The (Even) Darker Side of Styal Part 1: The Trial of John Henshaw

PhD student, Grant Collier has dug even deeper into the Quarry Bank archive and found another terrible tale…

History offers endless questions, and archives offer endless paths to follow in pursuit of answers. Sometimes, a single line in a document can lead a researcher on a journey of discovery, slowly unveiling a story that would otherwise have been hidden. This is particularly seductive for human stories… such as the trial of John Henshaw, a tragic episode of local history that caught the attention of a Styal resident.

The story of John Henshaw began to emerge when I noticed a small note in a rather morbid book of deaths and notable events held at the Quarry Bank archive.

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See anyone familiar here? This book also lists the murder of Henry Locket Jr on the 5th of July, an event that you can learn more about in this previous blog post:

The author of this book (probably a worker at Quarry Bank, based on its contents) meticulously recorded the deaths of residents, beginning with Hannah Greg in 1828. One entry, however, stood out from the page – Number 4, John Henshaw, who ‘was hanged’ on October 3rd 1829!

Further research has revealed a few details about John Henshaw’s background. He seems to have also been known as Joseph or Joe, and his surname is also listed in some sources as ‘Henshall’ – a common variance at this time of poor literacy and more relaxed attitudes to spelling and grammar. The son of a ‘decent, hard-working’ farmer, he was a farmer’s servant, living in Northenden, a small village just to the north of Styal on the southern bank of the River Mersey.

John was only twenty years old when he got into serious trouble. He was ‘in the full vigour of health’ and had a ‘robust, athletic frame’. He could read a little, but newspapers noted his ‘moral darkness’ and lack of religious instruction, a feature they regarded as sadly typical of the ‘lower orders’ of the county. The daily papers were in no doubt that it was this lack of religious morality that inevitably led him down his dark path.

The event occurred on the 22nd of December, 1828. It was a rainy winter’s evening in Cheshire, and John had been drinking, having been to a sale earlier in the day.  He was on his way home when he met some travellers on the road near Ashley, a village neighbouring Styal to the west. These men were poachers, and for the last two years they had been poaching on Lord Stamford’s land, earning a reputation as ‘the terror of the neighbourhood’. Greeting John, they offered him a share of their kill if he held their shot and powder to keep it dry. John had never been poaching before – he had never even held a gun – but, bold and full of drink, he agreed, and accompanied his new companions on their hunt.

The expedition began successfully when one of their number, Joseph Fenna, spotted and shot a pheasant. However, the party were soon spotted by Lord Stamford’s gamekeepers, and as the poachers fled a chase ensued. Panicking and fearing capture, John called out to the others that he had ammunition. After handing them the shot and powder, his fellows fired on the gamekeepers, severely wounding one of them with a shot to his neck. The poachers fought a retreat, regularly pausing to fire at their pursuers while John distributed ammunition. Two of the poachers abandoned the party and, after evading the law for several weeks, John was eventually apprehended and taken to Chester gaol to await punishment with the others.

sraker styal 2

Offer of payment for the apprehension of John Henshaw, otherwise John Henshall, along with other members of the party. Police Gazette, London, 6th January 1829. (Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.)

On the 10th of September 1829, John was finally brought in front of a judge at Chester assize courts for sentencing. It had emerged during the trial that the party of poachers, before leaving for their evening hunt, had decided to resist all capture, even to the point of murder. The injured gameskeeper, still visibly struggling with his grave neck wound, had also journeyed to the court to testify against the men, there had been many other witnesses, and one of the other poachers had told the whole story. It was revealed that John had not just carried the leaden bullets for his companions’ deadly weapons but, in his panic, he had also encouraged them to shoot at the pursuing gamekeepers.

One of John’s companions, Richard Taylor, stood beside him, and was swiftly sentenced to death. For John, however, the judge was more reluctant to dispense the ultimate punishment. He told John that he had reflected on the case extensively, searching for any way that, ‘consistent with his duty to the country’, he could spare John’s life. In particular, he felt sympathy for John’s youth and his inexperience in committing such crimes. At this point, the learned judge burst into tears, unable to continue. After a short break, and with a heavy heart, the judge implored John to ask Christ to forgive his sins and to prepare himself for the death that he must soon suffer. Upon receiving the sentence, John broke down, weeping ‘in agony’ at his fate.

During that same day’s session, two other men were also sentenced to death at the courts – Henry Wyatt, who had stabbed a man during an industrial dispute in Stockport, and Joseph Woodhouse, for the rape of his own ten-year-old daughter. The criminal justice system had decided that hanging was appropriate for all of these men. Today, it is likely that both of these crimes would have incurred a much more severe punishment than John’s!

Despite the sentence, there was still hope for John if his sentence could be annulled by the mercy of the courts or the king. The local newspapers were certainly on his side. The Chester Courant, reporting that John’s hanging had been scheduled for the 3rd of October, reflected that ‘it will give us great pleasure should we have to announce next week, that the sentence of John Henshall has been commuted’. Whether he was aware of this support from his prison cell is unclear, but it may have provided him some comfort – or false hope – during his final days. He was hanged, according to plan, by a reluctant executioner on the 3rd of October… a day that deserves its own story.

Part II of this story, revealing the circumstances of John’s execution and its aftermath, will follow on 22nd June…


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