1876 Murder in Blackburn

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This is the tale of Emily Mary Holland, who in 1876 was 7 years old. She was the daughter of mechanic James Holland, who resided at 110 Moss Street in the town.

This may seem familiar to some, but on Tuesday 28th March, Emily came home from school and went out to play, come twilight and time to come in, she was nowhere to be found.

A scenario familiar to most parents ensued, friends were called on, places searched, and eventually, the police were called, and the whole area became a search zone for over 48 hours.

On that Thursday, 2 days later, Mrs. Alice White, from 73 Bastwell Terrace, was approached by a neighbours child, who had found a parcel in adjoining fields, wrapped with newspaper. She opened the parcel to find a naked torso of a young girl, headless, and no limbs. The police were called and an extensive search was carried out in the hope of finding the other limbs, as without them the body was unidentifiable.

The next discovery was made in RISHTON.

Richard Fairclough had noticed a man appearing furtive, walking to and fro along the lane (Cutt Lane?) leading to Lower Cunliffe farm, and carrying a package under his arm.

Once the man had left the area Mr. Fairclough scoured the area, suspicion aroused, and sure enough, found the package in a ditch by the side of the road. He informed the police in Rishton, and Constable Riley investigated.

The parcel contained 2 severed legs, later to be proven to match the torso found in Blackburn.

Unfortunately, the description given by Mr Fairclough was not much use to the police, but the parcel was later to yield valuable information.

A search was conducted in the area, in the hope of finding a 3rd parcel containing the head and arms from the torso, but this proved to be fruitless.

An inquest was held the following day into the disappearance of Emily Holland, where the mother identified a mark on the torso back as that of her daughter, proving the search for the missing girl was over, but a murder enquiry was now to start.

The police surgeon, Dir. William Martland, examined the two parcels, and having been told that PC Riley had noticed a clump of hair in the package found at Rishton, noted that both packages where covered in loose hair, which had stuck to blood and other moisture.

The hair interested him, as there were so many, and all different, and could not possibly have come from one person. There was different lengths, colours, textures, curly, straight, and all mingled in an entanglement together.

The Doctor leaped to an instant conclusion, which in the end proved correct, the hairs collected in one place like this could only come from a barbers.

It was also noted that all the newspapers used as wrappings were all the same - The Preston Herald - some of them even in date order.

A witness at the inquest was Mary Ellen Eccles, age 8, who had seen Emily playing close to her home when she was approached by a man. The man had sent Emily to buy half an ounce of tobacco from Cox's shop with 1 1/2d in her hand.

Another witness was Jane Preston, aged 9. She also saw Emily with a man walking along Moss Street. Sadly both girls descriptions were vague.

Several other witnesses had also seen a man in the area at the time, but none saw him with a girl. A description was drawn from all the various sources, which was to be used by police.

Doctor Martland also added the girl had been ravished and subjected to gross indecency.

During the 5 days of the inquest several men were detained by police using the composite drawing. All were released after questioning except for a tramp named Charles Taylor. He had been begging in the Moss Street area when Emily had last been seen alive. He had been seen by several witnesses, and roughly fitted the drawing, making him a strong suspect.

All the barbers shops in town became disturbed at doctor Martlands conclusions, as one by one, they were all searched. All the hairs and newspapers from the packaging had been sent away for scientific examination to a pathology lab in Liverpool, but results would not be known for some time.

During the search, two of the first shops searched were on Moss Street, in close proximity of Emily's home, making them both strong suspects. On Monday the 3rd April Superintendent Eastwood and others lead the search on these two premises. Denis Whiteheads shop revealed nothing, and so to number 3 Moss Street, the shop of William Fish.

It was a typical two up - two down terrace, with the shop in the front room and living accommodation upstairs, but Mr. Fish had moved out with his family to 162 Moss Street, using the rooms for storage.

The premises were searched, as was he, but no blood or stains were found, however, in the shop was found a pile of Preston Heralds. The issues of 11, 18, and 25th March were all missing, these coincided with the dates that were used to wrap the body parts in that had been found so far, yet no arrest was made!

