John Cotton

The Bugsworth Wife Murderer

Peter J Whitehead

Derby Daily Telegraph
Wednesday 21 December 1898

The late Brian Lamb

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Version 2, February 2002
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Chapter Title
1 The prisoner's antecedents
2 Story of the crime
3 The scene outside the prison
4 Execution in Derby Gaol this morning
5 Inquest on the body
  Sequel by Peter J Whitehead
1 The Upper Basin - Bugsworth, 1900
2 The Rose and Crown Inn
3 The scene of the crime


This booklet narrates the true story of John Cotton who murdered his wife on Wednesday the 26th. October 1898. The murder was committed in the cabin of a narrow boat moored in Bugsworth Basin and that day was probably the most infamous in the long workaday life of the Basin.

The Upper Peak Forest Canal's terminus at Bugsworth, which closed in the 1920s. This view of the Upper Basin, the scene of the crime, looking east was taken in 1900 only two years after the murder. the storage pens on the left are heaped with limestone, and tramway wagons loaded with limestone stand in the background. The gritstone wharf on the right and in the foreground is stacked with stone, and wagons of gritstone are waiting to be unloaded. A cantilever jib crane stands in the foreground and an old footbridge stands in front of it. The building spanning the short canal arm is a lime shed where quicklime brought down the tramway was transhipped to narrowboats. The Rose and Crown ceased to be an inn in the early 1900s from which time it was a farmhouse until its demolition in 1984, to make way for the A6, Chapel-en-le-Frith and Whaley Bridge bypass. The scene must be much as it was on that tragic day two years earlier in 1898.

Two subjects dear to the hearts of the Victorians were science and art but perhaps a third should be - morbid curiosity. In 1828 the death penalty was abolished except for murder and for a brief time one or two other crimes, but executions were still held in public. By 1898 public executions were no longer permitted but journalists (or 'representatives of the press' in the parlance of the time) were still allowed to witness executions. These journalists spared no effort in vividly describing the scenes before them, right down to the minutiae.

The story of that gruesome day in October 1898 and its awful consequences will be related to you as it was related to our Victorian forbears.

It is not a story for the faint-hearted.

Chapter 1 - The Prisoners Antecedents

The antecedents of the prisoner are such as redound very much to his discredit and although his record of previous convictions is not a particularly long one, there are many incidents in his career which prove him to have been nothing short of brutal in his behaviour towards those with whom he cohabited. He was born at Penkridge, near Stafford, and would have attained his 65th. birthday if he had lived about a fortnight longer. His father was at one time an inn keeper at Wolverhampton. Unable to read or write, he began to work on the canal when very young, and it was as a boatman that practically the whole of his life had been spent. However the public know him to have resided at Willenhall, Walsall and other places in the South Staffordshire district and he has been several times before the magistrates for drunkeness and other minor offences.  The murdered woman was his third wife, and he has been heard to boast that he killed the other two, not of course by one murderous assault but by his long and persistent cruelty towards them. This was evidently well known by the man's associates, particularly in the neighbourhood of Bugsworth, where he appears to have been a constant visitor. With one of his former wives, after a drunken quarrel, he threw her out of the house and set fire to the furniture, whilst on another occasion he injured her so badly that the baby she was suckling had to be held to her breast by one of the neighbours. Those two statements, which we make on the highest authority, are sufficient to prejudice him in the eyes of most people, and from what is known generally of his character it is safe to assume that there were many other instances upon which his brutality manifested itself. At any rate, it is a significant fact that no attempt was made to obtain for him a reprieve, and few criminals who have perished on the scaffold received less sympathy from a critical public.

Chapter 2 - Wednesday 26th. October 1898. Story of the Crime.

The annals of crime contain few cases in which cold bloodedness and brutality stand out so conspicuously as in the murder which John Cotton committed. It is easy to imagine that, living in a canal boat, the chances of domestic happiness and comfort would not be so great as are offered by a settled residence on terra firma, but never the less his surroundings could scarcely have been so uninviting as to foster and develop the savage spirit which we know him to have possessed.

