Murdered by a travelling showman

The Illustrated Police News' depiction of the murder (via British Newspaper Archive)

The Illustrated Police News’ depiction of the murder (via British Newspaper Archive)

Robert West was a travelling showman, running a coconut shy at the fairs that toured around England. Originally from Oxford, he was around 44 years old, and was used to a peripatetic life.

He had arrived, in his caravan, at the village of Handsworth Woodhouse near Sheffield at 11.30pm on Friday night, 23 August, his intention being to remain and set his shy up at the village feast that weekend.

He started quarreling with his wife Emma, which often happened as the result of Robert’s tendency to drink. Their son – one of their six children – realised Robert was drunk, and was arguing as a result of jealousy over his wife’s perceived behaviour. The son went off for a walk to get away from them.

While he was out, at 1am, West went running up to Police Sergeant Ford of the West Riding constabulary, as he was passing the caravan on his patrols.

“I’ve murdered my wife!” West shouted, and PS Ford ran with him to the van, where he found Emma lying on the floor, almost decapitated. By her side was a large knife, and the floor was covered in blood.

West was taken into custody at Sheffield, and immediately made a written confession. However, he had, in front of PS Ford, first said that he was “satisfied” with the murder, and “regretted that he had not also murdered the man whom he alleges to have been intimate with his wife”.

In the police court, Robert cross-examined Emma’s mother himself. She had got very upset, and shouted, “You bad, bad man, you murderer, you villain!”

Robert responded, “You can talk, but you are as bad as every one of them.”

“Am I, you bad villain? You murderer of my poor daughter!” screamed his mother-in-law.

Robert muttered,

“I am very glad I did it, and I am only sorry I did not do both of them. All I want is to die now, and the sooner the better. I shall then be out of the way. I told her I should do it, and I am glad I did it. I wish I’d done the other one as well.”

PS Ford then explained that as he had walked Robert to the police station after the murder, he had said,

“This thing has been brewing, it will be 12 months next Sunday, When we was here at the feast last year I began to find out of her tricks. There’s another I intended to do first; that’s Leicester Jack, and then her, but he kept out of the way, else I should have done him first.”

Robert West was committed to the Leeds Assizes on the charge of leaving murder. As he left the dock to be committed to Wakefield Prison, he said, “Goodbye, all of you!”

The travelling showman travelled no more. He was found guilty of murder at the Assizes and was executed at Armley Prison in Leeds, on 31 December 1889.

Webb's entry in the Wakefield Prison register, from Ancestry.

Webb’s entry in the Wakefield Prison register, from Ancestry.

Sources: Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sun 25 August 1889, Illustrated Police News, 31 August 1889, Capital Punishment UK, Ancestry, British Newspaper Archive.

 

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The Condemned Criminal Tolerates Consolation

“The Home Secretary has issued orders for the execution of Bucknell, convicted at the late Somerset Assizes of the brutal murder of his aged grandfather and grandmother, at Creech St Michael’s, to take place at Taunton Gaol, on Thursday morning next, the 26th instant.

“The wretched criminal, it is said, appears extremely callous, and to have no conception of the enormity of his guilt.

“He is respectful to the reverend chaplain, but seems rather to tolerate than wish for his spiritual consolation and assistance.”

Liverpool Mercury, 23 August 1858

21-year-old John Baker Bucknell was executed at Taunton on 26 August. He had been convicted of housebreaking in March 1857 and given a 10 month gaol sentence.

The following year, he was convicted of murdering innkeeper John Bucknell, aged 72, and his wife Betsy, 74. He was described by the Taunton Courier of 11 August 1858 as an “unfortunate young man”.

Bringing a Murderer to Life

Broadside of Robert Blakesley's execution, 1841

Broadside of Robert Blakesley’s execution, 1841

Look at a criminal broadside from the 19th century. There are the drawings – generic depictions of people hanging, of gaols, of crowds, together with more personalised portraits of the murderer, or the victim.

There is the text – the melodramatic, overly detailed, story of the crime, the penitence of the murderer before he or she is dropped into oblivion.

These are the forerunner of the tabloid newspaper; designed to be bought, read, thrown away.

