Murder at the Midland Station - Sheffield September 1900

When I described the murder of Walter Hague I had very little idea that there would be an outcome to the case. The attack seemed a random one and furthermore there was no discernable motive. The police confessed that they were baffled by the murder and given the nature of the crime I thought that a conviction would be quite a remote possibility.

I was therefore amazed that in the Manchester Times dated Friday 12th October 1900 a report stated




Between 11 and and 12 o'clock Monday night a man giving the name of GEORGE DONOVAN went to the Parliament-street police station, Hull and told the sergeant in charge that he had come to give himself up on the charge of murdering WALTER HAGUE at Sheffield on the 27th September, and for which he was wanted by Sheffield police. He said he was a marine foreman and was 38 years old. He further stated that he had been in Hull about a week, seeking a berth on a ship but had failed. In reply to interrogations he stated that he went from Hull to Sheffield on a visit, and met a woman with whom he became friendly. He bought he a hat or a bonnet and they intended to proceed to Hull together by the night train. He ad a lot to drink but they proceeded towards the station quietly together. Suddenly he missed his companion and going as directly as he could to the Midland Station he thought that he saw the woman that was to accompany him in company with another man. He promptly went forward to renegotiate with her whereupon her companion resented his intrusion and, as far as he could see, intended to follow it up with forcible methods. Upon this, and purely in self defence, and with no idea of doing serious injury to the man, he drew his knife and stabbed him. He lost his hat in the struggle and remained in Sheffield overnight. The prisoner then went on to state that he afterwards went on to Hull  and the consciousness of the crime so worried him that he thought it would be best to give himself up to the authorities and have the matter put an end to.

Prisoner on Tuesday was taken to Sheffield. It is ascertained  that the prisoner later seemed somewhat inclined to cast some doubt on his previous confession. He still adheres, however, to the statement that he remembers having an altercation, and that he made an attack on some person.

The man James Donovan was brought up at the Sheffield Court House on Wednesday. The case was taken before the Stipendiary Magistrate and Donovan was charged with willful murder, the information being laid before the Chief Constable  Commander Scott. Various witnesses were examined and afterwards the prisoner made a statement denying his alleged confession insisting that he was not sober when he made it after which he was remanded.

The Manchester Guardian also carried a report


The next article was 13 days later in the Manchester Times dated 25th October 1900

And that infuriatingly is as far as I could take it until December 2011 when I eventually found out the outcome of both the trial and the police attempts to find the murderer

[Donovan] was perfectly sober at the time he made [his] statement, though he had been drinking some days previously. The prosecution, which was conducted on instructions from the Treasury, traced Donovan’s movements in Sheffield up to half an hour before the murder, but after that nothing could be heard of him until next morning. The evidence of several persons who witnessed the tragedy was taken, and most of them agreed that Donovan was like the murderer, but none absolutely identified him. The prisoner was committed for trial at the Assizes.

Before Donavan’s trial, Mr Justice Wright, at Leeds Assizes, stated to a Grand Jury that he believed although the man had been charged with murder, there was probably insufficient evidence to obtain a conviction for such a charge. He said there was considerable reason to think that the deceased man was the aggressor, and that would probably be sufficient to reduce the charge to one of manslaughter. However, the judge would leave the decision to the Grand Jury as to which charge Donovan would face at trial. The Grand Jury opted for a trial for murder, which was reported on by the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent:


