MURDER AT WHITE CROFT SHEFFIELD – 10th JULY 1884

 

“Oh my children, my children. Lord have mercy on my children”

Joseph Laycock – 26th August 1884

 

The following report appeared in The Times dated 11th July 1884 and is an account of a multiple murder that occurred in White Croft the previous day

 

 

 

Freeman's Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser (Dublin, Ireland), Saturday, July 12, 1884 also gave an abridged version of events

 

 

Three days later under the title "THE HORRIBLE MURDERS AT SHEFFIELD, the Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), Tuesday, July 15, 1884; Issue 4734 reported that

 

" The man Joseph Laycock who murdered his wife and four children at Sheffield and then cut his own throat is progressing towards recovery. He has a terrible wound on his throat, but none of his main arteries were severed. Though in a state of great excitement for several hours after his admission to the hospital, he is calm now and talks of the certainty of the fate that awaits him. He does not seem to be aware why he committed the murders except that he and his wife quarrelled. They were both the worse for drink.

 

 

From The Illustrated Police News - 18th July 1884

 

The funeral of Maria Laycock and her four children murdered by Joseph Laycock at Sheffield last Friday took place at Intake Cemetery (Now called City Road) near Sheffield on Monday. There were about 30,000 present"

 

Four days later, the Manchester Times (Manchester, England), Saturday, July 19, 1884; Issue 1384. added a bit more information to the above reports

 

 

A week later the Inquest took place on 25th July 1884

 

  

The next report appeared in The Times dated August 6th 1884 and refers to the actual trial of JOSEPH LAYCOCK who stood accused of the murder of his family.

 

At Leeds yesterday, before Mr Justice Mathew, Joseph Laycock, hawker, was charged with murder of his daughter Sarah Ann Laycock at Sheffield on the 10th of July. Mr Fenwick and Mr C.M. Atkinson conducted the prosecution; and the prisoner was defended by Mr Meysey-Thompson. The prisoner, on being brought up for trial seemed to be in a prostrate condition. For some time he cried bitterly, and apparently felt his condition acutely. During the progress of the trial he gradually became calmer, but throughout the proceedings he kept his head buried in his hands. The details of the case were of a terrible character. The prisoner lived with his wife Maria Laycock in Sheffield. They had four children – Sarah Ann aged 8 years; Francis George aged 6 years; Mary Ann aged four years and Joseph aged two years. At about 6 o’clock on the above day the prisoner saw a police constable and made some complaint to him about his wife drinking with another man. He was perfectly sober at this time. At10 o’clock the prisoner and his wife were having some supper together. He asked her to have some drink, and upon her refusing to take any he said “You might as well have some while you have the chance; it will be the last time you have the chance” They afterwards went home quietly together. In the middle of the night a scream was heard, and upon the prisoner’s house being entered a horrible sight presented itself. The body of his wife was found on the floor in the kitchen. Her throat was cut and she was quite dead. The bodies of all the children were found on the floor in a bed room upstairs. Their throats had been cut and they were all dead. The prisoner was also lying on the floor in the bed room, and close to his hand there was a large table knife covered in blood. His own throat was also cut. A man named Pearson said to him “Good God, what have you done” He mad no reply but put his hands to his lips as if in the act of prayer. Later on he said “Let me lie, let me die”. The prisoner was at once taken to the hospital. Whilst being attended to he said to the surgeon “Let me die” and “Cut my throat deeper”. Whilst he was in the hospital he thought he saw his children on the wall and asked them to go. He was taken into custody on the 25th of July and upon being charged with murdering his wife and four children he said “It was all through drink; it was about midnight when I did it” The prisoner was said to have been very good to and fond of his children, but to have been in trouble several times for assaults. The facts were undisputed, and the only defence set up was that the prisoner was not at the time responsible for his acts. To support this contention several witnesses were called on his behalf, and from their evidence it was shown that for some days previously to the 10th of July the prisoner had appeared very strange. Until he was seven years old he suffered from an affection in his head for which he was attended by a medical man. His grandfather on his mother’s side and his father were both found drowned and two brothers of his mother committed suicide, the one by cutting his throat, and the other by throwing himself before an engine. The prisoner was also apparently subject to delusions. The surgeon of the hospital in Sheffield to which the prisoner was taken gave evidence tending to show that he was not responsible for acts at the time he committed the crime with which he was charged. The learned judge, in summing up the case to the jury said that when he first looked at the depositions he came to the conclusion that it would not be right that the case should go to the jury upon the bare evidence the prosecution proposed to bring forward; he had therefore asked learned counsel to undertake the defence and to obtain the services of some professional gentleman who would be able to make inquiries into the previous history of the prisoner and as to his mental condition. With regard to the case itself, his Lordship said that the very atrocity of the crime itself rather suggested that it was not the act of a sane man and the jury would probably think that there was insanity in the prisoners family at all events. The jury retired to consider their verdict and returning into the court after a short absence found the prisoner Guilty, and he was sentenced to death in the usual form. After the sentence the prisoner remained clasping the rail of the dock with both hands. Two warders removed his hands with a little force. The prisoner then exclaimed to the Judge who had risen “Thank you your Worship, thank you”. He was then led by the warders down the steps

