Brian Langston is a retired Assistant Chief Constable now living in Southern France where he writes on crime, mysteries and the paranormal.
England's Worst Murder?
In 1807 the rural tranquility of the pretty hamlet of Upper Mayfield in North-east Staffordshire was shattered by the brutality of a shocking triple murder perpetrated by a quiet local man upon his own children. So inhuman was the slaughter that it was once dubbed the worst crime that had ever been committed in England.
Amidst rumours of supernatural agency and demonic possession, the country clamoured to discover what had driven a devoted husband and father to the barbaric massacre of three innocents and the attempted murder of his wife.
George Allen was 42 years old and had been happily married to Mary for seventeen years. They lived in a simple one bedroom farm labourer’s cottage with four of their eight children. The eldest four children were in service and lived away from home. Under the same roof but in a separate apartment lived an elderly bed-ridden lodger Hannah Hayes.
George was described as honest and industrious. He had previously worked as a gamekeeper for the local landowners but had taken to labouring on the farms in the Totmonslow Hundred surrounding his home.
Upper Mayfield at the end of the C19th
A Prelude to Murder
On the evening of Monday 12th January 1807 as was his usual habit, George went to bed around 8.30pm and smoked his last pipe of tobacco. A short while later he was he was joined by his wife with her baby at the breast having its last feed. The other three children, George aged 9, William aged 6 and Hannah aged 4 were asleep in the same room in a separate bed.
As his wife sat down next to him in bed feeding the baby, George’s mood suddenly changed and out of the blue he asked her which other men had been in the house. Somewhat taken aback by this comment, Mary answered indignantly that no man but him had ever been in the house and demanded to know what had prompted this offensive accusation. George did not reply but got out of bed and went downstairs. Mary could hear him rummaging around downstairs and sensing something was wrong, she walked out onto the landing, still holding the baby, to see what was going on. She saw George coming back upstairs brandishing a cut throat razor and he calmly ordered her back into the bedroom. Terrified and wondering what on earth was amiss, Mary attempted to reason with him to no avail. George went over to the bed where his three children lay and drew back the bedclothes and raised the blade into the air. Mary realising what he was about to do, began to wrestle with him but he pushed her aside saying “Let me be or I will serve you the same sauce”.
Mary begged him to desist but he responded by slashing her across the throat with the razor. It was only the fabric of her neckerchief which prevented the wound from being fatal but she was severely injured. He slashed out again, narrowly missing the infant in her arms, and slicing her across the breast. Fearing for her life she fled from the bedroom with the baby still in her arms, but in her panic fell from the top to bottom of the stairs. As she struggled to get to her feet, she saw her husband throwing a bundle down the stairs after her. To her horror, the blood drenched body of her 4 year old daughter landed at her feet, revealing a yawning gash across the throat which had virtually severed the child’s head from its body.
Screaming with terror and covered in blood, Mary ran out in the street where two teenage servants, Thomas Harper and Joseph Johnson, were passing on their way to their master’s stables. Unable to comprehend the hysterical ravings of the poor woman, the two servants instinctively ran towards the cottage.
Joseph was carrying a lantern but in running across the road, the candle had extinguished and it was now too dark to see. The front door was ajar and as they approached the cottage, they noticed the flicker of a light coming from upstairs. Thomas took the candle from the lantern and the pair tentatively climbed the stairs to find the source of the light. They had gone no further than four or five steps when they caught sight of a figure through the banister rails. As their eyes grew accustomed to the dark they could not believe the scene of carnage which was taking place before them, a scene which would live with them for the rest of their lives.
Bent over the bodies of his two young boys was George Allen, slashing maniacally at their chests with the razor. Their bellies had been cut open and their bowels had been torn out and trailed across the floor. Recoiling in horror, Thomas and Joseph ran out of the house and banged on the door of John Gallimore, their employer who lived opposite. The three of them then approached the cottage which was now eerily silent.
As they stepped over the threshold, their candlelight fell on the crimson stained body of little Hannah lying at the foot of the stairs with horrific injuries, gurgling her last breath. The bowels of another child had been thrown halfway down the stairs.
John Gallimore called out “Christ Jesus sake George- what are you doing- you’ll not go on in this way surely?”
A voice from the darkness called out “I am here.” Gallimore was understandably cautious about going upstairs and sent for help from David Shaw, a farmer who lived just 150 yards down the lane.
