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The Murder of Polly Button

  • Introducing Polly Button & John Danks
  • Nuneaton in Distress – ‘Not weaving but drowning’
  • The Murder of Polly Button
  • The Trial, Execution and Dissection of John Danks
  • An Enduring Legacy

Introducing Polly Button and John Danks

Mary Green (commonly known as Polly Button) was born in 1792 in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, at a time when the dominant industry in the town was silk ribbon weaving. She is likely to have been one of the town’s very many ribbon weavers, although it has been suggested that the ‘Button’ element of her nickname arose because of her notably fine skills in button-working.

Nuneaton’s silk ribbon trade was to be regularly, increasingly and, at times, severely affected by depressions in the trade over her lifetime. This decline in silk ribbon weaving in Nuneaton provides the essential background to the tragic life and, eventually, the bloody murder of Polly Button. From a peak in the trade in the years 1813-1815, an inexorable decline to the winter of 1831-32 mirrored that of a tragic series of misfortunes that befell Polly Button. Her ‘undoing’ began with a failed relationship with, or perhaps more likely a seduction by, the son of a wealthy and prominent citizen of the town. Polly Button was to have a total of five children, all born out of wedlock and all having different fathers. John Danks, the father of her fifth child, Jane, was to be the one who murdered her in a desperate and brutal attack in February 1832.

John Danks was the second of four sons born to Thomas and Elizabeth Danks in Astley, a small village near Nuneaton. As an adult he had a succession of agricultural labouring jobs and developed carpentry skills. Danks and his family moved to Nuneaton and ended up living near Polly Button in Upper Abbey Street. In due course a relationship developed between Polly Button and Danks. In September 1829 Polly Button gave birth to a daughter, Jane.

Evidence given at the murder trial indicated that Danks and Polly Button continued to have an on-going relationship, and that this was the source of considerable animosity between Polly Button and Danks’s wife. Polly became pregnant, for the sixth time, in the autumn of 1831 and in late January 1832 a ‘bastardy before birth’ order against Danks was sought in relation to the unborn child. This was to be the catalyst that would lead to Polly Button’s murder just one week later.

Nuneaton in Distress – ‘not weaving but drowning

Ribbon weaving as an industry generally prospered throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as the use of ribbons grew enormously as an essential element of fashionable female dress and domestic decoration. Nuneaton found itself at the periphery of the silk ribbon weaving trade centred in Coventry in almost every way. After the removal of the prohibition on foreign woven silk products in 1826, Nuneaton headed towards a calamitous collapse in its fortunes.

As the fateful relationship between Polly Button and John Danks approached its awful conclusion in the winter of 1831-32, the couple’s dismal outlook was mirrored in the appalling conditions that had arisen in Nuneaton. A series of government committees in the early decades of the nineteenth century looked into the plight of the hand-loom weavers in various communities throughout the country. Prominently featured in an extensive report covering the Midlands are Coventry and Nuneaton. The reports are filled with testimony and descriptions of a collapse in wages, accompanied by vivid descriptions of filthy living conditions, destitution, hunger, poverty, barbarity, drunkenness, immorality, prostitution, and high levels of bastardy, disease and mortality. The dreadful situations, experiences and conditions described within them were likely to have been at their worst perhaps in 1832, the year of Polly Button’s murder.

The Murder of Polly Button

Polly Button was attacked by John Danks on the evening of Saturday, 18th February 1832 in a barn situated on the very outskirts of the town. The first written record of her murder was made by the local diarist, John Astley. Local newspapers were quick to follow up with reports of the dramatic events surrounding the murder of Polly Button – from the finding of the body in the roadway nearby, to the arrest of the principal suspect, John Danks, and the ensuing inquest held at The Britannia public house in Abbey Street.

The Trial, Execution and Dissection of John Danks

The trial of John Danks was held at Warwick Crown Court on 30th March 1832.

The evidence produced in Court covered the following areas:

  • Sequence of events on the night of the murder – primarily based on the evidence of Elizabeth, her daughter, and James Green, her nephew.
  • Two witnesses who heard Polly Button’s cries of distress – a Mrs Hammond and a Mr Richard Harris
  • What the lodger saw that evening
  • The finding of the body
  • The actions of Joseph Haddon, the parish constable for Nuneaton
  • Constable Haddon’s (forensic) evidence against John Danks
  • The question of the character of Mary Green, essentially alluding to her perceived status as a prostitute
  • Post-mortem examination of the body

A map was also produced at the trial so that the locations and buildings of relevance could be seen and understood by all. A copy of the original trial map has been unearthed and is reproduced in The Undoing of Polly Button, together with an updated and georeferenced version and one showing the trial map locations overlaid onto the modern-day layout.

Danks was hanged ‘at the drop’ in front of Warwick gaol on Monday 2nd April 1832. His body was subsequently taken to the Birmingham Medical School for dissection.

An Enduring Legacy

The murder of Polly Button achieved wider notoriety as a result of articles and lectures one of the prosecuting counsel at the trial. After featuring the circumstances of the murder of Polly Button in his lectures, he contributed articles on the case to academic medical journals. This eventually led to the murder of Polly Button being featured in national and international textbooks on forensic medicine.

In the year or so after the murder, The Ghost Walk of Weddington, a sensational melodrama, was performed in local theatres (e.g. Atherstone Theatre, 26th December 1833). To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the murder of Polly Button, the play Pranks was performed by the Milby Theatre Society at the Nuneaton Arts Centre in Pool Bank Street, Nuneaton.

The story of Polly Button has been retold, with varying degrees of accuracy, in a small number of books and websites. The Undoing of Polly Button is the most comprehensive account of the murder of Polly Button ever published.

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