Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Tag: history (page 1 of 6)

A visit to Cork City Gaol

The city of Cork formerly had a gaol at Northgate Bridge, but this old site had, by the start of the 19th century, become overcrowded, with poor hygiene conditions. It was recognised that a new gaol was needed, one better suited to ‘modern’ times, and so, in 1806, an Act of Parliament was passed to build a new prison – the Cork City Gaol.

This new site was at Sunday’s Well, on a hill overlooking the city, although it took a further decade from the passing the Act of Parliament for work to begin on constructing roads up to the site, and then for the prison itself to be built. It finally opened in 1824 as a prison for both male and female criminals who had committed crimes within the city’s boundary (those committing crimes outside the boundary would be sent to the County Gaol instead).

Prior to public hangings being stopped in 1868, those condemned to death would be hanged from the gatehouse of the prison, it being the place visible to onlookers and passersby (the main part of the prison being behind the gatehouse – even today, you can only really see the prison once you have passed through the gatehouse). Therefore, although the building was grand, it had a dark purpose that was often all too visible to the city’s residents.

The gaol became a women’s only building from 1878, now housing female prisoners from both the city and county of Cork (the county gaol became the men’s prison). It housed political prisoners during the Civil War, before closing in 1923. Then, rather bizarrely, the building was used as a home for radio stations until the 1950s. Finally, after a period of dereliction, it reopened as a museum and heritage centre 25 years ago.

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Today, it is a good place to visit to learn more about Cork’s criminal heritage; it’s fairly low key, with visitors able to choose whether to have a guided tour, or to use an audio tour, or just to wander round on their own. There are the almost ubiquitous (and always strange) wax dummies of prisoners and staff, but the visitor map clearly lays out some history and detail about both former prisoners and the structure of the building.

It’s all very simple, with only one main use of audio-visual gimmickry; this plays recreated trials, featuring actors, onto the walls of one room and is incredibly effective, highlighting how the lives of famous prisoners are generally focused on by history, leaving the lives of the ordinary – the desperate thieves, the children caught up in the criminal justice system, and the women struggling with poverty and death – to be forgotten, erased or ignored.

Because of its relative simplicity, largely letting its rooms speak for themselves (don’t miss the prisoners’ graffiti still visible in several cells), Cork City Gaol is well worth a visit, and it is a moving experience. Guides and volunteers are low-key but there to answer any questions you might have. There is both a cafe and a small gift shop, but these are both almost hidden away, so the focus of your visit remains on the history rather than the merchandising opportunities – and that’s exactly as it should be.


Bring the WM Police Museum to Steelhouse Lane

Steelhouse Lane police station (photo by Andy Mabbett – used under Creative Commons)

I’m a great fan of police museums. These tend to be smaller museums, often manned by volunteers including retired officers, with not only a good knowledge of their collections, but also a huge amount of enthusiasm and a desire to impart their knowledge to their visitors.

I’ve been to many police museums around England – from Tetbury to the City of London, via the Thames Valley Police Museum. There are several more on my to-do list, including the Essex Police Museum, which, from its social media feeds at least, looks great, offering a wide range of activities to get younger visitors involved.

But, as always with the heritage sector, funding remains an issue. Personally, I don’t think that, in this country at least, we value heritage and museum sites enough. They have been at the forefront of funding cuts for the past few years, along with libraries, part of the government’s inability to value the arts and our history, and to fully recognise their value within local communities.

Now, due to the cuts to police funding (and don’t get me started on that, either), another police museum is in need of help and generosity from those interested in police history.

The West Midlands Police Museum needs a new home, and the old Victorian Steelhouse Lane lock-up in Birmingham would make an ideal location. However, there is no funding available to turn the building into an effective home for the museum – and so those behind it have launched a GoFundMe campaign to try and finance the conversion of the lock-up into a museum.

The Lock-up is already seeing a steady stream of visitors come and investigate its history, and that of the local police force, through regular open days and talks. It would be great to see it extend this work, and one of WMP’s aims is to have this new museum site take on a programme of work with the local community – from schools to history groups.

It would also become home to WMP’s historic collection of helmets, uniforms and so on, and enable it to further explore the stories it has relating to police heroism and bravery.

Funds raised through the campaign would be used to separate the Lock-up from its neighbouring police station, create better access (including a lift and a stairwell), new visitor facilities and exhibition displays. It is hoped that funding will be in place by summer 2019, with the aim of relaunching the museum by summer 2020.

If you would like to contribute to this project, you can do so via the GoFundMe page here. You can also find out more via the website, the WMPHistory twitter account, or its Facebook page.


