Local historian Keith Johnson takes a look back at a chilling murder suicide from yesteryear...
James Brocklebank Proctor, age 21, was a man of regular habits who lived with his parents in Brook Street, Preston.
On the last Sunday of 1883, when he had not returned home by his usual 10 o’clock in the evening his father was feeling somewhat uneasy. A little later a knock on the door brought a visitor who told his parents sad news of their son and his girlfriend, Mary Yates, aged 20.
The young solicitor’s clerk had met his sweetheart, a domestic servant, early that evening and they had spent their time walking the streets of Fulwood, being seen by a number of people.
Shortly after 9 o’clock as they walked along Albert Road things did not appear exactly harmonious and the girl was seen once or twice to leave her companion. Then, according to witnesses close by, Proctor took out a revolver and shot the girl. Immediately afterwards raising the revolver to his own head and shooting himself.
A crowd rapidly gathered and medical assistance was soon on hand. The lifeless body of Proctor was slumped in a hedgerow and Mary Yates lay on the footpath only yards from her killer.
She was not at this stage dead and was removed to the Fulwood Workhouse hospital.
Her father, James Yates, a drainer of Broughton, was immediately informed and he dashed to the hospital, remaining there until she passed away in the early hours.
At the inquest into the tragedy, before coroner William Gilbertson, details of the couple’s romance were discussed. They had been keeping company for about three years and some seven months before her death, Mary Yates had spoken of their impending wedding. For about five years she had worked as a domestic servant in the employ of Mr. Wilding of Sunny Bank, Fulwood, and had left with her marriage looming.
Albeit at the time the intended nuptials were delayed and while she waited, she acquired a similar position in the home of Mr. Knagg, a schoolmaster, of Grosvenor Terrace.
Proctor had continued to pay attention to the girl and they were frequently seen together. She had recently confided to her mistress that she was to be married soon and that she was happy in her courtship, and that her lover was both respectable and steady. Whilst in the service of Mr. Knagg, the girl was regarded as kind and industrious. She and her fiancée were both members of the St. Peters Church bible class where Mr. Knagg was the head teacher.
There had been no indication of Proctor’s intention to commit such a terrible deed and no witness called had noticed any change in the demeanour of Proctor prior to the incident. The couple had disagreed at times and it was related that Proctor had been known to take another girl to the theatre on occasions. It was said that at times he had lied to the girl, but his motive had been to marry her. However, the girl had been advised not to marry him because he had not the means to keep her.
The fact that Proctor had purchased the revolver in mid-April from a Preston pawnbroker, suggested that the crime was premeditated.
The inquest jury came to the conclusion that Mary Ann Yates had met her death by the act of James Brocklebank Proctor, and that he maliciously, feloniously and of malice aforethought, murdered her and then wilfully committed suicide with malice aforethought.
On the following Wednesday Mary Yates was interred in Broughton churchyard, witnessed by crowds of sorrowful mourners. Early the following morning James Proctor was buried in Preston Cemetery, without a religious service.