The Murder of Eliza Warburton


The evening was fast drawing in on that October day. Autumn was settling itself over that quiet street in Wharton and the rain that had been persistent over the first few days had now ceased and it was a clear moonlit night. Eliza was playing in the front of her house with he twin sister, Phoebe, and two other ten year olds, FredBlagg and Lillian Goulding. Out of the darkness, a man approached them. He was a strange looking character although they knew him as a local.

“Who wants to earn tuppence, and buy me some cigarettes?” Eliza volunteered. She was from a poor family who lived in the cottage just behind where they were playing. Her father, Walter Warburton, was a salt boiler at one of the local salt works, which was the main industry in the town. The family had five children, who attended the local school. Eliza and Phoebe also attended the local Methodist Sunday School, and were members of the “Band of Hope”.

She went happily to the local shop, only 200 years away, and whilst she was away, the man paced up and down. A neighbour, Mrs Latham, who thought he looked strange, saw him, and so told her husband.

When Eliza returned from the errand, he asked her to show him where Hulse lived, in Gilbert Street. Eliza thought she knew him, as he was the local lamplighter, and actually lived in Ledward Street, which was at the end of the footpath that ran next to Eliza’s house and across open land.

As they started walking towards Ledward Street, Mrs Latham called out to her, “Eliza, come back”, but she turned and said, “what?” and then carried on walking. Mrs Latham told her husband again, who, when he saw the man told his wife, “that’s James Phipps”. Mrs Latham told Phoebe to go and tell her father that Eliza had gone off with a man, but by the time he came out to look for her she had gone. He walked to the end of Ledward Street, along the footpath that was called Coronation Road, but when he couldn’t see her, he returned home. By this time, Eliza and the strange man, James Phipps, had gone past where Hulse lived (he was an old neighbour of Phipps and went to Weaver Navigation School). They walked along School Road towards Wharton Parish Church where a man who knew him saw them. He asked him if he was looking for someone, but his questions went unanswered. Eliza was walking in the road, and seemed unconcerned at this point. That was the last time she was seen alive.

A short time later, her father began looking for her again with the help of some of his neighbours, including Mr Latham, who had seen her earlier on with Phipps. They split up, with the father following the route that they set off in, and neighbour going around Station Road into Crook Lane with the intention of meeting him at Wharton Parish Church. They both asked people on the way if they had seen Eliza or Phipps, who was a very distinctive character, having had a handkerchief tied around his head at the time he was last seen. He had lost his eye in a playground accident whilst attending the Weaver Navigation School when another child threw a stone at him. He did have a glass eye which he sometimes wore.
As more people were asked, more people joined in the search for Eliza, until Phipps was spotted walking across Middlewich fields, heading for a style near the church. Several of the searchers recognised him and challenged him, but he just headed off towards School Lane. It was here Eliza’s father came face to face with him. Phipps then broke into a run, pursued now by 20 or 30 people towards the town centre. As he ran into Wharton Road, a passing cyclist joined the chase and was the only one who could catch him he was running so fast. The cyclist overtook him, and went on to the local policeman, PC Jones, and told him that Phipps had been interfering with a little girl. When asked what he had been up to, Phipps said, “I will tell you at the station” where he was then taken.

He told PC Jones that some children had been annoying him, throwing stones at him and so he had “caught one and wrung her neck and thrown her into the ditch.” The policeman then phoned Sergeant Beech, and left Phipps with him whilst he went back to where the body had been found by a man called Spilsbury, a local joiner, and that there was a crowd of people around, many of whom had been in the chase of Phipps. The policeman examined the child, and found her “quite dead”. When it was found, Eliza’s body was wet through, apart from her shoes and feet, which were still dry. A piece of string was tied lightly around her neck, although this had not been the cause of death. She was bleeding from the nose and the mouth, and her head had been forced down into the water, so much so that when it was pulled out, Mr Spilsbury described it as making a squelching sound. There were a number of scratches and abrasions to her face and neck, and discolouration of the neck and eyes. There was a large contusion at the back of her head.

