Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Month: December 2017

Death at Drybank: The sad case of Rees Brandish

In 1897, the discovery of a little boy’s body in a Warwickshire village laid bare the problems that could face single mothers in Victorian England. I wrote about this case for my monthly history column in the Stratford Herald, but here, I’ve spent a bit more time looking at the detail, as there was much more to the story than I could fit into a single page article!

It was Saturday 13 November 1897, a day that the residents of Ettington, Warwickshire, would remember. The peacefulness of the village was broken by the Stratford police, arriving in force to dig the  grounds of Drybank Farm. They had a woman in custody who, it was believed, had murdered her son: their enquiries had brought them to this rural farm.

It was not until they had dug almost the whole of the farmhouse garden up, to a depth of around two feet, that they found the naked body of a little boy buried in the soil, doubled up, and covered in lime. That boy was Rees Thomas Yelves Brandish, aged just two-and-a-half.

As further details emerged, the horror of Rees’ short life became apparent, and highlighted the problems faced by single mother in the Victorian era. For Rees was illegitimate, the son of a 33-year-old unmarried nurse, Elizabeth Brandish. Elizabeth, a blue-eyed, good-looking woman, could not look after her son as she needed to work – and work could be lost if employers found out their female workers had had a child out of wedlock.

Therefore, Elizabeth paid an elderly woman named Mrs Post, who lived at Wye, near Ashford in Kent, five shillings a week to look after her son. Thoughout the late 19th century, and even into the 20th, there were unscrupulous women who would advertise their desire to have a baby to adopt or look after, in return for either a one-off upfront fee or a weekly charge.

The notorious baby farmer Amelia Dyer

They really wanted the money rather than the child, though, and would either neglect the child, use  laudanum to suppress their appetites, starve them, and see them die – or, alternatively, in the case of Amelia Dyer, for example, simply murder them.

Elizabeth, though struck lucky. Although Mrs Post had advertised for a child to look after, she was one of the genuine women who actually wanted to help others. From the age of nine weeks old, she and the rest of the Posts became the only family Rees knew – one he bonded with and was at home with – while his mother found work in Clent, in north Worcestershire.

However, it appears that Elizabeth may have actually have been hoping that she was answering an advert from a baby farmer. It was later claimed that she had got into a conversation with a woman one day who had advised her about such acts. Had Elizabeth been annoyed that she instead got a woman who cared about her son, and who looked after him well – costing his mother five shillings a week for the past two and a bit years?

This may be why, on 9 September 1897, Elizabeth announced that she was retrieving her son from the Post house. She arrived in Wye, saying she was going to take Rees to her brother’s farm at Ettington – it was not, in fact his farm, but he was employed to work there by the farm’s bailiff. He also had no idea that his sister had been pregnant, let alone given birth.

Suspicions were aroused in Kent when Elizabeth quickly left with her child, but without any of his spare clothes. It was also noted by Mrs Post and her family that Elizabeth did not display any love for Rees when she came to take him away.

Rees was said to have been ‘weary, tired and sad at being taken away from those he had come to regard as his only friends,’ and the Posts turned out to be far more solicitous of his well-being than Elizabeth. Mother and son were found the next night by a police sergeant in London, wandering around the capital’s streets.

Concerned, the policeman took them to a local police station, for Elizabeth to be treated by a doctor, and then transferred to the Euston area, where they stayed the rest of the night in a hotel. Finally, on the morning of 11 September, they travelled on a train bound for Bletchley, changing at Blisworth for a second train for Banbury, and then getting off at Towcester at 4.50pm.

What would have been the entrance to Euston station when Elizabeth and Rees Brandish went there to catch their train

On embarking at Euston, Elizabeth and Rees had got into a third-class compartment, which they shared with other travellers; it was observed that Nurse Brandish had with her a large tin trunk.