But now they are in museums, sold in auctions, a historical artefact. The individuals that are written about in these broadsides are somehow lost to us in the present. They are abstract, viewed from a historical distance, fictionalised by their broadside-producing contemporaries.

I own a broadside – and admit to being fascinated by the stories they tell and how they tell them. But can I build a picture of real people, living ordinary lives, from the dramatised story presented on this sheet of paper?

My broadside is from 1841. It relates to the execution of Robert Blakesley after being found guilty of the murder of James Burdon in the City of London.

It’s not the only broadside produced about Blakesley; the British Library has written about one it holds, which was produced prior to Blakesley’s trial, at his first committal hearing. That broadside assumed his guilty even though he had not yet been tried.

Blakesley was found guilty of stabbing James Burdon, landlord of the King’s Head in Eastcheap. He was depicted as mentally ill, a man who regularly abused and assaulted his wife.

The British Library states that Blakesley had tried to stab his wife; when challenged by Burdon, his brother-in-law, after “months of marital strife”, he stabbed him. Burdon died; Sarah Blakesley miscarried her baby, it was said, and died some time later.

Blakesley had been arrested in September 1841, was tried at the Old Bailey on 25 October 1841 and executed on 15 November.

Yet on the night of 6 June 1841, when the census was taken, a more domestic, peaceful scene was suggested.

At Eastcheap, James Burdon, aged 35, was listed as the head of his household. He was living with his wife Eliza, and their four-year-old son James. Also with the Burdons were Eliza’s widowed mother, Ann Adkins, and her sister Sarah, still unmarried and aged 25.

Also at the premises was Robert Blakesley, listed as a 25-year-old cattle dealer (he was actually 27, the 1841 census often rounding up or down to the nearest five years).

Robert was accepted as part of the Adkins family, and he married Sarah exactly three weeks after the census was taken – at St Stephen Walbrook church on 27 June 1841. Their witnesses were James and Eliza Burdon.

Robert and Sarah were only married for three months before the murder occurred.

Eliza Burdon gave evidence at Blakesley’s trial. She painted a similarly domestic scene to the census; on the evening of 21 September 1841, a Tuesday, she had been in the King’s Head bar with her sister Sarah. James Burdon was fast asleep at the end of the bar, his back against the window.

At 10.05pm, Blakesley walked in, “sprang” at Sarah and stabbed her in her right side, saying, “My wife or her life”, before turning around and stabbing James to death while he slept*.

The cosy domestic scene in the family pub was subverted by this sudden, unexpected, act of violence committed by one who had only recently been welcomed into this family environment.

Worse still, he had killed a man who was sleeping peacefully at the end of a long day working to maintain that family.

Blakesley’s own family were called on to testify at his trial. His father James, a respectable cloth factor based in the City, and a member of the Blackwell Hall, stated that his son had been brought up in his “establishment”, but that after a serious illness when aged about five, he had suffered from fits and been anti-social, struggling to make friends and interact with people.

Robert was sent away to school at the age of eight. The saddest part of his father’s testimony was his description of going to watch his son at school, through a blind in the schoolmaster’s room:

“I was sent for by the schoolmaster, to see how my son would stand by the wall when the other children were at play. I looked through the blind, and I saw him stand there for, I think, half an hour, while the children were all frolicsome and at play together.”

It conjures up an image of a lonely boy, different from others his age, and unable to connect with them.

His father removed him from school at the age of 13, to come and work for him; but Robert disappeared frequently, and when he returned seemed not to know where he had been, or what he had done.

His father explained:

“I have seen him agitated, some scores of times, his eyes starting and his lips quivering, and I have said, ‘Halloo, Robert! What are you about?’ He has looked and said, ‘Oh papa! Nothing particular.'”

This was a man whose older brother, on whose the family’s hopes rested, had died at the age of 20. He had the pressure of his parents now on him, and seems unable to cope with it. Yet his father clearly loved him very much, and refused to get him sent to an asylum because he did not think his son was “vicious”.

His sudden attack on his wife and his brother-in-law were an extension of his disappearances and fits of insensibility at home. Somewhere in there was still the lonely boy wondering how to fit in and always remaining on the outside.

