Lydia Atley

Awhile ago I was reading a simple story that was published on line, it was all about a young man and his journey from Thrapston work house to Wednesbury (by following the census records)
While reading this I came across the story of his Mothers murder.

I think the fact that he was abandoned as a child yet still survived, working his way to Wednesbury, to end his days here ,makes this a very ‘Wednesbury’ related Murder…. Don’t you?

And had Lydia not abandoned her illegitimate son (Henry) in the workhouse she would not have been murdered.  Poetic justice or just bad luck? I will let you decide.

“Henry Atley was born in the Thrapston Workhouse on 10th March 1846, the illegitimate son of Lydia Atley.
Records show that his Mother Lydia Atley abandoned Henry in the workhouse at the age of approximately 2 years old, she wanted to start a new life, so just left him there. It’s appears Henry stayed in the workhouse alone, certainly he is there in 1851 aged four years old according to the census records”.
And although a great story is to be told about Henry, it is his Mother’s murder we are going to talk about here.

Not long after leaving her son to defend for himself, It seems she had met a married man. (not the first by all accounts)
The man was:William Weekley Ball, his father a Sheppard and he himself was a butcher.

It was two years later while heavily pregnant she went missing and William Ball was accused of murder.
William Ball went to trial so we have all the witnesses testaments to go by, as written below.

Lydia at the time lodged with her brother John and it was his wife Sarah. She told the Court that she saw Lydia off at about a quarter past nine on the fateful night.
From there she had gone to her sisters house and told her brother in-law that she was going to confront William Ball about some money
“And if he did not have some money for her, there would be a row that night”.
Joseph says that he left his house with Lydia at about a quarter to ten but after some ten yards he had stopped and leant against a wall in the street to smoke his pipe, opposite the entrance to William Ball’s Orchard while Lydia continued on to confront him.

As Joseph quietly smoked his pipe he heard the two of them quarrelling in the orchard. he explained that  two boards, possibly a gate, prevented him from seeing inside.
He heard Lydia say, ‘Get off me for I believe you mean killing me tonight!
The Lord have mercy on me, if I am going to die in the state that I am in’.
He then heard a trembling noise like ‘screaming from a human being’ which was ‘either going further away from him or getting weaker.’
He thought that it was just a quarrel and did nothing.  (whaaaat?)

Another witness:’John Hill’ said he heard them arguing and Lydia repeating loudly, “I won’t, It’s yours and nobody else’s”.  He also said she  protested that she did not want to go into the orchard , but they did as he heard the latch go on the orchard gate.

Elizabeth Gunn, a widow, lived in a house not far from Ball’s orchard stated that:
About ten o’clock that night I was in my house; the house door was open. I heard screams which appeared to come from Ball’s orchard.
The only other witness was Elizabeth Groom, (Lydia’s Sister & wife of Joseph) who said that William had visited Lydia often and had given her meat for her sister.
She also saw him the next morning in the street and asked him if he had seen Lydia and he had replied, ‘No’.

They Court adjudged that there was insufficient evidence, especially with the lack of a body, for there to be a case for William to answer.
The police, as we hear later from the Chief Constable at the later trial, advertised in the Police Gazette and circulated handbills offering a reward of £50 for any evidence leading to Lydia being found.
No one came forward.

A letter was also received from a local man, then living in Northampton, who had seen Lydia after the time of her disappearance. (William Ball had shown the letter to Thomas Green the innkeeper at the Axe and Compass)  had rather allayed the police suspicions
Nevertheless local opinion was against him and most seemed to have believed that he was the murderer and all that was wanted was the body. Soon after her disappearance as the
Eastern Counties Gazette recalls in 1864:
”On the Wednesday the public excitement had reached such a pitch that the police were forthwith communicated with, and a diligent search was instituted over nearly all the parish and the adjoining one of Denford. Gardens were dug over and excavated, ditches woods and thickets pried into, and the adjacent ponds together with the river Nene were carefully dragged”

Nothing was found but many were still convinced of his guilt. Even a ballad was written, printed and hawked around the streets. First distributed at the October Fair in Thrapston in 1850 and probably at other fairs and feasts in the area.

A copy of the Ballad was in the Brief prepared for the defence barrister in 1864. It was called “The Cruel Butcher of Ringstead”  and runs to nine verses with a chorus after every one. It also introduced some new ‘facts’ which do not appear to have been mentioned anywhere else and were perhaps part of the rumours flying around Ringstead.

A few of the verses and the chorus will give a flavour of the broadsheet:
About that time we all do know
Up to the Black Horse that man did go
And for to have a glass of ale
And there he told a dreadful tale

Chorus: A cruel Butcher he hung should be, For killing of Lydia Atlee

And then from there he went straightway
To kill a sheep as he did say
To kill that girl it was his guile
Likewise to kill his lovely child
When she got home and left her tray
To meet the man she went straightway
To get her bounty she did intend
Not thinking of her latter end.

But anyway, it looks like he had got away with it .Yet again another murder unsolved for lack of what we take for granted today; Forensic evidence.
Obviously William decided that he could not stay in Ringstead. So sometime after 1851 he left and by 1855 is established as a butcher in Ramsey.  Although his Wife its seems did not follow?

William was building up a local reputation as a solid citizen. When in 1864 the past came again to haunt and humiliate him. According to the Eastern Counties Gazette of February 20:

“On Thursday the 4thday of February inst., a man named Warren was engaged in cleaning out a dike which lies at the side of a lane leading from Denford to Keystone and opening into the Denford road near Mr. Peach’s farm. As Warren proceeded with his work, his spade struck against a hard substance buried in the ground buried at about two feet from the surface. The man paused, and manipulating very carefully with his implement, soon unearthed first the skull (split by the spade), and secondly the weird form of a human skeleton, nearly complete and buried with the face downwards, the toes and front of the skull being pressed firmly into the soil. It is a remarkable fact that the heels of this skeleton were close together as if they had been originally and forcibly placed in that position. It lay facing nearly due north and south and in moist boggy earth which received and retained the impression of the bones”

At the committal trial in Thrapston in 1864 Richard Warren, who was the labourer mentioned, said that he had dug up the skull on Wednesday 3rdFebruary at about five o’clock in the evening.
J. G. Leete , surgeon, at Raunds, who examined the skeleton and pronounced it a female of middle height who had been interred for a period of thirteen or fourteen years.

(I must add that even todays forensic scientists would not be able to be so definite. Obviously the good doctor had a very clear idea of who he thought it might be?)

The area was always boggy so little used except by the farmer and at the time of Lydia’s disappearance was a ‘quagmire composed of an agreeable mixture of mud and water of a depth of several feet. The other clinching argument that this was Lydia, was that the skull had a missing tooth, and Lydia had a beautiful set of teeth before she went missing? (And very proud of them)

Later though according to ‘someone’, Lydia had come to him about a fortnight before her disappearance to ask him to extract a tooth, the third one on the left hand side of her jaw. He says he was unwilling to do it because she was “very large in the family way”.  But she had insisted and he drew the tooth, which was a double tooth but he could not remember if it was fanged. “She sat on the ground and I stood before her’ and… ‘I drew the tooth with a pair of nippers”.

John Hill, the one who said he heard them arguing that night now stated that at about six o’clock the next morning he had seen William coming from the direction of Ringstead lime kiln with a hoe in his hand……. (Yesh right!)
Another warrant for William was out , and he was arrested again.

There was obviously very strong feelings against William locally and the discovery of the skeleton had revived this. On William’s side, there were the lack of any foetal bones within the body.  It was possible that Lydia had given birth before being buried?  but it did cast a doubt on William’s guilt.

William was described as being impassive throughout the case, only showing an interest when the details of the skeleton were given.
He must have been worried however, at the time of Lydia’s disappearance.
Because William had a letter stating that Lydia had been seen alive in Northampton some time after her alleged murder. The letter had been from a William Weekley Ball, living in Northampton, and sent to his mother, who still lived in Ringstead.  He had now admitted that William had come to him in Northampton and asked him to write the letter.
The letter read:
”I write you a few lines to inform you that I saw L. Atley in Northampton. I was going down Castle Street at about eight p.m. or half-past eight pm on Sunday night. There was a man with her with a long frock coat on and a cape”
(Signed) William Weekley

One can see the little detail of the man’s dress but the vagueness of the times to give an illusion of reality?  But also, would a son sign a letter to his mother with his surname? Was this the clever ploy of a guilty man or a desperate attempt to clear his name to an innocent one?

The evidence seemed to be piling up against William when suddenly news came through from Ringstead. On Saturday March 5th 1864 the Northampton Mercury had the following brief announcement:
”There had been three more skeletons found inches from where the fist one had been found”

The case collapsed and William Weekley Ball was discharged. William was never ‘legally’ troubled by the case again.
Just two years later, in 1876 William married again to someone twelve years his junior, a barmaid who had been married at least twice before. (Both had interesting pasts.)

So what do you think ….. Guilty or not guilty?

The alleged burial site was a mile along muddy lanes and fields (and in fact, as the Prosecution map shows it was more than a mile).  Could he have carried the pregnant woman so far  undetected?

Lydia’s ghost is said to still walk near the church yard. Is she still looking for justice or did she get it?



4 thoughts on “Lydia Atley

    • I’m sorry but … you have said ‘this’ to me before? I know 100% that you have not.
      I think you meant you have said this to a lot of other people?
      So, I do understand where you are coming from with this but i can assure you that this was not from the link you have just sent me.
      Everything I found, was from a simple Google search with no links to the one you have sent.

      But I’m absolutely 100% pleased to find a link, really I am.
      This is a fantastic story. And if you thought I was blatantly pillaging your site, you are so very wrong.
      If there is someone to acknowledge for the story? I include the name & link.
      I think you have to blame Google for this one?

  1. Hi
    That’s fine. I have just seen your acknowledgement and link. I understand how it happened but you can imagine after all the time and effort and visits to Record Offices and online sources it was a bit galling to see it all laid out with no acknowledgement. I am glad it is of interest and there is always the possibility that a descendant of Henry could fill in more of the story

  2. David, I can totally relate about the time and effort put into research, and what you have managed to achieve? Wow!
    I think because i Search for anything to do with Wednesbury, some of the strangest things pop up.
    But your story astounded me; I thought I had come across a simple story of survival and instead found so much more.
    The work you must have put into this? I cant even start to imagine.

    I’m sorry if I came across a bit abrupt in my reply David, but I really don’t think a lot of people realise that when they have a story ‘out there’ it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be linked straight back to the source?

    But, I too have a responsability to give credit even if the source is unknown, and thanks to you, this is know what I do on EVERYTHING i find.
    If I find something with no link? I write author unknown – at least that way, it doesn’t appear to be my own work.

    I’m new to this David, but I’m learning that respect for other peoples work is all that is asked of the author & credit if a link is available.

    And if just one single person contacted you with any information to further your research? I will be over the moon for you.
    Again I appologise if my reply was abrupt, and to be honest, i don’t blame you for thinking ihe way you did!
    Google is our best friend when researching but its far from perfect.

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