" I have cut them all to pieces and cut off their heads with a razor"
The House of Horror
As all four men finally entered the house of horror, they saw George Allen standing in the darkness in a blood-sodden nightshirt and cap, still holding the razor which was dripping with the blood of his children. John Gallimore asked him what he had done. He looked up at them and without a glimmer of emotion said calmly, “Nothing yet. I have only killed three of them”.
George Allen stood impassively and offered no resistance to being restrained by David Shaw. He calmly told them that it was his intention to murder his wife and all her children together with the elderly lodger and then kill himself.
Once George Allen had been secured, Gallimore went upstairs where he saw the bodies of the two boys William and George lying on the floor. William was lying on top of George both face up. He was cut wide open across the belly and lengthways through his breast with his entrails draped across the floor and down the stairs. The head of one of the boys had been almost severed from the body with the ferocity of the attack.
Gallimore cried out “In the name of the Lord, George what hast thou done?”He replied “I have not done much yet. They are my own aren’t they? - I’ll sell them”. Shaw asked if he meant to kill his wife and he said “I did and send her spirit to the Devil.”
John Getliff a neighbour who had known George Allen for twenty years then arrived and asked him “George what have you been doing of” Allen replied “ It is no business of nobody’s they are my own. I have a right to do as I like with them. They want nothing- they felt nothing. They are happy and you may hang me if you like.”
Getliff was sent upstairs to get clothes for Allen and to check for any signs of life in the children. Allen said chillingly “No need to look for that. I have cut them all to pieces and cut their heads off with a razor.” Shaw sent for a pair of handcuffs and the prisoner was taken away and handed into the custody of Mr. Bowler the Head Borough Constable and later guarded overnight by the Parish Constable John Milward.
The Inquest Opens
Those who attended the inquest the following week gasped in revulsion when they heard from the surgeon John Nicolson of the horrific injuries that had been inflicted upon the children by their father. George Allen was well known in the village and it was unthinkable that the man that they had known for so long was capable of such atrocity.
What had driven this happily married man to commit such an evil act remained a mystery. He offered no explanation or excuse for his actions but then suddenly in the middle of the inquest; George Allen asked the coroner Mr. Hand if he could unburden himself with an issue which had been weighing heavily on his mind. Acceding to his request the jury listened with incredulity as he related a bizarre story of encountering a ghost one night in Upper Mayfield. In a scene reminiscent of a medieval witch trial, he told a hushed courtroom that the phantom had appeared in the form of a black horse and had enticed him into a stable where it ‘drew blood from him’ and then flew off into the sky.
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The Coroner was taken aback by this disclosure which caused an outbreak of commotion in the public gallery. He appealed for calm and asked the bewildered jury to retire to consider their verdict. George Allen stood impassively before them showing no emotion or contrition and calmly declared to the Coroner that he supposed; “it was as bad a case ever he had heard of”
A verdict of murder of the infants at the hands of George Allen was recorded and he was committed for trail at Stafford Spring Assizes.
The Murder Trial
During the criminal trial there was little explicit reference to the bizarre revelation about the spectral steed. Mary Allen was not called as a witness as a wife was not permitted to give evidence for or against her husband. The case was therefore proved by a procession of witnesses who related gruesome and distressing details from their harrowing experiences at the scene of the crime.
John Gallimore told the court that he had known the prisoner for over 20 years. About a fortnight before the murders he was aware that he had been ill and had seen him out walking looking rather unwell. This would have coincided with the experience he claimed to have with the phantom horse.
George Allen was previously of good character although his medical history was explored in some depth when it emerged he was prone to fits.
Shaw had known the prisoner since childhood and had frequently employed him as a gardener and for general duties around his farm. He was aware that he suffered from fits and witnessed an episode some seven years previously, when he collapsed ‘as if dead’. He had seen nothing however to lead him to a conclusion that he was insane.
His brother, Thomas Shaw, the former village constable gave evidence that he had once taken Allen into custody for an hour to cool off after being enraged and insensible. John Milward the present constable of Mayfield had known George Allen all his life. About four years previously he was working for Milward when he found him collapsed in the garden after having a fit. Milward took him into his house for ten or fifteen minutes when he regained consciousness. His wife gave him some warm ale and he seemed quite recovered and worked happily for the rest of the day. There was nothing violent about his conduct once he had recovered, Milward told the court.
