DETAILS of East Lancashire's bloody past have been revealed in a new study into violent crime in the region at the turn of the last century.

Dr John Archer, Reader in History at Edge Hill College of Higher Education, Ormskirk, has spent the last three years examining violence in the North West from 1850 to 1914.

The studies show a history of violence in Lancashire led to the county gaining a reputation as the most dangerous in the country.

Included in the study were two notorious cases from East Lancashire; the case of Emily Holland, who was sexually assaulted, murdered and dismembered by William Fish in Blackburn in 1876 and the shooting of a policeman by Burnley blacksmith William Whitehead in 1866.

Dr Archer said: "By the mid 1870s Lancashire had become notorious as the most violent county in England. Kicking or "purring" with clogs or heavy boot was considered a Lancastrian form of violence, and was heavily punished."

He added that while there were Victorian cases which had broad similarities to modern-day murders, the public's reaction was sometimes very different to what you might expect today.

Emily Holland's mutilated body, minus head, legs and arms, was discovered lying in a field off Whalley Road by a labourer two days after she had gone missing in March 1876.

She had told her friends at St Alban's School she would see them again as soon as she had been to the shop. her butchered trunk was discovered, a man handed in a parcel at Rishton police station which he had found in a ditch at Bastwell. Inside were the child's legs, crudely wrapped in a copy of a newspaper.

The prime suspect for the killing was a local tramp who had been seen in the area at the time of the killing, but in an ID parade held, none of the people who claimed they had seen him were able to pick him out.

The trail seemed to have gone cold until a police surgeon working on the case noticed strands of hair on the girl's body and on the bits of paper in which it had been wrapped. He also gave the cause of death as a cut to the throat, after which every drop of blood had been drained from Emily's young body. From the strands of hair the surgeon argued that the murder and mutilation of Emily must have taken place in a barber's shop. Every barber's in Blackburn was searched from top to bottom in the hunt for clues. Eventually the candidates were narrowed down to two men, with a barber called William Fish of Moss Street as the prime suspect.

Once more, however, detectives hit a stumbling block as the evidence against the father-of-three was nowhere near strong enough to arrest him.

As with the forensic evidence of the hair on the girl's body, it was new methods of policing that once again provided the breakthrough in the case. A local man offered police the use of his two dogs, a bloodhound named Morgan and a pointer. They eagerly seized on the offer, taking the dogs to the scenes where the bits of Emily's body had been discovered and then to the two barbers' under suspicion.

Although nothing was found at the first premises, during a search of the upstairs room in Fish's shop, Morgan the bloodhound made the final grisly discovery that sealed the barber's fate. Tucked away in a cubby hole in a chimney were the charred remains of Emily Holland's head and arms. It was Easter Sunday 1876. Fish was hanged at Liverpool.

Dr Archer said: "This case excited universal disgust and horror. Special trains were laid on from Blackburn and other towns for the trial in Liverpool. Yet Holland's murder failed to set off a panic about paedophiles, as it might have done today.

"This was, in part, due to the quick arrest of Fish, but more importantly, it was due to the fact that he was physically grotesque. The monstrosity of the crime had demanded a monstrous culprit, and it would appear that Fish fulfilled this role." His peculiarly-shaped head was minutely described and the Liverpool Waxworks had a likeness made of him and exhibited before his execution had even taken place."

"Of all the Lancastrian murderers during this period, Fish was the only one who failed to generate any support for a petition of reprieve."

Public attitudes to violence were also very different. Men then, as now, were responsible for most cases of interpersonal violence - but in many cases fights between men were condoned.

Dr Archer said: "In what were termed 'fair fights' or 'up and down fights', men would agree to certain rules of combat. These displays of masculinity were common and could occasionally end in death. Magistrates, however, could be sympathetic since bare-knuckle fighting and wrestling were seen as 'English and manly' forms of combat.

"For many urban males suffering underemployment, poverty and appalling social conditions, fighting was one way of gaining status among one's peers. A reputation for hardness was one of the few positive attributes a man could gain."

He said: "There was vast under-reporting of murders. The murder figures in this country barely changed from the 1860s to the 1960s, at about 150 a year. But looking at coroners' court reports I kept finding cases where people had clearly been killed but the coroner had recorded open verdicts. "

"Police and coroners showed a marked reluctance to investigate closely the sudden death of infants. In Manchester only one person was arrested for infanticide between 1847 and 1859, and in Liverpool a very high number of 'accidental suffocations' were recorded."

Open verdicts were also often returned in the case of adults who had died under suspicious circumstances, especially those fished out of canals or rivers.Even those who were supposed to protect the North West public - the police - developed a violent reputation, with an especially high number of complaints about police brutality in Liverpool.

But in East Lancashire, there was at least one case of police bravery in the face of extreme violence. Dr Archer said: "In 1866 Burnley blacksmith William Whitehead shot and wounded three people in the street - he was shooting from his bedroom window.

"Police Sergeant Lord went to the house and forced his way in. Although he was shot three times in the face, Lord closed on Whitehead and arrested him. He received a sentence of two months' imprisonment." Dr Archer is planning to write a book about Victorian violence and contribute to other publications.

The work was based on all kinds of interpersonal violence reported in three-month samples taken from Liverpool and Manchester newspapers for every year covered by the project.

His research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) under its Violence Research Programme, has been awarded the highest possible grading.