Fred Fielding was born in 1903, and lived on Melbourne Street, Clayton Le Moors during the 1920's. He was a tall slim fellow standing over 6 feet tall. He had started his working life as an apprentice moulder at the Atlas Works of Messrs Taylor and Wilson wringing-machine makers. In the summer of 1927 he gave up his apprenticeship and went to London to join the Metropolitan police. He succeeded with his exams and entered upon a course of training at the police school. Having completed this, Fielding inexplicably left the force and was back and out of work in East Lancashire by mid-October.
During this time he had been dating a young lady by the name of Eleanor Pilkington, and had done so for four years previously, they had even holidayed together during his brief time in London.
At the age of 24, on bonfire night, Saturday the 5th November 1927, Fred was charged with the murder of Miss Eleanor Pilkington who was aged 23, and lived on Spring Street in Rishton.
I am told that the story goes something like this.
Shortly after tea, around ten minutes past seven, she left her home in Spring Street, Rishton, accompanied by two friends, Doris and Evelyn Walker, to attend a dance at the Mercer Hall, Great Harwood. The two sisters lived nearby in Spring Street and the trio spent the evening at the dance before catching a bus home. They got off the bus outside of Harwood Road school, near to the junction, and turned to walk down High Street. By now it was nearing midnight, and when the girls approached the junction to Spring Street, Fred was waiting there to meet them.
A few days prior, Fred and Eleanor and quarrelled and Eleanor had broken the relationship off. Fred had hit the bottle heartbroken, and not knowing what future he now had.
Frederick Sutton, a weaver, said he had walked down High Street at about 11. 15pm on the night of the murder, when he saw Fielding standing in a shop doorway. Sutton had also been to the dance at the Mercer Hall and, as he passed by, Fielding asked him if he had seen anyone dancing with Eleanor. Sutton had seen her take the floor with one of the Walker sisters and when he told Fielding so the big fellow walked off in the direction of Harwood Road - relieved, no doubt, to hear Eleanor had been dancing with another girl and not a man.
He had chatted with Eleanor in a dimly lit shop front doorway, and had offered to walk her the rest of the way home, but Eleanor insisted that she was walking home with her friends, and so Fred simply followed.
Upon reaching the junction with Clifton Street, Fred pulled out a knife and proceeded to stab Eleanor several times in the neck. Doris and Evelyn ran to their home just 30 yards away to get help, but whilst doing this Eleanor staggered into the back room. Here she collapsed into the chair, and when their mother entered the room to help, she collapsed onto the floor, her last words were "he stabbed me".
Mr Walker fetched P. C. Stimson, who was on duty in High Street. They returned to the house to find Eleanor dead, lying in a pool of blood. Before long, other senior officers arrived together with Dr Cumming the police surgeon who examined the dead girl.
By a quarter past midnight Fred Fielding had reached Furthergate, Blackburn, where he walked up to a startled P. C. Greatrix and asked the whereabouts of the nearest police station. He told the bobby he had stabbed a girl in Rishton and produced a bloodstained knife from his jacket pocket. Handing it, still open, to the constable, he was marched off to Copy Nook police station where he was searched and a bloodied handkerchief found upon him.
At 3.15 pm Sgt Foulkes arrived and escorted Fielding to Church police station where he was charged with murder. On the way, Fielding enquired as to the time Eleanor had died and whether his parents had been informed. He also commented, prophetically, that there would be a sensation in Rishton when the events of the previous evening became known.
It is said that the knife with which he stabbed Eleanor with was bought from Gibson's Hardware shop which used to be on the High Street1. One of the witnesses at his court trail, Raymond Burton, a painter, said he went into an ironmonger's shop at 130, High Street, Rishton, about 7. 30pm on Friday, October 28th. He heard Fielding, who was waiting to be served, say he was drunk, had a murder to do and had come to buy a knife. He watched the tall young man purchase a single-bladed instrument with a black haft. Though the worse for drink, Fielding appeared to know what he was saying and seemed quite natural. Cross-examined by Mr Tempest Slinger for the defence, Burton agreed that the words had been spoken in a light-hearted jocular fashion and that Fielding might have meant he was going to murder a fowl for all he knew.
