Child murder, suicide, neglect, and petty theft: just an average day in London

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This is the last in this series of posts from one week in 1884 and I’m going to finish it with a summary of the reports that appeared in the Morning Post under the heading ‘Police Intelligence’ which again show the diversity of business the police magistrate courts of the Victorian capital dealt with.

The most serious case was at Clerkenwell where Mr Hosack fully committed Sidney Clay to trial at the Central Criminal Court (at Old Bailey). Clay, a 30 year-old tobacconist from Holloway Road, was accused of ‘having encouraged and endeavoured to persuade Eustace de Gruther, doctor of medicine, to kill and murder’ a baby boy who was just two months old.

Clay’s lawyer argued that the doctor, as the only witness, was trying to implicate his client but the magistrate decided that the case needed to be heard by a jury and bailed Clay for £200.  In late February Clay was tried and convicted at the Bailey but it was recognized that the whole thing might not have been as intentional as it seemed at first. The jury recommended Clay to mercy and the judge gave him just six months hard labour. Interestingly here his age was given as just 21, not 30, so perhaps the reporter got it wrong at the original hearing – a reminder that we should always treat historical sources carefully.

Another tragedy of life was played out in Southwark Police court where Elizabeth Brockett was prosecuted for trying to kill herself. The 31 year-old (if we are to believe the report at least) was seen on London Bridge by a  wharf labourer. John Flanaghan was alerted by a woman’s scream and looked up to see Elizabeth who had just discarded her bonnet and shawl and was about to launch herself into the Thames. He rushed to save her, and, with the help of a policeman, managed to drag her back from the brink.

In court the woman told Mr Slade that she was ‘in great distress of mind, owing to the loss of two children’. She’d been very ill but promised never to try to do anything like this again. She was released back into the care of her husband.

At Hampstead John Redworth didn’t appear when his case was called. He’d been summoned by an officer of School Board for neglecting to send his daughter, Justina (9) to school. This was a common enough sort of hearing but was very rarely reported so what made this one special? Well it was that perennial issue around travelling people. Redworth was a member of a community of ‘gipsies’ who had been camping on Hampstead Heath. Apparently Redworth’s was the only family that had children of school age and so his was the only summons made.

He turned up in the end but too late for the magistrate (Mr Andrews) who had already adjourned the case for a month. The encampment had moved on the magistrate was told, so perhaps the court would decide to leave the girl’s education for someone else to deal with.

At Marylebone William Bliss (a footman) was charged with theft and receiving a china vase. He appeared in the dock with his accomplice and fellow servant Catherine Churchyard. The pair worked for a family in Chelsea and claimed the case had just been broken and they’d hidden the evidence to save Catherine getting into trouble. Mr De Rutzen didn’t buy this version of events and remanded them for a week to see what the police could find out about the case. I fear that at best the couple would have been dismissed from service, at worst they might have to spend some time behind bars.

So in just four reports that day we have a child murder, an attempted suicide, servant theft, and a case of truancy involving travellers. If we added a fraud, a case of domestic violence, and some drunk and disorderly behaviour on the streets in the West End we would have a very normal day at the Police courts of Victorian London.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, 31 January, 1884]

‘Such things are a disgrace there’: A Dutchman tries to save his father’s shame by dumping his grandchild on the streets of London

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Lower Thames Street in the late 1800s

One of the subjects that continues to fascinate my undergraduate students is infanticide. Almost invariably they approach the topic wanting to understand how a mother could deliberately murder her newborn baby. Looking through the very many cases that came before the Old Bailey they are understandably shocked at the stories of women who cut their infant child’s throat, or smothered it at birth, before dumping the body in the nearest privy.

Without wishing to deny the reality that some mothers did kill their newborn babies I think most historians would agree that this was probably the exception rather than the rule in infanticide cases. Babies died in childbirth much more often in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, before advancements in medical care arrived in the 1900s. Most importantly the women accused were invariably single, poor, young and from the servant class. These young women had fallen pregnant and then had tried to conceal this from their families and employers, for fear of being condemned as immoral and, in the case of servants, being dismissed from service.

Illegitimacy is not an issue in most Western societies today. Very many people choose to live together before they marry and some do not marry at all yet still have children. This has been widely accepted in most communities in Britain since the 1970s if not a little earlier and the word ‘bastard’ has almost lost its original meaning.

However this was far from true in the 1800s, even if – as this case perhaps implies – London was seen as a more progressive city than some in Europe.

