Lydia Attley was born about 1821 at Ringstead, Northamptonshire, the daughter of William Attley and Lydia Whiteman. She had already had an illegitimate daughter in 1848, but in late 1849 fell pregnant again. The father was rumoured to be William Weekly Ball, a butcher and married man who lived in the village. In July 1850, during the latter stages of her pregnancy, she disappeared from Ringstead and was never seen alive again.

The villagers were suspicious of William Weekly Ball and there was a consensus of opinion that Lydia's disappearance had been down to him. He was harrassed so much in the village that he eventually moved away from Ringstead.
Some 14 years later, a skeleton was discovered in a field at Ringstead. It was immediately believed to be the remains of Lydia Attley and William Weekly Ball was brought before the police and the courts charged with her murder. The following extracts are taken from newspaper reports at the time detailing the discovery of the skeleton and subsequent charges that arose.
Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper - 28 February 1864

The Murder Fourteen Years Ago

Examination of the Accused

On Monday morning, William Weekley Ball, aged forty-five, described as a butcher, of Ramsay, Northamptonshire, was brought up in the custody of Inspector Williamson at the Thrapstone police-court, on the charge of having murdered one Lydia Attley in the year 1850, now just fourteen years ago.

A plan was produced showing the proximity of the prisoner’s house at Ringstead to the spot where the skeleton was found, which is about a quarter of a mile distant, and can be approached mainly by a back way across fields, it being necessary only to traverse the dullest part of the main road for about twenty yards.

T he prisoner, who is a fresh-coloured respectable-looking man, upon being placed at the bar glanced hurriedly round him, and then appeared to pay great attention to the investigation as it proceeded.

The first witness called was Elizabeth Groom, who said: I live at Ringstead. In July, 1850, I lived just opposite Mr Ball’s yard. My sister, Lydia Attley, was living at Ringstead at the same time. I have been in Lydia Attley’s house when the prisoner has been there, and she used to tell me to go out, and I used to leave them together. The prisoner could always hear Lydia Attley tell me to go out. He has sometimes given me meat for my sister. I remember the morning when my sister was missed. It was on the 23 rd of July, 1850, and on that morning I met the prisoner in the back lane in the village of Ringstead. I asked him if he had seen my sister, and he said “No”. I never stopped in the room when the prisoner was with my sister, and never heard the conversation between them. – By Mr Gaches: My sister lived with my brother, John Attley, in the same house. Sarah Ann Philips, now Sarah Ann Manning, also lived in the house. I went before Mr Wilkins, a magistrate in 1850, my sister being missing. The magistrate never asked me any questions, nor have I ever been questioned by a magistrate upon the subject. I now remember that I told the magistrate, Mr Ball, I had been to my sister’s house. – By Mr Markham: I was not sworn when I made that statement to Mr Wilkins.

Mary Ann Manning said: I am the wife of John Manning, and was living at Ringstead in 1850. Lydia Attley’s mother died in May, 1850, and upon her death I went to live with Lydia Attley. I slept with her every night till the night she was missing. She was then close to her confinement. In the middle of the day on the 22 nd of July she went out to buy some soda, as we were going to wash the next day. On that night I was out with Lydia Attley, and we got home about nine o’clock. She then said, “I must go down the street, and shall not be long”. I have never seen her since. – By Mr Gaches: She bought some rice that day for our dinner. She was living with her brother at that time. Before I went to sleep there her mother and brother lived there with her. I do not know how old Lydia Attley was. She used to go about with herrings and oranges. I do not think she used to go further than Thrapstone. – By Mr Markham: I slept with the deceased every night, up to the night she was missed, after the death of her mother.

Sarah Ann Dix: I am Lydia Attley’s sister. In July, 1850, I was living at London-end with Mr Wilkins. I recollect the day before she was missed. I saw her on that day in my house. She was there waiting on me. I was then ill. I asked her on that day to take my husband’s dinner, who was working in Mr Freeman’s field. She did so, but before she went she said she was so ill that she did not think she could walk so far. The cause of her illness was because she was near her confinement. She had had a child before. I saw her on her return, and she said that she felt very bad – that she did not think she should be able to do her washing the next day, as she was so near her confinement. She had a very bad leg. – By Mr Gaches: I know that of my own knowledge. She was in a very depressed state all that day, and I last saw her at a quarter past nine o’clock at night in my house, when she left me. This was on the Monday night before she was missed on the Tuesday. I used to know a baker named James Wilkinson. I cannot say if Lydia Attley kept company with Wilkinson before the birth of her first child. – By Mr Markham: I am a mother, and women on the eve of their confinement are often depressed.

