the room a rather dark one which might account for her not seeing the eye on the Friday. She remained at the farm until half-past ten when she left.

The witness then gave evidence of her second visit to the farm, on the afternoon of the same day. The deceased was then in bed, but seemed rather frightened. The prisoner was there at the time, but left to fetch draff. He was not then quite sober. The witness said that after staying at the farm about an hour, she went to Tockholes for Thomas and he returned with her. When she got back, Nancy Eccles and the children were in the house. She remained about the farm all night. When Garner returned he brought a bottle of whisky back, which she took from him and hid. She said she did not notice that the woman was tender in any part of the body during her illness. When washing the body she saw the mark in the neck. When cross-examined by Mr. Addison the witness said, "The deceased was in a very depressed condition about her confinement, and often said that she did not think she would get over it. At the confinement the floor was very cold, and when they took the deceased upstairs she was shivering. She believed that the fire was made after they got the deceased upstairs.

There was no doubt that on the day of the birth of the child the prisoner had taken too much drink. He laid down in one of the children's beds and went to sleep. The deceased told the witness she had been out of doors because she was frightened. The witness woke the defendant up to fetch draff, and he went. At Christmas, when the legs of the deceased were so bad, the prisoner took his daughter away from the mill and also got a washerwoman into the house. The prisoner was a good husband and father and a decent man in every way.

Mary Garner, a daughter of the prisoner, repeated the evidence she had given at the inquest and magisterial inquiry. His Lordship drew attention to discrepancies in the statements of this last witness, as compared with the evidence given by her at the inquest but Mr. Addison said if his Lordship was relying upon those depositions he should have something to say upon them. He hoped too much importance would not be attached to that as he was instructed that every question put to the child by the Deputy Coroner was a leading one, based largely on the gossip of the neighbourhood, and in a spirit hostile to the prisoner. Before the magistrates the Superintendent of Police examined the witnesses with the utmost fairness and regularity. His Lordship said he would put them on one side.

In cross-examination the child said that while she was skipping in the garden she saw her mother come out of the house. Her father was then in the shop. Her mother was dressed and went towards the stile. The prisoner went after her and she then said she wanted to go to Nancy's. He asked her to go indoors, but she said she would not, and he then got hold of her. He had to "pull hard" to get her back. The prisoner had always been kind to the children and her mother. The children attended the Independent School at Hollins Grove.

John Fleming, farm manager for Mr Horrocks, of Prospect House, said that on the 25th of February he was working in a field about 200 yards from the prisoner's farm. About a quarter to twelve, he heard some children scream, and saw them run from the house door across the yard to the stile facing the Dingle. They stood there for a few minutes and he saw nothing more.

Questioned by the Judge he said, "I saw three children running. The distance from the door to the stile would be about 20 yards. Hearing the children scream led me to think that something was going on that should not be, but I took no steps to ascertain if such were the case. I did not take any further steps because had it been serious there would have been something stirring in the yard, and there was not.

Questioned by Mr Addison: "I would not swear as to the names of the children, but they were the younger ones. I had not noticed them playing and skipping before I heard them scream. I have often seen them playing in the yard."

Isaac Garner, a son of the prisoner said that when he came back from delivering the milk on the Friday he saw his mother in the yard, and his father trying to get her indoors. She had a shawl over her head.

Questioned by Mr. Addison: "My father was always kind to us, and we lived a happy and peaceful life at home. When I first saw them they were nearer the stile than the house. She seemed determined to go to Nancy Eccles's. He was trying to get her back indoors. He was using her gently."

The Judge: "Was your father sober?"

"He had had a drop of drink."

"Is he in the habit of taking drink?"


Margaret Garner, the eldest daughter, corroborated the evidence of her brother as to seeing her mother in the yard and her father trying to get her back into the house. When questioned by Mr. Addison the witness said, "Up to Christmas I was a half-timer, but when my mother was taken ill I was taken away to help her. My father was a good father, and kind, and we have been religiously brought up. He was much put about by my mother being ill."