In December 1875 Samuel Whiffin was walking towards London Bridge on Lower Thames Street when he noticed a parcel lying near a doorway. As a policeman was approaching from the opposite direction Whiffin called him over and pointed out the package. PC Holly examined it and realized that it contained the body of an infant.

To his relief the baby was alive but very cold, so PC Holly carried it off to the Home for the Houseless Poor. This charity provided ‘nightly shelter and sustenance to the absolutely destitute working- classes, who are suddenly thrown out of employment by inclement weather’.* Having been looked after by the charity the child was next taken to the Homerton Workhouse and the search for its parents began.

Three days later Jans Hans, a Dutch labourer living at 3, Walburgh Street, St George-in-the-East, was brought before Sir Robert Carden at  Mansion House to be examined concerning the abandonment of the child. He was accused along with his sister, who was in St George’s hospital and too ill to attend.

The court heard the evidence of PC Holly as to the finding of the baby and then from a Mrs Plaggenine, a German woman who was landlady to Hans and his sister. Sir Robert was interested in the revelation that the siblings shared a single room in the property, and intimated that this was not normal. Mrs Plaggenine ignored, or did not understand, the magistrate’s question, but the suggestion of incest was left hanging in the air.

The policeman that had arrested Jan Hans questioned him about the child and reported that the man had admitted leaving it in the street on the previous Thursday. Hans told him that he had set the child down then retired to a safe spot where he could watch to see that someone stopped and rescued the baby. He had tried advertising the baby for adoption but had no success.

Hans and his sister were desperate, the Dutchman now explained to the alderman. They were very poor and couldn’t afford to raise a child. His sister had traveled from Holland ‘to be confined’ (to give birth) because the father refused to take responsibility for it. He added that ‘such things were a disgrace there’.

Presumably because Jan lived and worked in London this seemed like a good solution to Hans senior. If he sent his daughter to England she could give birth and the child would be brought up by strangers in a strange country but at least his family’s reputation would be protected. The child had a lucky escape and it is hard to imagine the mental state of Hans’ sister who seems to have been almost entirely left out of the decision-making process. She was ill in hospital while her brother disposed of her baby and the alderman magistrate cast further doubt on her morality by suggesting it was the product of an incestuous relationship.

Jan Hans was remanded in custody so that the courts could decide what to do with him and his sister. If they couldn’t and wouldn’t care for the baby (and no adopted family could be found) then it would grow up in the workhouse like Oliver Twist, perhaps never knowing of it Dutch heritage.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, 20 December, 1875]

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]

The magistrate tells a mentally ill mother to ‘remember to the end of her life what disgrace and danger she brought upon herself’.

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Today the British government has decided to mark World Mental Health Day by appointing a government minister to prevent suicide. The Health Secretary has admitted that under successive governments there has been too little focus of resources on tackling the problems of mental illness but, speaking on BBC Radio’s Today programme he stopped shorted of promising more money or specifying exactly how he intended to address the issue of mental health in the coming months and years.

The PM said this: ‘We can end the stigma that has forced too many to suffer in silence and prevent the tragedy of suicide taking too many lives’. They have pledged £1.8 to the Samaritans to help them run their free helpline. That is certainly something of course, but then we spend £38 billion on defence and about £45m on the Queen. The costs of mental health care do come out of the NHS budget of course and that budget is £124.7 billion and about 10% of that goes towards treating mental illness.

What all of these figures show is that mental illness is a massive problem in modern society and helps explain why upwards of 4,500 people take their own lives every year. Anyone visiting this blog over the last couple of years will probably have come across one or more story of attempted suicide prosecuted at the Metropolitan Police courts.  London was just as unforgiving and uncaring in the 1800s as it has proved to be in the 1900s and early 2000s. Policemen frequently prevented suicides simply by being on the streets (and bridges) at the right times.

Beat bobbies rescued men and women from the river, pulled them from canals, and cut them down from railings where they found them hanging. On more than one occasion a quick thinking guard or passenger saved a life on the overground or underground railways. Unlike today few of those attempting to end their lives received any help afterwards and all of them ended up facing prosecution for their ‘crime’.

Take the example of Maria Ford, a 28 year old married woman from Henry Street in Marylebone. She was charged before Mr Mansfield with attempting to murder her baby boy and then take her own life with poison. The magistrate was told that Maria was a drunkard with a history of being found incapable in the streets. After numerous appearances before  the courts she had recently promised to refrain from alcohol and had ‘signed the pledge’.

As a convert to the Temperance movement Mr Mansfield was prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt. The chaplain of the house of detention had written to him to attest to Maria’s attempt at reformation and he was keen to encourage her. He decided to treat the attempt on her son’s life as an accident occasioned by her being drunk but warned her against slipping ‘off the wagon’ in future:

‘He did not think she intended to injure her child’ he said, ‘but in her drunken madness she might have killed both the child and herself’.

