The Hall Green Tragedy Part 2: Scandal at the Undertaker’s

This is part two of my retelling of the Hall Green Tragedy of 1895. For part one, see here.

It was not until the day after the deaths that the bodies were identified, after police found an address in Edward’s pocket.

His wife was brought to formally identify the bodies as those of her husband and her eldest daughter by her first husband. It was noted that ‘the distress and horror of the poor woman were most painful to witness’.

The Mermaid Inn in Sparkhill. Photo by Oosoom.

The Mermaid Inn in Sparkhill. Photo by Oosoom.

Carrie’s body was initially taken to the local pub, the Mermaid Inn, on Stratford Road, but later, both her body and that of Edward Birch were removed to the undertakers. Here, scandal ensued.

The undertaker unscrupulously allowed spectators to view the bodies on payment of a penny each admission fee.

The result was that his premises were ‘crowded with morbid sightseers’ all weekend, with women seen shaking their fists in Edward Birch’s dead face and shouting ‘May you go straight to hell!’.

The negative publicity this resulted in led to the undertaker promising to donate all money paid to Mrs Birch, but this did not lessen the views of other locals that this had been an ‘unedifying’, ‘repulsive’, spectacle.

Carrie’s inquest was held first, at the Mermaid Inn, with AH Hebbert, deputy coroner for North Worcestershire, presiding. Here, the verdict of wilful murder against Edward Birch was recorded, despite the couple appearing to have made a pact together to die.

The deputy coroner summed up by saying, ‘the extraordinary part of the case was that the girl consented to die’ but that if two persons agreed to kill themselves, but one of them survived, the survivor would be guilty of murder.

The jury expressed ‘strong dissatisfaction’ with how the bodies had been ‘housed’ – and the subsequent scandal – and ‘hoped it would not be long before a proper police-station, mortuary and ambulance’ was provided in Sparkhill.

Meanwhile, a search had been carried out in the family home, and police found several letters written by Birch. One read:

“E Birch, 59 Upper Highgate Street, Highgate, Birmingham. Nov 8th 1894. This is to shew that I will not be bested I worned her 12 mounths ago she dou in May 5th 1894 what she ourt not to… she as deceived me agin & when I get in drink it plays on my mind and I make the best of myself Ive taken her out & to places of amusement and then she will be after the men & in September last I give hir lef to go Sunday school and church if she be in by 9 and then she goes of with to fellers in the Ram till after 10 at night round the Mosley fields coaved with muck and paint… She is not my own child and this is the reason when I tell hir about it the mouther takes hir part and incurges hir in it. So this is the end of it.”

The next letter, sent to his parents in Wolverhampton on 5 January, stated:

“Dont put yourself about me of what you see and hear, I care for nothing as they ave brought it all on themselves. Emmer knows what I sed about genney when I was out of work being with that grieves till 1 o’clock in the morning as I keept from starving so long in 1893. So this makes to I have to keep of other mens kids and Calley is as bad…and have soon put her in trouble and this is the way out of it the Job is worse for me than hir as I shall go throw the same and no it tell the fokes to have mutch to say of this afair on either sides to envest into ther own life and they will no dout find soom black spots that will take a robbing out.”

The Victoria Law Courts, by Tony Hisgett

The Victoria Law Courts, by Tony Hisgett

An inquest on Edward Birch was held on 15 January at the Victoria Courts in Birmingham, before city coroner Oliver Pemberton. Here, Mrs Birch repeated the evidence that she had given at her daughter’s inquest, detailing the ‘painful relationship’ between her relatives.

At a small china teacup, which had the words ‘A present from Birmingham’ inscribed in gold round it, being produced, she burst into sobs – ‘it was given to me by my daughter on my 32nd birthday.’

Carrie’s younger sister Lilly, then aged around eight, then had to give evidence, followed by two of Birch’s colleagues at Messrs Lowe’s iron foundry in Upper Trinity Street. They noted that although quiet and intelligent as a worker, he was something of a drinker, and had been summoned before the courts recently for not sending one of his children to school.

