Death on the Cut – The murder of Christina Collins

Christina Collins was murdered in Staffordshire in the summer of 1839. It was a dreadful crime that still echoes down the years in TV drama, radio plays and news articles. There have been talks, art, and events held by community groups. Christina is definitely not forgotten.

Hoo Mill lock and lockkeeper’s cottage – where Christina was last seen alive

There will always be an appetite amongst some for gory detail in reporting on criminal cases, but there seems to be a growing understanding that victims and their families should be treated with greater dignity and respect. A benchmark, perhaps, was the recent publication of Hallie Rubenhold’s book The Five, which tells the story of the five women murdered by Jack the Ripper. It’s a fantastic read and deals with each of the women’s lives in turn, telling their stories as wives and mothers and workers, rather than ‘just prostitutes’ as they’ve often been branded since the 1880s. Of particular local interest to this blog is the life of Catherine Eddowes, the Ripper’s fourth victim who was born in 1842 and brought up in Wolverhampton (then in Staffordshire) and only a short distance from Rugeley where Christina was to meet her tragic fate three years before. Christina grew up across the Midlands in Nottingham and, when still a young woman, married the magician Thomas Ingleby, billed the ‘Emperor of all the Conjurers’ David Bell writes in his Staffordshire Tales of Mystery and Murder. Christina joined him on his travels and on stage but the older Ingleby died leaving Christina a widow at 30. She met and married Robert Collins and they moved to Liverpool, but Robert struggled to find work and went ahead to London, sending money for Christina to follow him once he had secured a job and lodgings. Unable to afford to travel by rail or stagecoach, she opted for the slower canal network. It’s hard to imagine travelling by canal across England today, except for leisure purposes. But these routes were once super highways critical to the transportation of goods. Fragile pottery from north Staffordshire depended on the canals to reach domestic and overseas markets, for example. By travelling along the canal network poor Christina wasn’t to know she would be at tremendous risk from the crew she would be travelling with and effectively trapped with them for a long time.

Hoo Mill Lock

The captain of the boat was James Owen. Two other men – George Thomas and William Ellis – and a boy called Isaac Musson, made up the crew. They departed on the evening of 15 June but it wasn’t long before Christina was subjected to lewd behaviour and comments and the men began drinking heavily. She made a complaint at Stoke but continued on her journey. The men’s conduct improved when another woman joined the boat, but when she left Christina must’ve been terrified to be alone again. She was travelling with three men and a boy who were drinking and openly expressing their desire for her. Although it was summer the nights must’ve been particularly terrifying, especially in the open countryside where there would only be the occasional farmhouse or lockkeeper’s cottage. She appealed for help again at Stone, but received no support. There is a noticeboard marking Christina’s story beside the Trent and Mersey canal and a weathered wooden sculpture at Workhouse Bridge in the town (pictured below). Christina chose to walk for stretches along the towpath, undoubtedly so fearful of the men who should’ve been providing her safe passage to join her husband.

Mileage marker – Preston Brook where the journey began

When they reached Hoo Mill, near Great Haywood (pic below and top) the lockkeeper heard screaming and asked who the woman was, only to be told her husband was onboard. This was the last known sighting of Christina. She was found early the following morning in the waters of the cut (as canals are known in these parts) near Rugeley. After enquiries were made all four crew members were arrested on suspicion of murder and rape. The boy, Musson, was not subsequently charged. Witnesses gave evidence the men had spoken of their intentions towards Christina and made lewd comments as they’d passed another crew. As in so many similar cases down the years it’s hard not to conclude Christina’s life may have been spared if they’d intervened.

Hoo Mill lock
Sculpture at the canalside in Stone

As often happens the stories of the men contradicted each other. Owen said that Christina was ‘deranged’ and had drowned herself. The three were found guilty of Christina’s murder (but not rape, due to judge’s directions). Owen and Thomas were hanged in Stafford in April 1840, with thousands turning out to watch. Ellis’s punishment was transportation to the penal colonies of Australia.

Christina’s tragic tale has echoed down the years and there are plaques telling her story and a sculpture beside the canal. There have been plays, radio and TV based on the case and, most famously, an Inspector Morse novel The Wench is Dead. A few years ago a television show re-examined the case with a lawyer concluding the men’s convictions were unsafe and they shouldn’t have hanged.

Stafford’s Shire Hall, where the trial took place

Christina was found in the canal by locals and carried up the steps to a nearby pub. The steps became known thereafter as The Bloody Steps. She’s buried in St Augustine’s churchyard in Rugeley, the final resting place of Doctor Palmer’s victims.

We can never know exactly what happened that night. The men lied and contradicted each other and their witnessed behaviour was dreadful. Whether she was murdered or she accidentally drowned after an assault or confrontation Christina Collins’ feelings must’ve ranged from desperately unhappy and lonely and longing for her husband to fearing for her life.

I’m glad people still talk about the case and care about Christina. When I posted the image at the bottom of this piece on Twitter I received replies from Kate and Tash who’d walked the route and visited these places in tribute to Christina.

I wrote a short ghost story ‘Adrift’ – which I’ll publish tomorrow. It received 3rd place in the 2019 Tamworth short story competition and owes much to this case.

Further reading:

The Wench is Dead notes – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wench_Is_Dead

Travelling in no Direction blog – http://travellinginnodirection.blogspot.com/2012/12/christina-collins-and-bloody-steps.html

Capital Punishment website (links to grave photo and poster advertising hangings – http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/The%20Bloody%20Steps.html

Boat man hanged was innocent – https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/boat-man-hanged-murdering-woman-18749306

Staffordshire Tales of Mystery and Murder – David Bell (Countryside Books)

The Newgate Calendar – https://www.exclassics.com/newgate/ng898.htm

Staffordshire Past Track – News cutting – https://www.search.staffspasttrack.org.uk/Details.aspx?ResourceID=17733&PageIndex=2&SearchType=2&ThemeID=35

3 thoughts on “Death on the Cut – The murder of Christina Collins

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