In June 1839, the body of a young woman was found in the cold, dark waters of the Trent and Mersey canal at Rugeley, Staffs. Christina Collins had been travelling to join her husband Robert in London and had been brutally raped and murdered…
On 15 June 1839, dressmaker Christina Collins, 37, began her journey on a narrowboat from Liverpool to join another canal boat, the Staffordshire Knot, at Preston Brook. She was neatly dressed in a plain gown, a fawn-coloured scarf around her neck and a blue-patterned silk bonnet. Christina was heading to London, where her husband had gone for work – but she would never arrive. Her lifeless body was found in the canal at Brindley Bank by Rugeley Aqueduct on 17 June.
Loutish and uncouth James Owen, 39, was captain of the Staffordshire Knot, which was owned by the Pickfords company. Owen had spent the best part of his life on the inland waterways and he and his equally rough mate William Ellis had worked together for some years. The third crew member was George Thomas and also on board was young cabin boy Isaac Musson, who’d just turned 12. Having loaded a cargo at Preston, Lancs, they set out for London.
They’d also just taken on board a passenger, young married woman Christina Collins. It’s unclear just why she’d booked a passage with such a disreputable crew – she’d possibly chosen the boat as it was cheap, and her husband had only managed to send a sovereign for her passage. However, it seems certain that she was initially unaware of Owen’s rough character. He had a bad reputation among the bargemen as a man who enjoyed getting drunk, fighting, and he was a bully. His two crewmen were no better, and they’d blazed a trail of bad behaviour wherever they went.
Christina arrived at dawn to board and settled down as best she could amid the cargo. The crew, as usual, were still drunk from the night before. The unfortunate young woman had to put up with the crew’s vile language and drunken behaviour until the boat reached Stoke-on-Trent.
There, she went to the Pickfords office and complained to the porters about the language, and the increasing attention being paid to her by Owen. She asked if she could transfer to one of the stage coaches, as she was feeling very uncomfortable in the crews’ company. The London coach was full so, reluctantly, she got back on the boat. The men’s behaviour got no better and, when the barge arrived at Stone, in Staffs, she again went to speak to a canal official.
The checking clerk, although aware of Owen’s bad reputation, said he was unable to help her, instead advising her to report the matter to Pickfords. After the brief stop, the boat set off again, and cabin boy Isaac was ordered to go to bed. Around 5am on the Monday morning, as the boat was about a mile from Rugeley, Isaac was woken by the men and told to take the horses further down the canal while the crew negotiated the locks.
However, during the night, the crew had helped themselves to generous measures of the rum being carried and were roaring drunk – and probably incapable of actually working the lock gates. But it seems Owen had other things on his mind…
The lock keeper and his wife were disturbed by their noise and a woman’s screams. Owen told them the screams came from a drunken woman, travelling with her husband, and they saw a female figure being hurriedly bundled into the tiny cabin. The lock keeper went back to bed.
When young Isaac returned to the boat, Owen told him Christina had ‘gone missing’. The men made the pretence of going back and searching for her but, finding nothing, they continued towards London. At Hoo Mill Lock, Isaac – possibly frightened for his own safety – told the lock keeper what had happened. The keeper, also well aware of Owen’s reputation, waited till the boat was out of sight, and reported the matter to the police.
Isaac deserted the boat and James Owen, William Ellis and George Thomas, after finding him gone, themselves fled abandoning the boat a short distance away.
When the police searched the boat, they found Christina’s bonnet and shoes in a cabin. They traced the route of the boat, and after a dragging a length of the canal, found her body wrapped in a section of chain from the boat. It can only be imagined what terror and pain she endured before her death.
Shocked locals carried her body up the steps at Brindley Bank, and into the Talbot Inn. The police believed that Christina had been murdered and two surgeons were said to have testified that ‘the capital offence of violation had been committed, apparently with great barbarity’ by one, probably all three, of the boatmen. The hunt for the men began immediately, but it would be many months before they’d be caught and bought to justice.
James Owen, George Thomas and William Ellis were subsequently charged and found guilty of the violation and murder of Christina Collins. Owen and Thomas were hanged, Ellis transported. The boy Isaac was cleared and released.
Nearly 10,000 people were believed to have attended the hanging of Owen and Thomas in Stafford, with a portable gallows being wheeled out of the jail gatehouse to enable the public to view the execution. It was reported that ‘the pair kicked and struggled for many minutes before life was finally extinguished’ and that their bodies were ‘much convulsed’.
Christina’s body was laid to rest in St Augustine churchyard, Rugeley, but perhaps her troubled spirit still seeks peace. The ‘Bloody Steps’, up which her bleeding and lifeless body was carried to the Talbot Inn, stand to this day – and it is said that, on occasion, as if in some memory of the evil that took place all those years ago, her blood may be seen seeping from them…