He destroyed the family who had let him join them, and destroyed the hopes of his loving father in the process.

Yet the criminal broadsides produced after his death, and the carrying out of the death sentence, do not let the 21st century reader picture Robert as a three-dimensional man – the 27-year-old with a long history of emotional problems who, another witness said, was “on terms of the greatest affection with every member” of his family.

For a bit of insight into Robert’s complex character, other historical sources have to be studied and compared. His father’s shocked, but loving, testimony at his son’s trial, and the domesticity presented in the census return, conjures up a real man, rather than a criminal caricature.

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Images from The Genealogist and Ancestry.

* The British Library refers to Sarah dying of her wounds several weeks after James Burdon’s death. Although the Old Bailey states that she was stabbed in her side, and she did not appear as a witness, neither can I find evidence for her death.

 

The Woman Who Ate Her Baby

prestonguardian14:3:1846

 

This tantalisingly brief piece in the Preston Guardian of 14 March 1846 caught my attention as I was searching for something else.

The relative lack of detail made me wonder if it was a fictional piece – the Victorian press were not strangers to making up the odd story, or embellishing the basics of a true one to make a better piece.

A woman gnawing her baby to death? Surely not.

But then I searched a bit more, and realised that this was, sadly, only too true (although a few parts of the Preston Guardian‘s story are incorrect, or based on later events).

It was a tale of poverty, and of a woman driven literally mad by the effects of childbirth.

Mary Ann Dinah King, the woman in question, was a mother of three. She was born in December 1822 at Union Street in Lambeth, the daughter of Joseph Lyons, a hawker, and his wife Amelia.

mary ann baptism

The baptism of Mary Ann Dinah Lyons in 1823.

 

On 16 March 1841, aged 18, she married John King at St Mary’s in Lambeth. She had not been known to have any mental issues until she gave birth to her first child, and, within a short period of time, had become pregnant with twins.

By the beginning of 1846, Mary Ann was living at her parents’ house on Chester Street in Kennington – her husband absent or dead.

On 24 January 1846, she gave birth there, to a boy and a girl, both healthy. She named them James and Catherine Mary Ann. All three appeared to be doing well, until the evening of 31 January.

Mary Ann had been in bed at her parents’ house that night, when she suddenly started up, grabbed the little boy, and beat him around the head.

Her mother, Amelia Lyons,  ran to her, but by the time she got to the baby, Mary Ann had started to bite at his face. Blood was pouring from little James’s head.

Amelia screamed for her husband, Joseph, who ran up to the room, but by this point, Mary Ann had chewed through James’s nose and cheek. She was leaning on her son, her mouth still attached to his face, and would not let go until her father pinched her nose tightly and she had to breathe.

James was covered in blood. Mary Ann’s face and mouth were smeared with it. The shock and horror that Mary Ann’s parents – little James’s grandparents – must have felt is clear.

motherAmelia had the presence of mind to run with the baby to the house of Mr Mason, the local surgeon, who dressed James’s wounds as best as he could.

Amazingly, James survived for nearly a month, gradually becoming weak and exhausted, before dying on 25 February.

A coroner’s inquest was held at the Fountain Tavern on Walworth Road in Kennington at the beginning of March, where the coroner, William Carter, and 14 local householders gathered to hear the horrifying story.

The householders returned a verdict of wilful murder against Mary Ann. She, meanwhile, had, since the attack, been committed to the lunatic ward of the parish workhouse*.

She was indicted for trial at the Central Criminal Court, but when her case was held on 2 April, the jury found that she was clearly unfit to plead, being of unsound mind.

 

Old Bailey Online 1846

 The brief details of Mary Ann’s case, taken from the Old Bailey Proceedings.

What happened to Mary Ann afterwards? It does not appear that she regained her senses; her actions were those of a woman who had lost contact with reality and it is hard to see how she could come back from that awful night.

NOTES

  • Details found via Free BMD, Ancestry.co.uk, Preston Guardian and The Era.
  • * One report stated that Mary Ann was in the lunatic ward of Newington workhouse, but she was living at her parents’ house in Kennington, which came under the Lambeth Poor Law Union, rather than the Newington PLU, and so it is possible she was actually sent there.
  • Mary Ann’s oldest child, not mentioned by name in press reports, may have been Amelia, born in Lambeth early in 1842.

