Preston woman collapsed and died after being targeted in robbery

Local historian Keith Johnson looks back at a tragic robbery case from yesteryear...

A bustling North Road circa 1910 where Sarah Magee dropped dead
A bustling North Road circa 1910 where Sarah Magee dropped dead

In January 1905 amongst the residents in Traynor’s lodging house in Manchester Road was Sarah Magee, aged 65. She was the widow of David Magee and following his death had come upon hard times, having to spend her days as a hawker selling laces, buttons and bows to earn a few coppers.

On the last Saturday of the month she had left her lodgings at six o’clock in the evening telling fellow lodger Lawrence Riley she did not feel so well, but thought the fresh air might do her good. Half an hour later she was seen conversing unsuccessfully to persuade a man outside the Three Tuns on North Road to buy a pair of laces.

Next door to the public house was the newsagent’s shop of Mrs. Hesketh who heard a noise in her backyard shortly before seven o’clock.

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Going outside she saw a man in the darkness and he called for her to bring a light. Her husband then joined her with a lighted candle and they discovered James Tomlinson standing over the body of a woman slumped against the gate apparently dead.

P.C. Robinson was soon on the scene and he alerted the medical men who removed the body to the mortuary, the woman having been identified as Mrs. Magee by a couple of locals who knew her well. The man who was beside the body was James Tomlinson, aged 31, a short built sturdy fellow and the constable asked him what was going on and he said he was trying to get into the yard and when he pushed the door he felt something behind it, and found the woman lying there.

Concerned about the involvement of Tomlinson, who appeared to be quite drunk, the constable arrested him and on the way to the Earl Street police station he pulled a large loose purse out of his coat pocket saying to the officer: “Who has put this in my pocket ?”. Later investigation would show that the broken string attached to it corresponded to a band of string around the waist of the deceased.

Tomlinson appeared before the Preston magistrates on the following Monday with a charge of causing the woman’s death before him. After hearing details of the incident Tomlinson was remanded in custody until after the inquest on Mrs. Magee.

The inquest took place following a post mortem and Dr. Pilkington reported that the woman had died from a ruptured aneurysm and that her condition was such he was amazed she had lived so long.

Stating that due to her condition any excitement or exertion would have probably hastened her death.

A week later Tomlinson appeared before the magistrates again and details of the inquest were discussed. The question under consideration was if Tomlinson in stealing the purse had violently robbed the deceased, causing her premature death. To resolve the matter files were sent to the Public Prosecutor and the prisoner returned to custody.

The magistrates were directed to withdraw the original charge and in mid-February 1905 Tomlinson pleaded not guilty to a charge of stealing a pocket containing a pipe, tobacco and a few copper coins, saying he had no recollection of taking it as he had been drinking.

He was committed to the Preston Sessions held days later.

Tomlinson had been identified as the man talking to Mrs. Magee outside the Three Tuns and P.C. Robinson had observed when arresting him that his clothes were besmeared with whitewash from the yard wall and his face and hands were dirty and on examining the deceased woman’s clothing there were dirty finger marks on her coat.

It was clearly difficult to prove anything other than that Tomlinson had robbed the dead woman.

The jury took little time to return a guilty verdict and Tomlinson was sentenced to two months in prison.