When the train stopped at Towcester, she had got off with her trunk and her son, and tried to get into the stationmaster’s office to buy a second-class ticket on the 7.19pm train leaving that station. She appeared so strange and excited that the stationmaster wouldn’t let her in, instead selling her an excess ticket outside to enable her to travel second-class for the rest of the journey.

The mother and child were seen entering an empty second-class carriage. However, by the time she got off the train at Ettington, at 8pm, Elizabeth was alone: but she was carrying a large bundle under her arm, in addition to the tin trunk. Two months later, Rees’ body was found buried in a farmhouse garden in that village.

Suspicions about Elizabeth were relayed to the police, and they didn’t take long to find her, back in Clent. When she was arrested, a letter was found in her pocket, where she noted that she would probably be hanged, and asked for forgiveness, writing, ‘whatever wrong has been done in my life has not been of my own seeking.’

She claimed that she had been seduced by a man on a train three years earlier, he having ‘taken advantage of my loneliness’; when she told him she was pregnant, he had denied having had anything to do with her. She had given birth on her own in London, and been very ill for some time afterwards. Her luck then improved, as a ‘kind lady’ paid for her to train as a nurse.

She had since been working in Clent, where the community knew her and respected her; those she worked for regarded her with great esteem. But more significantly, it appears that she was being courted by a policeman in Clent, and he was thinking about proposing: had Elizabeth been worried that he would end the relationship if he found out that she had had an illegitimate child – a child she had failed to mention to him previously?

While Elizabeth was being arrested, taken to the Stratford police station, and then on by train to Warwick Gaol – a large crowd gathering at Stratford station in the hope of catching a sight of this allegedly murderous mother – there was little attention being paid to the life of the little boy whose life had been cut short. The emphasis was on this pretty woman who was so caring in her profession, yet was accused of having killed her own child.

Ettington Church, by John Holmes, on Geograph

On Rees’ body being discovered, this lack of attention towards the little boy continued. His body was covered loosely in some sacking and dumped in a wheelbarrow to be taken to the local pub for an inquest. Later, the vicar of Ettington being away, Rees received no religious funeral service; instead, his remains were put into a cheap, rough elm coffin, with no inscription on it, and taken on ‘an ordinary truck’ to be buried in the churchyard.

It was a pauper’s burial, paid for by the parish and organised by the parish overseer. The only people present for the burial were the undertaker and his son, and two ladies who took pity on this poor, unloved child. Once interred, it was reported that Rees’ grave was ‘hastily shovelled in’ with soil.

As the Leamington Spa Courier sadly noted:

“Seldom has the truth and the force of the lines, ‘Rattle his bones, over the stones, he’s only a pauper who nobody owns’ been more clearly illustrated than at Ettington.”

Villagers were said to have been deeply upset by the lack of respect granted to this small child who ‘was in no way responsible either for the circumstances of his birth, or death’, but they weren’t upset enough to arrange a better service, or to attend the burial.

The trial of Elizabeth Brandish for the wilful murder of her son started in March 1898 at the Warwick Assizes. After three days of debating, the jury was unable to reach a verdict, and so was discharged. A second trial then began at the following, summer, Assizes, but with an unexpected result.

Because so much of the evidence against Elizabeth was circumstantial, they had found her not guilty – despite there being no obvious alternative reason for Rees’ death and subsequent burial at the farm where his uncle worked, and despite Elizabeth’s confessional-style letter. The judge at the trial was stunned, and ended up leaving the court having failed to tell Elizabeth that, after nine months in prison awaiting a trial and verdict, she had been acquitted and was now, again, a free woman.

Teh Leamington Spa Courier noted that never had so much interest been taken in the ‘peaceful little hamlet’ of Ettington, whose only other distinction was its ‘proximity to the birth town of the Immortal Bard’.




Murder at the Adelphi

William Terriss (© Criminal Historian)

Today, 16 December, is the 120th anniversary of a murder that shocked the theatre-going world of Victorian Britain, and the general public. It was on this day that the eminent and popular actor William Terriss was killed, just outside the stage door of the Adelphi Theatre on London’s Strand.

