A post inspired by a recent trip I made to Bodmin Jail.
Selina Wadge is commemorated in Bodmin Jail by a rather strange, blank faced, waxwork depiction of her in an old jail cell. She is shown throwing a child into a well while an older child looks on, equally blankly (see photo).
The waxwork display fails to bring to life the sheer poverty and desperation of Selina’s life – the trials and tribulations she underwent in her fairly short life.
She was born in the first quarter of 1852 in Altarnun, a village some eight miles from Launceston in Cornwall, the daughter of Thomas Wadge and his wife Mary. Thomas worked, like many local men, in the local mines; at the time of Selina’s birth, he was a tin streamer; ten years later, he was a copper mine labourer. Selina was baptised on 18 June 1852 at the village church of St Nonna.
In 1878, she was 26, single, and the mother of two illegitimate sons – John, aged six, and Harry, a crippled child of two whose disability meant he was unable to walk.
She looked after her boys as best she could, but on more than one occasion, had to be admitted to Launceston Workhouse as a pauper.
After her last admission to the workhouse, she left there on 8 June 1878, and returned to Altarnun to stay with her parents. When living at home, she occasionally went out to work in order to try and maintain her boys, with her mother helping out with childcare.
At some point in the previous couple of weeks, Selina had met a former soldier, James Westwood, and started a relationship with him. They had arranged to meet on 22 June 1878 in Launceston.
The day before, Selina hitched a ride into the town with her sons with a local farmer, William Holman, telling him she was going to meet Westwood – ‘I am going to meet my man’ – apparently unaware that Westwood had written to Selina to cancel their meeting, due to work commitments.
Holman dropped Selina and the boys off at Orchard’s coal stores, which was just outside Launceston, with Selina saying that she would walk the rest of the way.
But when she reached Launceston, at around 11am according to her own testimony, Selina had only one son, John, with her.
She went to visit her older sister, Mary Ann Boundy – then 28, but already widowed – who was an inmate in the workhouse, reaching there at about 12.30pm.
She told Mary Ann, without being asked, that Harry had died from a head abscess and throat complaint and had been buried ‘near the church door at Altarnun’, his coffin made by John Trehane in the village.
Selina only spoke to Mary Ann for around half an hour before leaving at 1pm. She told her sister that she was going to stay in Launceston that night, and return to Altarnun the next day.
That evening, Selina was met by neighbours from Altarnun at the Pennygillam turnpike road, with John by her side. On being asked where Harry was, Selina said that he was at Launceston; she then said goodbye and continued on the road to Launceston, while the neighbours went in the opposite direction towards Altarnun.
However, at around 9pm, she was calling at a lodging house in Tower Street, Launceston, having previously slept there on a couple of occasions. The lodging house keeper, Harriet Parker, therefore knew the family, and spotted that Harry was not with his mother. She asked where it was, and Selina answered, ‘it died out at mother’s’.
The next evening, she returned to the workhouse, this time with an order from the parish to be admitted. She was put in the receiving ward to sleep.
The following morning, a Sunday, the workhouse master, Daniel Downing, and his wife, the matron, Louisa, asked for more information from Selina.
Putting the blame squarely on James Westwood, she stated, ‘The man took it away from me, threw it in the water, and drowned it’.
Despite it being later argued that Selina was a loving mother to her son Harry, her use of ‘it’ rather than ‘him’ suggests either that she saw him as an object rather than a boy, or that she was already distancing herself from her son, talking about him as an ‘it’ so that she would not have to think too deeply about what had happened.
Superintendent Barrett from Launceston was called, and he came and asked Selina where Harry had been when she went to the lodging house.
Selina answered that she had been walking with a man on the Tresmarrow road (where she had lived six years earlier) together on the Friday afternoon, and,
‘he took away my little boy, went into a field, and came back and told me he had thrown it in a pit where there were railings, and had drowned it. He came after us, saying he would drown us too.’
She then gave the policeman Westwood’s name and address.
But after he left, Selina turned to the matron and said,
‘Oh, Mrs Downing, I did it. I drowned the child; I put Harry into the water. There was no man with me; no one but my little Johnny, and he began to cry.’
An investigation had, by this time, been launched, and soon Harry’s body was found at the bottom of a 13-foot deep well shaft in Mowhay Park. The lid had been replaced on the well, suggesting that this was no accidental death.
The body was identified by the next door neighbour of Selina’s parents, a Mary Wakeham, who described Harry, when alive, as ‘a fine, healthy child’. A post-mortem suggested that he had died of suffocation, although this might have been due to drowning rather than violence beforehand.
Selina had confessed, and now she was charged with murder, and was taken to Launceston police station, telling the constables that Westwood had promised to marry her if she got rid of her disabled son.
The trial of Selina Wadge took place at the Cornwall Assizes held at Bodmin on 26 July 1878. She was found guilty of murder, the jury taking just three minutes to make their decision. She was held in the condemned cell at Bodmin Jail, guarded by female prison officers.
On 15 August, at 8am, Selina Wadge was hanged by William Marwood – hers being the first private execution at Bodmin. Her last words were ‘Lord deliver me from this miserable world.’
Selina’s trials in life were over, but those for her remaining son, John, may not have been. He was not looked after by family members after his mother’s death (his grandparents were still living in 1901), and may have continued to be an inmate of the Launceston workhouse until he was old enough to work.
The 1911 census records a John Wadge of the right place and date of birth, a former carpenter, listed as an inmate of the Plymouth workhouse. If this was Selina’s son, poverty continued to be an issue into the next generation – no doubt not helped by John’s inauspicious early years, and the witnessing of the death of his little brother at the hands of his mother.