We have been told by one of Thornbury’s former residents (the late Professor John Pridham) that he could remember a red diagonal cross on the wall behind the Jubilee seat on the Bristol Road overlooking the allotments. He did not know exactly what it commemorated but had always been told that it was a foul murder. At that the time this probably sounded rather exciting to the young lad.
The murder that took place on that spot on 26th May 1891 was extremely well publicised at the time. It was actually a rather unedifying drunken brawl and attempted suicide with no mystery or romance to it. The crime was committed by one Henry Cooper who was a steeplejack from London. He and his wife Sarah who was then aged about 41 appear to have been walking from Bristol. Sarah was the daughter of a labourer who lived in Bristol. According to the newspaper reports of the time, the couple had been married for 16 years and they appear to have had an unhappy life, both drinking rather too much. Eventually they sold up what remained of their furniture and decided to walk to Manchester.
Their progress from Bristol must have been a slow one as it was marked by stops at many of the public houses along the way. We know this from the accounts of the witnesses at the trial.
The first witness was Harry Feltham a colour sergeant at Horfield Barracks who heard the pair arguing and the man saying over and over again that he would murder her. An hour later the couple were outside the Duke of York Inn at Horfield and Henry was offering to fight the soldiers who were standing outside the pub.
Mark Beaver of Thornbury attested that he saw the couple in the Ship Inn at Alveston later that night. The woman burst out crying and the man said “that woman has ruined me, all through her drunkenness.” He said he would drown her in the next canal they came to. Mr Beaver walked with the couple down the hill into Thornbury, during which time he was told that the pair had been walking for three days. Henry had mislaid his wife the previous night in Horfield but had found her next morning near Horfield Barracks with a black eye. She had explained that the bruising had happened in a fall which had been caused by a soldier. This presumably explains why Henry was trying to fight the soldiers outside the Duke of York pub.
By the time they were making their way down Alveston Hill the couple were staggering. Sarah fell over more than once and Henry went back for her when they were at the bottom of Thornbury Hill. Mr Beaver left them at this point.
A 12 year old child named Edith Annie Alsop saw the last act in this sad story as she approached them on the Bristol Road near the gates of what was then The Villa, a large house at the entrance to Thornbury, next to what is now Tescos garage. She saw Henry knock his wife down four times. Sarah got up three times and on the last occasion she just lay there. Henry knelt and bent over her and she said “you ain’t going to kill me are you?” Henry said he was. Sarah seemed in great pain and then her husband crossed the road and leaned on the telephone post for a little while before taking off his jacket. He returned to his wife and having put something to his throat he fell across her body.
The child ran home frightened. According to the Birmingham Evening Post Mr Abbott a school master in Thornbury found the dead body of Sarah Cooper. Her husband lay on the ground struggling and bleeding profusely.
Police Constable Coates and a former policeman, Mr Conduit, who lived near the railway station at the top of the High Street struggled with Henry Cooper who was bleeding from a gash in his throat and most agitated. He was carried to the police station in the High Street on a shutter and treated by two local doctors; Dr T H Taylor and Dr Williams. A penknife was recovered from the scene of the crime.
The trial took place at the Gloucester Assizes in July 1891. Henry was indicted for murder and for attempted suicide – both of which were serious crimes at that time. The Dundee Courier and Argus (amongst many other newspapers of the time) reported that Henry Cooper was sentenced to 12 years penal servitude for the manslaughter of his wife. Henry appears to have been given a lighter sentence than one would expect at this time, simply because he was drunk.