Death at the Owlerton Feast - Sheffield 4th July 1854

The Death of Joseph Crookes - Saw Grinder

A posting on a local Family History Mailing List a few years ago made a brief mention of a

"...foul deed took place in Owlerton "at the House of Mr. Thomas HAWKSLEY [the name HOLLINS was also mentioned] the sign of the Hillsborough Inn". It was Owlerton Feast on the 3rd. July, at two o'clock in the morning. Poor Joseph Crookes died of his injuries on the 15th July. "Joseph Crookes of Holme Lane in Owlerton, Nether Hallam, saw grinder, said the body was that of Joseph Crookes the younger, a saw grinder who was about twenty years of age."
That's all I can tell you about the victim. If anybody can add anything about the other participants in the story then please let us know. They were; John HOLROYD, Joseph PEECH, Charles HAINES, George SYKES, Frank KNOWLES, Charles CARPENTER, Mark FURNISS, and John ASHMORE.

In March 2008, I finally obtained a copy of a contemporary newspaper report of the incident

The Era (London, England), Sunday, July 23, 1854; Issue 826 gave the following account


A cowardly outrage committed at Owlerton on the 4th July has resulted in the death of the victim Joseph Crookes jnr. saw grinder, Hill bridge. the offence was committed at the Owlerton Feast where the murdered man went on the night of Monday, 3rd July and stayed drinking at the Sportsman Group public house till about two in the morning. During the night a quarrel had taken place between Crookes and one or two of the men in the room and when the company all left the house at the request of the landlord, five or six of the men - two of them with heavy sticks and another with a thick sharpened log of wood - waited outside the door and upon Crookes coming out, commenced a brutal attack upon him, in the course of which they inflicted such injuries as ultimately resulted in his death. All the parties included the murdered man were more or less intoxicated. The names of the persons implicated were John Ashmore, table blade forger, Charles carpenter, and Henry Thompson. They have been brought before Mr Sorby, the coroner and the jury after a long investigation returned a verdict of wilful murder "

This account neatly dovetailed with a report of the subsequent court case that appeared in The Times. In it's report of the  1854 York Winter Assizes it gives a further, more detailed account of Joseph Crookes death.

I should add that the area of Owlerton in Sheffield in centred roughly where the Greyhound Stadium is now located just off Penistone Road. I can find no details of the Owlerton Feast or the Sportsman Groom public house. There was for many years a Sportsman Group public house on the corner of Bradfield Road but this was demolished as part of a road widening scheme. The photos of the pub I have seen point to a pub constructed in the late nineteenth century rather than one built earlier. Perhaps it was built on the site of the earlier pub

The other point to note is that the area was still essentially rural as the following photo taken fifty years later shows shows


The Times Report stated



 Crown Court - (Before Mr Baron  ALDERSON)

John Holroyd, Charles Haines, George Knowles, and Joseph Peech, were indicted for the wilful murder of Joseph Crookes, at Ecclesfield, near Sheffield, on the 4th of July last. 

Mr Dearaley, and Mr Johnston prosecuted; Mr Heaton defended the prisoner Holroyd, Mr Campbell Foster Haines, Mr D Seymour Knowles, and Mr Overend, the prisoner Peech.

 It appeared that on the 4th of July last, it being the village feast of Owlerton, the deceased went to the Sportsman Groom public house, kept by a man named Hollins, at which there was a dance.  The deceased went there about 6 o'clock in the evening, left, and again returned about midnight.  About that time the four prisoners and a number of other men from Sheffield appeared also to have gone to the house and engaged in the dancing going on.  The deceased was the worse for liquor, and so conducted himself as to give offence to several of the Sheffield men; and about 2 o'clock in the morning he was challenged to fight, and engaged in a scuffle with two or three of the prisoners, and received a bloody nose in the dancing-room in the fray.  It appeared also that he had endeavoured to make peace with the men with whom he had been fighting by treating them to drink.  In the midst of one of the scuffles the landlord entered the room and told them they must all leave, and cleared the house.  At that time there were upwards of 20 people, chiefly men, and some women. 