I found this in a 1916 Prison Directory online; it’s a fascinating insight into how prisoners used to be punished. In this case, prior to the city bridewell being built in the mid 19th century, Chicago’s criminals were made to clean the streets whilst their leg was attached to a ball and chain, which had unintended consequences…


Who Do You Think You Are? Probably a man, that’s who

Comedian Lee Mack (photo by Amanda Benson via Wikimedia Commons)

I have a confession. Despite being a historian, keen amateur genealogist and former editor of a family history magazine, I don’t avidly watch every single episode of Who Do You Think You Are? on television. Instead, I dip in and out, choosing to watch specific episodes where I either like the person being featured (hello, Olivia Colman), or a story featuring in the episode is flagged up by the media beforehand, and piques my curiosity.

Therefore, I watched this Monday’s episode, focusing on the family of comedian Lee Mack, because it was looking partly at one of his forebears – Billy Mac – who had been a music hall entertainer. As my ancestors were on the stage, I am always interested in similar stories and advice on how to research these individuals, and in the event, I enjoyed the journey Mack took from the Midlands to the trenches of World War 1, looking at his ancestor’s involvement in wartime troop morale as part of an entertainment troupe, The Optimists.

Billy Mac’s entry in the WW1 medal rolls index on Ancestry

Obviously, it’s difficult to condense everything into an hour’s programme, and facts and stories necessarily get omitted. So we didn’t hear of Billy Mac’s life before World War 1 (had he done any entertaining prior to joining the Liverpool Pals? If not, what was he doing? He must have had a job before 1914, as he was 25 when he enlisted), and his life post-marriage was glossed over in five minutes, as though anything he had done outside of comedy was somehow uninteresting or irrelevant.

But the greatest omission came when the programme moved on to look at Mack’s maternal line, and in particular his great-grandfather (I think), Joe. He was born in Southport, but the family story was that his mother had abandoned him as a baby and emigrated to Canada. The programme explored a fascinating story of Joe’s moving to County Mayo in 1911 to be raised by his grandparents; he was born Mathew Felix Kingsley, a fact he may have never known, for he had no birth certificate and his grandparents appear to have renamed him Joseph Francis at a young age.

The 1911 census showed that his mother was still present in his life when he was one; she is recorded, with baby ‘Mathew’ in the returns for Ballina, living in the home of her parents, Thomas and Mary Farrell. Her surname, like her child’s, is recorded as Kingsley. The programme hinted at the fact that she was probably not married – despite what the census stated – and that Kingsley had been adopted as her and her child’s name in order to mask the fact of his illegitimacy. Judging by the family tree shown on screen during the programme, the baby – later Joe – remained a Kingsley throughout his life, when he should have been a Farrell (or an O’Farrell, as both permutations of the name are found in online sources).

It was what happened to Joe’s mother Delia that was most unsatisfactory. She remained a cipher throughout the programme: the emphasis was on her father’s illegal shebeens that regularly brought him before the magistrates at petty sessions, and on the males in the family. This is fairly common in researching and writing about family history, for men tend to be better documented in official records and occupational information than women. Yet it also gives the impression that it is the men’s lives that are worthy of note, worth going into detail about, with women being sidelined or even erased from the story.

There is also a tendency to criticise the woman where a man would escape censure. Lee Mack acknowledged that he felt critical towards Delia for ‘abandoning’ a young child and fleeing to another country, even though he later commented that her parents may have been responsible for making her leave.

There was an acknowledgement that illegitimacy was stigmatised and that life would have been hard for Delia as an unmarried mother; she also had to maintain the falsehood of her marriage to an imaginary man named Kingsley. Yet from the start, there was a perception of her as somewhat flighty, and lacking in maternal feelings (perhaps inadvertently emphasised by the use of a photo of her grinning as though she didn’t have a care in the world).

There was no mention of the man who got Delia pregnant and failed to keep in touch (as far as we know), let alone marry her (if she had wanted to do so, of course). There was no mention of her father’s inability, as a labourer and unlicensed drink seller, to adequately maintain her, to protect her and keep her within the household, bringing her child up with the support of her family.

Perhaps, then, he tried to help her by putting her in touch with the Canadians who paid for domestic staff to be schlepped across the Atlantic to work as servants there? It seems unlikely, but more that Delia recognised that this was an opportunity to make something more of her life, to earn money that could help her son, or help herself. There appeared to be no interest in following Delia’s story, to see what happened to her.

This was such a gaping omission that I ended up, after the programme aired, going online to see if I could find anything further out about Delia.

Delia was born as Bridget Farrell, at the end of 1888, in the family house at Ballyna. The 1901 census records her, aged 12, living with her parents and six other siblings there. By 1910, she had migrated – as many other Irishmen and women had over the 19th and early 20th centuries – to the Liverpool area, in search of domestic work.

There is one family tree listed on Ancestry that states that Delia ‘fell pregnant by a Mr Kingsley, out of wedlock’.  In 1910, she gave birth to Mathew Felix Kingsley (presumably named after her brother Mathew), but failed to record his birth. Within a year of his birth, she had returned to her family home in Ireland, where the 1911 census records her again, listing her as having been married for two years.

