Charles Moston

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The body was found 400-500 yards south of "Golden Nook Bridge" acording to canal boatman Edward Parry.

The unfortunate death of Charles Moston in 1877 is an interesting tale in itself, but also illustrates a few points about the investigation of history. The death was promptly the subject of an inquest at which many witnesses were examined, and the testimony of these witnesses recorded. However there are some conflicts in the statements made and some of the witnesses changed their version of events during the inquest. The story has a mysterious sequel, and several elements of it have passed into local "legend".

  • "As kids we were discouraged from going there, historically 'bad things' had happened there.... There was the suspicious murder of Charles Moston, a canal boatman, in 1877. His dying body was found on the canal towpath. Even 100 yrs later we were told not to go there....." - A Chester resident on "Chester Memories"

Charles Moston, was found dying on the canal towpath at about seven o'clock on the morning of Monday, 16th April 1877. The inquest into his death was held at the Black Dog in Waverton. The Coroner seemed to have already decided who was to blame, before any evidence had been taken - according to reports which are from the "Cheshire Observer", April-December 1877.

The weather in April 1877 was grim. There were a number of spectacular thunderstorms around the country, a notable tornado in Herefordshire and "black rain" fell over large parts of Oxfordshire. April was to prove as cold as January and the start of May was even colder. One weather observer recorded:

  • 11th April: "Between 2pm and 3pm thunderstorm passing west of this station. Slight rain. The water was black, like the streaky appearance of washing inkstand. The next day, I heard of black rain having fallen and spoiled the washing of linen put out to dry. I understand it occurred over a space of fifty or sixty sqaure miles."

No volcanic phenomenon is recorded which could have accounted for this "black rain", although on the 6th April there was a notable meteor which exploded at altitude and shook houses in Cork. Could it be that the black rain was from this?

  • "The first few days of May 1877 were dominated by north and easterly winds which brought snow in places and severe frosts"

The Chester canal is a broad canal, with locks wide enough for two boats at once. Because of this boats would pair up for passage so that could effectively save half the water on passing through locks. The pairs of boats in this case were "Usk" (Probert) and "Snipe" (James) who made passage from Beeston to Chester on Sunday, "Stag" (Jones) and "Ceres" (Boden) who made passage on Monday, and "Woodcock" (Parry) and "Dart" (Owen) about half an hour to an hour behind "Stag" and "Ceres". Moston was crew on "Usk". It appears that Probert owned his own horses, and that both "Usk" and "Snipe" were boats of the Shropshire Union Canal company. It is quite likely that some of the other boats are SURCCO boats, but it is not stated so in the newspapers. Probert is repeatedly noted as being from Pant (in Shropshire, close to the Welsh border) and although most of the other men had homes in Chester, there was a large proportion of them also hailing from Wales.

The Inquest

The inquest was held at the "Black Dog Inn" at Waverton opening on Wednesday, 21st April 1877. The inn is not far from Egg Bridge on the Chester Canal and still exists today. It is often said that the pub owes its name to a local legend which is described in a "poem" inscribed on the wall of the bar. According to signage in the pub, the opening verse reads:

The Black Dog of Waverton
Has red and awful eyes
And when he runs beside a man
He withers and he dies.

The "poem" is in fact a modern folk song "The Black Dog of Waverton" which was written by Peter Massey & Gordon Morris (of the Marrowbones folk group) in about 1971. Also, the quote is an amalgam of several verses in the song and the chorus. It is not traditional, but is based on an oral tradition relating to a highwayman who frequented "No Man's Heath". Such a highwayman is mentioned by Celia Fiennes during her 1698 journey to Chester:

Simom Ripley's grange was at Saighton (bottom left), just down the road from the "Black Dog" (upper right).
  • “There I think I may say was ye only time I had reason to suspect I was Engaged wth some highway men. 2 fellows all on a sudden from ye wood fell into ye Road, they Looked trussed up with great Coates and as it were bundles about them which I believe was pistols, but they dogged me one before ye other behind and would often Look back to Each other, and frequently jostled my horse out of ye way to get between one of my servants horses and mine, and when they first came up to us did disown their knowledge of ye way and would often stay a little behind and talk together, then come up again, but the providence of God so ordered it as there was men at work in ye fields haymaking, and it being market day at Whitchurch as I drew near to it in 3 or 4 miles was continually met with some of ye market people, so they at last called each other off and so left us and turned back; but as they rode with us 3 or 4 miles at last they described the places we should come by, and a high pillar finely painted in ye Road about 3 mile off of Whitchurch (which accordingly we saw as we passed on) which showed them no strangers to ye Road as they at first pretended.”

The "Black Dog" was the emblem of Simon Ripley, abbot of St Werbugh (now Chester Cathedral) from 1265 until 1291. Abbot Simon has been described as: "a prelate of great ability, and a man of energy, a man of taste, a man of piety, and a thorough man of business", and decorated the gatehouse of his palace at Saighton with his emblem, the black dog. The gatehouse survives as the entrance porch to "Saighton Grange" (now renamed as "Abbey Gate College" - as no-one wants to send their child to a school whose name sounds like "Satan Grange"). The head of a dog is carved into the base of the oriel window. It is probably true that the name of the Black Dog public house comes from the same origin. Not unsuprisingly the origins of the "Black Dog of Saighton" have been forgotten and it has passed into local folklore as a spectral hound: helped, no-doubt by the 1971 folk-song.

Ripley's grave was found under the Cathedral Chapter House floor in 1723. Although this clearly bore the monogram "S.R". the skeleton wrapped in black leather was long thought to belong to Hugh Lupus because of the supposed "wolf's head" on the stone. This was of course the same "Black Dog" as is mentioned above. The "Ripley Stone" is on display in the cloister at the Chester Cathedral. The legend of Hugh ending his days in the Cathedral even found its way into the Chester Pageant.

The coroner at the inquest was Henry Churton (county coroner for West Cheshire). One thing which is very clear from the court proceedings is how close the boat-people community of the Chester Canal were - they are almost all on "first name terms" with each other and many seem to know Charles Moston and his generally sober habits - something that was rare for a boatman.

The words of the people present at the inquest given below are exactly as reported in the newspapers of the time.

First Witness (John Morris, boatman on "Star")

The much renovated Bate's Mill, near where (on the canal) witness Morris "last saw Moston alive". It is now a private dwelling, although the mill-wheel still works and is used to generate electricity for the house.

"I knew the deceased, Charles Moston. He was a boatman in the employ of the Shropshire Union Canal Company. I saw him last alive on Sunday evening about six o'clock, and about a quarter of a mile this side Bates's mill, near Beeston. He was then on the towing-path and jumped into a passing canal boat. He had not been, as far as I am aware, at Bebington's public house close by. I saw him go along the canal side and jump on to the boat. When I saw him first he was about a quarter of a mile from the public house. The boat he jumped on board was going at a rapid rate when he sprang on her from the towing-path. The boat is named the “Usk” and was in charge of John Probert, who is the master. Probert was on the towing-path leading the horse drawing the boat when the deceased jumped on board. There was no one on board at the time except Mrs Probert, who was steering the boat. The deceased was a boatman on board the “Usk”. I had known the deceased several months, and the boat he jumped into was on its way to Ellesmere Port, being at the time I saw it empty. The deceased appeared to me to be sober when he jumped from the towing-path. On Monday morning about seven o'clock, as we were going to Ellesmere Port on our boat, I saw the body of deceased lying on the towing-path of the canal, near Waverton. He was on his back and had all his clothes on with the exception of his hat, which was under him. I got off the boat, went to him and shook him, and shouted “Charley”, after which he gave a groan. His eyes were closed when I first went to him, but after I shook him he opened them. I am sure he did so. Three of us then carried him to a boat belonging to Mr Parry, and one went to a farm house and got a little brandy with which we rubbed deceased's lips. He was not dead then, but life became extinct in about ten minutes after I first saw him. The deceased's face was marked in several places, but there were no wounds. His clothes were wet up to his middle, while the upper portion were quite dry. He was also covered with slush, just as if he had been rolled along the path. Where I found him there was a great deal of slush on the towing-path. I did not notice whether the ground around where the deceased lay bore any traces of a fight or struggle. I did not see the “Usk” on Monday morning when I found the deceased, but I saw it in the afternoon, about four o'clock, at Ellesmere Port. It was the same boat that brought the remains of Captain Coppack to Chester on Monday. While the boat was at Ellesmere Port I saw John Probert, the master, and told him we had found the deceased. The deceased had only been engaged on the boat about nine days. He was a regular boatman, and had been engaged at it all his life. As far as I know he was a very steady young man. I never saw him take any intoxicating liquor, nor did I ever see him the worse for drink. When we found the body on the towing-path we took it in the boat to Waverton Bridge and then sent for a policeman. I dare say the bridge would be about a mile and a half distant from where we found the deceased."

The inquest was held at the "Black Dog", not too far from Egg Bridge on the Chester Canal.

Morris's testimony seems quite straight-forward, but will later be seen to clash slightly with that of another boatman as to where the body was found. He also states that Moston was alive when found but dead within ten minutes of having first been seen. A narrow-boat travels at walking pace, so this would mean that Moston would indeed have been dead by the time that the boat carrying him reached "Waverton Bridge". Note also how the victim is only wet from the waist down - if he has been in the canal in his supposedly paralysed state (as later speculated on by the autopsy surgeon) then he must have been supported by someone. Morris will testify at another inquest in the fairly near future, October 1877 - another unsolved drowning in the canal at Tower Wharf near his home in Orchard Street (since demolished) and find himself on the other side of the law in 1882 when he got two months hard labour for stealing a sack of flour from Wiseman's Mill at Canalside (now the Mill Hotel).

"Bebbingtons" is the "Shady Oak" (marked on older maps as the "The Royal Oak") and is the only canalside pub between Christleton and Barbridge. It was a favourite with the canal boatmen (it still is) and known as "The Shady".

We also learn that one cargo of the "Usk" was the remains of a "Captain Coppack" - so there are two corpses in this story. The "throwaway" nature of the mention suggests that everyone knows who Coppack is, and that he is dead. The most likely Coppack is William Coppack, a master on the flats trading between Ellesmere Port and Liverpool. He is probably another employee of the SURCCO, as the boats he is noted on are running to and from the SURCCO's docks either side of the river. Coppack died at Birkenhead on the 13th April and was buried in Chester on the 18th, which fits the timeline of corpse's travel on "Usk" on the 16th.

Morris also shows how witness statements can contain accidental inconsistencies - in one breath Morris states that he last saw Moston alive on Sunday evening, and almost in the next we hear how Morris heard a groan from Moston on the Monday and saw his eyes open. However, he is a quite observant witness and notices a few points which might be important. That he was wet only from the waist down, and that he seemed to have been rolled along the towpath.

The Coroner and the Surgeon

The next up was William C. Watson, surgeon (who appears to have an address in Foregate Street at Chester) and who at one time (in 1892) was the medical officer of the Tarvin Union Workhouse (he is not listed as M.O. in the 1881 records, but he appeared before Coroner Churton again on November 19th 1892 following another mysterious death, this time at the Tarvin Workhouse). Prior to becoming Coroner, Churton had himself been M.O. at the Tarvin Union Workhouse. The surgeon's evidence was as follows:

Dr Watson: I saw the deceased breathe once when he was lying quietly. I did not see his chest move, but I heard a gurgling sound proceed from his mouth, around which there was a little froth. The deceased did not move at all, and I cannot say that he breathed distinctly.