The Hall Green Tragedy Part 2: Scandal at the Undertaker’s

This is part two of my retelling of the Hall Green Tragedy of 1895. For part one, see here.

It was not until the day after the deaths that the bodies were identified, after police found an address in Edward’s pocket.

His wife was brought to formally identify the bodies as those of her husband and her eldest daughter by her first husband. It was noted that ‘the distress and horror of the poor woman were most painful to witness’.

The Mermaid Inn in Sparkhill. Photo by Oosoom.

The Mermaid Inn in Sparkhill. Photo by Oosoom.

Carrie’s body was initially taken to the local pub, the Mermaid Inn, on Stratford Road, but later, both her body and that of Edward Birch were removed to the undertakers. Here, scandal ensued.

The undertaker unscrupulously allowed spectators to view the bodies on payment of a penny each admission fee.

The result was that his premises were ‘crowded with morbid sightseers’ all weekend, with women seen shaking their fists in Edward Birch’s dead face and shouting ‘May you go straight to hell!’.

The negative publicity this resulted in led to the undertaker promising to donate all money paid to Mrs Birch, but this did not lessen the views of other locals that this had been an ‘unedifying’, ‘repulsive’, spectacle.

Carrie’s inquest was held first, at the Mermaid Inn, with AH Hebbert, deputy coroner for North Worcestershire, presiding. Here, the verdict of wilful murder against Edward Birch was recorded, despite the couple appearing to have made a pact together to die.

The deputy coroner summed up by saying, ‘the extraordinary part of the case was that the girl consented to die’ but that if two persons agreed to kill themselves, but one of them survived, the survivor would be guilty of murder.

The jury expressed ‘strong dissatisfaction’ with how the bodies had been ‘housed’ – and the subsequent scandal – and ‘hoped it would not be long before a proper police-station, mortuary and ambulance’ was provided in Sparkhill.

Meanwhile, a search had been carried out in the family home, and police found several letters written by Birch. One read:

“E Birch, 59 Upper Highgate Street, Highgate, Birmingham. Nov 8th 1894. This is to shew that I will not be bested I worned her 12 mounths ago she dou in May 5th 1894 what she ourt not to… she as deceived me agin & when I get in drink it plays on my mind and I make the best of myself Ive taken her out & to places of amusement and then she will be after the men & in September last I give hir lef to go Sunday school and church if she be in by 9 and then she goes of with to fellers in the Ram till after 10 at night round the Mosley fields coaved with muck and paint… She is not my own child and this is the reason when I tell hir about it the mouther takes hir part and incurges hir in it. So this is the end of it.”

The next letter, sent to his parents in Wolverhampton on 5 January, stated:

“Dont put yourself about me of what you see and hear, I care for nothing as they ave brought it all on themselves. Emmer knows what I sed about genney when I was out of work being with that grieves till 1 o’clock in the morning as I keept from starving so long in 1893. So this makes to I have to keep of other mens kids and Calley is as bad…and have soon put her in trouble and this is the way out of it the Job is worse for me than hir as I shall go throw the same and no it tell the fokes to have mutch to say of this afair on either sides to envest into ther own life and they will no dout find soom black spots that will take a robbing out.”

The Victoria Law Courts, by Tony Hisgett

The Victoria Law Courts, by Tony Hisgett

An inquest on Edward Birch was held on 15 January at the Victoria Courts in Birmingham, before city coroner Oliver Pemberton. Here, Mrs Birch repeated the evidence that she had given at her daughter’s inquest, detailing the ‘painful relationship’ between her relatives.

At a small china teacup, which had the words ‘A present from Birmingham’ inscribed in gold round it, being produced, she burst into sobs – ‘it was given to me by my daughter on my 32nd birthday.’

Carrie’s younger sister Lilly, then aged around eight, then had to give evidence, followed by two of Birch’s colleagues at Messrs Lowe’s iron foundry in Upper Trinity Street. They noted that although quiet and intelligent as a worker, he was something of a drinker, and had been summoned before the courts recently for not sending one of his children to school.

