The Murder of John Gill

Early on the morning of Thursday 27th December 1888, seven-year-old John Gill – whom newspaper reports described as “a bright little fellow and a general favourite” – of 41 Thorncliffe Road, Bradford, in the north of England, left his house to accompany local milkman William Barrett on his round, as he had frequently done in the past.

Barrett later stated that the boy had left him before his last call, as he [John Gill] was just a few hundred yards from his home.

Despite the proximity to his house, John Gill never arrived home.

As far as could be ascertained, the last definite sighting of him had been at around 8.30am when he was seen at the top of his road, sliding on an ice slide with a group of other boys.

Throughout Thursday 27th and Friday 28th of December 1888, his parents, their neighbours and the police searched frantically for him, but they could find no trace of him.


Then, at around 7am on the morning of the 29th of December 1888, Joseph Burke, a lad employed by the local butcher, went round to the stable of his master, Mr Newbouldt – located behind Mellor Street – to yoke up the horse for the days trading.

Having first tidied the stable, he went to deposit the horse droppings in the manure tank when he spotted a bundle in the corner near the cart shed doors.

The Press  Association provided some further details on the location where the body had been found:-

” The boy was found at a spot than which it would be difficult to find a more convenient one for the purpose of placing anything with the view of escaping detection. It is situated in an obscurc thoroughfare at the back of Mellor-street.

The backs of the houses in the street form one side, and a row of stables and coach-houses opposite.

In the latter row there is a recess of a remarkable character, formed by three sides of the stables, that portion immediately facing a spectator in the street,  being occupied by two large doors giving entrance to a cart shed.

Just at the left there is a receptacle for manure, and there is a space between the head of this place and the wall, and here the body was found.”

Illustrations shwing the final sightings of John Gill and the finding of his body.
From The Illustrated Police News, 5th January 1889. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The South Wales Echo, in its edition of the 29th of December 1888, described the horror of the injuries that had been inflicted upon the cadaver of the young boy:-

“The unfortunate victim had been indescribably mutilated. Both legs were cut off close to the body. The abdomen was slightly open, and the intestines partly extracted. Both ears were cut off, and there were other shocking disfigurements. When found, the limbs were tied to the body…The braces which the deceased had worn were used to bind the limbs to the trunk. The clothes of the boy were then wrapped round the body, the jacket enveloping the parcel.

There was a sack found with the body with the name “W. Mason, Derby-road, Liverpool,” printed upon it, and this the police hope will serve as a clue to the perpetrators of the crime…”

Ultimately, efforts to trace W. Mason proved fruitless.


In the same article The South Wales Echo updated its readers on the mutilations inflicted on the corpse and pondered whether the perpetrator – or perpetrators – my have mean emulating the Whitechapel murderer:-

“The body of the little lad Gill was even more shockingly mutilated than at first reported.

Both legs and arms had been roughly chipped off.

There were two stabs in the left chest, the heart had been torn out entirely, and was stuck against the victim’s throat.

Both boots had been taken off the lad’s feet, and were pressed into the cavity of the abdomen in the region of the kidneys, whilst the other parts of the body were practically cut away.

There was no blood at the place where the body was found, and the belief of the police is that the tragedy was committed some time during Thursday night, and the body was only removed to the place where it was found late last (Friday) night.

The police theory is that the crime is the act of drunken lads whose imagination had been inflamed by the accounts of the Whitechapel tragedies, and that they attempted an emulation of their worst features.

The legs and arms were tied to the body when it was found, and the whole of the remains were wrapped in a coarse cover, making it look like a large oblong parcel.”


By noon on the 29th of December 1888, the milkman William Barrett had been arrested on suspicion of having murdered John Gill.

In its edition of the 31st of December 1888, The Sunderland Daily Echo described his appearance before the local magistrates:-

“The Prisoner Barrett was brought before the magistrates in a private room on Saturday.

He is a well-built young man of fresh complexion, aged 23.

He has been married one year and has one child

His character is good, and the people of this district are inclined to believe in his innocence.

Illustrations showing the finding of John Gill's body and the arrest of milkman William Barrett.
From The Illustrated Police News, 5th January 1889. Copyright, The British Library Board.


In a long statement the Chief Constable pointed out his grounds for detaining the prisoner.

The first was that the boy was never seen after he left the prisoner.

The next was that the boy was seen with the prisoner, according to a witness, after the time when the prisoner said he left him.

The third was that there was a period of nearly hall an hour on Thursday night for which tie prisoner did not account, and it was possible that he might be at the stable, of which he had charge, during that time.

At that stable it was found that the floor had recently been swilled with water.

Here was also found a sheet, which was stained, and which had been handed to the analyst to find if those stains were of blood.

At the prisoner’s house a formidable knife was found, and this knife fitted the two principal wounds. When the prisoner  first saw this knife he denied knowledge of  it, but he afterwards corrected himself.

Further evidence called showed that the prisoner at first said that he knew nothing about the sheet, but he afterwards said his master had given him it for the horse.

The prisoner was remanded till Wednesday.”