He would therefore discharge her but now she had signed the pledge she had best keep it and ‘remember to the end of her life what disgrace and danger she brought upon herself by her drunken habits’.

I’m not sure anyone asked her why she drank or why there was no husband in court to support her. At least in that respects our society has made some significant strides forward even if, as Matt Hancock admits, there is still plenty of distance to travel.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 10, 1883]

for other cases that touch on attempted suicide see:

A man is driven to attempt suicide because of his ‘reduced circumstances’

‘She has been very low spirited lately’: The early casebook of the ‘Ripper’ surgeon reveals the extent of mental illness in London

A bad week in London, full of personal tragedy

A personal tragedy for the girl that couldn’t cope

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By the time Ann Poulter was brought before the magistrate at Marlborough Street she had recovered sufficiently from her pregnancy to face a rigourous legal inquisition. It was almost six weeks since she had given birth on the 2 May 1845 and she’d spent most of the time in between in hospital as she was very weak. Now Ann, a servant working at a house in Hanway Street, Fitzrovia, was charged with killing her new born baby.

Standing in the dock before the justice, Mr Maltby she now had to listen to a succession of witnesses testify against her. The first of these was Diana Hugo a charwoman who deposed that on that day she’d gone to work at Hanway Street as usual. She’d suspected that Ann was pregnant and was hiding it, as many young women would have done in a society that condemned women for falling pregnant before marriage.

Servant girls like Ann were vulnerable to the pressures applied by masters or their sons, or indeed those of their fellow male servants. Even if the child was  a product of  a loving relationship it was likely to be unwelcome because having a child out of wedlock was a sure fire way to get yourself dismissed in Victorian England.

Diana Hugo’s suspicions were confirmed by what she found in the kitchen – traces of blood on the floor and other signs. She told her mistress he called Ann to her and grilled her about it. Ann denied everything and said she’d merely been unwell ‘but would soon be better’.

The char wasn’t convinced and when she heard the stifled cry of an infant she searched and found (in the coal cellar) a baby girl, ‘newly born, wrapped in a gown’ that belonged to Ann. The baby and mother were reunited and Ann was sent to bed and a surgeon was sent for.

Dr Odling was next to give evidence. He said he examined Ann and the baby later that day and all was well. When he came back in the evening however the child was dead and there ‘were marks of violence on its person, particularly about its head’. The police were summoned and Ann was arrested and taken away.

The doctor that carried out the post mortem examination (a Dr Hind) said that the injuries the child had sustained were not obvious externally. The baby girl had died of injuries to her head, her little skull being fractured. Ann told him that one or two days before the birth she’d tripped and fallen downstairs, which is how she accounted for the injuries to her baby.

Now it was Ann’s turn to give her account of what happened and she was vague and contradicted the earlier reports. She admitted dropping the child so that it bruised its face, but it wasn’t intentional. She also said that she hadn’t released she was so close to her time or she would left her employment and gone into confinement.

The consequences of being found guilty of killing her baby were serious but it seems that there was no one in court who was there to help or speak up for her.

Mr Maltby committed her to take her trial at the Old Bailey but I can find no record of this taking place. Nor does she appear in the records collated under the digital panopticon project, so what happened to her? She may have been tried and acquitted – not all not guilty verdicts were written up for the Old Bailey Proceedings. She may avoided trial altogether if, say, some new evidence surfaced.

But I suspect the real reason she disappears from the records is that she died; possibly while awaiting trial in prison. She was clearly a disturbed young woman to have hidden her baby in the coal cellar, and it seems likely she did kill it. It isn’t too wild a leap then to suggest that the pain of this coupled with her personal trauma led her to end her own life before a jury convicted her of taking that of her new born daughter’s.

Hanway Street is rumoured to have been named after Jonas Hanway, an eighteenth-century philanthropist and founder of the Marine Society (which helped destitute young boys find an escape from poverty and crime in the Navy). Hanway was also a governor at Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital, which took in the unwanted offspring of the poor. One of Coram and the other founders (such as William Hogarth) aims was to offer a safe refuge for illegitimate babies born to mothers who felt they had no alternative but to get rid of them. So there is a sad irony that this tragedy took place in where it did.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, June 18, 1845]

A terrible discovery in Bunhill Row reveals a domestic tragedy.