The Coroner: It is to my mind a most extraordinary thing that the man should have been able to open his eyes.

Dr Watson: Yes, it is most extraordinary. I dare say the shaking of the man would produce a sound from his throat, but it is difficult to account for the eyes being open. I cannot understand it, though I could well believe when the man was shook that a groan could be heard.

In reply to the Coroner, Mr Watson said he had seen the body and saw nothing externally to account for death. There were only superficial abrasions on the face. He had examined the head, and there seemed to be an unusual movement about the neck, which, he had no doubt, was caused by dislocation or fracture of the bones of the neck. He could not reconcile the fact of the man being alive at the time he was found on the towing-path with that of the spinal injury, and therefore it would be impossible for him to give an opinion as to the cause of death without a post mortem examination of the body.

The Coroner (to the Jury): We cannot proceed without a post mortem examination. It would be impossible.

Dr Watson: I think so.

The somewhat worrying thing about this testimony is that Watson later on in the inquest (when giving the results of the post mortem on the Friday) claims he first saw the body on that same Wednesday, two days after the supposed death. Unless he is somewhere confused or mis-reported it seems strange that he should say "I saw the deceased breathe once when he was lying quietly" leading to the somewhat gruesome thought that the victim might still have been alive on the Wednesday when his inquest started (before the post mortem took place). There is another more probable explanation - in the process of rigor mortis combined with a build-up of gas in a body cavity, stiffening muscles, including those that control vocal cords, can prompt strange, sometimes hair-raising sounds to come from a dead body. Nurses and other hospital/hospice attendants have reported hearing moans and groans coming from the dead.

The Coroner Decides "Who-Done-It"

It would be easy to assume that the Coroner was prejudiced against the boat-people and assumed that the death was due to a murder. However, as the case and other historical records show, Coroner Churton has a great deal of concern for the boat-people.

Golden Nook Bridge (115) looking north - Moston's body was found a few hundred yards south of the bridge, on the towpath opposite where the boats are tied up in this photo.

In the same way, Cartwright, the defence lawyer of the Proberts, who was not engaged until after the first ditting of the Cornoner's court is not without considerable competence in his handling of the case. Probert's boat "Usk" was paired-up with "Snipe", whose crew do appear to be a rather drunken and untrustworthy lot as understood by defense lawyer Cartwiright.

The Coroner: "There are circumstances in connection with this case which to my mind seem of a very suspicious character, and I feel it to be a case of some importance, and therefore should not be hurried over. I would therefore propose that this enquiry be adjourned until the day after tomorrow. Of course I will consult your convenience as to whether we shall hold the adjourned inquest in the morning or the afternoon. Probably it would be better that we should proceed with the enquiry in the morning, as we would then have the day before us. In the meantime a post mortem examination will be made, and the police will have an opportunity of further investigating the case, and bringing before you any evidence they may think necessary to bring forward as bearing upon the case. It would be useless to continue the examination of the other witnesses now. The most important witness, of course, at our next meeting together will be that of Mr Watson, who will make the post mortem examination. You have here I believe also the man who was master of the boat on which the deceased was engaged?"

Superintendent Wilson: "He is here, and I shall feel it my duty to take him into custody."

The Coroner: "I can't help thinking, under the circumstances, that you are fully warranted in doing so. You have my sanction to arrest him, and I believe I have the power. There is a reasonable ground of suspicion, and upon that ground you can arrest him."

The inquest was then adjourned to Friday morning at ten o'clock, and John Probert, of Pant, Shropshire, the master of the “Usk”, who was present with his wife, was taken into custody. Probert is described as "a stout built man, of medium height, and about 45 years of age".

Second Witness (Parry)

The "Black Dog" at Waverton, where the inquest was held. Since 2003, the local villagers have presented an annual prize known as the Waverton Good Read Award. By coincidence, the first recipient of the prize was Mark Haddon, author of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time". A story based eventually on an episode involving the Grosvenors.

After the post mortem the Coroner's court met again at the "Black Dog" early on the Friday. By this time Probert, who was in custody, had got himself a defence lawyer, Mr J P Cartwright, (of Joseph Frank Postlethwaite Cartwright and Thomas Charles Cartwright, solicitors, of 3 Whitefriars, Chester). Cartwright's firm was involved in many cases involving boatmen, and, as we shall see, had been involved in cases in which many of the witnesses in this case had also turned-up as defendant. The next witness was Edward Parry Jnr., who said:

"I am a boatman and I belong to the Shropshire Union Canal Company. I knew Moston (the deceased) well. I did not see him on the Sunday night, nor before he was found on the towing-path. I last saw him at Newport, Staffordshire on Saturday, when he was with his boat, the “Usk”. I saw Probert there at the same time. The boat was then on its way to Ellesmere Port, and we were going the other way. Our boat came to this district on Sunday night and arrived at Beeston about eight o'clock that night. About seven o'clock on the following (Monday) morning on arriving at a point about 400 or 500 yards on the Beeston side of Golden Nook Bridge, we saw the deceased lying on the towing-path. We also saw Morris and my father, Edward Parry, there. The deceased lay on his back. He was alive but did not speak; he only groaned. We carried him into our cabin, and I was left with him while my father went for some brandy. The brandy was brought, but he did not swallow any of it; his lips were merely rubbed with it. He lived about five minutes after we rubbed his lips with the brandy. We tried to get him to take some of the liquor with a table spoon, but he did not show any power of swallowing. It is about four miles from Bates Mill at Beeston to the place where we saw the deceased lying on the towing-path. It would take about an hour for a boat going at ordinary speed, to traverse this distance. There are no locks between these points. I did not take particular notice of the ground where the deceased was found. I saw nothing in the appearance of the deceased and Probert at Newport that was unusual. They both appeared to be sober. They had worked together for about three weeks"

Parry's evidence conflicts slightly with that of Morris, as Morris has the body being found about 1.5 miles from Waverton bridge, whereas in fact the "Crime scene" at Golden Nook is over two miles from Waverton bridge. Newport, as mentioned by Parry, is on the Shrewsbury and Newport Canal. Authorised in 1793, the main line from Trench to Shrewsbury was fully open by 1797, but it remained isolated from the rest of the canal network until 1835, when the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal built the Newport Branch from Norbury Junction to a new junction with the Shrewsbury Canal at Wappenshall.

Post Mortem results

Dr Watson then gives the results of his post mortem examination.

Probably the most complete history of the canal is that edited by Gordon Emery with contributions from other local authors.

Dr Watson: I first saw the body of the deceased on Wednesday, lying at the Black Dog Inn. I examined him externally and found some slight abrasions of the skin on the face and nose. I found no other marks of violence on the body. On the same day I made a post mortem examination of the body. I first examined the neck from the unusual mobility of the head, and because I expected to find fractures or dislocation there. I found the fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae were quite loose in the neck, and torn away from the seventh and fourth. The two bones were not fractured themselves, but there was a complete dislocation of them. There was no corresponding external injury; the neck was perfectly free from bruises. I then proceeded to examine the other organs of the body, and found the brain, heart, lungs, and all the organs, in fact, perfectly healthy, and the man seemed to have been very strong. The cause of death was pressure on the spinal cord in consequence of the dislocation of the neck. The effect of dislocation of the neck would be complete paralysis of all the parts below the seat of injury, and this effect would take place immediately. The heart would beat for a time. I think the post mortem examination is quite consistent with the statement of the witness that the man was found alive and that he groaned slightly. If the injury had been higher – if it had been a dislocation of the first and second vertebrae – death would have been instantaneous; the effect would have been the same as in hanging. When I first saw the body I thought the injury was higher than subsequent investigation proved it to be, and that was the reason I asked the question at the opening of the inquest. A man in this condition would be positively motionless and helpless.

Another spectral hound (and another Dr Watson) appears in "The Hound of the Baskervilles", shown here in this illustration by Sidney Paget as it spreads terror on Dartmoor. Other legendary spectral hounds include that said to have attacked travellers at Newton Hollows. Legends of "Hellhounds" are common in England and Wales. Other local phantom dogs include that of Bunbury, "The Thing" of Delamere Forest and the "Black Dog of Neston".

The Coroner: Suppose he received the injury on the boat, would it have been possible for him to have got out of the boat and placed himself where he was found?

Dr Watson: It would have been utterly impossible. He could not have moved hand or foot.

The Coroner: Suppose he had got into the canal after the injury?

Dr Watson: He could not have got out again.

The Coroner: I suppose your opinion is that there must have been a very considerable amount of violence to have caused dislocation of these two vertebrae?

Dr Watson: There must have been extraordinary violence. The connecting ligaments are very strong.

By the Jury: If his head had been forcibly pushed down there would be no marks, and if he had fallen from a height on a soft place there would also be no marks of violence.

The Coroner: I suppose it would not be possible for a man walking on the towpath, having an ordinary fall, to receive an injury of this kind?

Dr Watson: Quite impossible, I should think. Injuries such as this man had would in all probability be produced by the head being forcibly pressed forward by some means. I examined the stomach and found no smell of drink.

The Coroner: No; I'm told he was a very sober man.

Mr Cartwright: You say you examined the stomach for any smell of drink, and you are quite clear there was no smell?

Dr Watson: Yes.

Mr Cartwright: How long would this be after death?

Dr Watson: I examined him on the Wednesday, and he was found on the Monday morning.

Mr Cartwright: Would it be possible for any smell of drink to have gone off?

Churton in the 1864 Directory.

Dr Watson: Alcohol might go off, but if he had been drinking sherry I think there would have been a trace of it. I attach no importance to the superficial injuries I have referred to.

So Watson is very confident about several things - Moston's neck had been broken with great force and he had not been drinking before death. If Moston had been in the canal, even if only up to the waist, then he could not have gotten himself out of it. Watson also confirms twice that Wednesday was the first time he examined the body. Cartwright does not push the point about why, when the inquest opened, Watson stated he had heard a groan when first examining the body (Cartwright was not at that first hearing). The mention of sherry by Watson seems a little odd, and as sherry wine will play a significant part in the later proceedings it seems that something has been discussed "behind the scenes".

The type of injury described and C5-C6 is what might nowadays be caused by a "whiplash" injury, but causing more severe damage and therefore more immediate onset of symptoms. A "hangman's fracture" above C5 is generally instantly incapacitating, but lower damage can take longer to develop symptoms. It is rare but possible for an injury not to incapacite immediately but do so in a fairly short time.

