In the early hours of the morning on 3 November 1868, a ‘fatal affray’ took place near the village of Sonning, near Reading, which claimed the life of George Holloway, fiancé of the landlady of The Flowing Spring public house.
Widow Mary Ann Russell ran the public house with her son, Thomas and her fiancé, George Holloway. The couple were to be married shortly after the fateful event. On the evening of Monday 2 November, Mrs Russell, in the company of her fiancé, her son, her lodger William White, and her brother-in-law, William Wheeler, attended a ball in the nearby hostelry, The Crown Inn, at Playhatch. Dancing began at 10 pm and continued until well past midnight. During the festivities, a group of labourers, who were working on repairs to the Sonning embankment on the river Thames, joined the party. Despite some objections that the men were inappropriately dressed for the occasion, the atmosphere remained convivial and they all danced the night away together. The only incident was a brief argument between Mrs Russell and her brother-in-law, who passed ‘words of an unpleasant character’, relating to the widow’s impending marriage. The row blew over and everyone left at 2 am.
There were two paths leading from The Crown back to The Flowing Spring, and some discussion ensued as to which one to take. Concerned that a quarrel may break out again between Russell and Wheeler, the labourers tried to persuade the elderly man to go with them, instead of walking with his sister-in-law. He was reluctant, so the eight men detained him while the couple went ahead. Fearful for his fiancée’s safety, George Holloway, who was about 40 years old, decided to hang back, saying to Mary Ann: ‘I would have you walk on, for I fear there will be a bother here; you go on, and I will come after you.’
Ten minutes after her arrival home, George Holloway burst through the door of the public house ‘in an excited state’. Stones and dirt flew through the air behind him as he rushed in to take refuge. In a panic, George tried to lock the door behind him, but his assailants forced it open with their feet, causing the hinges to break. Holloway grabbed a poker, ready to face his attackers, and Thomas Russell armed himself with a stick.
As the mob rushed into the public house, George managed to hit one of the men with his poker. He then gave chase to the others out into the lane. After fleeing for a few yards, the labourers turned round and began to pelt their pursuer with stones. A large flint, weighing about four pounds, struck George on the left temple and ‘he fell instantly on the spot’. Mrs Russell rushed out to her fallen lover and tried to revive him with brandy, but it was too late – George Holloway had died from a fractured skull. By this time, the labourers had disappeared.
The following day, the inquest was opened at The French Horn Inn, in Sonning village. The witnesses tried to describe what had taken place but, as it had been a dark night, it was impossible to identify the perpetrator. Mrs Russell stated that she had no idea why the men had tried to intervene between her and her brother-in-law, as they were unknown to them both. No one knew why they had chased George Holloway into the pub. Labourer Joseph Bennett, who had been struck by George’s poker said that they had all been singing and enjoying themselves at the ball.
George Matthews, a carpenter from Poplar, London, described what he had seen: ‘I heard a groan, and a voice saying something like “Good God.” I stopped and looked back, and in the moonlight I saw a form lying on the road.’ The coroner returned a verdict of ‘manslaughter against some person or persons unknown’.
In the following days, the police traced the labourers who had been present at George’s death and they eventually managed to arrest them all. The trial of six of the men took place at Oxford Assizes in March 1869. The witnesses testified again, recreating the events of the night George Holloway was killed. Superintendent Howarth produced the stone with which the victim had been struck and it was noted that there were no traces of blood on it. After six hours, the evidence was deemed unsatisfactory and the defendants were acquitted: ‘the matter was left in obscurity and utter uncertainty’. The person who threw the lethal missile was never identified.
Berkshire Chronicle, 7 November 1868
Reading Mercury, 6 March 1869
Image kindly reproduced with permission from Reading Borough Libraries