The murder of Police-constable John MATTHEWS, at Oxton, 1854

The murder of Police-constable John MATTHEWS, at Oxton, 1854

Liverpool Mercury, Sept 5th, 1854

Shocking tragedy at Oxton

Constable murdered

A lamentable and fatal occurrence took place on Monday at Oxton, in the early hours, which has cast a gloom over that usually quiet district, and produced a deep and widespread sympathy for the family of the unfortunate, but worthy man who, without a moment's warning, has been hurried into eternity by the hand , no doubt of a maniac. The murdered man was John MATTHEWS, county constable of Oxton, and the perpetrator of the horrible deed is William KNOWLES, aged 57, a resident of Ball's Rd, Claughton.

KNOWLES, it appears was formerly a gamekeeper in the service of Squire PRICE, lord of the manors of Birkenhead and Claughton. Many years ago Mr PRICE left his favourite keeper a quantity of land near the Birkenhead park, which the latter subsequently sold to great advantage, and with the proceeds purchased or built two cottages in Ball's Rd, in one he and his family had resided in respectable circumstances for many years. He was exceedingly fond of his gun, and of horses and dogs, spending a considerable time in shooting up and down the adjoining districts, in company of his Oxton companions. H appeared to be a quiet inoffensive man, and it is said was on particular terms of intimacy with the man who has become his victim. At two previous periods in his life the mind of KNOWLES has been deranged, and on each of these occasions he had to be confined in a lunatic asylum, but until the recent melancholy event, many years have elapsed since any symptoms of insanity has manifested itself, at times he was very irritable, and when vexed gave rent to considerable passion.

On Friday last KNOWLES went into the country with a friend on a shooting excursion, he had no gun with him. Before they were long out a quarrel ensued between them respecting a dog, and they parted for the forenoon, but the two sportsmen joined together again in the afternoon. Saturday was spent by KNOWLES in a similar manner, but all this time no idea was entertained by his friends that aberration of mind was returning. On Sunday morning he joined a young man Robert LANCASTER, a butcher in Claughton-firs, Oxton, when they both walked as far as Landican, whilst on this ramble LANCASTER discovered that the mind of the aged man was affected, he talked incoherently on trivial subjects. They continued together during the day and at 8pm were at the Talbot Inn, kept by Mr JONES, in Oxton, where KNOWLES had 2d worth of sherry, they remained until 10pm, during which time KNOWLES gave unmistakable proof that insanity had again returned. He talked at a furious rate, and rambled from one subject to another with great rapidity. Upon leaving the inn LANCASTER accompanied the man to his home and on Mrs KNOWLES seeing the state her husband was in, she induced the young man to stay at the house all night. After spending a couple of hours in the back-parlour KNOWLES was taken to his bedroom, where his son William KNOWLES, aged 20, and LANCASTER remained with him at intervals until daylight. Shortly after 2am the deranged man became outrageous, and his son, at the request of his mother, went for the assistance of MATTHEWS, the county constable, who lived at Spring-villas a short distance from the house, and who was known to have considerable influence over the father.

MATTHEWS who had just retired to rest after going his rounds in Oxton, was called at 2.30am, and with that alacrity that always characterised him, immediately dressed, and left his wife and five children in bed, unconscious, poor fellow, that those poor dear ones who depended upon him for support, and protection, would soon be deprived of a father's care. Having reached the house of KNOWLES, he remained downstairs until about 5am, when he was introduced into the room of the lunatic. MATTHEWS talked kindly to him, and did everything in his power to calm his disturbed mind. At this time William KNOWLES and LANCASTER went into the kitchen to get some refreshment, leaving the constable in charges of KNOWLES, they had not been many minutes downstairs when a noise was heard, and LANCASTER rushed upstairs into the lobby, where he found MATTHEWS holding the outside of the back-parlour door, evidently preventing some party who was inside from getting out, it became evident KNOWLES was in the parlour and MATTHEWS outside. He had allowed KNOWLES to go into the back parlour for the purpose of pacifying him. Upon getting into the parlour KNOWLES appears at once to have thought of his fowling-pieces, five of which were kept there in a closet, a double-barrelled one being always loaded. This he seized and MATTHEWS walked out of the room, pulling the door after him, thinking that once the door was closed he would be safe. MATTHEWS called out, "He [Knowles] has a gun, is it loaded ?" before LANCASTER could answer a discharge of the fowling-piece echoed around the house, the madman had fired from inside through the panel of the door, the contents lodging in the left breast of the constable, and penetrating the heart. A hole the size of a crown-piece was made in the door, and so powerful was the discharge that, wood, shot, portions of the coat, waistcoat, brace and shirt, were carried into the body of the wounded man. MATTHEWS instantly staggered and exclaimed to LANCASTER, "I'm shot, run for Dr GODDEN" a surgeon who lives in the neighbourhood.

