It was 120 years ago today that a little girl was found murdered in a field close to her home – a crime that shocked her local community. This was a little girl who felt safe, who was close to her family, yet who had her life taken from her just nine days before Christmas.
The Flaherty family lived at 6 Blackhorse Street in St Helens, which was then in Lancashire. They were not a wealthy family: Mr Flaherty* worked hard as a collier, supporting his wife and children, but they had the support of family members living close by, and a good sense of community.
Little Sarah Flaherty was just six years old in 1898, and used to running from her house to those of friends and family in order to play with other children, or to see if her relatives had food to nibble, or activities she could watch with big eyes.
On the evening of Saturday 10 December, she had, as usual, gone to her relatives’ house to play. At about 9.15 in the evening – a dark, dark evening – she had realised it was time her parents would be expecting her, and the little girl left on her own.
She was very young, very small, and it was very dark on that winter’s night – but she was making a journey she did regularly, only a short distance – 200 yards – and it was a busy area, and everyone, included her, just took it for granted that she would be alright.
Only she wasn’t: she never made it home. The next day, her dead body was found in the nearby football field, raped and suffocated.
On Monday, two men were arrested by police, but they were able to give good alibis and had to be set free. A postmortem was carried out that shockingly revealed bruises on her left arm where her assailant had grabbed her to lead her away. She had been suffocated simply by an adult hand being placed over her mouth and nose until she stopped breathing.
By the time of the inquest into her death, a week after her death, it was being reported that the police had no clues as to who the murderer could be, although they said she must have been ‘decoyed’ away by her attacker. All her nearby relatives were called as witnesses at the inquest, but none could shed any light on what had happened, and the inquest was adjourned.
On 15 December, a little coffin was taken from the Flaherty’s home – where it had been brought from the mortuary two days earlier – to St Helens Cemetery, for a Catholic funeral. The coffin had been kept on the kitchen table, which, the press reported, was ‘almost the only furniture in the front room of the house.’
On the top of the coffin was a plate, reading:
Sarah Flaherty. Died December 10 1898, aged six years. “His lambs shall not perish.”
Even as the coffin was taken away for its sad burial, the neighbours were whispering. They all believed the killer to be local, and had every confidence that before the inquest restarted, ‘the affair may take a turn of the most sensational and startling description, which will, if possible, add to the horror.’
In the event, their speculation amounted to nothing, and no suspect was identified in December.
Christmas that year must have been awful for the Flahertys. They had lost a child under the worst circumstances, but had no closure: nobody had been charged, and not even the inquest had concluded. They had to hunker down and just get through Christmas the best they could.
Eventually, the inquest was resumed on 29 December, and the verdict was never in any doubt: the jury ‘returned the verdict of wilful murder against some person or persons unknown’. The case seemed destined to go cold.
By early February, Irish MP Michael Davitt was asking the Home Secretary what steps the police had actually taken to try and identify the murderer, and whether ‘any clue of any kind has been obtained up to the present’.
The Home Secretary, Sir Matthew White Ridley (later the 1st Viscount Ridley), was unable to help:
“I have not had any information whatever on the subject of the question, but I am making inquiries, and if the honourable gentleman will put his question down for a later date I may be able to answer it.”
But still nobody was identified.
Life in St Helens continued. In April, another girl was found dead in the area; but this one was a baby, naked and partly decomposed, who, it was determined, had been asphyxiated and thrown in the canal.
In June, attention was brought to an earlier murder case, when, in July 1876, eight-year-old Sarah Swire, daughter of St Helens clog maker William Swire, had disappeared. She had last been seen playing with another child her own age in the street next to her parents, but since then, there had been no sigh of her.
Her father had died five years later, leaving his property to be shared between his children, and the authorities needed to determine whether Sarah Swire was alive or dead.
When the issue was raised at the Chancery Court in Liverpool it was determined that the child ‘must have been kidnapped, in which case she had probably been removed to a distance, or in some way made away with.’