The Boatman's Daughter

The next witness was called after a further week-long ajournment, and was a 13 year old child, Margaret Jones. The exchange with the Coroner is quite illuminating as to the lives of boat-people. Coroner Churton is well aquainted with the lives of boat-people and one might suspect that he is taking to opportunity with his questioning of Ms Jones to get some issues that concern him on the public record and in the press. In 1851 at least one member of the Churton family, associated with the "Churton Auction House" in Foregate Street had been involved with the first steps leading to the formation of the "Chester Ragged School". The land on which the Boughton school was built was donated by the Canal Company. The ragged schools were free in order to attract the poorest children. They were open in the evenings and on Sunday from 2-4pm for the benefit of those who could not attend during the day. In 1853, the feeding of the most destitute children was begun. In 1855 industrial training was introduced. Dormitories were opened in 1858. In 1863 the Boughton school was certified as an Industrial School. Thereafter, magistrates could send children there instead of to prison. The government paid for their upkeep. These schools were inspected by the Home Office not the Board of Education. In his obituary it is mentioned that Churton was indeed "one of the original managers and honorary surgeon" of the Ragged School ("Boughton Industrial School") and some children from the school attended his funeral service at St Paul's Boughton.

Moston was not the only boatman to meet with an unfortunate fate at Waverton. This report from "The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard" of the 22nd February 1878 states how a certain John Evans had perished after being "run over" by a train at Waverton Station (which no longer exists) once located about 200 yards south east of the "Black Dog" where the Moston inquest was held. It appears that while stepping into a train in motion Evans was knocked down, and in addition to the broken thigh, suffered other severe injuries in various parts of his body. He died about twelve hours after his admission to the Infirmary.
Brockholes, where the River Gowy passes under the Chester Canal and where Margaret Jones spent the night before finding Moston on the towpath during a boat-journey to towards Chester.

Coroner: How old are you?

Witness: Fourteen the 10th of next June.

Coroner: Can you read or write?

Witness: No sir.

Coroner: Have you ever been to school?

Witness: No sir.

Coroner: Did you ever hear of the Bible?

Witness: No sir.

Coroner: An awful state of things. This is an example of boating life.

According to the Press reports at the time, the witness, however, exhibited much intelligence and readiness in understanding and answering the questions put to her. Her evidence was:-

I am daughter of Thomas Jones, master of the canal boat “The Stag”. Last Monday morning week, about five o'clock, we left the Brock Holes. The boat was empty and I was steering. We intended going to Ellesmere Port. Between Crow Nest Bridge and Golden Nook bridge I saw a young man lying on the towing-path, but whether he was dead or drunk I didn't know.

Coroner: I suppose it is not an uncommon thing to pass boatmen lying drunk by the side of the canal?

Witness: No sir. My father was driving and he stopped the boat as soon as he came up to the deceased. His head and shoulders were resting on the cop, and the rest of the body was on the towpath. I saw deceased's face and knew him to be “Charlie Mos'n”. I had known him about six months, and he belonged to the “Usk”. I last saw him on board that boat on the Sunday evening about five o'clock, at Tilstone Mills, on the other side of Beeston. The Usk was then travelling and he was driving the horse. I noticed Mrs Probert, the “missus” of the boat, steering; I did not see her husband. My father stopped the boat when I saw this man, for me to step off to tell another boatman to get deceased on the boat. I got off, and at my mother's request went back some distance and told Joseph Boden that there was a young man lying on the towpath. I then went to where the deceased lay. The time would be about a quarter after six o'clock. I did not speak to the deceased, but Joseph Boden spoke to him. Deceased did not speak, but made a gurgling noise in his throat, and groaned, “Oh! Oh! Oh!” His face was covered with blood; he had a whip tied round his shoulders, and his clothes were all over slutch. Deceased did not seem sensible. Boden tried to raise him and spoke to him saying, “Come Charlie, my man, and get on my boat, what are you doing lying here?” but he got no answer and he let him down again. Boden then said, “Maggie, let the donkeys go on again,” and our boat then went on, and was followed by Boden's, deceased being left on the towpath where we found him. We saw no boat in front of us – nothing of the Usk, nor of the Proberts. We went on to Ellesmere Port, but saw nothing of the Proberts there. We met the “Brummagem Flyer” going towards Beeston.

A report from "The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard". Like many this discusses the poor education and low living standards of the boat-people.

Coroner: When you saw this man in that position, did you think he was drunk?

Witness: Yes sir.

Coroner: From first to last you thought he was drunk?

Witness: Yes sir. The towpath did not seem in an unusual condition. Deceased was a very quiet steady man; not a quarrelsome man. We told the “Brummagem Flyer” what we had seen, but nobody else. We remained with the deceased about 20 minutes. I did not see a hat about. The proper name of the “Brummagem Flyer” is the “Severn”, the boatman of which, Benjamin Foster, I told what we had seen.

Coroner: Your father does not seem to have been concerned about the matter at all.

Witness: No sir, he took no part in it.

At the conclusion of the girl's evidence, the Coroner said: I am sure you are a very intelligent little girl, and you have given your evidence very nicely. It is a pity that a girl of your intelligence should not have the advantage of education; but I suppose it is very rarely that boatman's children go to school?

Witness: Yes sir

The Canal Act of 1877 ("A Bill to provide for the Registration and Regulation of Canal Boats used as Dwellings. 40 Victoria" - in force from 30th June 1878), aimed to limit the number of people that were allowed to live on a boat. This depended on the type of boat and how many cabins it had. Children above 12 (girls) and 14 (boys) years old were counted as adults and there were strict rules as to where they could sleep. Inspectors were sent along the towpath to ensure the rules were being followed but families often saw the inspector coming and sent their children on ahead! The term "Registered at Nantwich" or another place is often seen painted on the ouside of historic boat cabins. This has nothing to do with the canal authority, but relates to the registration of the boat with the local authority that the cabin has been inspected and passed as living accommodation, which was required by the 1877 Act of Parliament. It may well be that one reason for the public interest in this case was the contemporaneus passage of the Act.

The Evidence of "Ceres"

The Bridge Inn at Chirk Aqueduct where the story has a very strange sequel. The canal runs just behind the Inn. At the time that this engraving was made there was no railway viaduct alongside the aqueduct. The railway viaduct was designed by Henry Robertson and built between 1846 to 1848.

The first witness from "Ceres" was one of the hands, William Williams. Given the way that his evidence conflicts with that of Boden, master of "Ceres" who was up next, and the way that Boden gets "roasted" by the Coroner one might expect that Boden had some sharp words with Williams after the inquest. Williams said:

I am a boatman, and on the 16th inst I was employed on board the “Ceres”, the master of which was Joseph Boden. At a quarter to six o'clock on the morning of this date we came up to where deceased lay. Our boat, which was being driven by Boden and steered by me, was brought to a stand, and I got off; but before I got up to the deceased Boden said, “Never mind, start the donkeys and let us go on again”. I saw Boden take hold of him by the muscle of his right arm, raise him to a sitting posture, and put his hand at the back of his head. I did not touch deceased; I was not close up to him. I heard Boden say, “Charlie, come and go on the boat”. He did not speak, but made a groaning noise. We were not there more than a minute, and we did not stop again until he got to Chester. I knew deceased, and that he belonged to the Usk, which they saw on Saturday at the Tilstone locks, and on Monday forenoon in the Ellesmere Port “pound”, below Chester, coming back this way. I had known deceased for some time, and observed that he was a remarkably steady man, and also a quiet inoffensive man.

Joseph Boden, master of the “Ceres” was then called. He corroborated the evidence of the previous witnesses. He knew the deceased, and saw him lying on the towpath on the date in question a little past six o'clock.

The Coroner: What was your impression when you saw him?

Witness: I first thought he was in a “skirmage”.

The Coroner: You did not think he was in drink?

Witness: No, because he was not in the habit of getting drunk. When I went up to him he seemed to be in a sleep, and I did not do anything to him. He had two slight scratches on his face, but I saw no blood. I did not speak to him, nor raise the body up. I did not touch him; I merely looked on and noticed that he breathed. We remained about two minutes and a half. I was first told by the little girl Jones, who said that Moston was lying on the path bad. When we left there was no one with deceased.

Cargo boats in the same kind of slushy weather that the case when Charles Moston was found.

The Coroner: Don't you think it would have been humane; part of your duty, in point of fact, to do something? Would it not have been better for you to have taken him to some place where he might have had help?

Witness: Yes sir.

The Coroner: You were not under the impression that he was drunk. You thought he was in some “skirmige” which accounted for his appearance, but you didn't attempt to do anything for him?

Witness: Well, I didn't know what was the matter; I have wakened several drunken folks.

The Coroner: But you have told me that it was not your impression that he was drunk; but that you thought he had been in some “skirmige”, and we know what that means. If he had been a dog you could not have treated him with greater indifference. Then you are sure you did not raise him up?

Witness: No.

The Coroner: Nor speak to him?

Witness; No sir.

The Coroner: Nor offer to take him upon the boat?

Witness: No I didn't. I saw the “Usk” at Ellesmere Port on Monday afternoon, about five o'clock, and Mr and Mrs Probert, but did not have any conversation with them. Did not see anything of the deceased afterwards.

There is a clear conflict between the evidence of the girl and Boden. Boden says he stayed with the deceased for "two and a half minutes" whereas the girl says 20 minutes. Both the girl and Williams have Boden speaking to the deceased and trying to get him off the ground, whereas Boden denies he said anything and did not try to get Moston to his feet. While the girl states that Moston's face was covered in blood, Boden claims not to have noticed this. Boden says he found the grievously injured Moston just after six, which seems not fit with the "Stag" and "Ceres" boats having set out from Brock Holes (where the River Gowy passes under the canal) in the direction of Chester an hour beforehand, around five in the morning, as Brock Holes is only about a mile from where the body was found. However these boats were being towed by donkeys and would have been slower than a horse drawn boat. Boden also implies that "Usk" went onto Ellesmere Port on the Monday before returning to Chester ("Usk" did, to pick up the corpse of Captain Coppack). Williams states that Boden put his hand on the back of Moston's head, presumably this was because with Moston's neck being broken his head was flopping back at an unnatural angle. It is possible that Boden may even have realised that by trying to get Moston up he was doing more harm than good. Finally, while the girl says that Moston had a whip "tied around his shoulders" this is not mentioned by Boden or any other witness except the Proberts. Two years later Boden still had his donkey boat and was fined 1/- when his donkeys strayed into the road at Cristleton - possibly a bit harsh.

A report from the Wrexham and Denbighshire Advertiser and Cheshire Shropshire and North Wales Register (10th June 1876). Could this be the same John Probert of Pant?

The Police Evidence

John Palin, sergeant in the Cheshire Constabulary, stationed at Waverton, was then called. He said:

On Monday morning, the 16th of this month, about eight o'clock, Edward Parry came to my house, and from what he said to me, I went to the Bone Works Bridge, over the canal at Waverton, and I there found the deceased, Charles Moston, dead in his (Parry's) boat. I then got a cart and conveyed him to the Black Dog public house. I observed bruises and blood on his face. I searched the deceased at the inn, and found 4s 9d in silver and 1s 8 1/2d in copper, a tobacco box, pipe and purse. I afterwards stripped and washed the body. The clothing was covered with dirt and slutch, and the trousers were saturated with wet up to his middle, but the upper part of his clothes was dry. His cap was wet. On the Thursday following I examined the spot where the deceased lay on the towpath, and saw the marks of his coat and trousers in the mud very distinctly, and I also saw three finger prints, and that of the thumb of the left hand, and two finger prints and that of the thumb of the right. I judged the relative position of the hands from the impression of the clothes, by which I concluded that the deceased lay on his back. I also saw the impression of a man's boot on the cop where there was no grass. About three yards from where the prints were I saw some cinders and ashes, as if they had been thrown out of a boat; and about six yards further on the towpath I found some crushed oats and beans, as if the horse had been feeding there, and they had fallen from the nosebag. The distance from the cop to the canal would be from two to three yards. The depth of the canal near the side at this point is about three feet and a half. I saw Probert, the man in custody, at Chester on the Monday night, and warned him to attend the inquest, and he did attend at the opening on the Wednesday following.

