Wife Murder at Black Bull Yard
The story of Mary and John Taylor is an intriguing one. What brought these very different individuals together and why did they end up living in lodging houses in Stockton? What circumstances led to the death of Mary on 18th September 1877?
The couple are initially brought to attention when newspaper articles reported on a murder at Nixon’s Lodging House in Black Bull Yard on 18th September 1877. Black Bull Yard was situated just off the High Street in Stockton, and led down to the Quayside. The lodgings would have been very basic, with several persons sharing a room, and all sharing very basic facilities in the yard.
The census returns for 1881 listed at least twenty-nine lodgers residing at 3 Black Bull Yard, aged from 26 to 73 years; they included a painter, iron-moulder, ship carpenter, groom and twenty-five general labourers. While three of the lodgers hailed from Stockton, most had migrated from different counties, including Yorkshire, Lancashire, Staffordshire and Norfolk; three from Ireland, one from Scotland and one from Wales. The industrial north east of England was a magnet in the nineteenth century, for entrepreneurs and workers who saw opportunities to make a living in the developing industrial areas.
According to the news reports, a labourer (who initially called himself Henry Taylor) had been apprehended and brought before the Borough Magistrates and charged with the murder of Mary Taylor. Henry, who subsequently turned out to be called John, and went also by the nickname “Lank” Taylor, was described as a “thick-set fellow, rather below the average height” aged about 45 or 50 years, a “navvy”, who had recently been working in the brickyards.
The inquest was held at Stockton Town Hall on 20th September. An article in the Northern Echo commented that “a great deal of time [was] wasted by introducing unseemly jokes and asking irrelevant questions to witnesses”, another report stated that “these [jokes] did not tend to reflect credit on the proceedings”! Mary Nixon, the wife of the Lodging House Keeper, a boiler-smith called William Nixon, was called as a witness. She stated that John and Mary Taylor had lived at the lodgings for 12 months. Mary Taylor had been a “steady quiet respectable woman”, originally from Ireland. She’d had a “fresh complexion” which she’d attributed to “getting sunstroke when out in India with her first husband”. He, it was said, had held a good position in the army, but had died a number of years previously. Three daughters from that marriage were believed to have secured “good situations”. Mary Taylor, aged about 40 years, was also described as a “very industrious and frugal woman”, “capable of earning much money by the make and sale of nightcaps”, “which she hawked about the town”. Mary Nixon said that John Taylor “was very kind to her [his wife], except when he was drunk, when he used to quarrel”, other reports stated that they had “not lived happily together, owing to his drunken habits”, and one report stated that, on the night of the alleged murder they had both been “somewhat under the influence of drink”. Witnesses gave varying reports as to what actually happened in the lodging house before Mary had gone out in to the yard, followed by John, who was then seen to raise his foot and kick her. John Taylor alleged, under caution, that Mary had thrown a plate at him, and that the landlady (Mrs Nixon) had said something to him about bothering with her (Mary). Mary had then “got down from the form” and run to the door. John Taylor denied going further than the door, and said that Mary had fallen with her head against the shop windows. Mrs Nixon said that she had not witnessed Mary throwing a plate, as had not been there. Another witness, Wallace, said that he did not see the plate and stated, in another report, that he had witnessed Taylor kicking his wife out of bed the previous evening. Wallace said that he knew this, “because he and his wife slept in the same room”. Another witness, called Ellis, said that when she fell he saw Taylor kick her again, around the head or shoulder, and this led her to bleed from the mouth, nose and ears.
All reports agreed that Mary was then carried back in to the lodging-house and a doctor called for. However, she did not recover and died the next day. The post-mortem examination revealed that she had died from a contusion and pressure on the brain as a result of a wound behind the right ear, “probably as the result of a kick from a hob-nailed boot”. Taylor pleaded in defence that he had never kicked his wife, and that she had fallen. He seemed to express genuine remorse. On the recommendation of the Commissioner, who thought this trial resembled that of a man called [Benjamin] Walker, the jury found Taylor to be guilty of manslaughter. When passing sentence, the Learned Commissioner said that he should pass a severe one “as a warning that men must not use their boots and inflict punishment upon anyone much less upon that one whom they ought to love and cherish”.
On 3rd (or 8th)* November, 1877, John “Lank” Taylor was sentenced to fifteen years penal servitude. According to the Calendar of Prisoners in the Gaol at Durham, he was 43 years when sentenced. His discharge record states that Taylor, John (D 1139), a widower, was born in Birmingham in 1834, and had a number of “distinctive marks and peculiarities”: “pockpitted; mole left neck, right side, and two back neck, nose broken, scar top lip, left temple (large), bend right arm each knee and left wrist, miners mark corner left eye, hairy chest and back, ruptured left groin.” John served twelve of the fifteen years, and was liberated on 3rd May 1889, from Portland Prison. His destination was given as the D. P. A. S. (the Discharged Prisoners Aid Society).
Will we ever find out what happened to John Taylor after his release? Where had John and Mary met before coming to Stockton? What brought them together – genuine affection or circumstances? We can only presume the frustration that Mary felt as she tried hard to earn a few pennies by making and selling nightcaps; and the wretchedness John may have felt, wondering where, when and how he might earn the next few shillings. Living conditions were harsh and there was no welfare state to fall back on – just the workhouse.
We do know that the parish registers for Holy Trinity, which had been the parish church for the Black Bull Yard area, included a burial for Mary Taylor on the 21st September, 1877. The civil record of her death appeared to offer no additional information about this unfortunate woman, whose life had been cut so tragically and unnecessarily short.
Sources used at Stockton Reference and Family History Library:
British Newspapers Online: Daily Gazette Middlesbrough, Thursday 20th September, 1877 Daily Gazette Middlesbrough, Friday 21st September, 1877
Northern Echo, 21st September, 1877
York Herald, Friday 21st September, 1877 York Herald, Saturday 22nd September, 1877 Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, 24th September 1877 Northern Echo, 6th November 1877 South Durham and Cleveland Mercury, 10th November, 1877 Ancestry: Calendar of Prisoners Tried at the Durham Winter Gaol Delivery, held at Durham, on Saturday, the 3rd day of November, 1877 (www.ancestry.com) Census Returns RG11/4900/pp52-3 (www.ancestry.com)
Microfilm: Holy Trinity Parish Church, Burial Registers, 21st September, 1877, page 71, number 567 (on microfilm)
Stories from the High Street participant: Anne Sharp.
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