Preston chimney sweep jailed for two months on manslaugther charge
Local historian Keith Johnson looks back at a tragic case of a drunken couple in Victorian times...
Coroner William Gilbertson held an inquest on the first Saturday of October 1875 following the sudden death of Elizabeth Breakall in mysterious circumstances.
The first witness called was Ellen Rowlands who lived in Melling’s Yard off Friargate. She testified that she had known the deceased for eight years and that she was a weaver by trade and had been twice married.
She recalled how on the previous Saturday she had turned up asking for lodgings for herself and her companion Alexander Hewitt who was a chimney sweep by trade. The woman complained of fatigue and pain in her bowels and although she had no spare beds she took pity on them allowing them to share the room that was already occupied by herself, her husband, her two sons and a female lodger. A makeshift bed of straw being supplied for them, on which they slept.
The pair seemed to be on good terms with each other and during the following days went out seeking employment. However, on the Thursday the pair were drinking from an early hour and when they returned at 9 o’clock in the evening a quarrel took place between them and they were put out of the house. Although when they returned shortly afterwards she relented and allowed them to stay.
At four o’clock in the morning Mrs. Rowlands was awoken as Hewitt stormed out of the house and the deceased complained of a severe headache and by morning she was in a rambling state.
When Hewitt returned a couple of hours later concern about the woman’s health was such that Dr. Smith was called for. Seeing she was gasping for breath and in an unconscious state he ordered a mustard plaster, but before it could be applied she was dead.
Mrs. Rowlands concluded her testimony by saying she had never seen Hewitt treat the woman in a violent manner. The conclusion drawn from a subsequent post mortem being that death was caused by an effusion on the brain. Thomas Bolton, son of the previous witness, told the court that he had observed the couple earlier that Thursday evening.
He testified that Hewitt was telling her to go away and struck her on the breast causing her to slump to the ground. A couple of other residents of Melling’s Yard also testified as to the couple quarrelling that evening, including Rebecca Appleby who recalled seeing Hewitt helping her off the floor as the woman complained that her head was hurting.
Alexander Hewitt, aged 52, was the last witness and he stated that the pair had been in the Dog and Partridge and the Waterloo Inn and after having a few glasses of beer they had returned to the lodgings where they had continued drinking. He concluded by stating that he had never struck her and when she fell he had helped her up.
The Coroner concluded the inquest by telling the jury that they must determine if the fall that led to the woman’s death was accidental or following a blow struck by Hewitt. The jury returning a verdict of manslaughter against Hewitt. At a police court hearing on the following Monday afternoon Hewitt was committed for trial at the next Manchester Assizes with bail refused.
At the trial in early December before Mr Justice Lush the accused pleaded not guilty as details of the pair’s intoxicated day were discussed. The jury took little time in returning a guilty verdict.
However, his Lordship remarked that he believed what had occurred was the result of an accident not an intent to kill, telling Hewitt that having spent six weeks in custody awaiting trial he would be realised in a fortnight at the conclusion of two-month prison sentence.