Sunday, 12 October 2014

                             A HEARTBREAKING TALE (part one)

THE WORD TRAGEDY is over-used, but tonight's tale fits the bill like none other. We have a woman living in an isolated hamlet, mother of many children due to the constant demands of her husband. She is mentally unstable, and her children cause her more grief than happiness. She lives in the bizarrely named settlement of Foul Anchor. 

Locals will know it as a place that is more driven past than visited. It is a virtual island. To the south, huge empty fields. To the east, the tidal River Nene. To the north, the main outflow of the North Level Main Drain with its sinister sluice. To the west, more fields. 

There is one road in, and one road out. It is the same road. Even today, it is a secluded and silent place. To add another adjective - sinister - would be a step too far, but in 1909, it was no place for a sick woman and her children. In 1909, there was actually a neat little railway station for passengers wishing to use the The Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway, popularly known as the 'Muddle & Going Nowhere'. The station building was, until the 1970s a presentable place, but is now a shambles of incomplete work and rusting used cars. Should anyone need lessons in how to destroy a pleasant and evocative group of buildings, please contact the current owners.

Regarding the unfortunate woman central to our story, let the newspapers of the time take up the narrative.

THE FEN TRAGEDY. Rebecca Rowell, Foul Anchor, Tydd St. Giles, in the Fen district on the borders of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, who, accused of murdering ring her four year-old child under circumstances already reported, has been further remanded for a week, not being able at present to attend and answer the charge. Mrs. Rowell and her child who was born at Wisbech Police Station on Sunday, the 10th inst, are doing well. The mother, it is reported, making excellent progress.

1909 CAMBS. SUMMER ASSIZES. WISBECH CHILD MURDER: AN INSANE MOTHERS CRIME.  The Summer Assizes for Cambridge. were opened at the Shirehall, Chesterton, Saturday, before Horace Avory Esq. His Majesty’s Commissioner. The calendar included a charge against Wisbech woman of murdering her infant child, The Commissioner, giving the charge to the Grand Jury, there was only one charge of any gravity to come before them, and that was a charge against woman named Rebecca Rowell, aged 39, of murdering her infant daughter, at Tydd St. Giles, on January 7th. The Jury would see whether there was “prima facie” evidence that she did take the life of this child by violence, and if they were opinion that there was such evidence, was their duty to return a True Bill against her for murder. They would find that she herself called the attention of a neighbour to what she had done, and invited her to upstairs to a bedroom, using the expression "I'm afraid I have done for Emma.”

The child was found upstairs, dead, from suffocation, apparently the result of pressure being applied to the throat and chest, and probably to the mouth. The Jury concern was merely to impute whether this woman did take the life of her child. It had been suggested that she was insane at the time when the act was committed, but they had nothing to do with this question, which would be investigated by the Petty Jury. 

INSANE MOTHER’S CRIME. Rebecca Rowell, aged 39, a married woman, of Tydd St. Giles’ Wisbech, was charged with the murder of her daughter Emma Rowell, aged 4 years, on January 6th. This was postponed from the January Assizes. The woman pleaded not guilty when charged. She hung her head and did not utter word during the proceedings. Mr. Theobald Mathew and Mr. W. R. appeared for the Treasury, and Mr. Brodie for the defence. Mr. Theobald Mathew said he did not think that as to one part of the case the Jury would have any difficulty, for he believed that his learned friend was not going to dispute that :his poor woman did kill her child. He thought the evidence was too plain to enable them to suppose that she did not do so, and what they had to determine was as to the state of her mind at the time, whether she understood nature and quality of the act she was committing, whether she knew the difference between right and wrong. If they came to the conclusion that she did not, they would return such a verdict as would enable her to taken proper care of. 

The court was informed that on two occasions before this crime was committed, the prisoner had been confined in a lunatic asylum. In 1904 she was confined in the county asylum, and while she was there was born the child into whose death they were now inquiring. She was apparently released from the asylum cured in September, but in January,1905, it was again found necessary to confine her there. They would hear what the condition of her mind was on that second occasion. She was subject to delusions, made strange accusations against her own relatives, and spoke of self-destruction, saying she had intended to destroy herself before she came to the asylum. She left the asylum in January 1906. and so far as he knew there was nothing wrong with her from that time until the date of the crime with which she was now charged.
In January of this year she was expecting her confinement, and the neighbour (who would be called) would say that from time to time they noticed something strange in her manner. The rest of Mr. Matthew’s statement was, borne out in the evidence of the witnesses. 

