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’.
William went with the man back down the lane to stare at the shoes and the neatly piled bonnet, dress, and stockings. Although he didn’t say so in later statements, it couldn’t have failed to cross his mind that the dress and shoes were like those belonging to Mary Ashford. There was no mistaking the white dancing pumps. She’d boasted the night before that they were brand new and that it was the first time that she had worn them. Her friend Hannah in the village had picked them up for her while she’d been in Birmingham. He looked at them now with a ghastly sense of creeping horror.
The stranger identified himself as George Jackson, a labourer who had come that morning from Hurst Street, Birmingham. He was unemployed since the war ended, he explained. He’d once worked in a Birmingham foundry, but they were all closing down now. No need in those days for swords and buckles, or horse bits and stirrups, or wheels for gun carriages. Now Jackson had to walk nine or ten miles each way just for the pleasure of digging ditches east of Erdington. It was either that, or let his family starve.
The two men edged cautiously around the pile of clothes. The items were stacked neatly on the edge of a steep slope down to the water. The pit was 30-foot wide, with a 12-foot drop to the water, which was itself about 7 feet deep. Just on the other side of the pit was a dirt footpath crossing the clover. It was then that they noticed a trail of blood on the grass some thirty or forty yards from the pit – a ‘zig-zag of blood in a triangle, and near the hedge a lake of blood’ as Jackson would later testify; ‘a trail of blood for fourteen yards towards the pit, across the path and on the clover ending in a few drops’ Lavell would claim. George Jackson asked Lavell to stand by the bundle of clothes while he went back to Penns Mill to find other men to help them. William stood alone in the morning sun, listening for anyone else coming along the road or for the sound of men coming back from the mill. He began to look carefully around him, away from the clothes, out into the field.
In a few minutes, Jackson was back with a handful of men. Concerned that he was already late, Jackson then went on to his work in the fields between Newhall and Sutton. The other men and Lavell, focussing on the clothes, decided that the wearer must be in the water. It’s hard to know why they were so convinced about this (or why George Jackson had said so). There was no track down to the water itself, nor any breaking of the shrubs between the water and the road; and no sign of any body. Just the proximity of the strange pile of abandoned clothing; but the presence of the bloodstains seems to have convinced everyone that a terrible crime had occurred and the owner of both the clothes and the blood must be in the pit. It was by now, according to Jackson’s account, between 7am and 7.15.
A heel rake had been brought from the mill. This was a wide pronged rake, the sort used in haymaking, ideal for dragging heavy weights. William stepped back from the edge of the pit and the clothing, and called a fellow mill worker called Joseph Bird to come along with him. William had a mind to look in the fields to see if there were any clues as to what had happened.
The two men crossed the grassy meadow, climbed the stile, and looked into the ploughed field beyond. Stretching over the freshly harrowed ground, and quite clear in the morning light, were two sets of footprints. They went in a line towards another pit – this one quite dry – in the corner of the ploughed field alongside. The length of one print was that of a man’s boot, and the indentation was deep, as if the owner were heavy. After some twenty feet, William saw another set of prints, a woman’s to judge by the smaller size, going in the same direction away from the stile alongside the hedge. In another forty to fifty feet the prints changed. Both man and woman had been running, it seemed: they could tell by the lengthened stride and the sinking into the ground. Sometimes running and then sometimes shorter, as if dodging one another.
The two men puzzled over it, seeing how, as they got closer to the dry pit, the man and woman then apparently began to walk alongside each other. Sometimes her footsteps were on the grass of the field verge, and sometimes on the ploughed earth. At one point, both sets of prints left the grass edge and went into the field together.
A man and a woman had been walking about during the night, and the imprints in the dew and the soil told their story. Why had they been running? Was she being hunted down? Or were they playing a game of kiss chase?
Lavell and Bird went back into the adjoining grassy field and towards the slope where the men now had the rake in the water. The workers were concentrating hard on their task, but they’d found nothing below the surface. They pulled the rake out and began again.
As Lavell watched them he saw something that he had missed before. He would claim later that there was a single footprint heavily indented at the top of the slope, turned slightly towards the water. But he didn’t point it out to Joseph - or anyone else that day.
Lavell began to wonder if Mary had just abandoned her clothes for some reason and gone back to the village, where she’d said she was staying with Hannah that night. If she wasn’t in the water, where was she? Perhaps she’d cut herself somehow. Or been cut. Perhaps she’d gone back to Hannah was there at Mrs.Butler’s house, nursing some kind of injury? Or perhaps she had collapsed in the fields beyond here….
Lavell walked back again to the stile, and went back into the ploughed field. It was then that he noticed a second set of footprints running towards the dry pit. He walked beside them, noting again the long stride. He thought for a moment that they were part of those that he had seen before – the ones where the couple ran, dodged and stopped together; but now he realised that they were quite different.
The second set – the man running alone – swerved suddenly to the left two-thirds of the way along the field: turning off the footpath as if the owner had changed his mind – not going towards the village or Bells Lane, but making for the field gate on the far side. Lavell went with them as far as the gate and then they disappeared, lost in the grass of the rapidly drying meadows.
Lavell leaned on the gate, calculating. Eventually that route would lead to the canal by Castle Bromwich, but a man running in that direction would be trespassing all the way: he would have to vault fences and shoulder his way through hedges.
A man, at speed, and prepared to trespass - even fight his way through - to the nearest road. This was not a man walking up and down with a woman, or playing chase. This a man in a desperate hurry. A man in a panic.
Lavell turned back towards Penns Lane.
As he got to the first field, he saw renewed activity by the pit. The heel-rake had caught on something heavy under the water.