The strange case of Mary Ashford & Barbara Forest


Gone But Not Forgotten
Nov 6, 2006
On 27 May 1817 the body of Mary Ashford was found in the Pype Hayes area of Erdington, a small farming community which is now a “suburb” of modern day Birmingham, UK. Poor Mary had been raped and murdered. 157 years later Barbara Forrest, who like Mary was 20 years old, was found within 300/400 yards of where Mary’s body was found. She too had been raped and murdered. Both girls had attended a dance at the Tyburn House Pub in Wylde Green on Whit Monday, the night of their murder and occurring on the same day in both cases. Both girls had changed into new dresses at a friend’s house beforehand. In both cases a man called Thornton was accused of the murder and in both cases these men were acquitted.

Strangely, Abraham Thornton was the last man in England to use Trial by Combat as his defence and subsequently he was acquitted as nobody from Ashford’s family could be found to contest him.
There are more coincidences & strangeness and yes, they probably mean nothing but as I grew up in the area, the story always had a resonance and gave me the willies.


Warrior Princess
Feb 25, 2004
What an odd story. Do you know any more about it? Were the two Thorntons related by any chance?


Aug 1, 2005
A spooky coincidence, to be sure, made all the more spine-tingling by the proximity of these events to where I live and work. I'm not familiar with all the places mentioned (I suspect some are now archaic), but I've played snooker across the road from the Tyburn House (I wouldn't call it Wylde Green, mind), and been to funfairs and played golf in Pype Hayes Park!

Oddly, though, I'd never heard these stories before. Or then again, perhaps not that surprising, since I was not quite 6 at the times of the second murder.

This pair of tales has echoes of the similarities between the assassinations of Lincoln and Kennedy, in the way that genuine coincidences are further embellished with far-fetched ones: "Her facial features bore an almost identical similarity to Mary Ashford". Really? How can we be sure?

Still, a great couple of stories, with (for me, at least) a fascinating local angle.


Gone But Not Forgotten
Aug 21, 2001
From the Slemen site:

Not long after these inquiries into Mary Ashford's last movements, the police interviewed Abraham Thornton, who seemed in a state of shock after being told that Mary had been murdered, probably by strangulation - after being raped.

Thornton told detectives: 'I cannot believe she is murdered; why, I was with her until four o'clock this morning.'
Were there detectives in 1817? Or even police?


Warrior Princess
Feb 25, 2004
Were there detectives in 1817? Or even police?
Well, some of the other stories on that site don't really srtike me as terribly convincing, notably the "mutated giant spider in the elevator" one which has I think been discussed elsewhere on the Board.


Imaginary Person
Feb 9, 2003
In a Liminal Zone
naitaka said:

Were there detectives in 1817? Or even police?
Not as such, IIRC you'd have had Constables appointed by the local Justices, but nothing on the lines we have today.

I've looked at some of Tom Slemen's other stuff. There's usually some factual material in there, but a lot of other stuff seems to be tagged on to it that's not so easy to check.


Gone But Not Forgotten
Nov 6, 2006
Mary Ashford is buried at Holy Trinity Church in Sutton Coldfield or so I have been told, I’ve not looked!


Gone But Not Forgotten
Nov 6, 2006
The Complete Newgate Calendar
Volume V


Acquitted on a Charge of murdering a Girl, and on being
rearrested claimed Trial by Battle, April, 1818

THIS case is remarkable, not only for the lamentable
atrocity of the offence imputed to the prisoner, but
from the fact also of the brother of the deceased person
having lodged an appeal, upon which the prisoner demanded
"wager of battle," the consequence of which was the repeal
of the old law, by which the wager was allowed in former
ages, and which had already grown into disuse, although it
still remained in existence.
Thornton was a well-made young man, the son of a respect-
able builder, and was by trade a bricklayer. He was indicted
at the Warwick Assizes, in August, 1817, for the murder
of Mary Ashford, a lovely and interesting girl, whose char-
acter was perfectly unsullied up to the time at which she was
most barbarously ravished and murdered by the prisoner.
From the evidence adduced it appeared that the poor girl
went to a dance at Tyburn, a few miles from Birmingham,


