A dead baby found by a nurse in Woolwich: A mother is accused

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There are few crimes that generate so much emotion as the killing of a child. Every year at least one of my students is likely to come forward to suggest doing a dissertation or small research project on infanticide. It is an act so awful that we struggle to understand which makes it, seemingly at least, all the more fascinating.

Very many women, most of them young, the vast majority unmarried, were accused of killing their babies or children in the Victorian era. For most I believe, killing was never their intention; the infant died because of problems at birth or poverty and neglect soon afterwards.  The image of the ‘evil’ mother is almost certainly a myth.

Jane Ward was just such a mother. In November 1860 Jane appeared before Mr Maude at Woolwich Police court accused of causing the death of newborn baby girl. She was remanded for a week after which she was sent for trial at the Old Bailey.

Matilda Wyatt was a nurse working at the Royal Military Academy by Woolwich Common. As she walked in the garden of the army medical school she saw something on the ground, close by the road. As she bent down she realized that it was the body of a baby wrapped in calico, and horrified, she took it to the police.

The police made some enquiries and this led them to the home of Jane Ward’s father, a dairyman in Shooter’s Hill. PC Turner (61R) made a search of the house and found one of Jane’s dresses with a square of fabric cut from it, a square that matched the piece of calico exactly.

A Blackheath surgeon, Mr Tyler, performed a post mortem on the dead child. He checked the lungs (an increasingly outdated method of determining whether a baby had been stillborn or not) and judged it had been born alive. This suggested that Jane must have killed it, deliberately or otherwise. A second doctor examined Jane and confirmed that she had recently given birth. The evidence against her seemed conclusive.

Jane admitted that the baby was hers but denied its murder.

At the Old Bailey later that year Jane was charged, not with infanticide but the less serious charge of concealing a birth. This carried a maximum two-year prison sentence. In the event Jane was acquitted but no details are given beyond establishing that she had a defense barrister arguing her case in court. Sadly then we have no idea of the circumstances that explain what happened to Jane’s baby or why she left it in the academy grounds. All we can say is that it must have been as traumatic for her as it was for the poor nurse who discovered it.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, November 23, 1860]

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