Category Archives: Petty Sessions

Murderous Assaults with Poker & Rope: The (Un)Fortunate William Gavan

This is a tale of my 2x great grandfather William Gavan, a victim of crime but perhaps himself a wrong-doer? Two recent record releases, one on Ancestry UK and the other on FindMyPast, have supplemented earlier findings. One has possibly revealed a twist on this earlier research. 

William Gavan hailed from County Mayo, moving to England at around the time of the Great Famine of the late 1840s. He was certainly in Kidderminster by the 1851 census. It was in the town’s Roman Catholic chapel that he married County Mayo-born Bridget Knavesay in 1852. They moved to Batley in around 1860 with their young family, Honor, Margaret, Sarah and John. Eldest son James died sometime prior to the move, and Honor’s death followed in 1869. The couple had four further children – Mary, Thomas, Bridget (my great grandmother). Their youngest, William, was born in 1872. 

In the absence of any baptism record, William’s year of birth ranges anywhere between 1821-1832 depending on source. 

The story begins in April 1870. This was the first mention I found of William in Batley’s only town paper at the time, the “Batley Reporter”. I discovered the entry by pure chance whilst doing a library newspaper search for something totally unrelated. The headline captured my imagination: “Murderous Assault with a Poker“. It conjured up visions of the reputed cause of death of Edward II whose tomb I saw at Gloucester Cathedral. This story proved to be far less gruesome, but on a personal level far more interesting. As I read on I realised the victim was my 2x great grandfather William Gavan. 

On Saturday 9 April, at around 9.30pm, William was drinking with a friend, James Brannan, in John Farrar’s establishment, the “Ringers’ Arms” on New Street, Batley. The beerhouse was gain-hand for William, as he lived on the same street. Thomas Cain, a New Street neighbour, sat opposite William. Thomas, a much younger Irish man in his early 20s, lived with his mother.  

“Ringers Arms” sign, a few decades later – image courtesy of Batley Community Archive

 Initially conversation was friendly. At some point though Thomas made some remark, about William beating his wife. William responded by telling Thomas to go home and mind his mother. This seemingly innocuous response triggered a dramatic reaction. Thomas grabbed a poker and struck William on the head, a blow so violent as to render him unconscious and draw a copious flow of blood. William was taken home and the Doctor, William Bayldon, summoned. 

He found William slumped in a chair, faint through blood loss which had saturated his hair, covered his face and even soaked into the chair. The almost two inch long wound, on the left of his head, extended through the whole thickness of his scalp and resulted in an arterial rupture of a branch of the left temple artery.  

Police Sergeant Lund apprehended Thomas in his home at around 4am in the morning of 10 April. When charged with the assault he declared “I did hit him once with the poker, and I hope the b______ will die, if I thought he would not, I would have given him another blow”. So a fairly clear admission. 

William was confined to bed for five days after the assault, necessitating the deferral of the case against Thomas. Finally able to give evidence, William appeared at Batley Borough Court on 18 April. He must have cut a dramatic figure with bandaged head, remaining seated throughout the process. Dr Bayldon said the wound had not healed and would probably require treatment for a further fortnight. So a pretty impressive injury. Equally theatrical was the dramatic production of the offending poker during the case.  

The assault was of such a serious nature Batley Borough Court decided to refer the case to the Quarter Sessions at Bradford. The “Batley Reporter” had a one liner reporting the outcome on 21 May 1870: “Nine Months – Thomas Cain, unlawfully and maliciously wounding William Gavin [sic], at Batley” 

This is where the new records in Ancestry.co.uk come in. A recent addition is the West Riding Quarter Session records, 1637-1914. They are searchable by the name of the person indicted, but not by victim or witnesses. Luckily, through newspapers, I knew the name of William’s assailant. The indictment book gives detail of the full charge against Thomas Cain – in essence that he unlawfully made an assault on William and unlawfully beat, wound and ill-treated and did other wrongs to him. It also provides the names of the witnesses. The case was heard on 19 May 1870 and Thomas pleaded guilty. The wording is very formulaic and repetitive and doesn’t really add many details – for that the newspaper report is best. But it does provide another layer of detail, and a search of these records could help identify hitherto unknown charges against ancestors. 

