The Snowball Murder

A couple years ago I took the family to Blanchland to watch the Tour of the Reservoir, but in my usual fashion, got the time wrong so we had time to kill. We visited the churchyard to have a look around and noticed this headstone with the following wording:-

Erected in memory of Robert Snowball of Belmont aged 26 who was cruelly murdered at that place on 1st January 1880.




Jane Barron aged 27, a servant was indicted for the wilful murder of Robert Snowball at Edmondbyers. Mr Edge & Mr Granger appeared to prosecute and Mr E Ridley & Mr Mulvain defended. The prisoner appeared quite composed when asked her plea she replied “Not guilty”.

Mr Edge opened the case at considerable length reciting all the facts. The first question the jury should consider was how the murder was done. He thought the jury would come to the conclusion that it was done with the hammer that was found standing against the wall & that some person has struck him from behind and afterwards striking him on the face. The next question was by whom, as the evidence against the prisoner was circumstantial. It might be suggested that the person who committed this murder was some tramp who was passing. It appears that there was a footpath across the fell close to the house, but what was the motive – Robbery? However, nothing was stolen. Then it was said could it have been done by one of the neighbours? It was said that he was on good terms with both of his neighbours!

Thoughts were turned to someone else going there to commit murder, but surley they would take a murder weapon and not rely on finding something there to commit the crime. The conclusion was  made that the prisoner committed the crime.

Let’s look at the facts of the case and not rely on the conversation that took place between the prisoner and the deceased at dinner and tea time. The prisoner went out shortly after the deceased left the house and was away for about 10 minutes. During this time the father of the deceased heard a thud or fall from the direction of the loft where the deceased was found. According to the prisoner she found blood coming from the loft into the byre when she went milking at 6.30; therefore the decease must have been killed sometime between 5.30 & 6.30. Mr Ridley surveyed the buildings and found a gate which gave free access to the loft which would allow someone to gain access; without being seen from the house. There is no back door to the house and the view from the window at the back is obscured by a haystack.

John Snowball was called to give evidence. He was the father of the deceased. At the house, lived my sons John & Robert Snowball, myself and the prisoner. On the 1st of Jan. my son John was away to Haltwhistle. My nearest neighbours are Thomas Murray at Sandyford and the other neighbours are about 2 miles away at Peddon’s Hope. There is a footpath comes by Belmount House, which leads to Edmundbyers. That footpath is about 20 yards from the door. On the 1st Jan. the deceased, myself and the prisoner had dinner. After dinner my son said he had got to know the truth about the lad and she did not seem pleased and held her head. She did not say anything to him.

After tea my son said he thought he would go along to Sandyford. The door to the byre was closed. My son went out about 5.30. He had a cap on his head. The prisoner was in the kitchen. The prisoner reached up to the mantlepiece and pulled something down. As she closed the door between the porch and the kitchen she took a serious look at me. I heard a rattling which I thought was the lanterns. It was about quarter of an hour after my son had gone out. While she was out I heard a heavy fall after 8 – 10 minutes after the prisoner went out. She returned and sat down and put her head between her hands.

She went out to milk about 6.30. The cows were kept in the byre under the loft. She was out there about half an hour. When she returned she asked me if I had seen the blood coming down into the byre. I said it will be from the sheep I cut up in the loft the day before. I went to bed at about 10 o’clock the prisoner did not go out between seven and the time I went to bed. The prisoner used to feed the pigs in the east end of the building at about 8 o’clock every night. I said that Robert was long in returning she said nothing.

The next morning I came down the stairs about quarter after six. Not long after I came down the stairs the prisoner came in from milking. She said do you know where Robert is. I said “No”.  She said he has been lying in it all night in the old house loft; I believe he is died. I said “Lord have mercy upon us” and I told her to hold the lantern and we went in the loft. When I got to the loft it was closed.  I opened it and went in I found the deceased lying on his back with his head to the east and his feet to the west one foot in a box the other on the floor. I didn’t notice any blood when I first went in except from his mouth. The prisoner said nothing whilst in the loft. After my son left the house on the night in question I heard no other noise except the thud. That night there were three dogs shut up in the stable and they generally barked when strangers were about, but they were quiet all night.