By the 1870's many boatmen's families had moved onto the boats. This both saved the money from renting a cottage and negated having to pay for crew

The strange thing about this evidence is that from Monday until the day after the inquest opened sergeant Palin does nothing to visit the place where Moston was found. This was a busy section of canal, so it seems quite odd that he should be able to still see traces of a body having lain there, in mud and in slush which has apparently now melted, after more than three weekdays and presumably much horse traffic have passed. Palin was not the only person who had visited the site: in his evidence at the inquest Dr Watson indicates in passing that he had visited the site prior to the inquest re-opening on the Friday. This could probably only have been on the Thursday as Watson was performing the post mortem on the Wednesday and the inquest started early on the Friday. To put the money found on the body in context, Moston has about half a week's wages for a mid-Victorian agricultural worker in his pockets - about £30 in today's money correcting for purchasing power, or £130 correcting for wage inflation. Direct comparisons of wages etc are difficult, but this would be enough to buy almost a hundred pints of beer or three gallons of gin. Writing the same year (in the light of the forthcoming Canal Boats Act relating welfare on the canals) a "special commissioner" records:

  • This morning Captain Jonah took the opportunity of having a few words of friendly conversation with me on the canal bank. He wished me clearly to understand the position of affairs as far as himself and family were concerned. “Look you”, said the skipper, “things could not be wuss with me and mine than they is at present. We're bound to be done some good by if they carries out this education of the children. Trade's awfu' bad. Prices is down to nothing on account of the comp'tition with the railroad. It's as much as us can do to make both ends meet now. If they takes the childr'n they takes in course their mothers, and if they takes the mother, that means rising the wages. D'yer see?” I gave Captain Jonah to understand I quite saw that; but I said that I should like to have a few figures from him, if he would not mind giving them, in reference to this subject of wages. I ascertained from him that at present the boatmen calculate to make from five to seven pounds for the round “voyage” from London to Birmingham and back, which, including stoppages, occupies about fourteen days. Out of this sum they have to find the cost of a horse, provender, stabling and so forth, and the money for ropes, lines and straps used in drawing the boat. Pressing the skipper closely, I found that he considered £2 5s a week was but a fair wage for the labour of himself, the wife and Joe. At the very least £2 clear ought to be earned, and if they took the children away, this sum would have to be raised to meet the additional expenses of rent for a cottage for the wife, and schooling for the children.

The police evidence could be taken to suggest that a boat had stopped here for some time given that ashes had been thrown out and a horse fed, but as several days had passed there is nothing to really connect that with the fatality, except perhaps that the "Woodcock" must have stopped for some time - probably longer than "about quarter of an hour" - when the body was found and Parry Snr. was fetching brandy from a nearby farmhouse.

"Woodcock" and "Dart"

Edward Parry was then called and said:

Nixon's Bridge (114), an original "accomodation bridge" by Samuel Weston (c1776) - rebuilt 2004-5. Moston's body was found between here and Golden Nook Bridge (115).

I am master of the “Woodcock”, a boat belonging to the Shropshire Union Company. I knew Moston, the deceased, having become acquainted with him about three months ago. I was with my son Edward Parry (who was examined this day week), when our boat came up to the point at which deceased was lying on the canal towpath between six and seven o'clock on the morning of Monday the 16th. I was steering, and I got on the towpath and went to the deceased. When I got to him I said, “Poor fellow”, being under the impression that he had been kicked by a horse, and had been lying there all night. I also said, “He's starved to death; let us take him into our cabin”. He seemed as if he had no use in his arms or legs, but he was not stiff. The minute we got him on the boat I ran to the farmhouse by the bridge to beg a drop of brandy. I got some brandy, and when I got back I mixed it with hot water, lifted him up a bit and tried to make him take some of the liquor in a teaspoon, but I could not perceive that he swallowed any. I asked one of our boatmen named Morris to listen if he heard any breathing, and he said he heard a gurgling sound; but he died in a moment or two after. This would be about quarter of an hour after we saw him.

The Parry's were probably well-known to Churton, whose son (the Chester solicitor W. H. Churton) had previously defended several members of the family for cases of drunken affray at Chester - and other such cases would occur in the future:

  • January 25 1879 County Petty Sessions A CANAL BOATMAN IN TROUBLE: Edward Parry, a boatman in the employ of the Shropshire Union Canal Company, was charged with being drunk and riotous at Ellesmere Port on the 7th December last. P C Wilkinson said that about half past seven o'clock in the evening of the day in question, he saw the defendant drunk in the streets and stripped for fighting, and challenging any person round to fight him. After some difficulty his friends managed to get him to his boat. The defendant had been previously in the Dock Hotel, and refused to quit when the landlord requested him to leave. The defendant was fined 10s and 12s 8d costs, or in default seven days imprisonment with hard labour.

The elder Parry asks Morris of "Star" to listen for a heartbeat. This is suggestive of a slight air of panic; having listened for a heartbeat himself and heard nothing he gets someone else to check.

Coroner Churton would have approved of the use of Brandy by Parry in an attempt to revive Moston. The above is an extract from his own obituary from "The Chester Courant and Advertiser for North Wales" 15th December 1897.

John Owen was the next witness. He said:

I am master of the “Dart”. I knew the deceased and saw him last on Sunday night, the 15th inst, about six o'clock, near Bate's Mill at Beeston. He jumped on to the boat “Usk” as she was on the move from that point at this time. John Probert was driving the horse of the “Usk”, and his wife stood in the hatchway steering the boat, and Moston, the last I saw of him, jumped on the boat and stood by Mrs Probert. He appeared to be very sober and steady. I don't work on Sundays and our boat remained there until between five and six o'clock on the Monday morning, when we proceeded towards Ellesmere Port. The next I saw of the deceased was John Morris standing beside the deceased, who was lying on the towpath between Golden Nook and Nixon's bridges. I got out of my boat and went to the deceased in company with Edward Parry, the last witness. Deceased was lying on his back, with his head on the cop, and insensible, and his face was covered with bruises and blood and dirt, and he was unable to speak or move. I assisted in getting him on to Parry's boat, and we did our best to see if we could bring him round. I was not on the boat when he died. I was driving the horses as fast as I could, in order to get the deceased to a police officer or a doctor. I saw the Usk leaving Ellesmere Port, as I was arriving there on Monday afternoon.

It is perhaps worth noting that a John Owen, boatman of Chester, had been charged, in November 1875, with causing the death of a girl named Isabella Roper. Mr Cartwright had appeared for the prosecution, and Mr Churton (the Coroner's brother) for John and Joseph Owen. Isabella Roper was found drowned in the canal near Ellesmere Port. There was "evidence that one of the prisoners had threatened this unfortunate woman, and the theory of the prosecution was that the prisoners, exasperated at the resistance of the girl to some improper overtures, pushed her into the canal". Owen was later aquitted of this, and also of "the theft of three tons weight of pig iron, the property of the Shropshire Union Railway and Canal Company, at Wardle, near Tarporley, on the 8th January 1877". A John Owen was back in court later in 1877:

* July 2 1877 Chester City Police Court: A DRUNKEN BOATMAN John Owen, a powerfully built man, was charged with being drunk and riotous on the previous evening. PC 18 deposed that about a quarter to twelve on Wednesday evening he saw the defendant drunk and riotous in Seller Street, near the canal bridge. Witness went towards him, when the prisoner took his coat off and challenged witness to fight. Witness tried to remove him, but the prisoner became very violent and they both fell to the ground. A man who went to the assistance of the police officer stated that while the constable was on the ground a boat came along, and that if he had not lifted up the rope the officer would have been drawn into the canal. Defendant said he was very sorry for what had occurred. He had had some drink, and it hadgot over him, as he was not used to it. The Bench fined the defendant 10s and costs, and ordered the witness to be paid his expenses.

..and apparently back in court in 1885..

  • October 31 1885: CITY POLICE COURT YESTERDAY (FRIDAY): John Owen, a boatman, of 45 Fosbrook Street, was brought up in custody charged with being drunk and doing wilful damage at the Red Lion public house in Frodsham Street. Thomas Maund, the landlord, said the prisoner came there the previous night with four or five others, who were the worse for drink, and because he would not draw them any drink prisoner broke a pane of glass in the door worth about 8s. Prisoner was arrested by Police-sergeant Price. He said he had no recollection of the circumstances, and was fined 5s and costs, or seven days hard labour for being drunk, and to pay the cost of the damages.

But we cannot be certain that these are all the same men; John Owen was quite a common name and it is unlikely that the SURCCO would have put up with a man like that for long.

Fosbrook Street was where "Waitrose" is now located on the canal.

The original newspaper report of that days proceedings concludes with a "cliff-hanger" to sell more copies of the evening edition:

The evidence of Thomas James, master of the “Snipe”, which accompanied the “Usk” on its journey to Chester, and of the men employed on it, was also taken, but the hour at which the inquest concluded – six o'clock – prevents us from giving it until our Evening Edition is issued. The man Probert and his wife, Jane Probert, made voluntary statements. In the result, the jury found a verdict of “Wilful murder” against both Probert and his wife, who were thereupon committed by the Coroner to take their trial on that charge at the Cheshire Summer Assizes.

A panorama of Harrison's. modification of the Outer Bailey of Chester Castle. The Assizes would have been held here.

The evidence of the "Snipe"

"Snipe" is a "fly boat" - that is a canal boat which was moving nigh-on constantly with crews working day and night shifts and sleeping in turns. Thomas James said:

I am master of the “Snipe” a fly boat belonging to the Shropshire Union. I knew the deceased. The “Snipe” and the “Usk” went together on Sunday for some distance, and from what I saw deceased and Probert seemed on comfortable terms. My boat was in front. After passing the second bridge below Bate's Mill I went into the cabin as it was my turn to sleep. When we got to Darlington's Bank, which is on the Christleton side of Egg Bridge, about eight o'clock, Probert's wife came up and said to our steerer that their chap had stopped behind and had got in the canal. I got out and said, “Why didn't you stop and bring him with you?”, and then I ordered my man to stop the horse so that we might go back for him. I then went to put my shoes on, and by that time Probert had come up with his boat. I said to Probert, “Where has he got into the canal?” and he said, “Egg Bridge”. Upon that I along with Probert and one of my men named Rowlands, went back to about 100 yards on the other side of Egg Bridge from here. Probert then made a stop and said, “We'll go no further. It isn't at Egg Bridge that he got in, but the Halfway Bridge where he got in the canal”.