The coroner stated that the dead man had ‘turned from the conduct of the parent and behaved in a manner almost impossible to describe.’ He went further; Birch was a ‘profoundly wicked man’, and he encouraged the jury to return a verdict of felo de se – that Birch had ‘feloniously, wilfully, and of malice aforethought did kill and murder himself’. The jury duly did so.

The funeral of Carrie Jones took place at Yardley Cemetery on the Monday morning. The funeral procession left her mother’s house at 59 Upper Highgate Street at 9.30am with the service taking place at 11am.

How did Mrs Birch cope with this double betrayal by her husband and daughter, followed by the double deaths and the publicity the events received?

Understandably, the press reported that she was ‘utterly prostrated, both mentally and physically’, to the extent of being unable to maintain either herself or her six other children, the youngest being only a few months old. In her lowest moments, but the community did not stigmatise her, instead rallying around her.

The jury had stated at Birch’s inquest that they expressed ‘deep sympathy’ for Mrs Birch, and collected money for her from each of the jurors at the end of the inquest. The coroner encouraged all the onlookers at the court to do the same.

Joseph Lock was appointed by the community to collect money on behalf of the Birch family, writing in the press that ‘any sums, however small’ would be welcome to help maintain the family as it would be ‘weeks, probably months’ before Mrs Birch was able to resume family life.

Another man, William L Sheffield, responded in the press that ‘the unfortunate woman Mrs Birch deserves some little help, and I shall be happy to contribute’, and others sent postal orders directly to the newspapers, asking for them to be forwarded on.

Selina Birch survived the ordeal, although life continued to be tough for her. She stayed in the Upper Highgate Street area for the next decade.

She worked as a laundress to maintain her children, and seems to have had at least two illegitimate children following Edward’s death – Jessie was born in 1898 and Lizzie in 1906.

In 1911, living at 6 Beales Buildings, Frank Street, in Balsall Heath, she stated that she was a widow with nine children, of whom two had died.

Significantly, though, despite being a widow, she wrote that her ‘present marriage’ had so far lasted 30 years, suggesting that she still saw Edward Birch very much as her husband.

Selina J Birch died in Birmingham in 1939, shortly before the start of the Second World War, aged 79 – having long outlived her unfaithful husband and naïve daughter.

Sources: 

The Standard, 9 January 1895, p.3; Nottinghamshire Guardian, 12 January 1895, p.8; Birmingham Daily Post, 12 January 1895; The Derby Mercury, 16 Jan 1895; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 20 January 1895; Ancestry, The Genealogist.

The Hall Green Tragedy: Illicit Sex and Murder in a Birmingham Suburb

Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_Paolo_and_Francesca_da_Rimini_-_Google_Art_Project

“News of a shocking domestic tragedy comes from Sparkhill, near Birmingham. On Monday night, groans were heard coming from a field between Hall Green and Sparkhill, and later, when a search was made, the Warwickshire police found the bodies of Edward Birch, 35, an ironplate worker, living at Balsall Heath, and his stepdaughter Carrie Jones, 18.” (Nottinghamshire Guardian, Saturday 12 January 1895, page 8)

The tragedy in south Birmingham on the night of Monday 7 January 1895 had all the markings of a penny dreadful. A teenage girl, having an affair with her stepfather – the two overcome either by guilt or the inability to be together properly to embark on a suicide pact. Both parties had drunk carbolic acid before Edward Birch cut Carrie’s throat, and then his.

*

Selina Jane Birch was Carrie’s mother. She was somewhere between 34 and 38 at the time of the deaths, and Edward Birch, her second husband, was 38 (not 35, as the press reported).

Selina was born in Gloucester around 1860 (although the censuses give her approximate year of birth as anything between 1857 and 1863), but spent much of her life in Birmingham. Nothing is known of her first husband, and little of her marriage to Edward Birch – the records do not enable a definitive name or date (if you know more, do contact me!).

But by 1881, Selina and Edward were married – or stated to be – and living at 23 Aberdeen Street in Birmingham. There were two children at this point – Carrie, listed in the census as “Caroline Birch”, and one-year-old Alfred, who had been born in Edward’s home town of Wolverhampton.