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Elizabeth Collinson was employed as a servant in the household of Mr Morris, a cabinetmaker in Curtain Road, Shoreditch. When his wife discovered that her unmarried serving girl was pregnant she ‘turned her out of doors’ so she wouldn’t bring disgrace on the family.

It was a heartless thing to do but typical of the way that ‘bastard bearers’ were treated in the nineteenth century. Very many unmarried servants fell pregnant as a result of relationships with other servants, sometime consensual, often not, and it was invariably the woman that was held responsible. A servant with a child, especially a baby, who no longer an asset but a liability; her work would be restricted and there was another mouth to feed. So Mrs Morris’ decision – callous as it was – is also understandable. However, in this case she may have had another reason for expelling Elizabeth and her unborn child.

Elizabeth left the house and took a box with her. Several weeks later the box was discovered in a house in Bunhill Row belonging to a surgeon. Inside was the body of a baby, ‘partly eaten by rats’. The girl was eventually arrested and in April 1839 she appeared before the magistrates at Worship Street charged with ‘making away with her illegitimate child’.

In court Elizabeth stood her ground. She told the justices that the cabinetmaker Morris was the father of her child and that he had ‘given her something to procure a premature birth’. She was suggesting that Morris had told her to get an abortion and supplied her with the abortifacient. That was illegal but it was hard to prove and Mrs Morris was quick to dismiss the girl’s testimony as lies, she said she didn’t believe her at all.

I wonder however if there was some truth in what Elizabeth had said. Mr Morris wouldn’t be the first employer to have an affair with a younger woman working in his house. Moreover, he held all the cards and could have easily told Elizabeth she would be dismissed if she didn’t do as he said. As for Mrs Morris, we might imagine why she’d want the girl gone and, while being angry and upset at what her husband had done, may also have been desperate to save her marriage in a society where divorce was all but impossible for a woman of her class.

The magistrates turned their ire on her however, reprimanding her for her ‘inhumanity in turning the poor girl into the streets under such circumstances’. The court then heard medical evidence concerning the state of the child when discovered. It was impossible to tell, the witness stated, whether the baby had been born dead or had been killed shortly afterwards. That mattered as if the latter could be proved then Elizabeth would face a trial for infanticide. Since it could not the justices committed her to be tried for concealing the birth of her child, which carried a maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment.

Only three trials of women accused of concealing a birth are recorded in the Old Bailey Proceedings after April 1839 and Elizabeth is not one of them. Perhaps the prosecution was dropped or insufficient evidence secured to bring it to court. Maybe Morris recognised that for this story to be heard again in open court might expose him to criticism, humiliation or worse, a charge of aiding an abortion. Given all of this it seems it was in no one’s interest to drag Elizabeth through the courts and into a prison, her life was already ruined by the disgrace and the best she might hope for was that someone else would give her a position and that she might leave this tragedy behind her.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 22, 1839]

A sad end for an unwanted baby: clubbed to death in a Southwark toilet

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In May 1848 a young woman presented herself at the door of Sarah Potter’s house in Jane Street, Southwark asking if she might take a room. She told her she was a ‘servant out of place’, temporarily she hoped, and that her name was Ann Brightwell.

Ann seemed like a ‘decent young woman’ so the mechanic’s wife took her in. About a month later however, Sarah began to have some suspicions about her new tenant and confronted her. Mrs Potter clearly thought that there was more to Ann’s story than she had revealed at first, and she ‘charged her with being enciente‘ (or in other words, pregnant).

For a servant to get pregnant in the 1800s was common but still unacceptable in the eyes of a disproving society. Ann’s plan was to hide herself away from the shame but despite her denials, Mrs Potter had found her out. Whether this changed her plans or not it is impossible to say. Ann might have intended to have the baby in her room in Southwark and then leave it at the workhouse door or try and raise it alone.

Perhaps then this discovery precipitated a terrible chain of events, or maybe the shock of being found out brought added stress which quickened her pregnancy. Either way things soon became much worse for the young servant.

On the 2 July Mrs Potter saw Ann leaving the ‘water-closet’ carrying an umbrella, ‘in a hurried state’. When Sarah investigated she was in no doubt that a new born baby had been  disposed of inside.

The police and a surgeon were summoned and Ann arrested. In the Southwark Police Court Dr Robert Tebbett deposed that in his opinion there was no doubt the child had been born alive. Mrs Potter told the magistrate that she had heard Ann admit that she ‘had destroyed her child by casting it into the water-closet, and striking it with the end of the umbrella’.

