The 'Murder' of Mary Ashford
(BUT, was it even murder?)

Mary Ashford, Mary in her dancing dress & Abraham Thornton

Sutton Coldfield was the focus of national attention in 1817 when a young woman named Mary Ashford was found murdered in the town. She had been attending a party in Erdington on the evening of 26 May 1817, and had left with Abraham Thornton and her friend Hannah Cox, who later left Mary and Abraham. The following morning, her body was recovered from a water-filled pit by Penns Lane. Thornton was quickly traced and arrested for her murder. At the trial, Thornton provided evidence that it was not possible for him to have killed Mary at the suggested time. As a result, the jury found him not guilty of her alleged murder and alleged rape, allowing him to walk free from the court.

Public response to the acquittal was that of outrage and a private appeal was brought against the verdict by Mary's brother, William Ashford. Thornton was taken to London where he was tried at the King's Bench. When Thornton was called upon for his plea, he responded, "Not guilty; and I am ready to defend the same with my body." He then put on one of a pair of leather gauntlets, which Reader handed him. Thornton threw down the other for William Ashford to pick up and thus accept the challenge, which Ashford did not do. By Ashford not accepting the challenge under the trial by combat laws, Thornton was freed, although by this time he gained a notorious reputation. In 1819, a bill was introduced and an Act passed to abolish private appeals after acquittals and also abolish trial by combat.

On this lower map, Tyburn Road does not exist, nor does Chester Road but the track of Chester Road can be seen crossing right to left from Tyburn House.
The road from Tyburn House down the map is now the track of the A38 to Birmingham from Lichfield.

Ashford v Thornton (1818) 106 ER 149 is an English law case in the Court of the Kings Bench that upheld the right of the defendant, on a private appeal from an acquittal for murder to trial by battle. In 1817, Abraham Thornton was charged with the murder of Mary Ashford. Thornton had met Ashford at a dance, and had walked with her from the event. The next morning, Ashford was found drowned in a pit, with little outward signs of violence. Although public opinion was heavily against Thornton, the jury quickly acquitted him, and also found him not guilty of rape.

Mary's brother, William Ashford, launched an appeal, and Thornton was rearrested. Thornton claimed the right to trial by battle, a medieval usage that had never been repealed  Parliament. Ashford argued that the evidence against Thornton was overwhelming, and that he was thus ineligible to wage battle.

The court decided that the evidence against Thornton was not overwhelming, and that trial by battle was a permissible option under law; thus Thornton was granted trial by battle. Ashford declined the offer of battle and Thornton was freed from custody. Appeals such as Ashford's were abolished by statute the following year, and with them the right to trial by battle. Abraham Thornton returned to Castle Bromwich, but found the general dislike in which he was held unbearable. He booked passage to New York aboard the Independence, but when his fellow passengers found out who he was, they insisted on his being put ashore. On 30 September 1818, Abraham Thornton sailed from Liverpool aboard the Shamrock to New York. In the United States, he worked as a bricklayer, married and had children. He died around 1860 in Baltimore. William Ashford, who for many years worked as a fish-hawker in Birmingham, was found dead in his bed there in January 1867, at the age of seventy. According to Walter Thornbury, who wrote of the case in the late 19th century, "The causes of Mary Ashford's death, only the Last Day can now reveal.

Mary Ashford, a young woman of about 20 years of age, worked as a general servant and housekeeper to her uncle, a farmer at Langley Heath, (now Springfield Road Sutton Coldfield) Warwickshire, between Birmingham and Sutton Coldfield. Her father was a gardener near Erdington. She worked as usual on 26 May 1817, and planned to attend a party that evening at The Three Tuns, a public house more commonly known as the Tyburn House. The party was an "annual club-feast and dance", which attracted a large attendance. She met her friend, Hannah Cox, left her work clothes at Cox's house in Erdington (after having obtained nicer clothes from her mother's house in the same village) and journeyed to the Tyburn House, arriving there at 7:30 to find the dancing already begun. (At this time there was, and still is, a Three Tuns in High Street Sutton Coldfield, unconnected - mk)

Tyburn House 2013 

Among those attending at the Tyburn House was Abraham Thornton, the son of a builder from Castle Bromwich. Thornton was about 24 years old and heavyset; descriptions of him range from "well-looking young fellow" to "of repulsive appearance". When he saw Ashford, he inquired of another male attendee who she was. That party-goer later alleged that, upon being told who she was, Thornton stated that he had been intimate with her sister three times, and would also be with Mary Ashford, or he would die for it. Thornton later denied this statement, which was a major source of the public animus towards him following his arrest. During the course of the evening, he was very attentive to Ashford, and she appeared to enjoy his company.

At about eleven o'clock, Cox began urging Ashford to leave. When the two did leave, it was with Thornton, who accompanied Ashford closely, while Cox walked behind them. Instead of returning to Erdington, Ashford announced that she would go to her grandfather's house, stating that it was closer to work. This was true, but ignored the fact that she would have to return to Erdington to obtain her working clothes in the morning. Cox journeyed to Erdington, while Ashford and Thornton went off together. At about a quarter to three, a labourer saw Thornton leaving a friend's house with a woman, and greeted Thornton, but the woman (undoubtedly Ashford) held her bonnet over her face. Just before 4 a.m., Cox was awakened by Ashford, seeking her working clothes. Ashford changed and hurried off, stating that she needed to be home before her uncle left for market. A returning reveller from Tyburn House saw her walking quickly. He was the last person known to see her alive.