The coroner stated that the dead man had ‘turned from the conduct of the parent and behaved in a manner almost impossible to describe.’ He went further; Birch was a ‘profoundly wicked man’, and he encouraged the jury to return a verdict of felo de se – that Birch had ‘feloniously, wilfully, and of malice aforethought did kill and murder himself’. The jury duly did so.

The funeral of Carrie Jones took place at Yardley Cemetery on the Monday morning. The funeral procession left her mother’s house at 59 Upper Highgate Street at 9.30am with the service taking place at 11am.

How did Mrs Birch cope with this double betrayal by her husband and daughter, followed by the double deaths and the publicity the events received?

Understandably, the press reported that she was ‘utterly prostrated, both mentally and physically’, to the extent of being unable to maintain either herself or her six other children, the youngest being only a few months old. In her lowest moments, but the community did not stigmatise her, instead rallying around her.

The jury had stated at Birch’s inquest that they expressed ‘deep sympathy’ for Mrs Birch, and collected money for her from each of the jurors at the end of the inquest. The coroner encouraged all the onlookers at the court to do the same.

Joseph Lock was appointed by the community to collect money on behalf of the Birch family, writing in the press that ‘any sums, however small’ would be welcome to help maintain the family as it would be ‘weeks, probably months’ before Mrs Birch was able to resume family life.

Another man, William L Sheffield, responded in the press that ‘the unfortunate woman Mrs Birch deserves some little help, and I shall be happy to contribute’, and others sent postal orders directly to the newspapers, asking for them to be forwarded on.

Selina Birch survived the ordeal, although life continued to be tough for her. She stayed in the Upper Highgate Street area for the next decade.

She worked as a laundress to maintain her children, and seems to have had at least two illegitimate children following Edward’s death – Jessie was born in 1898 and Lizzie in 1906.

In 1911, living at 6 Beales Buildings, Frank Street, in Balsall Heath, she stated that she was a widow with nine children, of whom two had died.

Significantly, though, despite being a widow, she wrote that her ‘present marriage’ had so far lasted 30 years, suggesting that she still saw Edward Birch very much as her husband.

Selina J Birch died in Birmingham in 1939, shortly before the start of the Second World War, aged 79 – having long outlived her unfaithful husband and naïve daughter.

Sources: 

The Standard, 9 January 1895, p.3; Nottinghamshire Guardian, 12 January 1895, p.8; Birmingham Daily Post, 12 January 1895; The Derby Mercury, 16 Jan 1895; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 20 January 1895; Ancestry, The Genealogist.

The Hall Green Tragedy: Illicit Sex and Murder in a Birmingham Suburb

Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_Paolo_and_Francesca_da_Rimini_-_Google_Art_Project

“News of a shocking domestic tragedy comes from Sparkhill, near Birmingham. On Monday night, groans were heard coming from a field between Hall Green and Sparkhill, and later, when a search was made, the Warwickshire police found the bodies of Edward Birch, 35, an ironplate worker, living at Balsall Heath, and his stepdaughter Carrie Jones, 18.” (Nottinghamshire Guardian, Saturday 12 January 1895, page 8)

The tragedy in south Birmingham on the night of Monday 7 January 1895 had all the markings of a penny dreadful. A teenage girl, having an affair with her stepfather – the two overcome either by guilt or the inability to be together properly to embark on a suicide pact. Both parties had drunk carbolic acid before Edward Birch cut Carrie’s throat, and then his.

*

Selina Jane Birch was Carrie’s mother. She was somewhere between 34 and 38 at the time of the deaths, and Edward Birch, her second husband, was 38 (not 35, as the press reported).

Selina was born in Gloucester around 1860 (although the censuses give her approximate year of birth as anything between 1857 and 1863), but spent much of her life in Birmingham. Nothing is known of her first husband, and little of her marriage to Edward Birch – the records do not enable a definitive name or date (if you know more, do contact me!).

But by 1881, Selina and Edward were married – or stated to be – and living at 23 Aberdeen Street in Birmingham. There were two children at this point – Carrie, listed in the census as “Caroline Birch”, and one-year-old Alfred, who had been born in Edward’s home town of Wolverhampton.