Mrs. Green, wife of John Green, stated that she lived near Mrs. Rowell, and knew her well. The deceased child frequently came to witness's house for her meals. She asked on the morning of her death if she might stay that day, and the witness replied in the affirmative. Later in the day witness heard the child crying in Mrs. Rowell’s house, and recognised the voice of little Emma. She knew then that prisoner was about to be confined. She was neglectful in her ways, and used lie in bed during the daytime and neglect her work.
Mr. Brodie said that the prisoner had had four children previously, since the witness had known her, and on each occasion she had seemed strange her manner, previous to her confinement. Mrs. Sarah Jane Betts, wife of William, stated that she lived near the prisoner. She had intended to nurse the prisoner in her confinement. She visited the prisoner’s house the morning of 6th, to see how she was. After seeing the prisoner she left the house, returning about quarter to 12. She went into the house and saw the prisoner, who came down stairs to speak to her. Mrs Rowley said "Go upstairs and see what I have done.’’ Witness asked her several times what she had done, and eventually she said, "I believe I have done for Emma." 
The witness then went outside and fetched her sister,  Mrs Colbey, who went upstairs and said, when she returned. “It is too true.” The prisoner was then sitting quietly the fire, nursing another of her children.
Mr. Brodie said, "The prisoner did not appear to realise in the least the seriousness of she had done. She was nursing the other child as if nothing unusual had happened."

Mrs Colbey, wife of John Colbey, said she went to Mrs. Rowley’s house on the day in question. When the prisoner said, "I've done for Emma”, the witness asked her why she did it, and she replied that she did not know. The witness went upstairs and found the child Emma lying the floor on her back. She was quite dead and cold, and there was froth upon her mouth. Upon going downstairs witness asked prisoner if she should fetch the child’s father, and she replied “I don’t know,” this being the only reply she would give to any question.
The father was fetched and the police were afterwards informed. Witness corroborated what had been said by the other neighbour as to the strangeness of Mrs. Rowell s behaviour at the approach of her confinement on previous occasions. PC Dunmore said he was called to the house on January 6th, and found the prisoner there, went upstairs with her husband and found the body of the deceased child. He ascertained that the child was quite dead, and then went down and spoke to the prisoner. He told her that he would arrest her for the murder of her child, and she replied, “I can’t think what made me do it.”  PC Dunmore took her to Wisbech police-station. She went very quietly, but cried almost the whole of the time. 

Florence Barnes said she was the female searcher at Wisbech police station. The  prisoner was brought to the police-station at 6.30 on the evening of January 6th. She asked the prisoner if she knew what she had done, and the prisoner replied that she did not know much about it. She said "I don’t think I can tell you.”
The prisoner eventually stated that she had killed her little girl, and added that she did not know what made her do it, and when she found out what she had done she tried to bring her round again. She said the child worried her and she took her upstairs to punish her. She said she had had a lot of trouble, and the child about to be born would her ninth. Prisoner was confined on January 10th, and the child was still alive.
The prisoner had been very quiet while under the witness’s care, and did not seem to realise the nature of the act she had committed. She quite thought she was going home when she got better. Dr. Crofton of Sutton Bridge, said he was sent for to prisoner’s house on January 6th. In the back bedroom he found the deceased child, which had then been dead for some time. Going downstairs he asked the prisoner, who was nursing another child by the fire, if she felt ill, and she replied that she did. He afterwards made a post-mortem examination of the dead child. He found the child to be fairly well-nourished. There was a bruise upon the neck and a scratch below  the left ear, and a mark between the ear and the chin looked if it might have been made by a finger. There was also a bruise upon the chest, made before death. The cause of death was undoubtedly suffocation caused, by pressure upon the chest.
The Commissioner asked, "How long would such pressure have to be maintained in order to produce the symptoms you found? The doctor replied, "l should say for at least five minutes.

IN PART TWO - the conclusion to the trial, and a sad link to The Battle Of The Somme, 1916 .