Rex Needle: Shocking case of child cruelty in 1850s

The workhouse where Mrs Smith sought refuge. Column by Rex Needle EMN-140718-114851001
The workhouse where Mrs Smith sought refuge. Column by Rex Needle EMN-140718-114851001
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On a dark November night 150 years ago, a young woman with two children sought refuge in the workhouse at Bourne.

The officer on duty knew that her husband was able bodied and capable of work and as her case did not therefore comply with the Poor Law regulations she was refused admission but further questioning revealed that she was terrified and furthermore, that one of the children with her, a three-year-old boy, was suffering from the most terrible injuries.

His body was one mass of contusions, his chest, arms and legs covered in bruises, purple, yellow, black and blue, evidence that he had been maltreated in the most shocking manner and even by the standards then prevalent in Victorian England, it would be a humanitarian act to give them shelter and protection from further outrage.

The town constable, Handley, was called and on seeing the state of the boy, advised the woman, Sarah Smith, aged 23, to seek further protection from the magistrates with the result that she and her children appeared before the bench sitting at the Town Hall on Saturday 8th November 1851 when she gave an account of the events that had occurred in the preceding weeks at the hands of a brutal husband and step-father.

It appeared that the woman had married John Smith, aged 23, an agricultural labourer, when she already had an illegitimate son, and they went to live at a cottage in North Street. Their union resulted in the birth of a daughter, Alice, but Smith resented the other boy and soon began ill-treating both his wife and the child in a most cruel manner.

The magistrates were deeply distressed by what they saw and heard. The body of the little boy, whose name was John Moulds, exhibited one continuous mass of blackness caused by blows and the subsequent evidence by his mother indicated that every stratagem had been used to deprive the child of life. But worse was to come. A warrant was issued for the immediate arrest of John Smith who was apprehended by Constable Handley and taken into custody to await trial.

The case was subsequently heard at the Kesteven Sessions held at the Town Hall in Bourne on Monday 5th January 1852 when Smith was indicted for assaulting John Moulds, aged three years. By this time, the entire town had been shocked by the disclosures and awaited the outcome with the expectation that the culprit would be severely punished.

Medical evidence was given by a doctor, Francis Bellingham, who said that he found the boy’s body bruised in many places and marks of a cord on his waist and shoulders and also a mark over his right eye. But the defence tried to argue that the boy looked healthy and had no symptoms of starvation and that his bruises were not permanent and could have been caused by him falling downstairs.

Neighbours, however, gave a different story and one woman who lived next door told the court that Smith often beat the boy and on the night in question she had heard the child cry “most piteously” and on listening she was certain that the prisoner was beating him again. She added: “He expressed a wish that he was dead and said if he did not soon die he would kill him.”

Constable Handley also gave evidence of Smith’s violent nature when he tried to serve a warrant for his arrest. “He took up a poker and putting himself in a menacing attitude, declared that he would not be taken into custody”, he said. “He subsequently became more calm and said that although he had ill-used the child it was not his intention to murder him.”

The defence submitted that the evidence was insufficient to justify the charge but the jury thought otherwise and found it proven after the chairman, Sir John Trollope, advised them that the accused should have acted the same parental part towards the child as though he had been born in wedlock.

A wife was not allowed to give evidence against her husband and so much of the ordeal suffered by the boy was not revealed during the hearing but before passing sentence, the chairman of the bench asked Mrs Smith to go into the witness box to answer some questions and her replies revealed even more inhumanity than the jury had been allowed to hear.

She told the bench that she was now living in the Union House [workhouse] and wished to remain there with her children rather than return to her husband. Indeed, she was afraid to live with him after his repeated ill-treatment and constant threats to murder her. Mrs Smith, with the help of her lawyer, also confirmed previous reports of her husband’s actions that had not been made available during the hearing.

Her statements revealed that Smith’s conduct towards the boy in various ways had been most cruel. On one occasion he endeavoured to excite his dog to seize the child and notwithstanding his apparent earnest wish that the animal should inflict injury, it refused to touch the infant, which circumstance further outraged him. He then tied a cord round the naked infant’s waist and shoulders and, after fastening one end to a beam, amused himself by drawing the child up and letting him down again for a period of two hours. After this barbarous act, the prisoner took the child upstairs and again tortured him by various means in the presence of his mother, who with trembling limbs, saw what was going on but dared not rise from her bed or even ask him to be merciful and he then endeavoured to incite the infant to fall out of the bedroom window.

The court was stunned by these revelations and the chairman said that the case had been “shocking” and that the accused had evidently been guilty of “great barbarity” and added: “He had made a vow at the altar to protect the mother and it was equally his duty to protect the child.”

Sir John then sentenced Smith to three months imprisonment with hard labour and told him that on his release he would be required to find sureties to keep the peace towards his wife and her child.

We have no knowledge of what happened to the Smith family after that but cases of child cruelty continue to horrify the public and we wonder what type of person can perpetrate such punishment on another.

Wife beating continues and although the workhouse no longer exists there are refuges where the victims can go to escape further punishment by cruel husbands while children continue to be physically and mentally abused almost on a daily basis.

A PORTRAIT OF BOURNE is the definitive history of the town and is available on CD-ROM.

An order form may be downloaded from the Bourne website at