Drink and murder: Cheshire woman’s death remains a mystery 147 years later

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On Saturday, November 28, 1874, a couple by the name of John Sumner, his wife Mary and a man called William Barker, a plate-layer on the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway were drinking in the Weaverham Gate Inn.

At about 9.45pm, Mr and Mrs Sumner were very drunk; they had been drinking in the Wheatsheaf in Weaverham and then the Gate Inn; at this time, they left the Weaverham Gate to set off for home at Acton. William Barker accompanied them.

Around midnight, the Lock Tender at Acton Bridge found the woman in a ditch in a state of insensibility; her husband was lying nearby in the road. With the aid of her husband, who managed to stand, he conveyed the woman home in a wheelbarrow.

Soon after their arrival, she died, her temples were injured, and part of her ear was cut off. Her husband was also injured.

On Sunday morning, her husband was arrested for murdering his wife but subsequently released. On the following Tuesday, an inquest came to the verdict that Mary Sumner had been murdered by a person or persons unknown, and another person was to be arrested.

This person was William Barker, and Superintendent Mayo of Tarporley police arrested him. Barker had been working at Greenbank Station in his capacity of a plate-layer. When charged with the murder of Mary Sumner, he replied, ‘I am innocent.’

Many bloodstains could be found when forensically examining Barker’s clothing; accordingly, he appeared before the magistrates at the Abbey Arms, Oakmere (before building Oakmere police station and courts in 1892. A courtroom was used at the Abbey Arms pub, and prisoners were held in the cellars).

Three witnesses gave evidence. A servant girl at the Weaverham Gate, Elizabeth Ross and Katherine Ball, the landlady of The Wheatsheaf, stated that the Sumners and Barker were drinking in their respective public houses.

Martha Evans, a servant girl, said that she was returning from Wilbrahams Quay (Where Martins yard was and now bungalows are situated on the River Weaver). She met Barker leading a drunken Sumner by the arm and speaking roughly to him.

Mrs Sumner was walking ahead; the time was a little after 10pm. When Sumner was examined, he said he remembered leaving the pub, but nothing after that until he struggled to get out of a deep ditch.

Dr J Smith, a Weaverham surgeon who performed a post-mortem on the deceased, stated that he could not say if the injuries to her head were or were not caused by repeatedly falling over, but the bruises to her arms could only have been caused by violence.

The result of the magistrates at Oakmere was that Barker should be remanded to stand trial at Chester Assizes.

The trial was held in March, and it was in front of the Grand Jury under Mr Justice Mellor and Mr Baron Cleasby.

The judge instructed the Grand Jury to consider the facts, and if there was no true bill, that is insufficient evidence, then they must acquit him and once acquitted, he could not be tried again.

The Grand Jury was instructed that if there was any doubt that a petty jury would not find him guilty, he must be acquitted.

At the end of the trial of William Barker, the decision was made to acquit him as there was ‘No True Bill’.

And that is how the strange occurrence between Weaverham and Acton Bridge ended and remains a mystery.