My very bloody valentine

Teesdale Mercury August 25th 1880
Teesdale Mercury August 25th 1880

To quote Sandy Denny and the brilliant Fairport Convention, who knows where the time goes. It has been six weeks since my last blog and I feel like I should justify the absence (if only to help myself feel like i’ve not been slacking).

So, I have helped my girlfriend move her floristry business to the Ouseburn (men reading, don’t do a last minute BP/Shell job this Valentine’s, you have an amazing local florist). I’ve been on two training days at the British Library, been preparing abstracts for conferences (fingers crossed for getting accepted), have written and given my first one hour talk (word to the wise, live poll technology is only interesting if it works!) and I’ve even been making a music video with my comedy group Hot Gulp, for the brilliant Wave Pictures. I also got a chance to put a name to a face, when I met with the frequently mentioned Barry Redfern, whose expert knowledge on crime and punishment in the region has been immensely helpful to my studies. It was a thoroughly enjoyable few hours and I even managed to get a signed copy of his book. Right, that’s enough excuses.

My Signed copy of Barry Redfern's Shadow of the Gallows.
My Signed copy of Barry Redfern’s, The Shadow of the Gallows.

As part of my research for my upcoming talk, I came across an execution in the region that felt like a perfect fit for Valentine’s Day. It is a brutal story about a young lover spurned.

On the night of the 17th August 1880, William Brownless (22) and Elizabeth Holmes (24/5) were in the garden of Holmes’ sister (Mrs Mills) in Evenwood, County Durham. They were having a conversation and it was overheard by a miner called James Davis. The Morpeth Herald summarised it in their report of the criminal trial,

The purport of the conversation was that Brownless was asking the girl to be friends and to go with him again, to which Miss Holmes replied kindly but firmly, “No.” Brownless bade Mrs Mills and Holmes good night, and nothing unusual was noticed about him, except that he observed that he would “have a spree before saturday.”

Morpeth Herald 20th November 1880 p.2

The Hartlepool Mail offered a more detailed report that sheds more light on the nature of the conversation. Reporting Davies’ evidence they stated that,

Brownless said to the young woman, “come, lets have a kiss.” She replied, “No.” Then Brownless said, “lets go together and be kind, never to part no more.” But she said “No.” Brownless asked her if she were not as good as he, and in reply she said, “Yes; but you don’t think so.” They went away and be heard no more.

Hartlepool Mail 16th November, 1880 p.3

The following morning, around 8am, Miss Holmes set off for work, she was

employed in some field work on the Buckshead Farm, and to reach the place of her labour, she had to pass through some fields.

Morpeth Herald 20th November 1880 p.2

This was to be the last walk she would ever make across those fields as Brownless’ imparting comment of “never to part no more” was to be brutally realised.

At 9.30am a local man, William Teesdale, walking home between Evenwood and Cockfield, made an appalling discovery in the fields. He found the young Miss Holmes

near the stile of one of the fields laying on the ground dead, with her throat cut from ear to ear in a fearful manner.

Morpeth Herald 20th November 1880 p.2

She wasn’t alone.

By her side, and with his arm around her, was lying Brownless also with his throat cut. He was alive, but unable to utter a word.

Morpeth Herald 20th November 1880 p.2

They say hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, but what of a young man spurned?¹

The Hartlepool Mail reported that,

The ground looked as though there had been a struggle. It was a pasture-field, and from the appearance of the ground there had been a hard struggle. A man’s hat, a hoe, and a dinner bag were found on the ground some distance from the place the two were lying. The man’s arm was round the woman as they lay on the ground. They both had their faces to the ground.

Hartlepool MailTuesday 16 November 1880 p.3


The walk between Evenwood and Cockfield where William Teesdale found the bodies of the young lovers
The walk between Evenwood and Cockfield where William Teesdale found the bodies of the young lovers

Unsure of what had happened, Teesdale attempted to speak to the badly wounded Brownless, but he couldn’t talk, given his near fatal injuries. Teesdale then made for a nearby turnip field to get help.

