Date: 15 Feb 1936
Place: Tipton, Staffordshire
Eliza Jane Worton was found dead in a canal in Tipton, Staffordshire.
A 36-year old lorry driver was charged for her murder but acquitted. It was said that Eliza Worton had been attacked someplace and rendered unconscious and then driven to the bridge and drowned in the canal.
She was found by a canal ganger that said that he had been walking along the tow path at 8.10am on 15 February 1936 when he had seen her body in the water under the ice. He said that he then moved the ice and dragged her body out. When the police arrived they said that her hair was matted with blood and that there were head wounds, noticeably on the bridge of the nose. The police said that the ground nearby was frozen and that there was no sign of a struggle or footmarks.
Eliza Worton had lived at 17 Phoenix Street with her parents in Swan Village, West Bromwich and was the wife of a sailor although the husband had not been home since July 1934.
Eliza Worton was last seen on the night of 14 February 1936 when she went to the Labour Exchange in West Bromwich. She had drawn unemployment benefit at West Bromwich and had put her money in her bag. It was reported that she had been seen the following day at 2.30am talking to a lorry driver in West Bromwich.
After she was found, her relatives from Phoenix Street in Greets Green said that they could not understand what she was doing in the Tipton district.
She was found in the canal near Cox's Bridge, also known as Gospel Oak Bridge, in Tipton, the next morning, on 15 February 1936 at about 8.10am by two men. She was in the river just beneath the bridge partly covered by pieces of loose ice. A 16-year old boy that was also there found blood on the road over the bridge.
Her black beret and right-hand leather glove were not found. The police also noted that it was definitely established that Eliza Worton had drawn her unemployment benefit before leaving West Bromwich on the Friday night but that when she was found none of her unemployment benefit was found at the scene. The police stated that if she had fallen or had been unexpectedly pushed into the water that the coins that formed part of her unemployment pay would have become embedded in the canal mud, but that intensive dragging there had failed to recover them.
Eliza Worton had wounds about the scalp with evidence that she had been in an upright position after the wounds had been inflicted. It was said that her head wounds had probably been caused by a blunt instrument.
Her death was stated as having been due to drowning, accelerated by her injuries and submersion in icy-cold water. However, the pathologist said that there was considerable difficulty in determining whether she had received her injuries before or after she had gone into the water. Her post-mortem was carried out by four doctors.
At about 10pm on the night of 14 February 1936 two boys said that they saw a lorry on the Gospel Oak Bridge upon which they noticed the printed letters 'Oakley, Upper Ettingshall, Coseley', printed on the side. They said that when they returned they saw the lorry driver drive off and that it had been there for about ten minutes in total. One of the boys then identified the lorry that he had seen on the bridge the following day at the lorry drivers garage as the one he had seen the previous night. In court the youth said that he did not see the lorry drivers features but said that he was wearing a cap with a shiny peak, similar to those worn by chauffeurs.
The 16 year old youth said that he worked as a horse-driver for a coal-merchant whose wharf was next to Cox's Bridge. He said that on the Friday night, 14 February 1936, he had met his friend, which was the other witness with him, at about 9.30pm. He said, 'We went down to the wharf together. We lighted a fire and fed the horse. We wanted some water, so we went on to a barge which was moored by the wharf to get some bottles to put the water in. Then we came up from the wharf over the bridge. It was just ten o'clock. I know it was 10 because the works 'bulls' were blowing. A lorry was coming in the opposite direction. It was travelling very slowly and 'coughing'. It stopped by an opening between Cox's offices and the bridge. The back of the lorry would be about level with the corner of the offices. There was a lamp on the opposite side of the road'. When the 16-year old youth was asked if he saw any writing on the side of the lorry he said, 'Yes. 'Oakley Bros', Upper Ettingshall, Coseley', was on the right-hand door of the lorry'. The other youth said that as they passed the lorry he called out to the driver, 'How much have you got on?', and said that the driver replied, 'Not much'.
The youths said that they went on and that after they had found the bottles they turned and saw that the tail-light was off. The 16-year old youth said that he then called out, 'Your tail-light's off', and said that the driver answered, 'All right'.
The other youth said that they continued down the road to a cottage and filled the bottles and said that when they returned about ten minutes later the lorry was still there in the same position but that the engine had been stopped and that the driver seemed to be doing something to it with what looked like a spanner. However, he said that he would not recognise the man again as it was too dark. The other youth said that they then went onto a barge and a minute or two later they heard the lorry drive off.
