Police officers faced constant dangers as they patrolled the towns and cities of Victorian England, often leading to serious injury and sometimes even death. I’ve investigated two cases of police murder with astonishing similarities, but very different outcomes.
On 1 August 1876, PC Nicholas Cock, of the Lancashire Constabulary, was walking his beat at midnight in the leafy suburb of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester when he was shot. He died of his injuries. Later that same year, on 11 December, two police officers from the Berkshire Constabulary, were also killed during their regular night-time patrol near the market town of Hungerford. Inspector Joseph Drewett was shot and his colleague, PC Thomas Shorter, was bludgeoned to death.
Nicholas Cock was just 21 years old and had joined the police force just eight months before his murder. Originally from Cornwall, he had moved to Manchester for work. Thomas Shorter, aged 24, was from the village of Cookham, Berkshire. Both officers were single and from large families. Inspector Joseph Drewett, also from Berkshire, was 41 years old. He was married with five young children.
In both cases, the investigating police officers knew exactly who their prime suspects were from the very beginning. In Manchester, Superintendent James Bent arrested the three men he believed were responsible for his officer’s death shortly after the murder. They were brothers John, Frank and William Habron, aged 24, 22 and 18 respectively. Having settled in Chorlton in the 1850s from Ireland, they worked nearby in a nursery garden as labourers. In Hungerford, Superintendent George Bennett arrested his suspects at 7 am the following morning. They were also three brothers: Henry, 26; William, 24 and Francis, 17 Tidbury. Well-known poachers, they too lived near the crime scene.
Police found several incriminating items near the spot where officers Drewett and Shorter were killed, including a tobacco box, cap and the broken lock of a gun. These were all linked to the Tidburys. On searching the Habrons’ lodgings, police discovered percussion caps and bullets. None of the murder weapons were recovered. Footprint analysis was used to pin the suspects to the crime scene: Supt Bennett made wax casings of the footprints found near Hungerford, and Supt Bent simply made impressions of the Habrons’ boots next to the marks in the gravel. Both identified the culprits by matching the nail patterns on their boots with the footprints. Furthermore, the Tidbury brothers had blood on their trousers, which they had tried to cover up with red paint. In both cases, witnesses placed all suspects near the murder scenes; the Habrons were out late drinking and PC Cock was killed on their route home, and the Tidburys were seen poaching in the fields near where the bodies of Inspector Drewett and PC Shorter were found.
As there were so many suspects in each case (in Hungerford, another local man was also arrested), it was difficult to decide who had actually might have carried out the fatal attacks. There was no doubt, however, that one or more individuals from these two sets of brothers were guilty and at their respective trials, William Habron was convicted of PC Cock’s murder, and Henry and Francis Tidbury were found guilty of the murder of the two Berkshire officers. All three men were sentenced to death.
On 12 March 1877, Henry and Francis Tidbury were executed at Reading Prison. After a last minute reprieve, William Habron’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He remained in gaol until, three years later, PC Cock’s real killer confessed.
Find out Who Killed Constable Cock?
Images of PC Shorter and Insp Drewett courtesy of Reading Borough Libraries