IT was a Saturday night in December 1890 when three friends were drinking and playing dominoes in the Swan Inn at 11 Market Place, Winsford.

They were George Royle, 30, of 11 Regent Street, Moulton; Charles Ashley, 26, of Gleave’s Road (now gone), Moulton; and Joseph Steele, 34, of Regent Street, Moulton.

Knutsford Guardian:

The Swan Inn on Market Place, 1892

Around 7pm they left the pub and opposite the pub door was a trader, James Jackson with a stall.

As the men passed the stall, they stole 12 gross of leather bootlaces valued at £1 (today worth £131.31) and made off.

An hour later, three men were seen on the towpath of the River Weaver about three-quarters of a mile from Winsford Bridge.

The person who saw them was the wife of John Egerton of the National Salt Works. She was carrying a lamp, the men were blocking the path, and she shone the light into the face of the man in the middle and identified him as Jos Steele, from Regent Street.

The other two were holding him by his collar. She thought he seemed drunk; he remarked to her: “Missus, you’re going to light me into the water.” To which she replied: “Nay, I am not,” and continued along the path.

Alfred Bradshaw passed the place a short time later, and near to where the ferry boat crosses to Deakin’s Works, they saw two men run off into the meadows.

Knutsford Guardian:

Estimated scene of the incident

The next people to walk along the path were Mr and Mrs Thomas Such, going to the Winsford Evening Market. On reaching the area that was known as Lycett’s Bite, they saw something on the rails by the path.

On closer inspection with their lamp, it turned out to be a coat, about eight yards further on; they came upon a brown hat, near it was a bundle of leather boot laces.

The couple jumped to the conclusion that someone had drowned himself in the river.

On reaching Winsford, Mr Such informed the police as to what he had seen. He then went back with Sergeant Harrington and PC’s Hough and Taylor, where a search was made, and the items found taken into possession.

They also noted that the path was very sandy at that point, but the imprints of a struggle or suchlike could be seen.

Due to the lateness of the hour, it was decided to continue the search the following morning.

The next day the officers returned and started to drag the river; Sgt Harrington managed to borrow a boat, and near the centre of the river the body of Joseph Steele was recovered.

His body was taken to the nearby Red Lion Hotel in the Market Place. The pockets contained just one penny, and there were no apparent signs of violence upon the body.

Enquiries then began to trace the men seen on the riverbank.

Detective Inspector Brittain led the investigation, an officer with a fearsome reputation for bringing miscreants to justice with no stone unturned.

Charles Ashley had already made a statement to the police and wished to tell more but was advised not to at that stage. In fact, he was advised to engage a solicitor before doing so.

The death of Steele was made known, and soon the population of Moulton was aware and considerable sympathy was given to his wife and son, who was just four years old. In the meantime, Ashley and Royle were arrested at their homes on a charge of willful murder.

News travelled fast, and soon the pair handcuffed to the officers were met by a crowd of locals as they were marched along Regent Street on the way to Winsford police station.

Knutsford Guardian:

Regent Street, Moulton, where Joseph Steele lived

The crowd was stopped at the end of Regent Street by Superintendent Plant and several officers, preventing them from going further.

The wives and children of the two arrested men screamed at the officers, their screams echoing through the village.

The widow of the deceased was the daughter of Mr George Buckley, a grocer and stationer in Moulton and whose other son-in-law had drowned in the Weaver near Northwich four years earlier.

Prisoners Charles Ashley and George Royle were brought before Mr WH Verdin at Middlewich Police Court. Present was Colonel Hammersley, Chief Constable of Cheshire and the officers engaged in the enquiry.

The men were charged with willfully murdering Joseph Steele on December 6, 1890, at Winsford and stealing a quantity of bootlaces. This latter charge was not to be proceeded with at that time. The prisoners replied, ‘not guilty’, but Ashley asked to speak. Mr Verdin told him that he could do so later, and they were remanded in custody.

On Tuesday, March 10, 1892, the trial commenced at Chester Assize Court, where the charge was reduced to manslaughter from murder, and the witnesses gave their evidence.

Charles Ashley was finally allowed to speak, and he said that with Royle and the deceased, they had been drinking in the Winsford pubs, the bootlaces were stolen and on the riverbank, there had been a dispute between them over how the stolen bootlaces would be shared out.

A fight started between Ashley and the deceased, and both fell into the river. Ashley could swim and was helped out of the water by Royle, the deceased who could not swim was not seen again.

The judge dismissed the jury, and as they had spent three months in prison on remand, he sentenced them to one day in prison on the charge of stealing the bootlaces.