The Sole Society, a Family History Society researching Sole, Saul, Sewell, Solley and similar names

Sewell of Lancashire

The Shooting of Sergeant Sewell

By June Thompson

This article was originally published in the November 1997 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.

Early one November morning in the year 1878, Sergeant Jonah Sewell left the police station in St. Helens with two colleagues. After a while, he left his colleagues and was seen in conversation with a young man near the corner of Liverpool Road and Arthur Street.

The Sergeant made as if to search the Young man, who pulled out a pistol and shot his questioner at point blank range. The assailant then ran off down Mill Place and on to the canal bank, dissuading followers by threatening them with the pistol. His victim was carried to a local doctor's house, but died shortly afterwards. He was 37 years of age.

Jonah Sewell was born in 1841 in Gosforth, a small village in Cumberland, the youngest of three children of William Sewell, a shoe­maker, and his yvife, Elizabeth, formerly Norris. 

He was first of all a blacksmith, then joined the Cumberland County Police around 1862. He then moved to Liverpool and joined the Liverpool Borough Police, transferring to the Lancashire Constabulary at St. Helens in 1866. He was promoted to Sergeant in 1876.

Jonah Sewell was a tall man, 5ft. 11 inches in height, with fair complexion, grey eyes and brown hair. He had married a Workington girl, Mary Boyd, and they had a little girl, Sarah Elizabeth, who was born on New Year's Day, 1866. Sadly little Sarah Elizabeth died of croup when she was two‑and‑a‑half. At that time the family lived at Upper Parr Street, Parr, St. Helens. Sarah Elizabeth is buried at Parr.

In 1871, according to the census, the couple lived at Church Lane, Eccleston, St. Helens.

There do not seem to be any other children of the marriage. By the time of Jonah's death he and Mary lived at 70 Claughton Street, St. Helens. Their terraced house is still there but has been turned into a shop.

It transpired that a young man, Hugh Carey, a labourer at the Greenbank Chemical Works, had had a disagreement with his foreman, a Mr. Pickavance, and threatened him with a pistol saying. "See thee, I will do thee to­night". Mr. Pickavance took this threat seriously and took out a warrant against Carey. Several witnesses testified that it was this same young man, Hugh Carey, aged 18, who had shot Sergeant Sewell.

A six‑barrelled pistol, two barrels of which had been discharged, and a box of cartridges were found a couple of weeks later, by accident, by an employee of the Rainhill Gas and Water Works. A valve had proved to be faulty, and, upon lifting the flagstone which covered it he discovered the weapon. which was of the same calibre as the one that killed Sergeant Sewell. A local shopkeeper confirmed that this was the gun that he had sold to young Hugh Carey previously. Carey fled to Ireland where he was later captured, brought back to England and charged with murder.

At the Liverpool Spring Assizes, held in St. George's Hall in early February 1879, the defence admitted that Carey was the man involved in the shooting but claimed that the pistol went off accidentally in a struggle.

However, it transpired that Sergeant Sewell was not in actual possession of the warrant against Carey at the time he attempted to detain him. In fact, another man believed to be Carey, had been arrested by mistake and the warrant was at the police station. It is not known if Sergeant Sewell knew that the man he had apprehended was Carey, or whether he was suspicious of him for some other reason.

However, the Judge ruled that it was questionable, under the law of the time, whether the officer had reasonable grounds for stopping Carey, and searching him and directed that the charge of murder could not be supported. Hugh Carey was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to twenty five years penal servitude.

At that time the Greenbank area housed a large Irish community with a great deal of sympathy for Carey. They were up in arms about his arrest and it may be that the preservation of good community relations was a factor in the judge's direction.

Upon learning of this direction and believing that Carey would be acquitted of murder and only receive a nominal sentence for man­slaughter, the inhabitants of Greenbank built a huge celebratory bonfire. The twenty‑five years' sentence appalled his sympathisers and some of them said it would have been more merciful to have hanged him outright.

The local paper said. "There was no attempt at lighting the bonfire. By no effort of the imagination could Greenbank elevate Carey to the position of a hero after the sentence had become known. The law's vindication appeared terribly relentless, and Greenbank mourned instead of rejoicing".

As often happens, the victim and his family were forgotten, but not by Sergeant Sewell's colleagues. They erected a gravestone to his memory, in St. Helens cemetery. The inscription reads as follows:


the memory of


in the Lancashire Constabulary,

who was shot at St. Helens

on the morning of the Ist November,


while in the execution of his duty

Aged 37 years

Erected by

his comrades of all ranks in the force


Gravestones at Gosforth, Cumberland, and St Helens; IGI; Gosforth Parish Registers; Archive copies of local newspapers and census returns at St. Helens Local History Library; Lancashire Constabulary police records.


I live in Newton‑le‑Willows, Lancashire, not far from St. Helens, but all my ancestors come from Cumberland, Westmorland, and the extreme north of Lancashire.

You can imagine my surprise when I was wandering round the churchyard at Gosforth, Cumberland, looking for Sewell gravestones, when I came across the grave of Jonah Sewell's parents, William and Elizabeth Sewell, which also commemorated their son "... Jonah their son who was Sergeant in the Lancashire County Constabulary shot at St. Helens in the execution of his duty aged 37. Interred in the Cemetery at St. Helens where a monument was erected by his fellow officers." Jonah was cousin to my great grandmother.

Needless to say, I investigated the matter, and the enclosed article is the result. I had no idea that my family had any connection with the area where I now live. The chase which followed the shooting took place along the canal bank in St. Helens, an area that has now been landscaped and forms the entrance to Safeways Supermarket where I do my weekly shopping! Additionally, when I go to St. Helens Library, I walk past Claughton Street where Jonah and Mary lived, and our route to St. Helens from Newton‑le‑Willows takes us past Parr, where baby Sarah Elizabeth is buried.

On relating this coincidence to a fellow family historian she remarked, "We're not looking for them, they're looking for us!"  It's food for thought, anyway!

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