Egg Bridge (119), 1937 rebuild shown, where in James' evidence Probert first states that Moston "got into the canal". Wilson states Golden Nook Bridge the same as "Halfway Bridge", but is wrong - Halfway Bridge is actually "Nixons Bridge" (114).

Superintendent Wilson: That is the same as the Golden Nook Bridge. (N.B. Wilson is probably wrong here)

Witness: I said to Probert, “Was he on the bank and all right?” Probert said, “Yes, he'll be after us just now; let us get back to our boats and go on”.

The Coroner remarked that as this evidence affected Probert and his wife it would be right to have them both present. The two were accordingly brought into the room

In cross-examination by Mr Cartwright, witness said they came on pretty quick, and about six miles was traversed before he was called by Probert's wife.

Mr Cartwright: During the time “Usk” and your boat were together was there anything to drink?

Witness: Nothing at all.

Mr Cartwright: Didn't Moston have some washings of sherry?

Witness: Nothing of the sort.

Mr Cartwright: Are you speaking the truth?

Witness: Yes; quite confident.

Mr Cartwright: On your oath?

Witness: Yes, there was nothing at all of the sort.

Cartwright might well have been aware that Thomas James, boatman of Chester had been up on charges of drunkeness himself before: in October 1865 he was fined five shillings plus costs (or given the choice of three days in jail) at Chester Police Court for being drunk and disorderly in Chester. Cartwright appears in many cases involving boatmen (either as prosecution or defence). It will later turn out that Thomas James is lying under oath when questioned by Cartwright on the matter of drinking.

Crow's Nest Bridge (113), rebuilt in the 20th Century, where Moston was back on "Usk" and had tea. He was to "go in the canal" very shortly afterwards. This was a busy spot in 1877: the location of a brickworks since about 1860 and a large bone-works supplied by rail. The canal was used to bring in coal for the boilers and take out the glues, fats and bone meal that the works produced.

Humphrey Roberts said:

I am employed on the “Snipe”. I remember steering the “Snipe” on Sunday night week, and about eight o'clock remember Mrs Probert coming up to our boat and saying something. Our boat was stopped, and in about five or ten minutes Probert's boat was up to ours. The boats were never very far from each other, but I did not take particular notice as to who steered at particular points. At Golden Nook Bridge Probert's boat was three quarters of a mile behind. Mrs Probert said their “chap” had been in the canal, and wanted me to go back for him.

This witness gave his evidence in a very fragmentary and disconcerted manner, and some points had to be almost dragged out of him. The Coroner, who said he could plainly see the man had been drinking, sharply rebuked him for sottishness in getting muddled with beer while waiting to give evidence on an enquiry of such an important nature as this. Roberts clearly had a problem with drink as the Chester City Police Court reports for November 27 1875 record:

  • "INEBRIATES: Humphrey Roberts, Welshpool, boatman, was charged with being drunk and riotous in Northgate Street. PC 22 said after ten o'clock on Saturday night he found the defendant so drunk and riotous that he had to lock him up. Fined 10s and costs, or, in default, the usual alternative."

PC22 would most likely have "locked up" Roberts in the cell reserved for the purpose in the Police Station beneath the Town Hall.

Richard Rowlands said:

I am one of the hands of the “Snipe” and remember Sunday evening week passing along the canal towards Christleton. When we got to Darlington's Bank, I was steering, and I remember Mrs Probert coming up and saying, “Our chap has stopped behind”. She said at first that he was at Egg Bridge, and I and Thomas James and Probert went back. Mrs Probert also said the deceased had got into the canal. We did not go so far as Egg Bridge, for as we were going along John Probert said deceased was at the Halfway Bridge, and he was not going all that way and leave his horse standing on the bank. He would not go any further back. I didn't see anything more of Probert and his wife, nor have any conversation with them.

In response to Mr Cartwright: I don't recollect anybody saying that Moston was big enough and old enough, and could come on afterwards. It is a rule that flyboats must not stop anywhere, and Probert's boat is a flyboat. Nobody was driving Probert's boat when Mrs Probert came up. Probert was steering.

John Jones, a youth, said:

I am employed on board the “Snipe”. On the Sunday night in question I slept from Beeston to Christleton, and from that point I drove the horse to Chester. I met Mr and Mrs Probert at the stables at Chester near the canal, when I was putting up our horse. Probert gave me a bottle of gin to drink from. I drank from it and handed it back to him. Then Mrs Probert and myself walked away together. I said to Mrs Probert, “Where is Charlie?” She said, “He had stopped behind, and been in the canal. I can't rest in my bed till the chap comes. I'm sure somebody will find him dead in the morning”. I had seen the deceased at Beeston on Sunday evening. He was then sober, and all right.

In response to Mr Cartwright: There was no one besides the two of us present when I had this conversation with Mrs Probert. I did not say anything of it until I told Thomas James. I saw Probert and Mrs Probert at Beeston, and they and the deceased appeared to be on friendly terms.

This concluded the evidence. It seems from the "Snipe" evidence that Moston had "been in the canal" on Sunday night, almost twelve hours before his body was found. However it will later turn out that, apart from the youth Jones who was asleep at the relevant time, the crew of "Snipe" are omitting a good deal of what they witnessed after leaving Bate's Mill lock.

The Coroner Sums-up

A short report on the conclusions of the inquest from the Wrexham Guardian, 5th May 1877.

The Coroner probably sees the case in very simple terms. Dr Watson says that Moston's injuries could only have been caused by extreme violence and that the nature of the injuries were such that he would be paralysed from the neck down. He had clearly been in the water and could not, if the Doctor is correct, have got out himself. The Coroner probably does not yet suspect that one or more of the boatmen are lying about something. The contemporary newspaper account continues as follows:

The Coroner then proceeded to sum up. He carefully summarised the evidence which had been called, and dwelt on the testimony showing the respectability and steadiness of Moston, and the indifferent and cruel manner in which the men who first saw the deceased on the bank had treated him, as contrasted with the humane conduct of the two Parrys and Morris. He then said it would be for the jury to sift all these facts, and so analyse them as to enable them to return a satisfactory verdict, not only satisfactory to themselves, but a verdict which would satisfy the public. The two main questions they had to deal with and determine were whether the deceased's death resulted from an accident, or whether there was any reason to believe that the injuries which caused his death were inflicted by either one or more persons. In considering these questions, it would be necessary for them to take into their consideration the theories and probabilities of the case. In considering whether death was the result of an accident, they must recollect the evidence as to the position in which the deceased was lying when found, and that the doctor had told them that it was utterly impossible that any fall the deceased might have had on the towing-path could have caused the immense amount of injury he found in making the post mortem examination of the body. The cervical vertebrae had been violently dislocated and the ligaments torn in such a manner as could only be caused by an enormous amount of violence inflicted on his person. It therefore seemed impossible that he could have received such injuries on the towing-path. It might be said that he had fallen into the canal accidentally and fallen against something with great violence; but this theory was a very improbable one, because if he had fallen into the canal accidentally from any part of the boat he would have been submerged, whereas it was shown that the deceased's clothes were only saturated to his middle, the other part of his body being perfectly dry. Again if he had, in falling from the boat, received the injury which had caused his death, he must of necessity have been drowned, because the effect of these injuries would be to utterly paralyse him and render him perfectly helpless – more helpless, as Dr Watson stated in his evidence a week ago, then an infant would be. Had he received the injuries by falling into the water from the boat death must have taken place immediately by drowning. The jury must take all these matters into their consideration, and also the possibilities of these injuries being inflicted by some person or persons. Who were the persons there at the time? There was evidence that there were only three – the deceased. Probert and Probert's wife. He (the coroner) must confess it astonished him how such a serious amount of injury could have been inflicted as was found and described by the doctor. There must have been an enormous amount of violence used to produce what he found. Then again, as he had said before, they had no motive, no apparent motive, for the infliction of such serious injuries. What might have taken place was mere matter for speculation; but, assuming that he was murdered, and that he had received these injuries from the hands of Probert, there must undoubtedly have been something beforehand. Supposing these injuries were inflicted in this manner, whatever might have taken place prior, it was quite clear that the injured man must be got rid of out of the boat. And if he was removed from the boat, was it possible for one person to have moved the deceased, a helpless, paralysed mass. The jury might suppose, and he might assume also, that there was more than one way of removing him from the boat. Probably the boat might have been in such a position that the deceased might have been removed by two persons, one on the towing-path and the other in the boat. It was just possible that the head and shoulders might have been thrown from the boat and caught hold of by the other person on the bank, and the legs might have slipped into the canal, and that might in some measure account for the saturated condition of part of the clothing of the deceased.

Dutton's Bridge (112) is "Bridge C" on the map.

The evidence of the witness James was of the greatest importance to the jury in considering their verdict. The Coroner then read the whole of the evidence given by James, and proceeded to say that when James got information of the deceased being left behind he acted like any man would have done under the circumstances. He not only went back himself, but took one of his men with him, and these two, with Probert, went back along the towing-path. Before they had gone more than 200 or 300 yards in the direction of Egg Bridge, Probert, with the most brutal indifference, refused to go any further, saying he was not going to allow his horse to stand on the cop, and that it was not at Egg Bridge but at Halfway bridge where deceased was. So, in the first place, Probert came with a lie in his mouth. The jury must take into consideration the conduct of Probert in forsaking the man he ought to have protected, for, in a certain sense, he was the same relation as a master was to a servant. Instead of looking after him he refused to go any further, as much as to say, “He may take care of himself, and return when he chooses. Another part of the evidence which was most important was the statement made by John Jones, the last witness called. Mr Churton then read Jones's evidence, and said his statement as to what Mrs Probert said to him was very important, because it must have been perfectly clear to the boy, as it was perfectly clear to him (the coroner) and the jury also, probably that Mrs Probert felt very uncomfortable on the Sunday night, and was evidently under the impression that this poor man was left in a very dangerous condition. And he (the coroner) must say that during the whole of his experience he never met with a more cruel case than this, because, supposing the deceased man had met with an accident, everybody would have expected that he would have received from Probert, who was his master. He (Probert) must have known, and his wife must have known, what his condition was. It would have been a physical impossibility for this man to have placed himself where he was found, and he (the coroner) could not help thinking that the deceased received the injuries which were found upon him in the boat, and , judging from the conduct of Probert and his wife, he had very little doubt in his own mind that they were the persons who inflicted the injuries. He therefore did consider this to be a case of so much importance, and involving so much responsibility upon themselves, that he thought they would scarcely be performing the duty they owed to themselves and to the public unless they fixed the responsibility on one or the other of these two persons.

The Proberts speak

The room was then cleared, and the jury proceeded to deliberate. Shortly after, however, it was announced that Probert and Mrs Probert wished to make statements. It is probable that Cartwright talked them into this after hearing the summing-up of the Coroner (especially his reliance on the testimony of Thomas James), as he could then see which way the case was going - not well for his clients. The Coroner again sat, and having cautioned each, took down the statements as follows:-

According to the Probert version of events they stopped for tea at "Crows Nest" and when they reached "Golden Nook" could see Moston walking on the canal path at the previous bridge - near the words "Towing Path" on this map, where the canal butts up against the base of a railway embankment.