 

 

The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent and the Sheffield Telegraph also reported the case and provided the background to the crime. The formers report is a detailed and thorough transcript of the trial and one that I have converted into a pdf file so that readers of this article can have a far fuller appreciation of the circumstances surrounding this tragedy

 

There is no doubt whatsoever that Joseph Laycock killed his family. He had spent all his life in and out of work firstly as an errand boy, then as a pot moulderer and finally as a hand in a rolling mill. During this time he had acquired a string of convictions for petty crime mostly involving theft and drunkenness.  There was also a violent side to him – in 1879 he was arrested on suspicion of stabbing a man and had a local reputation as a prize fighter.

 

He married his wife Maria on May 16th 1875 at St Phillip’s Church, Shalesmoor, but according to his Maria’s mother the marriage was unhappy from the beginning. There were frequent rows that often culminated in violence. On two occasions Joseph had actually tried to kill her. In June 1884 he was actually sentenced to 21 days imprisonment for assaulting and beating her but the sentence had no deterrent effect because within a day of being released there were more rows and disturbances. According to the neighbours and family the cause of the violence was the potent   combination of jealousy and drink. Maria was a habitual drinker who would fly into violent fits of rage when confronted with the consequences of her drinking. Joseph’s “excuse” for his conduct was that he was trying to break his wife’s drinking habits but as his court convictions show he was not averse to drinking himself into a stupor.

 

The downward spiral of unemployment, drink and violence meant that the family moved frequently. The house in White Croft where the family were living in July 1884 is described in David Bentley’s book “The Sheffield Murders 1865 – 1965” as

 

“A more squalid poverty stricken abode (could not) be imagined. Situated at the right hand corner of the the entrance to the croft  (the house had) … one (room) on the the ground floor and two upstairs… had scarcely a stick of furniture in (it) and (conveyed) the impression of having existed innumerable years in perfect innocence of soap and water”

 

On the day of the murder Sheffield witnessed a violent thunderstorm. Joseph had gone to Banner Cross  and witnessed the storm there. His wife Maria spent the morning collecting spent medicine bottles to earn extra money. But after midday she started drinking. She was accosted in the late afternoon by her mother at The Warm Hearthstone Inn in Townhead Street who accused her of spending money on drink whilst her children were suffering neglect and hunger. On hearing this the landlord refused to serve her and threw her out. She was next seen fighting with a women in Hawley Croft and at 6 o’clock a witness saw her husband Joseph fetching Maria from another pub. This resulted in a street fight between the couple. A policeman walked by and Laycock shouted “She’s been drinking with another man. Take her in and me an’ all” The police told them to go home at which point Joseph got up and went home to feed the children. Maria on the other hand went to her mothers and together with her brother Christopher set off for Glossop Road to sell the medicine bottles they had collected.

 

On the way back it rained heavily and so Maria and Christopher stopped at the Bearders public house in Pea Croft for a drink. On leaving Maria met her husband outside her mothers and yet another quarrel started. This time Maria ran off. However by 10 o’clock the couple were seen drinking together in The Rawsons Arms in Tenter Street where they consumed some more beer and had some supper. They left shortly before 11 o’clock and returned to the house in White Croft. A row soon developed but as it was a common occurrence, the neighbours ignored it. At midnight a women’s scream was heard.

 

And then there was silence.

 

The following morning, Friday 11th July the neighbours saw no activity in the house. Eventually curiosity got the better of them and they entered the house. Lying downstairs next to the fireplace was the body of Maria Laycock. Her throat had been slashed and she was nearly decapitated. In the room upstairs they found Joseph Laycock lying on a mattress with a deep gash to the throat. He was still alive and asked the neighbours to leave him alone and let him die. On the floor next to Joseph was a large table knife. But the sight of the second mattress defied belief. All four children had their throats slashed. All four children were cold to the touch and had been dead for hours. Police were summoned and Joseph was sent to the public dispensary/hospital on West Street for his wound to be treated.