Joseph Groom: I am a labourer, residing at Ringstead, and lived there in 1850. I recollect the night before Lydia Attley was missed. On that night I was smoking my pipe in a street in Ringstead. I did not see a man and woman together, but I heard their voices, which I knew. A short time before I saw Lydia Attley. I cannot say that I know the prisoner’s voice so well, but I knew Lydia Attley’s quite well. I know Ball’s orchard. The place where I was standing was close to the entrance to Ball’s orchard, but there were two boards that prevented my seeing. I heard two people go into the orchard, and Lydia Attley said, “I am not going in there with you to-night”. I heard her say soon afterwards, “Get off me, for I believe you mean killing me to-night, Weekly Ball”. I also heard her say, “The Lord have mercy upon me, if I am to die in the state I am in”. I heard a voice as if it was getting weaker. It was a human voice. This was about a quarter to ten o’clock. I have never seen Lydia Attley since. – The witness was cross-examined, but nothing material was elicited.

John Hill: I am a labourer, and when Lydia Attley was missed I lived at Ringstead. On that night I went to Mr Beevis’s orchard. There is a field belonging to Mr Hill, and from that field there is a road leading from the Black Horse across the field to the back lane. While against the hedge I heard some one coming up the narrow close. It was Weekly Ball. This was a contrary road for him to go home, as it would lead to Denford. After he went into the back lane he turned himself round, and I saw it was Weekly Ball. It was a beautiful moonlight night. I knew it was Weekly Ball, as I have known him for more than thirty years. I then got over the hedge into a slip, and then over a wall into a cherry orchard, and when I got a got a few yards I saw Lydia Attley and Weekly Ball in the lane together. They went down the lane which leads to the back gate of Weekly Ball’s orchard. I heard Lydia Attley say, “I won’t”, and when they got further down I heard her say, “I won’t; it’s yours and nobody else’s.” Then I went on till I got to the edge of the stile, then I skulked down under the hedge, because I was so close to them. They had not then got to Ball’s orchard, and I heard her say, “I won’t go in there, Week, to-night”. She called that out two or three times, and she retreated a little, and Ball went up to her, and it looked to me as if he caught hold of her, but I cannot swear to that. Then they went towards the gate leading into Ball’s orchard, and I heard the latch go. They then disappeared. I then went home.

Richard Warren: I am a labourer and have lived at Ringstead forty-seven years. I recollect the Ringstead-fields before they were enclosed. I know the road leading from Mr Peache’s house towards Keystone. It was in open fields long before the enclosure, the hedge of the Ringstead side. It was a very rough bad road. I was in the employ of Mr Peache this monthe, and on Wednesday, the 3 rd inst., was digging out a ditch in the Keystone-lane, on the Ringstead side. The hedge and ditch had been made after the enclosure. I kept on digging until five o’clock, when I dug up a skull about five feet from the stump of the quick. I examined the skull and laid it on the bank. I then continued digging the ditch till nearly six o’clock, when Thomas Barnham came down, and I showed it to him and went home. I told my wife, and the next morning I told my master, and said, “I think I have found Lydia Attley”. After dinner we went to dig for the remainder of the skeleton, and went on digging till we laid it quite bare. The skeleton was lying with its head towards the hedge, and the feet straight towards the road; the face downwards. After doing this I sent for Inspector Williamson. In first taking out the skull I broke it into three parts. Inspector Williamson came up directly, and Me Leete, the surgeon, also came. He examined the bones. They were then taken out, and taken to the Rev. Mr Sunderland’s house. We found nothing whatever in the shape of clothing.

