Mary Holden

by Irene Wise

Initial research by David Edmondson.


After their son died, everyone knew they didn’t get on. They didn’t keep it behind closed doors. Roger was a jealous man and wouldn’t let Mary, a decent looking woman, 11 years his junior, get away with talking to anyone without wanting to know the reason for it.

Just a month before that dreadful day, William Chippendale was in their cottage by the beck at Dean Bottom, near the bobbin shop in Hurst Green. Roger and Mary started arguing right in front of him. It was fierce, with no holding back. Roger called her all sorts before Mary said, “As bad as I’ve been, I shall be a great deal worse yet!” Well, we all found out what she may have meant by that. Although I’m still not sure of her guilt.

It all came to a head on 26th January, 1834. Roger had been at work all day in the cotton mill, and then had mash, haddock and a pint in the pub before he eventually got home. He demanded a drink and took a pot of cold coffee off the table and gulped it down. Then he went out again and that’s when he was taken ill.

James Parker saw him in the Chippendales’ barn, swaying and clutching his stomach. He was in such a state he had to be carried home. Mary wasn’t too moved by the sight of her groaning husband and said he was always blaming her for everything and, “Now he’ll say I’ve poisoned him.”

Now in a small village like this, everyone knows everyone’s business. As well as a farmer, I, John Swarbrick, got voted by the area to be their constable. I guess I was picked as I’m not one for drinking and I’m known for my honesty. Now, before I knew about Roger being taken ill, James and William were asking questions and trying to get two and two to add up. James caught on to Mary mentioning poisoning and demanded to know what she’d given him to eat and drink. She told him he’d had nothing but cold coffee from the pot. James examined the pot and says he fond white powder in the spout and lid that tasted hot, like lime. He took it home that night.

The day after Roger died, their neighbour William Chippendale came round and started harassing Mary about poison until she said, “Yes, I may have saved my own life through it, for I neither gave it to him nor told him to take it.”

So the fingers were pointing before I came to see for myself. I just couldn’t believe that such a decent-looking Catholic woman could do such a thing. I told her, “I doubt that you’ll die a good deal sooner than you are prepared.” The poor woman revealed to me that she had been so badly treated that she had intended to run away.

During our conversation, Mary told me that she had bought six penny worth of flea powder from the shopkeeper, Edward Tomlinson when his servant went to Blackburn for supplies. She’d put it in the coffee pot, one that Roger seldom used, for the purpose of sprinkling to kill fleas. She had washed out the pot and burnt the packet, but isn’t this the normal action of a mother protecting her young daughter from the arsenic poison?

Since Mary was the only suspect, it was my responsibility to transport her across the moors to Lancaster castle for the Assizes. Throughout the trial on 14th March 1834, Mary remained emotionless, not revealing the turmoil and fear that must have been churning inside a god-fearing woman like her. She knew there was only one sentence she could receive if found guilty.

Of course they were all there for the prosecution, William, James, Edward and the doctor. Mary had no one to speak for her but two debtors incarcerated with her, but when it came to it, they could not speak up for her. Of course, after hearing that, the jury found her guilty immediately.

Before sentencing her, the judge did mention that Roger had treated her very badly and that she had feared for her life. But he did place a great deal of emphasis on the fact that, “She’d sent him out of this world unprepared to meet his maker, with all his sins still upon him.”

A couple of days later, on the morning of Wednesday 19th March, 1834, Mary prepared for the inevitable by praying with the Rev. George Brown in the chapel. The next events I can hardly bear to re-tell. She was carried across the debtors yard to the tower, hidden from the cruel eyes in a sedan chair. But this was no protection from the cruel inhumane taunts, and on through the doors to the Hanging Corner. Two women helped her to the scaffold as she appeared almost suffocated with grief. A cheering crowd, including women and shamefully young children, were to hear her last words, “Lord, relieve me from my misery.”

The hangman showed no mercy as he interrupted her final prayer and she dropped, struggling violently.

On returning to Hurst Green, I could not bear to be reminded of my role in the story of this suffering woman and her child. Ellen was eventually sent to Aighton workhouse when she was eight, a place so remote that it received an annual inspection instead of the customary weekly one. I could not take the gig back to my farm so I left it with the landlord at the Eagle and Child. After I’d reassured him that I meant what I said, he took it upon himself to find a new use for it and created a two seater chair for the bar. He now tells visitors they can sit in the same seat as the last woman to be hanged in Lancaster Castle.


I was inspired to write this piece because I was struck by the loneliness of Mary. The only women to support her are the the two accompanying her to the gallows. The constable tells how he was deeply effected by the Mary and witnessing the behaviour of the women at the execution. He sounds quite young and won’t have received any training. I was also struck by the absence of any mention of Mary’s surviving daughter and the lack of any support for her. It was certainly a black and white world without the infinite shades of grey that forensic science has given us.

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