The coverage of Mary Corbett’s death in the newspapers was unusual in one respect – the media all focused on her reputation as a ‘well conducted, modest young woman’. This was unusual because Mary came from a background that Victorian England disapproved of – she was an illegitimate child, one of five, drawn from the rural labouring class.
As far as I have been able to work out, Mary was probably the illegitimate daughter of Jane Corbett, variously described as an agricultural labourer and a servant, presumably meaning she was an agricultural servant.
She had been born when her mother was between 15 and 18 years old (Jane was baptised on 27 May 1832, but in the census returns is listed as being born between 1829 and 1832).
Jane was, in turn, the daughter of a mason’s labourer, Richard, and his wife Sarah. In 1851, Jane and her father, sibling and 6 month old son had all been paupers living in the Bromyard Union Workhouse. In 1861, Mary was living with her family at Stone House, Ullingswick.
Her family are recorded in a way to make them ‘respectable’ in the census; Sarah Corbett, a 66 year old widow, is listed as the mother of Elizabeth and Jane, aged 35 and 32 – but also mother of 14 year old Mary – with Jane’s other four children – Elizabeth, Emma, Vincent and Fanny, aged between 2 and 12 – listed as grandchildren.
By 1871, Jane was back in the workhouse, together with her 12 year old son Vincent and a younger child, eight year old Eliza.
Yet despite this very humble background, Mary was seen as a good girl, and a rarity – a loyal, hard-working servant, who instilled the compassion and respect of her employers.
Berrow’s Worcester Journal, reporting the trial, noted that “the atrocity of the crime caused great excitement throughout the county of Hereford at the time, which, judging from the crowded state of the court this morning, has not yet subsided.”
Part of this excitement was reflected in the press coverage. The violent sexual death of a pretty 16 year old girl; the offence allegedly committed by a prior offender, who met the Victorian stereotype of the callous labouring class man whose previous criminal convictions should have led to hanging rather than a transportation from which he could return and commit new offences; the bucolic rural setting – all helped make this a story that the newspapers could sell their copies on.
The innocuous nature of Mary Corbett’s errand that October evening – an innocent trip to buy candles that led to her death, and the fact that she had only walked yards to a local shop yet did not return – added to the drama of the story.
There was a reluctance from the press to report the details of Mary’s post-mortem, and this continued at the trial. The detailed evidence of rape was glossed over, apart from the fact that there was bruising to the right side of Mary’s groin.
Dr Bull, who carried out the post mortem, had found evidence of a violent rape on Mary’s body, but Berrow’s Worcester Journal simply commented that ‘The doctor then detailed the appearances presented by other parts of the body, from which it was evident that violation with much violence had taken place.’
Apparently, it was alright for Victorian readers to learn about Mary’s struggle with her attacker, and the exact mode of death – but sexual violence had to be glossed over.
As was usual with press reports of deaths, some details were wrong or the result of Chinese whispers, with some reports naming William Hope as his brother George, and others reporting that Mary had been strangled, not suffocated.
But Mary’s death – and the subsequent trial of William Hope – was also news because it was unusual. It was noted by the Bristol Mercury that it had been some 30 years since the last execution in Hereford. In that case, too, in 1832, a man – named Gammond – had been hanged after raping a young girl.
The fact that Hereford rarely saw offences that resulted in executions was newsworthy in itself – the city papers stressing the rural, bucolic nature of the county. Added to this was the fact that at this time, the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment had been established, and two years later would recommend the end of public hangings.
The last public hanging took place in 1868, six years after Mary’s death. The debate as to whether public hangings were an educational experience for onlookers, or simply a form of entertainment, is evident in some of the press coverage about this case. It was noted after Mary’s killer was hanged that:
‘the conduct of the occupants of the houses opposite the place of execution deserves a passing word of praise. They either went from home or closed their houses, neither viewing themselves nor permitting others to view the execution from their premises.’ [Bristol Mercury, 18 April 1863]
It can be seen, then, that Mary’s murder was a chance for various issues to be explored in the press – and that it also demonstrate how the Victorian press reported violent crimes, depicting such events as a simplistic fight between good and evil and choosing the facts that best suited their chosen narrative.
Part Four of the Ullingswick Murder: The Criminality of William Hope, will be published tomorrow.