Five months after the census was taken, Delia left Ireland for Montreal, to seek work as a domestic, her passage funded, as mentioned on WDYTYA?. She appears to have met and married a man there – marrying only a year after emigrating. In 1924, her father died, but it seems unlikely that Delia would have returned to see him buried, even if she could have got there in time. She then seems to have several children by another man, who she would only marry two years after the death of her first husband (this information is all from this user family tree on Ancestry).

Delia’s burial record, from Ancestry

Delia died in 1936, still only in her 40s. Her life took her from rural Ireland, to the north-west of England, and from there to Quebec.

She saw more of the world than her illegitimate child probably did; she appears to have married twice, seen several children die in infancy, been widowed, all within fewer than five decades. Her life was unusually well recorded, and has so much potential as a story looking at how women’s sexuality was dealt with at this time (and within a Catholic family), and how schemes to recruit domestic workers overseas might have helped such women, as well as opening up a new world and life to them. This is the story I would have liked to see focused on during WDYTYA? this week.

Review: The Murder of Mary Ashford

Mary Ashford spent the last evening of her life out dancing at a local ball, held in a pub near her house in the Midlands. The following morning, her lifeless body would be found in a pond. The year was 1817, and the subsequent trial would see a man widely regarded as being her murderer sensationally acquitted.

This is the case that Naomi Clifford details in her latest book, The Murder of Mary Ashford: The Crime that Changed English Legal History (Pen & Sword).

As she has previously shown with her earlier books, The Disappearance of Maria Glenn and Women and the Gallows, 1797-1837,  Naomi is always interested in the history of the law, as well as the history of women and crime, and here, she looks at how, when justice appeared to have not been served, Mary Ashford’s brother attempted to use an ‘archaic process’ to prosecute the accused man, Abraham Thornton, for a second time.

The crime in this case is located in Erdington – now a Birmingham suburb, but at the time, still a village in Warwickshire. Naomi conjures up what life was like in this still relatively rural area at this time very well, and sets the scene for the reader, so that you feel you are one of the men who discovers the sodden corpse one morning – even though the event took place two centuries ago.

On every page is evidence of the author’s painstaking research – she has clearly done a lot of preparatory work for the book, locating people, places, and the law, and utilising her knowledge well. On occasion, you may need to reread a section, or have to concentrate to understand it all, purely because there is so much information to take in – but it is clear that this is a methodically researched history, which is always good to see.

It’s also well illustrated and the image are chosen sensitively. There are photos of buildings mentioned, drawings from court, and illustrations of both the murder victim and the accused. Naomi makes clear that the victim’s portraits are idealised (and they are certainly fairly generic), but a contemporary newspaper’s portrayal of Abraham really makes him a flesh and blood creature for the reader.

What Naomi Clifford does particularly well is her placing of Mary Ashford’s murder into its context, but she also shows how its brutality ‘became a marker against which the murders of women were compared’. Comparisons were made in the press between Mary’s murder and subsequent ones; it became something of a cause celebre for the next half century and even beyond. And what happened to the man who was acquitted of Mary’s murder, the unpleasant Abraham Thornton? You’ll have to read The Murder of Mary Ashford to find out more.

The Murder of Mary Ashford is published by Pen & Sword (PB, £14.99)

How to write about criminal women

I’m really pleased today to be publishing a guest post from a fab crime historian and friend, Dr Lucy Williams.

Lucy is a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Liverpool. She researches the history of women, crime, and punishment in Britain and Australia during the 19th and 20th centuries.

She is the author of Wayward Women: Female Offenders in Victorian England (Pen & Sword, 2016), and the forthcoming book Convicts in the Colonies: Transportation Tales from Britain to America (Pen & Sword, to be published on 30 September).

Lucy’s latest book, co-authored with Barry Godfrey, is Criminal Women 1850-1920: Researching the Lives of Britain’s Female Offenders (Pen & Sword, 2018). Here, she tells us about the process of researching and writing about the criminal women in Britain’s past.

Criminal Women has been a new exciting project with my colleague Professor Barry Godfrey. Essentially the book offers readers three things; some brief histories contextual of women, crime, and punishment in the 19th and early 20th centuries, 30 colourful, detailed, and diverse case studies of female offenders during our period, and a ‘how to manual’ which guides researchers through the key sources and methods of researching fantastic criminal biographies.

As historians interested in recovering and reconstructing offender’s lives we recognised that, even today, women still make up only a small portion of the criminal histories and cases we talk about. This is because, as most genealogists know, whilst individual records for women, civil or criminal, are certainly there to find, stitching them all together and following women across their lives can be much more difficult than it is for men.

Even law abiding female ancestors might regularly change names with marriage or have their occupations missed off a census, or their illegitimate children hidden from history. With female offenders we contend with all of this and more – as many of the women we seek were actively trying not to be found.