Terriss was murdered by a less successful actor, Richard Archer Prince, who had fixated on the idea that Terriss was responsible for his lack of success.

The 50-year-old actor had been about to enter the theatre on the evening of 16 December, using the stage door at the rear of the theatre, which opens out onto Maiden Lane, parallel to the Strand. He was due on stage that night, appearing in the play Secret Service. Before he could get into the theatre, however, he was accosted by the younger Richard Prince, who had been waiting for him, and was stabbed to death.

Prince was not unknown to his victim. The two men had previously been in a production together – Prince in a minor role – and Terriss had, on one occasion, been so offended by something the struggling actor had said to him that he was said to have had him dismissed. This was said to have caused lasting resentment to Prince; although Terriss had subsequently tried to find him work, and had ensured he was sent small sums of money via the Actors’ Benevolent Fund, Prince had been unable to find any security in his chosen profession.

The case, understandably, caused pages and pages of sensationalised press coverage; the theatrical newspaper The Era described the murder in the following terms:

“A great blow has fallen upon the dramatic profession and the playgoing public – a blow so sudden and so terrible that even after the lapse of two nights and a day they have scarcely recovered from the stunning, overpowering, effect of the awful news.” (The Era, 18 December 1897)

The murder was newsworthy for several reasons. It was an incredibly rare offence – no English actor had been murdered in the country by one of his profession before, certainly not during the Victorian era.

The stage door of the Adelphi Theatre, where William Terriss was murdered (© Criminal Historian)

The offence had taken place in the heart of London’s theatre land. It had been witnessed by others; and the victim was both well-known and well-loved (The Era noted that Terriss was liked by all classes, from those in the ‘mansions of the West End’ to the residents of the ‘slums of the East’). It was also, though, the culmination of the increasingly obsessive behaviour evinced by individuals towards successful actors and actresses.

There had been spates of what we today call stalking throughout the Victorian era, with both men and women being targeted by ‘fans’, who would send love letters, demand to see the actors after their performances, or follow them. The press had reported instances of actresses being followed home from performances and assaulted, and of one actress being sent a bullet by an obsessed man who decided he would kill her if she wouldn’t have a relationship with him.

Part of The Era’s coverage of Terriss’s murder

In these instances, though, the stalkers involved did not kill their obsessions, although they may have threatened to, or have injured them. Part of the huge reaction to Terriss’s murder, then, was due to its rarity: perhaps it foretold of a more dangerous age to come, when stalking, and deaths as the result of them, would cease to be so unusual.

The murder was also significant because of the focus on Prince’s mental health. He clearly had issues, as evinced in his desire to blame Terriss for his employment and financial difficulties – and he had previously turned up at the Adelphi to argue his case with Terriss.

He was found guilty but insane at his subsequent trial, but his punishment caused debate about the status of actors in British society, and whether the murder of an actor was perceived as a lesser offence than anyone else’s murder. This was because of the insanity judgement; rather than being sent to prison, or even hanged, Prince was ordered to be sent to Broadmoor, where he lived a long life (and a more comfortable than in a Victorian prison), dying there in 1936.


For more on the death of William Terriss, and the incidences of stalking involving actors and actresses in Victorian Britain, read my book, Life On The Victorian Stage (Pen & Sword, 2017).



Crime reporting and moral panics – what’s changed?

This 1891 article refers back to the moral panic caused by the Ratcliff Highway murders 80 years earlier

A couple of people on my Twitter timeline posted this earlier today – it’s an article on The Daily Beast about an app, Citizen, that is designed to highlight the crimes currently underway in your neighbourhood, and to enable individuals to discuss it (you can also receive alerts ‘every time a significant incident or emergency happens near you’, according to the app’s promo statement).

It sounds, at first glance, to be an app serving the public interest. You can avoid places where trouble is underway; if you’re brave (or foolhardy), you can intervene; or you can talk about it with others in your vicinity, perhaps reassuring each other about it.