Thomas Garner, a brother of the prisoner, was called by Mr. Blair, but not examined. Mr. Addison asked him "Do you remember some conversation which took place between you and Nancy Eccles at the inquest - something about "speaking the truth" and "putting a rope round your brother's neck. Did you ask her to be lenient?"

"What I said to her was that if he is to be convicted by the tales that are going about you might as well put a rope round his neck. I have been a farmer at Tockholes three years. My brother has always lived with his family on the best of terms."

Robert Ainsworth, examined by Mr. Blair, said he was working on some land from which he could see into the yard of the prisoner's farm. He would be about 200 yards away. James Dickinson was working with him. About half-past two his attention was called towards Earnsdale Farm by some children screaming. He looked and saw three children coming out of the house. He also saw the prisoner and a woman coming from the stile. Prisoner put his hand up three times and brought it down as if striking the woman and the blows fell upon the shoulder or neck. He could not say whether the woman was going willingly or not. The prisoner had hold of her, and she was going with him. When they saw what was taking place Dickinson put his fingers to his mouth and whistled. He did not know the woman. The prisoner went away soon afterwards in a shandry.

Questioned by Mr. Addison, he said, "The prisoner had hold of the woman by the left shoulder with his hand. There was no appearance of any struggle. He seemed to strike her three times, but I am positive as to twice. On the Tuesday night after the opening of the inquest, Mr. Noblett came to my house, and I told him what I know."

Several photographs of the farm were here put in, examined by the Judge, and explained by counsel and witness Ainsworth said it was a bright February day and he could see clearly into the yard from the position in which he was stood.

The Judge asked, "Have you known Garner long and were you on friendly terms?"

"Oh, Yes; I have known him eleven or twelve years."

James Dickinson, examined by Mr. Hamilton:

"I am a farmer at Darwen. On the 25th February I was working on my farm with Ainsworth. I could see right through the two buildings into the yard. My attention was drawn to the yard by some children screaming, there would be two or three. They were running down the yard. I did not notice how the woman was dressed. I saw the prisoner's right hand go up and down two or three times in the yard. I thought it fell on the woman. His left hand had hold of the woman by the shoulder. They went into the house, and she appeared to go willingly. I put my fingers in my mouth and whistled. The prisoner took no notice of the whistling."

Cross-examined by Mr. Addison, he answered "I could see straight into the yard. The prisoner had his back to me. He was between me and the deceased. Mr. Noblett was the first man I told this story to. He came to my house about a week after the first inquest. He asked me what I had seen and I told him."

Mr. Addison: "Was it with the open hand or the clenched fist that he appeared to strike her?"

The Judge: "The witness' evidence is that it was the hand."

Doctor Mathieson gave evidence: "On the 25th February I was called to attend Mrs. Garner by the prisoner. I got to Earnsdale Farm a little before eight o'clock in the morning. Mrs. Gamer was then in bed. The woman was doing very well indeed. To all appearance her confinement appeared to have been a perfectly natural one."

Dr. Ballantyne said that on the 26th of February he saw the deceased in the forenoon. Her pulse was normal, and the same could be said of her condition generally. He visited her on the Monday following and she was then progressing favourably. On the Saturday he had noticed she had two black eyes. When he saw her on the Tuesday she was slightly feverish - flushed in the face, the skin being too warm but not at all light-headed. Her condition did not imply any danger.

On Wednesday the feverish condition of the deceased was somewhat intensified, which showed itself by an increased pulse and complaint of thirst. There was nothing about her mental condition - she answered all questions perfectly rationally. He continued the same treatment, and again saw her on the Thursday. She was then much worse, jerky in her manner and the way in which she answered questions; the fear had increased with a bounding pulse; and the lungs were also shallow. She was then in danger. Although in an excited state, she could answer questions rationally.

He became alarmed at her condition, and being unable to account for it, he made enquiries. His attention was drawn to the state of the deceased's legs. He examined them and found that from the knee to the ankle joint one of them was much inflamed and swollen, whilst on the outer aspect of the same leg there were three bruises varying in size from an inch and a half to three inches in diameter. On the ankle bone and on the back of the foot there were similar bruises. He should say those bruises had been inflicted five or six days before.