Well advanced in years himself, Cotton's wife was 30 years his junior, being no more than 36. This was scarcely an instance of 'crabbed age and youth', though the disparity in their years appears to have been sufficient to make the husband jealous of his spouse whenever she was in the company of other men. From the facts in the possession of the public, Cotton had little cause for the misgivings which haunted him concerning the intentions of his wife; indeed, it was stated in evidence at the trial that she was a well-conducted woman, and endeavoured as well as she could to comply with the wishes of her rough and ill-tempered consort.

On the day of the murder Mr. and Mrs. Cotton were with their boat at Bugsworth, where it was lying in the basin of the canal, and during the afternoon the pair betook themselves to the Rose and Crown Inn. The landlord of the house was Thomas Hayes, and he and his wife, although not eye-witnesses of the murder, both figured prominently in the case. They declared that if ever the deceased woman spoke to another man her husband would exhibit signs of the utmost displeasure, his jealousy having been the cause of many a quarrel between them.

The Rose and Crown Inn, Bugsworth
Photographed in 1981 prior to its demolition in 1984
Photo: P J Whitehead

When they left the Rose and Crown they neither of them appear to have been under the influence of drink, although such a condition is almost suggested by the fact that the landlord accompanied them to their boat. The reason for that, Mr. Hayes explained, was that Cotton and his wife had been quarrelling whilst in his house, and knowing the disposition of the man he walked a little way with them in the hope that peace might be restored between them. When Mr. Hayes left them to return home he believed they were on better terms, so that he now regarded as idle a threat which Cotton had just previously uttered towards his unfortunate wife. However, there is little doubt that he was merely harbouring up his spleen, which he was shortly to give vent to with increased fury. Here the story is taken up by the little schoolgirls who from the opposite bank of the canal 1, witnessed a sight the horrors of which are never likely to fade from their memory.

1. Where was the boat moored so that the girls could see into the cabin from the
opposite bank of the canal? It is fairly safe to assume that it was moored somewhere in the upper basin. Boats usually winded (turned round) before mooring, so the cabin entrance was probably facing east towards the canal terminus. The most likely place was therefore on the north side (curiously, the Navigation Inn side) and the girls would then have been standing on the south side by the canal terminus and near the Rose and Crown Inn.

What happened when Cotton first found himself alone in the cabin with his wife we are not permitted to know, but he evidently lost little time in renewing the quarrel, which the landlord of the Rose and Crown believed he had healed up. Seizing a poker, or rather an iron rod, about a yard long, and half an inch thick, which was made to answer the same purpose, the unfeeling husband laid it about her head with all the vigour he could command. The cabin door was open, and although the interior was dimly lighted the three little girls, Elizabeth Copeland, Selina Hall and Hilda Hayes2, whose attention on the way home from school3 was attracted by the poor woman's cries, were able to observe all that went on, or at any rate, quite sufficient to send John Cotton to the gallows. At the trial they gave evidence with a clearness and an intelligence that many older witnesses lack, and no amount of cross-examination served to shake them in their accusations of guilt against the prisoner. They said in effect that they heard screams issuing from the canal boat occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Cotton, and that through the open door of the cabin they plainly saw the man strike the woman several severe blows on her head with a poker. They ran to the Rose and Crown, which was the nearest place4, for assistance but this, as we know, arrived too late to prevent a tragedy.

