Was Murder Justified

On Monday, 27th January, 1890, people awoke to news that, on the Saturday night just gone, a terrible and brutal murder had taken place on a lonely stretch of highway between Crewe and the village of Hough.

The St James’s Gazette published an account of the crime in its edition of that day:-


A dreadful murder was committed on Saturday night on the high road near Crewe.

Mr. Richard Davies, tailor and draper in that town, was driving to his home in a village known as Hough, three miles distant. With him was a son named George, aged sixteen. The night was very dark.


Just before entering the village, and while they were going along a very lonely place, two men jumped out from the hedge, one on each side.

They laid hold of the pony’s head and stopped it.

George Davies tried to urge the animal forward by using a stick, but being unsuccessful he got out of the trap.

No sooner had he done this than one of the men at the pony’s head rushed at Mr. Davies, struck him a terrible blow on the head, and dragged him out upon the road.


The boy, seeing the attack upon his father, endeavoured to make his escape; but the second ruffian left the pony and commenced to chase the boy round the trap.

The boy dodged him, and the fellow pursued him about 400 yards up the road; but finding he could not overtake him turned back to his companion, who was wrestling with Mr. Davies.


The boy passed several houses and ran on to his home, where he got an elder brother and several villagers to go back with him.

They found Mr. Davies lying dead at the side of the road, his head being battered out of all recognition.


From the state of the road it was evident that there had been a terrible struggle for life.

For several yards there were pools of blood, while great quantities of blood on the grass on both sides of the road led to the belief that the poor man had endeavoured to escape from his assailants by creeping through a gap in the hedge.

In addition to having his head battered the murdered man had his right thumb cut off, and two fingers on the same hand broken.

His body was found several yards from the spot where the first attack was made, and the pony was discovered grazing by the side of the road about fifty yards nearer the village.


The attack was of the most daring character, for there are houses within about 200 yards, while the murdered man’s dwelling is not more than 600 yards away.

Mr. and Mrs. Moses, market gardeners from Crewe, drove over the same spot ten minutes previously, and they saw no one in the road. The people living nearest say they heard no cries for help.


The motive for the crime is a mystery.

The deceased had about ten pounds when he left Crewe, and his pockets had been rifled by his murderers, for when found he had only sixpence.

Robbery, however, could scarcely have been the sole object, as the murderers did not take his watch and chain, although the watch had been taken out of the pocket borne of the villagers ascribe the deed to revenge; but the deceased was a quiet man, and it is not known that he had a quarrel with any one.”

An Illustration showing the murder of Richard Davies.
From The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, 7th February 1890. Copyright, The British Library Board.


However, within a few days the police had become suspicious of the victims two sons Richard, aged 20, and George, aged 16, and, by the 29th of January both of them had been charged with the murder of their father.

Both of them later confessed to the crime, albeit each blamed the other for having carried it out.


In March, 1890, Richard said that they had both agreed to murder their father on account of his unkindness towards them as they could stand it no longer.

He stated, however, that he did not strike a single blow and that the deed was carried out by his younger brother, George.

George, on the other hand, maintained that it was Richard who had carried out the crime.

An Illustration showing Richard and George Davies.
From The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, 15th February, 1890. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The trial of the two brothers began at Chester Assizes on Thursday, 20th March 1890.

A picture began to emerge that the victim had been both a bad father and husband, and his widow testified that the the deceased had frequently struck her, had threatened to shoot her, and had lighted newspapers under her bed, after declaring his intention to burn her to death.

The defence was that the boys had been driven to murder their father on account of his cruelty to both them, his wife, and to his other children, and they asked that the charge against them be reduced to one of manslaughter.

The judge, however, informed the Jury that no family circumstance would justify the reduction from murder to manslaughter.

Having retired to consider their verdict, the jury returned in less than an hour and declared both prisoners guilty of murder, although they did recommend mercy.


The Dundee Courier reported on the sentencing in its edition of Saturday, 22nd March 1890:-

“In a scene of breathless silence, Mr Justice Wills assumed the black cap. In a voice broken with uncontrollable emotion, the learned Judge, addressing the condemned, said they had been guilty of a crime the most terrible, the crime of slaying their own father.

He would not seek to find words to characterise such an act, neither did he wish to prolong the painful ordeal which the prisoners must be undergoing.

Resentment must now be laid aside, and it was yet possible they could repent of the evil which they had done. He would advise them to lay themselves prostrate in real humility and contrition before the throne of the Almighty, whose mercy might be extended to them, but his own duty was plain, and it was to pronounce sentence of death.

His Lordship then in the usual formula decreed that the prisoners be taken hence to the place of execution, and hanged by the neck until they were dead.

Turning to the jury, the learned Judge said that their recommendation to mercy would be forwarded to the proper place, but he would be glad to know upon what grounds it was made?

The Foreman replied, “On the ground of youth, my lord.”

The Prisoners were then removed.


Over the next few days numerous letters began appearing in the letters pages of various newspapers calling for the death penalty to be reversed.

The following missive appeared in The Pall Mall Gazette on Wednesday 26th March, 1890:-



The verdict and sentence against the two poor lads, goaded by intolerable tyranny into open revolt, at Crewe, are no doubt in consonance with the existing state of English law.

But law is only an expression of the feelings of the majority – most often of a dead and past majority – and if the mass of English people still approve of such law as that, it is only one more proof of the painfully low sense of public morality existing amongst us.

Unless those two poor lads had risen and struck we should never have known the hideous tyranny under which they groaned.

The misapprehension of the nature of crime involved in their condemnation seems to me almost incredible.

The real criminal was obviously the man who made their revolt a necessary consequence from all the ordinary laws of human psychology.