Mr. Blair asked, "What kind of blows would, in your opinion, inflict such bruises?"

"Coming in violent contact with some hard substance would cause such bruises."

"Such as the violence of a kick?"

"Yes I should say so."

"There was nothing in the size of the bruise inconsistent of them being caused by an ordinary boot?"


Continuing, the witness described how he found the bruise in the lower part of the back, and also the condition of the deceased physically on the Friday when he was afraid she was going to die. He heard of her death on the Saturday when the prisoner went for the certificate. He said to the prisoner "I have heard some ugly rumours respecting the treatment of your wife and I cannot until we have that cleared up give you a certificate, because I am not satisfied as to the cause of death." He said it had been reported that he had turned his wife out of doors a few hours after she had been confined, and he replied that it was not true. He advised him to go to the registrar and inform him that he had refused a certificate By order of the police he made a post mortem examination on the Monday, and described, at length, the result.

He attributed Mary Garner's death to congestion of the lungs, together with the shock caused by exposure - having been outside on a cold morning and her peculiar condition at the time, she having been recently delivered.

The Judge asked the witness: "Assuming that the mischief on the leg was caused by kicks or blows, or from anything of that kind, you mean to say that shocks from such application would naturally assist death?"

"I do."

The Judge: "What it was that caused the shocks to the woman, assuming that it was done after confinement, that you believe would accelerate death?"


Witness, continuing, said that a movement of the body, going out of doors, and the temperature of the time of the year would have much to do with death.

The Judge: "To what do you attribute the congestion of the lung?"

"I attribute it to the condition of the heart on the Thursday. Her heart began to fail, so to speak, to get weak and thus failed to force the blood from the lungs."

When cross-examined by Mr. Addison the witness said, "The prisoner told me that his wife had been out of doors and he went to fetch her back. If a woman soon after her confinement exposed herself to the cold and walked about, it would account for the congestion, and it might be some days in the state of a weakly woman, before it declared itself. The bruises were on the left leg entirely. I have detailed the results of the post mortem and the symptoms to Dr. Buckley, and he has gone through them as carefully as he possibly could."

Asked again by his Lordship he answered, "The bruises taken by themselves would be serious in the condition the woman then was, and might have produced death."

Cross-examined by Mr. Addison: "There was no specific evidence of shock to the system. That passed off before I saw her."

Questioned by the Jury: "The removal of the deceased, just after her confinement, from a room in which there was a large fire into one in which there was no fire at all might possibly accelerate congestion of the lungs, but when Mrs. Garner went upstairs the confinement was not completed."

Dr. Buckley, surgeon at the Manchester Clinical Hospital for the Diseases of Women and Children, said he had heard the evidence given by Dr Ballantyne and had had a statement made to him of the facts and occurrences connected with the case. Exposure and movement after confinement would account for such symptoms as had been described by the last witness. In the possibility of such symptoms being due to other causes, the exposure and movement would aggravate the symptoms and accelerate death.

The witness was cross-examined at considerable length as to the mental condition of some woman who had previously been in a depressed state, immediately after confinement. He said he thought the woman died from puerperal peritonitis and puerperal blood-poisoning. The symptoms presented were consistent with an attack of puerperal mania. Supposing the mania was there, the exposure described would be likely to accelerate death.

Inspector Noblett repeated his evidence given at the inquest. The prisoner told him that his wife had run out, but she was out of her mind, and he went after and brought her back.

This closed the evidence for the prosecution, and Mr. Blair summed up his case. He laid great stress on the testimony of Ainsworth and Dickinson, and suggested that a man who could be violent under such circumstances to his wife was likely to have been guilty of previous violence. There was one pointed fact, viz. that the injuries on the body which the woman had undoubtedly received, had not yet been accounted for on any other theory than that advanced by the prosecution. As to the exposure which developed the peritonitis, if the exposure was consequent on the blows, then it must be concluded that the prisoner had, by his violence, caused the woman's death.