Birmingham city centre at the end of the 19th century.

Birmingham city centre at the end of the 19th century.

Five more children – William, Lilly, Sidney, Herbert and Olive – came along between 1882 and 1894, with the family dependent on Edward’s income as a tin plate worker. Edward took to drinking heavily, and although ‘reasonably affectionate’ towards his wife when sober, was violent when drunk.

He also appears to have resented having to maintain a child that wasn’t his, or tried to convince others that he resented it, but he gradually developed feelings for his stepdaughter that were not the result of a parental love.

He fell for her; his feelings aroused deep jealousy of her relationships with other boys her own age, and he appears to have been a controlling, insecure man who struggled with his emotions and the complexity of his life.

Meanwhile, Selina Birch, although busy with looking after her many children, noticed the closeness between Edward and Carrie, and was uneasy. She tried to convince herself that they simply had a close father-daughter relationship, and that there was nothing improper between them.

But she remained suspicious. In October 1894, a letter arrived for Carrie, asking to make an appointment with her one evening. On that date, she watched the couple closely, and accused Edward of having had the letter written on his behalf, but he denied it.

*

It was late on a Monday evening when people walking down Springfield Road between Hall Green and Sparkhill heard groans coming either from a house or the neighbouring field. It had been snowing, and the night was cold.

Although nobody thought to call the police, one anonymous person did notify the local doctor, who then told the constabulary. Sergeant Wright undertook a search, and soon found the dead body of Carrie Jones, with a two inch wound to her throat, and next to her, Edward Birch, still breathing, but with a cut throat and smelling of carbolic acid.

Part of the former Queen's Hospital in Birmingham. Photo by Oosoom.

Part of the former Queen’s Hospital in Birmingham. Photo by Oosoom.

He was removed in a ‘conveyance’ to the Queen’s Hospital in Birmingham, where he died at around midday the next day.

The carbolic acid had had a corrosive effect on his tongue, gullet, stomach and intestines, and he had died of shock caused by carbolic acid poisoning.

 

 

Part 2 of the Hall Green Tragedy will be posted here tomorrow.

The Trials of Selina Wadge

A post inspired by a recent trip I made to Bodmin Jail.

image2Selina Wadge is commemorated in Bodmin Jail by a rather strange, blank faced, waxwork depiction of her in an old jail cell. She is shown throwing a child into a well while an older child looks on, equally blankly (see photo).

The waxwork display fails to bring to life the sheer poverty and desperation of Selina’s life – the trials and tribulations she underwent in her fairly short life.

She was born in the first quarter of 1852 in Altarnun, a village some eight miles from Launceston in Cornwall, the daughter of Thomas Wadge and his wife Mary. Thomas worked, like many local men, in the local mines; at the time of Selina’s birth, he was a tin streamer; ten years later, he was a copper mine labourer. Selina was baptised on 18 June 1852 at the village church of St Nonna.

1861 census entry for the Wadge family in Altarnun (via Ancestry)

1861 census entry for the Wadge family in Altarnun (via Ancestry)

In 1878, she was 26, single, and the mother of two illegitimate sons – John, aged six, and Harry, a crippled child of two whose disability meant he was unable to walk.

She looked after her boys as best she could, but on more than one occasion, had to be admitted to Launceston Workhouse as a pauper.

After her last admission to the workhouse, she left there on 8 June 1878, and returned to Altarnun to stay with her parents. When living at home, she occasionally went out to work in order to try and maintain her boys, with her mother helping out with childcare.

At some point in the previous couple of weeks, Selina had met a former soldier, James Westwood, and started a relationship with him. They had arranged to meet on 22 June 1878 in Launceston.

The day before, Selina hitched a ride into the town with her sons with a local farmer, William Holman, telling him she was going to meet Westwood – ‘I am going to meet my man’ – apparently unaware that Westwood had written to Selina to cancel their meeting, due to work commitments.

Holman dropped Selina and the boys off at Orchard’s coal stores, which was just outside Launceston, with Selina saying that she would walk the rest of the way.

But when she reached Launceston, at around 11am according to her own testimony, Selina had only one son, John, with her.