 

 

White Croft Sheffield

 

The Chief constable attended the scene of the carnage and ordered that the five bodies by taken to the public mortuary on a corporation dray. Once at the mortuary the bodies were laid out and examined. Maria, apart from the gash to her throat, had cuts and bruises to the face as well as to her wrists, which suggested that she had been beaten and restrained prior to her death. Of the children all had their throats cut, one so deep that it was nearly decapitated. Another child’s thumb was also severed which indicates that the child was trying to defend itself from the onslaught.

 

An Inquest was held the same day by the City Coroner who accepted the formal identification of the bodies and adjourned the proceedings until 1st August. Prior to adjournment he issued the five burial certificates.

 

The funeral took place on Monday 14th July 1884. The five coffins were loaded into a mourning coach that had been purchased by public subscription. The cortege made it way along Millsands, Blonk Street, Furnival Road, Broad Street and Duke Street on it’s way to Intake Cemetery (now known as City Road Cemetery). Thousands lined the route and at the Cemetery there was estimated to be a crowd of 25.000 present. Police had difficulty controlling the crowds as the five bodies were laid to rest in a single grave in the pauper’s section of the cemetery. The coffins of the children were carried to their final resting place by their friends.

 

On 25th July 1884 the Inquest was reconvened as Joseph was deemed to be fit enough to attend. After hearing the evidence the jury returned a verdict of wilful murder and after a brief appearance four days later at the magistrates court he was committed for trial at Leeds Assises.    

 

All through the trial Laycock expressed remorse, sobbing bitterly and begging forgiveness but to no avail.  After sentence of death was pronounced, arrangements were initiated for the execution at Armley Jail in Leeds.  Joseph Laycock in a death cell statement blamed his mother in law for the tragedy  - she took her daughter out drinking and would often return home unfit to look after either him or the children. On the night of the tragedy he had resolved to kill himself and went to kiss the children for the last time. On going downstairs his wife had goaded and taunted him and that is when he was overcome by madness.

 

 

Sheffield and Rotherham Independent 23rd August 1884

 

 

The execution itself was noticeable on a number of accounts

 

The authorities refused to admit the press – the rumours were that there had been a number of botched executions recently at Leeds. Laycock was due to be hung by a new hangman James Billington and they were obviously fearful of another fiasco.

 

The scaffold was erected in the prison yard at Armley Gaol and was the very same one that was used to execute possibly Sheffield’s most infamous criminal Charles Peace in 1876

 

The Daily News (London, England) dated Tuesday, August 26, 1884; Issue 11972 reported that Laycock was calm and resigned to his fate on the eve of his execution but it appears that on the day of this execution Monday 26th August 1884, his "courage and fortitude" totally deserted him (see below)

 

Laycock was to have said just before being hanged, "You will not hurt me?" to which James Billington replied, "No, thaal nivver feel it, for thaal be out of existence i' two minutes." 

 

He had fainted in the cell and had to be escorted by warders to the scaffold. As the noose was being tightened around his neck, he exclaimed

 

“Oh my children, my children. Lord have mercy on my children”

 

and was then dispatched into oblivion.    

 

There is a very interesting postscript to the case. A Family History researcher contacted me in October 2007 and stated that the murdered wife Maria Laycock, was her great great aunt. She then very kindly gave me further information regarding the background to the family. I have placed the information on a separate page    

 

MURDER AT WHITE CROFT SHEFFIELD – The Aftermath

 

NOTES ON THE CASE

James Billington of Farnworth near Bolton in Lancashire 1847-1901.

Period on Home Office List - 1884-1901.

James Billington had a life long fascination with hanging and had unsuccessfully applied for Marwood's post but managed to secure the Yorkshire hangman's position. He succeeded Berry as the executioner for London and the Home Counties in 1892. James' first execution was at Armley Gaol in Leeds on the 26th of August 1884, when he hanged a Joseph Laycock, a Sheffield hawker, for the murder of his wife and 4 children. Laycock was to have said just before being hanged, "You will not hurt me?" to which James Billington replied, "No, thaal nivver feel it, for thaal be out of existence i' two minutes." This execution was judged to be successful and James went on to complete 147 executions, finishing on December 3rd, 1901, with the hanging of Patrick M'Kenna at Strangeways prison in Manchester, who was to die for murdering his wife. James died 10 days later of bronchitis and was succeeded by his two sons, William and John, who had assisted him at various hangings..
James Billington hanged 24 men and 3 women at Newgate prison, including Henry Fowler and Albert Milsom on the 9th of June 1896 for beating to death 79 year old widower Henry Smith.
He hanged Amelia Dyer at Newgate for the murder of 4-month old Doris Marmon, a baby who had been entrusted to her care, having received £10 to look after her. This particular form of murder was known as "Baby Farming" and it is thought that Dyer had murdered at least 6 other babies for money. Each baby had been strangled with white tape. As Mrs. Dyer said, that was how you could tell it was one of hers. At 57, she was the oldest woman to go to the gallows since 1843.
Perhaps his most interesting execution was that of the poisoner, Dr. Thomas Neil Cream, on the 15th of November 1892, again at Newgate. Cream waited till the very last moment as he felt the mechanism under the trap begin to move to utter the words, "I am Jack the...." It is highly unlikely that Cream could have been Jack the Ripper but it certainly caused a stir at the time.
James Billington carried out the first hanging of the 20th century when he executed 33 year old Louise Masset at Newgate on the 9th of January 1900 for the murder of her illegitimate son.