John Probert said: On Sunday afternoon week, when we were coming down to Chester, I was on board the boat “Snipe”. I got off mine and went on it. There was a basin of sherry about three parts full, and Humphrey, who had shouted me on, asked me to drink some of it. Below Bate's Mill lock someone asked my man (deceased) to come on the boat. He went on, and remained there until we got to the third bridge from the lock, the bridge beyond the Brock-holes. The deceased then came on board the “Usk” and we three got our tea at about Crow Nest bridge. I then said, “Charles, one of us must go to the horse, as we are getting far behind the “Snipe” and we'll be shut out”. He then went off with the whip in his hand. How he got off I can't say, as I was in the cabin, but my missus said, “Charles is in the cut”. Upon that I came out and saw him on the bank. I said, “Charles, come on the boat”. He seemed stupid. I asked him three times to get on, but he did not give me any answer. We let the horse go on, and it went on by itself until we got to the next bridge. I said to my missus, “It's no use waiting; he don't intend a-catching us. We had better go on to catch the “Snipe”, and as we were coming through the Farm House bridge, I saw the deceased coming through the bridge behind. The missus went up to the “Snipe” and asked where was Thomas James, and on being told that he was lying down she told them that our man was behind, and to stop the boats. I said, “Tom, we had better go back and look for him”. On going back, within a hundred yards of Egg Bridge, James asked me where did we leave him, and I said, “In the straight behind the Farm House Bridge”. He said, “I understood that your missus said it was at Egg Bridge, and I'm not going back if it is there”. I said, “If you won't come I can't go, for I've only the missus with me”. That's all I have to say about the young man. He was with me ten days, and I never had a bad “mis-word” with him.

Probert's evidence clearly conflicts with that of the crew of "Snipe" as to exactly who decides not to go back for what would have been a 6-7 mile round-trip. On "Snipe" both Thomas James and Richard Rowlands place the decision clearly with Probert, whereas Probert has Thomas James making the decision. It was also the case that a rule was in force that: "No boatman will be permitted to leave his horse loose upon the Towing Path of the Canal under penalty of Ten Shillings". Both Probert and James have Moston staying on "Snipe" until Bridge B "Beyond Brockholes" (Williamson's Bridge (111)). More importantly perhaps, Probert makes it clear that despite the denials of Thomas James, there had been drinking on "Snipe" and that he had been encouraged to drink by the same Humphrey Roberts who had turned up for the inquest "half cut". Lastly, Probert is one of the only twp people who claim to have seen Moston walking along the towpath.

The next to speak would be Jane Probert who would be even more forthcoming about the matters that the crew of "Snipe" had left out of their testimony:

Williamson's Bridge (111) - "Bridge B" on the map - where Moston returned to "Usk" from "Snipe".

Jane Probert, wife of John Probert, said: Before we came to Bate's Mill lock, Thomas James called my master on board the “Snipe”. When we came to the lock there was a pair of boats in the lock. Waiting for these two boats to come out the wind blew our boats to the outside of the canal. I jumped off and went on to James' boat and looked what they were doing. He had got a brown can full of what I thought was ale, and there was a tea basinful as well. Tom James asked me to drink, but I said, “No, I don't drink ale”. He said, “It's not ale; do you drink; it won;t do you any harm”. I then catched hold and I drank. It was sherry wine. The other boats were then out, and I called to my master to come out and assist them down the lock. My master came on his boat at the bottom, and Charles jumped on the “Snipe” and continued there until we reached the Farm House Bridge. There the three jumped off together, and afterwards my man came on board our own boat and had his tea while he steered. The deceased then jumped off the boat with his whip in his hand, and in doing so he slipped on the boat, caught the coping, and his legs went in the canal. My master jumped out and called to him to come on the boat several times. He did not come on, but he followed us along by the stern end of the boat. The horse gained on him, going by itself, my husband and I being both on board, and he fell behind. My master seeing this asked me to drive the horse a bit sharper to catch up to the “Snipe”. I did so, and was not long before I did catch up. Rowlands was steering and I asked him where was Tom James, and he said he was lying down. I told him to get up, and when he did so I said to him, “Tom, I'm very sorry you've been giving him something to drink. He is lagging behind, and he don't seem as usual since he got off your boat. You go back with my husband to fetch him or see whether he will come”. Three of them started to go back – my husband, Tom James and Rowlands – but they did not go out of my sight, when they turned back. When they came back I said, “You rascals, you never went; you only want a drop more of that stuff”. Tom James made answer and said, “The man is not so bad that he can come on. He is old enough and big enough to come on”. My husband said, “Yes, he's sure to catch us before we get to Chester, and if you go on, Tom, I shall go with you to get down the locks. We shall tie up at Chester to wait for him”, and we did so. We took the horses to the stable. I never saw the deceased again, nor any of those who belonged to the other boat.

Jane Probert provides the only description in the entire case as to how Moston is supposed to have been injured. The evidence of the Proberts is very much at odds with that of the crew of "Snipe".

First she argues that there was drink freely available on "Snipe" and that Moston was aboard "Snipe" for some time. The defence lawyer, Cartright, does not ask the crew of "Snipe" whether Moston was aboard and none of them mention that he was, although Thomas James, master of "Snipe" had denied that there was any drinking.
Second, Jane Probert states that Moston boarded "Snipe" at Bate's Mill lock (Wharton Lock) and remained abord until "Farm House Bridge" (which must be before "Crows Nest" where they drank tea), whereas Thomas James states that he went below to sleep "two bridges" after "Snipe" passed "Bate's Mill" and is unclear as to whether he means two-bridges after the mill itself or after the lock: there is a difference in location. If James is referring to the actual mill then he would not have gone to sleep until close to Brockholes. Jane Probert states that James was still resting when she went to his boat - between Egg Bridge and Christleton. John Probert suggests that "Farm House Bridge" is "after Brockholes", which would agree with Moston only getting back on "Usk" a mile before Crows Nest.
Third, in Thomas James evidence he states that John Probert states that Moston went into the water at "the halfway bridge" (identified with Golden Nook Bridge). However in Proberts own evidence Moston goes into the water at least one bridge further back along the canal and was last seen from Golden Nook Bridge - "as we were coming through the Farm House bridge". A simple explanation for this is that Superintendent Wilson is simply wrong in identifying the bridge. However, it is clear that the Proberts disagree as to the location of "Farm House Bridge" - For John Probert it is "Golden Nook" bridge (from which he looks back and sees Moston for the final time) and for his wife it is "Bridge B" (where Moston leaves "Snipe").
Fourth, although the other boats could probably not have seen it, Jane is the only other person to see Moston alive and walking on the towpath after the accident. One would have thought that whether Moston was capable of walking along the towpath after being in the canal would have been an important issue, but the coroner does not go into this matter as he has already sent the jury out once.

The room was again cleared, and shortly after the jury delivered their verdict “Wilful murder against John Probert and Jane Probert”. Superintendent Wilson then took the woman into custody also, and she and her husband were committed to Chester Castle on the coroner's warrant to take their trial at the Cheshire Summer Assizes on the capital charge.

A map of the whole scene
Annotated map showing the location of the "crime scene". All the boat folk eventually agree that Moston is drinking on-board "Snipe" from Bate's Mill Lock to "Bridge B" (Williamson's Bridge) and he is then said to have consumed tea on "Usk" at Crows Nest Bridge. He supposedly falls into the water shortly after. According to the Proberts he gets out of the canal and is last seen at "Bridge D" (Nixon's Bridge). "Usk" catches up with "Snipe" near Christleton, but they decide not to go back to look for Moston. He is found the next morning, almost dead, a little closer to Golden Nook Bridge than he last been seen according to Probert and dies on-board a boat ("Woodcock") approaching Waverton Bridge. He is then taken by police sergeant John Palin to the "Black Dog" for the inquest to open and a post-mortem to be conducted by Dr Watson. "Usk" and "Snipe" were sailing together, but there are no locks in the eight-mile long pound between Bate's Mill lock and Christleton lock so "Snipe" can draw ahead. A horse drawn boat travels at walking speed, covering a mile in roughly 15 minutes on a "pound" (a stretch of canal with no locks).

Confusion about who told Probert that Moston was dead

In May the Proberts came before the Magistrate, Mr R O Orton Esq at the Egerton Arms, Broxton. Here we learn that John Owen, master of the boat “Dart” had informed Probert of Moston's death on Monday afternoon: He said to him, “We have found your man”. He said, “Well, whose fault is it?” Witness replied, “I don't know”, and then a man came and hurried Probert off with his boat. He had no further conversation with either of the prisoners subsequently that he remembered.

The proceedings before the Magistrate as reported in the "Monmouthshire Merlin": 11th May 1877.

It might seem that on only being told "we have found your man" Probert reacts as though already aware that Moston was dead, and indeed he may have been from Morris' evidence before the Magistrate:

John Morris, master of the “Star” canal boat, proved finding the deceased lying on the towpath near Waverton early on the morning of Monday the 16th April. He had last seen deceased alive and well at Bate's Mill, Beeston on the Sunday night, as the boat was leaving in the direction of Chester, and he described the conditions in which the man was found. He added that he saw Probert at Ellesmere Port, when Probert asked him if he had seen “Charles” anywhere (meaning the deceased) and witness told him he had found him dead. This was about four o'clock on Monday afternoon. Mrs Probert was standing with her husband when this conversation took place. No one else was present. Nothing else passed between them.

Cross-examined by Mr Cartwright: When Probert had finished speaking to him a man named Thomas King came and called him to go on his boat and he went. The man said to Probert, “Come, John, I want you quick”. Probert immediately got on the boat and went off.

The puzzling thing here is that both witnesses Owen and Morris imply that these were separate conversations and that Probert immediately left, presumably with the remains of Captain Coppack on his boat, bound for Chester, and that Probert first heard of the death from Morris. Owen has also changed his story slightly: at the inquest he only says: "I saw the Usk leaving Ellesmere Port, as I was arriving there on Monday afternoon" and makes no mention of speaking to Probert. The inquest testimony of Joseph Boden confuses matters further as he claims that he sees "Usk" leave Ellesmere Port at around five in the afternoon. The simple, and most likely, explanation for this is that the wharf was an extremely busy place with men scurrying around at all hours of the day. It would be quite possible for Probert to arrive and have one conversation with Morris, when Mr King collars him for the movement of Coppack's coffin; then as Probert was returning to move his boat to collect the coffin, Owen stops him and they have their brief exchange, which is witnessed by someone in the yard who yells at him to get a shift on- there is, afterall, a dead body that is not getting any fresher waiting to be moved to Chester.

Wharton Lock and its bridge, known as "Bate's Mill Lock" to boaters then and now, with Beeston Castle in the background.

"Snipe" Changes Its Story

The crew of "Snipe" are re-examined and Thomas James then admits that there were swillings from some casks that had indeed been drunk. First however, James reveals just how unreliable witness he is, when asked whether there was any discussion of the death amongst the boatmen at Cow Lane (Canalside) in Chester on the Monday evening.

