HORRIBLE MURDER OF A FLINT GIRL. ATTEMPTED OUTRAGE. THE MURDERER AT LARGE.
We parked the car, walked through the gate of Christ Church, looked to the left, found the grave and then departed. After all, this was Linthwaite, just outside Huddersfield and we had no cause to linger. The things we do for Welsh Country…but then it wasn’t only for the magazine that we were here. It was more important to pay our respects to Catherine (Kate) Dennis, a forgotten 16 year old Welsh servant girl from Flint who was murdered here in the shadows of the Pennines in 1891.
It is a tragic story – of a life casually snatched away and of a crime leaving terrible emotion wreckage in its wake in both Linthwaite and Flint. For Catherine was not the only victim of that dreadful August day.
Her father Edward was a labourer at the Flint Chemical Works, and the family lived on Corporation Street. There were four daughters and they had relocated from Holyhead in Anglesey. Kate had last visited home in Flint for her holidays at Whitsuntide. She had gone into service when she was fourteen in the Ivy Green public house (known locally as The Ivy Hotel) on Manchester Road in Linthwaite. It was a long way from home but perhaps she was in West Yorkshire because she had a cousin Edith, also in service, in nearby Slaithwaite.
In the year she had been there Kate had shown herself to be invaluable. The landlady, Mrs Brook, knew she could rely upon her entirely. She was the best servant she ever had and so she left Kate in charge of the pub when she went off to do some shopping on a Friday afternoon in August 1891. There were only a handful of customers that lunchtime.
Later in the afternoon a butcher’s boy from the Co-op arrived with a delivery. He found the pub empty, apart from the body of Catherine lying on her back with her arms stretched out on the landing at the top of the stairs. Her throat had been cut and there was a pool of blood under her head. It was clear that there had been a very violent struggle, for her wrists were badly bruised. Her clothes were disarranged. An attempt had been made to rape and strangle her before she was stabbed.
Local people rushed to the Ivy Green, handing over money to see the scene of the crime and Kate’s body. ‘Sympathy for the murdered girl seemed to be almost entirely forgotten,’ in the unexpected thrill of the moment.
Two men were immediately arrested but they were soon released. The police realised they should have been looking for James Stockwell. He had been in the pub that afternoon, eating pie in the kitchen using a thin-bladed knife as a fork. He had since disappeared. His wife hadn’t seen him, but then they no longer lived together. But she confirmed that one of his casual occupations was as a pig killer. Stockwell was on the run.
There were possible sightings of the fugitive. Was he that strange man in a wood? Or the man hiding behind a wall? Or the one seen leaning against a gate? An Irish vagrant was arrested in Dewsbury after confessing to the murder but he probably just fancied a night in the cells and was released the following morning.
There was considerable outrage at the crime. Kate had been a popular girl. The Yorkshire Evening Post spoke of customers who ‘delighted in hearing her speak Welsh.’ She had ‘everybody’s good word.’ She had arrived in the north as ‘petite’ and in the brisk Yorkshire air had grown into ‘a fine strapping young woman.’ The people of Linthwaite were touched by the appearance in their town of Kate’s parents who were entirely Welsh speaking and ‘utterly weighed down with grief.’ They collected money to pay for her headstone. At the funeral, a wreath of white flowers was laid by members of the Linthwaite Brass Band and The Huddersfield Chronicle was moved to publish a poem in her memory. It ended with the verse
The base monster who has done
Such cruel wrong to thee
Shall be regarded as a blot
On our humanity.
I think you now understand why you haven’t heard of this poem before.
There was no sign of Stockwell and people began to think that he might have thrown himself into a canal or a reservoir. But he hadn’t. After seventeen days hiding on the moors he broke into his mother’s house in the early morning. When she found him there, emaciated and dirty, she asked him ‘Oh dear me, lad, has tha’ had anything to do with that lass?’ Stockwell told her that he was innocent and so Mrs Stockwell went to the police and told them where he was.
He gave himself up quietly. He was ‘a wretched object…his clothes were in rags.’ In fact he hadn’t wandered far. He had hidden under nearby haystacks and in ditches and had eaten merely a handful of beans taken from a garden. He said that ‘for three days he wept with remorse.’ Perhaps arrest came as a relief. It certainly prevented a probable lynching if he’d been found.
When he was in front of the magistrate he pleaded guilty to the murder but when he appeared before Justice Wright at the West Riding Assizes in Leeds in December 1891 he changed his plea to ‘not guilty.’
Kate was described as ‘truthful, honest and good,’ words which could never be used to describe Stockwell. He claimed that whilst he and Kate had never had a relationship, she had been teasing him by knocking off his hat and, ‘in a moment of passion,’ he tried to get hold of her. She ran upstairs and then he couldn’t remember what happened. He admitted to drinking heavily for two or three days before the murder and it was felt far more likely that, seriously drunk, he had fallen asleep. Kate had tried to wake him by tugging on his hair so that she could get on with her work .He had woken suddenly in such a wild and terrifying rage that she fled upstairs but there could be no escape. He attacked her and stabbed her, as he stabbed pigs, in the neck.
His only hope lay in the tragic catalogue of mental disorders that ran through his family which the defence lawyer presented in court. His mother had spent seven months in Wakefield Asylum some years before. He sister ‘had been insane for four years at least,’ one uncle had committed suicide and another, who had been restrained by being roped down to his bed, had died in Wadsley Asylum, just like his grandmother.
The jury was unimpressed. They retired but returned quickly within ten minutes with a guilty verdict. Stockwell was condemned to death.
A petition was raised to obtain a pardon for him and sent to the Home Secretary on the basis that the ‘terrible scourge of insanity,’ exacerbated by previous severe head injuries he had received, was the cause of his behaviour. But the petition was rejected and his execution was confirmed for 5 January 1892 at Armley Gaol in Leeds.
Then, just days before the execution, Kate’s mother died in a Flintshire asylum. ‘Soon after the murder she lost her reason, through the murder preying on her mind.’ Mrs Stockwell was taken into Wadsley Asylum at almost at the same time.
It was reported that James Stockwell walked firmly to the scaffold where death appeared to be almost instantaneous. Before he died he wrote letters to his relatives containing warnings about the evils of drink. He also wrote, ‘I leave you with my most affectionate love to my dear mother. May God have mercy on her and if it be His will, return to her, her health and strength again.’
His plea did not work. The poor woman, who had handed over her own son James to the police as a murderer, died in Wadsley Asylum two months after his execution.
You can go to Linthwaite of course. I won’t stand in your way. It lies on the A62 between Huddersfield and Oldham. Over the Pennines in Lancashire the road edges past Saddleworth Moor. It is not a nice place. I will understand if you don’t fancy going there.
I have received 25 newly-printed copies of my book Swansea Murders. Go to the Swansea Murders page in the menu, or by clicking on this link, to find out more. The book contains 25 crimes which were committed between 1770 and 1946.
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This story does not appear in the book.