Ann denied all of the evidence brought against her, as well she might. She was being accused of infanticide, a crime that carried a capital charge until 1938. While women continued to sentenced to death throughout the later 1800s none were executed in London but Ann could not rely on that. The magistrate committed her for trial and at that point she disappears from the records.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, July 31, 1848]

A draper’s maid conceals her secret in the chimney

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When Mary Ann Shinn took up a position as a ‘general servant’ with the family of Charles Debenham, a draper in Upper Clapton she attracted some attention because of her appearance. What was so special about her appearance is not spelled out but a few weeks later Mr. Debenham drew his wife’s attention to the 20 year-old maid. A doctor was summoned and he ‘quickly ascertained that a birth had occurred in her bedroom’.

Mary Ann had been pregnant when she arrived from ‘the country’ to take up work in London. One wonders at her mental state and whether she knew she was carrying an illegitimate child.

When challenged with the allegation she admitted giving birth and the dead body of an infant was later found in the chimney of her room. When examined it was found to have a wound in the throat ‘whereby the jugular had ben divided’.

At the coroner’s inquest the jury returned a verdict that the child had died from the injury caused by the wound to the neck, ’inflicted by the mother accidently in attempting to deliver it herself’.

It was a human tragedy that must have been played out hundreds of times across the nineteenth century as young women who found themselves pregnant and unmarried attempted to hide the shame and gave birth in private at terrible risk to themselves and their babies.

Until 1803 the law had insisted that unmarried women who gave birth in private had to prove that their babies had been born dead or face conviction for infanticide. Lord Ellenborough’s Act of 1803 changed that and placed the onus of proof on the prosecution (as it was for all other offences). Thereafter juries had the option to find women guilty of ‘concealment of birth’ (which carried a 2 year prison sentence) rather than infanticide which, like murder, attracted the death penalty.

In the Worship Street Police court Mary’s case was heard before the magistrate. She was, unusually as the paper recorded, allowed to sit through the evidence. Having heard the case against her the justice, Mr. Ellison asked if her parents were present. The police inspector was in the process of explaining that he did not believe she had any living relatives when ‘her stepfather and a friend’ appeared. They did not say anything however and Mary ‘after taking some stimulants’ (presumably because she had fainted under the pressure and humiliation) was taken away to the prison infirmary in a cab.

Mary was later tried for infanticide at the Old Bailey where she pleaded guilty to concealment and was given a good character by her employers. She went to prison for six months.

p.s I wondered if Charles Debenham was one of the Debenham family of drapers that established their business in the early 1800s. He was a draper but whether he was related to William Debenham (who joined forces with Thomas Clark in 1813 to establish Clark & Debenham – the forerunner of the modern department store) I cannot discover. If you know, please share.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, January 12, 1867]

A young woman’s desperation pushes her to infanticide

Sadly we continue to hear stores of new-born babies left in A&E departments with message from the police appealing for the mother to come forward as she made require hospital care. This is in 21st century Britain where there is little or no stigma now about having a child outside of wedlock, and (hopefully) plenty of material support available for young mothers and their babies.

Neither of these situations pertained to the mid-nineteenth century however.

Isabella Kirk was a ‘delicate-looking young woman’ who found herself pregnant and unmarried and without means. If she employment she was likely to lose it and it is very unlikely that the father of her child would be able to step up to his responsibilities, even if he knew he had them.

Abortion was illegal and dangerous and so Isabella’s options were limited. Unfortunately she picked the worst of these.

On the 23rd November 1847 Mrs Cook was walking along East Street in Walworth at around 8 or 9 o’clock in the evening when she saw something lying in the mud of a passageway. To her horror when she investigated she found it to be a small baby,  lying face down in a puddle. When she moved it ‘it cried out bitterly’, so she lifted it up and took to the workhouse infirmary.

Efforts were made to revive the child but ‘such were its injuries..it being so inhumanely placed in such a place, on a cold, bleak and rainy night, that it would not suck when taken to one of the nurses, and [it] died at six o’clock the next morning’.

It is a heartbreaking story and made worse perhaps by Isabella being dragged into the Lambeth Police Court on a charge of murder. At first no one had been able to identify the mother and it was only after the inquest that sat on the dead child ordered an investigation that she was tracked down. A can driver that lodged in the same house at Isabella had noticed a change in her and when police made enquiries he gave them a description. The police picked her up in Walworth Road a few days before her hearing at Lambeth.

The cabbie, a surgeon and the poor girl’s sister all testified that Isabella was the mother of the deceased child and the magistrate committed her for trial at the Old Bailey.

Isabella’s trial took place on 13th December 1847. She was convicted of infanticide and sent to prison for a year. She was 20.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, December 01, 1847]