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murder in the heather

The Winter Hill Murder of 1838
buy here in our store
David Holding

David's published titles

 

'Murder in the Heather: The Winter Hill Murder of 1838'

'The Dark Figure: Crime in Victorian Bolton'

'The Pendle Witch Trials of 1612'

'Bleak Christmas: The Pretoria Pit Disaster of 1910'

'The Last Temptation: The Trial of Dr Harold Shipman'

'The Trial of Dr John Bodkin Adams'

'The Trial of Dr Buck Ruxton'

'Doctors in the Dock'

 

They have been met with critical acclaim for David's attention to detail and his approach of looking at trial transcripts and allowing the reader to become the jury.

Murder in the Heather: The Winter Hill Murder of 1838

Image: Courtesy of the author.

Glasgow Madrigirls

The Ballad of George Henderson - A Musical Murder Mystery

Saturday 22 June 2019, 6.30 & 8.30pm
Dram! 232 Woodlands Road, Glasgow
In 1838, a lone Scotsman was found dead on Winter Hill in Lancashire. Despite a long list of suspects, his murderer was never found... ​Could it have been an old enemy? A local Lord with his nose out of joint? A spurned lover? ​Join Madrigirls for an evening of folk songs, shanties, murder ballads and more as we sort the villains from the victims and finally solve ​the mystery of who killed poor George Henderson!

Running time 1hr.
Tickets £6. Limited availability.

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We created a promotional video for David Holding's first three books - to the left.

We are also proud to present the video (bottom left) by Steve Looker and Reel Vision, in which David Holding features as historical advisor.  For anyone who is looking for more information about the Winter Hill Murder, get David's book, and watch this video. Absolutely fascinating!

Below this are images related to 'Murder in the Heather': the area map, the Scotsman's Stump, a memorial to George Henderson, and a recent photo (courtesy of ITV.com) which shows the extent of the recent appalling moorland fires on Winter Hill and surrounding areas.

Conspiracy and Bias?

Robbery and Corruption?

…There is certainly evidence of bias against Whittle if the press reports are anything to go by. They appear to have made their own minds up as to his guilt…

 

Then there is a amazing testimony of Willian Stott, which should have been ruled inadmissible.  On the surface, then, the evidence certainly seems to be stacked against Whittle. But to my mind – too conveniently.  With the benefit of modern forensic investigation techniques it is possible to offer alternative suggestions which cast doubt on Whittle’s guilt.

 

The crucial factor, as far as Whittle is concerned, in this whole case, are his movements at the material time… the time of the shooting. Henderson arrived at Garbutt’s beerhouse on the Friday, we’re told, at about twelve o’clock. Whittle is seen going past at around ten past twelve. Now, if Henderson left soon afterwards, he could not have arrived at the spot where his body was later discovered before 12:35 at the earliest. He was walking up the hill, he was carrying a pack on his back, he was in mist, and his speed couldn’t have been more than about four miles an hour. We know the distance from Garbutts to the spot to where Henderson fell was approximately 972 yards, so a quick calculation… it would have taken him about 24 minutes to arrive at the spot.”

 

“Given the movements of Whittle, it’s virtually impossible for him to have shot Henderson and arrive back at his home, and be seen at 12:30 by Mrs Garbutt going in the general direction of the Moorgate Inn. If Whittle didn’t kill Henderson, and the forensic evidence casts doubt on this fact… what are the alternatives?  There is certainly the possibility of a conspiracy in view of the large reward on offer. The movements of these packmen was common knowledge, as was their custom of changing silver into notes for the return journey home. Henderson had been seen on the Thursday evening in Blackrod paying for wine with silver – therefore robbery is a possible motive.

“…When Henderson was discovered, despite his horrific injuries, he managed to utter ‘They have robbed me’. This is worth emphasizing. ‘They have robbed me.’  This adds some support to the theory that this was a planned robbery.  Yet, when his pack was examined, it was untouched and he still had some coins in his waistcoat pocket. Is it really conceivable that Whittle, a known poacher and a familiar figure in the area, would be so careless as to allow suspicion to fall upon him. He was too obvious a target. In fact, his total indifference on the day, tends to lend support to his innocence rather than his guilt. He didn’t show any due concern. He wasn’t flustered. He just got on with his normal activities.

 

After his acquittal, Whittle’s mental and physical health deteriorated and he died in poverty in April 1871. After Whittle’s acquittal, the subsequent hunt for the perpetrator or perpetrators of the crime, seems to have been scaled down… and the crime remains unsolved to this day. All we’re left with are numerous speculations and the mystery that is perpetuated with the passage of time.

(Taken from David Holding's dialogue in a film about the Winter Hill Murders - produced by Steve Looker and Reel Vision)

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…When Henderson was discovered, despite his horrific injuries, he managed to utter ‘They have robbed me’.

Whittle's Trial

And evidence

…Whittle’s trial was held at Liverpool Crown Court on Tuesday the 2nd of April 1839. It lasted from nine o’clock in the morning until seven o’clock at night.  His Defence Counsel decided to make his closing address to the jury without calling any witnesses...

 

… the crucial factor in this case was the fact that Henderson had been murdered.  This rules out the possibility of his death being the result of a tragic accident. 

 

Now, what is the forensic evidence to support this conclusion? According to George Wolstenholme, the Bolton surgeon who carried out the post mortem on Henderson, he found a one inch diameter entry wound just below the right ear… together with powder burns on the face. This is evidence of a contact wound. Most of the shot had exited through the left orbit of the eye, taking out the eye completely, and in so doing, the path of the shot has severed one of the optic nerves in the right eye so that it had fallen onto the right cheek. And in the frontal lobe of the brain… there were found six pieces of lead shot, and this was given as the cause of Henderson’s death.  All the forensic evidence points to the shooting being very close range – in all probability less than one foot away. This renders it very unlikely that it was an accidental shot or the result of a stray shot. 

 

A common hunting gun used in the nineteenth century, and the type used by Whittle on the day, was a single barrel percussion piece of approcinmately 18 inches to 39 inches in length, excluding the stock. The gun used by Whittle used a mixture of lead shot, and a mixture of number 1 and number 2 shot would contain approximately 730 pellets. The spread of lead shot on release would increase in direct proportion to the distance from the target. So, for example, a gun discharged at a distance of say, five yards, would give a spread shot of around four inches as it discharged. 

 

What circumstances could have led Henderson to being found in the ditch at the side of the road? As suggested by Whittle’s defence counsel, he may well have found a need to answer a call of nature, and ventured into the ditch. If he’d been shot while still on the road, the momentum of the discharge from such a close range would have propelled his body on the opposite side of the road – on the left hand side. There were no obvious signs of Henderson’s body being dragged across the road and thrown into the ditch. If he was already in the ditch when he was shot, this would put his head level with the surface of the road, because the ditch was three foot deep. And this would account for the considerable amount of blood found on the road surface by the young lad Hoole.

 

When found in the ditch it was noticed that Henderson’s trousers had been unbuttoned at the waistband.  This would also lend creedence to the belief that he may have then made his way into the ditch to answer a call of nature.  Practically all the witnesses at the inquest and trial testified to knowing Whittle, and knowing each other. It’s curious and rather suspicious that no witnesses could be found to support Whittle’s alibi. Not even his own father…

(Taken from David Holding's dialogue in a film about the Winter Hill Murders - produced by Steve Looker and Reel Vision)

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What circumstances could have led Henderson to being found in the ditch at the side of the road?

So, where was Whittle?

And what was he doing

…The Moorgate Inn at Horwich, now  the Blundell Arms, was approximately two miles distance from Five Houses. There was no direct track between the two locations, but easy access was gained over the moors…

…The gun used by Whittle on the Friday was still loaded with shot when it was collected and taken away by the local polics for examination. When the shot was weighed it was found to be a mixture of number 1 and number 2 shot.  The remnants of lead shot removed from Henderson’s brain at the post mortem was found to be six pieces of number 3 lead shot…

… Under cross examination, Mrs Lambert, wife of the landlord of the Moorgate Inn, made a rather interesting comment. Apparently Whittle’s father had told her that a Mr Orrell, a gamekeeper of the smithill’s estate, had complained to him about his son’s poaching activities on the moor.  Whittle had arrived at the Moorgate on the Friday afternoon with two recently-shot birds. This confirms that he had a gun in his possession on the Friday, and also that he was on the moor…

…What do we know about the movements of Whittle on the Friday? Well, he’d been seen around 8:30 am shooting near his home at Five Houses. He was later seen by William Simms at about 10:50 near the cabin on Winter Hill – again, with a gun.  At eleven o’clock he was seen again by William Stott, and at 11:15, by William Fletcher.  He was sen by Mrs Garbutt passing the beerhouse, going in the direction of Winter Hill summit at about 12:10, whilst Henderson was still inside. Twenty minutes later he was seen again by Mrs Garbutt around 12:30, coming from his home and going in the general direction of the Moorgate Inn.  He is known to have arrived at the inn at around 1:30, and stayed until four o’clock. All these sightings put Whittle in the vicinity of the killing, with a gun, and at the material time.  

(Taken from David Holding's dialogue in a film about the Winter Hill Murders - produced by Steve Looker and Reel Vision)

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"All these sightings put Whittle in the vicinity of the killing, with a gun, and at the material time."

The Discovery

Garbutts and Five Houses

...Not far from the summit of Winter Hill stood a group of cottages alongside the road, and these were known locally as ‘Five Houses’. One of these cottages doubled up as a beerhouse and it was run by a William Garbutt, and he was also the owner of several coal pits dotted around the Winter Hill area, but his beerhouse was known locally as Garbutts…

…Henderson’s body was first discovered by a fourteen year old boy, Thomas Hoole, when he was taking his dinner to his brother who worked at one of Garbutt’s pits.  The cabin was a shelter used by quarrymen to eat their food… It was very close to the entrance of a driftmine called the Winter Hill Tunnel. After the discovery of Henderson’s body, measurements were taken of the area of the killing, by local surveyor, Jonathan Hardman. The Winter Hill tunnel was 1,322 yards from Five Houses, and Henderson’s body was found some 972 yards from Garbutt’s beerhouse. The distance from Henderson’s body to The Stumps was 202 yards. The Stumps was a boundary wall some five feet high which ran at right angles to the Winter Hill road, and it served as a boundary to divide Rivington Moor from the Sharples district of Bolton.

… It is remarkable to me that William Stott’s testimony was not challenged at the trial by either the judge or Whittle’s defence council. And a natural inference to be drawn from the testimony is that there was a real possibility of a conspiracy to frame Whittle for the killing, particularly in view of the fact that £100 reward was on offer.

 

… Henderson’s fellow Scotsman, Benjamin Burrell, was unable to provide an accurate description of the physical features of the man he met on the moors because he was wearing a hat over his eyes. He thought that his clothing and voice appeared very similar to that of Whittle, but he was unable to state with any certainty that the man was in fact Whittle…

… Halliwell’s testimony,  if it were to be believed, should have secured Whittle’s conviction. Instead, Charles Wilkins who was Whittle’s counsel, virtually demolished Halliwell’s evidence and exposed it for what it was. It was a mixture of fabrication, half-truths, contradiction, and in some parts, sheer fantasy. Through skillful cross-examination, Wilkins succeeded in undermining Halliwell’s credibility as a witness, and in so doing, he sowed the seeds of doubt in the minds of the jury…

(Taken from David Holding's dialogue in a film about the Winter Hill Murders - produced by Steve Looker and Reel Vision)

"Charles Wilkins who was Whittle’s counsel, virtually demolished Halliwell’s evidence and exposed it for what it was"

So, what do we know about George Henderson?