She was alive when she went into the water, but probably unconscious, and the actual cause of death appeared to be drowning. PC Jones had found no signs of struggle at the scene, and the depth of water was measured at 8 inches.

She had been found fairly easily because the white dress that she was wearing stood out against the surrounding area, and caught in the moonlight. She was taken first to the police station, and then to her house, where later the body was examined by DrOkell, who practised at Over. He found “a discolouration the size of a 5 shilling piece on her left thigh” – he went on to find injuries that “pointed to the girl having been violently outraged”, but these were not made public at the time.

Phipps was taken to Over Police Station at about 01:30am the following morning, and there charged with willful murder. Several witnesses had described him before and afterwards as being quite sober, and PC Jones as being quite cheerful! He was remanded in custody until a magistrate hearing on Tuesday. The small police station at Wharton had been besieged until the early hours, and police were fearful of what might happen, but despite people hanging around, the night passed peacefully and the prisoner slept within half an hour of being put in the cell.

At the Magistrate’s Court, it was announced that the inquest would be held at 14:30 on Wednesday, but the hearing was brought forward to 12:30 so that fewer people would be present. The verdict of the inquest was “willful murder against James Phipps”, and he was committed for trial for the willful murder of Eliza Warburton.


Eliza’s father was not a rich man. He worked as a salt boiler in the local salt factory, where he had a job of stirring the brine when it was boiled after being pumped to the surface, so that the salt crystallised easily and evenly. Salt production was the prime industry in Winsford, and was the reason the local River Weaver had been dredged out to make room for larger boats, and the railway had come to town.

The whole family lived in a small cottage, which was at one time a farm labourer’s residence, and still had the cow stall at the side. There were only two bedrooms for the family of six, but they seemed to get by well enough. The cost of the funeral was a great sixpence for a poor family, and so it was mostly paid for by public conscription. Walter’s workmates paid for the funeral and monument, and Mrs Swanwick, the local doctor’s wife, paid for the coffin and the shroud. A group of travelling players held a concert in the town hall to raise money.

A murder in a small town obviously attracts much attention, and consequently the funeral did too. It took place in Wharton Parish Church, within 200 yards of where her body was found. The Methodist Minister, Rev. Henshaw, held an impromptu service in the house before the funeral set off. The inscription on the coffin read: “There’s a home for little children beyond the bright blue sky”. The procession walked to the church, and included many local people; Eliza’s school friends and teachers, and about 40 of the “Band of Hope”, all dressed in white, with black scarves and carrying flowers. Thousands of people lined the route, and several police were present to ensure order was maintained. Every house had the blinds drawn, without exception. The police restricted entrance to the graveside to the procession, and after the mourners had left, escorted people in small groups to the murder, some 200 yards away. There was even a postcard printed of the graveside, which was sold locally.

Eventually, both of Eliza’s parents were buried in the same plot, and Eliza’s family continued to live in the same house for many years: indeed Phoebe brought up her family there. Many of the family still live locally.


After the hearing at the Magistrates Court and being remanded to Knutsford Gaol, Phipps became more relaxed, and was known to eat heartily, and sleep soundly. He also smoked heavily.

His trial took place at Chester Crown Court, (now the number 2 court), on 23rd October, less than 2 weeks after the murder.

When appearing before the magistrates, his solicitor, Mr H P Rigby had already disclosed the nature of the defence, in order to procure legal aid for the unfortunate man. The defence was to be “not guilty of willful murder by reason on insanity”. Even the defence lawyer, Mr W B Yates, never questioned that he had murdered poor Eliza.

Phipps looked dazed in the dock when the proceedings began at 10.30am, and having a vacant look, took little interest in the trial, remaining seated throughout, and not giving evidence.

The trial followed the same direction as the Magistrates hearing, with witnesses describing the route that was taken, and where they were seen.

The witnesses called were firstly Fred Blagg, aged 10, who was playing with Eliza before she was enticed away, and he described how Phipps approached them, and what he said. He asked, “Which of you will fetch me a packet of Woodbine cigarettes, and I will give you twopence?” He followed that by saying “Which of you will show me where Hulse lives?”