Even though both of us are well practiced at finding offender stories, as we dug in to old forgotten material and looked in new places, we were both pleasantly surprised with the huge amount there is out there, and just what you can do with it. We found stories of women over a fascinating century: from offenders who were among the very last to be shipped to Australia as convicts in the 1850s, all the way up to juvenile reformatory girls causing mischief at the beginning of the 20th century, or women serving prison sentences well into the 1920s.

Arabella Hopton is one of the women explored in Lucy and Barry’s book

It’s hard to pick a single case study, as all of them were fun to write (and, we hope, to read!). Each offers something different. However, certainly, one of my favourite new discoveries was the story of Arabella  Matilda Hopton, a midwife practicing in the first half of the 20th century.

The world of criminal women is so often hidden, and never more so than when they involved themselves in the (little talked about) business of pregnancy, childbirth, and childcare.

Arabella Hopton, originally from Gloucestershire, was for more than two decades an ordinary woman. The wife of a butcher, and mother of five, she lived a respectable working-class existence in London.

When her husband Daniel died in 1900, Arabella had to find a way to provide for her three living children. Whilst her two teenage daughters took work in local factories, Arabella could not take full time work as she was still needed at home to care for her youngest child – four-year-old Hilda. Arabella had little work experience, having left her father’s house for her husbands, and having devoted most of her married life to domestic duties. During this time Arabella did, however, gain significant experience of children.

Arabella took work as a ‘monthly nurse’ providing help to other women at times of gynaecological illness and menstruation, and especially pregnancy and childbirth. Women who worked in this capacity needed no formal qualifications, and were usually women like Arabella – in middle-age or later life, who were mothers themselves and had spent years helping friends and neighbours in the same capacity.  Arabella later claimed that her experience in this capacity dated back as far as 1893.

Two years later, in 1902, an Act of Parliament made provision for the professionalisation of these services. Arabella became one of the first women to formalise her role by the Certified Midwives Board Examination that same year.

This new formalised role provided the Hopton family with ten years of stability. Arabella was able to pay for the cost of the family home, and even to hire a domestic servant. A situation far away from many women who found themselves thrown into offending in later life.

However, a paper trail shows us that her newfound affluence was not entirely gained through legal means. Like many midwives who sympathised with the plight of the women they served, Arabella not only aided women in birth, she also offered to undertake (then illegal) abortion procedures for a fee of around five shillings. All, of course, off of the formal record.

When it was discovered she was providing these services, Arabella was struck off the Midwives Roll in 1914, meaning she was no longer allowed to practice as a midwife. Far from preventing her illegal activities, the loss of the right to practice her legal trade only increased the time and incentive she had to continue.

The war years were an especially busy time women practicing abortions. Women who found themselves with child after an adulterous relationship and the recently bereaved an unable to contemplate bringing up a child alone might seek out the services of a midwife of nurse who offered this service when they would not ordinarily have done so.

There was also a standing pool of clients amongst young unmarried women, and those with large families who could not afford another mouth to feed. It was not until the 1920s that reliable contraception was available for women who wished to avoid pregnancy, and even then contraception was limited to married women and difficult to obtain. Arabella, with a reputation of successfully practicing for more than 20 years, would have found it easy enough to find work.

The illegal trade in abortions involved considerable risk on both sides, one physical, and one legal. Arabella’s downfall came when she performed a procedure on Edith Barbara Watts, using a surgical instrument to procure a miscarriage. However, Watts later went into septic shock and died shortly afterwards.

The cause of death was found to be a result of a dirty instrument used by Arabella. In this period, abortions were primarily carried out at home with household items, often those who operated had no way of surgically sterilising their instruments and simply cleaned them with soap and water between patients.

Despite it being her first offence, Arabella was tried for the murder of Watts. The case against her was easy to build and she was eventually found guilty of a lesser charge of using an instrument to procure and abortion. Much less serious than murder, which could still carry the death penalty, the offence still carried a sentence of seven years imprisonment. Arabella served five years in a Liverpool prison before she was released in July 1925.

More information on Arabella’s case, and 30 other rich and diverse cases, along with information on how to find them and what to make of them can all be found in our new book, out now with Pen and Sword.




London Nights: Females and fear on the capital’s streets

Recently, there have been several exhibitions in London that I’ve wanted to see, relating to some of my main interests – photography, history and America. Because my time is a bit limited at present, this week I decided to spend a day in the capital visiting as many of these exhibitions as I could in one go. The only day I could do it was Monday; unfortunately, this meant I missed the Whitechapel Gallery’s Killed Negatives exhibition as it’s closed on that day (although I hope I will be able to make this before it closes!).

The exhibition of Dorothea Lange’s photographs at the Barbican Centre is well worth a trip

However, I did make the National Maritime Museum’s excellent Great British Seaside exhibition (the addition of deckchairs and a giant indoor beach-hut which served as a cinema, playing interviews with photographers featured, was particularly well designed). This was followed by the Museum of London’s London Nights photography exhibition and then the Barbican Centre‘s double exhibition – Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing and Vanessa Winship: And Time Folds.