At tea the deceased said he would go to Sandyford. The prisoner went out ten minutes or a quarter of an hour after the deceased. I was sitting when she went out and she gave a very ernest look, a look which I have never noticed before. When she came back she sat by the fireside. She set her elbows upon her knees and put her head upon her hands. Her face was highly coloured. She told me that blood was coming in the byre. I thought there was nothing extraordinary about the fact at the time. I left her sitting up and went to bed.

After she came back from milking she told me about my son. When I saw the deceased I was not aware of the injury to the back of the head until the doctor pointed it out. The hammer produced is a hammer used for the purpose of breaking stones and constantly stood in the loft. Re-examined by Mr Edge – A sheep was killed in the loft on the 30th Dec. and cut up the 31st. There was no mutton in the loft on the 1st Jan. It was removed to the house on 31st Dec.

Joseph Murray, a farmer at Manor House near Ramshaw, I was staying at Sandyford at the time. On Friday 2nd Jan. I went to Belmount Farm about 8.30 in the morning. I saw Jane Barron there and said. “Oh hunny what a bad job”. She said “Yes”. She also said that the old man had gone to Stobbs and the deceased was in the loft. She took me to the loft and I said he may have broken a blood vessel and she said “Yes”. I went to Blanchland and brought Dr Montgomery back to the farm. When we got there John Snowball the old man and Mr Stobbs were also there. Stobbs took the watch out of the deceased’s pocket. On turning the deceased over I noticed his head injury. On looking around the loft I saw the hammer. When I picked it up I noticed dry blood on it. I saw a cap and a rusty candlestick piece of candle was on the shelf having an appearance of having fallen. I did not draw Dr Montgomery’s attention to the hammer because I was not certain whether the hammer had been used to kill a pig. I have been to the farm before and have never noticed any unpleasantness in the family.

Mr Snowball swore that the cap produced was the cap his son wore. It was very seldom that a tramp or vagrant came to the farm.  I have only seen one tramp this winter. He was a man out of work going down to Edmundbyers. Very few people came along the road.

Henry Stobbs  – Farmer at Peddon’s Hope. He had been away and had to pass Belmount farm about 8.30. He did not notice anyone near. The next morning old Snowball came for him to go to the farm. He saw the deceased lying on the floor. The cap produced was there. Witness took the watch and chain from the deceased plus 10s 6d and a purse. There was no sign of a struggle. Close to the cupboard there was a candle lying bruised at the wick and against the wall there was also an unfinished gun case with blood on it.

Bell Ann Murray wife of Thomas Murray of Sandyford – On the morning of Friday 2nd Jan. at about 7.30, the prisoner came to her door and said she had found Robert dead in the old house. She said that she has sat up till 3 o’clock in the morning and he did not come home. The next morning she went to milk and after she milked went into the house to see if he was there. She found him lying on his back blood coming from his mouth. She then asked the old man where Robert was and he said he did not know and they both went onto the old house and he said “God help us its Robert” Witness went over to Belmount Farm and was present when the body was taken upstairs. She asked Jane Barron to give some assistance, but she said nothing.

Wm. Montgomery surgeon said on the 3rd Jan. last I was called to see the body of Robert Snowball in the loft. The head of the body was lying rather to the east side of the window. I examined the body and it was cold and rigid. There was no blood on the hands. I noticed that blood had come from the mouth. On examining the body I found a large wound on the skull. I probed three fingers into the wound. The bones were separated. I made a post mortem examination and found the skull to be fractured to such an extent to cause death. I saw the hammer, which fitted the wound on the skull. Deceased would fall immediately he received the injury. The teeth in the fore part of the mouth had all gone. The palate bone was broken. The injuries were such as might have been caused by the hammer. I could not say the position of the man would be standing when struck. There was a wound on the front which might have been caused by the side of the hammer. Blood might flow from the body for 12 hours after death. I did not think it was an accident when I saw the wound. I sent a telegram to the Police at Stanhope to say that the deceased had met his death by an accident. I found out however I had made a mistake.