LANCASTER promptly left the house for the surgeon, the constable, notwithstanding the fatal wound he had received, managed to walk into the kitchen and seeing the wife of the lunatic, said, "I am a dead man Mrs KNOWLES, send for the doctor." He then made an effort to reach the back door for fresh air, when he drew a deep sigh, and fell to the floor, a corpse. Upon the arrival of Mr GODDEN, surgeon, life was found to be extinct, yet that gentleman deemed it advisable to send for Mr WALKER, surgeon.

The lunatic was found in the parlour, and walked to the bedroom in the company of his son, apparently unconscious of the terrible deed he had perpetrated. Information was speedily conveyed to the Birkenhead police-court, and in a short time Inspector BIRNIE and police-officer THOMPSON arrived at the scene of the dreadful occurrence, and removed the murderer to the bridewell. During the day KNOWLES spoke lightly of the murder, and rambled in his conversation. Two men were kept in constant guard of him.

The family of the insane man were thrown into a state of intense grief by the fearful occurrence. But what must have been the anguish of the bereaved widow, with five children now dependant upon her, the eldest not above seven years of age. The Rev John BLAKENEY of Christ Church and Mr GODDEN, surgeon, undertook to communicate the dreadful tidings to the poor woman. On hearing who was at the door to see her, something occurred at once in her mind that her husband had met with some accident. She hurried downstairs, and before the reverend gentleman could console her she surmised the worst, and upon hearing the dreadful news she gave way to a paroxysm of grief. Her fatherless children joining in with the lamentation, the scene heart rendering in the extreme.

MATTHEWS who was about 40yrs of age was formerly with the Liverpool police force, in which he was much respected. About 10yrs ago he was appointed county-constable for Oxton, a situation he has filled ever since with credit to himself, and with benefit not only to the township, but to the adjoining districts. He was honest, straightforward, and conscientious in the discharge of his duties, strictly sober, and always at his post when wanted. In his official duties he displayed considerable tact and ability, and was kind and obliging to all. Throughout the Hundred of Wirral, no constable stood higher in the estimation of the public and magistracy for his general probity, and for his anxiety to perform his public duties faithfully and satisfactorily. Upon his death being known in Oxton and Birkenhead, high and low, rich and poor, gave expression to their heartfelt sympathy. Only a few weeks ago, on a Sunday evening the poor fellow heroically grappled with a desperate house-breaker not many yards from the spot where he met his death, and notwithstanding the severe handling he received from the ruffian, he succeeded in holding him until some gentleman came to his assistance. A few hours before he was called to the house of KNOWLES, ever alive to his duty, he had taken a boy to the bridewell for stealing pears from a garden. It is hoped that the residents of Oxton and Claughton will at once show their sympathy for the bereaved family by entering into subscription for their future support. They are left entirely destitute, the deceased man's salary having been only 55 a year.

Examination before the Magistrates

Yesterday the murderer was brought up before the Birkenhead police-courts charged with the murder of John MATTHEWS. There were present on the bench, J. S. JACKSON Esq, William JACKSON Esq, M.P, Major-General Edward CUST, and J. D. CASE Esq, the examination was a private one. The accused on being ushered into court shook hands with Mr TOWNSEND the Magistrates clerk, and then moved in a familiar manner to the bench. His eyes rolled wildly and during the taking of the evidence he frequently rubbed his hands, smiled, and winked to several parties who were in court. He looked healthy, but appeared totally unconscious of the enormity of the crime he had perpetrated.

The first witness called was Robert LANCASTER, butcher, Oxon, who had known the prisoner for 2yrs and lived near him for about 18mths. An gave details [as above] also adding that when he was with the prisoner in the back-parlour he continued to be excited and talked and sang very incoherently, he talked of having been with Captain COOK on his voyage around the world, and proposed to making certain persons kings, and talked about going up into the clouds. Shortly after 4am he fell asleep, witness slept also for a few minutes but was woken up by the prisoner who said, " Bob, where you the devil who came to kill me when I was at Brenny-price ?" He believed he meant when he was ill 26yrs ago. At one time he was occupied half an hour washing his hands, he took a toothpick and said he could draw horses and dogs. His son William came into the room at 5am and the prisoner occupied himself looking through the window. Shortly afterwards John MATTHEWS came into the room, and spoke to the prisoner kindly, the prisoner showed him a pair of cloth breeches. Witness then went to the kitchen and MATTHEWS was left with the prisoner. As he was leaving to go for the doctor, MATTHEWS followed him and was standing at the back door, his breast covered in blood, when he saw MATTHEWS again he was dead.