The trial of James Donovan, ship’s fireman, on the charge of murdering Walter Hague, at Sheffield, came on at the West Riding Assizes, Leeds, yesterday. The result of the trial tended, if anything, to intensify the mystery and doubt which has surrounded the dark crime of September 22nd from the first. As most people anticipated, the evidence against Donovan proved quite inadequate to uphold the capital charge. Not one of the numerous witnesses were able to identify him as the mysterious assailant, and the case collapsed like a house of cards before a single witness had been called on the prisoner’s behalf. Donovan, who is 38 years of age, is a man under the average height, broad in the shoulders, and sturdily built, with pale complexion and dark hair and beard. He regarded the proceedings yesterday with the same stolidity that he has maintained throughout.
Mr Harold Thomas, with Mr Felix Palmer, prosecuted for the Crown, and Mr J. A. Slater (instructed by Mr P. B. Richardson) defended prisoner. Mr Thomas, in opening the case, made a full recital of the circumstances surrounding the murder, and said that the questions for the jury were: Was the prisoner the man who stabbed Hague, and if so, were the circumstances such as to amount to wilful murder, or only manslaughter? The prosecution relied upon the statements of certain persons who saw the stabbing done, and also upon the prisoner’s own statements after the murder. The prisoner was a seafaring man, and on the 22nd September he was in Sheffield seeing some friends. On the evening of that day, Hague, who was an iron worker, in the employ of Messrs Newton, Chambers and Co., Chapeltown, was walking towards the Midland Station with a young woman named Alice Basford, intending to catch a train at half-past eleven. At the bottom of Commercial Street they passed a man who was talking to himself, and apparently cursing some unknown person. The prosecution suggested that this man, who was drunk, was the prisoner. Hague and Miss Basford proceeded along Sheaf Street, and when they reached the lower station gates, Hague was seized from behind by a man. A cabman, who was driving past, saw a flash of a bright instrument, and Hague was stabbed and fell to the ground. His assailant ran off. Hague died almost immediately after being wounded. He had one wound in front of the throat, and another between the third and fourth ribs, which pierced the heart.
Two days afterwards the Sheffield police arrested Donovan on suspicion, but ultimately he was released. On the night of the murder Donovan was seen in the Bay Horse Inn, Greystock Street, from eight o’clock to half-past ten. Shortly before eleven he purchased a hat in Westbar, saying that he had lost his other in a row. He was seen in Sheaf Street about a quarter-past eleven. After his release by the Sheffield police Donovan was next heard of a fortnight later, when he went to the police station at Hull and made a voluntary statement. Donovan’s subsequent statement before the magistrates was that he went to the police station to ‘explain the matter and stop people talking’. He also asserted that he was drunk when he saw the Hull police, and that the police knew he was not in a proper condition to make a statement. He also said that the police cross-questioned him continually all night, and never allowed him to sleep. Next morning, when the police told him that he had confessed, he said that he came to explain, not to confess. This was denied by the police.
The first witness was Police Constable Hargreaves, of the Hull Police Force, who said that on October 8th, at eleven at night, the prisoner came to the police station. He was then perfectly sober, and made a statement which was taken down in writing, and signed by him. He stated that he was wanted in Sheffield for murder. Asked when it took place he replied, ‘About a fortnight ago last Saturday.’ He further stated that they could not do anything to him because they had had him once for it. Two policemen apprehended him at the Victoria Railway Station on the following Monday, and detained him for four or five hours. He further stated that he had stabbed the man near to the railway station, and that he lost his hat in the struggle and went into a shop and bought another. He said that he left Hull on the morning of the murder for Sheffield, and got into company with a young woman. ‘I bought her a new hat,’ prisoner’s statement went on, ‘and another man got the woman away from me, and I could not put up with it, so I struck him with my knife and ran away. Since I was detained in Sheffield I have been troubled a great deal about it, and have talked about it in my sleep. I was afraid that someone would give me away, so I thought I would make a clean breast of it.’
Miss Alice Basford, who is employed at the Carlton Restaurant, High Street, was the next witness. She described once more how, as she was going towards the station with Hague, a man came up behind, put his arms around Hague’s neck, and threw him to the ground. The man immediately ran away towards Howard Street. She raised Hague to his feet, but he dropped down again, and died almost at once.
Mr Harold Thomas: ‘Did you notice the man?’