By the time of the 1871 census Thomas was back home from the Wakefield House of Correction and once more living with his mother in New Street. The Gavan family had upped sticks and left the street on which they’d lived since their arrival in Batley. They now resided at Spring Gardens. I do wonder if the re-location owed something to the return of William’s attacker. I don’t expect many would want to remain living in the immediate vicinity of their poker-wielding assailant. 

But at the back of my mind was the wife-beating allegation Thomas made against William, which precipitated events that April 1870 night. Was there any substance in the claim? Was William ever hauled in front of the Magistrates to answer accusations? Did he beat Bridget? No charges on this count showed in the Quarter Session records, but any case wasn’t bound to get to that level. It may most likely have been dealt locally in the Petty Sessions.  

I never got round to further perusing the local newspapers for the period to see if William featured again. In the absence of any other information it was too formidable undertaking; neither did I check at West Yorkshire Archives for any lists of those appearing before Batley Borough Court.  

Here FindMyPast’s newspaper collection came to the rescue. It pays to keep checking because newspapers are added regularly. I was overjoyed to discover the addition of the “Dewsbury Reporter”. Not quite as good as having the “Batley Reporter” or the later Batley town paper, the “Batley News”. But not to be overlooked, because Batley stories feature in this neighbouring town’s paper. Also, it’s fair to point out, on FindMyPast there is a limited run for the Dewsbury paper. So far, it covers editions from its inception in 1869 until 1884. But it is part of the period of my ancestors lived in the town. So definitely worth a speculative search one evening. Hopefully the coverage will expand over time.

I really had to play around to overcome OCR errors as well as the dreaded surname variants for Gavan. It was worth the effort. Whilst there may be more to find, I unearthed some absolute corkers. And not confined to the occasional drunk and riotous episode either. 

Reports for the Gavan family included a rather interesting one dated 6 September 1873. In short William was summoned to appear at Batley Borough Court on Monday 1 September to answer a charge preferred against him by his wife, Bridget, of threatening to take her life. When the case was called she refused to say anything against her husband until Inspector Wetherill said he would lock the pair of them up. This loosened Bridget’s tongue. Apart from anything else, she had young children to consider. Youngest child William was only one.

She and William quarrelled on the 29 August. During the row he threatened kill her, something she took seriously. Afraid he would do her grievous bodily harm she reported him. William was bound over to keep the peace for six months. So perhaps there may have been something in what Thomas Cain alleged over three years earlier. Maybe Thomas was indeed upset at the way William treated his wife. And the hot-headed youth acted whilst in his cups. 

The next gem involved Bridget. On Wednesday 2 June 1875 it was her turn to appear in the Borough Court. I love the phraseology and images conjured up by the newspaper report, so much so I’m reproducing it in its entirety: 

Bridget Gavan was charged with assaulting Mary Winn, wife of Peter Winn, Spring Gardens, on the 20th May. Mr Hudson appeared for the complainant, and stated that the complainant’s husband was a coal agent, and sold coals in the neighbourhood, and collected money in small instalments. On Saturday last he called at the house of the defendant for some money, but instead of receiving the money he received a very warm reception from the defendant’s tongue, which induced him to leave the house and go away about his business. After visiting several other places, he went again and saw the defendant, who struck him, and scratched him in the face. He went home and told his wife, who naturally was not very well pleased with it, and on Monday she happened to meet with the defendant at a friend’s house, and asked her why she had insulted her husband. The defendant used some very naughty words, and afterwards she followed complainant to her house, seized her by the hair of the head, and a scrimmage took place to the detriment of both parties; and then it was that the complainant took out a summons for assault, and the summons was served on Monday. The summons was taken by the defendant, and in a very indecent manner was thrown by her into the complainant’s house, and she also broke a window. Evidence having been given by Peter Winn and the complainant, the defendant said the complainant struck her first with a brush. The Bench thought there had been some provocation on both sides, and only inflicted a fine of 2s 6d and costs”. 

I do wonder what constituted “very naughty words” and the mind boggles at how a summons could be taken in an “indecent manner”.  And why did Bridget react like this? Had Peter Winn overcharged her? Was he trying to collect money already paid? Was the coal he supplied of inferior quality? The dispute between the Winns and Bridget must have been the talk of Spring Gardens! I wonder if the Gavan’s used a different coal agent subsequently? 

But the residents of Spring Gardens were to be treated with another far more dramatic domestic disturbance in the Gavan household a little over a year later, stoking their gossip fires in a way far beyond the coal dispute. 