The next witness MrsLatham, described how she saw Phipps and Eliza walk away from her home towards Ledward Street, where Hulse lived, and how she told her husband. She called out to Eliza, but Eliza just said, “what”, and carried on walking. Her husband also then came out at her request, and saw the two of them walking down the footpath – known locally as Coronation Road.

They were seen again by Thomas Curzon, whose house they went past in School Road. He knew Phipps and called out to him, but his call went unanswered, and Phipps and Eliza carried on towards where her body was later found.

Witnesses described how they were searching for Eliza, when they saw Phipps coming towards them across a field, known as Middlewich Fields, next to an opening known as the “Claphatches”. He was confronted there by a group of people, including Eliza’s parents.

Walter Warburton asked him, “Where is my child?” to which Phipps replied, “I have not seen your child”. He asked Phipps again, and he did not reply, and just walked away, along School Road. As he walked along he met Mary Warburton, Eliza’s mother, who also asked him where Eliza was.”Your child is down here”, he said, meaning School Road, and at that point he set off at a run, towards the town centre, and his own house. At this time, there was a crowd of about 20people chasing him. It also came out at the trial that Walter Warburton knew Phipps, and his parents, and had known them for several years, and so quite possibly he knew Eliza; it was not a big town.

Frank Newton, a local man who was watching the group go by, jumped on his bicycle and chased after Phipps, as the crowd were not gaining on him at all. In fact it was stated that he was running at a leisurely pace! Newton jumped on his bike, and gave chase. He passed Phipps, and then he saw PC Jones walking towards him. He called out, “stop that man, he has been interfering with a little girl”. PC Jones stopped Phipps and asked him what had had been up to, and was told, “take me to the police station and I will tell you everything”. When taken to Wharton Police Station, a small sub-station, Phipps told him that “some little girls had been throwing stones at me; I caught one of them and wrung her neck, and threw her in a ditch along the footpath leading from Crook Lane to the railway”.

He was left at the Station whilst PC Jones went to where he had told them, and found that a man named Spilsbury, who had been one of many people searching the area, had already discovered the body. He managed to find the body because she was dressed in white, and the moonlight caught her clothes. She was bleeding from the mouth and nose, and was soaking wet apart from her feet, which were quite dry.

At a previous Magistrates hearing, Dr J F Okell, who undertook the post-mortem, described, “evidence which pointed to the girl having been violently outraged”, but this was not referred to at the actual trial. It may well have been to save the feelings of Eliza’s family that this was not mentioned, and that the prosecution thought that they had a strong enough case anyway.

At 03:15pm on the day of the trial, Mr Yates began his closing speech for the defence, which was a plea to the jury to find James Phipps guilty, but insane. He went on to show that the prisoner had attempted suicide in the past, and had a sister who “was a bit slow”, and that during the evening the “Lamp of Reason had been extinguished”. These arguments did not impress the jury. They were only out for seven minutes, before returning with a verdict of “guilty”.

The judge assumed his black cap and passed sentence.

“James Phipps, you have been found guilty of the most brutal murder of this little girl, and I have heard no facts throughout this case which throw any extenuation or excuse upon your crime. It is my duty to pass sentence on you, and I can hold out no hope to you for any interference with that sentence (i.e. reprieve). It is the sentence of the law that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison, and thence to a place of execution, and that you be there hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that your body be taken down and buried within the precincts of the prison. And may the Lord have mercy on your soul.”


After the judge had pronounced his sentence, James Phipps showed the same apparent lack of emotion that he had shown throughout his trial. He must have suspected this as inevitable, and had resigned himself to his fate before he even got to Chester, and courtroom number 1. That same court was to play host to the trial of Brady and Hindley over half a century later (they even shared the same dock). He was taken back to Knutsford Gaol by the 07:25 train and placed in the ‘condemned cell’.

Knutsford became the place of execution in Cheshire after Chester Castle became a military establishment, and the role as a ‘House of Correction’ changed to a Gaol. Only eight executions took place here from 1886 to 1917. The scaffold was brought from Chester in 1886, although it seems to have moved from its original position in the middle of the open yard to being next to the condemned cell when James Phipps arrived there. The Governor of the prison was Major James Osmonde Nelson, who took over at the prison in 1899. He was known as a fair compassionate man, who had introduced many reforms. Indeed the prison gained the nickname of “Nelson’s Hotel”.