At around 6 a.m., a passing labourer saw women's items near a water-filled pit. One of the items was a woman's shoe with blood on it. He raised the alarm. He and others were able to use a rake to find a body in the pit that of Mary Ashford. Two workers from a nearby factory found a series of footprints on the newly harrowed field near the pit, showing that a man and a woman had travelled together, almost up to the pit, and that the man returned alone. Ashford was known to many of those who gathered around the pit, as was the fact that she had gone to Tyburn the previous evening. The local mill owner, who took charge, went to Tyburn to discover with whom Ashford had left the party. Daniel Clarke, the landlord, began to ride towards Castle Bromwich to try to locate Thornton, and encountered him almost at once. When Clarke told Thornton of Ashford's death, Thornton stated that he was with her until 4 a.m., and at Clarke's request went with him to Tyburn.

Thomas Dales, an assistant constable, arrived from Birmingham, where he was one of those responsible for policing the town. On ascertaining the situation he interrogated Thornton, and soon arrested him. However, Dales did not keep any notes and later proved unable to remember much of what the prisoner told him. Thornton was then examined by the local magistrate, William Bedford, who ordered Thornton searched. The search revealed that Thornton was wearing underclothing with bloodstains, and Thornton admitted having sexual intercourse with Ashford the previous night. The prisoner's shoes were removed, and comparisons with the footprints in the field were made by the factory workers, who later testified at trial that they matched. A post-mortem examination revealed that Ashford died from drowning, and that the only marks on her body were two lacerations in the genital area. The examination concluded that until the sexual act which caused the bleeding, Ashford was a virgin. She was menstruating at the time of her death.

(0400 hrs: She was seen a little after 4am by three witnesses at different points along her route, each was later to swear that she was alone. 0430 hrs: Thornton is seen by several people walking past Mr Holden's farm in the direction of his home in Castle Bromwich.)

Birmingham City Council cites: Ever since the morning of 27th May 1817, when a labourer on his way to work near Penn's Mill discovered the body of a girl, apparently drowned in a water filled pit, the case has been known as the "Murder of Mary Ashford". In fact there was no evidence that Mary, an attractive young woman of about 20 years, had been murdered at all, for both accident and suicide were other possible reasons for her tragic demise.  Suspicion for the murder fell upon Abraham Thornton, son of well to do parents who lived at Castle Bromwich. He and Mary had met at a dance at the Tyburn House on the previous evening and later he had escorted her across the fields and lanes back to Erdington. Whilst Mary was not as innocent or virtuous as she was later made to appear, Thornton portrayed himself as a local Don Juan. This lead to suspicion in the community that he had both violated and murdered the young woman. It was not surprising, therefore, that the coroner's jury at the inquest held at Penn's Mill on 30th and 31st May returned a verdict of wilful murder against Abraham Thornton and he was committed for trial at Warwick Assizes. The trial took place in August and the jury, without retiring, required only six minutes to return a verdict of not guilty.

Thornton was not to remain free for long. On 19th October he was re-arrested after Mary's brother William invoked an ancient statute which allowed a process called 'Appeal of Murder'. This time the trial took place in London at Westminster Hall, where on 17th November 1817 Thornton created a sensation by countering one ancient charge with another. Asked to plead 'guilty or 'not guilty', he replied....  "Not guilty, and I am ready to defend the same with my life"  He was then handed a pair of gauntlets, one of which he placed upon his left hand and the other he threw upon the floor of the court. It was not taken up.

The Ashford Residence in Langley Heath (now Springfield Rd Sutton Coldfield)

Mary Ashford was buried on the 1st June 1817 at Sutton Coldfield, where a tombstone was erected by public subscription.
After a lot of searching I finally found Mary's grave today, 13 March 2013, it is in Trinity Church, near the entrance to the Church. Image below:

Whether Thornton was guilty or not, public opinion almost had him hung! Yes, he left the dance with her, yes he was 'near' the place she was found at 0630hrs in the morning by a labourer and he allegedly had blood stained clothing. He was seen at 0430 hrs much further away on his was home, and Mary was seen at 0400 hrs in the opposite direction, walking ALONE.  Now either the witnesses were wrong or lied is unknown and never will be known. It never states anywhere that Thornton's witnesses were of his fathers business or known associates but were people near a 'farm'. If the time scales are correct, he did not do it. Could it have been the other gent who allegedly returned to the dance? Did he follow them, for whatever reason. Thornton states he had sex the night before but Mary died a virgin - inconsistency there. In the minds of the public Thornton was guilty and was probably hounded for this. So much so, he left and went to America dying there in 1860. I am sure the authorities thought that they had their man, and that, when freed, they had no other course of action but to leave the case file 'open' and unsolved. In the report on the Birmingham Council web site they stated that suicide or accident could have been the cause. If suicide - why? According to doctors, she had not been sexually assaulted. She was a happy lass who had just been to a dance and was fully prepared for work the next morning. There is nothing in the case to suggest suicide. Accident - if so why the amount of blood visible? Falling into a open pit was quite possible. It was May, so the darkness would not have been near dawn at that time. It does not state the depth of the pit, probably fairly deep and was water filled. Rocky sides? Unfenced. Jagged rocks or other obstacles could have caused some fairly serious cuts and probably breaks (but no mention of those). So it was murder or an accident? Unless she can be contacted by psychics, we will never know.


Sequence of Events: