Celia Holloway: Murdered by Her Husband John Holloway

Celia Holloway met her future husband John William Holloway, as he was christened, at the coastal town of Brighton on England’s southern coast located some 47 miles south of London. Brighton was a hot spot from about the 1730s onward for improving or curing one’s health by drinking or bathing in seawater. Those who patronized the area in the late 1700 and early 1800s included the Prince Regent, his longtime companion Maria Fitzherbert, actress Sarah Siddons, socialite and Jane Austen‘s fascinating cousin Eliza de Feuillide, and German-born British astronomer William Herschel. Even Madame Tussaud appeared there while touring with her traveling wax museum.

 

John William Holloway. Author’s collection.

In the 1820s, Holloway could also be found in Brighton, but he was not there to take the sea water or improve his health. He was there to gamble on the speedy thoroughbreds found racing down the track at the Brighton racecourse. In fact, Holloway was very familiar with Brighton as he had been born about nine miles away in the parish of St. John’s, in Lewes, on 22 May 1806.

Holloway appeared to have had a normal childhood, although as a youth he demonstrated considerable “waywardness of disposition.” By the time he met Celia he was essentially a petty criminal and had a varied employment history. Among the jobs in which he was employed was a baker’s helper, a bricklayer, and for a time a butcher’s assistant.

Celia Bashford, as she was known at the time, was about six years older than 19-year-old Holloway when they met. She was living in Brighton and working as a servant at a Brighton tavern. After meeting, a courtship began even though according to Holloway:

“She [Celia] was never happy but when with me; but as I did not love her, I only laughed at her folly, and to tell the truth was ashamed to be seen with her until after dark. … However, I continued to keep company with the unfortunate Celia, though I knew at the same time I did not love her, but so it was, that I could not be happy with her nor happy without her.”[1]  

Although Holloway may have been ambivalent about Celia, she fell in love with him and got pregnant. When her employer learned she was pregnant, he dismissed her and because Holloway did not love her and refused to marry her, she was forced to seek parish aid. That is when she returned to Ardingly, about 20 miles away from Brighton.

Because Holloway would not marry her authorities issued a “bastardy warrant” against him. Pressure was also applied to get him to wed Celia, which meant he was sent to the Lewes prison. He remained incarcerated five weeks before he finally agreed to the marriage and afterwards, the newlyweds returned to Brighton where Celia Holloway gave birth to a stillborn baby.

She then got pregnant again resulting in the birth of a baby girl named Agnes, who died around the age of one. Meanwhile, Holloway became a sailor, went to sea, met, courted, and illegally married a young woman named Ann Kennett. They then began living together under the name of Mr. and Mrs. Goldsmith at 7 Margaret Street in Brighton.

Ann Kennett. Public domain.

Despite Holloway’s relationship with Kennett, he did not sever his tie with Celia. He in fact continued to have sexual relations with both women. So, by the spring of 1831, both Celia and Kennett were pregnant by him.

It was during this time that Celia Holloway once again became a charge upon the parish. A magistrate then ordered Holloway to give Celia two shillings a week. That money was something that Holloway found it nearly impossible to pay but when he did so, he sent it by way of Kennett. Of course, that caused problems between the two women as they were not on friendly terms with one another.

During the time that Holloway was living with Kennett, Celia was living with a friend, a Mrs. Symonds, at No. 4, Cavendish Place North. Having to pay Celia Holloway two shillings a week was too much for Holloway and he continually griped about it. Moreover, in July he decided he had to do away with Celia permanently and devised a scheme to rid himself of his wife for good. It was something he had long thought of doing and he set his devilish plan into action:

“One fine day in July he called and told her he was sick of the life he was leading, and would like to resume friendly relations, and live with her as he had done when they first married. Poor Celia, whose affection for him had never changed, readily assented, so he told her he would take lodgings and come and fetch her on a certain day. Meanwhile, he had taken a small house at No. 11, North Steyne Row, or, as it was better known then, ‘Donkey Row,’ Brighton.”[2]

On 14 July 1831, as promised Holloway called at Mrs. Symonds and gathered Celia’s belongings — boxes, clothes, bedding, and baby linen — and took them to Donkey Row. He then returned for his wife, who according to Symonds was very comfortable with him and took tea with him before departing. She willingly accompanied him to their new house where he took her in and “shut the door.”