Finally, I headed for the V&A‘s new Frida Kahlo exhibition, Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, although I will have to make a second visit here as it was so horrifically busy when I went that I found it difficult to look at everything properly (and to the woman who had taken her two small children there and was desperately trying to interest them in the use of symbolism in Kahlo’s art – I’m not sure they were terribly appreciative). However, again, I found the photography aspects particularly interesting – such as how Kahlo might have been encouraged in her self-absorption by her photographer father’s taking of selfies.

In this post, though, I’m concentrating on London Nights, and on one aspect of it in particular. Now, the Museum of London has an impressive track record with its exhibitions, and I’m usually a great fan of them. London Nights, though, I was a bit less enthralled with. It’s arranged in a loosely thematic way, which means that some of the more interesting images for me – the earliest in terms of chronology – can get a bit lost amongst the larger or more high-tech images (one huge photograph mounted on the wall in front of a lightbox is a case in point – your eye is drawn to this, and how can small, old photographs compare?).

Some of the images chosen, as well, are somewhat tenuously linked to the theme: a row of negatives featuring women in 1930s clothing, for example, which – if my memory serves me right – were chosen to depict what women in London during the night might have been wearing at that time. So not images of London nights at all, then.

One of Bill Brandt’s many WW2 photographs, highlighting the claustrophobia, fear, yet also stoicism of those seeking shelter during air raids (here, individuals pictured at Christ Church, Spitalfields). © IWM

There are some great images amongst the dubious ones, though. Bill Brandt‘s photographs I always enjoy, for example, and there were some interesting examples of what modern photographers are doing, and how they are playing with format and materials to produce new and innovative work.

The most thought-provoking theme, though, was that of fear. As is perhaps inevitable, this focused on women, and their use of space in London at night. There were mid-20th century images of women’s perception of threat at night: a man following a woman; a woman standing unaware of the potential of danger. The images chosen raise time-old issues of women’s rights to use space, to inhabit space, when that space is perceived to be dangerous to them in a way that it isn’t for men.

Throughout time, women have faced queries from a male-dominated criminal justice system about their safety and whether they took precautions in inhabiting a particular space – did they dress appropriately? Were they on their own? Why were they out so late? – and perceptions of provocation, of innocence versus complicity in subsequent actions affecting them. Photography has provided an opportunity to explore these issues, to look at fear, control, and power.

The late Alexis Hunter, who died of motor neurone disease back in 2014, engaged with such issues in her powerful series Dialogue with a Rapist. In this, she took a conceptual approach, each basic image being the same, but with each one merged with a different image – a pair of hands, for example, or a blade.

Underneath, a conversation progresses, with the photographer engaging in a dialogue with a man who is attempting to rape her. Over the course of the dialogue, the female becomes more powerful, challenging the man about why he feels the need to act in such a way towards women, his use of space that she has a right to, and how his actions might be a result of perceptions of race and identity in London. In reconstructing this dialogue, the female regains power and a sense of identity, whilst also giving space to the male to explore his own. Ideas relating to gender, politics, fear, and sexual violence are all subverted here as the conversation moves from the female’s sense of powerlessness to one of taking back control of her life and what happens in it.

Ultimately, London Nights is a somewhat uneven exhibition that isn’t always sure of what it wants to show, or how. Yet there is sure to be something for everyone here, and as I hope I’ve shown here, some of the images chosen are genuinely thought-provoking, raising questions about our historical and current use of space, the challenges we face in being able to use night-time space safely, how perceptions of gender and safety can be subverted – and the types of subterranean space (from air-raid shelters to entertainment venues) that have offered some kind of sanctuary during nights in London.

London Nights continues at the Museum of London until 11 November 2018. Ticket prices start at £10; for more information, click here. Read the curator’s account of how images were chosen for the exhibition, see here.

Murder at Shandy Hall

Women dying of arsenic poisoning were a popular subject for the press – this later example is from the Illustrated Police News

It was January 1888. By the end of the year, Jack the Ripper would have grabbed the public and press attention with a series of brutal murders of women in the East End of London. The Met Police commissioner, Sir Charles Warren, would have resigned, condemned by public opinion after failing to find the killer (although he would agree to continue in his role until a successor was found the following year).

The Whitechapel murders may have occupied the press and public from then on, but they were not the only murders in the UK and Ireland in that year – not by any stretch. In addition, as the year started, it heralded the end of one man’s devious and shocking murderousness – and deeds that had seen his wife betrayed in the worst way possible.

Shandy Hall, home to Philip Eustace Cross (image from Cork Past and Present)

Philip Henry Eustace Cross was born at Shandy Hall, a large house in Dripsey, County Cork. He was an educated, middle-class man who had been surgeon-major with the 53rd Regiment, and who had served during the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny. His military career had seen him awarded medals for action in both of these campaigns. In 1888, he was now over 60 years old, a man who should have been looking forward to a pleasant, and more peaceable, retirement.