The prisoners, who all came from Sheffield, left together, and the deceased in a minute or two followed after them.  Immediately on the deceased leaving the house, and getting into the road, some of the witnesses, pulled him down on the road, and according to others, struck him down with a cart-cottar. * These men were said to be of the Sheffield party.  Some the witnesses said Holroyd was the man who struck the deceased the first blow with a gutta-percha stick; according to others Knowles was the first man who struck him, and knocked him down with a cart-prop; while another witness said Haines first knocked him down.  When down he was struck repeatedly on the head by first one and then another with the cart-prop, a piece of wood a yard and a half long and as thick as a man's wrist, with a cart-cottar, and with a piece of wood three inches square, and of some length, which had been obtained from a cart near.  A man named Ashmore, was also seen to strike the deceased a swinging blow with the cart-cottar, as also a man named Sykes; and Peech was spoken to by one witness as having struck him on the head with the square piece of timber. Haines was said to be like Ashmore, in appearance, and the witnesses differed as to which of them got the cart-cottar from the cart.  It was dusk at the time - between light and dark.  A man named Rutherford came to the door to endeavour to make peace, and while standing there stones and oyster-shells were thrown at him and he went in again.  He returned again, and while talking to two of the men was struck by a third.  He went into the house for the poker, with which he armed himself and returned, and struck about with the poker, the deceased at the time being on the ground, and all the prisoners, except Peech, described as striking him repeatedly with first one and then another of the weapons with which they had armed themselves from the cart. 

At length the landlord came out armed with his gun, and threatened to shoot among them if they did not go away.  The men then all went away, and the deceased was found insensible and bleeding from two serious wounds on his head.  He was carried into the house and washed, and afterwards assisted home, and a surgeon called in immediately to attend him.  The surgeon, Mr Moore, of Sheffield, stated that he found the deceased bleeding from his nose, mouth, and left ear, and vomiting blood mixed with liquor.  He had several bruises about his head, face and shoulders.  He had a wound two inches long, cut to the bone, on the top of his head, and a little further back was a tumour.  The main died on the 5th of July, and he made a post-mortem examination of his head.  The tumour was found full of bloody pus, and on taking oft the scalp he found an extensive fracture of the parietal and temporal bones, extending half round the head, and immediately beneath the two wounds. A piece of bone had been driven out of the temporal bone.  The fracture was the primary cause of death.  One of these wounds must have been made with an edged, the other with a blunt instrument.  There was abundant evidence to show that all the prisoners, except Peech, who was only spoken to by one witness, had struck the deceased with one or other of the weapons after he was on the ground. 

The defence on behalf of each prisoner was that the circumstances, as proved, could not amount to more than manslaughter, supposing that the evidence given in support of the charge was fully believed, and much ingenuity was displayed in endeavouring, on the part of each of the counsel, to remove from the shoulders of their own individual clients the culpability of the transactions and they all urged that at the time of the morning, in the midst of a drunken squabble at a village feast, it was impossible to say whose hand struck the fatal blow, and how far the deceased had brought the attack upon himself, which it was contended was without concert. 

 His Lordship, in summing up most carefully, directed the jury as to the Law, and what would constitute murder.  If the act of killing were done with an intention to kill, and was neither justifiable in point of law nor excusable from prior provocation, it was murder.  If a man beat another with a deadly weapon so as to cause, death, it was murder, as his intention must be presumed from the kind of weapon used.  But a weapon might be used which might either be intended to kill or merely to beat a man.  If, in that case, with such a weapon, a man beat another to such excess as to put his life in danger, the jury might infer from that an intention to kill, which was necessary to constitute the first step in murder.  There was another complication.  If the blows were all struck by one man, he must know of the excess, and his intention to kill must be inferred from that knowledge, and that would be murder.  But when the excess arose from a great number of isolated acts by different men, they could not put all those acts together so as to constitute the excess of violence which allowed an intention to kill, unless they brought knowledge of all the blows to each man.  But if, seeing a man beaten several blows, a man went and struck the last blow, that last blow might constitute the excess of violence which caused death , and that man was responsible for all the blows.  The question here was, was the excess of blows brought home to the knowledge of the prisoner? 

