Research reveals gruesome tale

Hannah Turner and Alex Miller
Hannah Turner and Alex Miller

A writer has delved deep into her family history to bring to light a gripping and grisly true crime story from more than 150 years ago.

Joan Szymanowski, who lives in Leigh, has written The Story of the Button Pit Murder about the death of her ancestor James Barton in 1863.

Joan Korwin-Szymonowski

Joan Korwin-Szymonowski

The 84-year-old author has been researching Mr Barton’s unfortunate demise at the mine near Haigh where he worked for some four decades and has now managed to get the whole tale down in print.

Mr Barton worked through the night at the Button Pit colliery at Red Rock where his job was to keep the boilers stoked throughout the hours of darkness so the pit would function smoothly when the miners arrived. It was there that he met his brutal end in a crime which would take some solving by the local police.

Joan, who is related to Mr Barton through her grandfather’s side of the family, said: “The book brings together everything I could find about him. I went through the old Wigan Observer and Chronicle records so I could write a much longer story.

“Someone had to be on duty at the pit all the time. He went to work on one particular night in January 1863 and sat as usual in his cabin.

“Once he had stoked the fire for the furnace he would light his pipe and friends would call in on him. He would have a fire to guide people in because there were no lights around.

“He also had an expensive silver watch and I don’t really know how he got that. On this night two friends came to see him and then they left. In the morning his son came to take over the stoking and there was no sign of him.”

Initially the mine workers wondered if Mr Barton had walked to New Springs to find replacement parts for the machinery but the search then took a sinister turn at daylight as blood was found in the cabin and on a crowbar.

An even more grotesque discovery was then made when they got the furnace going.

Attempts to solve the crime also foundered at first, despite the police offering a reward which would have been a huge sum of money at the time for information.

It was not until 1866 that the case moved forward when a man informed the authorities he had seen his own son with Mr Barton’s watch.

Joan’s book tells the tale of the frantic search for Mr Barton, the horror at the method of his death and the long process to get justice for him.

While researching it she also had a moving and emotional moment of her own when, astonishingly, she was reunited with her ancestor’s heirloom.

She said: “I put an appeal out to see if anybody had seen the watch Mr Barton had. After a while a man from Hindley Green got in touch to say he had bought it off someone.

“I’ve now held it many times and it is a magical thing to have in your hand an object with such a history.

“It also used to have an uneven tick but now some work has been done on it it’s going better than it did when it was in my ancestor’s pocket on that fatal night.”

The book has been published by Wigan and Leigh Archives and copies are available at Leigh Town Hall.