At the trial is was heard that the youths had taken five minutes to identify the lorry at the garage and said that they had not looked at the first two. He said that he identified the lorry drivers lorry at the yard because the other two lorries that he saw there had an iron bar at the back and a white patch about a foot square on the side and that the lorry that he had seen at the bridge did not. The youth denied that he had seen the police inspector standing by the lorry that he picked or that he had seen someone getting into it. He also said that he had never heard of the company whose name that he had seen on the side before. He also said that he did not remember saying to a man that he could only identify the lorry by the name on the door. He said that he first spoke to the police about it on the Saturday morning. The other youth said, 'I picked that one because the writing was plain on the right-hand door'. He also said that the lorry that he had seen had had side-boards on top of the ordinary side-boards and not on the back. He said that the first lorry he had seen had a square white patch on the right side-board and that it had not got the company name on the right-hand door. He then said that the second lorry was blue and had a long wheel base and that the name on it was Frank. When cross examined he agreed that he just glanced at the first lorry and also the second lorry but that he had had a good look at the third lorry.
Another man that had been out with his wife that had seen the lorry at the bridge, a coal merchant, said that he was walking along the road and that when he passed the lorry he heard the lorry door slam and said that the lorry driver got out and followed him down to the towpath and under the bridge for a distance of about forty yards.
The coal merchant said that he had earlier been to the Coach and Horses Inn on Prince's End at 10pm and had then gone on to Cox's Bridge, reaching it about 5-6 minutes later. He said then that, 'I saw a lorry standing there with two small lights on. It was very close to the wall. I had to touch the lorry and the wall to get through'. He added that there had been someone in the lorry when he had passed it. He then said, 'After I passed the lorry a man got out and I heard the door slam. I went down on to the towpath under the bridge and I heard someone follow me, but I did not see him'. When the man was shown the patch of blood on the bridge he said that it was in the same position where the cab of the lorry had been. He said that he then went and attended an identification parade but was unable to identify anyone. He also said that he noticed nothing about the lorry to identify it.
The coal merchant's wife said that she had been with her husband when he had passed the lorry and said that she had seen the driver getting out of the lorry and said that he was muttering something. She said that he was wearing a dark coat and a light cap. She said that she saw the man's face but would not recognise it again. She also attended the identification parade with her husband but failed to pick anyone out.
The lorry was also seen by a Midland Red bus driver. The bus driver said that he was on the Wednesbury to Stourbridge route on the Friday night at about 10.08pm when he had seen a stationary lorry at Cox's Bridge. He said that he could not see a rear light. He added, 'It looked like an old brick lorry'.
On 18 February 1936 the police released the description of the man that the boys had seen but said that they had not made any arrests as of yet. The police described him as an acquaintance of Eliza Worton and said that he was a young man. However, they added that the body of a man was found in the canal about a mile and a half away but said that they had definitely established that there was no connection between his death and Eliza Worton's death. The man was said to have been seen at his house a couple of hours before his body was later found in the canal.
The police also said that there was not any importance being attached to the finding of an abandoned lorry at Hill Top.
The police said that they thought that there were three possibilities:
The police said that they definitely ruled out any possibility of suicide and were working on the assumption that she had been murdered.
It was said that the police were interested in finding out what she had done after collecting her money and before she was found. It was reported that it was incredible that she had apparently vanished from a street filled with shoppers and was never seen again. It was reported that the police refused to believe that no one saw her leave the street other than the person that killed her.
When the police went to see the lorry driver the following day and told him about the recovery of Eliza Worton's body from the river, he said, 'I know nothing about that. You can look at my lorry. If I ever knocked anyone down I should stop driving'.
When the police examined his lorry, they found on an angle bracket what appeared to be blood. When he was asked what time he had returned to his garage the previous evening he said, 'Just before ten, about ten to', although it was later said that other witnesses had seen him return at 10.10pm.
The lorry driver was arrested on Saturday 28 February 1936. When the police went to his house and told him that they had a warrant for his arrest he said, 'I will get a solicitor'.
In his statement, the lorry driver said that from 5.30pm or 5.45pm until 9.40pm he had been alone in his lorry fetching and loading bricks. He said that he had had trouble with the engine and had had to unload the bricks while he effected repairs. He added that he returned at about 10.10pm or 10.20pm, and that at no time on 14 February 1936 was his lorry anywhere near Gospel Oak Bridge.
Later on during the night that he was at Bilston Police Station the lorry driver was seen scraping with a knife at what appeared to be a stain on his trouser leg and when he was examined he was found to have blood marks on his trousers and shirt cuffs.
On 16 February 1936 when the lorry driver went again to Gadds Forge, Eliza Worton's aunt said that she asked the lorry driver if he had seen Eliza Worton and said that he replied, 'No, for why?'.
It was also reported that she asked him whether he knew Eliza Worton and that he had replied, 'Oh, is that the one? I knew she was missing yesterday'. However, he later said that he did know Eliza Worton and had last seen her on the Friday morning at the place where she worked and later at a pub.