Little did Celia Holloway realize what was about to happen. Kennett was already hiding in the cupboard and poised to help Holloway having already agreed to Holloway’s “nefarious design.” Thus, according to the Sporting Times:

“On entering the house he asked her [Celia] to sit down on the stairs, and under the pretence of kissing her, suddenly tied a cord round her neck and endeavoured with all his might to strangle her. The poor woman resisted as much as she could … Holloway meantime retaining one end of the rope and hauling it as tight as he could. … [Kennett], who he stated, was looking on, exclaimed at this juncture, ‘Do not let your heart fail you.’ When strangulation appeared complete, he cut her throat in two places with a pocket knife.”[3]

Celia Holloway - the spot where Anne Kennet concealed herself and

The spot where Ann Kennett concealed herself and Celia Holloway was put after her death. Public domain.

Celia’s body was then dragged to a cupboard where Holloway attached the rope to a nail on the wall and concealed her body. She was left hanging that night while Kennett and Holloway returned to their lodgings on Margaret Street after burning Celia’s bonnet and a couple other articles of clothing. The next night Kennett and Holloway returned to Donkey Row, cut down Celia’s body, and Holloway cut off her head, legs, and arms, which he put in a bag created from the ticking she had brought with her. In addition, Holloway placed her torso into a box she had brought with her.

Celia Holloway being dismembered

Celia Holloway being dismembered by her husband after her murder. Author’s collection.

Kennett and Holloway then hauled the bag of limbs and the box containing her torso back to Margaret Street. The next evening, Holloway borrowed a wheelbarrow from a neighbor, loaded the box that held Celia’s headless and limbless torso into the wheelbarrow, and they proceeded on their way to a little copse near New England Farm in Rottingdean. As Holloway wheeled Celia’s grisly torso, Kennett carried a pickaxe and shovel. He later admitted:

“I made an attempt to dig a hole that night, but found it too dark: we just put the box under some bushes near the spot, and also the pick-axe and shovel; … We then took the wheel-barrow home. We went down again the morning as soon as it was light, and I dug a hole, with an intent to bury box and all, but I found that would take up too much of my time, because of the roots of the trees. I took the body out, and threw it into the hole. I heaved the body up, and then broke the box up, and hid away the pick and shovel.”[4]

Celia Holloway and Holloway wheeling Celia's body

Holloway wheeling Celia Holloway’s torso and Ann Kennett accompanying him. Public domain.

The next evening Holloway returned to the spot where Celia’s pregnant torso was buried along with the dead seven or eight month old male fetus inside. Holloway even commented that after his wife’s death, he thought the fetus might have still be alive. If it bothered him now, he ignored it and instead gathered up the pickaxe and shovel and took them home. In the meantime, Kennett had gone to the house in Donkey Row to clean up and wash away any signs of Celia’s blood.

As far as the perpetrators were concerned, everything appeared to have gone smoothly and they felt they had gotten away with the murder. Unfortunately for them, a few weeks later, on 12 August, a laborer by the name of Daniel Maskell and a fisherman named John Gillam noticed a disturbed spot in the earth. Curious, the two men began poking at it with sticks, raked the soil with their hands, and notice a foul odor arising from the soil. In addition, they discovered a piece of fabric protruding through the earth.

