Created: 4th March 2009
A book by Colin Dexter in his Inspector Morse Series "The Wench is Dead" details the murder of Joanna Franks
Based on the real life murder of Christina Collins at Brindley Bank in Rugeley, Staffordshire, on June 17th 1839
I have never read Colin Dexter's books but the late John Thaw's portrayal of Inspector Morse on ITV has been one of those 'must watch' programmes in my household. My wife and I watched the above mentioned episode; this page is as a result of some quick internet work and a drive out in my car. Technically this is nothing at all to do with Sutton Coldfield, but, as its 'local' to the area, I thought this would be a suitable home for the story.
The murder of Joanna Franks is an episode entitled "The Wench is Dead" in which Inspector Morse is hospital bound and gets a book from the hospital library, an account of the murder, 140 years previously, of a fictitious lady on a canal near Oxford. He begins to realise, after 10 pages in his own words, that all is not quite right with the account of the book and, with the assistance of a young, historically orientated policeman, Kershaw, proceeds to investigate the murder and trial and the subsequent double hanging of two men found guilty of her death. She was last see alive at a lock a few miles back up the canal. This is the story of the original murder 170 years ago this year (2009).
What inspired one of the best of the Morse stories? A real life murder which actually took place not too far from where I now live. Colin Dexter based the novel on the 1839 murder of Christina Collins as she travelled the Trent and Mersey Canal at Rugeley, Staffordshire. James Owen (39) and George Thomas (27) (alias Dobell) both boatmen, were hung on April 11th 1840 ( http://www.staffspasttrack.org.uk/exhibit/palmer/stafford%20hangings.htm ) for the murder and were buried within the Prison; and a further boatman transported to Australia for life, for his involvement. I understand that the William Salt Library in Stafford has newspaper reports of the incident and trial. The event was 'celebrated' by the Inspector Morse Society in the following excursion: http://www.crime4u.com/morwenchisdead.html - unfortunately the one web site that appears to give details online has a 'malware' warning attached, meaning it contains material likely to cause harm to one's computer. Needless to say I did not open the link.
On 15 June, 1839, Christina Collins began her journey as a passenger on a freight-carrying narrowboat from Liverpool. Her intended destination was London, where her husband had gone to look for work. She never got there. Why she chose the narrowboat as a means of travel is unknown. Her body was found in the canal at Brindley Bank by Rugeley aqueduct. Two of the crew of boatmen with whom she had shared her journey were later convicted of her murder. The story was used by the reknowned author of the Inspector Morse novels, Colin Dexter, in ‘The Wench is Dead’. So says http://www.cannockchasedc.gov.uk/site/HeritageTrail/trent.html - the following images also come from this site.
Nearly 10,000 people attended the hanging of James Owen and George Thomas in Stafford for the murder of Christina Collins. This broadsheet shows the portable gallows that was wheeled out of the gaol gatehouse into Gaol Road to enable the public to view the hanging.
On March 4th 2009, I travelled northwards to visit Rugeley and was directed straight to the steps by a very helpful gentleman in St Peter's Road, off the A51, nearby. I was on the site of Brindley Bank. A nearby road bore that name. I turned back onto the A51 and turned north. After only a few yards I found the footpath he indicated and, parking up, walked along it's muddy and dog waste strewn path directly to the top of the 'bloody steps' themselves. I was to find, of course, that the original steps had long gone, being replaced by concrete steps over a brick framework. The black and white image (a modern one not very 'olde') above is indicative of the modern steps, images here:
The footpath along the canal is pretty much the same as the footpath above, muddy and strewn with uncollected dog waste. Shame really; its such a nice little niche off the main A51. I then walked along onto the canal itself for only a few yards and saw the aqueduct upon which two canals actually pass each other one above, one below. One of the very few sites to even mention this murder states that "legend has it that the blood stains can still be seen, but I could not" - hardly surprising as these are not the original steps.
It was here at Brindley Bank that Christina Collins was brutally raped and murdered by the two boatmen
Her body was then reported as being carried up the steps to the Talbot Inn. She was buried in St Augustine's Church which is not far away at the other end of Wolseley Road, actually on Station Road. The graveyard has been flattened and lawned, the old grave stones being placed next to each other around the perimeter of the site. But, alone and in pride of place in the centre of the area is a solitary grave stone, that of Christina's. The canal is continuing on its way a few hundred yards beyond the church in the image below.
I deliberately darkened the above images (click to see full size) so that the lettering of the stone stands out better than in reality. The original image is here:
Here are some more images of where she was last seen alive, the lock