Victim of the Murder in the Heather

What do we know about George Henderson? Well, we know he was a Scotsman, he was 20 years of age and he’d moved down from Scotland into the north of England, looking for work… like many more of his country men. He was employed as a traveller, or better known as a packman in the nineteenth century. They would be the equivalent of today’s travelling sales rep.

 

He lived in Blackburn in lodgings in an area of Blackburn known as Nova Scotia, together with his fellow Scotsmen.  He was employed by John Jardine, a draper from Blackburn, as his traveller. Now, the only description we have of George comes form his employer, and he describes him as a young man of goodly appearance, pleasing manner and of sober habits, and he was well respected by those who knew him. 

 

Such was the esteem in which George was held the Mr Jardine, on hearing of his death, offered a reward of £100 for the apprehension of the person or persons responsible for his death. Now, this was a substantial sum. By today’s standards it would be about the equivalent of three and a half times the annual wage of an unskilled worker.

 

What did his work involve? Well, it involved him moving around a set area from Blackburn, and his travels took him on a two-weekly rota. And on the second Friday of each fortnight he would report back to his employer with orders and payments that he’d collected, and it so happened that on the fateful day, November the 9th, 1838, this was one such Friday when, in the evening, he was due to report back to his employer.

We can’t be certain of Henderson’s route on the fateful day, but there was a well known pack road that ran from Blackrod down into the valley, through Anderton Hall Farm, to Horwich. And then it went off through an area known as Old Lord's Heights and up onto Rivington Moor, and then it joined the road that went over Winter Hill before descending to Belmont….

 

Not far from the summit of Winter Hill, stood a group of cottages alongside the road, and these were known locally as ‘Five Houses’. One of these cottages doubled up as a beerhouse and it was run by a William Garbutt, and he was also the owner of several coal pits dotted around the Winter Hill area, but his beerhouse was known locally as Garbutts

(Taken from David Holding's dialogue in a film about the Winter Hill Murders - produced by Steve Looker and Reel Vision)

"... a young man of goodly appearance, pleasing manner and of sober habits, and he was well respected by those who knew him."

The Origins of 'Murder in the Heather'

How The Author Became Interested in The Winter Hill Murder

My initial interest in the 1838 murder found its origins back in my teen years when I was a keen hiker and fell-walker, and frequently passed over Winter Hill. At this same time I was a member of my local historical society and became involved in the publication of short guide leaflets to places of local historical interest. This resulted in me producing a brief outline of the murder.

 

I am also a Life Member of the Friends of Smithills Hall, Bolton, a registered charity devoted to the upkeep and promotion of the Hall. This was the family home of the Ainsworth family, past owners of Smithills Moor and part of Winter Hill from the Victorian period through to just after the Second World War. The Friends produced 'occasional publications' on various aspects of the Hall and the Ainsworth family. Having produced my first manuscript on the murder, the Committee agreed to publish the first edition in 1991. This edition had a limited run of 350 copies which were sold out within about four months and proved very popular especially in Bolton and surrounding areas.

 

In 2017, I decided that the first edition could be enhanced by including an extra chapter on reassessing the case in the light of forensic techniques being available. From a forensic analysis of the recorded movements of the sole suspect, I came to the conclusion that, given the time-frame for Whittle's movements, he was very unlikely to have been the perpetrator of the crime. This second edition also encompasses my own experience gained through courses in forensic science and psychology.  As in all my works, I consider my readers to be active participants the cases and events I describe. My works conclude by inviting the readers to consider their own verdicts or conclusions based on the evidence provided in the text. I have adopted this innovative approach as my unique hallmark.

"As in all my works, I consider my readers to be active participants the cases and events I describe."