The men returned home, and Gillam mentioned what he had found to his wife and mother. They then began to suggest that a child was buried there and as their imaginations grew, they devised a plan to go the spot early the next morning and see what they could find. They arrived a 6am with a neighbor and began removing the soil. That is when someone found a gown belonging to an adult woman, which then encouraged everyone to suspect foul play, and they promptly rushed off to Preston and informed a policeman of what had been discovered:

“In due course he returned with a constable and a crowd of other persons, and the digging was resumed. The excitement was very great as the trunk and thighs of the poor woman were brought to the surface. It was still clothed in the stays, chemise, and petticoats in which the deceased had left Mrs. Symonds’ house. A further search being made in the immediate vicinity, resulted in discovering several portions of the broken box, with blood-stained finger marks upon them. These fragments, together with the remains, were promptly conveyed to a barn at Preston to await the inquest, and the news of the discovery having caused great excitement, hundreds of people flocked from Brighton prompted by curiosity or otherwise.”[5]

News of a dismembered and headless corpse spread like wildfire throughout Brighton. A Mrs. Bishop soon heard about it and like others was intrigued. When she investigated, she discovered that she recognized the fabric fragments as being the same material used in a dress that her sister Celia Holloway owned. In fact, Mrs. Bishop later declared that she knew for certain that it must be Celia’s body when she saw the fabric.

Everything was pointing to Holloway and his paramour Kennett as being the culprits and so police took steps to arrest them. Kennett was discovered first. She was at her and Holloway’s new residence at 23 High Street where they had recently moved. Holloway soon learned that Kennett had been arrested and that inquiries were being made about him. Finding no way to escape he surrendered that evening, which was noted by the Brighton night constable, who wrote in his report book:

“Past ten o’clock, came to the watch-room, William Goldsmith, alias Holloway, and stated, that understanding that he was suspected of being the murderer of his wife, he came to surrender himself. He said about three weeks ago, he went with his wife on the London road, to the end of the wooden fence, beyond the dairy, where he left her with a box to go to London by the coach that might pass, to a friend’s house at Holborn-bridge, and he has not seen her since; says she had ten pounds in money; nine pounds he gave her himself, and one pound she had of her own saving.”[6]

Everyone was mesmerized by details of the grisly case and anything and everything related to it were published in newspapers. Insatiable readers read witness statements, letters written by Holloway, his contradictory confessions, and all the gruesome details related to the post-mortem. Moreover, because the head and limbs of the deceased remained missing, Brighton’s high constable used every available effort to discover them. This included a thorough search with the following details published by the Sporting Times:

“The police had searched high and low in every possible place for the missing head, arms, and legs, but without avail. As a final resort … the investigators decided that the closets in Margaret Street should be searched. This was done for some hours without any result. Just as they were going to give it up in despair, one of the men probed a hard substance, which turned out to be a human leg with a stocking on. Then came the other similarly, clad. Subsequently, the two arms in the sleeves of the dress found on the body at Rottingdean, and last of all, the bed ticking contain the head of the murdered woman denuded of almost all its hair.”[7]

If there was any doubt that Holloway had murdered in his wife, it was dispelled when he confessed. In fact, he confessed twice. The first confession on 20 August exculpated Kennett but the second one on 3 September implicated her with Holloway essentially admitting the following details related to Celia’s murder:

“I unknown to her [Celia], passed the cord round her neck. It was then some minutes before I pulled it tight. At last I lost all natural feelings, and pulled the cord with all my might. She never spoke nor groaned, but immediately sprang upon her feet; but the attack was so sudden, she appeared not to have power so much as to lift her hands to neck. I held her myself a few seconds; but the appearance of her face shocked me, and my arm beginning to ache, I called Ann Kennett; and she came out of the cupboard, I desired her to come and assist me, which God knows, she did, by taking hold of each end of the rope with me; and she held the rope with me until the poor girl dropped on the stairs, and … her head struck against the edge of one of the steps, and her nose sprang a-bleeding. We held her there until we judged that she dead, and then Ann Kennett let go the cord.”[8]

Although Holloway implicated Kennett in the murder, she denied that she was involved or that she assisted Holloway in any way. When she learned that he was alleging she was his accomplice she confronted him and declared her innocence. She also called him a “liar,” a “blackguard,” and a “deceitful wretch.” However, despite her protestations that she was innocent, she was not freed:

“[She was] committed to trial at the assizes as an accessory after the fact, having been distinctly proved to have come from the copse, where the body of Celia Holloway was buried, in company with her paramour on the evening of Celia’s internment.”[9]

The trial took place on Wednesday, 14 December beginning at 10:30am and finishing at 6pm. However, first the case of Holloway’s bigamy was disposed and then the two “wretched” prisoners were brought to the bar. As the murder of Celia Holloway had been well-publicized, it was no surprise that the courtroom was packed when the indictment was read accusing Holloway of choking, suffocating, and strangling Celia.