But Philip was not the kind of man to be happy with genteel retirement, despite appearing to be in a happy, secure family. On 17 August 1869, he had married Mary Laura Marriott. Mary was English, being from Essex and from a good social position, with the prospect of a healthy inheritance – her father was listed in the 1851 census as ‘gentleman and landed proprietor’.

They married at St James’s Church in Piccadilly, Philip leaving the church with the kudos of a younger wife on his arm – at the time, Mary was 28 to her husband’s ‘over 40’ years. Five children duly came along before, in 1874, Mary’s father, Richard, died. No marriage settlement had been given five years earlier, and now, Philip Eustace Cross got his father-in-law’s fortune of £5,000.

Despite now having plenty of money, the marriage was not happy – or at least, Philip ensured it wasn’t. He made clear his desire to end his relationship with Mary, but she stayed with her husband, believing that her marriage was for life and instead tolerating his irritation and bad behaviour towards her in a way that surprised even the most conservative of newspapers.

By the start of 1887, Dr Cross had decided to kill poor Mary. It was no coincidence that the year before, he had met a Scotswoman named Evelyn Forbes Skinner. At that time, aged around 22, she was working as a governess for the Caulfield family, who lived two miles from his own Shandy Hall. In October 1886, Miss Skinner left Mrs Caulfield’s house and became the Cross family governess at Shandy Hall. After three years, in January 1887, she moved to Carlow to become a governess there.

By this time, Miss Skinner was having an affair with Dr Cross. On 28 March, he travelled over to her, and booked them a hotel together. They spent the night together, and the following morning disappeared together. Dr Cross was not seen again until nearly a month later, when, on 22 April, he returned to Shandy Hall, failing to explain to his long-suffering wife where he had been.

A week later, an old school friend of Mary’s, a Miss Jefferson, arrived to see her old friend. She knew that Mary was usually in very good health, but on seeing her, recognised that she was poorly. She was also rather despondent, being very aware of her husband’s adultery.

Yet it was later commented that she ‘appeared to be an uncomplaining creature, not given to insisting on her rights’, and that she ‘preferred to brood over the wrong done her and pine away beneath her load of sorrow.’ So when she became increasingly unwell over the course of May 1887, others believed she was simply responding to her husband’s bad behaviour.

The symptoms of poisoning were present, despite the desire of others to see her illness as psychological. She had heart spasms, cramps, vomiting, and diarrhoea. She had to call on servants during the night to come and help ease her suffering. She was in pain.

Through her month of illness, her callous husband continued to sleep in the same bedroom as her. On at least one occasion, a servant was called by Mrs Cross to their bedroom, only to find Philip fast asleep in the neighbouring bed, oblivious to his wife’s struggles. He appeared not to care, and paid her no attention. On the last night of her life, Philip and Mary Cross were together in their bedroom. He poured both of them a glass of brandy – but added a little something to Mary’s. During the night, the servants heard screaming coming from the room, but as Philip hadn’t summoned them, they stayed in their own rooms. It was only at six o’clock the next morning, when they were already up and working, that Philip came to them and said:

“Get up, ye girls, the mistress is gone [dead] since half-past one last night.”

At six o’clock the next morning, not much over 24 hours since she had died, Mary Laura Cross was buried in a private funeral (you can see images of her grave at Findagrave here).

The marriage allegation for the very recently widowed Philip, and his lover Evelyn (from Ancestry; original document at London Metropolitan Archives)

This was not the end of the grubby story. 15 days after his wife’s untimely death, the impatient Philip Eustace Cross married Evelyn Skinner – in the same church in London where he had married Mary 18 years earlier.

At the end of June, they returned to Shandy Hall – a bad decision, as by this time, the Irish authorities had become suspicious, and ordered the exhumation of Mary’s body. This was done on 21 July 1887, and unsurprisingly, the subsequent examination found symptoms of arsenic poisoning.

On 28 July, Dr Cross was arrested for the murder of his first wife. His comment exposed his ego and his belief that a man of his stature should be above suspicion.

“My God, my God! To think that a man in my time of life should commit murder. There is a God above who will see the villainy of this.”

Despite this arrogance, the law prevailed. On 14 December, Dr Cross  – perceived as ‘cool, self-possessed, indifferent’ throughout – went on trial at the Cork Assizes. There was plenty of evidence against him now, and the defence case was widely regarded as weak. The jury took just an hour to find Cross guilty of murder.

The verdict was a shock to Cross, who had been convinced that he would be acquitted. The day before the verdict was given, he had invited friends to come and dine with him at Shandy Hall in two days time; he had also arranged for his horse and trap to be ready to take him home from the court of the day of the verdict. Subsequently, he tried to get the case reopened, but the judge commented that he was ‘an obnoxious landlord and had been boycotted’, and that, bizarrely, was seen as a valid reason why he did not deserve another chance to prove his innocence.