Andrew Ferguson a Police Constable stationed at Ramshaw. On 2nd Jan. I was taken to the loft at Belmount. On 4th I went back to the farm and examined the loft especially a closet at the south west corner. I found a gun case and piece of candle produced. I found a candlestick and cup as well. On 6th I searched Jane Barron’s room and found a dress. I showed it to her and asked how she accounted for the blood stains. She said she could not. I also found a hood and the prisoner accounted for the stain on it by blood coming through the boards while milking. On 8th I visited the loft again and found the boards on the loft floor were close. There had been blood running between the boards. The position of the board I examined and put the knife through was such that if any person passed under it and blood was running through they would be stained. I got Jane Barron’s hood and dress from her bedroom.

Richard Liddle Inspector – Durham Constabulary said on 6th Jan. he went to Belmount and searched the prisoner’s box. I found an apron and handkerchief upon which were blood stains which the prisoner could not account for. I examined the cow byre partition the same night and found three marks of blood on one of the boards. The board was at the end of the partition between where the cows stand and where the hay is kept. On 22nd Jan. I went back again to the cow byre and found some marks of blood on the partition. On the 4th board from the top I found only a small speck of blood. I did not find any considerable marks of blood. I found where the blood had gone through, a place beside a post. The whole of the flooring was taken up and examined and the only place where blood had gone through was inside the partition in the hay stall. The blood had got between the boards where the cows were but had not penetrated so as to drip. I was in the kitchen when the experiment was made in the loft.

John Thorburn Superintendent of Police at Stanhope said on 6th Jan. I took the prisoner into custody at 11:00 o’clock at night in the kitchen at Belmount. I took her to Stanhope the following morning and charged her with murder. She never spoke when charged. After I charged her she said she was innocent

Summing up Mr Edge addressed the jury and urged them that all the evidence though circumstantial pointed to the prisoner as the person who murdered Robert Snowball. She was the only person living on the premises who could have done it and it could not be shown that anyone else had any motive to commit such a deed. Mr Ridley in his defence said he was at a loss to know why Jane Barron had been brought before the Court as he could not see any grounds for her being placed in such a position as she was that day.  He then criticised the testimony of old John Snowball pointing out he contradicted himself each time he was called on and asked the jury to doubt his accuracy of his statements. The statement of the prisoner on the other hand was completely in accord with the evidence of the other witnesses. Her conduct throughout was that of an innocent girl and that the murder had been committed by someone else. He asked the jury to return a verdict in favour of his client.

His lordship began to sum up he said that the evidence against the prisoner was not conclusive then they should return a verdict of not guilty.  On the other hand if they came to the conclusion that she followed the man out & went onto the room after him and being in the room struck him on the head killing him they could find no other verdict than guilty.

At 7.20 the jury retired and were absent only 7 minutes. The Clerk asked the foreman for their verdict he answered “Yes” – Not Guilty (Applause, which was at once suppressed)

The prisoner then left the dock once outside she was warmly received by her friends.  A cab was waiting to convey her to the railway station. Mr Page the Station Master placed Barron and her friends in the second class waiting room. On leaving she chatted and talked and answered any questions. She took her seat on a third class carriage and remained standing at the window until the whistle was blown.

A few years later another newspaper article appeared about her – After being acquitted Jane went to live with her father in the borders of Northumberland. At the May hiring’s in Newcastle she was engaged by a farmer in the North Tyne where she had been previously engaged. Since then she had conducted herself in an extraordinary way walking about her bedroom at night and frightening the whole household with her ravings The farmer paid her a half years wages and dismissed her. Since then she has become violent and has been admitted to a lunatic asylum.  This part of the story is incorrect as Jane Barron sued the owner of the ‘Consett Guardian’ for printing this libel – She was still employed and had never been in an Asylum!

Rumours were a bound that old Snowball confessed to the murder on his death bed, but this was never confirmed. The murderer was never found!

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