Eliza Worton's aunt said that she asked the lorry driver, 'What did you do with Jennie last night?', and it was heard that Eliza Worton's uncle replied, 'I should not be surprised if they found her in the cut'.
It was also heard that the lorry driver gave an interview to a reporter in which he said that he had last seen Eliza Worton at about 2pm on the Friday evening. It was also heard that his lorry had been seen in Phoenix Street where Eliza Worton lived in the afternoon at a time that in his statement he had said that he was at home.
In his interview he said, 'People are making all sorts of false statements about me, and I want the Press to publish my movements on Friday night in order to make it quite clear that I have nothing to do with the mystery'.
He then went on to say, 'I am a lorry driver employed by my brother. I have known the dead woman fairly well for the past 12 months because we have been engaged hauling ashes from Gadds Forge, Church Lane, Tipton, where she was employed for a year. She seemed quite a jolly person. I went to Gadds Forge at other times than those when I had to bring ashes away because the man who is in charge held me responsible for keeping the ashes clear. I have often given Mrs Worton and her aunt a lift from the works at dinner times because we had to pass the end of Phoenix Street where she lived. I went to Gadds Forge at 7.40am on Friday and took a load of ashes away. I saw Mrs Worton there then. At 2pm I went along Phoenix Street to Tasker Street to get some bricks. Mrs Worton was standing on the pavement near her home with a child in her arms. She ran across the road as I came along and shouted, 'This is my youngster'. That was the last time I saw her. On Friday night I brought some chaps back in the lorry from Beeches Road, Great Barr. They were my brother's labourers. I dropped them at West Bromwich old church at 5.45pm and then I went to Witton Lane, West Bromwich, for a load of bricks. I had had trouble with the lorry all day, and when I loaded the bricks it would not pull the load. I started messing about to find the trouble, took off the carburettor and the petrol pipe, and cleaned them out. The engine was still spluttering and would not pull the load. I was messing about until 9.30 and then I threw the bricks off the lorry and went back to the garage as best I could. The engine was spluttering all the way. I went back via Mexley and Bradley, and did not go near Cox's Bridge. I got back to the garage at 10.10 and my brother said I should have rung him up and told him that I was going to be late. I stopped talking to him until 10.45 and then I walked home. I got home at about 11pm and was in bed before half-past. I was at my brother's garage between 2pm and 2.30pm on Saturday when the Inspector came to see me and asked me about my movements on Friday night. I told him where I had been. He said that two lads had seen my lorry near the canal at Ockerhill at 10pm. I told him they could not have done. He examined the lorry and found a spot of blood on the corner of the body on the near side. It was about as big as a sixpence. He asked me to take my lorry to the police station and I did. The police scraped the blood off the lorry and also took my clothes. There was a spot of blood on the knee of my breaches and another spot on the sleeve of my coat. I think these spots came from sores I have on my hand. In the evening the Inspector asked me to drive him over the route I had taken the previous night. I did so and returned to the police station. While I was waiting there I greased my lorry. About midnight they had an identification parade. They put me up with nine other fellows and called in a man and a woman. Neither of them could recognise the man who they said they had seen at Cox's Bridge at 10pm. Eventually I was allowed to go home. This would be after 1am. The next afternoon the Inspector again came to see me, and I again drove him over the route I had taken'.
The lorry driver also said that it was a regular thing for him to get cuts and wounds and that he had a number of cuts on 14 February 1936.
At the trial the prosecution noted that the lorry driver steadily maintained that he had never been on the bridge but said that the lorry that was seen was his. They also noted that the lorry driver even admitted that his rear light had been faulty but had said that the he had damaged it on the Saturday.
The lorry driver denied murdering Eliza Worton or being anywhere near the bridge. At the trial he said to the judge, 'It is a framed-up affair, sir'.
It was reported that the blood found in the roadway proved to be group three, the same blood as Eliza Worton's blood. It was also said that the blood on the lorry drivers clothing was also human but that there had been some difficulty in grouping it. The blood on the lorry angle bracket also proved to be human but it was also not possible to group it.
When the judge summed up at the trial he told the jury that they would have to be certain that the lorry driver was the man that had murdered Eliza Worton. He said that Eliza Worton's death could not have been later than 11pm on the night of 14 February 1936 and that it was probably earlier. He said that there was nothing in the lorry drivers background to suggest that he was a murderer and that there was no motive as the lorry driver was a happily married man. The judge also said that it was still possible that Eliza Worton had fallen off of a canal boat or had been thrown in from the bridge and that there had not been a struggle on the canal bank as was thought, or that her body had been carried down to the canal bank. The judge also reiterated the question of how Eliza Worton otherwise got to be in the canal by the bank inferring that there could have been many ways.
