“Barbarous Determination”: The Criminal Career of John Orrell

By Cassie Watson; posted 26 March 2023.

Many (perhaps most) criminals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries do not seem to have contemplated the potentially fatal impact of their own poor decision-making. Probably the best-known instance of one such offender is serial prison escapee Jack Sheppard: within the space of 11 months he returned not once but four times to his old haunts, resulting in successive re-arrests and, in November 1724, his execution. Others were clearly aware that their actions could or would lead to the gallows, yet avowed they would do it again and were prepared to ‘swing for’ their victim — wife-killers being a prime example.[1] Another group were apparently unable to keep murderous thoughts to themselves, providing the authorities with a ready-made list of prosecution witnesses who had overheard threats to kill. A Lancashire farmer turned debtor turned family murderer named John Orrell falls into this latter category. 

I first encountered Orrell nearly two decades ago, in my research on English poisoners.[2] I did not then take particular note of his interesting criminal career and deviant personality, but the passage of time now makes it possible to investigate his story in more detail.

Orrell’s later years provide crime historians with an interesting case study for several reasons: he went to America but returned; falling into debt, he was imprisoned for nearly four years, during which period he was convicted of stealing from another debtor; upon his release he murdered his wife but got away with it; not content with that, he then poisoned two of his children, alleging they were illegitimate. Orrell’s murder spree was driven by a spirit of revenge sustained over the entire period of his incarceration in Lancaster Castle, and it was not long after his release that he returned to its precincts. There he perished, one of the 213 felons executed at the Castle between 1800 and 1865.[3] 


John Orrell was born at Cockey Moor in the parish of Bolton le Moors, Lancashire, around 1795.[4] The press reported that he had been a farmer in the township of Heaton,[5] before, “growing dissatisfied,” he sold up and emigrated to America, probably early in 1830; he left his wife, Esther, and six children behind.[6] Where he lived and what he did in America is unknown, but it seems likely that he left England to escape creditors. The New World proved no more successful than the Old, however, so he returned to Heaton about a year later, and became a weaver. This was the start of his path to the gallows: “his restless spirit was not satisfied, and he got into bad circumstances, and was sent to gaol by order from the Ecclesiastical Court, where he remained for upwards of four years.”[7] In fact, he was arrested, at the suit of one of his creditors, just two weeks after his return from America, and sent to Lancaster Castle. He was confined there from January 1831 until early January 1835.[8]

Prisoners arriving at the 15th-century gatehouse of Lancaster Castle. Unknown artist, 1 January 1827.

At some point during his long imprisonment for debt, Orrell began to make threats to kill members of his family. Several fellow debtors later recalled his bitterness and resolve: “…it appeared that up to the day of his liberation he had threatened that as soon as he got his freedom he would kill his wife and two youngest children. He gave as his reason for this barbarous determination that his wife was faithless to him; that she had had two illegitimate children whilst he was in prison, who were since dead; and that of the two upon whom he intended to execute his diabolical revenge he was not the father.”[9]

Furthermore, Orrell was frequently heard to say “that he would make away with his wife’s brother, if ever he got liberated, if he was hanged for it. The children, he said, were not his own; and he blamed the brother of his wife for being kept in confinement.”[10]

As a further marker of his bad character, Orrell was prosecuted for theft whilst imprisoned for debt. In October 1831 the wife of a debtor named Thomas Farrell sent her husband a parcel containing cash, food and clothing. It was delivered to the Castle gate, where Orrell signed the delivery book and took the parcel. When the turnkey realized the mistake, he discovered that Orrell had repackaged the items and posted them to his wife at Bolton! The parcel was retrieved from the coach office, and Orrell was convicted at the January quarter sessions and sentenced to one month’s hard labour “on the felon side of the prison.”[11] The bill for this prosecution came to £11 13s. 8d.,[12] a sum that a debtor could presumably ill afford.

The prison surgeon, Mr Saints, began to think that Orrell was insane: he “laboured under strange delusions, one of which was that he had just descended from heaven as God, with the bread of life in his hands.”[13] By the summer of 1832 doctors suspected he was feigning insanity or was temporarily deranged from too much ale.[14] Fellow debtors believed he was pretending to be insane,[15] and found him unnerving and violent.[16]


John Orrell was freed from Lancaster Castle in early January 1835. On 4 February his wife Esther was found dead, “suspended from a rope attached to the railing of the staircase” in their house. Orrell was immediately suspected of killing her and taken into custody; but the coroner’s inquest could not find enough evidence to secure his commitment on any charge and he was released.[17] After the funeral his four eldest children refused to live with him, and on 18 February Orrell moved to a cellar in Bolton with his two youngest children, William, aged 6, and Elizabeth, aged 8.[18] Within ten days, both children were dead.

