The death of Mary Ashford on May 27th 1817 scandalised the whole country. Here, it seemed, was a case straight out of the gothic novels of Mrs. Radcliffe - a young innocent woman raped and murdered by a thuggish man. Or was it?

Monday May 26th 1817 was Whit Monday, and Mary Ashford was up early. She was about twenty years old, living at Langley Heath (near Fox Hollies Road) acting as housekeeper and general servant at her uncle, Mr. Coleman’s farm. Her father was a gardener living in Erdington, and she had a sister and a brother. At about eight a.m. she set off to walk to Birmingham market. She went via Erdington, leaving a bundle of party clothes which she intended to wear at the dance that night at her friend’s house on the Green at Erdington, bought sugar and other items at Birmingham which she took with her when she called on her friend Hannah Cox in Erdington at about six o’clock in the evening.

Hannah Cox was in service at Mr. Machin’s house in Erdington, but finished work at 6.00. Hannah was sleeping at her mother, Mary Butler’s house on the other side of the Green (probably on the corner of Edwards Road), and the two girls went across the Green into the house to get ready for the dance they were going to at Tyburn House. There, Mary danced a lot with Abraham Thornton, and would not leave when Hannah wanted to go, after 11.00 pm, because she was dancing. When she did leave the dance, Thornton came with her, and they set off along Chester Road towards Erdington.

Instead of turning down Grange Lane with Hannah, Thornton and Mary walked on up Chester Road towards Mary’s grandfather’s house, which stood on the corner of Orphanage Road and Chester Road. Then, according to Thornton’s statement, they climbed over a stile and wandered across several fields - two young lovers under the stars on a warm May night, who had spent the evening dancing together, alone in the fields for three hours - did they make love? Yes, said Thornton, but it was with her consent.

Mary left Thornton by a stile in Orphanage Road and hurried to Mrs. Butler’s house to change her clothes, arriving at about 4.00 am on May 27th. Abraham Thornton claimed that Mary left him at the stile at about 3.30, but he went on to the Green at Erdington to wait for her to come out of Mrs. Butler’s House. After a bit at about 4 o’clock, he decided to go home across the fields to Holly Lane and then on to the canal towpath.

Mary was seen walking alone along Orphanage Road at 4.15, she then took a footpath across the fields towards Penns Lane, and drowned in a pond there. Had she met Thornton again? Was there foul play? Was it suicide? Accidental death was the official verdict when it came to trial, but popular opinion preferred the gruesome version of rape and murder.

This gravestone, “a warning to female virtue”, which stood in Sutton Churchyard for many years, reflects the popular opinion of the Mary Ashford affair (photo courtesy of Sutton Reference Library).