Manslaughter at the Plough.

It would seem that in Rotherham, some cases of foolish behaviour were becoming all to common in the area in April of 1853. So much so that one of the local newspapers, the Sheffield Independent dated Saturday 9 April 1853 summed up the case. The reporter described it as ‘another of those fatal affrays arising from drunkenness, which have of late years, too frequently disgraced this neighbourhood’ The report stated that the incident had started on the evening of Easter Tuesday, 5 April 1853 when a group of men were drinking together at the Catcliffe public house. Among them in the Plough were Ralph Taylor and his brother James, along with a third man called Thomas Westnidge.

All the men were young and in their twenties and were having a good time together celebrating the holidays. Suddenly Thomas Westnidge knocked James Taylor’s hat off and then completely denied that he’d done it. Under normal circumstances the situation would have quickly dissolved into laughter and the nights enjoyment would have continued. But for some reason, this playful act seemed to rankle with his brother Ralph Taylor. Rising from his seat Ralph knocked Wastnidge’s own hat off and trampled it under his feet stating to him ‘If it was your head, I would serve it the same.’

Disgustedly, James Taylor picked his hat up and dusted it off and he and his brother and some companions went into another room where they remained until just before 9 pm. Still annoyed however, as they were about to leave, Ralph Taylor went back into the room where Thomas was still sitting and shouted at him that he was going to summons him for what he had done. Westnidge got up and grabbing Taylor by the collar of his jacket, and said to him ‘Oh will you, you bugger.’ He then smashed his head into the other man’s face, throwing him violently backwards with great force.

Indeed Ralph fell so heavily that the back of his head slammed into the stone floor beneath. Consequently he did not move as Thomas and his friends left the Plough before they staggered off home. Incredibly, not one of them realised the seriousness of what had just happened. After they had gone, several men who had been drinking in the Plough tried to rouse Ralph and eventually it was decided that he could not remain there. So he was carried to his brother James’s house nearby, where a surgeon Mr Thomas Blunn was quickly called.

He examined Ralph, but as he was told that the man’s state was due to a drunken argument that had taken place earlier in the Plough, the surgeon simply left instructions to be called if the man’s condition deteriorated. Soon after the surgeon left, however Ralph began to recover slightly. After some time he regained his senses, but he complained of a terrible pain in the back of his head. James’s wife put him into a truckle bed in the spare bedroom next to their own bedroom. She attended to him assiduously until around 1 am when she finally left him to go to sleep herself. However before she climbed into the double bed she shared with her husband, James’s wife left the door open between the two bedrooms.

Nevertheless, the poor woman was getting increasingly concerned about her brother-in-law and so several times during the night she awoke. As she could still hear Ralph’s heavy breathing, she naturally assumed that he was just in a very deep sleep. However at sometime around 7 am James awoke and went into the next room where he found his brother dead. As soon as the death was announced to the local constabulary, the police heard about the circumstances and promptly arrested Thomas Westnidge charging him with murder of Ralph Taylor. Consequently, he was brought before the court the next day. However he was simply remanded until the hearing of the inquest which was due to be held on Friday 8 April 1853.

The Coroner, Mr Thomas Badger arranged for the inquest to be held at the same public house where the incident had taken place, the Plough at Catcliffe. Westnidge was brought into the room in the custody of a police constable. It was difficult to judge what his thoughts were, as he looked around the same room where all the men had been drinking just four nights before. The first witness was surgeon Mr Le-Tall of Handsworth Woodhouse and he told the inquest that the previous day he had performed a post mortem on the remains of Ralph Taylor.

He stated that he had examined the body externally and found marks of violence around the head of the deceased. However those marks were fairly insignificant. Only when he removed the skull did he found it to be extensively fractured. The surgeon said that at the right side of the man’s skull there was a substantial amount of dark coagulated blood between the bone and the dura mater. He therefore concluded that the cause of death was the fractures of the skull which caused an effusion of blood in collect in the man’s brain.

His evidence was also confirmed by another surgeon Mr John Foster of Rotherham, who had also attended the post mortem. Mr Badger summed up the evidence for the jury, who almost unanimously brought in a verdict of manslaughter against Thomas Westnidge. Mr Badger told the prisoner that he would be sent before the Assizes to take his trial. Although Thomas had shown no reaction to the accusations that had been made against him, the prisoner looked very shocked as he was removed from the room.

Thomas Westnidge was brought before judge Mr Justice Earle at the Yorkshire Summer Assizes at York on Tuesday 12 July 1853 charged with the manslaughter of Ralph Taylor. The prisoner pleaded guilty to the manslaughter charge. Fortunately the grand jury were much more sympathetic than the Rotherham legal authorities had been. The witnesses gave the same evidence as they had done before the Rotherham court before the judge summed up. He pointed out that there had been no malice intended in Ralph Taylor’s death, which had simply been the result of a drunken affray. As a result Thomas Westnidge was just sentenced to be imprisoned for just a fortnight with hard labour.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *