The 'Witney Tragedy' - Murder on Bridge Street
22 November 2022
On the night of Saturday 27th September 1884, a cry of 'murder!' and gunshots were heard coming from a house adjoining Smith & Co.'s blanket factory in Witney. A few minutes later the 22-year-old John William Rose rushed out into the street and, meeting a number of men who had been roused by the commotion, told them "Oh dear, my father was murdering my mother and I have shot him!"
Murder, or manslaughter?
The trial of John William Rose for the murder of his father was the talk of the county. When Rose was brought before the Oxford Assizes in November, the courtroom was packed and hundreds more who had hoped to attend were left outside.
On the face of it, it seemed an open and shut case. Rose had admitted shooting his father to the police when they arrested him. At his trial his mother and sisters confirmed that Rose had fired at his father at close range on the landing of the house they shared near the Smith & Co. blanket factory in Bridge Street.
However, was the verdict to be murder, or manslaughter?
A history of violence and abuse
The murdered man, John Rose senior, had a history of alcoholism and domestic violence. He seemed to be harbouring a completely unfounded conviction that his wife was unfaithful to him, and when he was under the influence of alcohol he would become abusive, barraging his wife with threats and demands to know the details of her supposed infidelity.
During the public enquiry and trial, his family stated that he had threatened to murder his wife on many occasions.
On the night of his murder, John Rose senior had been heavily intoxicated. His wife had gone to bed at around 9:30pm but John Rose alternated between haranguing her in the bedroom with accusations of infidelity and going downstairs to the kitchen to fetch more beer. This went on until after 1pm, with their children in the next room being kept awake by the noise.
On a number of occasions Hannah Rose became so distressed by her husbands threats of violence that she retreated into her daughters' bedroom to get away from him.
Mrs Hannah Rose said at the public enquiry that her husband had pulled her out of bed by her hair and dragged her to the top of the stairs with the intention of murdering her by throwing her down the stairs. She said she had cried "Murder!" and that her eldest daughter had screamed "He is murdering mother." While struggling to release herself from her husbands grasp, she caught a glimpse of her son John William Rose rushing out of his bedroom. Seconds later she heard two gunshots and fell with her husband against the wall. By the tile Hannah Rose had struggled to her feet, her husband was unconscious.
This testimony was confirmed by their two daughters, Charlotte (18) and Mary (15), who added that they were aware that their brother owned a pistol that he had purchased in London some months previously. Charlotte also added that her father had said he was going to get a knife to murder his wife. It seems that he didn't fetch a knife, but his son may have believed his father was armed with a knife it when he fired his pistol at him.
The smoking gun
At the coroners inquest, the coroner found that a bullet had entered John Rose's brain through his right eye socket and lodged there, causing his death.
John William Rose claimed that he had first fired a warning shot past his father to make him let go of his mother, but when he did not do so, he fired again, killing him. However, although Mrs Rose and her daughters testified to having heard 2 gunshots, no bullet hole was found in the wall, ceiling or floor of the landing where the pistol was fired.
Mrs Rose also testified that relations between her husband and son had been cordial in spite of their domestic issues.
Despite widespread public feeling in Witney being sympathetic towards John William Rose, the jury at the coroners inquest returned a verdict of 'wilful murder' against him and he was put into police custody to await his formal trial for murder.
The trial of John William Rose
When John William Rose was brought before the Oxon and Bucks assizes for trial, he received a more lenient treatment that at the inquest. The jury concluded that John William Rose had acted without premeditation, believing his mother's life to have been in imminent danger, and as such should not be found guilty or murder but of the lesser crime of justifiable homicide.
This verdict was met with applause from the courtroom, and John William Rose walked free.
- Jackson's Oxford Journal, 4th October 1884
- 'A Grim Almanac of Oxfordshire' by Nicola Sly (The History Press, 2013, ISBN: 978752465814)