However, according to The Bristol Mercury in its edition of Monday 31st December 1888, neither William Barrett’s wife, nor many of their neighbours, were convinced that he had carried out the murder:-

“As to the police inquiries, there is the strong feeling in the neighbourhood of Thorncliffe-road that, despite the suspicious circumstances to which the Chief Constable directed the attention of the magistrates, the prisoner Barrett is guiltless of any attempt to injure the boy.

Those who know him best give him an excellent character for steadiness and sobriety, and declare that he is the last man in the world to commit murder.

A press representative visited Mrs Barrett today and found her perfectly tranquil and collected.

She said, “I have no doubt whatever of my husband’s innocence.”

On being questioned as to the bread knife, she stated that the police came to the house yesterday and asked to be allowed to examine her cutlery. She showed the detectives where the table knives were kept, and they selected the most formidable one they could and and took it away. She affirms that the bread knife was regularly cleaned with the other cutlery at the end of the week.”


Inevitably, parallels were soon being drawn between the murder of John Gill and the Whitechapel atrocities that had been occurring in the East End of London over the previous few months.

On Monday 31st of December 1888, The Hull Daily Mail reported that:-

“The details of the crime allow that in some respects it surpasses in its terrible character the murders in Whitechapel.

There, the fiend, having killed his victims, proceeded to mutilate their bodies on the spot.

Here in Bradford he takes away the life of an innocent lad, drains every drop of blood out of his body, and then commences the work of cutting it up, finishing his horrible performance by tying the parts together and depositing them in a dark corner a hundred yards from the house where the little boy had lived.

Once would imagine that the annals of crime, in this or any other country, would have to he searched in vain for the record of a deed worse than this.


It is unnecessary to say that the murder of John Gill has created a very great sensation throughout Bradford, and it will be long before the recollection of it has died out.

The vicinity of the murder was visited during Saturday and yesterday by some thousands of persons, who stood in groups about the streets discussing the shocking details, expressing sympathy for the bereaved parents, and hoping that the perpetrator of the foul deed may be brought to justice.

There was a widespread feeling that “Jack the Ripper” had transferred his operations from the East End to Bradford, and parents were terror-struck lest little John Gill might be only the first of a number of victims to his lust for human blood…”


On Tuesday 1st January 1889, The Daily News reported on what appeared to be another sick twist in what was proving to be an horrific case:-

“A remarkable story came to the knowledge of the Bradford police some time on Thursday, on the morning of which the boy John Gill was first missed, and regarding which they have kept the strictest silence.

On Wednesday night last, a tailor named Cahill, of 324, Heaton-road – a thoroughfare in the suburb where the body was found, but about half a mile further from town and in a very isolated position – went to a ball with his wife.

Upon his return about 10 o’clock Thursday morning, an hour and a half after the boy was last seen with the milkman Barrett, he found that their home had been entered.

The furniture had been pulled about and turned upside down; a number of articles of various kinds had been thrown in a heap upon the table in the living room; and upon another table was a sight which struck him with horror.

A couple of carving knives were placed crosswise upon the table, and upon them was a card, on one side of which was written:- “Half-past 9 – look out – Jack the Ripper has been,” whilst on the other side were the words:- “I have removed down to the canal side. Please drop in. Yours truly, SUICIDE.”

There was a large tin can full of water on the same table, and the whole surface of the table was saturated with water.

The clock in the living room was stopped, and the fingers indicated the time stated on the card, half-past nine.

Nothing had been removed from the house, except a bottle of rum.

Another bottle of rum had been removed from the cupboard, and some of its contents bad been poured into two glasses, which were left upon the table almost empty.

The story is narrated by Mr. Cahill himself.

Mr. Cahill has been compelled to obtain another house, the shock of the discovery having so unnerved his wife that she will not stay in the house without constant company.”


For several days, from the 9th January 1889, William Barrett appeared before magistrates and Bradford Police Court, as the evidence against him was presented and scrutinised.

After lunch, on Friday the 11th of January 1889, Mr Armitage, the Chairman of the magistrates, announced that, having carefully considered every point of the evidence against William Barrett, they were unanimously of the opinion that no prima facie case could be made out, and the prisoner would, therefore, be discharged.

On Saturday 12th January 1889, The Daily News reported that:-

“There was a loud and prolonged applause in court; and when Barrett soon afterwards left the building, and drove off in a cab, he was followed for some distance by a cheering crowd. In the evening, on his arrival at Cononley, his native village, he was publicly feted.”

A sketch showing William Barrett being cheered as he leaves court.
From The Illustrated Police News, 19th January 1889. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The murderer – or murderers – of little John Gill, were never brought to justice, and the crime remains unsolved to this day.

Reading about the crime, even today, separated as we are by the passage of 128 years, is a grim experience – and in some ways it surpasses the crimes of Jack the Ripper atrocities in its ability to shock.

There have been attempts to link  the crime to the Whitechapel Murders, Patricia Cornwall, for example, lays the crime at the door of her prime suspect, Walter Sickert, but the likelihood is that it wasn’t connected to the ripper crimes.

All that can be said, with any degree of certainty is that his death must have been a horrible one, and his poor parents must have been devastated at the loss of their little son and the manner in which it occurred.

Sadly, there is little chance now that justice will be done on behalf of John Gill, the “bright little fellow and…general favourite” who met such a horrible end, and whose murder shocked Victorian society at the end of a year that was brim-full of shocks and bloodshed.