1881 CENSUS - The LAYCOCK FAMILY 

Dwelling

17 Queens Row

Census Place

Sheffield, York, England

Family History Library Film

1342122

Public Records Office Reference

RG11

Piece / Folio

4645 / 32

Page Number

26

 

 Name 

Relation

Marital Status

Gender

Age

Birthplace

Occupation

Joseph LAYCOCK 

 Head 

 M 

 Male 

 30 

 Sheffield, York, England 

 Labourer Unemployed 

Maria LAYCOCK 

 Wife 

 M 

 Female 

 21 

 Sheffield, York, England 

  

Sarah A. LAYCOCK 

 Daughter 

  

 Female 

 5 

 Sheffield, York, England 

 Scholar 

Francis LAYCOCK 

 Son 

  

 Male 

 3 

 Sheffield, York, England 

  

Mary LAYCOCK 

 Daughter 

  

 Female 

 11 m 

 Sheffield, York, England 

  

 

1881 CENSUS MARIA LAYCOCK's BROTHER

Dwelling  

15 Queens Row

Census Place

Sheffield, York, England

Family History Library Film  

1342122

Public Records Office Reference  

RG11

Piece / Folio  

4645 / 32

Page Number  

26

 

 Name 

Relation

Marital Status

Gender

Age

Birthplace

Occupation

 Christopher GREEN 

 Head 

 M 

 Male 

 18 

 Sheffield, York, England 

 Hawker 

 Louisa GREEN 

 Wife 

 M 

 Female 

 19 

 Sheffield, York, England 

 Core Maker 

 Emma DENTON 

 Mother In Law 

 W 

 Female 

 44 

 Sheffield, York, England 

 Unemployed 

 John Wm. DENTON 

 Brother in Law 

  

 Male 

 13 

 Sheffield, York, England 

 Scholar 

 Benjamin DENTON 

 Brother In Law 

  

 Male 

 8 

 Sheffield, York, England 

 Scholar 

 

 BURIAL RECORDS - CITY ROAD CEMETERY

 

Laycock, Ann (Child, age 3).
Died at White Croft; Buried on July 14, 1884 in Consecrated ground;
Grave Number 11894, Section X of City Road Cemetery, Sheffield.

Laycock, Francis (Child, age 6).
Died at White Croft; Buried on July 14, 1884 in Consecrated ground;
Grave Number 11894, Section X of City Road Cemetery, Sheffield.

Laycock, Joseph (Child, age 2).
Died at White Croft; Buried on July 14, 1884 in Consecrated ground;
Grave Number 11894, Section X of City Road Cemetery, Sheffield.

Laycock, Maria (Married, age 25).
Died at White Croft; Buried on July 1, 1884 in Consecrated ground;
Grave Number 11894, Section X of City Road Cemetery, Sheffield.

Laycock, Sarah (Child, age 8).
Died at White Croft; Buried on July 14, 1884 in Consecrated ground;
Grave Number 11894, Section X of City Road Cemetery, Sheffield.

 

On 8th April 2006 I tried to find the grave of the Laycock Family in Section X of City Road Cemetery but there was no memorial at all to the victims of Sheffield's greatest mass murder. However in late January 2009 I was contacted by someone who had read the article on the website. He visited the Cemetery and kindly supplied me with the following two photographs. A rather poignant memorial.

 

 

Maria and her family's last resting place

Sources

The Times dated 11th July 1884

Freeman's Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser (Dublin, Ireland), Saturday, July 12, 1884

The Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), Tuesday, July 15, 1884; Issue 4734

 

Illustrated Police News 18th July 1884

 

The Daily News (London, England) dated Tuesday, August 26, 1884; Issue 11972

The Times August 6th 1884

Sheffield and Rotherham Independent 23rd August 1884

The Sheffield Telegraph

Capital Punishment UK Website - an excellent resource and fully recommended

The Sheffield Murders 1865 – 1965 - David Bentley

Sheffield Indexers - City Road Cemetery

UK Census 

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This page was last updated on 12/10/15 07:17