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.
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.
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.