Wednesday, 15 October 2014


Wm. Chas. Sullivan, medical officer at Holloway Prison, said Mrs. Rowell was brought to the prison from Cambridge. He had frequent interviews with her and kept her under observation. She was very depressed at first, and it was impossible to get her to attend or to answer questions. She was afraid of the other prisoners in the ward, and said she did not like to eat her food because she had not earned it, and did not deserve it. She had a good memory, and was able to give an account of the crime with which she was now charged. She said that whenever she was pregnant she was unable to do her work, and the children got out of control. She stated that the child Emma worried her, and she took her upstairs to punish her. She locked the child in a room, and as she continued to cry she placed her on the floor and put her foot on her. When she removed her foot the child did not come round, and she tried to revive her and failed to do so, so she left her and went downstairs. She did not in the least recognise the seriousness of her own position, and when it was pointed out to her she said she did not mind.
When the last child was taken away from her while she was in prison she did not to mind, and did not even ask about it. She got brighter as soon as the child was weaned, and this improvement had continued. In reply to Mr. Brodie. the witness stated that it was by no means uncommon for a woman’s mind to be affected as the time of child-birth drew near. In his opinion the prisoner was insane three weeks after the birth of the last child.
Mr. Brodie, addressing the jury, urged that there could not be the slightest doubt, after the evidence given, that prisoner was insane at the time she committed this act. The evidence of Dr. Sullivan, who had doubtless had a great deal of experience in such cases, must be regarded as conclusive. In summing up, Mr Avory reminded the jury that in law everyone was presumed to be sane until they were proved to be otherwise. There was a legal definition of insanity which alone could excuse crime, and the jury must be satisfied that at the time the woman committed this act she either did not know the nature and quality of the act - in other words she did not know that she was killing the child or was doing something likely to kill it. The jury must be of the opinion that she did not know when she committed the act that she was doing wrong. The jury returned a verdict to the effect that the prisoner was guilty, but at the time she committed the act she was not responsible for her actions. Mr Avory ordered that she be detained as a criminal lunatic during His Majesty’s Pleasure.

Note well that Rebecca Rowell gave birth to her latest child while she was under arrest in Wisbech Police Station. It is hardly surprising that the baby was taken away from her. By the press reports, it seems that Rebecca Rowell was in an almost constant state of pregnancy. The un-named infant was her tenth. 

Skipping on a couple of years, we look at the 1911 census. Husband Harry Rowell is bringing up four children - Harry junior, George, Elizabeth and Robert. Poor, dead Emma makes five. The un-named child born in Wisbech Police Station makes six. We can only assume that four other children have either died or been taken into care.

On August 3rd, 1914, Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey uttered the words which have become the stuff of legend. He said,
"The lamps are going out all over Europe.
We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime"

Sir Edward Grey
Across the country, in hamlet, village, town and city, young men from humble backgrounds queued for hours around the block, some lying about their age, all desperate to be part of the greatest adventure for a generation. Men who were better connected called in favours via their parents, and went off to train as officers. Meanwhile, the tiny regular army, designated the British Expeditionary Force, reeled from the onslaught of overwhelming German forces in the fields and towns of Flanders. It seems that young Harry Rowell, sixteen in 1911, enlisted as a private in The Norfolk Regiment, and joined what was called 'The New Army', or 'Kitchener's Army'. His battalion, the 9th Norfolks, were not involved on that bloodiest day in British military history - July 1st 1916 - but as the fighting on The Somme stretched throughout that long hot summer, and into autumn, they were part of the 71st Brigade during what was officially known as The Battle of Flers-Courcelette. 
Their main objective was a heavily fortified German redoubt east of the village of Ginchy, known as The Quadrilateral. On the morning of September 15th, the attack began, but despite an artillery barrage, and conscientious planning, the attack failed. The Battalion diary records that four officers were killed, and twelve wounded. It also notes that among 'Other Ranks', there were 431 casualties.

One of these 'Other Ranks' casualties was Harry Rowell, from Foul Anchor, one of the surviving children of poor, mad Rebecca Rowell, possibly still languishing in a mental institution, at His Majesty's Pleasure.
Harry's name is on the simple but dignified Foul Anchor war memorial. It is also inscribed on the overwhelming and powerful memorial at Thiepval, along with 72,193 other men whose bodies were never found. 
There is a trend among modern historians to view the carnage of The Somme as an unfortunate, but necessary ingredient which led to the collapse of the German Army in 1918. The casualty figures, however, are astonishing. Between July and November 1916, the total casualties for the Allies was 623,907, of which 146,431 were killed. The German losses were 465,000 including 164,055 dead.

So ends a story which begins with a poor, mentally fragile woman, driven mad by constant pregnancy and worry. The story ends seven years later with her son, probably scared out of his wits, climbing out of a trench at the officer's whistle, and walking headlong into a hail of enemy fire which was to end his life.