Manchester’s Vilest: Mary Ann Britland

On a warm day in August 1886, Mary Ann Britland became the first woman to be executed at Strangeways Prison.

By Alex Watson | Last updated 30 March 2020

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The story of Mary Ann Britland is a twisted tale of a love triangle that leads to the first female hanging at Strangeways.

Mary was born in Bolton and moved to Ashton-under-Lyne to enjoy married life with her husband, Thomas Britland. They lived in a rented house on Turner Lane with their two daughters, Elizabeth and Susannah.

From the outside, they looked like a perfectly normal family. Their life followed similar ebbs and flows that were etched into society at the time. They married young, worked hard (Mary worked in a factory at day and a bar at night) and created a family home.

Unfortunately in February of 1886, their family home became infested with mice – so naturally, Mary bought ‘Harrison’s Vermin Killer’ as poison which contained strychnine and arsenic.

Only that’s not really why she bought the poison, is it?

Mary and her next-door neighbour Thomas Dixon were either having an affair or she had an extreme unrequited love for him and was curating a plan of how to get him all for herself.

When her daughter, Elizabeth approached her with accusations of such, Mary retaliated. Except probably a little more extreme than anybody else would.

Elizabeth, despite being her very own daughter, became Mary’s first victim. Elizabeth was unusually taken ill with severe stomach cramps. The family doctor, Dr Thompson gave the cause of “death as vomiting, convulsions and spasms of the heart”. No inquest was held and the death certificate was signed for quickly with no problems.

Mary even collected ten pounds from her life insurance.

Shortly after, Mary turned to her husband, Thomas, who was also in the way of her love affair with Dixon. She poisoned him, the exact same way she had poisoned her daughter just a matter of weeks earlier. This time, his death was diagnosed as caused by epilepsy.

Mary collected twenty pounds from his life insurance.

Shocked by the quick bereavement, Thomas Dixon and his wife kindly took Mary and her daughter in to their house next door.

Little did the Dixon’s know how their kindness would be returned. The final piece to a life with Thomas Dixon – now she already lived with him – was to get his wife out of the picture. Mary poisoned her too and she became her third and final victim.

This final death, in which the symptoms curiously matched those of the two previous deaths, raised suspicions with another neighbour, tongues started wagging and so the rumours began.

Shortly following the final murder, the police began their investigation, exhuming all three bodies. Quickly, more detailed analysis of the organs discovered both arsenic and strychnine in the stomach and surrounding tissues.

The poisons were easily traced back to Mary Ann, who had not long previously actually signed for the vermin killer due to its extremely high toxicity at the chemist. She’d even purchased the product a number of times (explaining that the mice hadn’t gone), meaning she had enough poison in her possession to easily and brutally murder three people.

Mary Ann confessed to killing her daughter to Ashton Police after she announced her intentions of pursuing their neighbour Thomas Dixon. Her trial was for the murder of Mrs Dixon but the previous two cases were used as evidence to prove a repetition in the three deaths. This helped the case in proving that the death of her husband and daughter were not at all accidental.

Mary Ann Britland was eventually charged with all three murders and sentenced to death by hanging on Thursday 22nd July 1886 but declared to court “I am quite innocent, I am not guilty at all“.

Thomas Dixon was also arrested but was quickly proved to be entirely innocent of any involvement, leaving Mary Ann Britland standing alone in the dock where she uttered her final words “Oh Lord save me! Have mercy upon me… I must have been mad”.

It took the jury some time to convict Mary, eventually, after a two-day trial, she was found guilty and hanged on Monday 9th August 1886, at Strangeways Prison.

On the morning of her death, Mary had to be heavily assisted to the gallows by two female workers who held her at the trap door while James Berry prepared her execution. Her death appeared to have been instantaneous.

She became the first ever woman to be executed at Strangeways Prison in Manchester.

There’s a distant relative of Mary working to collate a book full of her history. Find the blog here