Missing watch key evidence that saw murderer executed in Preston

Local historian Keith Johnson looks back at a murder case from yesteryear that took more than two years to solve...

Thursday, 13th May 2021, 12:30 pm
William Calcraft despatched the killer into eternity
William Calcraft despatched the killer into eternity

James Barton engineer, aged 55, and a father of twelve employed at Bulkhouse Pit Colliery, between Chorley and Wigan, was last seen alive on the second night of January 1863.

He had been seen in a cabin at eight o’clock that night, but at three o’clock next morning he was nowhere to be found. A search was undertaken and ultimately the furnaces were examined and portions of a human body were discovered. Portions of flesh and bones were found there, as well as buttons and buckles with the conclusion drawn that Barton had been consumed by the furnace fire.

It was believed he had been thrown into the furnace and a £200 reward was offered by Capt. Elgee, chief constable of the county, for the discovery of his killers.

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The police followed various leads in the years ahead, but they proved fruitless until early in 1865 when information led them to dredge a length of canal where they were told the watch that

Barton was known to be wearing on the day he died had been thrown.

The search was unsuccessful, but knowledge of the search came to the attention of William Grime, the father of Thomas Grime a convicted felon.

His father and James, his brother, recollected that Thomas had arrived at their Chorley home the morning after Barton’s killing with a watch. The watch had been pawned in early April 1863, and shortly afterwards Grime had gotten into trouble and was sent to prison for three years.

Before he went away he had told his brother he could have the watch if he retrieved it from the pawn shop of Miles Alston in Chorley. Despite not having a pawn ticket his brother eventually managed to get the watch and he sold it to a man called Akers. Considering the situation William Grime decided to get the watch back from Akers and hand it over to the police.

Consequently, Thomas Grime was interviewed at Dartmoor Prison where he was being held and he confessed to being involved in the affair, but laid the blame on two other men named Thompson and Seddon.

Saying that Thompson had struck Barton on the head with a crowbar and that the pair had carried him to the furnace, dumped him within and shovelled ten spades of slack on him, whilst he stood watching trembling at the horror.

Bizarrely, Grime when interviewed later gave different accounts of the tragedy and implicated others.

Eventually this led to both Grime and a man named Thomas Walton appearing at the Liverpool Assizes in August 1866 before Baron Martin accused of the murder of James Barton.

The trial of Grime took place first and evidence regarding the pawned watch was submitted along with the various accounts of the killing made by the accused.

In his defence it was argued that confessions of guilt were seldom fit to be depended upon and that statements made by associates of Grime were unreliable, claiming that the prisoner was simply an unintentional spectator of the murder.

The jury returned a guilty verdict within minutes and His Lordship Baron Martin expressed his satisfaction, describing it as a truly barbarous crime. He then donned the black cap and sentenced Grime to death.

Thomas Walton was then placed in the dock and Mr. Aspinall,QC, acting on behalf of the Crown said he would offer no evidence, explaining that his confession of the killing had been made whilst in a drunken state.

His Lordship then discharged Walton.

The public execution of Thomas Grime took place at noon on the first Saturday of September 1866 outside Kirkdale Gaol in Liverpool. There was a large crowd of over 40,000 assembled to witness the gruesome spectacle performed by executioner William Calcraft, including Anthony Hewitson, editor of the ‘Preston Chronicle’, who filed an account that appeared in the late edition of that day’s paper.

It was stated later that Grime had made a full confession of the crime and exonerated Thompson, Seddon and Walton.

The Rev. Canon Henry Greenhalgh of Weld Bank, Chorley, where Grime’s family resided had been in attendance during his final hours and he urged the folk of Chorley to pray for the repose of his soul.