Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The Canning Place Tragedy

In 1896 two men were charged with murder after a sailor died after a  stabbing in Canning Place, but one was acquitted and the other had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment.

On 29th June that year 25 year old Scotsman John Gibbons arrived in Liverpool from Valparaiso and took up lodgings with a Mr Hughes in Cleveland Street.

Gibbons became acquainted with John Hilton and a friend of his called Pritchford. The three men were seen by the lodging house keeper to come and go together on occasions but for some reason, Hilton and Pritchford got into a fight with each other on 11th July. This led to the friendship breaking up and Gibbons seemingly siding with Pritchford from then on.

On 19th July Hilton and Pritchford again fought, with the police having to intervene to separate them. Hilton then went into a house and came out with a poker with which he threatened Gibbons, saying he was 'just in the right neighbourhood for doing over.'

The following day Pritchford was locked up and held at the Bridewell, where Gibbons went at 9pm with some tea for him, accompanied by a lady called Mary Goodwin. As they were returning, they encountered Hilton stood on Frederick Street along with a new acquaintance of his called Richard Williams, who showed them a knife and asked Gibbons if he wanted some of it.

Mary began to walk away, leading to Hilton running after her and hitting her in the face. When Gibbons went to push him off Williams came up to him with the knife and said 'you dont interfere.' Hilton was said to have shouted 'stick it in Dick' and Williams plunged the knife into Gibbons's left breast, penetrating the heart.

Both men ran away and Gibbons was already dead when an ambulance arrived. Mary thankfully knew the names of the two offenders and they were arrested in the early hours of the morning. There were various reasons put forward by local sailors for the ill feeling, ranging from one of the men owing money to a dispute having carried over from another port.

At the assizes on 5th August there was conflicting evidence as to the words used by Hilton just prior to the stabbing, leading to his acquittal. With respect to 22 year old Williams, his defence counsel said he had no motive to kill or any previous ill feeling with Gibbons so a manslaughter verdict was more appropriate. In summing up though Justice Cave said he could see no grounds for the lesser verdict, meaning Williams was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. This was later commuted to life imprisonment by the Home Secretary.

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