Meanwhile Charles Taylor, the tramp, was still being held in custody until Friday the 7th April, when Doctor Martland disclosed the death had been by suffocation and partial cutting of the throat. The limbs had been severed several hours later after death. Charles Taylor had always denied any involvement, and was released without charge.

Rumour spread around town about the two shops on Moss Street, some say business boomed in a morbid curiosity way, having a shave from the man that did the deed, others heckled and chanted where was Emily? Whatever happened, both men went about their business as usual, as both where being watched by police, but neither did anything untoward. The heckling got so bad for Fish that he eventually had to ask for Police protection.

Two weeks elapsed, and no further discoveries were made, so a new line of enquiry was performed. Peter Taylor, of Preston was called in with his two dogs, a half breed blood hound, and a clumber spaniel, to scent from the spots were body parts had been found at Bastwell, and at Cunliffe in Rishton. Taylor declared that the dogs had searched well, but no scents had been found.

Officers still watching the shops decided to bring vigil to end late on Sunday the 16th April. Both owners were summoned, and search parties entered the shop simultaneously. Taylor took his dogs to each shop in turn, Whiteheads shop being first, but nothing was found.

The dogs were then taken to William Fish's shop, where Mr and Mrs. Fish were waiting with PC Holden. The dogs spent some time downstairs, mainly ending up at the slopstone, and after to the door leading upstairs. Taylor opened the door and the dogs rushed up, with everyone there in sharp pursuit. They sniffed the back bedroom and thinking nothing was to be found by the men, the dogs suddenly rushed together into the front bedroom. The bloodhound made straight for the fire place and stopped with his head in the chimney cavity, and its hair bristling with excitement. Taylor pronounced there was something up there. He reached an arm up the chimney and pulled down a bundle wrapped in newspaper. The paper was bloodstained and covered in hair. It was found to contain the major part of a skull, with tufts of hair attached, a number of pieces of broken bone from the skull, some smaller bones, evidently parts of a child's arms and hands, and a few scraps of clothing, similar to those Emily Holland had worn at the time of her disappearance. All the items were charred and blackened from burning.

Fish showed no emotion and boar up well when told he was being arrested. He made no admission, and later at the police station, when charged, replied "I am innocent, and God knows I am".

The following morning Fish was placed before the magistrates. Chief Constable Potts outlined the case, and when asked, Fish replied "I know nothing about it. I am as innocent as a child". He was placed in the cells, but later that afternoon, he made a verbal statement to PC William Parkinson. When Parkinson informed his superiors, they went to Fish, and after some persuasion, managed to get a written statement from him, which he signed. It read -

"I told Constable Parkinson that I had burnt part of the clothes and put other parts under the coals in my shop. I now wish to say I am guilty of the murder. I further wish to say that I do not want the innocent to suffer. At a few minutes past five in the evening, I was stood outside my shop door in Moss Street when the deceased child came past. She was going up Moss Street. I asked her to bring me half an ounce of tobacco from Cox's shop. She went and brought it for me. I asked her to go into the shop. She did so. I asked her to go upstairs and she did. I went up with her. I tried to abuse her and she was nearly dead. I then cut her throat with a razor. This was in the front room near the fire. I then carried the body downstairs into the shop, cut off the head, arms and legs, wrapped up the body in newspapers and put the parcels into a box in the back kitchen. The arms and head I put in the fire. On Wednesday afternoon I took the parcel containing the legs to Lower Cunliffe and at nine o'clock that night I took the parcel containing the body to a field at Bastwell near Blackburn cemetery and threw it over the wall. On Friday afternoon I burnt part of the clothing. On the Wednesday evening I took part of the head which was unburnt and put it up the chimney in the front bedroom.

He ended the statement by adding; "I further wish to say that I did it all by myself. No other person had anything to do with it."

