Peak & Northern Footpaths Society (est.1894)

Murder on the Moors in 1838

Brian Gerrard, Footpath Inspector

This article is from Signpost 63, Winter 2019

On a pleasant day in January 2019 my group of intrepid retired teacher friends walked to a famous landmark, Winter Hill, to view the television mast, other aerials and the surrounding Lancashire landscape. We also saw the memorial pillar and plaque to George Henderson who was murdered on Winter Hill which is on Rivington Moor. We all knew about this memorial known as Scotsman's Stump (at SD 66100 14698) but not many facts concerning it so I decided to do some research.

About 2.30 pm on Friday, 9 November 1838 George Henderson, a 20 year old native of Annan, Dumfrieshire, died on Winter Hill from a gunshot wound to the head. The dead man had been employed by John Jardine, a draper of John Street, Blackburn, to sell goods from door to door carrying his wares bundled on a staff. Robbery was the motive for the crime as he was known to have £15 in his possession. He had stayed overnight at the Cock Tavern, Blackrod, with his friend, Thomas Rutterforth, who was in the same business, and had left at 8 am the following morning. When his body was found his trouser pockets were inside out and torn. Only 1/11 d was recovered from the left side pocket.

Henderson was to meet a friend and fellow countryman, Benjamin Burrell for dinner at Belmont. The direct route for travellers from Wigan to Blackburn was over Winter Hill through Belmont. Near the top of the hill were a group of houses known as Five Houses, now long gone. In one, William Garbett kept a beer house and he also owned a coalpit some distance away on the route to Belmont. The dying man was found in the ditch at the side of the track half a mile north east of Five Houses by a 14 year old boy named Thomas Whowell returning from a coalpit. He heard moans coming from the ditch and saw the blood on the ground. He ran back to the coalpit to summon help and the man was carried to the beerhouse at Five Houses where he died.

The local constable, Robert Makant collected esvidence and the local surgeon, Dr George Wolstenholme carried out the post mortem and recovered lead shot from Henderson's head. James Whittle who had been seen shooting on the moor at the time was arrested. He admitted shooting in the area with a borrowed gun and when the remaining cartridges were checked the pellet charge matched those taken from the deceased.

The inquest was held in the cellar room of Mr Lambert's Inn, Moorgate, Horwich (now the Blundell Arms) and lasted two days during which twenty-two witnesses were called. At the later assizes the jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against James Whittle and he was taken from the inn to Kirkdale prison. The assize trial took place at Liverpool on 2 April 1839. The case for the prosecution opened at 9.10 am and concluded at 6 pm. A strong plea was made for adjournment but his lordship recommenced the trial at 7 pm. The jury retired at 9 pm, returning at 10.20 pm with a verdict of not guilty and Whittle was discharged.

Little is known of Whittle after the trial other than he became blind, shunned company and died in middle age. A search at Horwich Parish Church burials showed that a James Whittle, aged 56 years, died on 6 April 1871. In 1838, this man would have been 33 years of age. Public interest continued in the case and in 1912 Bolton Field Naturalists erected the present cast iron memorial pillar to take place of a tree, near the site of the murder, that had been cut away by souvenir hunters. The pillar is now maintained by Bolton Boy Scouts.

Next: Reopening a Path in Calderdale

Page title:Murder on the Moors in 1838
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