January 14, 2011

Stanley Dalton - Northumbrian murder of an innocent man

By Clive Dalton

Stanley Dalton c 1920s

George Dalton beside his son Stanley's
headstone in Humsaugh church yard

From a report in “The Newcastle Journal”, August 19, 2000
An impenetrably cryptic inscription appears on a stone at the side of the B6318 Military road from Carlisle to Newcastle, marking the spot where Stanley Dalton died. It reads “SD 11 Sep 1926” and conceals an extraordinary story of murder, and how a killer escaped the noose.

Stanley Dalton had been missing for the best part of two weeks. The odd-job man was employed at Walwick Hall, a large country house on the Roman Military Road between Newcastle and Carlisle (see photo right).

He had been seen riding his motorbike towards Haltwhistle on a Saturday afternoon in the warm early autumn of September 1926. When he did not appear for a couple of days, the police were called in and a search began.

The first find was Dalton’s motorbike 12 miles away at Quarry Cottage near Haltwhistle. Inquiries revealed that whoever had dumped the machine by the cottage, it was not the 22 year old Stanley Dalton, a single man without –said friends and relatives- an enemy in the world. The description of the man seen abandoning the bike didn’t match.

Foul play as it was called then was now a distinct possibility and the police redoubled their efforts. This time they felt they were searching for a body.

A 22-strong team investigated a heather-covered terrace at Limestone Bank (see left). To begin with it was hard work for no result. Then one of the searchers found a shoe. At the same time another man noticed a pungent smell. A pile of branches were moved. A body was found. Curiously its arms were folded across its chest as if laid for burial.

Dalton’s father was one of the search party. He was able to identify the decomposed body of his son by his clothes and front teeth. The blue overalls the man habitually wore had gone and so had his black boots. Presumably the killer had taken them.

Forensic examination showed that Stanley Dalton had been hit in the head with shotgun pellets. But these had not killed him. The murderer had finished him off by bludgeoning his head to pulp.

There was no apparent motive and it certainly wasn’t robbery. A few days earlier Dalton had borrowed money from his father to go to a dance. But a description of the man seen with the stolen motorbike told them who they were looking for. He was about 5ft 9in with a prominent Roman nose and was wearing a fawn coat. There were no other clues.

Then came a call from Newcastle police. A man in East Denton had reported that his double barrelled shotgun, two cartridges and a jackknife had been stolen. He suggested that the thief may have been a lodger who occasionally stayed with him. He was called Alexander Cairns, an unemployed joiner from Scotland. He was about 5ft 9in, had a prominent Roman nose and sometimes wore a fawn overcoat.

Police inquiries revealed that Cairns had several convictions for theft and had once been charged with shooting a man with a shotgun. That case had not come to court because the victim was a passionate believer in the rehabilitation of offenders and had refused to give evidence.

It was then learned that Cairns had become engaged to a Northumberland girl. In fact he was already married and had children in his native Scotland. On September 13- two days after the murder, the fiancé received a letter from Cairns. It was postmarked Northallerton and made no mention of Dalton or why Cairns had gone away.

Other letters arrived in the following weeks and they showed that Cairns was keeping on the move. Then Cumberland and Westmorland police revealed that a house on the Langholm road between Carlisle and Edinburgh had been broken into and some cartridges stolen. Northumberland police thought their man was probably responsible.

Nothing more was heard from Cairns for some time. On October 7, Cairns’s fiancé received a puzzling telegram: “Tell Alec to come Struan Tuesday. Thompson”.

Struan is a village on Tayside in Scotland, but the girl knew nobody called Alec or Thompson. The Post Office was able to say the cable had been sent from a house in Edinburgh. Police in Edinburgh found Cairns had been staying at the house and had sent his landlady’s son to the Post Office with the message.

There was no need to find the meaning of the telegram; the important thing was they had a location of the man they were hunting. But by the time they reached the address Cairns had gone. But he had told the landlady about his fiancé in England and that he was thinking of visiting her.

