A miner searching for a missing colleague at dawn before the start of the day shift noticed what appeared to be blood on the door of the colliery furnace. It looked like “syrup that had run out of a pie from t’oven,” he was to say later.

Opening the door he peered inside and saw the furnace was full of white ash. This was all that remained of 55-year-old James Barton, a part-time gamekeeper and caretaker of Button Pit colliery near the village of Haigh, above Wigan.

Police investigators who were called to the scene believed that Barton, father of 12 children, might have been thrown into the furnace while still alive. They reasoned that at least two men must have been responsible.

They were to find out a lot more nearly three months later when Thomas Grime, serving a term in Dartmoor for theft, asked to be interviewed by police. He told them he was present when the murder was committed.

He said: “I met William Thompson [a 27-year-old bricklayer] about a fortnight before the murder. He said to me, ‘Wilt thou go with me to murder Meester Barton?’ I refused.

“Thompson and I met Joseph Seddon that same night in Chorley. We walked up to Button Pit and Thompson said he would ‘do the bugger’ [Barton] because he had denied him his game [when he was out poaching] and had ordered him off the land, saying that if he ever came again he would ‘do’ him.

“Thompson went into the caretaker’s cabin. He took hold of a crowbar with both hands and said, ‘Now you old bugger, I’ll do you,’ and struck him on the forehead with the crowbar. I heard him moan.

“Thompson said, ‘The old bugger’s not punished yet,’ and gave him another blow with the bar, and he never moved again.

“Thompson said, ‘We’ll put him in the fire-hole [furnace] and Seddon helped him. Then Thompson said, ‘I’ll chuck about ten shovels of slack on him.’ He threw the slack in and closed the door.”

Later Grime told the police that another man, Thomas Walton, was also present, and helped to push Barton into the furnace. Joseph Seddon and Thomas Walton were arrested, but before anyone could be brought to trial Seddon died of consumption.

Grime and Thompson were brought before Wigan magistrates in April, 1866, three months after the murder. The court ruled that there was no evidence to send Thompson for trial, and he was acquitted, leaving Grime and Walton to face a jury at Liverpool Assizes in August. During the trial the judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence against Walton, and he was acquitted.

Grime’s brother James told the court that a few weeks after the murder he saw Thomas with “a very nice watch.” The watch was produced, and identified as having belonged to James Barton.

Without retiring the jury found Grime guilty. He was sentenced to death “upon evidence to my mind,” the judge told him, “as satisfactory as if I had myself seen you commit the act.” He was hanged on Saturday, September 1st, 1866, outside Kirkdale Prison, Liverpool, before a crowd of 50,000, many having walked all the way from Wigan in torrential rain.

There was general dissatisfaction at the outcome of the investigation. Most people thought that there should have been more defendants in the dock. Several days after the verdict Thompson knocked down a pub landlady who yelled at him: “Get out! We don’t want any murderers in here!” He was both a violent and a lucky man.