2. The landlord of the Rose and Crown Inn was Thomas Hayes. Was Hilda Hayes his daughter, a relative, or was it just a coincidence that they both had the same surname?
3. To get to the place where the girls saw the murder committed they could have come out of school in the centre of the village, turned left on to Chinley Road and then left again to cross Black Brook by the old tramway bridge. 
This route would have taken them across the terminus of the canal. If Hilda Hayes did live at the Rose and Crown inn, then the other two girls may have lived in the Barren Clough (Western Lane) area which they could reach by walking up the footpath on the east side of the Rose and Crown Inn.
4. If the suppositions already made are correct, then the nearest place to obtain help was the Rose and Crown Inn but there was an additional incentive to go there if Hilda Hayes was a relative or even lived there.

Now, although the three schoolgirls were the first to arrive upon the scene, their evidence received complete corroboration from quite an independent quarter, for before Cotton had completed his brutal work, Mr. James Carrington, farmer5, of Bugsworth, happened to pass, and he, too, saw the murder committed. This witness added a few details which tended all the more to prove the prisoner's intention, and that it was not due to an ebullition of temper, but deliberate and premeditated. Mr. Carrington heard the prisoner say that he had had two wives and meant to have another, as he was tired of the deceased.

5. To describe Mr. James Carrington simply as a farmer did not do justice to him. He owned land on both sides of the Black Brook and he must have been quite an important personage in the village community.

As the latter lay moaning at the bottom of the boat her heartless assailant cruelly mocked her, and told her that if she did not cease he should throw her into the water. When at last she was rescued she was totally unconscious, and although everything that was possible was done for her she died a few hours afterwards without regaining consciousness.

Other ghastly details which were disclosed at the trial were to the effect that the cabin floor and walls were bespattered with blood, whilst blood and hair in great profusion clung to the weapon with which the foul deed had been perpetrated. The autopsy which the medical gentleman engaged in the case (Drs Allen of Whaley Bridge, and Anderson of Chapel-en-le-Frith) conducted, revealed a condition of things quite as revolting as the circumstances would lead one to expect. To put it mildly, the deceased's head was one mass of cuts and bruises, all consistent, said the Doctors, with the treatment the other witnesses alleged her to have suffered. One blow, more vicious than any of the others, had fractured the base of the skull, and this alone would have been sufficient to produce death, the actual cause of which was concussion of the brain, resulting from the terrible and numerous injuries, she sustained.

We had it in evidence also that even after his fury had become exhausted Cotton displayed no feelings of remorse, for he spent the next few hours drinking in the village6, and when the landlady of the Rose and Crown chided him for his behaviour he made a remark which, clearly proved him to be void of the slightest spark of sympathy for his unhappy victim. "You've done it this time, Cotton," said Mrs. Hayes whose very words almost indicate that she was not unprepared for such a result. "If you don't hold your tongue," was the callous reply, "I'll serve you the same as I've served her."

6. Did John Cotton actually spend the next few hours on a pub crawl in the village, perhaps visiting the Navigation Inn, The Bull's Head or even the brewhouse? It seems unlikely because the following passages in the account infer that he went back to the Rose and Crown Inn to drink. It is quite remarkable that anyone, let alone the landlord of the Rose and Crown, was still prepared to serve him after he had just mortally wounded his wife, unless fear was the motivation.

His freedom was cut short the same night, for he was arrested by Police Constable Whitley for the attempted murder of his wife, which charge was altered to one of wilful murder the following morning. At the Assizes, Cotton had the advantage of the Advocacy of one of the ablest and most promising of our younger barristers, namely, a son of Mr. Justice Lawrence, a former leader of the Midland Circuit, and once Recorder of Derby. But never had counsel a more disheartening case to undertake, and Mr. Lawrence's ingenious attempt to persuade the Jury to reduce the charge to one of manslaughter failed, as it could only be expected to fail in the face of such overwhelming and irrefutable testimony to the contrary. The `twelve good men and true' performed their painful duty as they had sworn to perform it, and a true verdict gave according to the evidence. After consulting in private for the brief space of 15 minutes they found the prisoner guilty of murder, without even a recommendation to mercy. The judge (Sir J C Mathew) expressed his complete concurrence with the verdict, and added that Cotton, having conceived a vindictive feeling of hatred towards his unfortunate wife, had yielded to his wicked impulse and beaten her to death whilst she was unprotected.

