‘It appeared…a most startling thing that at so short a distance from Manchester, and in one of the most respectable suburbs of the town, in a public highway, well lighted…a policeman could have been shot down in his duty’ (Manchester Courier, 28 November 1876)
At midnight on Tuesday 1 August 1876, PC Nicholas Cock was on duty in a leafy suburb of Manchester. It was a dry and cloudy evening, with little moonlight. The police officer had left Chorlton-cum-Hardy an hour earlier, and was approaching the end of his regular beat, at the intersection of three main roads, known as West Point, which bordered Chorlton, Old Trafford and Whalley Range. As he walked along a wide footpath overhung with trees towards the ‘Jutting Stone’, which marked the limit of his beat, two men accompanied him for the last few yards: another police officer, PC James Beanland, and law student, John Massey Simpson, who was on his way home after a night out.
The three men exchanged pleasantries before Simpson left. When he was 150 yards away, he heard two loud shots ring out in the night. The student turned round to see flashes of light behind him in the pitch dark and screams of, ‘Oh, murder, murder; I’m shot, I’m shot’ rang out in the night. Simpson rushed back where he had left the officers to find 21-year-old PC Cock slumped on the pavement near the garden wall of a large house. Even in the dim light, he could see the unmistakable stain of blood spreading across the police officer’s chest: Nicholas Cock had been shot.
PC Beanland blew his whistle and soon more officers arrived on the scene. They quickly hailed two passing night soil men, who took Cock in their cart to Dr Dill’s surgery nearby. By 1 am, Cock was settled on Dr Dill’s sofa, where the doctor tried to revive him with brandy and water. Ten minutes later the semi-conscious police officer died – the bullet had passed through his ribs into his spinal column, causing a massive haemorrhage.
Shortly before PC Cock’s death, Superintendent James Bent, of the Manchester Division of Lancashire Constabulary, had arrived, after receiving the news of the shooting just after midnight. The experienced officer knew instantly who had committed this terrible crime: ‘I suspected these men from the first.’
Bent’s prime suspects were the Habron brothers, three Irish labourers who lived close to the spot where PC Cock had been shot. John, 24, Frank, 22 and William aged 18, were all employed in the nursery gardens of Francis Deakin, of Firs Farm, where they lived in an outhouse in the grounds. The brothers had crossed the path of PC Cock many times and threatened him, especially when he interfered with their drinking in the local pubs. As soon as he heard about the incident, Superintendent Bent instructed his men to surround the small brick building, where the brothers were alleged to be. After the officer’s death, Bent joined his colleagues at Deakin’s nursery and arrested all three Habron brothers.
A painstaking investigation led by Superintendent Bent followed. There were plenty of clues: sets of footprints that matched the suspects’ muddy boots, percussion caps found in their clothing and a bullet discovered at the scene. Superintendent Bent would stop at nothing to bring PC Cock’s killer to justice, despite the contradictory evidence of key eye witnesses, shifting alibis and a mystery man spotted at the crime scene. This led to an extraordinary case featuring a controversial detective, a startling revelation and a grave miscarriage of justice.
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