‘Thomas Rawcliffe’ by Jenny Paull BA
Thomas Rawcliffe was the last person to be hanged at Lancaster Castle. He was 31 years old and executed in November, 1910 for the wilful murder of his wife, Louisa.
Closer examination of the circumstances around the trial and the events leading up to it tell a sad story deserving more sympathy; a view shared by the trial jury who asked for clemency and the many people who signed a petition asking for his death sentence to be commuted.
As a child of three, Tom had a near-fatal fall from a second-storey window which left him with very serious head injuries, several weeks of paralysis and permanent mental health problems. The accident meant that he had to have fluid drained from his skull by means of a tube. Given the level of health care available to the poor in the 1880s, his survival was miraculous.
At his trial, his sisters testified to the lasting damage done by the accident. One mentioned that he had struggled at school while the other said he was always seen as different from the other children and commonly regarded as “a bit daft”. Rawcliffe was a petty offender throughout adolescence. He was encouraged to take part in trivial crimes such as stealing pigeons and throwing stones. These crimes were usually under the influence of other boys who were able to evade the police leaving Tom to face the consequences. After a court appearance in his teens for stealing fruit, he was told, ‘you will get yourself into the Castle if you don’t take care’ and the magistrate who made the threat was on the Grand Jury which would later indict Tom for murder.
According to the record book of the local constabulary, the most serious of Rawcliffe’s offences prior to the killing was a theft. These records are inaccurate recording a non-existent crime, which, even if it had existed, he could not have committed because he was serving four months in the Castle for the previously-mentioned theft. It is possible that these records were compiled after Tom’s execution, casting doubt as to their veracity. The book is now kept at Lancaster City Museum.
Louisa had also had a troubled life. She had a child before her marriage and, possibly because of that, had tried to commit suicide. Given the moral attitudes of the time, it is possible that she would have suffered hostile reactions from other people for having an illegitimate child and attempting suicide. After their marriage, Tom and Louisa had two children together and the family lived in Tyler’s Yard, off Cheapside, in Lancaster. Tom began to drink and was prosecuted in 1909 by the NSPCC for neglecting his family. He gave up drinking until just before the killing. At his trial, his wife’s brother said that, “when Tom wasn’t in drink they were a close couple”.
The murder was said to have been the result of a drunken outburst by Tom for which he felt great remorse. He gave himself up the next morning at Horseshoe Corner to a local policeman, PC Thomas Wilkinson, who was out on his beat. After telling the policeman, “I have killed my wife”, he took the PC to his house and then he was arrested.
Tom was then taken to the police station where he told the police that the killing was part of a suicide pact he had made with Louisa, and there was evidence to support this. He said that they planned for him to strangle Louisa and then take rat poison which he had bought earlier. A bottle of rat poison was found in the house from which a significant amount was missing and Louisa’s body showed no sign of struggle. Tom said he had taken the poison after strangling Louisa and had no memory of subsequent events. He was so confused that he told the police that he had killed his wife the previous night when, in fact, the crime took place two days before.
Throughout the trial, witnesses said that Rawcliffe didn’t appear to understand the enormity of what he had done. Given his impaired mental capacity, this would seem likely. This point was emphasised in evidence by Dr. Cassidy from the Moor Hospital appearing for the defence. At the trial, the Judge’s summing-up showed clear signs of bias against Tom; often resorting to language reminiscent of the tabloid press. He referred to Louisa as, “this poor…frail, delicate woman”, whereas witnesses described her as being energetic and hard-working. The Judge implied Tom was large and bullying when he was actually just 5ft 1in, and only weighed 9st 11lbs even after some time confined in prison on three meals a day.
When the troubled jury came back for further guidance, the Judge was evasive especially on Dr. Cassidy’s evidence, refused to go through it again and directed them to reach a verdict.
This was a completely different approach to the stance taken by a judge in a previous case at the Lancaster Assize in the 1880s. In this case, an alcoholic husband had stabbed his wife to death and the Judge had clearly attempted to influence the Jury to find for the defendant when the evidence was overwhelmingly against him.
After further deliberation, the Jury reluctantly convicted Tom but asked for clemency. After the conviction, a petition with several thousand signatures was sent to the House of Lords and but no reply or acknowledgement was ever received.
Thomas Rawcliffe clearly killed his wife but did he commit wilful murder? It is also questionable whether he understood the enormity of his crime and if he was fit to stand trial. Was the trial itself a fair one, given the attitude of the Judge and the fact that the jury’s plea for clemency and the popular desire for Tom to be allowed to live were both given so little consideration?
These questions remain unanswered and are likely to remain so, giving these tragic events an even sadder ending.