When the judge discussed the possibility of a struggle on the towpath he asked the jury whether they thought that it was possible that a murderer would have left her body there for 15 minutes, in a lorry, and stand the risk of discovery.
Regarding the sighting of the lorry, the judge noted that there were discrepancies in the youth's stories regarding certain details and times and asked the jury whether they could accept their evidence. The judge noted that there was an issue regarding their sighting of a square white patch on the lorry with differed between each of the two youths as well as their evidence that the lorry driver who they said they saw had been wearing a shiny peaked cap when it was shown that the lorry drivers cap was not shiny.
The judge also referred to the fact that the lorry was said to have reached the garage at 10.10pm, but that the boys had said that the time that the lorry had left the bridge was 10.20pm or 10.25pm. He said that if the lorry did get back by 10.10pm then it could not have been on the bridge as the two youths had said it was.
The judge noted that one of the defence witnesses said that he had got his time for when the lorry had returned by looking at a clock on a piano and another witness had looked at their pocket watch and noted that the issue was how accurate the clocks were.
It was noted that there were three lorries used by the haulage firm that were near identical, but only the lorry driver’s lorry had been out on the night.
The judge also informed the jury that just because a witness answered a question in a certain way, that it did not mean that it was so. He was referring to a question that one witness was asked, 'Have you by any chance learned this by heart?', after the witness’s evidence was heard. He then said that what the witness had made in answer was not from memory but from a piece learned by heart and that that might make a difference in its significance.
The judge also noted the discrepancies in the lorry driver’s statements, pointing out that the lorry driver had not at first said that he had gone to Gadd's Forge or later calling at the Three Crowns where he had seen Eliza Worton. The judge then referred to the lorry drivers visit to Gadd's Forge on the morning of 14 February 1936, which he had not at first mentioned, and said, 'What do you think of the statement, 'It was the last time I saw her?', did it suggest he was trying to keep any other meeting secret?'. He went on to note the lorry drivers second mistake in his statements noting that the lorry driver had later told a newspaper reporter that he had seen Eliza Worton at the Three Crowns pub on Friday 14 February, which he had not at first mentioned to the police, and that after speaking to the newspaper reporters he then told the police that he had made some mistakes in what he had originally said, by saying that he had not seen Eliza Worton, and then accepted that he had seen Eliza Worton later at the Three Crowns pub.
The judge noted that whilst the policeman had thought that the lorry driver had been trying to remove blood from his trousers with a knife, the lorry driver said that he had actually been scraping his nails.
He also referred to the fact that the lorry driver did not seem perturbed when he got home on 14 February 1936 and continued to wear the same clothes that he had worn the previous day, although he noted that the lorry driver might have alternatively felt that it would have been unwise the change his clothes.
The judge then concluded and told the jury that if they felt that there was reasonable doubt that they should then acquit the lorry driver which is what they did.
Eliza Worton was buried on 22 February in West Bromwich Cemetery. Large crowds assembled near her home and at the cemetery and the procession route was lined with people two and three deep with many blinds drawn along the way. Only a few members of the public were admitted into the cemetery chapel along with the family. Amongst the wreaths, one was sent on behalf of Eliza Worton's four-year-old son who was at the time still ignorant of the tragedy, and another on behalf of her husband who was a stoker in the Navy and was at the time on service overseas.
see Birmingham Daily Gazette - Saturday 11 July 1936
see Coventry Evening Telegraph - Tuesday 07 July 1936
see Dundee Evening Telegraph - Friday 10 July 1936
see Coventry Evening Telegraph - Tuesday 07 July 1936
see Birmingham Daily Gazette - Friday 20 March 1936
see Coventry Evening Telegraph - Friday 20 March 1936
see Birmingham Daily Gazette - Wednesday 19 February 1936
see Coventry Evening Telegraph - Thursday 09 July 1936
see Aberdeen Press and Journal - Wednesday 08 July 1936
see Daily Herald - Tuesday 18 February 1936
see Dundee Courier - Thursday 09 July 1936
see Birmingham Daily Gazette - Tuesday 18 February 1936
see Northern Whig - Monday 17 February 1936
see Coventry Evening Telegraph - Wednesday 18 March 1936
see Portsmouth Evening News - Saturday 22 February 1936
see Birmingham Daily Gazette - Saturday 11 July 1936
see Derby Daily Telegraph - Monday 17 February 1936
see Birmingham Daily Gazette - Monday 24 February 1936
see Western Daily Press - Friday 10 July 1936
see Coventry Evening Telegraph - Wednesday 18 March 1936