As surely as water boils when the heat to which it is exposed reaches boiling-point, so surely will human nature rebel when the torture to which it is subjected reaches revolting-point.

Let us not pretend, in our self-righteousness, to be shocked at the constitution of the solar system. We would all have rebelled ourselves under similar circumstances.

If any other English fathers, who think as I do, are taking steps to get this gross wrong redressed – I put it on no lower ground -I shall be glad to cooperate with them.

Yours very faithfully,

The Nook, Dorking.



The Pall Mall Gazette Thursday 27th March, 1890:-


It is a remarkable fact that, although the crime of which Richard and George Davies have been convicted is regarded by a consensus of humanity at large as perhaps the most atrocious that a person can commit, the consensus of public opinion in all parts of England is clearly to the effect that if the prisoners are hanged a cruel miscarriage of justice will occur.

The statement sounds like a paradox, and yet it is strictly true.

How is this to be explained?


The prisoners seem to have lived in an atmosphere of blows and curses from their infancy.

The man who had conferred the unasked and very questionable boon of existence upon them was, from the first, their most malignant enemy. He made them work without wages; he starved the whole family while living himself on the fat of the land, he tried to murder his wife, once by shooting her and once by burning her in her bed; he turned the house they lived in into a perfect hell.


Again I ask, what claim had this human devil upon the love, the gratitude, the reverence of his victims? What claim had he even upon their forbearance?

Let us try and clear our minds of cant.

I affirm that the sacrifice of no detestable a tyrant was, at any rate, not a greater crime than the prolonged course of brutality which brought it about.

I will go even further, and say that I see in it something of the retributive justice of Heaven.

Crime though the father’s slaughter was, both morally and legally, it was a crime only in the sense in which that word can be applied to the sacrifice of Clytemnestra by Orestes.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,



However, not everyone agreed that the boys action in murdering their father had been justified.

The following letter appeared in The Pall Mall Gazette on Friday 28th March, 1890:-


I sincerely trust there are not many English fathers who will come forward to agitate for the reprieve of the two brothers upon the grounds urged by Mr. Grant Allen.

A more ill-advised or wrong-headed advocacy I have seldom seen.

The only reason which is in the least likely to weigh with the Home Secretary, or which ought in my opinion to weigh with him, is that given by the jury – namely, the boys’ youth.

To say, as Mr. Allen does, that “unless these two poor lads had risen and struck we should never have known,” &c., seems to me really a justification of, not to say incitement to, murder, and a far greater misapprehension of the nature of crime than Mr. Allen thinks is involved in their condemnation.


Bad as the father of these boys was, there are, sad to say, hundreds and thousands as bad in one way or another; habitual drunkards, wife-beaters, and scoundrels whose lives are a constant terror to their families.

Besides, it is not the fact that the atrocious and cold-blooded murder of this man was the only redress open to the ill-treated family.

There are scores of ways of bringing villainy of this kind to light, short of murdering the villain.


Mr. Allen says, “We would all have rebelled ourselves under similar circumstances.”

Certainly we would; but rebellion is one thing, and murder is another, whereas Mr. Allen uses them almost as convertible terms.

Far be it from me to say a word against the commutation of the death sentence in this case, which, on account of the boys’ youth, I sincerely desire.

But to urge it on the ground that the provocation justified the murder, as Mr. Grant Allen does, is in my opinion most injudicious and absurd.

I am, yours faithfully,

R.H. Barrett”


Another letter appeared in The Pall Mall Gazette on Monday 31st March, 1890:-


The apologists for murder whose letters appeared in your columns last Wednesday and Thursday deserve credit for the extreme frankness of their teaching.

Mr. Grant Allen finds compensation for the commission of a particularly terrible and revolting crime in the fact that but for the murder of their father we should never have known under what conditions of cruelty and brutality the two condemned criminals lived.


Doubtless all murders enlarge the circle of human knowledge in some particulars; and, whenever “Jack the Ripper” is caught, Mr. Grant Allen can most properly plead as an extenuating circumstance for his crimes that but for them the public would never have known so much as it now does of the social and moral condition of Whitechapel.

Mr. Grant Allen’s theory of “psychological necessity” will also carry us a long way, and be of high practical value in the defence of murders.


Mr. Frederick H. Balfour is a not less valuable ally on the same side; but, for my part, I am unable to sympathise with their opinions.

Assuming everything that is said against the character of the murdered man both as a man and a parent, I fail to see what moral obligation was imposed upon his sons to murder him – a defect possibly in my own imperfect moral sense, for which Mr. Grant Allen and Mr. F. H. Balfour must pardon me.


These young men were not compelled to remain in a home which Mr. Balfour calls “a hell.”

The world is wide, opportunities for escape from parental tyranny are abundant, and the wretched excuses for a most atrocious crime, deliberately planned and carried out, are scarcely less abominable than the crime itself

I am, your obedient servant,

A. S. PAGE.”


On Saturday, 5th April, 1890, The Dundee Courier reported that:-

“Mr. Pedley, the prisoners’ solicitor, has received a letter from the Home Secretary’s Department stating that the Home Secretary has advised Her Majesty to respite George Davies, and commute the sentence to penal servitude for life.

Regarding Richard Davies, the elder prisoner, the Home Secretary regrets he has failed to discover any sufficient ground to justify interference with the course of the law.


Mr. Pedley has has sent an earnest appeal to Mr. Matthews on behalf of Richard Davies, who appears contrite, whilst George’s demeanour has savoured of levity.

In Crewe, the decision has caused dissatisfaction, it being felt the case justified clemency both instances, either.”