His lordship then solemnly exhorted him to make the most of the few days he would be allowed to spend on earth, and to prepare his soul for the Great Day, after which he pronounced sentence of death in the prescribed form. Cotton had meanwhile been leaning with both his elbows on the dock railings, and upon hearing his fate he showed such little concern that it is hard to believe he fully realised the seriousness of his position. In obedience to a tap on the shoulder from one of the warders who were with him, the condemned man turned upon his heel and coolly made his way to the cells below.

The scene of the crime.

Chapter 3 - Wednesday 21 December 1898.
The Scene Outside the Prison.

Despite the fact that it was not fully light the crowd that assembled outside the prison was fully as large as that which was present on the occasion of the execution of William Pugh. Then the weather was that of a typical August morning, and the presence of a large crowd created no surprise. But that under entirely different conditions - the morning of the shortest day - such a crowd should have assembled outside the goal was somewhat remarkable. The composition of the crowd differed in no sense from that of its predecessor. There seemed to be more women than usual, and in what conversation one heard as to the wretched man who was meeting his doom within a few yards of where people stood no word of sympathy was to be heard. Indeed, one cannot recall an execution where such absolute indifference to the prisoner's fate was displayed on all hands. In no sense of the word could Cotton be described as an heroic criminal, and the vulgar boast to which he was known to have given utterance in his drunken orgies - that he had killed his two previous wives - seemed to freeze-up the charitable instincts of the great majority of his fellow creatures.

The crowd outside the prison was of a perfectly orderly character, and the presence of two policemen near the main entrance was an ordinary precaution that proved to be quite uncalled for by the actual circumstances of the case. As the hour of eight o'clock commenced to chime all eyes were turned towards the flagstaff, from which the black ensign was presently to give its fateful message to the outside world that the grim tragedy within those stern walls had been completed. They had not long to wait. Even whilst some amongst the crowd were straining their ears to catch some sound of the drawing of the bolt or the collapse of the trap there was a fluttering of the ropes by the flagstaff and a second later the black flag rose slowly to its head and announced that all was over. Still there was no demonstration - no mark of sympathy of any wit or kind. The crowd quietly dispersed, and within a few minutes the precincts of the prison had resumed their normal aspect, save that the black flag still waved from the flagstaff to bear visible testimony to the fact that the law had claimed its most recent victim.

Chapter 4 - Wednesday 21st. December 1898. 
Execution in Derby Gaol this Morning.7

The Bugsworth Wife Murderer Pays the Last Penalty of the Law.

John Cotton, who was convicted at the recent Derby Assizes of the wilful murder of his wife, Hannah Cotton, at Bugsworth, in this county, on (Wednesday) October 26th. last, was hanged in Derby Gaol this (Wednesday) morning in accordance with the sentence passed upon him by Mr. Justice Mathew. The executioner was Billington of Bolton. The Home Secretary reviewed the circumstances under which Cotton was found guilty, as is his custom in all cases of murder, and he formally intimated to the High Sheriff that he saw no reason to advise Her Majesty to extend her clemency towards the prisoner, who was duly informed on Sunday last that the Law had to take its course. It was thought in some quarters that his age might induce the Home Secretary to spare the culprit's neck, and condemn him instead to pass the remainder of his life in prison, but there appears to have been, through some unaccountable reason, some misunderstanding as to how old Cotton really was. In the Assize calender he was put down as 75, and described as a boatman who could neither read nor write. At the trial, however, several of the witnesses said he was 66, and independent inquiry, subsequently made by the police at the instigation of the Home Office, arrived at the conclusion that his real age was 65. It is satisfactory to know that during his incarceration he has shown visible signs of repentance, for he has paid very earnest attention to the solicitations of the prison chaplain (the Rev. J. Hart Johnson, BA), who on Tuesday privately admitted him to the benefits of the Sacrament. Mr. Johnson has been in attendance upon the culprit since he was condemned, and told our reporter that he really believed him to be sincerely penitent.