When the lodgings were searched, police found a cardboard box containing the jackknife stolen from East Denton and a cartridge similar to the one used on Dalton. Most damning of all, the dead man’s boots were found in the room.

Then word reached the Northumberland police that Cairns had been spotted in Alston walking towards Haltwhistle. It was decided to lay a trap at the foot of a steep hill Cairns would have to descend.

Detectives dressed in overalls and pretended to be examining the engine of a Post Office van. Cairns stopped to find out what was up and he was overpowered and arrested. Police spent another two days gathering evidence before charging Cairns with Dalton’s murder. The evidence was circumstantial as no motive had been found. But a number of witnesses appeared to testify that Cairns had been in the area where Stanley Dalton had gone missing.

And the fact that Cairns had the victim’s boots and a cartridge similar to the one used in the shooting confirmed to the police that they had the right man. Cairns told police that he had nothing to do with the killing. He admitted that he had stolen the shotgun and cartridges, but only as a favour for a friend, a criminal called Joe Kelley who had an Australian associate. Cairns had decided to join the pair in a burglary of a house near the spot where Dalton’s body had been found.

When he had reached the scene, the Australian had appeared and given him a set of overalls and the boots. He had not known where they had come from. The agreement was that after the burglary, the trio would meet in Northallerton but his partners in crime had failed to turn up. On is way back to Edinburgh, Cairns said he had broken into the house at Langholm to get some cartridges “because Kelly told me to”.

But Cairns was unable to produce either Joe Kelly or the Australian as witnesses. With this pitifully thin defence the Scot argued for his life when he appeared at Northumberland Assizes in Newcastle on February 26, 1927. He was saved by a lone juror who said he was opposed to capital punishment – the only punishment for murder at the time- and under no circumstances would he return a guilty verdict. So a second trial was ordered in Durham the following week but abandoned due to the illness of several members of the jury.

A third trial was held in Leeds in March 1927, and the strain was beginning to tell on the accused whose hair had started to turn white. The trial did not take long and neither did the jury when they returned a verdict of “guilty as charged”. Solemnly the judge placed the traditional black silk square on his wig and told Cairns that he would be taken to prison and “hanged by the neck until you are dead”.

But Cairns escaped the noose. Two days before he was due to hang, the Home Secretary granted a reprieve and he was sentenced to life imprisonment instead. Records show that Cairns was released from prison in 1939. What happened to him then is not known.

But at some point someone placed the engraved stone in the wall near where the murder spot to remember the victim of what remains to this day as a motiveless murder.

Story in the Hexham Courant, by Brian Tilley, 1996

Stanley Dalton's memorial coping stone in the wall on Limestone Bank
near Housesteads on the Roman Wall, near Hexham, Northumberland.
Photo by Kenneth Wood 2011

Thousands of hikers each year tramp along the Military Road through Tynedale as they take in the glories of Hadrian’s wall. But only a tiny proportion glimpse a poignant reminder of a grisly murder which rocked the district 70 years ago.

Travelling west from the Tower Tye crossroads near Humshaugh the Military Road drops into a sharp descent with an even steeper ascent up the other side before the road bears right close to an Ordnance Survey triangulation point. Some 50 yards before the bend, screened by some trees, a simple gravestone is set into the drystone wall.

It is dedicated to the memory of 22-year-old Stanley Dalton of Cowper Hill, Humshaugh who disappeared when riding his motorcycle along the Military Road on September 11 1926. His machine was found the following day at Common House, Haltwhistle and a massive search was launched.

Family, friends, neighbours and police formed search parties but it was two weeks before the decomposing body of the young man was found concealed by bracken and branches in Limestone Wood. He had been shot in the head. The dead man’s father was among the party that made the grim find.

A full scale murder hunt was launched and on October 8th a man was arrested near Cupbola Bridge at Whitfield in connection with another matter. He was Alexander Cairns (33) of Carluke in Scotland who was interviewed by police and subsequently charged with the murder of Stanley Dalton.