on the evening of the 26th of May, 1817, where she met the
prisoner, who professed to admire her figure and general
appearance, and who was heard to say: "I have been
intimate, and I will have connection with her though it cost
me my life." He danced with her, and accompanied her
from the room at about three o'clock in the morning. At
four o'clock she called at a friend's at Erdington, and the
offence alleged against the prisoner was committed imme-
diately afterwards. The circumstances proved in evidence
were that the footsteps of a man and woman were traced
from the path through a harrowed field, through which
her way lay home to Langley. The marks were at first
regular, but afterwards exhibited proofs of the persons whose
footfalls they represented running and struggling ; and at
length they led to a spot where a distinct impression of a
human figure and a large quantity of coagulated blood were
discovered, and on this spot the marks of a man's knees and
toes were also distinguishable. From thence the man's foot-
prints only were seen, and accompanying blood marks were
distinctly traced for a considerable space towards a pit ; and
it appeared plainly as if a man had walked along the footway
carrying a body, from which the blood dropped. At the
edge of the pit, the shoes, bonnet and bundle of the deceased
were found; but only one footstep could be seen there, and
that was a man's. It was deeply impressed, and seemed to be
that of a man who thrust one foot forward to heave some-
thing into the pit. The body of the deceased was discovered
lying at the bottom. There were marks of laceration upon
the body, and both her arms had the marks of hands, as if
they had pressed them with violence to the ground.
By his own admission Thornton was with her at four
o'clock, and the marks of the man's shoes in the running
corresponded exactly to his. By his own admission, also,
he was intimate with her; and this admission was made not
before the magistrate, but before the evident proofs were
discovered on his clothes ; her clothes, too, afforded most
powerful evidence. At four in the morning she called at a
friend's, Hannah Cox, and changed her dancing-dress for


that in which she had gone from Birmingham. The clothes
she put on there, and which she had on at the time of her
death, were all over blood and dirt.
The case, therefore, appeared to be, that Thornton had paid
attention to her during the night -- shown, perhaps, those atten-
tions which she might naturally have been pleased with -- and
afterwards waited for her on her return from Erdington, and
after forcibly violating her threw her body into the pit.
The prisoner declined saying anything in his defence,
stating that he would leave everything to his counsel, who
called several witnesses to the fact of his having returned
home at an hour which rendered it very improbable, if not
impossible, that he could have committed the murder, and
have traversed the distance from the fatal spot to the places
in which he was seen, in the very short time that appeared
to have elapsed; but it was acknowledged that there was
considerable variation in the different village clocks; and
the case was involved in so much difficulty, from the nature
of the defence, although the case for the prosecution ap-
peared unanswerable, that the judge's charge to the jury
occupied no less than two hours. " It were better," he said
in conclusion, "that the murderer, with all the weight of
his crime upon his head, should escape punishment, than
that another person should suffer death without being
guilty "; and this consideration weighed so powerfully
with the jury that, to the surprise of all who had taken an
interest in this awful case, they returned a verdict of not
guilty, which the prisoner received with a smile of silent
approbation, and an unsuccessful attempt at concealment
of the violent apprehensions as to his fate by which he had
been inwardly agitated.
He was then arraigned, pro forma, for the rape; but the
counsel for the prosecution declined offering evidence on
this indictment, and he was accordingly discharged.
Thus ended, for the present, the proceedings on this
most brutal and ferocious violation and murder; but the
public at large, and more particularly the inhabitants of the
neighbourhood in which it had been committed, were far


from considering Thornton innocent, and subscriptions to
defray the expense of a new prosecution were entered into,
The circumstances of the case having been investigated
by the Secretary of State, he granted his warrant to the
Sheriff of Warwick to take the defendant into custody on
an appeal of murder, to be prosecuted by William Ashford,
the brother and heir-at-law of the deceased. He was in
consequence lodged in Warwick jail, and from thence he
was subsequently removed by a writ of habeas corpus to
London, the proceedings on the appeal being held in the
Court of King's Bench, in Westminster Hall. On the 6th
of November the appellant, attended by four counsel, ap-
peared in court, when the proceedings were adjourned to
the 17th, by the desire of the prisoner's counsel; and on
that day the prisoner demanded trial by "wager of battle."'1
The revival of this obsolete law gave rise to much argument
on both sides; and it was not until the 16th of April, 1818,
that the decision of the Court was given upon the question.
The learned judges gave their opinions seriatim, and the
substance of the judgment was that the law must be ad-
ministered as it stood, and that therefore the prisoner was
entitled to claim trial by battle; but the Court added that
the trial should be granted only " in case the appellant
should show cause why the defendant should not depart
without delay." On the 20th the arguments were resumed
by the appellant's counsel ; but the defendant was ordered
to " be discharged from the appeal, and to be allowed to
go forth without bail."
Though the rigid application of the letter of the law thus
a second time saved this unfortunate man from punish-
ment, nothing could remove the conviction of his guilt
from the public mind. Shunned by all who knew him, his
very name became an object of terror, and he soon after-
wards attempted to proceed to America ; but the sailors of
the vessel in which he was about to embark refused to go
to sea with a character on board who, according to their
fancy, was likely to produce so much ill-luck to the voyage;
1See Appendix No. I.


and he was compelled to conceal himself until another
opportunity was afforded him to make good his escape.

Nothing as yet on the case of Michael Thornton