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9 Clarke Street, Bolton

The death house, 9 Clarke Street, Bolton.

The upper right-hand window was where William Thorpe committed murder.

Hare and Hounds

The Hare and Hounds pub in Breightmet.

Thorpe sat here until last orders the night before the grisly murder.

Bolton's Killer in the Fog

by Steve Fielding

Watchman hanged for murder

SITTING IN the taproom of the Hare and Hounds in Bolton, William Thorpe cursed his luck. Nursing another drink, he was brooding over the devastating news that the only woman he had ever truly loved had recently married.

He had last seen Frances Godfrey in June 1925, just before the "Wakes" holiday, and she had said nothing of wedding plans. He knew she had been seeing William Clarke for many months, but she had always said that it wasn't serious, and Thorpe had continued his longstanding on-off relationship with her.

On first learning about the wedding he had written her a long, affectionate letter, pouring out his heart, perhaps in the vain hope that it might prompt her to leave her husband.

He had heard nothing since, and for the last few days the 45-year-old crippled ex-soldier — he had lost the lower part of his left leg during the war — moped around the building site at Breightmet, Bolton, where he worked as a labourer and watchman.

On November 19th, 1925, after collecting his wages he headed straight for a pub. A few drinks later he caught a trolley bus into the town centre, where he spent the rest of the evening in other pubs before catching the last bus back to the Hare and Hounds, where he sat until last orders. As the landlord called time, Thorpe staggered over and asked for a bottle of rum to take out.

He continued drinking when he returned to his lodgings, and as first light broke he decided that if he couldn't have Frances, then nobody would.

Thirty-nine-year Frances Clarke lived with her new husband and elderly mother in a small terraced house, 9 Clarke Street, Victory, Bolton. At 5 a.m. William Clarke left home and made his way to the Little Lever chemical works where he worked as a labourer, leaving Frances asleep in the front bedroom.

Less than an hour later Frances's mother was woken by a piercing scream. It seemed to come from the front bedroom, and as the old woman sat up in her bed she heard a curiously familiar clumping sound coming from the staircase, as though i someone was making a clumsy exit.

Throwing on her dressing gown, she rushed to Frances's room. Her daughter was lying on the bed bleeding heavily from a hideous gash in her throat. As her nightgown turned a deep crimson she moaned: "Billy Thorpe." It was a name her mother knew well. Thorpe had lodged with her when he had first come to Bolton, and she had disapproved of his relationship with her daughter.

Now she wasted no time in calling for an ambulance, but by the time it arrived Frances Clarke was dead. Detective Superintendent Hall led the murder enquiry as a search began for William Thorpe. It appeared that he had entered the house by breaking a back kitchen window, after scaling the back wall - not an easy manoeuvre for the one-legged watchman.

The hunt for the killer was short. By lunchtime Thorpe Was in custody, arrested by two detectives who found him holding a razor to his throat as they burst a door open. He was quickly disarmed and taken to the local police station, where he said that he had already made two unsuccessful suicide bids since committing the murder.

On leaving Frances's home he had thrown himself in front of a tram. But it was crawling in fog and the driver had stopped in time, climbing down to remonstrate and being pushed to the ground by Thorpe, who had then disappeared into the gloom.

Thorpe said he had then tried to drown himself in the canal close to his home, but had been unable to hold his head under the water long enough. In custody that afternoon he made a further attempt, trying to hang himself with his braces in the police station lavatory. Once again he was thwarted. His escort kicked down the door.

Thorpe seemed to be "going off his head"

At his trial at Manchester Assizes on February 23rd, 1926, his defence counsel strove to convince the jury that Thorpe was insane at the time of the murder. The son of his landlady testified that at times he seemed to be "going off his head," and that he had tried to kill himself on more than one occasion. When Thorpe took the stand he looked pale and drawn. He said that he had first lodged with Frances and her mother in 1922. Soon afterwards he and Frances had begun to keep company, but he had heard of her marriage only when he met a mutual friend.

He claimed that the razor police had taken from him on his arrest was merely for shaving, and a lethal glasscutter taken from his pocket was to fix a broken window pane in his hut at the building site. He denied using this to kill Frances Clarke, although bloodstains were found on it.

He claimed he had no idea what had happened on the night of November 19th, as he had been very drunk. Although he admitted he was angry because Frances had married, he denied killing her because she had chosen someone else.

Summing up, Mr. Justice Wright said that in certain cases some people who were very drunk could be said to be suffering from a form of insanity. "We all know from sad experience that drunkenness does weaken a man's self-control, and as a result he does things he would not do when sober."

The judge also pointed out that a man might be so drunk as to be unable to form the necessary intention to commit a crime. After retiring for less than half an hour the jury found William Thorpe guilty of murder, but added a strong recommendation for mercy. The prisoner stood unmoved as he was sentenced to death.

Numerous petitions were launched in the hope of saving him from the gallows. One in his home town of Blackpool was signed by more than 7,000 and others in Bolton gathering similar numbers.