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.
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.
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.
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’.