On the summit of Winter Hill, close to the transmitter masts and buildings, stands a ten foot tall iron memorial known as Scotsman’s Stump. On it is a small plaque that states: “In memory of George Henderson, Traveller, native of Annan Dumfrieshire who was barbarously murdered on Rivington Moor at noonday November 9th 1838, in the 20th year of his age.”
Today, despite the nearby presence of the 20th century transmitter buildings and aerials, it would be easy to imagine that Winter Hill was a lonely and remote place back in early Victorian times, but this is not true. There were numerous active collieries on the hill, as well as a brick and tile works, a beer house and a number of dwellings.
George Henderson was a packman (the modern equivalent would be a travelling salesman) working for a cloth seller in Blackburn. He spent his time making house calls, delivering goods and collecting money owed on them. On Thursday 8th November, he was staying overnight at the Old Cock Inn at Blackrod. He’d arranged to meet up with a colleague, another packman and fellow Scot Benjamin Burrell, at Belmont’s Black Dog Inn for dinner the following day. From Belmont they would return to Blackburn together. This was a familiar routine for for both of them and they would have taken this same trip every two weeks.
The next day, George left Blackrod and headed up over the moors through a thick mist, towards the summit of Winter Hill. He had arranged to meet Benjamin at Garbutt’s beer house at Five Houses, a small row of terraces. This was located close to the large cairns of Two Lads, which are still well known landmarks today. From there, they would proceed together to have dinner at the Black Dog Inn at Belmont.
When he reached Garbutt’s, a little later than intended, he learnt that Benjamin had already been and gone, but had left a message to meet him at the Black Dog. He quickly had a drink and then went out to catch up with his colleague. The mist on the moor had become very thick by this time.
Some time later, fourteen year old Thomas Whowell was on an errand to bring his brother’s dinner to him at one of the coal pits. On the path that led towards the Winter Hill tunnel, he saw blood and had heard moaning coming from the deep ditch that ran alongside. Too frightened to look in to the ditch, he raced up to a mine cabin near the summit of the hill to summon help. There he found James Fletcher and his daughter Mary Entwistle, who hurried back with him towards the scene.
James went into the ditch and saw immediately that George had been shot in the head, at close range. George was still able to speak at this point and in in subsequent reports appears to have said three things. These were: “Oh Jamie, Jamie, they have robbed me”, “I should have sent a parcel off on Monday” and “Damn them”. James was unable to lift George out of the ditch and so sent Elizabeth off to summon further help. She alerted a number of men who lifted George and carried him back to lie at Garbutt’s beer house.
He died around 2.30 pm. Witnesses noted that his right pocket had been turned inside out, probably from someone looking for money, but his pack had been untouched. A post mortem on the body showed black powder on his head, leading to the conclusion he had been shot at very close range. George’s body remained at the beer house until Wednesday, when it was taken to Blackburn for his funeral. His employer offered a hundred pound reward for information leading to a successful prosecution of the perpetrator.
The Inquest and Arrest
An inquest was held a day before the funeral and by that time a suspect was already in custody. Blame had initially fallen on a shooting party from Smithills Hall. The men had been under the supervision of the game keeper and were guests of local landowner and magistrate Peter Ainsworth. They said they had heard shots around the time of the killing, but were not near the Winter Hill road.
Suspicion then fell on a local poacher James Whittle, aged 22, who lived at Five Houses. He was seen by numerous witnesses out on the moor with a gun in the morning before the shooting and in the afternoon afterwards. He claimed he was at home at the time George was killed, but had no witnesses to back this up. It was noted that he did not go to help recover George from the ditch, nor go and view him in Garbutt’s when he was brought back there. Later that afternoon, Whittle had gone down to the Moorcock Inn (now the Blundell Arms) in Horwich to return the gun he had borrowed from the landlord, and had brought birds that he had shot.
James Whittle was put on trial at Lancashire assizes in Liverpool. During the trial, many people that had been in the area that day were called as witnesses. While most gave sensible testimony which helped piece together the sequence of events, a couple proved very unreliable. A James Halliwell claimed he had met Whittle running with a gun in his hand, and he hadn’t responded when he asked him for directions. A little while later, he claims to have come across George in the ditch and had seen blood and felt faint. When he reached Garbutts he claimed that he hadn’t told anyone because he was scared and did not know people in the area. Unfortunately, much of the rest of his testimony to what he was doing on the moor and his own business dealings seemed very confused and possibly fabricated. A second unreliable witness was a young boy who had been approached and told to stick to his story, which sounds very much like witness tampering.
Perhaps the most compelling and damning witness though was George’s colleague Benjamin Burrell. He stated that had met up with a man on the moor with a gun that he thought could have been Whittle. He had spoken to him that morning around 11.30 am, close to where George would be shot a little while later. The man asked him if he had seen two men come off the moor and Benjamin replied that he had not. He had continued walking with the man just behind him. When he looked round the man was aiming the gun at him, but then lowered it, claiming he was pointing it at some birds nearby. In his testimony Benjamin said that there were no birds. The man asked him where he was going and when Benjamin replied he was going to Belmont. The man said he could show him a good path and would shoot him a bird if he accompanied him. When the path could not be found Benjamin told the man he had business to attend to and turned back, and saw the man no more.
Although the man’s clothing, height and voice resembled Whittle, Benjamin stated he could not be sure it was him because the mystery man had his hat pulled down to cover his eyes, so presumably he had not got a good look at his face.
Although no witnesses spoke in Whittle’s defence, his lawyer deeply impressed the jury. He claimed that the murderer could not be Whittle, for why would he shoot someone so close to his own home and particularly when he had been repeatedly seen before and after the incident with a gun. He raised the possibility that George had been shot by a poacher who may not have known what he had done because of the thick mist.
The jury took two hours to deliberate and James Whittle was found not guilty and set free. No one was subsequently charged for the murder. A tree was planted to mark where the incident took place, and later it was replaced with the large iron pipe, complete with plaque, that we see today.
The best account of the incident and the subsequent trial is the one by David Holding now published on the Cotton Town website. All the witness statements and press reports can be seen, along with sketches of the locations mentioned. His painstaking research is extensive and is well worth a read, see here. He has also published the account as a book called Murder in the Heather and participated in the making of a video about the event that can be seen on YouTube. (The video is in three parts, to view the first one click here). David Holding considers James Whittle to be innocent of the crime, and in his account he explains why.
Today, thanks to the work of the Horwich Heritage Centre, Scotsman’s Stump is in good condition. They have recently sandblasted and re-painted it. The plaque had become hard to read, but following their work it is now very clear. Their centre in Horwich is a excellent place to visit for anyone interested in local history, and their website can be seen here.
Site visited by A. Bowden 2019. Thanks to our hill walking correspondent Alan for accompanying me on this walk.
There are various routes up to the summit of Winter Hill. Below are listed a couple of the easiest ways:
Park at the free car park on Rivington Road, which connects Belmont to Rivington. Head straight up the hill towards the masts. Once on the summit make for the tarmacked road. Scotsman’s Stump is by the transmitter buildings, on the left hand side of the road.
From Rivington Country Park: This is probably the route George Henderson took up to the Winter Hill summit. Head up onto the Belmont Road track. By Pike Cottage take the path up the hill to the Two Lads cairns. From there bear left onto the tarmacked road that leads to the transmitter buildings. Scotsman’s Stump is on your right.