“This rapid mortality excited strong alarm. Inquiries were instituted, and it was found upon medical examination that the children had been poisoned with arsenic.”[19] A search of the cellar revealed a parcel of arsenic hidden on one of the ceiling beams, and a druggist confirmed that he had sold it to a man (whom he did not identify as Orrell) on 10 or 11 February.[20] No medical aid had been called for the children, whom Orrell had tended constantly “and had consequently seen them dying inch by inch.”[21] His sister-in-law, Maria Morris, saw Elizabeth ill and vomiting on 23 February, and noted that while Orrell urged the child to eat some cake, he himself was eating cold bread and butter.[22] This was all circumstantial evidence, but more than sufficient grounds on which to charge Orrell with the murder of his daughter Elizabeth.

His trial on 24 March 1835 lasted nearly a whole day, but it did not take the jury more than five minutes to return a verdict of Guilty and he was sentenced to death, the judge noting “there could be little doubt that the prisoner had caused the death of his wife and the other child also.”[23] Orrell was hanged behind the Castle on Thursday 26 March, a watching journalist noting that “He struggled a good deal ere life departed.” He retained a little dignity, however, as “the black curtain on the lower part of the Drop, was on this occasion resumed, which had been laid aside on several former occasions.”[24] It was said that “up to the last moment he persisted in asserting his innocence of the crime for which he died.”[25]

“Hanging Corner” – the site of public executions until 1865. The double doors on the right led to the gallows situated in front of the sealed archway.


John Orrell was tried at the last sitting of Lancaster’s assize court to include prisoners from the whole county, in March 1835, when 50 people stood trial.[26] Additional assizes were then established at Liverpool and Lancaster’s role was reduced, to serve only the northern areas of the county; at the next assizes in August there were only 14 prisoners for trial.[27] In addition to the criminal prisoners, Lancaster Castle housed a large population of debtors at the time of Orrell’s crimes, and there were still a few there in the early 1890s.[28] The Castle was a constant backdrop to the last four years of Orrell’s life, and his story illuminates the plight of debtors, a class of prisoners who receive far less attention from historians than murderers do. It also provides an early example of a killer whom modern criminologists and forensic psychiatrists might recognise as a ‘family annihilator.’[29]


Main image: Prisoners arriving at the 15th-century gatehouse of Lancaster Castle. Unknown artist, 1 January 1827. Wikimedia Commons.

“Hanging Corner” – the site of public executions until 1865. The double doors on the right led to the gallows situated in front of the sealed archway. Wikimedia Commons.


[1] For examples, see: Jennine Hurl-Eamon, “’I Will Forgive You if the World Will’: Wife Murder and Limits on Patriarchal Violence in London, 1690–1750,” in Violence, Politics, and Gender in Early Modern England, ed. Joseph P. Ward (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 228; Martin Wiener, Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 211, 234.

[2] Katherine Watson, Poisoned Lives: English Poisoners and their Victims (London and New York: Hambledon and London, 2004).

[3] Michelle Blade, “Lancaster’s Gruesome History as the North’s ‘Hanging Town’”,  Lancaster Guardian, 11 September 2020.

[4] Westmorland Gazette, 28 March 1835, 3. He was said to be 40 years old when he was tried for murder, but may be the person baptised on 8 June 1798: Manchester, Church of England Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1541-1812; accessed at Ancestry.com.

[5] Morning Advertiser, 27 March 1835, 3. An identical report appeared in the Carmarthen Journal, 3 April 1835, 2.

[6] Leeds Times, 14 March 1835, 4.

[7] Westmorland Gazette, 28 March 1835, 3.

[8] Leeds Times, 14 March 1835, 4.

[9] Morning Advertiser, 27 March 1835, 3.

[10] Westmorland Gazette, 28 March 1835, 3.

[11] Westmorland Gazette, 7 January 1832, 2.

[12] Lancashire, Quarter Session Records and Petitions, 1648–1908: Lancaster Quarter Sessions Petitions Epiphany 1832, QSP 2955/1, p. 26 of 43; accessed at Ancestry.com.

[13] Morning Advertiser, 27 March 1835, 3.

[14] Morning Herald (London), 27 March 1835, 4.

[15] The National Archives, Kew (hereafter TNA), PL 27/10 box 2, Lancashire, Rex v. John Orrell, 1835, testimony of James Daltry and William Sampson.

[16] Morning Herald (London), 27 March 1835, 4.

[17] Manchester Courier, 14 February 1835, 3.

[18] Leeds Times, 14 March 1835, 4.

[19] Morning Advertiser, 27 March 1835, 3.

[20] TNA, Rex v. Orrell, testimony of James Horrocks; Reading Mercury, 16 March 1835, 4.

[21] Morning Advertiser, 27 March 1835, 3.

[22] Westmorland Gazette, 28 March 1835, 3.

[23] Morning Herald (London), 27 March 1835, 4.

[24] Westmorland Gazette, 28 March 1835, 3.

[25] Morning Post, 30 March 1835, 7.

[26] Preston Chronicle, 14 March 1835, 3.

[27] Michael Winstanley, “Lancaster Castle: The Courts and Criminal Prison, 1800–1916: Transformations and Decline,” Contrebis 38 (2020), 79.

[28] Ibid., 79, 81

[29] Elizabeth Yardley, David Wilson and Adam Lynes, “A Taxonomy of Male British Family Annihilators, 1980–2012,” Howard Journal of Criminal Justice 53 (2014): 117-140.

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