Local historian Keith Johnson takes a look at an alleged rape that left more questions than answers...
On the first Thursday of August 1867 William Ascroft, who resided at Walton-le-Dale, appeared at the Preston Police Court accused of criminally assaulting Mary Ann Garlington, aged 14, early on the previous Sunday morning.
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He allegedly stole from her a pair of boots, a pair of clogs and two shillings in money.
According to the prosecution the victim had met with the prisoner in Lancaster Road late on the previous Saturday evening. The prisoner had asked where she lived and when she said Walton-le-Dale he said he also lived out that way and would accompany her home.
The pair agreed to walk together and took a route through Frenchwood that led to Swillbrook Lane. Halfway down the lane the accused had taken indecent liberties with her. In consequence of her screams three men who were also making their way from Preston seized the apparent offender and took him to a policeman.
Unfortunately, he was a new recruit and did not appear to understand the seriousness of the situation and allowed the accused to walk away.
The girl was the first witness called and she told how he had put his bare hand over her mouth so she could not scream and then sexually assaulted her. Afterwards he had pulled her newly bought boots off her feet, taking them along with a pair of clogs she had been carrying and what money she had in her pocket.
She screamed for help and the three men came to her aid within minutes. That evening she had gone into town with her friend, Thomas Seed, but they had become parted when he had gone to deliver a message.
Dr. Brown deposed that he examined the girl on the Sunday morning and said that he did not find any marks indicating that a violent act had taken place, although there were signs of recent sexual intercourse.
Detective Mathers stated that when he apprehended the prisoner the next day and accused him of ravishing the girl and stealing her belongings he had replied, “Yes. They say so.”
Sgt. Turner of the county police force stated that he had examined the place where the girl was found and there were appearances of a scuffle having taken place. He had examined the prisoner’s clothing and found a thorn in his stocking beneath his foot. The missing items had not been found and Ascroft had denied all knowledge of them or their whereabouts.
Mr. Blackhurst spoke on behalf of the accused saying he denied the charge and would produce witnesses to show that he was in the Cross Axes Inn on St. Johns Street at the time of the attack and only headed towards Swillbrook later. William Green, weaver, was one of those who testified, telling the court they had gone from the inn to a tripe shop in Water Street together.
The magistrates concluded that it was a painful case and came to the decision that it ought to be decided by a jury and committed Ascroft to the next Liverpool Assizes on bail sureties of £100.
The trial took place in late August 1867 before Lord Chief Justice Bovill and after going through the evidence and hearing from those who testified as to being in Ascroft’s company that night the jury retired.
The defence claimed a case of mistaken identity and after their deliberations the jury returned a verdict of not guilty of rape and Justice Bovill told the accused he was free to go.