Birmingham city centre at the end of the 19th century.

Birmingham city centre at the end of the 19th century.

Five more children – William, Lilly, Sidney, Herbert and Olive – came along between 1882 and 1894, with the family dependent on Edward’s income as a tin plate worker. Edward took to drinking heavily, and although ‘reasonably affectionate’ towards his wife when sober, was violent when drunk.

He also appears to have resented having to maintain a child that wasn’t his, or tried to convince others that he resented it, but he gradually developed feelings for his stepdaughter that were not the result of a parental love.

He fell for her; his feelings aroused deep jealousy of her relationships with other boys her own age, and he appears to have been a controlling, insecure man who struggled with his emotions and the complexity of his life.

Meanwhile, Selina Birch, although busy with looking after her many children, noticed the closeness between Edward and Carrie, and was uneasy. She tried to convince herself that they simply had a close father-daughter relationship, and that there was nothing improper between them.

But she remained suspicious. In October 1894, a letter arrived for Carrie, asking to make an appointment with her one evening. On that date, she watched the couple closely, and accused Edward of having had the letter written on his behalf, but he denied it.

*

It was late on a Monday evening when people walking down Springfield Road between Hall Green and Sparkhill heard groans coming either from a house or the neighbouring field. It had been snowing, and the night was cold.

Although nobody thought to call the police, one anonymous person did notify the local doctor, who then told the constabulary. Sergeant Wright undertook a search, and soon found the dead body of Carrie Jones, with a two inch wound to her throat, and next to her, Edward Birch, still breathing, but with a cut throat and smelling of carbolic acid.

Part of the former Queen's Hospital in Birmingham. Photo by Oosoom.

Part of the former Queen’s Hospital in Birmingham. Photo by Oosoom.

He was removed in a ‘conveyance’ to the Queen’s Hospital in Birmingham, where he died at around midday the next day.

The carbolic acid had had a corrosive effect on his tongue, gullet, stomach and intestines, and he had died of shock caused by carbolic acid poisoning.

 

 

Part 2 of the Hall Green Tragedy will be posted here tomorrow.

The Trials of Selina Wadge

A post inspired by a recent trip I made to Bodmin Jail.

image2Selina 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.

1861 census entry for the Wadge family in Altarnun (via Ancestry)

1861 census entry for the Wadge family in Altarnun (via Ancestry)

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’.

Extract from registers of prisoners tried at the Assizes at Bodmin - Selina's entry is at the bottom (via Ancestry)

Extract from registers of prisoners tried at the Assizes at Bodmin – Selina’s entry is at the bottom (via Ancestry)

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.

Bodmin Jail

Bodmin Jail

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.

Sources: Bodmin Jail, Ancestry, and the Cornwall Gazette, 28 June 1878, page 5.

 

The Bow Street Runners and the fortune-telling catoptrical

The Bow Street courtroom

The Bow Street courtroom

In a piece worthy of today’s Daily Mail, in 1800, the Caledonian Mercury reported on the illegal occupations undertaken by some of London’s immigrants.

It reported that ‘some foreigners’ who lived on Oxford Street, near Poland Street, were said to ‘possess a knowledge of the occult science, or, in plain terms, were fortune tellers’.

After a tip-off, John Revett, a Bow Street Runner, was despatched to Oxford Street. On reaching the house, he was ushered up to a chamber which contained a ‘very curious machine, called a catoptrical’ and a tablet on which were inscribed a series of questions.

The catoptrical was supposed to be able to answer these questions, but the audience had to pay a shilling for each question they wanted answered.

Each visitor had to look into a telescope-like barrel, supported on a glass tub, and, by the aid of mirrors, an answer would be shown.

The newspaper reported that only the ‘ignorant’ would have thought this was really magic, as the mechanism for working the machine was clearly visible, one of the ‘foreigners’ working the various figures and letters of the answer.

Officer Revett had been promised a wife for his shilling. He returned to the Bow Street magistrate, Richard Ford, to report this, and Ford duly issued a warrant to apprehend the ‘parties practicing this nefarious imposition.’