The next witness called was William KNOWLES the son of the prisoner, he gave evidence [as above] adding that his father is sometimes very passionate and was excited when he came into the house on Sunday night. LANCASTER sat with the prisoner part of the night and the witness went into the room two or three times, the prisoner rambled very much in his talk.

Joseph GODDEN, surgeon was next sworn, and stated he lived at Oxton and was called to see MATTHEWS and found him lying in the kitchen on some chairs. He removed his clothes, he was quite warm and he found a large wound on his left breast, two inches above the nipple. He was bleeding slightly from the wound and from the mouth. He concluded from the flow of blood from the wound that the lungs were injured. It appeared to be a gunshot wound and death resulted from it.

The whole of the evidence given the prisoner was remanded until the holding of the inquest, this forenoon, before Mr CHURTON, coroner at the Talbot Inn, Oxton.

A public meeting will be held this evening in the school-room Christ Church, Claughton for the purpose of organising a committee to solicit subscription on behalf of the wife and 5 children of MATTHEWS. In the meantime we shall be glad to take charge of any sums the kind-hearted may contribute.

Liverpool Mercury, Sept 8th, 1854

Mr CHURTON reached Birkenhead shortly before 2pm, at 3pm the jury were sworn in and proceeded to view the body at the house of the deceased in Spring-villas. A verdict of "Wilful murder" against William KNOWLES, was returned and he was committed to take his trial at Chester Assizes.

At 4.30 pm a large number of people had assembled to witness the funeral

The cortege consisted of a hearse and two mourning coaches containing the widow and her children and relatives. The whole of the constabulary force of the Hundred of Wirral, headed by the special head-constable Mr GWYNNE, the Wallasey constabulary, attended by Mr Superintendent ACAMBLE, and the whole of the Birkenhead police force off duty, under the management of Inspectors BIRNIE and M'NEILE, walked after the hearse including several gentlemen from Oxton and Birkenhead who held the deceased in high esteem. On reaching the Town-hall at Birkenhead the funeral was joined by the following magistrates, Major-General Sir Edward CUST, Bart, William JACKSON Esq, M.P. J.D. CASE Esq, J. S. JACKSON, Esq, The Rev Mr COXON, J. W. HARDEN Esq, judge of the county court. A number of other gentlemen of whom were P. F. CURRY, Esq coroner of the borough of Liverpool, Henry CHURTON Esq, coroner of the southern division of the county of Chester, J. TOWNSEND Esq, William HENDERSON Esq, etc, also followed the remains to their final resting place in St Mary's Churchyard.

As the procession moved along the streets were crowded with spectators, on reaching the churchyard, so large was the assemblage of people that some difficulty was experienced in obtaining access to the church. The funeral service was read by Rev John BLAKENEY of Christ Church, Claughton, after which the body was deposited in a grave fronting Abbey St, amidst the tears and sympathy of all assembled. The magistrates who generally attend the sessions at Birkenhead generously defrayed the whole of the expenses of the funeral. Mr EVANS, car proprietor, kindly furnished the hearse and coaches free of charge.

Liverpool Mercury, Oct 20th, 1854

MATTHEWS, the late Oxton police-officer

At the Cheshire county sessions on Monday Mr W. T. EGERTON, said he had been requested by Sir Edward CUST, to bring forward a motion that Sir Edward CUST had given notice, that, " An annuity of 27-10s be granted to the widow and children of John MATTHEWS, late assistant petty constable of the Hundred of Wirral, who was killed in the execution of his duty on the 4th Sept 1854, for so long as Mrs MATTHEWS shall remain a widow and unmarried." The motion was agreed to.

Liverpool Mercury, April 6th, 1855

William KNOWLES committed on a charge of shooting John MATTHEWS, police-constable, at Oxton on 4th September last, but removed by an order from the secretary of state to the Cheshire Lunatic Asylum on the 27th of the same month, will not be arraigned, an affidavit from Mr BRUSHFIELD the superintendent of the Asylum, having been presented to the court, to the effect that the prisoner is of unsound mind and unfit to be removed from his place of confinement.


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