Henry Dix: I am a labourer. I have lived in Ringstead all my life, and recollect Lydia Attley being lost. She often came to my house. On one occasion she asked me to draw a tooth, but I was unwilling to do so, because she was large in the family-way. This was about a fortnight before she was lost. I drew the tooth, which was on the left side of the jaw. I heard of the skeleton being found on the 3 rd of February, and before I saw the skeleton, I made an observation to Inspection Williamson about the tooth I had taken out. (The lower jaw was her produced.) There is the cavity left where I drew the tooth. I left two back teeth in her jaw, and there are two back teeth left in this jaw. – By the Rev. Mr Duthy: I cannot say if all the other back teeth were there, but all the front were. – By Mr Gaches: I am quite sure it was only a fortnight before Lydia Attley was missed that I drew her tooth. I drew it with a pair of nippers. I am quite sure it was the lower left jaw. The girl sat upon the ground, and I stood by her side when I drew it. I at that time extracted a great many teeth, but only extracted one of Lydia Attley’s. When I told Inspector Williamson about the jaw I had not seen the bones, but I saw them afterwards. Mr Peache had seen them, and told me of it. – By Mr Markham: Mr Peache told me nothing more than that the skeleton was found.

Inspector Williamson: I am the inspector of police, and am residing at Thrapston. In consequence of what I heard on the 4 th of February I went to Keystone-lane, and I saw a skeleton lying face downwards, with its feet towards the centre of the road. It appeared to be buried not more than two feet from the surface of the earth. The nature of the soil where it was lying was light in weight. After they removed the skeleton I dug below where it had been lying, and there was strong clay, and the water came in. The place where the skeleton lay was lower than any part of the road. I carefully examined where the skeleton lay for several feet round, but found no thing whatever. While we were digging Dix came up and said, “If it is the skeleton of Lydia Attley I should know it, for I drew a tooth a fortnight before she was missing”. He then took up the jaw bone, and it was as he had said. I have been in their neighbourhood between four and five years, and have been twelve years in the force. I have never heard of any one being lost besides Lydia Attley.

John Griffith Leete, surgeon, of Thrapston, said: I found the skeleton, lying face downwards, eighteen or twenty inches deep, in a trench. I examined it, and found it to be that of a female, and I should think it had been in the earth from twelve to twenty years. I found no other bones but those belonging to this skeleton. Supposing the woman had been in the family way, as stated, I believe all foetal bones would have been obliterated from long interment. All the bones were perfect but the right thigh bone, which was broken, I should think, when it was being removed. I should think the female stood about five feet two inches. The cavity in the left jaw had been filled upwards; the teeth in the other part of the jaw have dropped out. From the appearance of the jaw I should say that tooth was non-existent when the body was buried. From the general appearance of the skeleton, I should take it to be one of a middle-aged person. I believe the body was naked when it was buried.

Mr Gaches here said that he would not cross-examine Mr Leete in the absence of the entire skeleton, and the examination was consequently adjourned for the production of the bones entire.

While the prisoner throughout the day demeaned himself with an apparent air of indifference as to the evidence adduced against him, he nevertheless manifested attention sufficient in the proceedings that indicated an inward anxiety.


The Murder Fourteen Years Ago

Adjourned Examination of the Accused

Thrapston, Thursday. – This morning, William Weekly Ball, the man charged with having murdered Lydia Attley, in July, 1850, was brought up at the police-court for further examination. The skeleton, for the production of which the inquiry was adjourned, now lay on a table in the body of the court, in a complete state.