As to Kennett’s part in the murder, after the evidence was presented, the “learned judged” summed it up for the jury stating:

“The evidence against the prisoner is entirely circumstantial and if you have any doubt, you must give the prisoner the benefit of that doubt. No wife can ever be found guilty of assisting her own husband, she might be guilty in some measure; but the law cannot touch her, and if the prisoner thought that she was the actual wife of Holloway, and you find such to have been her sincere belief, she must acquitted of the crime as an accessory after the fact.”[10]

The jury unsurprisingly acquitted Kennett on the charge of murder as it was unbelievable to the jury that a woman could be involved in murder. Soon after she experienced labor pains and successfully gave birth to a daughter, whom she named Ann. However, a new indictment was brought against Kennett for “concealing and harboring” Holloway and when her second trial was held in March of 1832, she appeared with her baby in her arms and was once again acquitted.

During Holloway’s murder trial numerous witnesses came forward and testified about the threats and ill things Holloway continually said about his wife. The coroner also testified that he felt like either a doctor or a butcher completed the dismemberment of Celia Holloway because “all the limbs had been carefully disjointed at their sockets, and the decapitation was effected at the sixth cervical vertebra.”[11] Therefore, it was concluded that Holloway likely had done the dismemberment as he had once served as a butcher’s assistant.

Holloway was full of bravado throughout the trial. He challenged witnesses and blamed Celia’s family for his deplorable actions. People were shocked by his callousness, impudent manner, and “savage indifference.” He had no sorrow or repentance for the fact that Celia Holloway was dead. Perhaps, his behavior was insensitive because he honestly believed there was no evidence to convict him and thought he would not be found guilty. Indicative of this was what he declared to the jury:

“My Lord, since a man named Winter, who committed a shocking murder, was pardoned, why should I be hanged? … his life is spared for murder, why should mine be taken? … I consider that I have the same right as he had, for is it not plain or clear that I have committed the murder … It is very plain that Winter was the murderer of his wife, but it is not plain against me, expect on my own confession.”[12]

The jury thought otherwise, and unequivocally declared Holloway “guilty.” He was sentenced to be executed in front of the Horsham gaol on 21 December. The smug Holloway who appeared in court a few days earlier was very different from the repentant Holloway who stepped onto the scaffolding. He gave a short speech about sin and noted how it had brought him to his “untimely end.”

Celia holloway - Holloway's execution

Holloway’s execution. Public domain.

After his execution, his body hung for a short time before it was cut down. His dead body was then loaded into a plain oblong box, very similar to the one Celia’s torso had been placed in and he was taken to Town Hall, where he was displayed publicly for twenty-four hours. His corpse was then delivered to the Brighton Infirmary where a public dissection of his body took place.

References:

  • [1] J. W. Holloway, An Authentic and Faithful History of the Atrocious Murder of Celia Holloway (London: W. Nute, 1832), p. 21.
  • [2] Sporting Times, “Celebrated Crimes and Criminals – No. VI,” February 5, 1887, p. 3.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Annual Register (London: J. Dodsley, 1832), p. 193.
  • [5] Sporting Times, p. 3.
  • [6] J. W. Holloway. 1832, p. 171.
  • [7] Sporting Times, p. 3.
  • [8] J. W. Holloway. 1832, p. 234–35.
  • [9] Reading Mercury, “Murder of Celia Holloway,” September 12, 1831, p. 4.
  • [10] C. Hindley, The Brighton Murder (Curtis Bros. and Towner, 1875), p. 86.
  • [11] Sporting Times, p. 3.
  • [12] Durham County Advertiser, “Sussex Winter Assizes,” December 23, 1831, p. 4.

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  1. Graham Clayton on October 11, 2019 at 2:45 am

    What a cad!

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