But, as writer Taylor Lorenz states in the Daily Beast article,

“Do I need to know about every carjacking in sight of my office to remain personally safe? Probably not. Using Citizen, in fact, made me more paranoid and probably stoked a lot of my latent irrational fears about violent crime and axe murderers.”

In this, Taylor is no different to newspaper readers in the 18th and 19th centuries, who were both terrified of crime, yet drawn to stories of crime at the same time. Newspapers fed into their fears by increasingly publishing crime stories, drawn from court cases, gossip, and imagination. Reading the Victorian newspapers on the British Newspaper Archive, it’s hard to miss the reams of murders, assaults, thefts, and more bizarre or unusual crimes with their dramatic headlines and breathless tones.

The Whitechapel Murders created huge panic, not just in 1888, but for years afterwards (and perhaps even today). This example is from the Illustrated Police News in 1905.

These stories often used what appears to modern eyes to be a standard narrative – in many cases, the perpetrator of the crime is male, working-class, from a poor or slum area. He may be a drunkard; he may be Irish (many crimes were associated with Irish immigrants, with drink, or with class, betraying Victorian xenophobia and class-consciousness, as well as later efforts by temperance advocates to associate drink with criminality).

Moral panics were created or fed by these newspapers; an isolated case, or a couple of unrelated offences, might be seized upon and magnified, a link being made between disparate offences in order to create the impression of a crime wave. A particular group within society might then be associated with this offence, or group of offences, with the press and/or legislators then seeking to make an example of this group.

This ‘deviancy amplification spiral’, as criminologists and sociologists have termed it (1), could either make it appear more serious an offence than it was; or have the unintended result of readers, the public, then romanticising the criminal and his actions, making a folk-hero of him if he wasn’t feared instead. There were, then, two possible over-reactions – fear, or the adoption of a romantic narrative that may not have reflected the crime or the criminal (see the romanticisation of highwaymen in some quarters).

Elements of the press had some consciousness of what was happening here; in 1874, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph noted that:

‘happiness and goodness, because they are common-place conditions of life, do not make anything like the same impression on men’s minds that is made by the exceptional instances of vice and misery. We hear of a horrid murder… of some pitiable scene of domestic discord or moarital violence, and compare men with brutes…and are tempted to despair of human nature.’ (2)

The paper argued that such crime stories attracted public attention (and that of the press) because of their relative rarity – that is why they were newsworthy. Its comment also suggested that an aspect of human nature was – and is – inclined to use such relatively isolated cases to think about wider philosophical issues about life and death. Yet it failed to acknowledge its own role in magnifying these ‘rare’ offences and to create a panic amongst the public that crime was more prevalent than it really was.

Moral panics, of course, have never gone away, as the prevalence of books discussing contemporary examples show (3). The Citizen app suggests that there are simply more ways today to disseminate crime news and to create a moral panic; it originally started as an app that was deemed to encourage vigilante action, and so hastily rebranded and relaunched – but now, it appears that it serves a more voyeuristic than useful purpose, thus highlighting its similarity to crime reporting throughout the last few centuries.


  1. Leslie T Wilkins, Social Deviance (Tavistock, 1964); Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Routledge, 2002); Tim Newburn, Criminology (2017)
  2. Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 16 July 1874, p.2
  3. See, for example, Julian Pettley (ed), Moral Panics in the Contemporary World (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016); Erich Goode, Moral Panics (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, 2nd ed); Chas Critcher, Moral Panics and the Media (OUP, 2003). All discuss modern examples of moral panics. In terms of work on earlier moral panics, David Lemming and Claire Walker (eds), Moral Panics, the Media and the Law in Early Modern England (2009) is highly recommended.
  4. The two newspaper excerpts used as illustrations in this post come from the Homeward Mail of 16 March 1891, and the Illustrated Police News of 23 December 1905, both via the British Newspaper Archive.


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