The Clerk asked James if Moston had had anything to drink on his boat? Witness said he had some weak stuff and that Probert and his wife had some to drink above Bate's Mill. This is important for Cartwright's case, as, if he can show that there had been some sherry consumed, Dr Watson's opinion that Moston had not been drinking sherry (as he would have detected traces) would be undermined, and, as a consequence, the Doctor's whole theory about total paralysis would possibly founder. First however, came a discussion about whether there had been talk of the fatality in the boatmen's bar at Chester.

The Clerk: Did they all seem sober?

Witness: Yes there was nothing to make them drunk; there was nothing but a drop of swillings.

Mr Cartwright (in cross-examination): You say Sergeant Palin told you on Monday about the man being found dead, and that you were with a number of other boatmen, Probert amongst others, in Pritchard's public house, was there any conversation there about the occurrence?

Witness: No sir, not the least.

Mr Orton: Are you quite sure there was no conversation?

A street-party at Thomas Buildings, Canal Side, Chester. This was one of the poorest parts of the city and where unreliable witness Thomas James lived.

Witness: I never heard anything sir.

Mr Orton: It is a very strange thing, if you were one of those who were going back to look for him, that you did not hear anything said, nor say anything yourself.

Thomas James lived in a "rough" part of Chester which was home to at least one "Knacker's Yard".

Witness (hesitatingly): There was so much talking, one amongst the other; but there was something said about this man being found.

Mr Cartwright: Well, then, you did hear conversation about it. Was it not the fact that they were talking about this generally in the public house.

Witness: I don't recollect.

Mr Cartwright: Will you swear?

Witness: No, I won't swear.

Mr Cartwright: Were you sober?

Witness: I dare say I had a drop of drink.

Mr Cartwright: Remember, now, this is a very serious thing. Do you mean to swear on your oath, when you knew the police were on the alert, that this was not the subject of conversation that night?

Witness: It might have been, but I don't recollect.

Mr Cartwright: You say Probert was there; didn't you say anything to him?

Witness: Probert was there, nearly tipsy.

Mr Cartwright: And were you very nearly tipsy?

The Egerton Arms - where the proceedings before the Magistrate took place on the 3rd May 1877.

Witness: Well I had a good drop of drink. I had been to different public houses in the course of the day; and I had been at Pritchard's two or three hours. I hadn't seen Probert before during the day. I did not say, when we were going back to look for Moston, that I would not go further, as he was old enough and strong enough to take care of himself; it was Probert who refused to go back further, and said Moston could come on after.

From the above it is clear that Thomas James is prepared to lie about levels of intoxication- "a drop" of drink probably means a good few pints - "tipsy" probably means completely hammered and barely able to stand. Looking into him further we find he lived at 8, Thomas Buildings, Canal Side, Chester. This was one of the poorest parts of the city - one of James' neighbours would have been a "knackers yard" for worn-out horses. On October 7 1865 he had appeared at Chester City Police Court, as reported in the Cheshire Observer:

  • DRUNKENNESS Thomas James, Chester, boatman and Wm Cox, Wolverhampton, boatman, were each fined 5s and costs or 3 days (in jail) for being drunk and disorderly in the streets.

Cartwright then continues his examination of witness Thomas James and has the usual trouble getting the truth out of him:

Mr Cartwright: Now about these swillings, where did you get them from?

Witness: Out of some empty casks; I didn't get them myself.

Mr Cartwright: In your boat?

Mr Cartwright: Did you ask Jane Probert to have a little drop?

Witness: I won't say for certain, but I believe she had some. I might have asked her.

Mr Cartwright: And she did have some out of a basin?

Witness: Yes, I think she had; in fact it was little better than water.

Mr Cartwright: But she thought it was as good as sherry, and said so?

Witness: I don't recollect her saying anything about that.

Bate's Mill Bridge (109).

Mr Cartwright: Now be careful, James, didn't she say it was sherry?

Witness: I don't recollect so.

Mr Cartwright: On your oath, sir, do you swear you don't recollect what the woman said?

Witness (hesitatingly): No I don't recollect.

Mr Cartwright: Will you swear she did not say it was sherry?

Witness: I will not swear that.

Mr Cartwright: And wasn't it sherry?

Witness: I don't know; it was swillings out of empty casks.

Mr Cartwright: Sherry swillings?

Witness: I can hardly say what it was.

Mr Cartwright: Do you suppose that people will believe you would drink a lot of stuff in which there was no good? Was it not sherry, now?

Witness: I don't know sir. It might be sherry swillings from empty casks.

Mr Cartwright: Where had you brought the casks from?

Witness: Newtown.

Mr Cartwright: And the “Snipe” had been taking sherry wine to Newtown?

Witness: We took casks up; but I don't know what they were.

Mr Cartwright: Do you mean to say you have been in this business so long, and didn't know what the casks contained?

Witness: We had some casks, that's all I know.

Mr Cartwright: Do you mean to say that it was not wine?

Dale's Bridge (110) - Bridge "A" on the map above. At this point Moston was onboard "Snipe".

Witness: I don't know; we often have cargoes, and don't know what they are.

Mr Cartwright: You “suck the monkey” sometimes, don't you?

Witness: Sir. [Laughter]

Mr Cartwright: “Suck the monkey”. You know what that means: tapping the cask?

Witness: No sir.

Mr Cartwright: Were not these swillings the produce of “sucking the monkey” out of the cargo you had up?

Witness hesitated.

Mr Cartwright: On your oath, sir, was that not where you got them from?

Witness: Empty casks was where we got them from.

Mr Cartwright: I believe Moston had some of this stuff?

Witness: Yes, he had some of these washings.

Mr Cartwright: He had a basinful or two, didn't he?

Witness: No sir, I don't think he had a teacup full.

Mr Cartwright: Now what makes you say that?

Witness: He drunk out of a basin.

Mr Cartwright: Did you see what he drunk?

Witness: Yes.

Mr Cartwright: Did you help him?

John McGahey's 1855 "balloon view" showing the Canalside area around Cow Lane Bridge at Chester. The Cattle Market is the area of pens to the right. The king-post of the crane at the woodyard just to the left of the bridge can still be seen today. Queen Street, in the lower left corner has since been cut in two. The frontage of the Queen Street "Independent Chapel" (1777) can also still be seem today.

Witness: No, I didn't. He did not have so much as the others; about a teacup full.

Mr Cartwright: Probert and his wife, and Moston, all came on board your boat in search of these washings?

Witness: Yes.

Mr Cartwright: You invited them?

Witness: No, I didn't invite them.

Mr Cartwright: Have you had to give any account of these sherry washings to the Shropshire Union?

Witness: No sir.

Mr Cartwright: Have they not asked you some questions about it?

Witness: Yes, I think they did ask me one or two about some sherry that they wanted to know.

Mr Cartwright: An enquiry has been made, has it not?

Witness: Yes.

Mr Cartwright: The company would discharge any man interfering with the cargo in this way?

Witness: Oh yes.

The Clerk: But they have not discharged you, have they?

Witness: No, sir, not that I know of.

Thomas James has shifted his position considerably since his bold assurance at the inquest that there was no drinking on board "Snipe". He is now saying that some liquid was consumed but cannot say for sure what it was, or even if it was wine or spirits intended for human consumption. Humphrey Roberts of "Snipe" (who had turned up at the inquest half-drunk) also admits that there had been drinking on "Snipe". It is deeply unlikely that they didn't know what they were carrying, and it is even less likely that they were drinking swillings. It is later described by Jane Probert that they have sherry in a brown can on the roof; this is likely what we would now recognise as a canal boat's water of buckby can. These were big cans, able to hold anything up to around 4 gallons for the largest, and the discomfort the crew of "Snipe", and the absolute insistence that they'd done nothing more than swill out empty casks, suggests that at some point they have tapped a full cargo. The SURCCO inquiry does not appear to have survived, but James appears to have survived it, and seems to remain a boatman until his older years when he takes over the role of Lock keeper for the SURCCO.

A map showing the bigger picture

Annotated map showing the wider picture - not all canals in the area covered are shown. Although it seems incredible that Probert's "Usk" could have been at Newport on the Saturday and reached Chester by Sunday evening - a distance of over 40 miles and with many locks to navigate - it is perfectly possible. It would not be a very fun trip, as they would have to work for around 16 hours a day.

Cartwright's defense case is now fairly clear. The only evidence for murder is that of Dr Watson, who stated that Moston had been in the canal, but could not have got out of it unaided due to paralysis. The Doctor also stated that Moston had not been drinking sherry. As the last people known to be with Moston before he went into the canal were the Proberts, then they must, by circumstance, be the murderers. Cartwright seeks to undermine the Doctor's evidence by showing that sherry had indeed been consumed, even by the normally non-drinking Moston. This would put doubt into the minds of a jury as to the rest of Dr Watson's evidence. Also, the more that Cartwright can show that the crew of "Snipe" were a crew of lying, thieving, drunkards, then the more likely it is that it was Probert, and not Thomas James, who did indeed try to go back for Moston.

The Assizes

The local newspapers reported the matter as follows:

Public interest centred in the murder cases in the calendar. In that of the Proberts – man and wife – who had been committed for the murder of a boatman under circumstances which will be in the recollection of our readers, it was felt that the evidence amounted to nothing more than mere suspicion. The learned Judge felt this too, and in his charge to the Grand Jury, said that having carefully looked through the depositions of the witnesses again and again, he saw nothing to warrant them finding a true bill even. It would be a cruel thing, he said, to subject innocent people to the agony of a trial for their lives. Acting upon this, the Grand Jury ignored the bill, and the prisoners were discharged, but not before the Judge had taken the opportunity of saying rather emphatically that he did not believe the deceased had been murdered. That he met with a violent death there is not the least doubt. His neck had been broken, and yet there were no external marks of violence. How his neck was broken was left to conjecture. Certainly, if a murder had been committed, whoever did it had departed from the ordinary track, and deprived a fellow being of his life in such an original way as to leave it open to doubt whether the injury was the result of wilful violence, or accident merely. Certainly we agree with the Judge there was no proof that the man did not meet with his death by accident, and that is, indeed, the most likely way in which the deceased lost his life.

Later on it becomes clear that there is considerable public sympathy for the Proberts.

Mr J C Stevens, of Abbey Street, has asked us to draw the attention of the public to the case of the Proberts. It will be remembered that at the last assizes but one Probert, who is a boatman, and his wife, were indicted for the murder of another boatman near Chester. There was practically no evidence against them, and the Grand Jury ignored the bill. To say nothing of the anguish suffered by the accused, Probert had to sell his horses, which were the means of his livelihood, and other property, to pay the costs of their defence upon their trial for their lives for a murder which, in the opinion of Lord Justice Branwell (sic), had never been committed. The sum of £20 is required to put Probert and his wife in their former position. The manager of the Shropshire Union Canal has considerately found employment for them and has promised a donation in aid of this object, and further subscriptions will be received by Mr Stevens, in Abbey Street, for the Proberts.

The reference to Probert having to sell his horses may seem strange, as "Usk" was reported as being a boat belonging to the Shropshire Union Canal Company. However, many 'professional' boatmen would invest in their own horses so they could guarantee what they were working with.

The interior of the courts at Chester Castle.

In the transcript of the proceedings before the Magistrates as reported on the 5th May 1877, there is again reference to how long Moston might have lived. The Clerk (Mr G F Boydell) asks Watson how long is it possible for Moston to have lived after receiving the injury?