News of the arrest was broken by the Hexham Courant and large crowds gathered in Beaumont Street on the Friday afternoon and Saturday morning when Cairns was expected to appear in court. He did not in fact make his appearance until Saturday evening when he was not only charged with the murder, but also of breaking into a house in East Denton and stealing a shotgun and a knife.

Cairns finally appeared before Newcastle Assizes on February 23rd, 1927 when prosecuting counsel Mr G.F.L. Mortimer QC said the case was an unusual one in that as far as the prosecution was aware, the dead man and the accused had never met until the fateful day of Mr Dalton’s death. The prosecution could not offer any motive for the killing.

Mr Dalton was in the habit of riding his motor cycle along the Military Road on his afternoon off from his workplace of Walwick Hall which he did on September 11th. Cairns who was engaged to a girl from Haydon Bridge and had been lodging with her family was seen in the vicinity of Limestone Wood that day and a man answering his description was seen climbing a wall out of the wood where the body was found the same day.

He was subsequently seen tinkering with the carburettor of a motor cycle on the Military Road in the Haltwhistle area and called at a farm to wash his oily hands. It was found that the petrol tank of the motor bike had been punctured by shotgun pellets. During the trial, Mr Dalton’s skull was displayed in court and evidence given that not only had he been shot, but he had also been beaten with a heavy instrument.

Giving evidence, Cairns said that he had fallen in with “two flash crooks” he had met in a Salvation Army hostel who has asked him to steal the gun from East Denton for use in a robbery. He had stolen the gun which he gave to one of the crooks, an Australian, in Newcastle in exchange for “a few shillings.” He subsequently wandered around the North of England and Scotland, not returning to Tyneside over a week after Mr Dalton had been killed.

While admitting lying to the police and his fiancé, Cairns denied ever firing the gun. He admitted he had been seen carrying a long parcel wrapped in a coat but claimed it was a rope ladder for use in further burglaries.

Defending, Mr Osbert Peake claimed that the evidence against Cairns was purely circumstantial. Mr Dalton could have met his death by crashing his motor cycle into the wall, or by being accidentally shot by someone hunting rabbits.

After a three-day trail, the Newcastle jury was unable to reach a verdict and a re-trial was ordered to take place at Durham assizes. However due to the illness of several witnesses, the trial was again rescheduled, this time at Leeds Assizes.

The new trial began on March 22nd when new evidence offered that Cairns had been seen travelling on a bus from Common House where the motor cycle had been abandoned, back down the Military Road towards Brunton.

Summing up for the Crown, Mr Mortimer said that horrible as it may seem, robbery could not be excluded as the motive for the murder, as Cairns was known to be penniless and desperate. Mr Peake said that it was possible that the two flash crooks Cairns had fallen in with had been responsible for the killing, after Mr Dalton had refused to help them to break into Walwick Hall. This time the jury was in no doubt and found Cairns guilty.

He was sentenced to death by Mr Justice Fraser and the date of execution was fixed for April 28th. However less than a week before Cairns was due to go to the scaffold, the Home Secretary commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. Cairns was said to be “overjoyed” at the reprieve.

There had been some public disquiet over the death sentence because of the lack of motive and the jury’s failure to agree at the original trial, but according to the comment column in the Hexham Courant, the general feeling in the district was that Cairns was guilty.

Another fact that emerged after the trial was that Cairns’s engagement to the Haydon Bridge girl was bogus- he was already married in his native Scotland.

Story in the Hexham Courant, by Brian Tilley, January 7, 2011 (p4)

The roads of Tynedale have become a mecca for motor cyclists from around the country in recent years. Long straights, sweeping curves and a marked absence of police officers have encouraged several biking websites to encourage readers to come to Tynedale to test out their machines. The Military Road is favourite route, where bikes howl along the narrow road within yards of the Wall where Roman sandals used to tread.

