Alice Barnes – The Victorian murder of a young girl

Maggie B Dickinson

 In 2009 I was in the Reference Library in Blackburn, Lancashire researching a branch of my family, along with a friend who was pursuing his.  I completed my task first, and to while away the time until he’d finished I randomly selected a book: any old book would do.  The binding was red, its spine blank, and inside was a series of press cuttings about the town’s murders – not a subject I would have chosen of my own accord.  Stranger still, it fell open at a page dedicated to the  murder of a child in the 19th century, the content of which instantly transported me back to around seven years of age.

Gill and Me on her first birthday.  Marie Podmore Studio Nelson. 1945
Maggie at the age of seven with her baby sister Gillian.  Photo by Marie Podmore, Nelson

Welcome to my strange world of ancestral mind games. 

My granny Louisa, who was born in 1878, and I are standing in the rear bedroom of 17 Lancaster Street, Witton, Blackburn where I am staying during a school holiday.  She is pointing to a small stone wall on a modest rise about 200 yards away.   It is the only remnant of Redlam Farm, where a little girl called Alice Barnes had lived.

On November 8th 1892, the body of Alice Barnes was found at the entry to Witton Park, Buncer Lane. From the position of her clothing it looked as if she had been sexually attacked, although at a later stage the police were uncertain whether any assault had taken place.  The cause of death was asphyxiation as a neckerchief had been stuffed into her throat – which may hint at her attacker’s sexual intention.

Despite the Factory Act of 1833, at nine years of age my grandmother attended school in the mornings and during the afternoons she worked in a weaving shed, where she’d  to stand on a stool to reach the looms.  Alice was only five years older than granny and on the day of the murder she had finished school at lunchtime and driven her father’s cows to Witton Park to graze.  In those days the park was privately owned, with a ruined mansion and land that was rented out for this purpose.

Unfortunately the lady who discovered the unconscious child didn’t think to remove the neckerchief.  Had she done so Alice would likely have survived.

The police had an immediate suspect in a local man named Cross Duckworth and he reinforced their suspicions by greeting them with the question ‘Have you come to see me about the murder?’ A search of his house uncovered a pair of muddy boots, the soil on which was supposed to match that found at the scene, and also a neckerchief similar to the one used to gag the victim. His alibi for the time of the murder was weak as he had been seen drinking heavily earlier, so he was charged.

Duckworth, aged 32, was convicted at Liverpool Assizes on 12th December, the jury taking less than an hour to find him guilty. He was hanged by James Billington in Liverpool less than a month later on the 3rd January 1893.

Although Cross Duckworth was a likely suspect, the evidence on which he was convicted seems painfully inadequate in the light of current forensic science.

Out of interest I researched details of the poor child’s family and also visited her grave at St Leonard’s church at the rural village of Balderstone.

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She was born in Blackburn, possibly at Redlam Farm, Witton on the 15th July 1883.  Her father was one of ten children and had lived at Higher Cottage, Balderstone where his father was a handloom cotton weaver.  Edward became a domestic gardener originally and then turned to farming.

After her death the family moved back to Balderstone where Alice’s grave, provided by public subscription, stands near the east window of the church, and oddly faces the small school.

Site of Redlam Farm where Alice Barnes lived
Site of Redlam Farm where Alice Barnes lived

 

 

 

10 Comments Add yours

  1. Brenda Wilson says:

    Hello Maggie

    I was reading the article about Alice Barnes and note that your Grannie lived at 17 Lancaster Street. I too as a girl lived in Lancaster Street in the 50’s to 60’s at number 19, next door to your Grannie. My Mother used to take care of your Grannie and made sure she was OK on a daily basis, taking her a meal for tea and making sure she was OK.
    When she died, your Mother and Aintie gave my Mother a lovely gold leaf Coffee Set made in Bavaria. This was passed on to myself of which to this day sits in my china cabinet here in New Zealand ( I emigrated to NZ in 1975).
    If you are interested I would be happy to photograh and e mail to you.
    Your Grannie (if the same lady) was known to me as Mrs Clarke.
    I hope me posting this is of any inconvenience, I was just struck by the address when reading your article.

    1. Hi Brenda,

      I am so thrilled and literally overwhelmed to hear from you. Your mother was May, who was the kindest lady. Mum and Auntie Margaret really appreciated her kindness to my Granny who I adored. Are you on Facebook? I’m Maggie B Dickinson so if you’re on perhaps you could send me a friend request and I’ll give you my email address. Fancy you being in New Zealand and having that gift. I’d love a photograph. Are you on What’s App? I can send you my mobile number too.

      All my love
      Margaret (Maggie)

      1. Brenda Wilson says:

        Hi Maggie, received your mail and have responded via Facebook, trust that you will receive OK.
        Thank you for your prompt response, that was a lovely surprise!

  2. Hi Brenda,

    I haven’t received a message from you on Facebook or a Friend Request. You could perhaps try my email address.

    Margaret x

  3. thathorrorscribe71 says:

    Hi Maggie, such a great article! I currently run a website looking into historical events and Im currently researching the Alice Barnes story. Can I ask, but the photograph of where Redlam Farm once was, is this by any chance on Pleasington Street? Would it be possible to email you directly? Kind regards, Chris.

    1. Of course you may. I am on maggiebeedickinson@gmail.com Thank you for your lovely comments. I also have further information and a strange tale that fits in with my theory of genetic or ancestral memory, or especially my ancestors playing mind games with me. The farm was on Pleasington Street at the end of West View.

    1. thathorrorscribe71 says:

      Thanks Maggie for the reply. I would love to hear what else you know of this case. I will of course credit you on my podcast when I start recording 🙂

      1. Hi there,
        Did you get my email address? If so you might like to let me have yours. Alternatively I don’t mind you telephoning me.

  4. dragoneggcirce39692 says:

    Hi Maggie, my email is admin@daysofhorror.com

    I sent an email to you yesterday after browsing your site. It may have gone into a spam box I’d you haven’t received it?

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