Dr Watson: It is possible he might have lived a day or two. There are cases where persons have lived.

And in a later exchange:

Mr Cartwright: From the extent of the tearing of the ligaments would you not have expected the deceased to have died very soon?

Dr Watson: From all established facts it is possible he might have lived a day or two. There are plenty of cases. There was immediate compression of the spinal marrow, and that caused death. There was no fracture of the skull; the brain was perfect.

There was a new witness at the magistrates court hearings that was Henry Clegg, master of the “Delhi", who said that:

"He was in the employ of the Bridgewater Trustees. He remembered the night of the 15th April. His boat left Beeston about eleven o'clock for Ellesmere Port. When about three miles from Beeston, the horse going by itself, and witness steering, the animal stopped at something for about a minute. He smacked the whip and shouted “Gee”, and it went on. Didn't see nor hear anything. This was before they got to “Halfway” bridge, going from Beeston to Chester."

Unless a long tow rope is used the boat will be drawn towards the bank and make little "way". If the horse stops the boat will coast on and the tow rope will drag on the ground and dip into the river. Tow lines were made of cotton rope so they would sink and a boat passing in the opposite direction could coast over them without fouling. Could the tow-rope of "Delhi" have been the fatal instrument in the case of Charles Moston?

As barbaric as the name sounds, "smacking whips" were not used to punish the horse, but to create a loud 'smacking' noise, like a gunshot, to warn of the boat's approach, so there is no issue that Clegg appears to whip-on a horse at the end of a long tow in pitch darkness. On further questioning Clegg answers:

By Mr Orton (the Magistrate): It was not an unusual thing for his horse to stop. She often stopped to “peg” at the bank, and sometimes turned back. It was so dark that he couldn't see the horse and could hardly hear anything for the wind.

By the Clerk: Saw Probert and his wife at Ellesmere Port on Monday morning. Probert said nothing about the deceased.

By Mr Cartwright (For the Proberts): Didn't meet any other boat. It was not a usual thing to meet another boat at this point on Sunday nights. He knew the horse stopped because when she started again he felt the “snatch” of the boat.

The suggestion could be made that the unaccompanied horse stopped because Moston was in the way. It is worth noting that Clegg has his horse stop before "Halfway Bridge", but isn't clear whether this is "Nixon's Bridge" or "Golden Nook Bridge". Both Thomas James and Richard Rowlands state that Probert had referred to Nixons Bridge as "Halfway Bridge" and Probert's evidence was that he last saw Moston "coming through" that bridge. However Superintendent Wilson has said of "Halfway Bridge": "That is the same as the Golden Nook Bridge". Cartwright does not say it openly, but in bringing this witness he may be preparing the way for an argument that Moston was in a semi-comatose drunken sleep on the tow-path and was at this point kicked by Cleggs horse or briefly tangled in the tow line of "Delhi" which would have sagged to the ground when the horse stopped and Clegg's "Delhi" coasted on. This might account for the body having appeared to have been rolled along the towpath through the slush.


So what did happen that Sunday evening? The Probert version was that Moston had been drinking what was supposed to be sherry washings onboard "Snipe". Sometime later, back on "Usk" and shortly after having his tea, Moston slips while getting off the boat north of Crow's Nest bridge and gets his legs wet. Thereafter he acts as though dazed and falls behind, so that at the end of the straight section between "Golden Nook" bridge and the previous bridge ("D") he is seen passing that bridge - "Nixon's Bridge" - before he goes out of sight from the boat. Given that he was found a few hundred yards from "Golden Nook" bridge he seems to have staggered on about half the distance between two bridges and then collapsed on the towpath. In the Probert version Moston is either injured falling from the boat or is simply the worse for drink and injured afterwards, possibly by the horse or tow-line of "Delhi".

"Sucking the monkey" can prove fatal as this report from a 1919 newspaper shows. The evidence points to washing of the casks instead.

The surgeon, Dr Watson, said that Moston would have been completely paralysed by his injury and had not been drinking - at least not drinking sherry. If this is the case then he could not have been injured quite to seriously by his fall into the canal, as he was clearly able to get out and follow the boat according to the Proberts version of events. Both the police evidence, and that of the inquest witness Morris, are that Moston had only had his lower half in the water. Jane Probert states that only his legs went into the water. We know the depth of the canal to be about three and a half feet, so if Moston was not badly injured he could wade to the bank and climb out. It is unlikely he would have had any chance to become entangled in the tow-rope of "Usk" as that would have been forward of the boat, and while the canal at the point where he "went in" is very close to the railway, the railway appears to have played no part in his death. Is it possible that he sustained some kind of spinal injury which could have left him able to walk but in a very precarious state? - we simply do not know.

The crew of "Snipe" (at least two of whom had previously been fined or jailed for drunkenness) at first deny there was any drinking, yet one of them turns up for the inquest "half-cut" and Mrs Probert insists she was offered "sherry wine" on "Snipe". Probert himself did not see Moston fall from the boat as he was below at the time (possibly also suffering the effects of drink) and that evening at Chester he is drinking and his wife is still apparently very worried that Moston will be found dead - something which biases the Coroner against the Proberts. Later, the crew of "Snipe" change their story and admit there was drinking on board "Snipe" and that both the Proberts and Moston took part.

Was it murder, or perhaps even manslaughter, with a drunken argument between Moston and the wife on deck resulting in a fatal accident, or just an accident after all?

Then there is the troubling issue of Dr Watson noting that he saw Moston breathe when he first examined him on the Wednesday, a couple of days after his supposed death, and the same day that Watson later performed the autopsy. He does not say whether the body was warm or cold. Both at the inquest and in later proceedings Dr Watson speculates that Moston could have survived for a day or two - so could Moston possibly still have been barely alive, but paralysed when Dr Watson first examined him, presumably briefly, prior to the inquest on the Wednesday? Might possibly Dr Watson's manipulation of Moston's neck to determine the nature of his injury have been what finally killed him? Curiously, Dr Watson does not give a direct answer to a question from the defence:

It was found there was no case to answer, and no action seems to have been taken against the Wretched Thomas James either for lying under examination at the inquest and magistrates court, or for the matter of the casks. Perhaps Lord Justice Bramwell had decided this was a can-of-worms he did not want re-examined at the assize.

Mr Cartwright: How long would this be after death?

Dr Watson: I examined him on the Wednesday, and he was found on the Monday morning.

This probably erroneous conclusion is reached by Inspector Dutton in The Chester Mystery Novels, who believes that:

  • the casks may well have contained "some strong industrial alcohol";
  • the hot tea consumed by Moston at "Crows Nest Bridge" accellerated his drunkeness;
  • Moston (a man unfamiliar with drunkeness) fell into the water (up his waist)..;
  • then staggered along the canal, further debillitated by the cold water before collapsing somwhere before "Golden Nook" bridge;
  • Moston was later further injured by the tow-rope of "Delhi" - which caused the broken neck;
  • the neck break was futher damaged by attempts to raise him and manhandling onto the boat "Woodcock",

but that after all this Dutton theorised that life still lingered on and that the true "murderer" was the unfortunate Dr Watson who unwittingly committed "murder by post mortem". It was the fact that Moston lived on which meant that there was no-longer any detectable traces of sherry, or other alcohol, left by the day of the post mortem.

The most likely explanation is that Moston, who was a young man relatively new to the SURCCO boats, got carried away with the drinking camaraderie on board "Snipe" and, already tired by the hard demands of the job, suffers badly. He slips jumping off the boat, and perhaps jars his neck. He eventually falls down on towpath and gets entangled with the horse and line from "Dehli", injuring his neck further. He lies there until he gets manhandled. It is quite likely, given his stance that he didnt touch Moston at all, that Boden did try to haul him up and perhaps knew that he'd done more harm than good.

Or was the "Black Dog of Saighton" out on the towpath as the sun was going down on that cold and gloomy Sunday in April 1877?

The Black Dog of Waverton
Has red and awful eyes
And when he runs beside a man
He withers and he dies.

Postscript - the mysterious death of "John Probert"...

The case has an apparent sequel which deepens the mystery even further, although a scouring of the archives has so far shed little light on the matter:

The last place Probert was seen alive by any recorded witness, the "Bridge Inn" at Chirk Bank - a pub known locally as "The Trap". The canal runs along the back of the pub - photo with thanks to (all rights reserved).

A report (Wrexham Advertiser, 30 December 1893) states that:

  • a few days previously, a boatman named John Probert was found in Chirk Tunnel drowned, with an ugly gash on his forehead, having been in the water about three weeks.
The Bridge Inn is marked as "Inn" below Chirk Bridge at the bottom right of the map. From there, the canal passes over Chirk Aqueduct and, after passing through Chirk Tunnel, runs along the bottom of a damp and gloomy cutting to "Bottom Wharf" (at the end of the Black Park Tramway). The Hand Hotel, which dates from 1610, is at the T-junction in the middle of Chirk.

There is also a brief reference to the death in the Cheshire Observer, which had covered the 1877 case in great detail:

  • December 30 1893: LOCAL AND DISTRICT NEWS: On Tuesday the body of John Probert, a boatman from Pant, near Llan-y-mynech, was found in the canal near the Chirk Aqueduct. The deceased, who was about 54 years of age, had been missing for nearly three weeks, and the body was very much decomposed.

Probert had left home (some 20 miles away at Pant) with a woman and a child to go to Black Park Basin (just south of what is now Chirk Marina - where the water-treatment works of the chipboard factory is) to collect a load of coal but got off at Chirk Bank to go drinking at the Bridge Inn: which is a few yards from the canal and a couple of hundred yards (across Chirk Viaduct) from Chirk Tunnel through which Black Park Basin can be reached in less than an hour's walk. Presumably he intended to have a few drinks while the boat was being loaded with coal. The woman left in charge of the boat went on without him — and nothing more was heard of him until his body was discovered. Although it is known that he went into the Bridge Inn - known locally as "The Trap". He only sank one pint and then was refused more as he was presumably already the worse for drink.

Some have suggested that it is perhaps unlikely to be the same John Probert as was accused of murdering Charles Moston 16 years earlier in 1877; The 1877 newspapers noted that the Probert's had no children, and in the 1881 census a SURCCO boat "Gull" was under the care of John and Jane Probert, still childless. In 1882, a John Probert was charged at Ellesmere Port with keeping a dog without a license, which suggests he is being loyal to the SURCCO who made such efforts to get him back on his feet following the debacle of 1877.

The 1891 census, however, shows a John Probert a 45 year old widower, living with his 72 year old father in lodgings in Pant and both working as general labourers. Could John have returned to his native town following the death of his wife and crew, and then returned to the canals with a new wife?

Urban Legend? Coincidence? Or revenge?

The circumstances of this John Probert's death do appear suspicious, yet there is no record that an inquest was ever held/recorded. The inquest would probably have been at the Hand Hotel in Chirk, but the trail goes cold with Probert's body being deposited in outbuildings near the Hand Hotel.

The Hand Hotel, Chirk from an old postcard.
The Black Dog of Waverton
Has red and awful eyes
And when he runs beside a man
He withers and he dies.

Sources and links