His lordship then alluded to the want of light, and the possibility of the prisoners not being able to see the effect of the blows.  No proof at all had been given by whom the blows had been struck that had caused the death, and the weapons which might have inflicted the blows had been used by all the prisoners.  But if in the course of the scuffle many blows were given, had those engaged in it a common purpose in inflicting them?  If they had, and they could not be aware of the excess, the killing would be manslaughter; if aware of the excess it would be murder.  His Lordship then called attention to the prisoners all setting upon the deceased the moment he appeared outside the house, as evidencing a common purpose to beat him.  Probably they were filled with resentment at having been turned out of the house, and at having had their festivity broken up by the conduct of the deceased in the dancing room.  Their having hastily picked up weapons from a cart showed they were unprepared to inflict injury on the deceased, and pointed to the nature of the offence being rather that of manslaughter than murder.  His Lordship then read the evidence.  If the evidence satisfied them that all the prisoners except Peech took part in the excess of violence knowing it to be excess, it would be murder; it they all took part in it not knowing it to be excess, it would be manslaughter.  If they were not satisfied that all or any of them rook part in the violence, they or he must be acquitted.

The jury retired, and, after an absence of half an hour, returned with a verdict of Guilty of manslaughter against all except Peech, whom by Acquitted by direction of his Lordship.

The case occupied nearly all day.

Sentence was deferred.

The deferral of sentence lasted just one day. The Leeds Mercury reported that on 8th December 1854, Mr Baron  ALDERSON delivered his judgement on the three defendants. It stated

"John Holroyd, Charles Haines and George Knowles convicted of  manslaughter at Owlerton, near Sheffield last July were severely sentenced to six years penal servitude. In  passing sentence upon the prisoners, the learned judge said that the jury had very properly found the prisoners guilty of manslaughter, a crime that was committed under circumstances of considerable violence , they being at the same time more or less intoxicated.   It seems that six or seven of them had attacked the deceased with weapons which most certainly they had seized in a hasty manner - still the attack was cruel, cowardly and unlawful - cowardly because there were some seven to one - cruel because their weapons were heavy and improper - and unlawful because they had committed an outrage against society. He must therefore punish them with severity. He had hesitated whether he ought not to transport then for  along term of years, but he should not send them out of the country. The sentence of the court was that they each undergo six years penal servitude"

Sadly I do not know what became of any of the defendants after they served their sentences. It is difficult in hindsight to get the "feel" of a case such as this but the impression I get is that the defendants were treated rather leniently. Transportation to Australia was thankfully in its final death throes and it was this factor I think that mitigated the sentence. I am sure that if the death had occurred thirty years before the three defendants would have been transported. They were also fortunate in that the court case at the Winter assizes came before  Mr Baron  ALDERSON who by the standards of the Victorian era, was a more thoughtful and merciful judge trhan what was normally the case..

But what fascinated me about the whole event were the modern parallels. Crowds of men shouting,  drunkenness, fighting and assaults in the street, you would almost think it was Sheffield in the twenty first century but it was over 150 years ago.

Mmmmm... perhaps the traditions of the Owlerton, Feast live on!

* a cotter consisting of a split pin that is secured (after passing through a hole) by splitting the ends apart 


The Era (London, England), Sunday, July 23, 1854; Issue 826

The Times, 8 December 1854

The Leeds Mercury

Return To Main Homepage

This page was last updated on 19/03/08 09:45