Was the murder at Sheffield Station in 1900 a case of mistaken identity or was the victim's lover having secret liaisons?

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A case of mistaken identity could be behind one of Sheffield’s most bizarre murders – and despite the alleged killer initially confessing to police, his trial never got off the ground and he was acquitted.

In September 1900, Walter Hague, aged 23, of Cowley Lane, Chapeltown, was stabbed to death by a drunk just yards from Sheffield’s Midland Station, at around 11.30pm in front of his girlfriend Alice Basford, a barmaid at the Carlton Hotel.

According to newspaper reports from the time, the couple had become somewhat estranged, and Walter had asked to meet her after work, and the attack happened as they were walking back to the station to travel to Darnell, where Alice resided.

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The man had been seen by the couple moments earlier stumbling around in a drunken fashion on Sheaf Street.

A newspaper drawing from the time depicting the murder.A newspaper drawing from the time depicting the murder.
A newspaper drawing from the time depicting the murder.

As the couple got close to the station, the man suddenly appeared and grabbed Walter around the neck and appeared to punch him hard to the chest and, when Walter went to the ground, kicked him before running off.

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Not at first realising the severity of his injuries, Walter then clambered to his feet, told Alice he wished a policeman had been present and asked her to knock the dust from his clothing. Suddenly, he simply said “Oh” and fell down dead on the ground; he had been stabbed in the heart.

The attacker had fled into the night and Sheffield police were not optimistic about their chances of apprehending him, but two weeks later a man by the name of George Donovan walked into Hull Police Station and confessed to the crime – casting aspersions on Alice’s virtues.

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Sheffield's Midland Station around the time of the murderSheffield's Midland Station around the time of the murder
Sheffield's Midland Station around the time of the murder

He claimed that he’d had a liaison with Alice and, travelling to Sheffield to see friends, had met up with her, even taking her out to buy a hat. And when he saw her arm-in-arm with another man, he had seen red in his drunken state and stabbed him.

But problematically Donovan, who worked as a ship’s fireman, almost immediately retracted his confession, saying he had been drunk when he spoke to police, who had effectively forced a confession.

However, the authorities persisted with their prosecution against Donovan, pushing for a murder charge even though the presiding judge said there was little chance of a successful prosecution.

Witnesses were called but none could successfully identify Donovan, some saying he wore a cap, others that he wore a tall, stiff hat. All described him as wearing different clothing, some that he had a beard, others a moustache, and others that he was clean-shaven.

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When Alice was called to give evidence, she flatly denied that she had been in any form of relationship with Donovan, or that she had ever seen him before and the defendant was acquitted.

But was Alice telling the truth? Was this simply a case of mistaken identity, or did Alice take her secret to the grave?

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