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The case in 1817 made legal history and national headlines - but was Mary Ashford really murdered?

In 1817, Abraham Thornton was the most loathed man in England, accused for the murder of a young girl. Mary Ashford had been seen with Thornton the night before she was found dead, and he freely admitted that he'd seduced her. But when her body was found floating in a water-filled pit, Thornton denied murdering her.
In a case that made legal history, Thornton was tried twice and found innocent twice, but was so persecuted that he had to leave the country to start an anonymous new life. As England raged about the case, prominent men of the area pursued him - Bedford, the bullying local magistrate; Webster, the nervous owner of the land where Mary's body was found; and the local vicar, Luke Booker - a man obsessed with young women and their 'virtue'. But if Thornton didn't kill Mary - who did? Was she murdered at all, or the victim of an accident? Or was she more accurately the victim of a society that condemned women and manipulated them? And what happened to all the major players in the drama afterwards?
A murder mystery, a true life crime that has never been investigated in detail before; a study of a country in social chaos and decline; this is a careful analysis with a cast of astonishing characters, and a desperate tragedy at its heart. Revealing previously unseen evidence and biographies, and using the original trial transcripts, the book is not only a fascinating study of the time, but of how women are still treated today in regard to rape and sexual identity.

Elizabeth Cooke has been writing for 30 years, and is the author of 15 published novels and one non-fiction book. She began her career by winning a national short story competition and had over 120 short stories and serials published before turning her hand to novels. Her first six books were psychological thrillers, but she soon began to concentrate on historical themes told from unusual perspectives. The worldwide bestseller The Ice Child was based around the ill-fated 1845 Franklin expedition.

Elizabeth meticulously researches her subjects. Her previous non-fiction The Damnation of John Donellan: A mysterious case of death and scandal in Georgian England (2012) was described as ‘a masterpiece’ by The Times.

Elizabeth is published under the names Elizabeth McGregor, Holly Fox and Elizabeth Cooke.

She lives near the Jurassic Coast in Dorset, UK.

‘Fascinating… Cooke focuses on legal procedure and forensic evidence to gripping effect’ - the Mail on Sunday on The Damnation of John Donellan
‘Her research is excellent…’ - Historical Novel Society on The Gates of Rutherford
‘She is good at conveying menace’ - The Times on Second Sight
‘A riveting narrative’ - Booklist on The Ice Child
‘Elizabeth is a wonderful writer’ - Luanne Rice, New York Times bestselling author on A Road Through The Mountains

Tuesday May 27th 1817 was a beautiful summer morning.

From Penns Mill Lane, the roofs of the small village of Erdington were just visible a mile or so away across the fields.

Erdington was a sleepy, nondescript place: an isolated hamlet in the heart of England standing at a crossroads that was over a thousand years old. The only industry was Penns Mill, a small wire-rolling mill that belonged to Joseph Webster; other than that, Erdington was lost in a green patchwork sea of farms, hedges and low rolling hills.

William Lavell had not had much sleep when he emerged from his cottage on Penns Mill Lane that morning. He’d been dancing at the pub the night before. There hadn’t been many women there – certainly not his wife – but as he stood at his door staring at the mill a quarter of a mile away, and persuading himself to trudge along to it, at least he had the happy reminder that he’d taken a turn round the floor with Mary Ashford.

He knew the girl well. She’d been a barmaid at The Swan in the centre of Erdington for a while, in the same pub where her father used to drink. Thomas Ashford was good for nothing: a failure and a drunk - considerably different to his brother who had a farm at Langley Heath four miles away. Mary had soon decided to put her lot in with her uncle, and went to market for him selling eggs and vegetables on Curzon Street in Birmingham. She’d been there yesterday, she’d told William. Walked all the way there and back. She’d covered eighteen miles in a day, and then danced all night.

It was half past six now, and the sun was well up. A heavy dew had fallen, and the moisture still clung to the hedges and the deep grass verges. The sun showed every drop of moisture. William stepped out into a sloping wheel-rutted lane overhung with trees on each side.

Almost immediately William saw a man coming quickly along the slight bend in the lane. He could see that the man was agitated; and when the hurrying stranger drew level with him it wasn’t to pass the time of day, but to tell Lavell anxiously that there was a pile of belongings, and a woman’s shoes stained with blood, at the side of the water-filled pit just a few yards away -and that ‘someone was in the pit’.


A pair of dancing shoes

Monday, 26 February 2018

Victorian dancing shoes

The day before she died, Mary Ashford bought a pair of dancing shoes. Nothing so fancy as these later Victorian ones, perhaps; but still a very fanciful and extravagant buy for a girl from a poverty-stricken background. She was going out that night, and it was a special event. She worked on a remote farm and the opportunties for dancing must have been very few and far between. After a long day…

Time, precious time

Monday, 19 February 2018


There was something very odd indeed about the issue of time in the case of Mary Ashford.

Every armchair detective knows that where any suspect was at any point of time - and indeed where the victim was at that moment - is crucial to solving a case. There were many witnesses to the location of both Mary and her suspected attacker on the morning of her death. The complicating factor was that…

What Lies Beneath..........

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Modern day penns lane looking up towards the original site of the 'fatal field' and stile.mary and thornton were seen here between 2am and 3am.

Have you ever wondered about the past history of your street, your area? Who lived here, what they did, or what it was like 200 years ago?

This is a modern-day picture of Penns Lane near Erdington. 200 years ago, it was a narrow country lane with dense trees either side, and a scatter of cottages. To the west stood a wire-rolling factory: a very small enterprise then, but one which would eventually…

Mary Ashford's life

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Mary ashford's cottage who killed mary ashford

Mary Ashford was neither rich nor famous. She was a hard-working girl from a poverty-stricken background, anxious to be respectable and make her own way in the world. On the day she died, she had walked many miles to and from market. One of the most poignant details of her death, for me, was the fact that she had saved up to buy a pair of dancing shoes for a dance in the local pub that evening…

Happy New Year

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Beautiful morning 008

Happy New Year to all my supporters - and potential supporters!  I took the photo here some time ago, when I first started researching the Mary Ashford case. From what I can gather from drawings and descriptions of 1817, the lane near which Mary met her death was very like this. This was actually a road near my own house in Dorset, but it so struck me as being close to the image in my head that…

guess who

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

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A world-famous Dorset author lived here, and a visit here with me is part of one of the pledges......

change of scene

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

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I wonder if there is a person out there who doesn't identify with this photo. Supposedly one of the most stressful events in life, probably because for a few weeks we tear up one pattern and try to make another; and for a few months (or two-and-a-half years, in my last move) we feel we're at the mercy of a chain of people we've never met. This is my house today,and its my 27th move. I never planned…


Sunday, 26 November 2017

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I have an account at Instagram. Take a look at elizabeth_cookeauthor to see what's occupying me at the moment.

Inspirational places

Saturday, 25 November 2017

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It's too beautiful a day today - bright sunshine and clear skies - not to share one of my inspirational places. I'm here today to clear my head after the excitement of the launch yesterday! It's Burton Bradstock looking gorgeous, as befits the World Heritage Jurassic Coast. I often walk here, and swim here in summer, and the novel I'm currently working on was prompted by this beach. 

Launching the book

Friday, 24 November 2017

I'm so thrilled to be part of the Unbound process, and today - launch day - marks a completely new process in my writing career. Crowd funding is like a big group of friends all over the world getting together. All with the same idea, the same enthusiasm: to hold a book in their hands that they've almost willed into being. Very exciting.

WHO KILLED MARY ASHFORD has been on my mind for some time…

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