Soon Superintendent Banks at Bishop Auckland, a supporting constable and Dr George Todd of West Auckland were at the scene.² Sadly, they were too late for Holmes.

The Tragic Miss Holmes was quite dead, her throat being cut from ear to ear. The windpipe was completely severed and death must have been instantaneous

Bizarrely, the same paper then goes on to completely undermine the notion that death was instantaneous by stating that

There were also two ugly gashes under the chin, leading to the inference that the man had not at first succeeded in his design.

This explanation, combined with the obvious signs of struggle that nearly all the papers reported would surely make it clear that this was anything but an instantaneous death. It was a drawn out and brutal struggle by a “young and powerful man.”³ A few weeks later the weapon was reported to have been found in an adjoining field, enclosed in a razor case, implying that Brownless must have made an attempt on his own life and then returned to the deceased Holmes to place himself beside her.

In her book on Durham Executions, Maureen Anderson sheds more light on the proceedings.

Whether out of sympathy for the injured man or in a bid to procure a confession, Brownless was told that Elizabeth was still alive. He admitted that, knowing the route she took to work, he had been hiding by the hedge waiting for her. As she passed he had grabbed her legs and pulled her to the ground and drawn a razor across her throat. Elizabeth had managed to get up and run. Elizabeth had managed to get up and run a few yards but Brownless caught up to her and cut her throat again. When he thought she was dead he drew the razor across his own throat and put the weapon in his breast pocket, then could remember no more.

M.Anderson., Durham Executions from 1700 to 1900 (Pen and Sword, 2007) p.130

One thing that is particularly fascinating about this case is its presentation across different newspapers. Most ran with a variation on the headline “Murder of a sweetheart”, which would imply some sort of long running relationship. However, certain reports, muddy the extent to which they were even an item. In the Teesdale Mercury despite the headline “Awful Tragedy At Evenwood – Murder of a Sweetheart” it is quite clear that Brownless had consistently been spurned by Holmes.

While she was with her sister, Brownless made her acquaintance, and  afterwards paid his addsesses? (sic) to her, which, however, she did not reciprocate. She was relieved from his importunities for a short time, owing to his leaving the neighbourhood for Lunedale, where he was employed in hay making. Brownless returned to Evenwood on Saturday, and on Monday went to Mills’ house to see Miss Holmes, when she told her sister that she would have nothing : whatever to do with him. After staying for some time and talking with her, the young woman mustered up courage to tell him that he need not pursue her any more, as she did not desire his attentions. He then went away apparently in a surly or disappointed.

Teesdale Mercury August 25th, 1880.

It is perhaps interesting to note that the Teesdale Mercury’s report was in the immediate aftermath of the crime, whereas the earlier reports cited were four months following in November, coming as they were on the back of Brownless’ execution report. During this time several reports had mentioned how contrite Brownless had been.

At the Durham Assizes, despite the suggestion by the Counsel for the defence (Mr.Scudamore)  that the girl had committed suicide,

The character of the wounds on the throat of Holmes, entirely negatived the suggestion put before the jury by the learned counsel.

Morpeth Herald 20th November 1880 p.2

Brownless was found guilty without any recommendation to mercy and sentenced to death by Mr Justice Field.  It is reported in several papers that he was very contrite during the trial and indeed in the period awaiting his execution. It appears that an appeal was lodged on his behalf, from Evenwood, without his knowledge, however,

all hope of a reprieve was put to an end by the receipt of the formal note of the Home Office that the Home Secretary could not find anything in the circumstances of the case to justify him in interfering with the due course of the law.

Morpeth Herald 20th November 1880 p.2

The date of execution had been fixed by the High Sheriff for Monday 15th November, but owing to the  executioner, William Marwood, having a prior engagement it was put back a day.

On the morning of Tuesday 16th November

The convict was permitted to see the earth for the last time clothed in its most wintry aspect. At an early hour the ground was snow-covered to a depth of several inches.

Morpeth Herald 20th November 1880 p.2

The snow was the result of a bitter storm in the early hours, something that the Herald believed had “kept away the majority of the curious”, being as there were only two people reported outside the prison.