William Fish was 26 at the time, described as poorly built and diminutive, with a small moustache. He was Darwen born, and seems he was brought up in the workhouse, not much is known about his parents. He entered the hairdressing trade at the age of 11, an apprentice to C. B. Barker in Northgate. Two years later he ran away, disappearing for the next 3 years unexplained, where upon Mr Barker gave him his job back upon his return. At Christmas 1870, he was charged with stealing from his employer, and sent to jail for 14 days, soon after marrying, and setting up his business in Moss Street. He had two children.

Following his confession, the following day on Monday the 17th April, the police returned to his property, ripping out the entire fireplace in the front bedroom brick by brick. More bones were found, and also scraps of paper and clothing lodged in the draught hole. Among the bones, pieces of brain tissue were still attached.

More bones were found in a cigar box. Under the coals, which the police said they had searched, torn pieces of cloth were found, which were later identified as those belonging to Emily Holland.

The police where heavily criticised for this lapse by both the press and courts.

The inquest was resumed on the 20th, and the jury quickly returned a verdict of willful murder with all the new evidence available, and William Fish was committed for trail.

1On the 15th June 1876, The London Times reported that The Perpetrator Discovered "by Bloodhounds.

For some time past, Blackburn and neighbourhood, has been in an intense state of excitement in consequence of the murder under revolting circumstances, of a child named Emily Holland, aged seven years.

Policemen and others have scoured the country, and tramp after tramp was arrested on suspicion. As it was suspected, however, that the right man had not been secured, bloodhounds were obtained to assist in the search, and then followed the realisation of the adage That murder, though it hath no tongue will speak with miraculous organ.

It appears that suspicion was always attached to a barber named Fish, who keeps a lock-up shop, and resided at Moss-street, with his wife and two children. The discovery of the murdered child's skull was made in a most extraordinary manner. Chief-constable Potts arranged with a man named Preston to bring over two of his dogs, one-half bloodhound and spaniel, and the other a clumber spaniel. Police-detectives Holder and Livery were sent out with the dogs and the owner to the place where the trunk of the body was found at Bastwell, to see if any scent of the remaining portions of the body could be found. The dogs did not appear to scent anything.

They were taken to Royshow Wood, close to where a man had been seen to go backwards and forwards to Lower Cunliffe, Rishton, where the legs of the child were found, but without any result.

They returned to Blackburn, and Mr Potts then decided to have the dogs taken to Fish's shop and the house of a barber named Dennis Whitehead, who also had been suspected.

The detectives entered the premises of the two barbers simultaneously, Police Detective Holden remaining at Fish's shop while the other establishment was examined. From the movements of the dog the police had no reason to suppose that anything was concealed there, and Superintendent Elwood, Detective Livery, Taylor, and the dogs proceeded to Fish's premises in which there are two rooms below and two above.

The bloodhounds ran around the rooms downstairs and jumped upon the slow stove in the back kitchen. Then the officers and dog went upstairs, and the bloodhound at once scented up the chimney of the front room, and the owner of the dog put his hand up the chimney and pulled down from the recess of a draught hole the skull and some other portions of a child, wrapped in a paper covered with blood. From a medical examination made by Dr. Gatchett it was evident that the head had recently been burnt. Two teeth were left hanging in the lower jaw.

It was with difficulty that Fish could be taken to the lock-up. He was in danger of being lynched, and if the police had not been prompt in getting him away, violence would have been resorted to.

The prisoner appears penitent for the crime he has committed, and overpowering remorse has set in. His sleep is restless he turns from side to side, and dozes a little towards morning. Two policemen constantly keep guard over him. His wife has had an interview with him, which lasted half-an hour. She took her eldest child, one year and eleven months old, in her arms. When the prisoner saw them he burst into tears, weeping bitterly. His first emotion overcome, he took hold of the child and kissed it, then he got up and shook hands with his wife, both burst into tears, and she forgave him. She told him to prepare for another world, and there was nothing else for him. She said, Don't think anything about us, we shall be provided for, you will see." She repeated this several times, but he never spoke a word in reply. He was still in tears when his wife left him.