But not all of the bikers are mindless thrill seekers attempting to outrun the police on their 140mph machines. A knowledgeable few rein in their mighty steads on the long stretch between Tower Tye crossroads and Carrawbrough and doff their helmets in silent tribute to one of their number who met a grisly fate long before they were born.

It’s easy to miss the simple headstone set into the drystone wall opposite the Ordnance Survey triangulation point on a reconstructed section of the wall. Its lettering is hard to decipher now, but its poignant message reads: “S.D. – September 11, 1926.” S.D. was 22-year-old Stanley Dalton, of Cowper Hill, Humshaugh, who met his death on that fateful date.

Unlike many of the biker breed, he was not the victim of a road accident – he was blasted out of the saddle by a callous shotgun wielding killer. The young Stanley was out on his bike when he disappeared – and his machine was found the following day at Common House in Haltwhistle.

A massive search was launched, and family, friends, neighbours and police formed themselves into organised search parties. However, two weeks had elapsed before a party led by Stanley’s father discovered a decomposing body at Limestone Wood, concealed by bracken and branches.

Tragically, it was Stanley, who had not only been shot in the head, but also savagely beaten with a blunt instrument. The man hunt became a murder hunt, but it wasn’t until four months later that an arrest was made. Police arrested a man at the Cupola Bridge near Whitfield in connection with another matter. He was a petty crook from Scotland, 33-year-old Alexander Cairns, from Carluke, who after being interviewed by police, was charged with the murder of Stanley Dalton.

News of his arrest was broken by the Hexham Courant on October 8, 1926, and large crowds gathered in Beaumont Street, Hexham, to await his appearance before Hexham Magistrates’ Court. They had to wait all day on the Friday, and the whole of Saturday, before Cairns eventually appeared in the dock. He was not only charged with the murder of Stanley Dalton, but also with breaking into a house at East Denton, and stealing a shotgun and a knife.

He was remanded in custody to await trial, which happened at Newcastle Assizes on February 23, 1927. The case against him was compelling, according to prosecuting counsel G.F.L. Mortimer KC. He conceded that the case was unusual, because as far as the prosecution knew, the killer and his victim has never met, and there was no obvious motive.

Stanley was in the habit of riding his motorcycle along the Military Road on his afternoons off from his workplace at Walwick, which he did on September 11. Cairns, who was engaged to a girl from Haydon Bridge and had been lodging with her family, had been seen in the vicinity of Limestone Wood that day.

A man answering his description had also been seen climbing the wall out of the wood where Stanley’s body was discovered the same day. Cairns was subsequently seen tinkering with the carburettor of a motor cycle in the Haltwhistle area, and called at a local farm to wash his oily hands. When Stanley’s motor bike was found in Haltwhistle, it was discovered that the petrol tank had been punctured by shotgun pellets.

During the trial, the jury was shown Stanley’s skull to demonstrate he had not only been shot, but also bludgeoned with a heavy object. Giving evidence in court, Cairns admitted stealing the shotgun from East Denton, which he had been asked to do by two “flash crooks” he had met in a Salvation Army hostel.

He knew it was used in a robbery, and gave it to one of the crooks – an Australian – in a pub in Newcastle in exchange for “a few shillings.” He then claimed he had left the district, wandering over large areas of Scotland and the North of England, and not returning to Tynedale until well over a week after Stanley had been killed.

While admitting lying to the police, and to his fiance, Cairns denied ever firing the gun. He admitted being seen carrying a long parcel wrapped in a coat, but said this had been a rope ladder, for use in burglary. Defending, Osbert Peake said the evidence again Cairns was purely circumstantial. He claimed it was possible that Stanley could have met his death by riding his motorcycle into the wall, or by being accidentally shot by someone out shooting rabbits.

The trial lasted for three days, after which the jury could not agree on a verdict. A retrial was ordered to take place at Durham Assizes, but that too was aborted because of the illness of several witnesses. The retrial eventually took place at Leeds Assizes on March 22, when new, damning evidence was presented against Cairns. The jury was told he had been seen boarding a bus at Common House in Haltwhistle, where Stanley’s bike was discovered, and travelling back down the Military Road towards Brunton.

Mr Mortimer told the jury that theft was a possible motive for the attack, as Cairns was known to be penniless and desperate at the time. Mr Peake countered that the two “flash crooks” could equally have been to blame for the murder, after Stanley had refused to help them to break into Walwick Grange.

This time, the jury was in no doubt, and Cairns was found guilty of murder. He was sentenced to death by Mr Justice Fraser, and the execution was scheduled for April 28. But, with less than a week to go before the Scotsman was due to go to the scaffold, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. The Home Secretary showed clemency because of the lack of motive, and the jury’s failure to reach a decision after the first trial.

Cairns was overjoyed, but the consensus in the district was that he was guilty, and was lucky not to have had his neck stretched. It also emerged after the trial that Cairns’s engagement to the Haydon Bridge girl was entirely bogus – he already had a wife back home in Scotland.

Comment from Clive Dalton (Stanley Dalton's nephew)

Stanly Dalton's memorial headstone in Humshaugh church yard. Photo by Kenneth Wood, 2011.
  • Family members were sure that it had been a case of mistaken identity. Apparently there was a rabbit catcher in the district with a motor bike who at certain times carried his earnings with him in cash. Cairns it was thought was after him, and Stan was the wrong man.
  • Stan’s father (George Dalton) apparently never wanted Cairns to hang, and the family made no complaint when he was let out of prison early.
  • The family erected an ornate memorial to Stan which stands in Humshaugh church yard near the door of the church.
  • It was about this time that my father (Henry William) and mother were married the searching for the body was very stressful, and especially for Granda George Dalton who found Stan’s body.
  • It’s very interesting that nobody knew who erected the memorial coping stone in the wall on Limestone Bank.
Stanley Dalton memorial coping stone
Photo by Brian Tilley, Hexham Courant 2011

  • When visiting UK in 2000 I talked to a member of the local Parish council and they were concerned about the stone being a hazard due to interested observers stopping on the busy road, as there was no layby on the crest of the hill to protect them from traffic.
  • I suggested if it was ever removed it should go to Humshaugh church yard to join Stanley's official memorial and grave.

Words on the plaque on base of headstone.
Photo by Kenneth Wood 2011

  • Stanley's brother George is also buried there and is listed on the role of Honour of those who gave their lives in the 1914-18 war. George died at Humshaugh after the war, probably with the after effects of gas, so was added to the list of those who fell in battle.
  • I found out from a friend in Bardon Mill whose father used to tell the story many times that Cairn's girlfriend, a local lass, was called Hilda Bainbridge. Some locals folk believed that Cairns was simply after the motorbike.

George Dalton (Stan Dalton's father) beside the newly erected
memorial in Humshaugh churchyard

  • Brian Tilley added in 2011 that in response to the January 2011 re-telling of the story, he was contacted by Charles Enderby, whose father Sam found the shotgun used in the shooting in the mud in Grindon Lough (see below) in 1936!

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  1. From David Reay - Bardon Mill
    Regarding your uncle Stanley and the story of his murder by Cairns. Hilda Bainbridge, Cairns's girlfriend, lived with a family called Bushby who farmed Midgeholm between Bardon Mill and Whitfield. Mrs Bushby and her son Tom retired to Hardriding, Bardon Mill and Hilda lived there with them as a sort of companion/housekeeper until her death. She never married, nor did Tom. A fascinating story.

  2. I have just found this post while researching various branches of my family tree. If my research is correct, and I hope it is, your uncle Stanley was the nephew of my great great grandfather. Thank you for sharing this tragic yet fascinating story - I'm not sure I would have ever known about this story without your blog.

    CT, Carlisle