Mr Leete said that he wished to make an observation with regard to foetal bones. He said: “It is an acknowledged fact that these bones contain more animal matter than earthy matter, and presuming that, from the position of the skeleton, these bones would be deeper in the soil, they would be more likely to be acted upon or destroyed, but I am not prepared to swear that they would be entirely obliterated. Cross-examined by Mr Saches: I saw this skeleton before it was removed from the earthy matter. I did not take an entire sketch of it. I observed the soil in which it was embedded. I have not examined it chemically. I did not perceive any clay or chalk. I observed that the earth was very moist, and as I removed the bones they left an impression on the soil, and from that I conclude the state of the soil to be moist. I cannot say if a body is buried in a moist soil that a fatty substance would form in the soil. I found only bones. I did not find a finger-ring, nor anything else. All the bones I found are now produced. Amongst those bones I found none of an infant. I saw the impression in the earth of the skull, but I did not search beyond that. I found no hair. I cannot say if there had been any there. I should not have seen it, as I made no search beyond removing the bones. I found the bones entire, except the skull. The neck bones were entire. The ribs were very much broken, which would arise partly from decomposition. They were fractured. I found no fracture that I could say was done before death. I knew Lydia Attley. I attended her in the union workhouse some few years before she was missing, and I should say that she was about thirty years of age. I cannot say if she had much hair on her head, nor can I speak as to its colour. I am not prepared to give any evidence about the teeth. I am prepared to say that the bones produced are those of a female from the formation of the pelvis. The wings of the pelvis are more oblique and wider. I examined the helier of the pelvis, and found the diameter larger from wing to wing. I do not remember an American case where a skeleton was found and pronounced to be that of a female, but turned out to be one of a male. I give it as my decided opinion that the skeleton is that of a female. From my examination of the bones I have not the slightest doubt as to it being the skeleton of a female. I have stated that I believed the skeleton to have been in the ground from twelve to twenty years. I have never examined a skeleton that has been interred twelve or twenty years. There is a possibility that nine months old foetal bones would last twelve or twenty years. It certainly must have been more conclusive if foetal bones had been found. I should have expected to find foetal remains if the body, of which this is the skeleton, had contained a nine months’ child. On the left lower jaw there were two molar teeth. The cavity is filled up with deposit, which would be a process of time during life. I am not able to say if such a deposit could be formed in a fortnight. I know that Lydia Attley resided in Ringstead, and I know where the prisoner resided, and from the deceased’s house to where the skeleton was found, by the road, is about a mile. I am acquainted with another road that is not more than half a mile. This is the clearest road. From Ball’s back premises would be further off from the spot than his front premises. Where the skeleton was found to be the best of my recollection the space is more open than any other party of the road. Within thirteen years that road has been reconstructed and altered. I do not recollect that several skeletons have been found within that period, nor do I know that one was ever found, and that the people were very clamorous, and said it was skeleton of Lydia Attley, and wanted to bring a charge against some one.

By Mr Markham: When I examined the bones it was between four and five, and the lateness of the evening prevented my making a longer search. I have had great experience as an accoucheur, and I think if Lydia Attley was murdered in the orchard she might have given birth in the orchard assuming she had symptoms of labour upon her in the day.

After the reception of some further evidence, the case was brought to a conclusion by the committal of the accused to Northampton gaol, on the charge of wilfully murdering Lydia Attley.

Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper - 28 February 1864

At the Northampton assizes, before Mr Justice Crompton, William Weekly Ball, aged forty-seven, was on Tuesday brought up in the custody of Superintendent Hobbs, charged with the wilful murder of Lydia Attley, at Ringstead, a village in Northamptonshire, on the 22 nd of July, 1850, nearly fourteen years ago.

Serjeant Tozer said he had an application to make to the court with reference to the case. He had intimated to Mr O’Malley the course he proposed to take, and his learned friend had made no objection. He had looked through the evidence with very great care, and had had a consultation with the attorney who conducted the prosecution, and it appeared to him (the learned counsel) that the evidence was of a very grave and serious nature; but there were some defects in it which made it better that the case should not go before the grand jury. There had been some important additions made to the evidence within a very short time, and consequently the case could not be properly investigated at that assize. He did not wish it to be understood that he had abandoned the charge, for he proposed, with his lordship’s sanction, not to send the case to the grand jury; as a consequence the bill would be ignored and the charge might be gone into at any future time.

Mr Metcalfe said he should like Mr O’Malley to be present, for it appeared to him to be the most monstrous proposal ever made. – His lordship said he thought the proposal was for the prisoner’s advantage. If the bill was ignored the prisoner would be discharged, but if the bill went before the grand jury and was thrown out, and affidavits were sworn before him (the learned judge), he must keep the prisoner in custody.

The matter then stood over until Mr O’Malley entered the court, upon which, after some further discussion, his lordship again pointed out that the course proposed was the best for the prisoner, and Mr O’Malley ultimately acceded to the proposal, at the same time declaring that if he could have the case gone into before his lordship and the special jury he should certainly desire to do so; for, on the part of the prisoner, neither then nor at any future time should he be afraid to meet the charge.

The recognisances of the witness were then cancelled, and the prisoner was at once set at liberty.