It took three officers – Revett, together with Townsend and Sayer – to carry out the warrant on Oxford Street. All, of course, paid their shilling to get their fortunes told first, with Sayer wishing he hadn’t, after he was told his wife would be unfaithful to him.

Unluckily for the ‘foreigners’, ‘no lucky omen gave notice of the approach of the officers of justice'; they were taken by surprise by their clients revealing themselves to be officers.

They were brought, in a coach, to the Bow Street public office at 10pm in the evening, and examined by Mr Ford.

Boys exercising at Tothill Fields Prison, or Bridewell. Via Wellcome Images (L0002980).

Boys exercising at Tothill Fields Prison, or Bridewell. Via Wellcome Images (L0002980).

Under the 1744 Vagrancy Act (17 Geo 2, c5), the prisoners were deemed to be rogues and vagabonds, as the act covered ‘persons pretending to have skill in physiognomy, palmistry or fortune telling’.

They were unceremoniously packed off to Tothill Fields Bridewell to await trial at the next Quarter Sessions.

Before they had left the Bow Street office, however, the prisoners had admitted to Mr Ford that they were French immigrants, and that the government paid to them a regular allowance. This allowance was immediately stopped.

The Caledonian Mercury reported that the fortune-tellers ‘did not have recourse to any supernatural means to foretell what would shortly be their fate.’

Instead, Richard Ford – who, unhappily for them, also acted as superintendent of the Aliens Office – stated by the usual means that he would now use his influence to ensure that they were deported back to France.

Source: Caledonian Mercury, 20 October 1800

JM Beattie’s book The First English Detectives: The Bow Street Runners and the Policing of London, 1750-1840 (Oxford University Press, 2012) has lots more on Richard Ford and two of his Runners, Townsend and Sayer.

Happy New Year from the Criminal Historian

Thank you to all of you who read, commented on, or shared my posts this year – it’s really appreciated.

Here’s to a great second year of the Criminal Historian blog, with more crime, law, history, and gore to come!

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/46e/66765050/files/2014/12/img_2551.jpg

12 Days of Criminal Christmas: “She’ll Never Cry Holly and Ivy Again”

From the testimony of Kate Bates, in the trial of William Atkinson, accused of killing Margaret Gaskin with a red hot poker:

“The Deceas’d keeps a brandy shop, and I can’t say but I have taken a Dram there now and then, and so upon last Christmas Eve, there was I and my girl, and Moll Beech and Peg Gaskin the deceased, because she was the oldest basket woman.

“But Moll is dead and buried since then – poor Soul! She’ll never cry Holly and Ivy again.”

 

Source: Old Bailey Online, trial of William Atkinson, 11 July 1726 (Atkinson was found guilty of manslaughter).

12 Days of Criminal Christmas: Drowsy and “Idon’tknowhowish”

beerstreetAnother day, another tale involving the dangers of drink.

William Bolton had been out drinking for all of Christmas Eve, to the extent that by 4am, he was still out and merry.

It was 1725, and Bolton was attempting to wander home, finally, at between four and five on Christmas morning, making his way unsteadily down Spring Gardens.

He was approached by Sarah Hutchins, another rather merry woman, who asked Bolton to “give me a pint, my dear”.

William had “no great fancy for going home so soon” and so went with Sarah to a night cellar at Charing Cross, and there they sat together on the steps. During the course of their company, Bolton lost everything that had been in his pockets – including silver buttons and buckles, and money.

The handkerchief that Bolton wore around his neck had also managed to disappear – but he later admitted that how it had gone, he didn’t know, “for I was very drowsy and I don’tknowhowish” – an unusual expression for “I was so drunk, I have no idea what happened.”

In fact, William was unaware of anything until he “found her hand in my pocket”, and somehow, managed to locate a constable.

Although Sarah’s defence was somewhat unreliable – she swore that Bolton kept following her, and that she only went to the cellar for a pint in order to get out of his way – Bolton was deemed to be even more unreliable, and Sarah was acquitted of picking Bolton’s pocket.

Source: the trial of Sarah Hutchins, 14 January 1726, Old Bailey Online.