It was about ten minutes to eight that the representatives of the Press (five in number) were admitted into the prison, and by that time the minute bell had commenced tolling. We were met by the prison schoolmaster, Mr. W. Fenwick, who had been deputed, as on former occasions, to conduct us to the place of execution and render us such assistance as was in his power. The distance from the prison portals to the shed which serves the double purpose of a scaffold and van house is a matter of about 30 or 40 yards, and as we proceeded thither we passed the newly dug grave, immediately under the front wall, which was a little later to receive the lifeless form of the condemned man. The scaffold was erected in August 1895, on the occasion of the execution of the Brackenfield murderer, since which time it has not been brought into use. The huge cross beam was built in the walls at a height of about eight feet from the ground and dangling therefrom was the rope, at the end of which was a running noose. The lever was immediately to the right, and upon the closed trap was the leather girdle which was to encompass the prisoner's legs. We took up our position a few yards from the entrance, where, without being in the way, we could see all that transpired. Billington, who was accompanied by his son, was in the vicinity, and he had just made a last look to see that everything was in order.

Cotton, whose resignation reference has already been made, was visited for the last time on Tuesday afternoon by two of his sons and a daughter, and there was a brief but sorrowful leave taking during which he reiterated his belief that he had obtained a Heavenly pardon. On Tuesday night he retired to rest at about nine o'clock, but he slept very lightly, and at times proved very restless. He arose at half past five, and partook of the usual prison breakfast, consisting of tea and bread and butter. At about seven o'clock he was visited by the prison chaplain, who remained with him in prayer as long as he was able.

At three minutes to eight, the representatives of the Sheriff, according to custom, presented themselves to the door of the condemned man's cell, and demanded his body that the sentence of the law might be carried out. A small procession was then formed, headed by Chief Warder Lawrence (carrying a black wand). Then followed the prisoner, supported on either side by Warders Evans and Langdon, with Warders Cox and Sills immediately behind. Bringing up the rear were the Governor of the Gaol (Captain C.E. Farquharson), The Acting Under Sheriff (Mr. B. Scott Currey), the Sheriff's Officer (Mr. W. Barclay Delacombe), and the prison surgeon (Dr. C. A. Greaves). It was about 50 yards to the scaffold, and they were met half way by the prison chaplain fully surpliced, who then led the way, reciting portions of the Church of England Burial Service. As they wheeled slowly into view Billington and his son approached, and a halt was made, whilst the first portion of the pinioning process was performed. Cotton it was observed, required no assistance from the Warders, but he never the less seemed to walk with difficulty. He had altered little during his confinement, but there was on his face a pale, haggard look, which his white hair considerably intensified. However, he submitted meekly, and even lent himself to the operation. This was expeditiously performed, as the executioner was fastening Cotton's arms behind him the son was loosening his shirt collar. Meanwhile the chaplain, without heeding the interruption, continued reading the service. Cotton was then conducted into the shed, and placed upon the fatal trap, with his face considerably turned away from the beholders. Billington now set himself to complete his gruesome task, which he did quickly and quietly. The son attached and fastened the ankle straps, and Billington at the same moment placed the rope round the old man's neck and adjusted the noose. Billington then withdrew from his pocket a white cap, which he pulled over the wretched man's head, and then stepping instantly aside drew the lever. The chaplain, singularly enough, was at this very moment repeating the words, "Oh Lord, remember not the offences of Thy servant," and as the culprit disappeared into the pit beneath there was an audible "Amen," from the lips of those present in response to that appropriate prayer. As many as desired looked through the trap-door at the ghastly sight which was presented, and Dr. Greaves expressed the belief that death was quite instantaneous. Before the chaplain had completed the service Billington and his son left the place almost unobserved, thankful, no doubt, that their disagreeable mission had been fulfilled. The body was left hanging and the shed locked up until such time as the inquest was held. The drop allowed by Billington was about six feet, which length is fixed by Home Office regulations, instead of, as in former years, being left to the hangman's discretion.