Next morning, after the Armistice Service which he conducted at Clayton Le Moors, the Reverend W. Ira Brown was informed of the murder. He attended the Pilkingtons, but there is little to be done at times like that.
Thursday, November 10th saw the funeral of Eleanor Pilkington take place. Huge crowds gathered long before the cortege left from the Pilkingtons' home in Spring Street. Hundreds of people had gathered in bitterly cold weather along the route to Clayton-le-Moors and Altham.
At Altham, the churchyard was crowded and the church itself packed to capacity. Over two thousand people gathered in and around the ancient building. Dinner hour at the Unity Mill where Eleanor had worked was extended till 2pm enabling the workers to attend the ceremony. Fred Fielding's parents, sister and brother, were among the mourners. The Reverend Brown officiated and floral tributes abounded. There was a marble vase decorated with red roses on a pedestal from the employees of the Britannia Mill where Eleanor had previously worked. A card accompanying the vase, which was placed on the grave, bore the words, 'We Shall Think Of Her In Silence, We Shall Oft' Repeat Her Name: What Would We Give To Clasp Her Hand, And See Her Smile Again!' There was also a marble scroll sent by members of the Parish Church Sunday School.
The next day Fred appeared at the County Police Court in Blackburn. The hearing had been brought forward, and few knew of the hearing, the courts being empty. The hearing took just four hours.
On the advice of his solicitor, Fielding made no statement when the charge was read out to him leaving Mr Slinger to address the court on his behalf. The evidence seemed to show clearly that the crime had been premeditated but this was strongly disputed by the defence. They maintained that Fielding's remarks - overheard by Burton in the ironmonger's shop, were made whilst he was very much the worse for drink and could not be regarded as conclusive evidence of premeditation.
The medical evidence at the trail was supplied by Dr Cumming the assistant police surgeon at Great Harwood. He had examined Eleanor's body on the night of the murder and performed the post-mortem examination at the mortuary less than forty-eight hours later. He found two communicating incised wounds in the front of the neck. The larger wound, some 2" long, was directed into the neck muscles whilst the smaller wound was over the thyroid cartilage and largely superficial. There was another deep stab wound on the back of the neck adjacent to the left shoulder. The carotid artery and the internal jugular vein had been severed together with some small arteries and veins at the back of the neck. Not surprisingly, death was due to haemorrhage and the doctor confirmed that Fred Fielding's knife was capable of producing such injuries as he described.
John Pilkington, Eleanor's father, said he had been disturbed by the sound of breaking glass at 11.20 pm on Saturday, October 29th. Upstairs, he found the window of Eleanor's bedroom, where she was sleeping at the time, shattered by a stone. He spoke to Fielding who had been responsible for the damage and told him the police would be called if he didn't leave. In reply, Fielding threatened that, if he got hold of Eleanor, John Pilkington would be without a daughter in less than a week. Fielding had clearly been drinking but seemed otherwise normal and he left without further incident. Later that night Fielding spoke to P. C. Stimson concerning the matter of the broken window before finding a shop doorway and falling asleep there. John Pilkington said he had looked upon Fielding as a future son-in-law and, though he didn't know why his daughter and Fielding quarrelled, he thought Fielding seemed altered in character on his return from London.
On Tuesday the 22nd November at 2-30 pm in the same year, Fred was tried at the assizes court in Manchester. This time the court was crowded, Freds brothers and parents attending.
The prosecution presented their side as sexual jealously, with witnesses to prove it was premeditated, the defence maintaining that he had been under the influence when both witnesses had heard his threats.
The defence bravely attempted to dismantle the wall of evidence built to establish premeditation. Fielding's remarks when purchasing the knife were stated to be simply a joke and those made to Eleanor's father just drunken mutterings. Fielding had broken the window purely with the intention of getting himself locked-up as he was drunk and had nowhere to spend the night. As regards motive for the crime, Fielding had no reason to be jealous as Eleanor had not taken up with another man after they had stopped seeing each other. It was put to the jury that he could have killed Eleanor in the shop doorway that night if he had met her with only murder on his mind. Fielding had sought Eleanor out in order to try and repair their relationship though he was in such a condition due to drink that he hadn't known what he was doing at the time he attacked her. He could therefore only be guilty of the lesser crime of manslaughter.