Perhaps the most poignant moment in this whole story is what happened just before Brownless’ lost his life. Just before the execution procedure began,

a dozen prisoners, including some wearing Her Majesty’s uniform were liberated, their term of imprisonment having expired. Scarcely are they out of sight before Marwood (the executioner), crossed the gaol green from the Dun Cow (an Inn he had stayed at the night previous) carrying with him a carpet bag containing his stock in trade.

Morpeth Herald 20th November 1880 p.2

One can only imagine the sense of reprieve those prisoners must have felt. Similarly, had Brownless seen this, one can only imagine what went through his mind, knowing the fate that awaited him.

The Herald reported that at 7.46am the Under Sheriff (Mr M.B.Dodds) made the “formal demand” of the Governor to deliver up the body of William Brownless for execution. A restless Brownless was taken to the Governor’s room. He had been up since 6am praying and had “scarcely touched” his breakfast of “tea and bread and a chop.” Whilst wiping his tears,  his arms were grabbed by Marwood and pinioned (strapped together) and a second strap was placed around his legs. The only unusual site was the “red muffler” he wore round his neck…and a kind of bandage which had covered the self inflicted wounds.”

A procession then moved from the Governor’s office to the scaffold. The procession was made up of a selection of county and prison officials and eight representatives of the press. The prisoner walked firmly until he was “turned suddenly…to face the scaffold…he turned pale…he never spoke, but his lips slightly moved as if in response to the prayers of the chaplain.”

As if the wait wasn’t agony enough, Marwood had forgotten his carpet bag of equipment, leaving it on the “gateway of the south-east wing” so Warder Cox had to run and get it. When he arrived back, there was a brief struggle with the white cap going over Brownless’ head, at first the noose was put under it and then over it – perhaps owing to the wounds on his neck.

On the stroke of eight o clock Marwood seized the lever but he “either could not raise it or it was out of gear with the snow and frost.” Cox had to again step in to help him and together they managed it. The folding doors immediately gave way.

At exactly one minute after eight there was a tightening of the rope for a moment, and then all was still.

Morpeth Herald 20th November 1880 p.2

Thus the life of the 22 year old shoemaker, William Brownless was ended. In some reports there is a gruesome final detail that shows that perhaps in death he died similarly to Miss Holmes. (warning – not for the faint hearted).

It will be remembered that after committing the murder for which he this morning forfeited his life, he attempted to commit suicide, cutting his throat badly in two places. When he dropped the jerk caused the rope to break one of these wounds and it sank into the neck, being completely embedded in one part of it.

Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette Tuesday 26th November 1880 p.2


During the course of writing this blog I received confirmation that I have been accepted to talk at a one day symposium at the Literary and Philosophical Society next wednesday (18th Feb). It’s a free open day for anybody interested and will include archive access and presentations by experts from universities, the Lit and Phil Society (and me!).


1: “Hell hath no fury” In the course of writing this i found that the origin of this phrase is apt for the story. It comes from the c17th play, The Mourning Bride, by English Playwright William Congreve. As is often the case, the original text is slightly different from its more common use today.

Heaven has no rage, like love to hatred turned,

Nor hell a fury, like a woman scorned.

William Congreve’s the Mourning Bride

William Congreve, by Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt (died 1723) courtesy of
William Congreve, by Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt (died 1723) courtesy of

2: Teesdale Mercury August 25th 1880

Distraction 1: As I opened with a reference to this song it would’ve been criminal not to include it. I remember seeing Fairport Convention (sadly without Denny who passed six years before I was even born) at Cropredy, their brilliant folk festival in rural Oxfordshire. It was a magical performance with Richard Thompson joining them, who if you don’t know his work, is exceptional. Fine, i’ll put a Richard Thompson track too, after all I have been gone over a month. As is often the case with this blog, inadvertently, the song I’ve chosen is fairly fitting for the post. It’s a beautiful track about a man’s frustrated passion and his love for a woman a, “rare thing, fine as a beeswing.”

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