While Fish was in the service of Mr C. Bramwoll, he was always reserved, and sometimes would not speak a word for a week. At that time he attended St. Paul's Sunday-school, and afterwards St. John's. When he got married, five years ago, he joined the religious sect of his wife, who is a Primitive Methodist. She is described as a decent, industrious woman, and, when able, she works at the mill as a weaver. When Fish's shop was first searched by the police she declared to a neighbour that she did not suspect her husband, and that if she know he committed the terrible outrage she would inform against him. The barber said little to those he shaved, and never visited the public house across the street. He often went, however, into a slaughter-house kept by Mr Bradley in Moss Street, and saw the cattle slaughtered and the carcasses cut up. He had no doubt utilised the lesson learnt therein in the dismemberment of Emily Holland's body.

Before the murder he professed to be a teetotaller, but after he was suspected his wife would frequently go to the shop for him at night, and fetch him a glass of port wine from the Foresters Arms. It was a matter of surprise to the neighbours that Fish should carry on his business in a lock-up shop when the house was sufficient to accommodate him and his wife and family. When the funeral of Emily Holland took place he was seen in the front kitchen, with the door wide open, smoking his pipe. The house on the opposite side of Barley street commands a good view of the shop, and the back premises of Barley-street and Fisher street have a good view of his back premises, and there is a large yard common to half-a-dozen houses. The neighbours express surprise that they heard no scream on the day of the murder. The prisoner's confession is substantially to the following effect: That on the day when the tragedy was enacted he sent Emily Holland for half an ounce of tobacco. When she returned he asked her to come in the house. He got hold of her and carried her up stairs, and in the front room committed the outrage upon her. He then took a razor and coolly cut her throat, and to prevent the blood from covering the floor he wrapped her clothes around her neck. He battered her brains out, and cut up the body, putting the head and arms on the fire which he had ready kindled in the room, and wrapped the bulk and legs in newspapers, concealing the parcel till it could be convenient for him to remove them. It is stated that after this he went down stairs and shaved some one of his customers with, the razor which had been used to cut the' girl's throat The horrible work having been finished, he locked the door of his shop and went to the amphitheater of the Varieties to stifle perchance for a moment stings of the conscience.

Great sympathy is put on the bereaved parents of Emily Holland. The mother is in a desponding state, and was only confined about seven weeks ago. The father is a little better now that the murderer has been found out.

The trail was held at Liverpool Assizes on Friday, the 28th July before Justice Lindley. Mr. Higgin QC and Mr Pope QC were the prosecution, and Mr Blair was assigned to defend William Fish, there being no legal aid system them.

By far and away the medical evidence offered by Dr. Martland was the most important, including an interview he had conducted with William Fish, in which Fish agreed with all the doctors theories bar one, that he had not wiped the body down, and that the girl must have broken into a sweat. Fish admitted using a razor blade to cut the girls throat, and later using it on a man from Brierley Street.

Dr. Martland said there was no signs of lunacy, which was corroborated by two other doctors.

Other witnesses called for the prosecution included the dog handler, Taylor, and and accompanying officers, as well as the confession being read.

Fish offered no witnesses in defence, but Blair tried to set up a defence of insanity, claiming he must be mad to do such a thing.

The judge mentioned this in summoning up, but the jury did not even leave the room, returning a verdict of guilty.

Fish, when asked if there was any reason why a sentence of death should not be passed, replied "My Lord and Gentlemen of the jury; at the time I did the deed I did not know what I was doing. It came over me all at once. I never had such a thought in my head when I sent her for tobacco."

He was sentenced to die by hanging, and was carried out at Kirkdale Prison, Liverpool, on Monday, 14th August 1876.


Murder in Lancashire by Alan Sewart, Publisher Robert Hale Ltd, ISBN 0-7090-3561-6

1Auckland Star, Volume VII, Issue 1981, 15 June 1876, Page 2