Bolton's Killer in the Fog
Watchman hanged for murder
SITTING IN the taproom of the Hare and
Hounds in Bolton, William Thorpe cursed his luck. Nursing another drink,
he was brooding over the devastating news that the only woman he had
ever truly loved had recently married.
He had last seen Frances Godfrey in June
1925, just before the "Wakes" holiday, and she had said nothing of
wedding plans. He knew she had been seeing William Clarke for many
months, but she had always said that it wasn't serious, and Thorpe had
continued his longstanding on-off relationship with her.
On first learning about the wedding he
had written her a long, affectionate letter, pouring out his heart,
perhaps in the vain hope that it might prompt her to leave her husband.
He had heard nothing since, and for the
last few days the 45-year-old crippled ex-soldier — he had lost the
lower part of his left leg during the war — moped around the building
site at Breightmet, Bolton, where he worked as a labourer and watchman.
On November 19th, 1925, after collecting
his wages he headed straight for a pub. A few drinks later he caught a
trolley bus into the town centre, where he spent the rest of the evening
in other pubs before catching the last bus back to the Hare and Hounds,
where he sat until last orders. As the landlord called time, Thorpe
staggered over and asked for a bottle of rum to take out.
He continued drinking when he returned
to his lodgings, and as first light broke he decided that if he couldn't
have Frances, then nobody would.
Thirty-nine-year Frances Clarke lived
with her new husband and elderly mother in a small terraced house, 9
Clarke Street, Victory, Bolton. At 5 a.m. William Clarke left home and
made his way to the Little Lever chemical works where he worked as a
labourer, leaving Frances asleep in the front bedroom.
Less than an hour later Frances's mother
was woken by a piercing scream. It seemed to come from the front bedroom,
and as the old woman sat up in her bed she heard a curiously familiar
clumping sound coming from the staircase, as though i someone was making
a clumsy exit.
Throwing on her dressing gown, she
rushed to Frances's room. Her daughter was lying on the bed bleeding
heavily from a hideous gash in her throat. As her nightgown turned a
deep crimson she moaned: "Billy Thorpe." It was a name her mother knew
well. Thorpe had lodged with her when he had first come to Bolton, and
she had disapproved of his relationship with her daughter.
Now she wasted no time in calling for an
ambulance, but by the time it arrived Frances Clarke was dead. Detective
Superintendent Hall led the murder enquiry as a search began for William
Thorpe. It appeared that he had entered the house by breaking a back
kitchen window, after scaling the back wall - not an easy manoeuvre for
the one-legged watchman.
The hunt for the killer was short. By
lunchtime Thorpe Was in custody, arrested by two detectives who found
him holding a razor to his throat as they burst a door open. He was
quickly disarmed and taken to the local police station, where he said
that he had already made two unsuccessful suicide bids since committing
On leaving Frances's home he had thrown
himself in front of a tram. But it was crawling in fog and the driver
had stopped in time, climbing down to remonstrate and being pushed to
the ground by Thorpe, who had then disappeared into the gloom.
Thorpe said he had then tried to drown
himself in the canal close to his home, but had been unable to hold his
head under the water long enough. In custody that afternoon he made a
further attempt, trying to hang himself with his braces in the police
station lavatory. Once again he was thwarted. His escort kicked down the
Thorpe seemed to be "going off his
At his trial at Manchester Assizes on
February 23rd, 1926, his defence counsel strove to convince the jury
that Thorpe was insane at the time of the murder. The son of his
landlady testified that at times he seemed to be "going off his head,"
and that he had tried to kill himself on more than one occasion. When
Thorpe took the stand he looked pale and drawn. He said that he had
first lodged with Frances and her mother in 1922. Soon afterwards he and
Frances had begun to keep company, but he had heard of her marriage only
when he met a mutual friend.
He claimed that the razor police had
taken from him on his arrest was merely for shaving, and a lethal
glasscutter taken from his pocket was to fix a broken window pane in his
hut at the building site. He denied using this to kill Frances Clarke,
although bloodstains were found on it.
He claimed he had no idea what had
happened on the night of November 19th, as he had been very drunk.
Although he admitted he was angry because Frances had married, he denied
killing her because she had chosen someone else.
Summing up, Mr. Justice Wright said that
in certain cases some people who were very drunk could be said to be
suffering from a form of insanity. "We all know from sad experience that
drunkenness does weaken a man's self-control, and as a result he does
things he would not do when sober."
The judge also pointed out that a man
might be so drunk as to be unable to form the necessary intention to
commit a crime. After retiring for less than half an hour the jury found
William Thorpe guilty of murder, but added a strong recommendation for
mercy. The prisoner stood unmoved as he was sentenced to death.
Numerous petitions were launched in the
hope of saving him from the gallows. One in his home town of Blackpool
was signed by more than 7,000 and others in Bolton gathering similar