Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Killing of a Timekeeper

A man who was refused permission to take up his duties after returning to work drunk pushed his timekeeper into the River Mersey. He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death but later reprieved.


At 6pm on Monday 9th October 1905 William Hitchen, began a nightshift at Toxteth Dock, where the 28 year old worked as a stoker on an engine. At 10pm he was given half an hours break and went with engine driver Thomas Moore to a nearby pub where they both drank one and a half pints of beer. 

Moore returned to his duties but Hitchen stayed away for another forty minutes. When he returned and the timekeeper Thomas Williams refused to book him back on. Williams then left the engine house and walked towards the river, followed by Hitchen. Some words were exchanged and Hitchen pushed Williams over the wall into the Mersey. 

Hitchen then went to rejoin Moore at the engine and casually told him that he had pushed Williams into the Mersey. The driver didnt believe this but a few moments later a labourer went up to him and said that the incident had really happened. Moore ran to the river wall and threw a rope down to Williams who was struggling, but before he could reach it he sank below the water. 

A boat was lowered but the body was not recovered until 2am, by which time Hitchen had fled across the Mersey to his Tranmere home. He was arrested an hour later saying to police 'I am very sorry' when being told that Williams was dead.

An inquest heard that Hitchen's actions had also been witnessed by a labourer named James Murray, who had been told by him 'I will do for that fellow tonight.' Another worker had seen Hitchen in the engine house was was told 'The timekeeper wouldn't book me on but he's alright now, where he ought to be in the river.'

Williams was a 24 year old widower whose wife had died thirteen months earlier. He lodged at 351 Park Road and his funeral was held at St Gabriel's Church followed by an internment at Toxteth Park Cemetery. 

At the Liverpool Assizes on 1st December Hitchen pleaded that he had been drunk at the time, but in summing up Mr Justice Ridley said that this could only be a factor if there had been provocation, which in this case there wasn't. 

The jury took 45 minutes to find Hitchen guilty of murder but with a recommendation for mercy on the grounds of the premeditation period being very short. He had held his head in his hands for much of the trial and fainted on hearing the sentence of death, leading to him being carried from the dock. 

More than 25,000 people signed a petition calling for a reprieve. This was then presented to the Home Secretary by his solicitor John Bateman of 115a Dale Street. Two weeks after the trial, it was confirmed that the sentence would be commuted to penal servitude for life.

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