At 8am on 10 January 1888, Dr Philip Eustace Cross, a bad husband and undoubtedly a selfish, unfeeling individual, was hanged at Cork, the press commenting that although there were such criminals who merited discussion of the abolition of capital punishment, Cross was not one of them.


Philip Cross’s will left his property to his brother Edward, in trust to two of his children by Mary – Sophia Mary and Henry Eustace. He also asked that the property be bequeathed to his son Philip Richard and financial payments be made to two more daughters – Elizabeth Laura Marriott and Henrietta Emeline. In addition, he asked that £400 be set apart for the use of ‘the male child born of my wife on or about the 23rd December 1887. He is not yet baptised. I desire him to be called John.’ (Waterford Standard, 18 February 1888).

Philip and Evelyn’s son, John, married in 1909, and in recording his father’s details, failed to mention that he was deceased.

Given that Philip only married Evelyn Skinner in June 1887, she must have been pregnant by him at the time of Mary’s murder. Perhaps Evelyn’s pregnancy had made his desire to get rid of his first wife more imperative, in his warped mind.

After Philip was hanged, Evelyn Forbes Skinner moved to England. In 1891, she was living in Hampshire with her three-year-old son, who she had baptised according to his father’s wishes, John Eustace (when John married, in 1909, he gave his father’s name and occupation, without stating that he was deceased, recording rather proudly that Philip was a major; conversely, when his half-sister Sophia had married six years earlier, she had ensured that the fact that her father was dead was recorded).

Philip had left Evelyn a legacy of £60 a year, to be paid in six-monthly instalments. However, the payments would only be paid as long as she remained a widow – if she married again, the money would stop. Philip made it clear that the money was to go towards caring for their son – so if she remarried before he was 21, the money would then go directly to him until he reached that age.

Evelyn did remarry – in 1898, a decade after Philip’s execution. Her new husband, who she wed in London, was a fellow Scot, Patrick James Robertson (BMDs, St Giles, vol 1b, page 1171). Although the 1911 census for Paignton, Devon, records her as being married still, at this time there was no sign of Patrick Robertson. Instead, Evelyn was living with her elderly mother, as well as her and Patrick’s nine-year-old daughter – who was, ironically given the name of Philip Cross’s first wife, called Mary.

Evelyn died in Westgate-on-Sea, Kent, on 30 July 1937, aged 72, with probate being granted to her now married daughter, Mary May. Philip Cross had inherited £500 from his first wife in the 1870s; by the time of her own death, Evelyn’s effects were worth only £93.

The day Jack the Ripper appeared in court

In 1888, a murderer – or murderers – struck in East London, killing several women in gruesome ways. The offender (if, indeed, it was only one) has never been caught, but his murders caught the public imagination at the time, and he continues to be written about, and theorised about.

For years afterwards, the subsequent murders of women would be reported in terms of whether they could be new victims of the same murderer  – for example, in 1890, when Phoebe Hogg was found murdered near Hampstead, it was initially reported that she was an ‘unfortunate’ woman whose death had led people to fear that Jack the Ripper had started a new campaign of terror, but in north London this time, instead of east. In fact, Phoebe – and her baby daughter – had been killed by a woman: the lover of Phoebe’s husband (you can read my article on this case here).

But although the most famous of the Whitechapel Murders caused a panic around the capital, and beyond, others were gripped and excited, even, about the tales of terror, perhaps in the same way that those reading penny dreadfuls were both repelled and fascinated by crime and tales that were far from their own experiences. The fear surrounding the unknown killer also led more unscrupulous men to suggest that they were Jack, in order to instil that fear in others and make them do what they wanted.

A map of the Ripper victims produced by the Glasgow Herald on 10 November 1888. The first two women named here are not now regarded as part of the Ripper ‘canon’.

This was certainly the case in Ilkeston, Derbyshire, in October 1888.  By this time, four of the five canonical victims of the Whitechapel murderer had been killed, discovered, and written about in the national and provincial press – one more, Mary Jane Kelly, was to be killed the following month. No suspects had been identified; no arrests made. There was a very real concern that more women would be murdered.

In light of this charged atmosphere, at the Heanor Petty Sessions, miles away from East London’s gloom, a man was remanded into custody, on charges of drunkenness and robbery. He was asked his name, and in response, said it was ‘Jack the Ripper’.

The magistrates, who decided to charge him in the slightly more pleasant name of ‘John Rip’, heard that he had gone out into Ilkeston the previous Friday night, got drunk, and accosted a woman named Priscilla Bennett as she was on her way home. He then threatened to ‘Whitechapel her’ if she refused to give him money.

Priscilla replied that she had no money, and that if the man didn’t ‘go about his business’, she would scream for help. ‘Jack’ grabbed her, put his hand over her mouth, and took a shilling out of her hand – the only money she had actually had. He then ran off down the town’s Burn Street.