7. It is reputed that John Cotton was the last person to be hanged at Derby Gaol.

Chapter 5 - Wednesday 21st. December 1898. 
Inquest on the Body.

The customary inquest on the body of the culprit was held in Derby Gaol at 10 o'clock by Mr. W. Harvey Whiston, the coroner for the district in which the prison is located. The Jury, of which Mr. J.C. Podmore was foreman, were sworn in in the waiting-room on the right hand side of the principle entrance to the gaol, and after viewing the body, which had been removed from the place of execution and laid out in the mortuary of the prison, they returned to the waiting-room and proceeded to hear the evidence, the Coroner remarking that it was their duty to inquire whether the sentence of death passed upon John Cotton had been duly carried out.

The first witness was Chief Warder Lawrence, who stated that the body the Jury had seen was that of John Cotton. He was present at the trial of the deceased at the last Assizes, when he was convicted of wilful murder and sentenced to death. Witness produced the authority for the execution signed by the Clerk of Assizes, and added that he was present at the execution and the deceased was hanged by the neck according to the order of the Court.

In reply to the Coroner, witness stated that Cotton's age was 71. His age was given as 75 but his friends who visited the prison the previous day to see him, said he was seventy-one years old. They did not give any proof for that beyond the testimony of the deceased's brother. The Coroner said, "Various ages have been given, Including 75 and 64, and probably it would be best to take it as 71." The Jury acquiesced.

Dr. Greaves, medical officer at H M Prison at Derby, stated he was present at the execution of John Cotton in the prison that morning. The execution was carried out properly, death being instantaneous. The cause of death was complete dislocation of the neck.

The Coroner briefly summed up, and stated that from the evidence the Jury would have no doubt that the sentence of the court had been duly executed. The Jury concurred and returned a verdict in accordance with medical testimony.

Sequel by P.J. Whitehead.

On the southside of the Upper Basin near the Rose and Crown Inn there was once a stable and in one end of the building there was a loading bay on the first floor to enable fodder to be stored for the horses.

One day, several years after the murder, a little girl was playing by the stable. During her play she glanced up at the stable and saw the apparition of a woman standing in the loading bay. She ran home to tell her parents that she had just seen a ghost in the stable. Had someone told her of the murder and she simply imagined that she had seen the apparition or had she really seen the ghost of Hannah Cotton, boatwoman?

No ancient place is complete without a ghost and maybe Bugsworth Basin is no exception; one would like to think so.

More about John Cotton - the Bugsworth Wife Murderer

Searching through the 1881 Census in 2002, Peter Whitehead unearthed the following additional information about John Cotton:

At the time of the census he was living with his family at Thurlwood, Odd Rode, Cheshire.

Thurlwood and Odd Rode are hamlets in the vicinity of Hall Green, where the Macclesfield Canal joins the Trent and Mersey Canal. This explains why he was a frequent visitor to Bugsworth Basin in the course of his work as a Boatman.

John Cotton (b. 1827/28) was born at Penkridge, Staffordshire, and is described as a Boatman.

His wife, Elizabeth, was born at Sedgley, Staffordshire, (1827/28) and is described as a Boat Girl (Barge).

His daughter, Maria, was born at Stafford, (1866/67) and is described as a Boat Girl (Barge).

His son, Thomas, was born at Stafford, (1870/71) and is described as a Scholar.

His son, John, was born at Stafford, (1871/72) and is described as a Scholar.

The wife he murdered was called Hannah and she was 30 years his junior, so it is likely that Elizabeth was his first wife. The name of his second wife is unknown.

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