The following month, it was ordered that it could be ‘reasonably assumed’ that Sarah – who, by 1899, would have been 32 years old – was dead, and her inheritance of £700 would be shared by others.
Was it possible that there had been a serial killer loose in St Helens in the late 19th century? The baby was a separate case, more likely the result of a desperate mother committing infanticide; but there are similarities between the two local girls that the press doesn’t seem to have connected.
Both involved young girls, living locally, who disappeared in innocuous circumstances. One was walking home from relatives; the other presumably heading home after playing with a friend. Both were in places they knew well, travelling short distances, in well populated areas of St Helens. Neither reached home.
William Swire never found out what happened to his daughter; Flaherty did, although perhaps, when he saw that little coffin on his kitchen table, he wished that he had never found out either. Whoever made sure that the two Sarahs never got home safely – whether one person or two – will be dead now too, having been able to live the long life that two little girls never got to.
*Postscript: Although the newspapers did not name other members of Sarah’s family, I think her father was Martin Flaherty, listed as a coal hewer in the 1901 census – my only slight reservation being the address given as Sarah Flaherty’s in 1898 (Martin lived most of his married life on Park Road in St Helens, although at various addresses, but I can’t corroborate that he ever lived at Blackhorse Street – however, Blackhorse Street was right off Park Road, so it’s very possible that he did live in both roads). Martin would have been 41 at the time of his daughter’s murder. Martin was born in Macclesfield, and was married to St Helens local Ellen Cottom.
The couple married at St Helens in 1877, when they were both around 20 years old. The 1881 census records them as a couple, living on their own at 124 Park Road, St Helens – the house where Ellen had been brought up by her parents James – another coal miner, who is recorded elsewhere as William – and Ellen (the 1871 census records them here).
They were living at Hebburn Colliery in Jarrow in 1891; Martin was a coal miner, and they had five children living at home at that time –Rebecca (15), Thomas (9), Mary (7), Ellen (2), and Margaret (2 months). The children’s birth locations showed how and when the couple had moved around the country, presumably for Martin to find work: Rebecca and Thomas were both born in St Helens, Mary in Chester le Street, Co Durham, Ellen back in St Helens, and Margaret at Hebburn.
Sarah, of course, is noticeable by her absence. Being born in 1892 and killed in 1898, if you went by the censuses alone, you would miss her existence entirely. But she was very much real. It is likely that she, like her sister Margaret, was born in Hebburn; there is the birth of a Sarah Flaherty in 1892 in the same district – South Shields – where Margaret’s birth was registered the year before. Her death is recorded in the October quarter of 1898 in the Prescot district of Lancashire that included St Helens.
In 1901, three years after Sarah’s death, the family I believe was hers was at 138 Park Road, St Helens, with five surviving children at home – Thomas (19), Mary (17), Ellen (12), Margaret (10) and James (2). In 1911, they were on the same road, but now at number 159, and only with James living at home. He noted that he had been married for 33 years, and that Ellen had had 12 children, of whom half – six – had died.
Ellen died in 1928, aged 71. Martin, though, lived an even longer time after his daughter died. He is recorded as a widower and retired colliery hewer in the 1939 register, living at St Helens – still in Park Road, as he had lived, on and off, since at least 1881, and still, as 30 years earlier, at number 159. With him was his son James, a builder’s labourer, with his family. Martin died in St Helens in 1944.
Sources: Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 18 December 1898, p.18; Globe, 29 December 1898, p.5; North Devon Gazette, 3 January 1899, p.2; Dundee Evening Telegraph, 15 December 1898, p.3; Aberdeen Evening Express, 8 February 1899, p.4; Aberdeen Evening Express, 9 February 1899, p.4; Aberdeen Evening Express, 26 April 1899, p.4; Western Daily Press, 6 June 1899, p.7; Lancashire Evening Post, 18 July 1899, p.5