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

Stone railway station

The front of the station

Stone has a magnificent railway station. I took a look the other day while wandering with my notebook and jotting ideas for future writing.

From the approach road

The station is a five minute walk from the town and in a conservation area. It’s very distinctive and beautifully designed. The sun and blue sky really showed it off, despite the thermometer being near zero.

The plaque

Stafford, the nearby larger county town, had a station which was wonderful too but was shamefully demolished. Just a few yards from Stone Station is the Trent and Mersey canal. Although it’s a pleasant and peaceful area this was a transport super highway during the industrial revolution with the Potteries a handful of miles to the north (and then onto Liverpool and Manchester) and the steel, coal and manufacturing of the Midlands just thirty miles south.

Walls around Stafford

Like many medieval towns Stafford was surrounded by walls. We may take for granted street lights, security and ease of transport but it would have been dark inside the walls and completely dark outside, except for moonlit nights. Travelling involved unsafe roads, robbers, wolves and the likelihood of getting lost. Walls were built and gates added for entrance via main routes such as the London Road and the road north. When the gates were shut you were stuck outside (near what is now the Aldi car park, with boy racers doubtless replacing the hungry dogs and wolves).

Wall from the east
It gave the roads North and South Walls their names

Stafford was relatively easy to defend and perhaps not easy to find. Despite its location nowadays on the mainline railway and M6, Stafford’s walled town was surrounded by marsh and river and only a few metres above the wetlands.

Side profile

The wall is not dissimilar to sections of other city walls and would’ve provided a formidable barrier to pre-artillery armies. Stafford was part of the frontline in Saxon times and had wooden barriers and gates. It was very much on the edge of disputed territory with the Danes nearby in Derbyshire and menacing along the Trent. There were also ditches dug to help defend us. More of this in a future post.

Wall looking to the marsh

This is sadly all that remains of the wall, a northern section at the east gate. Now known as Eastgate Street. The marsh just beyond is known as Kingsmead as there were pools of fish and eel kept here to feed the court.

Browsing Bennett in a Bookshop

Arnold Bennett was a prolific writer with a ferocious work ethic. Although I was aware of his writing thanks to a high school teacher, I didn’t try his work until I was older. A son of Hanley, they’re rightly proud in the Potteries of his creative achievements and there’s an informative display in the Potteries Museum. The statue of Bennett (below) is outside the museum in Bethesda Street.

Although well regarded in my home county Bennett is not quite as well known further afield these days. But he was very wealthy and highly regarded thanks to his skills and sales and he lived in Paris and London.

His novels still sell and have been made into popular films. Perhaps it was a nod to my roots that I searched out the book below and another book of his short stories in a Hampstead bookshop while working in London. I adore their design and it’s not surprising this Penguin style has been adopted for mugs and tee shirts.

Bennett wrote with great honesty about people’s lives and there is plenty of humour. The Old Wives’ Tale is wonderful. Clayhanger too. But my favourite is The Card. The book is comical and follows the cheeky Denry Machin’s rise through society with a few money making schemes along the way.

Arnold’s statue

The book was made into a successful film with Alec Guinness. Entertaining as it was none of the actors could master the distinctive Potteries dialect. It’s tricky to get right and is apparently as close as modern speech gets to Anglo-Saxon. I grew up just 15 miles away and was born on the edge of the city but I talk very differently. ‘Cook’ and ‘book’ rhyme with ‘luck’ for me but in the Potteries the double OO means they rhyme with Luke. If you’re interested there’s much more here – https://youtu.be/N6DJu1Ti5Kg

Ghost Line near Stafford

Halloa! Below there!

Dickens’s The Signalman remains one of my favourite ghost stories. The TV adaptation starring Denholm Elliott is fantastically eerie and shows how tension and dread can build without the need for expensive technical effects. My daily walk is along a disused railway line. It’s now become a walking and cycling route and connects Stafford with the villages to the west and onto Newport and elsewhere in Shropshire.

Towards Stafford

The line originally served Stafford to Wellington and onto Shrewsbury. It was opened in 1849 and a rarity in that it was built by a canal company – the Shropshire Union. The line was approximately 29 miles in length. It was leased by the LNWR, London and North Western Railway.

Underneath the arches

Sadly the line closed to passengers in September 1964. A few years afterwards it closed to freight too. It seems incredible now that a small rural village like Gnosall (much bigger these days) once had a station.

Heading west (towards Shropshire)

Indeed there have been repeated calls from politicians and rail groups to reopen the line. Shropshire has been frequently disadvantaged in lacking direct London services. A rail service joining the West Coast Mainline at Stafford, and avoiding the congestion of Wolverhampton and Birmingham was advocated by many.

Marker between Doxey and Derrington

The line is single track – and although a section was restored in Telford – the Stafford to Telford leg will not reopen. It has been built on and rail investment has been directed towards cities and HS2.

But there are signs the railway was here. Apart from the obvious track ballast (capped for walking) there are bridges and drainage ditches and posts and mileage markers. There are bits of platform left too. My granddad was a police sergeant in nearby Gnosall and pheasants were delivered (among other things) from friends and family in Anglesey, some 150 miles away. Several changes but they got there by name and expectation. There’s a great, colourful piece and short film about Gnosall station and it’s sad demise at the link below thanks to Gnosall History.

Bridge in Doxey Road that once stood over the Uttoxeter line

Just off the Doxey Road in Stafford is a bridge that seemingly goes over wasteland. Nothing else. This was once crossing the eastern section heading towards Uttoxeter.

Now we’re left with ghosts and faint whistles or puffs of steam. HALLOA! BELOW THERE!

Refs: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stafford%E2%80%93Shrewsbury_line

http://www.gnosallhistory.co.uk/railway.htm

This was once the Shropshire line leaving the WCML at Stafford