Apparently, the use of such a threat had been common in the Ilkeston area over the previous days – a significant timeframe as two Ripper victims had been murdered just a week before this ‘Jack the Ripper’ appeared in court. Violent men now had a handy phrase to threaten women with – give us your money, or we’ll murder you like the Ripper murdered his victims – and to ‘Whitechapel’ someone became synonymous with a particularly unpleasant death.

And what happened to the Ilkeston ‘Ripper’? He was found guilty of theft, and sent to gaol for three months with hard labour. As he was led to the cells, this pleasant individual shouted, “I’ll do it, and blow her brains out afterwards” – failing, in the process, to understand the methods used by his more famous namesake.

Story taken from the Leeds Mercury of 9 October 1888, the Derbyshire Courier of 9 October 1888, the Derbyshire Advertiser and Journal of 12 October 1888 and the Derbyshire Advertiser and Journal of 19 October 1888, all sourced from the British Newspaper Archive. Press coverage does not give a real name for ‘Jack the Ripper’, and no alias of ‘John Rip’ is listed in the online Derbyshire Calendar of Prisoners.

Book Review: The Murder That Defeated Whitechapel’s Sherlock Holmes

The Great War was still fresh in everyone’s minds when, one snowy night in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, a middle-aged shopkeeper was found murdered in her corner shop, her dog lying dead nearby.

Elizabeth Ridgley, aged 54, was a spinster who lived alone, apart from her pet. She served the local community well, and opened her shop long hours in order to cater for their every need. Who could have wanted her dead?

This is the story that Paul Stickler seeks to explore and analyse in The Murder That Defeated Whitechapel’s Sherlock Holmes, now published by Pen & Sword books. The title is something of a misnomer; there is a tendency to link Sherlock Holmes to all sorts of real-life characters to grab the attention, but the man referred to here, Detective Chief Inspector Fred Wensley, is no Sherlock Holmes, but instead a methodical and effective Scotland Yard man – and that, in my mind, is equally good!

Likewise, the Whitechapel link is somewhat tenuous: perhaps designed to make you think of the Whitechapel Murders of 1888, it is a reference to Wensley having once worked in that area of East London. Yet this book is about small-town Hertfordshire and its inhabitants, and its title should both reflect that and be proud of it. There is no need to try and link it to London: it is not about that, but about a rather claustrophobic Home Counties community.

The murder of Elizabeth Ridgley is significant because it was not originally deemed to be murder at all. The original Hertfordshire police detective assigned to the case rather bizarrely decided that Mrs Ridgley had died in a freak accident, and that her dog had been accidentally killed by her shortly before her own death.

The story, as detailed by Paul Stickler, makes you almost laugh as you read it, for to modern minds, it seems inconceivable that a woman could have an accident that involved her smearing quantities of her own blood all over the downstairs of her house, moving from room to room, and then fracture her beloved pet’s skull, again by accident. Yet that is what George Reed, of the Hitchin police, insisted had happened (as Stickler notes, he was about to retire, and perhaps didn’t want to finish with a nasty murder case).

Luckily, Scotland Yard had its doubts about this accident theory too, and brought in Wensley to reinvestigate. He believed it was murder, identified a suspect, and in due course, saw the case come to court. It’s not quite right to say, as the title does, that this murder case defeated Wensley; instead, I was left at the end of the book believing strongly that he had got the right man, but that the mess left by Reed meant that the jury had little hard evidence to go on. Stickler reaches the same conclusion; and one feels that he is far more of a Wensley than a Reed, detailing the whys and wheres and hows in careful detail.

This is obviously due to Stickler’s background in CID, investigating murders himself until his retirement in 2008. His skill in detailing crime scenes and analysing evidence are obvious in reading this book; although it takes time to get going, you soon get drawn into the events, curious to know more about the victim and her alleged attacker.

Where he falls down slightly is in his storytelling; he is prone to use lots of commas to create very long sentences, for example, where a few judicious full-stops would have made it easier to read some of what he’s trying to say. In addition, some of the characters remain – perhaps inevitably, but obstinately –  two-dimensional, including Reed himself, whose actions appear so peculiar and irrational. Finally, the jumps in time and place, particularly in the early part of the book, don’t quite work.

But these are minor quibbles. Stickler’s professional experience results in a book where you feel he has really attempted to get under the skin of the investigating police – to see what they saw, to analyse the evidence, and to point the reader in the right direction. It hints at issues around class, nationality, money, and the aftermath of war, whilst never detracting from what the book is: a study of a murder, and also of how the police operated at this time. It also, fundamentally, shows that justice is not always served, however hard the Wensleys of this world try.

The Murder That Defeated Whitechapel’s Sherlock Holmes: At Mrs Ridgley’s Corner, by Paul Stickler, is published by Pen & Sword at £14.99. Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy of the book.

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