A Rhodes Tragedy
It was rather ironically, a bright and sunny Thursday morning on the 2nd July, 1903, when a gruesome discovery shocked the village of Rhodes and Middleton as a whole. Word soon spread of the woman with the ladder curiously placed at the upper bedroom of a small cottage at 9 Hilton Street. Just what was going on there?
Neighbours, Mrs Henshall and Mrs Ogden became concerned at there being no sign of any activity by the family who resided in this cottage by this time of the morning. In 1903, folk didn't just pack up and go off on holiday like today. This was too unusual. Lewis Smethurst, 31, who lived here had not been seen going off to work at Messrs Schwabe & Co that morning, nor had there been any sign whatsoever of his wife, Eliza Ann, 27, nor the children, Hannah, aged six and John (named after the father of Lewis who had died when he was in his teens), aged four.
Folk had good reason to be concerned as this particular family did not enjoy a normal happy family life. It was well known in the locality that there were real problems in this marriage and that Lewis and Eliza had terrible arguments due to Lewis' jealousy and possessiveness of her; an unpleasant quality in any person that usually ends in tears if the issue isn't dealt with.
Eliza was the daughter of William Whitehead of Parkfield and was heavily involved in the Wesleyan community, attending church regularly before meeting and marrying Lewis. After marrying, they moved into the cottage at Rhodes, an area Lewis had been born and raised in, and joined the Primitive Methodists. Eliza still attended church when she could but married life was busier when the children came along. There is no doubt whatsoever that she was popular and well respected, worked hard and clearly loved her two children, who were sent to Sunday School.
Word soon gets round in such a tight-knit community and although the general consensus was that Eliza gave Lewis no reason to think she would ever be unfaithful to him, perhaps it was her popularity that bothered him. Being a quiet man, his dark moods were noticed by his work colleagues and neighbours alike and the couple were often overheard arguing within the walls of their abode. These arguments were obviously never really resolved because if anything, they were becoming more frequent and more heated. Yes, it was a worry to family and friends that it might get too out of control and Eliza or even the children may end up getting hurt but nobody even envisaged the extent of what was to occur. Even though Lewis often made threats to injure Eliza, this was something that his workmates had gotten used to hearing and although they weren't comfortable with it, they dismissed it as words said in anger, not really believing he would ever actually act on those words.
In the warm light of that Thursday morning, as word spread that something was indeed very wrong, there must have been some shocking realisations that maybe this is exactly what had finally happened, and they were to turn out to be right. The previous day, Lewis had been witnessed to be so deep in thought, he was almost knocked down by a tram. That evening, between 10pm and 11pm, neighbours heard yet another quarrel occurring from within the walls before the family retired to bed for the night.
Mrs Henshall, in particular, had reason to be worried, as living next door, she was the one to hear screams coming from the house herself. She had been woken by this disturbance at 5.45am, hearing a child's voice shout “Oh, Dadda, dunna!” Mrs Henshall got up and went to investigate. She knocked and listened at the door and soon enough, by about 6.15am, the noise from the house had subsided. By about 9am, still being deeply concerned by the earlier somewhat harrowing screams, now coupled by the fact that there was still no sign of life at the house and Mr Smethurst had not left for work as usual, she went to her sisters, Mrs Ogden, who lived nearby and the women carried a ladder from there back to the cottage, placing it up against the front bedroom window where the family slept.
It was Mrs Ogden who volunteered to ascend the ladder and take a peek through the bedroom window. I guess in this day and age, the police would already have been called much earlier but this initial investigation by the neighbours was probably quicker than going to the police station with their concerns. Alas, it was already too late. It's difficult to comprehend the horror and shock of the scene in that room, that Mrs Ogden was to be the first to witness with her own eyes, and which was described as "more like a butcher's slaughterhouse than anything else".
A Mr William Walker was the first to be distracted by this scenario on hearing the commotion whilst passing by. He was next to witness the grisly scene and then PC Francis at Rhodes was immediately alerted to it. PC Francis also climbed the ladder and gained entry to the room through the window. He sent for PC Sollit and the pair of them examined the room and the bodies that lay within the blood-spattered walls.
Again, today, this would all be done so differently as the house and surrounding area would immediately be cordoned off and forensics first on the scene, yet the two policemen described how "it was exceedingly difficult to prevent themselves from falling consequent of the slippery nature of the bedroom floor, brought about by the blood having found its way all over the place."
They didn't, however, need a genius or forensics for that matter to work out what had happened here, having an idea already of the sequence of events leading to it. It was described by them as "the grim work of the madman". Great detail of the horrific individual injuries to each victim was disclosed, which I shall spare you of here, but in a nutshell, Lewis 'Seacome' Smethurst, in a fit of rage that morning had firstly, started on his wife. From the wounds also on her arms, it is clear that Eliza put up a fight in order to protect herself and her children but the two wounds to the neck were the cause of her death. He frenziedly slit at her throat as the children looked on, also screaming. How can anyone imagine how those young children of only four and six years of age perceived what was happening before their very eyes?
We will never know because when he had finished with Eliza, both of them were to suffer the same fate. All three were butchered by Lewis with an old army razor (which was found underneath his right thigh) before "he turned his attention to himself with the razor that had done the work only too well. He gashed his own throat, so vigorously and determinedly that he had expired when found".
A whole family was murdered in this cottage, their clothes and all of the room saturated with their innocent blood combined with the murderous blood of the father, the floor described as a pool of it, all it seems in the half hour or so from Mrs Henshall first being woken by the noise, to the deathly silence that ensued, all whilst she was stood at the front door. Eliza and the children were slaughtered still wearing their nightclothes in their beds. Lewis Smethurst was found on the floor.
What those witnesses and even the police saw with their own eyes, those images would surely live with them forever and would call for serious counselling today, but back then, they were made of tougher stuff and just got on with it. Still, it must have affected them deeply, probably more than they ever let on and soon enough, the whole village was to be plunged into shock, just at the tragic news as it spread far and wide.
These old cottages that stood on Hilton Street have now long gone and the street itself has been replaced by a Hilton Walk, which now sits much higher up Boardman Lane. The original street stood approximately in the middle of the area between Foxall Street and Wells Close. Newer council properties predominate the area where this gruesome act once took place, probably unbeknown to residents of today.
The 1901 census reveals that there was also an Ethel Smethurst, aged just 14 days, listed at the address. As was more common back then, the child it seems died in infancy. A death is recorded early in the same year which poses the question whether the loss of this child was a factor that contributed to the state of an already very disturbed mind. If not, it's quite sad to think that there could well have been three children killed in this way. The victims and their murderer are buried in the grounds of nearby All Saints church on Manchester Old Road where you can still go to see the headstone of this tragic family.
Written by the editor, July 2013.