Miss Basford: ‘I only had a passing look at him as we passed him at the bottom of Granville Hill. I didn’t think anything about him at the time.’
‘Did you see the prisoner at the police station on the 9th October, among other men?’
‘I picked that man out as well as I could from the description of him.’
Mr Slater: ‘You went several times to the police station to identify people, and on one occasion you picked out another man, who turned out to be a police constable?’
‘No, not to my knowledge.’
‘I suppose there is not the slightest truth in the suggestion that you have met this man before?’
‘No, not to my knowledge.’
‘For instance, he had never bought you a hat?’
‘No, certainly not.’
In answer to further questions, Miss Basford said there was no struggle before Hague was struck. He did not cry out for assistance. She did not notice whether the assailant had a beard or not, but she saw that he had a dark moustache and a sallow complexion.
Gertrude Gulson, a young girl, said that she was going with her sister to the Midland Station on the Saturday night. She saw ‘one man knock the other down’. The man who struck Hague was wearing a stiff hat, black jacket and waistcoat, and blue trousers. She did not notice anything else.
Mr Slater: ‘You didn’t see the man’s face?’
Witness: ‘No.’
Miss Basford was recalled by the Judge, and repeated her statement that nothing took place between the men before Hague was struck to the ground. Arthur Houlgate, the cab driver who drove past with his cab at the moment of the murder, said he saw a man put his arm round Hague’s neck and strike him. Witness saw the flash of some bright instrument in the assailant’s hand. Witness’s attention was drawn to the occurrence by hearing a scream.
Mr Slater: ‘You took so little notice of it that you went on with your fare to the station?’
Witness: ‘Yes.’
Edith Gulson, who was passing with her sister on the way to the station, said that hearing a noise she turned round and saw Hague on the floor. Hague got up, and the other man then struck him again. In reply to Mr Slater, witness said it was a dark night, and raining slightly. She only noticed that the man who struck Hague was dark, and not very tall. She could not say whether he wore a beard or not. His Lordship (interposing): ‘What is the good of all this if none of the witnesses identify him?’
Arthur George Walker, waiter at the Carlton Restaurant, arrived on the scene after the murder had been committed. He said that Hague was lying on the ground, and Miss Basford asked him to run after a man who had been striking him. Annie Frow, of Masborough, gave somewhat remarkable evidence. She was passing, and saw the attack upon Hague. She said to Hague, ‘Why don’t you hit him back?’ The assailant said to her, ‘Would you hit him back?’ He was a big-built man, fair, wearing a brown coat, dark trousers, and a dark cap. He had no beard, and if he had a moustache, it was so fair that she did not notice it.
Mr Slater (pointing to the prisoner): ‘Is that the man?’
Witness: ‘No, that is not the man. I never saw him before I was taken to see him at the police station.’
Mr Thomas: ‘Can you tell me what the complexion of the deceased man was?’
‘I think his hair was dark. I paid more attention to the man who was running away.’
William A. Sullivan, landlord of the Bay Horse Inn, Greystock Street, said that Donovan was sober when he left his house on Saturday night. Mr Harold Thomas, in reply to the Judge, said that if Donovan’s confession at Hull could not be relied on, it was no good calling further evidence or putting in the statement the prisoner made to Sergeant Healey, which repeated it. He, therefore, did not intend to proceed further with the case against Donovan. His Lordship said that the jury could not possibly be asked to convict upon the evidence before them. It looked very much like a case in which a man who had been in drink had heard, or perhaps even seen, something happen, and then got into such a mood that he made a confession to the police. The jury accordingly returned a verdict of ‘Not guilty’. Donovan was discharged.

What is not made clear in the reports is why the police arrested and questioned Donovan two days after the assault, and why he was released four or five hours later. Regardless of Donovan’s ‘confession’, which he later retracted, the conflicting witness statements made it impossible for him to be convicted. He was wearing a stiff hat; he was wearing a dark cap. He was not very tall; he was big-built. He had a dark moustache; if he had a moustache it was too fair to be seen. He had dark hair; he had fair hair. He had a beard; it was not noticed that he had a beard. He was wearing a black jacket; he was wearing a brown coat. He was wearing dark trousers; he was wearing blue trousers. So William Hague’s killer, whether or not it was Donovan, escaped punishment.


The Times, Sep 24, 1900; pg 9; Issue 36255; column D

The News of The World dated 30th September 1900

Illustrated Police News 29th September 1900

BMD Reference - Death September 1900 quarter Sheffield - Walter Hague age 23 Volume 9c Page 354

Manchester Times dated Friday 12th October 1900

Manchester Times dated Thursday 25thOctober 1900

The Manchester Guardian

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This page was last updated on 18/02/19 09:56