This blog began in 1997 as a single news page called Nucelus. In 2005, during a long wait to move into a new house, I decided to learn some php and MySQL and write my own blogging system, which became inkyBlog and which now powers this, my own Webbledegook blog.
Thank you to my brother, Murray Ewing, for help with some of the more challenging aspects!
Matthew was just nineteen years old at the time and working as a collier, probably at the nearby Clough Head pit. Although his father came from Marsden, he'd been born in Manchester, with his five younger siblings (three sisters and two brothers) born at various places - in the city, in Colne or in Marsden itself - reflecting his father's search for work which alternated between the core local industries of cotton weaving and coal mining, not always with success.
The door was answered by the shoemaker's wife, 77-year old Mary - she didn't know who this young man was, shouting and being generally abusive in his intoxicated state, but she managed to get him out and shut the door. Her husband was still away in Burnley on business, but was expected back soon. Perhaps she was alone, but it's possible a young relative, 15-year old John Thomas Wells, was also present.
Henry and Mary don't appear to have had any children, but they seem to have been responsible for bringing up young John - the illegitimate son of Isabella Wells who may have been Mary's niece - and trained him as a cordwainer (he later moved to Accrington and became well-known for his political debating skills).
Forty-five minutes later, Henry Hillary returned home from Burnley, but as he entered through his front door, Matthew Higson suddenly appeared and pushed in after him. The two men argued, with Matthew again becoming abusive and refusing to leave. At some point it became too much for the 79-year old Henry Hillary and he rose and slapped the young intruder across the face. Matthew responded by jumping up and kicking the old man in the stomach, forcing him back down in to his chair where, in excruciating pain, he exclaimed he'd been "killed" and that this was his "death blow".
Henry was put to bed but spent the night vomiting blood and "other matter". Despite the efforts of a local surgeon from Colne, Dr. Henry Buck, Hillary was in pain all the next day and then finally, in the very early hours of Monday morning, his words were borne out and he died.
The inquest was held a week later, in Marsden at the Merry Colliers (known as the Marsden Cross in more modern times), just down the road from Catlow Row where the incident took place. The district coroner, John Hargreaves, travelled from Blackburn, and Dr Henry Buck travelled down from Colne. Also present as witnesses were the widow, Mary Hillary, the deceased's apprentice, John Thomas Wells, a local stone mason, Robert Binns, as well as a David Spencer and one Margaret Smith.
Dr Buck, who had qualified as a surgeon three years previously and was a third generation medical man in the locality, had performed a post mortem on Hillary and gave the surprising evidence that the old shoemaker had suffered a ruptured intestine two or three months before the attack. It was his opinion that the kick had "nothing whatsoever to do with the deceased's death" and that the old rupture was to blame. The pain following the kick, the doctor said, was "entirely accidental".
In accordance with this evidence the verdict returned by the jury was one of "accidental death by a rupture", and Matthew Higson escaped a possible manslaughter conviction which could have carried a sentence anywhere from twelve months with hard labour to transportation for life.
Mary Hillary, Henry's widow, died just over a year later, aged 78. Matthew Higson, my ggg-grandfather, having only just survived a serious accident at the local Clough Head pit, married within a month of the old widow's death, and went on to have seven children (six girls and one boy). While the events of October 1847 were not Matthew's last brush with drink and the law (though none were again connected with such violence), he does seem to have had a lucky escape from a very tragic incident
Reading this story, which was reported in the Blackburn Standard and the Preston Chronicle (no inquest reports have survived, just the coroner's expenses record), it seems amazing that Matthew Higson's kick to the stomach had no part to play in the death of Henry Hillary, especially given the awful reaction the elderly victim had through the following night, and I found it hard to believe my ancestor's terrible conduct didn't have some part to play in this tragic tale.
It would be the obvious reaction to think that Matthew killed Henry Hillary that night and that a harsh custodial sentence should be the result, and no doubt those must have been the thoughts of many going into the inquest that day. That was my reaction when I first came across the story. But as I read the article more closely and researched the findings given by Dr Buck, I gradually changed my view. It was Buck who examined the deceased and noted the "mortification" of the intestine - in other words, it was in an advanced state of decay, the result of weeks-old impeded circulation at the site due to a previous injury.
While it does seem impossible to imagine the young collier's kick had no effect at all, without that old rupture the kick might have merely thrown Hillary back into his chair with no serious damage done. There can be no excuse for Matthew Higson's aggressive behaviour that Saturday night, and I have no doubt my ggg-grandfather did give Hillary his 'death blow'. Was Matthew horrified at what he'd done, or ambivalent? Had he caused the death of a friend or a stranger? Did he go for the doctor himself or did he run away? We'll never know what the argument was about or what their relationship was. But perhaps the bare facts of the case did prevent the wrong conclusion being jumped to, and some thin strand of justice - if it can be called that - was pulled from this terrible event.