Fielding gave evidence himself and stated that he had been drinking heavily since quarrelling with Eleanor. He could not recollect what he had said in the ironmonger's shop and when asked why he had purchased the knife he said it was for general usage and handy in his trade as a moulder. (He was, however, unemployed at the time of the murder). Asserting that he had broken the window on October 29th simply to gain accommodation for the night with the local constabulary, the judge inquired why he had chosen Eleanor's window in particular. Unconvincingly, Fielding replied that it was the first one he came upon when he walked down the back. He said he had no recollection of making threatening remarks to John Pilkington and had never intended to harm Eleanor.
Regarding the night of the murder, Fielding said he spent the evening drinking in the Petre Arms. He recalled meeting the three girls and accompanying them down Spring Street but couldn't remember anything further until discovering his hand was bloodied and the knife clasped tightly in it.
It was put to Fielding that on three vital occasions - the purchase of the knife, the throwing of the stone through the bedroom window and when he stabbed Eleanor - his mind had become blank as to the crucial moments. Fielding agreed that it had. Mr Leslie, for the prosecution, described the lapses of memory as 'the last refuge of the desperate.' The defence, conducted by Mr Ormerod, insisted that Fielding had been in such a drunken condition on the night of the murder that he was quite incapable of forming any intention to kill Eleanor - that, in fact, he did not know what he was doing.
The judge in his summing-up posed the important and critical question: was Fred Fielding guilty of manslaughter or murder? If the jury thought that, through drink, he was incapable on the night of the murder of realising the consequences of his actions it amounted to manslaughter. If he was capable of realising the results of his actions it was murder. The jury had to decide.
He was found guilty after the jury had retired for only 15 minutes.
As he was taken below he waved to his brothers and, later on, members of the family were allowed to visit him. It was twenty minutes past six - less than four hours since the trial began.
The unusually swift proceedings and the way the case had been rushed through its various stages resulted in a good deal of unease. The Accrington Observer drew attention to the fact that it was rare for two men to be sentenced to death by the same judge on the same day.
A petition was rapidly promoted for Fielding's reprieve on the grounds that He was a young man of twenty-four years of age and, till the tragedy, of good moral character: He was on terms of great affection with the deceased and had been continually drunk following their quarrel: He was incapable through drink of knowing what he was doing on the night of the murder: He had no recollection, after drinking, of the statements related by Raymond Burton and John Pilkington which were used to establish premeditation by the prosecution: He had sought out Eleanor on the fifth of November to make things up with her - not to kill her!
Fred Fielding's appeal was heard on Monday, December 19th, at the Court of Criminal Appeal in London before the Lord Chief Justice, Justice Avory and Justice Branson. It was dismissed. The court decided there was no evidence that Fielding was so utterly and completely drunk at the time of the murder as to be unable to form a criminal intention.
The 10,000 strong petition raised on behalf of Fred Fielding was presented to the Home Secretary by the local M P, J Hugh Edwards, on December 29th, 1927. In spite of the season there was to be no good-will and no reprieve for the stoic Fielding who, at one point, heard a band playing 'Nearer My God To Thee' and 'Home, Sweet Home' outside the walls of the prison.
At 8am on the 3rd of January 1928, - less than two months since the day of the tragedy - the final act took place within the precincts of Strangeways gaol.
Soon afterwards, the crowd that had gathered in their hundreds outside the prison gates heard the sombre tolling of the bell signalling the end of the dismal proceedings. Many women amongst the crowd burst into tears. In Clayton-le-Moors, the blinds were drawn at the Fieldings' house and many more along Melbourne Street.
As the Accrington Observer noted, 1927 was 'one of the stormiest, coldest and gloomiest years on record'. No one argued with that in Rishton.
1Mary Wright, Parker Street.
Murder and The Unexpected or Our Doorstep, by Steve Greenhalgh, Published by Forward Press Ltd., 2000.