On Friday 30th October, Major Nelson told Phipps that the date of his execution was set for the 12th of November. He was said to have received the news very well as he could have been expecting no other news. Two warders now accompanied him at all times, and although he spoke little, he was compliant to their requests, and ate well. His parents and family visited him whenever they could. Their last visit was on the 7th of November, when two friends of Phipps went along; Tom Jones, whom he had particularly asked to see, and another man, Plumbley, who both cycled to Knutsford from Winsford. Plumbley and Jones had 15 minutes with him before his parents saw him, and he was very pleased to see him. He had served his apprenticeship at the Salt Union with Jones, and their conversation was of those times, and of religion, which they talked about through the grate that was in the interview room. When his parents came in they noted that his appearance was greatly improved from the previous week. His mother was the most upset, and wept throughout the visit, and he told them not to worry, or “you will be going to your graves”. He only made a brief reference to the crime, saying he was “low spirited”, and did not know what he was doing. On the night of the murder, his parents gave him three pennies, and he now returned them as a keepsake. Perhaps those same coins had passed through Eliza’s hands?

In the last 5 days he had left to him, Phipps showed a brave face, and no sign of his impending doom affected him until his last night, when he did not sleep too well. He awoke in the night, and said to one of his warders that he wished it was all over, and “I am tired of waiting”. The Executioner, or common hangman, was Henry Pierrepoint, assisted by his brother, Thomas. They arrived from their homes in Yorkshire at the prison the night before the execution. It was Henry’s job to arrange the practical details of the hanging, such as the readiness of the equipment, the length of the drop, etc, and it was Thomas’ job to help with this. Both of them prided themselves on their “craft”, and Henry had taught Thomas the finer points in a shed behind his house! During that final day they would have been watching Phipps through the peephole into his cell, or during the exercise period, to assess his weight, and the drop required for a humane execution. They gave a drop of 11 feet. This was longer than usual, as Phipps was “thick set”.

On that fatal morning, Phipps refused a meal for the first time, and it was then feared that he might well need some assistance. The Reverend Dury-Baker attended him for fully an hour, and he received Holy Communion shortly before 8am.

When the time came, and the procession came to his cell, Henry Pierrepoint quickly pinioned him, and he gave no resistance at all. They then went straight to the scaffold, which was a very short distance away, and Phipps then appeared to be on the point of collapse, just as he stood on the trap doors. Quickly, the noose was adjusted by Henry Pierrepoint, the white cap drawn over his head, and the lever pulled. The entire process from the condemned cell to the drop took 47 seconds.

Death was reported to be instantaneous. The body, as per the rules, was left hanging for an hour, before being prepared by the executioners for the post-mortem. Henry Pierrepoint received ten pounds for his days work, and his brother Thomas received two guineas (£2.10).

The inquest was held in the Prison that morning, at 11.15am, and the only witnesses were Major Nelson, the Prison Governor and Dr Fennell, the Prison Doctor. It was he who first examined the body after the execution, and stated that death was due to dislocation of the neck, and rupture of the spinal cord. His body was then buried in a spot near the prison wall, and marked by a stone bearing his initials, and his prison number. When the prison was handed over to the military, in 1917, his body was exhumed, and re-interred at Strangeways, in Manchester, some 16 miles away.

The following Sunday, a letter was read out at Over Parish Church by the Reverend W H Stables:

“To those lads who were my friends and companions. My dear lads, just a few lines to you hoping that you will lead a different life to what I have been leading these last few years. I am sure God loves manliness and courage, but what he loves best is moral courage, which is able to stand up against the temptations of the world.”

The Reverend then quoted the words of the hymn that was sung the previous Sunday, at the Gaol service when Phipps was present:

Abide with me, Fast falls the eventide
The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide;
When other helpers fall and comforts flee,

of the helpless, Lord abide with me.