The Fatal Wife Assault in Bolton

It was front-page news, held most of Bolton in its grip and remains a stark warning that binge drinking can seriously damage your health. Yet, it is a story which lay dormant in my family’s murky past for over a century.

I had never even heard of Ellen Cunliffe. That she died tragically young and was the subject of a high profile court case in which her husband was accused of murder had long been forgotten.

It all came about after me and a fellow sport reporter at BBC Radio Lancashire volunteered to work on our family tree as part of the BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ series. I discovered the Cunliffe’s had moved from Ireland to Manchester in the wake of the potato famine. The head of the family, Owen perished in the Withington Workhouse from T.B. in 1875. Twenty-six years later, my great-grandfather, Peter Cunliffe was still living with his widowed mother, his brother James and sister Mary-Anne in Lark Hill, Farnworth. They were employed in the local cotton mills. But sharing the same house, inexplicably, were two teenage grand-daughters, Winifred Matthews and Mary E Matthews. It stuck me as odd that there was no sign of the girls’ mother or father on either the 1901 or 1891 censuses.

The 1881 census provided a few answers. Back then, the Cunliffe’s were living in Irving Street in the Brownlow Fold area of Halliwell. Among them was a 19-year-old daughter; Ellen Cunliffe. Perhaps Ellen was the mother of the two girls recorded in the 1901 and 1891 censuses?

By piecing the story together, it became clear that Ellen died between 1881 and 1891, married someone by the name of Matthews and had two children. Having acquired a date of death from the internet of August 1887, I ordered a death certificate from Mere Hall in Bolton. The cause of death was a ‘fall or heavy blow to the spinal chord.’. Ever the inquisitive journalist, I knew I had a juicy story on my hands.

My next port of call was Bolton Library’s Local Studies department where old editions of the Bolton Evening News are kept on microfiche. There it was…! The story of Ellen’s death was headline news ‘The Fatal Wife Assault in Bolton’ read the strap-line in the August 6th 1887 edition. It’s a tragic tale of binge drinking and domestic unhappiness.

Ellen Cunliffe married Thomas Matthews, a brick setter in 1881 at St. Mary’s RC Chapel (now the Cloisters Suite at the Holiday Inn on Higher Bridge Street). The two families had lived opposite each other in Irving Street. At some point after getting married, the couple and the rest of the Cunliffes uprooted to Lark Hill, but still made frequent visits to Brownlow Fold. The couple had two children but cracks had appeared in the relationship by the summer of 1887. According to the account in the BEN, Ellen Matthews and her sister, Mary Anne Cunliffe met Thomas Matthews on Saturday August 6th 1887. He gave his wife 18s wages. They went home, ate, and Thomas fell asleep in a field! The two sisters left him and headed into Bolton, taking the money with them. They visited the Portland Hotel; just around the corner from Irving Street. By the time Mary Ann returned home, Ellen had had too much to drink. Witnesses claim she had drunk six glasses of rum.

The precise details of what happened next are unclear, but it seems Ellen retired to a friend’s house in Irving Street and went to bed. She was seen with a child in her arms. The next morning, Sunday August 7th, Ellen went to another friend’s house taking the child with her, but still appeared under the influence of drink. After lying next to the baby on a sofa, she rolled off, her head striking a stone chimney piece. She then went with a dreadful crash on the back of the head on the flagged floor. She lay there a minute or two insensible. At about the same time, Thomas set out from Farnworth to find his wife, unhappy that he and her two brothers had been left with ‘three dirty shirts to go to our work in.’ After recovering from her fall, Ellen returned to the Portland Hotel where Thomas was seen drinking a pint of beer. Witnesses say ‘she rushed at him to strike him, but they were separated.’ She went away, but Thomas stayed until closing time. Later that afternoon, Thomas Matthews was leaning against a wall in back Livingstone Street which is close-by to the Portland Hotel. He was chatting with friends. Ellen appeared once more. Picking up a stone she threatened her husband. ‘I’ll knock your brains out.’ After putting down the stone she fetched the child and said, ‘Come and look at your snipe-nosed father,’ she was seen to kick him on several occasions. Thomas, who had resisted any attempt to restrain his drunken wife, suddenly raised himself up and caught her on the side of the neck with his knee. Ellen fell to the ground. She only lived five or ten minutes. There was no blood or wounds, just a swelling at the back of her ear. Her husband had already fled the scene.

A short time later, Police Constable Thomas Openshaw found Ellen dead in the street. Thomas Matthews was apprehended inside St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church where he had been in deep conversation with Father Brewer. Matthews was arrested and charged with his wife’s murder. A coroner’s inquest was held the very next day at Bolton Town Hall where many witnesses, including the pub landlord and Mary Anne Cunliffe gave evidence. By the time the prisoner (crying piteously) appeared before magistrates at the Borough Court, the charge had been downgraded to manslaughter. The jury had to decide if Thomas Matthews deliberately intended to hurt his wife or whether or not the damage inflicted was accidental.

The story of how Ellen had fallen off the sofa and banged her head was recited. Coroner, Dr. Magee, who had carried out a post mortem examination, said ‘there had been a considerable effusion of blood between the membranes that cover the brain and the brain itself.’ He attributed death to compression of the spinal chord that might result from external injury, a sudden fall, or a blow on the upper part of the neck or the head itself. In summing up, the coroner claimed ‘the fall from the sofa and the haemorrhage was sufficient to produce death’.

The magistrates retired to consider their verdict but returned within ten minutes. The case against Thomas Matthews was dismissed, a decision that was received with loud cheers from the spectators in court. A crowd had gathered outside and defending barrister Mr. Fielding was cheered as he left the Town Hall. Matthews was set free at once.

So, Ellen Matthews’ life ended at 25. A verdict of ‘misadventure’ was recorded. What became of Thomas Matthews thereafter is unknown, we know that his two young daughters were brought up by their grandmother.

Was Ellen Matthews’ death just a tragic accident or was it something more sinister? It would be interesting to know if the evidence would stand up to modern scrutiny. Put into context, it is easy to see how the Victorian working-class in a place like Bolton, would drink themselves into oblivion at weekend. Life must have been unbearable at times with little in the way of escapism from the monotony of the cotton mills.

I am not proud to be associated with the drunken antics of my ancestors, but at least it shows how innocent delving into your family’s past can unearth the darkest secrets!

By Phil Cunliffe