Death of a Farmer's Wife


Most of the story below is taken from five newspapers of the time, The Darwen News, the Darwen Post, the Northern Daily Telegraph, the Manchester Evening News and the Manchester Guardian. If you would like more details in the wording of the time, you can read a much fuller account on the newspaper extract webpages, linked in the sidebar.

Earnsdale Farm and yard, 2007

Mary Garner was Eileen's great-grandmother. As part of our research, we sent for her death certificate and it duly arrived within a few days. We opened the envelope and took out the usual photocopy. Her death was dated Saturday, 5 March 1887. Cause of death - 'Congestion of the Lungs and Shock to the system. Wilful Murder against William Garner'. She had been killed by her husband!

William, aged 44 in 1887, and Mary Garner lived at Earnsdale Farm, Darwen and had 6 children in their 14 year marriage. Until the coming of the seventh, Esther, they seem to have been a normal farming family; the farm was described in The Darwen News as 'one of the best in the district.' Their children attended the local school and Sunday School, as was common in those days among respectable folk. Yet, a few hours after the birth of her baby, Mary ran into the farmyard, half-dressed in red petticoat, shawl and elastic-sided boots intending to take refuge at the house of a friend, but caught a chill which within days proved fatal. Why did she have 2 black eyes and bruises on her back and other parts of her body?


Speculation in the neighbourhood was rife. The local newspapers reported gossip about the behaviour and character of William Garner such as, 'he has indulged in occasional drinking bouts, and it is rumoured that he has ill-treated his wife for a great many years.' This speculation added to the feverish atmosphere at the Inquest, held at a nearby pub before a jury of local people. No wonder they came to the 'Wilful Murder' verdict!


Strangeways GaolThe magistrates decided there was a case to answer and that Garner should be sent to the next Assize Court, remanding him to the care of Darwen police until he could be transported to gaol. Early the following morning, before the crowds could gather once again, he was led on foot through the silent streets to a quiet, outlying railway station. Here, he was given breakfast at the house of one of the constables before catching the 6.56 train to Strangeways Gaol, Manchester to await trial.

Manchester Assizes

Manchester Assize Court in 1887He was to lie in his cell for six weeks before standing trial in front of Judge Wills on the reduced charge of manslaughter. If he was found to have forced Mary out into the cold or frightened her so that she ran out in fear of him, he would be found guilty. The case dragged on for 10 hours with evidence from local doctors and an eminent Manchester surgeon, William's relatives and his older children, (then aged between 10 and 12), as well as the neighbour who had assisted at the birth and farmworkers who had been in fields some distance across the valley.

We can imagine William's acute tension while the jury was out. However, the verdict went his way - not guilty on all charges, murder, manslaughter and assault. Judge Wills obviously thought William's behaviour had contributed to this affair and he said he 'would ask the prisoner for God's sake to reform and give up drink,' to which the prisoner replied 'I will, my Lord!'


We can only speculate whether this brought about William's reform. We know from the census that he returned to the farm and his seven children for a few years but we can imagine that his relationship with certain of the neighbours must have been strained. What we know for sure is that the case was never mentioned within the family, except possibly whispered in dark corners by the older generation! Not one of the relatives we have since spoken to was aware that 'murder' had come to the family 120 years ago nor that Eileen's grandmother had been forced to give evidence against her father.

Esther aged 20, 1907The baby? We don't know who cared for her during this difficult time but Esther lived until 1957. This picture shows her at the age of 20.

For a much more detailed description, Eileen has edited the reports of all five newspapers which you can access from the sidebar. Clicking on the appropriate link will return you to this page.