She went to visit her older sister, Mary Ann Boundy – then 28, but already widowed – who was an inmate in the workhouse, reaching there at about 12.30pm.

She told Mary Ann, without being asked, that Harry had died from a head abscess and throat complaint and had been buried ‘near the church door at Altarnun’, his coffin made by John Trehane in the village.

Selina only spoke to Mary Ann for around half an hour before leaving at 1pm. She told her sister that she was going to stay in Launceston that night, and return to Altarnun the next day.

That evening, Selina was met by neighbours from Altarnun at the Pennygillam turnpike road, with John by her side. On being asked where Harry was, Selina said that he was at Launceston; she then said goodbye and continued on the road to Launceston, while the neighbours went in the opposite direction towards Altarnun.

However, at around 9pm, she was calling at a lodging house in Tower Street, Launceston, having previously slept there on a couple of occasions. The lodging house keeper, Harriet Parker, therefore knew the family, and spotted that Harry was not with his mother. She asked where it was, and Selina answered, ‘it died out at mother’s’.

The next evening, she returned to the workhouse, this time with an order from the parish to be admitted. She was put in the receiving ward to sleep.

The following morning, a Sunday, the workhouse master, Daniel Downing, and his wife, the matron, Louisa, asked for more information from Selina.

Putting the blame squarely on James Westwood, she stated, ‘The man took it away from me, threw it in the water, and drowned it’.

Extract from registers of prisoners tried at the Assizes at Bodmin - Selina's entry is at the bottom (via Ancestry)

Extract from registers of prisoners tried at the Assizes at Bodmin – Selina’s entry is at the bottom (via Ancestry)

Despite it being later argued that Selina was a loving mother to her son Harry, her use of ‘it’ rather than ‘him’ suggests either that she saw him as an object rather than a boy, or that she was already distancing herself from her son, talking about him as an ‘it’ so that she would not have to think too deeply about what had happened.

Superintendent Barrett from Launceston was called, and he came and asked Selina where Harry had been when she went to the lodging house.

Selina answered that she had been walking with a man on the Tresmarrow road (where she had lived six years earlier) together on the Friday afternoon, and,

‘he took away my little boy, went into a field, and came back and told me he had thrown it in a pit where there were railings, and had drowned it. He came after us, saying he would drown us too.’

She then gave the policeman Westwood’s name and address.

But after he left, Selina turned to the matron and said,

‘Oh, Mrs Downing, I did it. I drowned the child; I put Harry into the water. There was no man with me; no one but my little Johnny, and he began to cry.’

An investigation had, by this time, been launched, and soon Harry’s body was found at the bottom of a 13-foot deep well shaft in Mowhay Park. The lid had been replaced on the well, suggesting that this was no accidental death.

The body was identified by the next door neighbour of Selina’s parents, a Mary Wakeham, who described Harry, when alive, as ‘a fine, healthy child’. A post-mortem suggested that he had died of suffocation, although this might have been due to drowning rather than violence beforehand.

Selina had confessed, and now she was charged with murder, and was taken to Launceston police station, telling the constables that Westwood had promised to marry her if she got rid of her disabled son.

Bodmin Jail

Bodmin Jail

The trial of Selina Wadge took place at the Cornwall Assizes held at Bodmin on 26 July 1878. She was found guilty of murder, the jury taking just three minutes to make their decision. She was held in the condemned cell at Bodmin Jail, guarded by female prison officers.

On 15 August, at 8am, Selina Wadge was hanged by William Marwood – hers being the first private execution at Bodmin. Her last words were ‘Lord deliver me from this miserable world.’

Selina’s trials in life were over, but those for her remaining son, John, may not have been. He was not looked after by family members after his mother’s death (his grandparents were still living in 1901), and may have continued to be an inmate of the Launceston workhouse until he was old enough to work.

The 1911 census records a John Wadge of the right place and date of birth, a former carpenter, listed as an inmate of the Plymouth workhouse. If this was Selina’s son, poverty continued to be an issue into the next generation – no doubt not helped by John’s inauspicious early years, and the witnessing of the death of his little brother at the hands of his mother.

Sources: Bodmin Jail, Ancestry, and the Cornwall Gazette, 28 June 1878, page 5.