Trunk Murders

A Gruesome Discovery at Lovers' Walk

By Peter Groves

13th August 1831

On the 13th August 1831 a gruesome discovery was made on the slopes of Lovers' Walk which was a footpath leading from Preston Manor up over the downs and down Dyke Road into the town. Heavy rain had washed away a light covering of topsoil and revealed parts of a dismembered body in a luggage trunk. It was a local fisherman who noticed blood stained clothing beside the pathway. Further investigation revealed the grim discovery, the torso of a young female, with limbs and head missing, and the foetus of an unborn child. They had been squeezed into a luggage trunk and buried in a shallow grave. Brighton was later to become infamous for so called “trunk murders” however this was the first.

The corpse identified

If the perpetrator of this horrible crime thought that by dismembering the body he would evade detection, he was very mistaken.  Because of the small size of the torso, it was very quickly identified as that of Celia Holloway, who due to a genetic disorder was only 4ft 3ins tall.  News quickly spread across the town, and just as quickly her husband John Holloway went into hiding. Soon after, Ann Kennett, whom Holloway had married bigamously, was apprehended, Holloway was caught soon afterwards, and quickly confessed.

A reluctant husband

Celia Bashford was in service in Brighton in the 1820’s when she met and fell in love with Holloway, a drunkard womaniser, who worked as a painter on the Chain Pier.  In 1825 Celia became pregnant; at first Holloway refused to marry her, but under pressure from the authorities, and a spell in Lewes prison, he relented and they were married. The child was still born; Holloway felt bitter and was often drunk and violent towards Celia.  He soon took up with Ann Kennett, and by the summer of 1831 both women were pregnant. Having left Celia pregnant and destitute the authorities ordered Holloway to pay her maintenance of two shillings (10 new pence) a week, which he was unable or unwilling to do.

Killed and dismembered

In desperation Holloway decided on a wicked way out of his situation, with no regard for his poor wife. Offering reconciliation, Holloway tricked his wife into his lodgings at Donkey Row, near Edward Street.  Once there, on the pretext of a kiss, he pulled his wife close and slipped a rope around her neck, and tightened the noose.  Celia struggled and Holloway, implicating Ann Kennett, called for her help.  He stated that she was hiding in a cupboard, and together they finished the deed, and then hung the body in the cupboard to ensure she was really dead.  The following day Holloway dismembered her body, and hoping to conceal identity, dumped the head and limbs in a common privy. Late that night the torso was squashed into a luggage trunk, bundled into a wheelbarrow and transported to Lovers' Walk where it was buried in a shallow grave. 

Inquest at the Crown & Anchor

An inquest on the death was held close by at the Crown & Anchor public house in Preston village; it revealed the graphic details of how the killer had dismembered the body. The trial was held in Lewes in December 1831, Holloway pleaded not guilty, however he made such contradictory statements, in particular about Ann Kennett’s involvement, that he was not believed. He was found guilty and hanged at Horsham on December 21st 1831; his corpse was returned to Brighton and displayed in public, no doubt as a deterrent to others. As his confession was so contradictory in regard to Ann Kennett’s part in the murder, she was acquitted. 

A plaque to Celia Holloway

The missing parts of Celia’s body were recovered and she was buried in the churchyard of St John’s at Preston. A plaque to Celia can be seen on the churchyard wall, just up the road from the spot where Holloway tried to conceal his brutal crime.  Probably Lovers' Walk was so named as a well-known pathway for courting couples long before 1831, it is doubtful that it would have been so named after the event there in 1831.

Photo:Holloway with the trunk

Holloway with the trunk

From the collection of Peter Groves

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