In the hit true crime series Murdertown, host Anita Rani crosses the length and breadth of the country, chronicling some of the most appalling killings to have occurred in different communities over the decades. Speaking to journalists, detectives and those who felt the fallout first hand, she sheds new light on these terrible cases.
In Wigan, Anita investigates what happened to Louise Sellars, who vanished in 1995. When the 15-year-old’s body was eventually discovered, it sparked an urgent investigation into the teenage population, with suspicion soon falling on a certain Darren Ashurst.
Proving Ashurst’s guilt would prove incredibly challenging, and the case would go down as one of the most noteworthy in Wigan’s history. But what other crimes have blighted the region over the generations?
The murder in the colliery
Wigan was a major epicentre of the Industrial Revolution, known for its cotton mills and coal mines. And it was at a local colliery, known as Button Pit, that a particularly gruesome murder took place in 1863. The victim was 55-year-old engineer James Barton, who vanished while working the night shift in his cabin. Another worker who turned up at 3.30am found that the pumping engine had come to a stop, and further investigation turned up a blood-splattered crowbar and bloodstains on furnace doors.
As a grisly contemporary report recounted, Barton’s son arrived on the scene, with it being suggested to him that 'his father might have been put in one of the furnaces, and that if he had been placed there, fat would be dropped through the ash hole'. Examination did indeed find a 'hard cake of fat', while the blood on the furnace doors was likened to 'stuff that had run out of a pie in the oven'. Adding to the horror, 'a thigh bone, arm bone, and a part of a skull' were also recovered from the ashes in the furnace.
Who had killed Barton and shoved him into the furnace? The investigation went nowhere until police publicised the fact that Barton’s expensive silver watch was missing. This caught the attention of William Grime, the father of a known criminal named Thomas Grime. The older Grime recounted to police that his son had turned up at their home with a new watch the day after Barton’s death. The watch was indeed Barton’s, and Thomas Grime was confirmed to be the killer. He was hanged in front of a vast crowd of over 50,000 onlookers in 1866.
The child killer of Wigan
Two Wigan murders led to another local killer being executed nearly a century later, in 1955. The hangman was the famous Albert Pierrepoint, who’d carried out the executions of numerous notorious figures, including the 10 Rillington Place psychopath John Reginald Christie and acid bath murderer John George Haigh. The man he hanged in this case, Norman William Green, may not rank with them in terms of infamy, but his crimes were no less awful.
Only 25 years old at the time of his execution, Norman Green had been found guilty of slaughtering two young boys in random attacks. Green’s first victim, who thankfully survived the encounter, was a seven-year-old named William Mitchell. He’d been playing by a Wigan canal when he was set upon and stabbed by a man he described as having distinctively white hair. The next victim was less fortunate: 11-year-old William Harmer was stabbed over 11 times, succumbing to his injuries in hospital. A year later, a 10-year-old named Norman Yates was also stabbed to death.
Eyewitnesses spoke of a man with very blonde hair at the scene, leading police to Norman Green, who had albinism. When blood matching one victim was found on his clothes, Green knew the game was up and tried to plead insanity. The jury rejected this defence, and this inexplicable child killer was sent to the gallows.
The murder of Ellen Higginbottom
One of the most distressing Wigan crimes in recent memory took place in 2017 when the body of 18-year-old student Ellen Higginbottom was found at a local nature reserve. The tragic discovery triggered an intense police investigation which led detectives to the door of 52-year-old Mark Buckley.
It turned out that Buckley had simply gone out on the hunt for a lone woman to attack, and – in the words of one of the investigating officers – he 'callously killed Ellen in broad daylight. He attacked her in the most brutal way as she was walking around Orrell Water Park before going to meet her friends who were taking their exams.'
Buckley’s barrister attempted some mitigation, telling the court that the killer had been dealt a 'double blow' of losing his relationship and his job, that he was on medication for depression, and that he felt remorseful over the sexually motivated murder. This clearly did little to sway the judge, and Buckley – who had previous convictions for arson and criminal damage – was sentenced to a minimum of 31 years behind bars.
There was an unusual off-shoot to the case, involving Ellen’s laptop and mobile phone, which Buckley had made off with after killing the student. A Wigan couple, Dean Speakman and Vicki Calland, bought the mobile phone from Buckley and agreed to also stash the laptop in a shed overnight. The couple had been under the impression he’d stolen them from a park bench, but when they saw the news about Ellen Higginbottom the next day, they realised the truth, panicked, and tried to dispose of the items, setting the laptop on fire.
The pair were eventually convicted of handling stolen goods and perverting the course of justice. As the judge pointed out, 'The loss of the laptop was more than just the loss of an item worth so many hundreds of pounds. It contained documents and photographs which record Ellen Higginbottom’s life. The loss of that item has been a particularly difficult and heavy blow to her family and to Ellen Higginbottom’s boyfriend.'
Vicki Calland was spared jail, while a tearful Dean Speakman was sent down for 20 months.