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The unsolved murder of Reuben Mort

There were four unsolved murders in Farnworth. Before the First World War there was an ex policeman called Reuben Mort. He travelled every day from Little Lever up Hall Lane to Farnworth. Then one day he was found battered to death in the cottage he lived in Little Lever. They never arrested anyone for it but one of the suspects was the local blacksmith.

Les Gent writes: When my colleague, and Little Lever correspondent for the Evening News, Margaret Mottram, bought another house in the village recently, she heard that a previous owner, who had been there from 1891 to 1910, had later been murdered. So she searched through the files of the Evening News to find out what had happened there . . . today I print the story of a violent death which shocked the village, one that is still a mystery after 80 years . . . JUST 80 years ago, early in the morning of Monday, January 19, 1920, the inhabitants of Little Lever, safe and snug in their beds, slept on peacefully unaware that a brutal attack had been made on one of their neighbours.

The victim of the crime -- still unsolved -- was an ex-councillor, Mr Reuben Mort, a 78-year-old recluse known to most folk in the village as 'Owd Reuben'. For years he had been the village blacksmith.

Although his best friends would have had to admit that he was, to say the least, 'a bit peculiar', Reuben hadn't an enemy in the world. At least that seemed to be the case until he was found in his shop at 3, Market Street, suffering from shocking head injuries. He was taken to Bolton Infirmary and died from the injuries.

A bachelor, Mr Mort had followed his normal routine on the previous (Sunday) night. He had been last seen alive and well by his nephew, Mr W H Stringfellow, who had a drapery business at 88, High Street, Little Lever. That was about 8pm on the Sunday evening.

The first inkling of the tragedy that shocked the neighbourhood came at 4.20am. Mr and Mrs J T Lomax, who had a tripe shop next door to Mr Mort's property, heard a knocking on the wall. They weren't too alarmed at first because they knew that Reuben often came downstairs about 3am. to make himself a cup of tea.

However they got up and dressed, and before going in to see what was wrong, roused a Mrs Davies of 6, Fletcher Street, who had formerly been Mr Mort's housekeeper.

They then all went round to the rear of the house where they knew there was broken window-pane, which had been smashed in a gale some weeks before.

Mrs Lomax called out to Mr Mort through the window, and at once they heard him say: "Hello, is that You? Ahm fain you'n come."

Despite his injuries, Mr Mort managed to open the back door to let them in to his home. When they saw him they were shocked at his appearance.

The old man had terrible wounds about his head and there were pools of blood on the floor.

Faint from loss of blood, Mr Mort was able to tell them that he had gone downstairs in the early hours to make himself a cup of tea.

Then, he told them, a man had suddenly appeared in the room. The intruder demanded the keys of the safe. The old man said he hadn't got them with him. At this, the intruder suddenly began to hit the victim about the head with savage blows, calling out "I'll kill you!"

Mr Mort then lost consciousness and did not know how long he had lain there, until he came round and began to knock on the wall to arouse his next door neighbours.

All he could add to the story was that his attacker was 'a big man' and that he was 'disguised' but in what way he was unable to tell them. By that time he was very faint and hardly able to speak.

Dr Nuttall was sent for and he at once had the old man sent to the Infirmary, where he died not long after admission. There was plenty of evidence discovered by the Police that the murderer had made a thorough search of the premises after the attack, yet the safe, which was upstairs and was reported at the time to have held about 2,000 was still intact.

Obviously the assailant had not been able to find the keys -- yet ironically enough they were found on a small shelf at the foot of the stairs where apparently they had gone unnoticed.

The motive was fairly obvious, Mr Mort was known to have plenty of money and owned property in the village.

Rumours soon began to sweep the village. One was that 'some' men had suddenly disappeared from the locality, but this was later discounted. Police stated that they had received an anonymous letter regarding the murder, but would not disclose any details.

A reward of 100 was offered (quite a sizeable sum in those days) to anyone who could give any information likely to lead to the person responsible for the outrage, but without any success. No trace was ever found of the weapon used to attack Mr Mort. The police theory was that it may have been a piece of wood which had been taken away by the intruder.

Huge crowds turned out to watch the funeral on Friday, January 23. The coffin bore the simple inscription 'Reuben Mort, died 1920, aged 78 years'.

There was a strange incident as the cortege prepared to leave the home of Mr and Mrs J W Stringfellow in High Street. The horses pulling the first coach carrying relatives refused to move -- and finally the mourners had to get out of the carriage and walk behind the hearse to St Matthew's churchyard.

This gave credence to another rumour that had been prevalent, that if the murderer was in the vicinity the horses would show some unusual sign.

The last rites at the graveside were conducted by the vicar of St Matthew's, the Rev W Horrocks.

The bearers who carried the coffin to the graveside were all personal friends of the deceased, Messrs Peter Whitehead, Robert Fogg, James H Edge, T Wilkinson, R Tatlock, H Rothwell, and James Tonge.

The Chairman of Little Lever UDC, Cllr T H Chatton, attended the funeral, accompanied by almost every member of the council, Mr Mort had been a councillor from 1906 to 1912.

He had also been a sidesman at St Matthew's, and was a well-known member of Little Lever Conservative Club. At the inquest on January 31, a verdict of 'Murder against some person or persons unknown' was recorded.

The Coroner, Mr J Fearnley, said he did not propose to take any heed of the many wild rumours that had swept the village.

He went on: "You will probably have heard all sorts of silly, idiotic rumours -- 'Such a person had done it' -- even such cruel rumours that relatives have done it." He said he mentioned this because of hints made to him, and he thought it very cruel of people to make suggestions of that description.

Police carried on with intensive inquiries. A 'retired burglar' came forward with an offer to help the police in their investigations!

For month after month those painstaking inquiries went on, not only in the district but throughout the county, and even in other parts of the country, but without the slightest success.

Finally the dossier on the crime took its place along with many other unsolved murders. A police spokesman said that the file is still open, and if any important facts came to their knowledge the inquiries could be reopened -- but after 80 years this seems hardly likely. Now the murder that shook Little Lever to its foundations is probably now forgotten, unless some of the very old residents still recall it. But, for the most part, younger people would comment: "Reuben Mort? Who was he?"

The murderer is no doubt dead - if not, he will be approaching his century! - carrying a secret that went with him to the grave, and to his final judgement.

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