The Judge then called for any medical men in packed courtroom to give evidence about the nature of epileptic fits. Several doctors came forward and gave evidence that epilepsy would not have accounted for his behaviour on the night in question and would not account for the frenzied madness which had been exhibited at the time of the murders. The surgeons described the usual pattern of an epileptic episode as collapse in a fit of convulsions and then to become inanimate for a period of five minutes to half an hour after which the sufferer re-awakens feeling weak and often unaware of what has happened to them, with muscular strength returning by slow degrees thereafter. There was no doubt to the judge and the jury that epilepsy could not be blamed as the cause of his murderous actions.
The judge in his summing up, reminded the jury of the strength of evidence against George Allen for the murder of his children. Thomas Harper had seen him in the act of slashing the children with the razor. He had freely confessed to his actions and therefore the case was clearly proved against him unless they believed him to be insane. His cold comments to the horrified witnesses on the night in question indicated that he knew exactly what he had done and was in full possession of his faculties. There was no evidence of any provocation to induce this awful murder and his behaviour suggested he believed he had the right to treat his own children however he wished.
The jury took only fifteen minutes to find him guilty of the vicious murder of his three children. The judge commented that he believed unfounded jealousy was the true reason for the crimes. At this point the prisoner called out anxiously “Will your Lordship give me leave to speak?” Unfortunately this request was not heard by the judge who continued to pass the sentence of death ordering him to be taken to the County gaol at Stafford and on the following Monday be hanged by the neck until he was dead.
We will never know what explanation George Allen intended to give in those closing moments of the trial. Rumours circulated in the immediate aftermath of the case that he had been responsible for other atrocities, but despite being interviewed about other offences, he denied there was any truth in the reports. He maintained the bizarre story about the phantom horse that flew away after drawing blood from him and gave no explanation for the murders other than to assert that reason had left him.
Whether or not there was any occult explanation to his behaviour remains a mystery. Some of the more superstitious villagers, unable to come to terms with the awfulness of the brutality, felt the only explanation must have been that he was bewitched or ‘beset with demons’ when he committed the massacre.
The Execution of George Allen
On Monday 30th March 1807, the morning of his execution, George Allen complained he was hungry and asked for some bread for his last meal. At 11am the gallows at Stafford Gaol were prepared and a crowd of thousands watched as he walked undaunted, emotionless and silent into the hangman’s noose and was launched into eternity. After remaining hanging for the statutory hour, his body was cut down and handed over to the surgeons of Stafford for dissection.
Although George Allen’s assertions of his midnight encounter with the malevolent mount in the stables were dismissed by most people as the ramblings of a disturbed mind, there is historical precedence for this demonic entity. Legend has it that in 1245, while Peter of Verona was preaching to a large crowd, the Devil appeared in the form of a raging black horse and attacked the multitude. Peter made the sign of the cross and the horse flew away leaving in its wake a horrible smell of sulphur and the people were saved.
Brian Langston (author) from Languedoc Roussillon on March 24, 2015:
Many thanks TripleA..Still a mystery!
TripleAMom from Florida on March 23, 2015:
Wow, interesting. So many things still unclear. Great research!
Brian Langston (author) from Languedoc Roussillon on March 18, 2015:
Thanks CrimeTraveller- your kind comments are much appreciated. Look forward to reading some of your true crime hubs too. It seems we like similar stories...
CrimeTraveller on March 18, 2015:
This is a truly horrific and terrible tale of the actions of a father against his family. What caused a man of previous good standing to carry out such acts and the aspect of his mysterious sighting nights earlier adds to the intrigue. Well written and a great read, thank you for sharing this story!
Brian Langston (author) from Languedoc Roussillon on March 06, 2015:
Thanks Polly- Wasn't it a dreadful case? It's surprising how common it was in the C19th for parents to cut the throats of their own children. Surprisingly their twisted logic was that the children would be better off dead than starving to death of going into the workhouse.
Pollyanna Jones from United Kingdom on March 05, 2015:
What a dreadful tale! I can't fathom what would possess a parent to harm their own children. Your article was a gripping read, that does leave more questions than answers. I enjoyed reading it, even though it was difficult to stomach!