This jewel in the crown of my finds was accompanied by yet another “murderous assault” headline. Once more William had the role of victim. This time his attacker was his son-in-law, John Hannan. Again a much younger man in his 20’s.

John married the eldest surviving Gavan daughter, Margaret, at St Mary of the Angels RC Church, Batley on 21 September 1875, shortly after Margaret’s 20th birthday. The newly-weds lived at Spring Gardens in the household of Margaret’s parents. 

Less than 12 months after their wedding John, who was well-known to the authorities, appeared in Batley Borough Court facing charges of being drunk and riotous at Spring Gardens, assaulting Inspector Inman and assaulting William. His previous convictions included unlawfully wounding, larceny and attempted breach of the peace in connection with a prize fight. So an array of offences. 

His latest brush with the law followed drink-fuelled events on the evening of Saturday 1 July 1876. At 9pm that evening several women besieged Batley Police Office to report William lay seriously injured, probably dying, following an attack by John. 

Inspector Inman went to the house to find William with his head on a pillow, surrounded by more women. When Inspector Inman asked John what he’d been doing, John’s responded “What are you doing, you b____”. As the Inspector attempted to take John to the police station, John got hold of him by the thigh, threw him on his back and made his escape, assisted by several of the women. These allegedly included William’s daughter, 19 year old Sarah Gavan. She vehemently denied this, claiming she was away at that particular point in proceedings. 

In the meantime Dr Bayldon attended William, the same physician as was called following the 1870 attack. Again mirroring the earlier attack, William had several facial cuts, including a two inch one down to the bone. Bizarrely he also had a rope tied around his neck.  

Crime Scenes – Batley

 Fortunately William’s injuries were less serious than initially thought. Able to appear in court, without undue delay this time, he asked the Bench to “go easy” on his son-in-law. Upon being told that the matter was far too serious, William claimed not to remember anything about the night, when he “had had a sup of drink himself”. He believed John had tied a rope around his neck, but he had no feeling as John had rendered him insensible. Whether this memory loss was legitimate or a way of protecting John is open to question. I know where my suspicion lies. And the Mayor did remark to William “And yet you want to be very kind to him”. 

In his defence John claimed both he and William were drunk. He was attempting to get his father-in-law in the house and to bed. He’d pushed William causing him to fall and receive his injuries. He denied all knowledge of the rope around William’s neck. 

Sarah Gavan’s answers proved equally unsatisfactory and vague. John brought her father home and the pair participated in some “acting”, one trying to get twopence out of the other’s hand. She accounted for the rope around her father’s neck as part of this horseplay. John tried unsuccessfully to get her father to bed and she left them to it.  

It seems that concluded the evidence. John pleaded guilty to the drunk and riotous charge, and to the assault on William. For each of these offences he was fined 10s and costs, or 14 days. To the assault on Inspector Inman, he pleaded not guilty. However the Bench convicted him, imposing a one month prison sentence. No fine option for this offence. 

So a very fruitful search, adding more colour to the characters of my paternal ancestors. What struck me was how neatly the incidents linked, the symmetry between them – neighbourhood quarrels; family fall-outs; hot-headedness; Dr Bayldon’s visits to patch William up; and too much booze.

I am now in the process of a series of visits to the Wakefield branch of West Yorkshire Archives to see if the Batley Borough Court records point to any further potential ancestral misdemeanours. The list of complainants, defendants and dates will make a newspaper search more manageable. And, even in these early stages, there are plenty more newspaper searches to go at as a result.  

However, it’s something of a race against time, given the planned closure of Wakefield on 13 May until early 2017. My impending surgery could in effect mean I may have to wait until next year to finish. I do have a number of archive visits booked, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed. 

Sources: 

  • Ancestry.co.uk:  West Riding Quarter Sessions 19 May 1870 & HO 27 – Home Office: Criminal Registers, England and Wales 
  • Batley Community Archive – “Ringers Arms” sign
  • Batley Reporter” – 16 & 23 April 1870 and 21 May 1870
  • Census: 1851-1881 
  • GRO Marriage Certificate: William Gavan & Bridget Knavesay 
  • Parish Register: St Mary of the Angels, Batley 
  • FindMyPast: 
  • Dewsbury Reporter” – 6 September 1873, 17 October 1874, 5 June 1875 and 8 July 1876 & HO 140 – Home Office Calendar of Prisoners 
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