The Murder of John Ratcliffe

The execution of William Heaton for murder, as mentioned in the last blog entry, left me curious as to just what had happened in the Heaton case. Warrington has no newspaper going back to the date of the trial, so to find any details I decided to look at some National sources, human nature being what it is, then or now, a ‘good murder’ always gets column space in the papers.

I was able to locate two accounts of the trial which, between them, describe all of the ins and outs of the case as reported at the time. From looking at these, it has to be said, that William Heaton was no criminal mastermind.

Whilst any murder is of course horrific, and the people involved must have been traumatised, there is a tragic comedy to the events seen now through the glass of time.
The two accounts come from The Spectator Magazine and The Annual Register.

The basic facts are as follows: That on the night of 28th October 1831 William Heaton, a farm labourer, murdered John Ratcliffe, a retired game keeper. The body was found on the road “2 miles and a quarter towards Warrington from Old Mister Ratcliffe’s house at Burtonwood” the next morning. Heaton eventually confessed to the murder, but gave no motive for his crime.

Now that you have the basics The Spectator can add the first batch of detail.

The Spectator 17th March 1832, p10

LANCASTER ASSIZES — On Friday last, William Heaton was convicted of the murder of John Ratcliffe at Burton Wood, in October last. The most singular part of the case was the prisoner’s calling, without the least seeming necessity, at the house of the father of the murdered man, almost immediately after the murder had been perpetrated. The son of the deceased was in the house when Heaton came in, and was on the trial the principal evidence against him. “Heaton,” he said, “came into our house just as the clock struck ten that night, and asked my uncle William if he had seen his brother John. He came and sat down by the fire, and asked for a pipe. He smoked part of it; and said, I had like to have been in a skirmish last night.’ I said,

Who with ?’ and he made no answer. I said, You have either gotten a black eye now, or there is a scab on one side of your nose.’ He said

No, it’s dirt ;’ and he rubbed his face. He stuck to it that it was dirt; and for satisfaction sake, I took a candle and held it up to his face. I then saw three marks of clotted blood. I said, Why it’s blood ;’ and he went very red. He said, Oh, I fell over Charles Hindley’s wheelbarrow, and scarred my hand among the cinders.’ He showed me his hand, and I observed it was all covered over with blood.

I observed no marks of a sear. After this he sat till about twenty minutes after ten, and then went away.”

It seems from this description that having murdered Ratcliffe, Heaton has decided to provide himself with an alibi by visiting the dead man’s family and spending the rest of the evening with them. So far, so good. What Heaton failed to do before visiting the family however, was to clean the blood off his hands and face first.


A few further details can be found in the Annual Register. The article is somewhat longer than in The Spectator, and gives witness statements from the trial. I have copied out a few relevant sections here.

Annual Register 1832, Chronicle Section, p34

James Andrews stated that, on the morning of the 29th of October last, about six o’clock, he saw Ratcliffe lying dead near Burtonwood. One hand was in his waistcoat pocket, and the other under him. His hat was off. There was a quantity of blood, and some brains, under the right ear. There were some cuts in the ground near the head, which seemed to have been made with a blunt instrument, like a potato fork. There were wounds on both sides of the head, but no signs of any struggle having taken place. Isaac Lawson, the son of the prisoner’s sister. – I was at Betty Bates’s. in Hindley Row, at Burtonwood, on the night of 28th of October last. It was about quarter past seven. Prisoner came to the door, and called me out. He asked me to swap hats with him. I did so, and gave him my oil case hat, and took his white straw one. He gave me no reason. Mary Rigby – About ten o’clock on the night of the 28th, saw the prisoner pass having on an oil-case hat. He went into Lawson’s and returned about a minute, having on a white straw hat.

So, here we have a description of how the victim was found, but also the second part of Heaton’s cunning plan, to wear a different hat, so that if he is seen people won’t recognise him. The effect apparently being that he instantly stood out to neighbour Mary Rigby as William Heaton, but wearing someone else’s hat. When the local constable decides to question Heaton based on the comments of these various neighbours with whom he has tried to establish an alibi, Heaton is at Peter Tarbuck’s shop in Burtonwood, he runs out of the shop and hides behind a pigsty in the back yard, where he found a few moments afterwards. Footprints, combined with the various witness statements helped convict Heaton at Lancaster Castle, where he was later hanged. At the time of his arrest, a pocket book had been found on Heaton containing a lock of red hair. Despite this evidence, no motive came out at court regarding why the crime had been committed. The Spectator suggested that Radcliffe had been killed because of his former position as a gamekeeper which had made enemies of many local poachers. The Annual Register, however, states the following:

“it came out that an illicit intercourse had existed between Heaton and the murdered man’s wife, and, after various inquiries she was committed for trial as having instigated the murder. She was tried at Lancaster on the 28th August. But although it was clearly proved that she and Heaton maintained an illicit intercourse, that she entertained the most mortal enmity towards her husband, and had expressed it again and again in the most diabolical terms, she was acquitted, as there was nothing to connect her with the particular fact.”

Which story is true? It is hard to say without further research, but certainly the image of “Old Mr. Ratcliffe” the hated but well-to-do Gamekeeper, his fiery tempered young red-headed wife, and the simple labourer, her paramour, whom she goads into murdering her husband, makes a good story for the papers and may account for why the story had such an impact at the time, and why it was remembered 53 years later, when Thomas Glazebrook Rylands is offered a piece of the murderer’s skin for the Museum at Warrington.







This article was originally posted on Tuesday, November 25th, 2014.