In researching both for ourselves, and for our clients, we may occasionally unearth criminal ancestors, or information that is difficult to communicate. It is imperative that we frame the happenings of history not only for ourselves, but for our clients. Social context and thorough research are needed to fully understand the lives of all our ancestors – most especially those we may not immediately like.
While researching you discover a new ancestor. With a feeling of excitement as a new generation is about to take shape, you may perform a preliminary online search. Perusing the results, you find a matching criminal record. Do you discard the information? After all, do you really want a criminal in your family tree? How will your client react? Now is not the time to judge an ancestor’s worthiness, but to investigate further and seek the story behind the conviction.
The criminal registers of England and Wales (1791-1892) list a Fanny sentenced to death on the 11th July 1888, at Maidstone Assizes in Kent. Her crime was willful murder.[i] The only other detail provided is a trial date. Trials were well reported in local newspapers, and they can often give more insight into how the trail was perceived and understood by the local public.
A user friendly website for British newspaper research is The British Newspaper Archive, which offers a pay-as-you-go or subscription service. Using the search string “Fanny 1888 death sentence” brings up four articles for the correct date. The Manchester Courier provides the following details:
“At Kent Assizes, at Maidstone, on Wednesday
morning, Fanny pleaded guilty to murdering
her child by drowning it in the sea at Sandgate, on
the 9th inst., when she also attempted to drown her-
self. She persisted in her plea of guilty, and Baron
Huddleston sentenced her to death, without hope of
To discover that an ancestor murdered a child and received a death sentence does not make comfortable reading, and may be extremely difficult to communicate to a client, but additional research does inform the circumstances.
A local Bath newspaper, the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, gives further details, stating that Fanny was the wife of William, a local quarryman, of 2 Richmond Terrace, Dolemeads, Bath, Somerset, and that husband and wife had separated some time ago. It also mentions that Fanny had made a previous suicide attempt by jumping from the pier at Folkestone.[iii]
By adjusting the search term ‘death sentence’ to ‘Sandgate’ further articles were found, showing Fanny had her sentence reduced from death to penal servitude. The report in the Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald reflects on the court case, stating that Fanny came into court with the other prisoners about to be charged with lesser offenses. There was shock in court when she pleaded guilty and her trial was delayed until the other prisoners had given their pleas. It is posited that Fanny was not really aware of what was going on, or of the seriousness of her crime, and once the sentence had been passed she left the court with a female warder as though nothing had happened. Afterwards a series of communications changed Fanny’s fate. First an unnamed official made a communication to the Judge questioning Fanny’s state of mind. Second, Baron Huddleston wrote to Mr. Matthews, the Home Secretary to plead mercy. This action was supported by a Mr. R. T. Tatham, who contacted Major Ross, M.P. Major Ross then had interviews with the Home Secretary and a reprieve was granted on the grounds that when Fanny walked into the sea, she was not responsible for her actions. The article concludes that Fanny would, in all likelihood, be sent to Broadmoor asylum.[iv] The fact that so many were willing to exert effort on her behalf alludes to extenuating circumstances.
With the knowledge that Fanny would have been a prisoner in the 1890s the 1891 census was searched. She is found in the District Female Prison at Woking in Surrey, listed as being 32, a laundress, married and born in Bath. This allows for a calculated date of birth of about 1859. The prison, Knaphill Women’s Prison housed a majority of the prisoners held on convictions for infanticide. Many inmates originally received the death penalty when convicted of their crime.[v]
With a date, place of birth, the name of husband and an address, Fanny can be located on the 1881 census. Here Fanny, aged 21, was living with her husband William, 24, a stone quarryman, and their daughter Rosa, aged 1. All were born in Bath, Somerset and at the time of the census were living at 3 Laura Terrace, Bath.[vi] If Rosas was their eldest child, an estimated marriage date of about 1879 can be used. William and Fanny Miner were married in the 4th quarter of 1878, in Bath. William’s father was called Alfred.[vii]
Fanny Miner was enumerated in 1861 living with her father Thomas (27), her mother Eliza (26) and three siblings; also with them is Ester Williams (11) a house servant. Thomas is working as a general labourer.[viii] By 1871 Thomas is listed as a quarryman, the family has grown to include six more children.[ix]
While nothing of note was found while researching the Miner family, the same cannot be said of the family she married into. According to additional research in the British newspapers, Fanny married into a troublesome family. In January 1879 her father-in-law Alfred was summoned to court for the assault of Thomas Gerrish and for threatening Thomas’ son with a gun. William was also implicated and described as an “idle fellow”.[x]
In 1883 the whole family was in court. Fanny was charged that on 5 March 1883 she assaulted Alfred, the landlord of the Olive Branch. In the report she had gone to the public house to find her husband. Alfred claimed Fanny was abusive and assaulted him but Fanny claimed Arthur assaulted her. Four days later Alfred was charged with assaulting William on the 9 March 1883 and William was charged with the assault of Alfred. The evidence was so conflicting that all the cases were dismissed.[xi] A different article reporting the same date and assault states that Alfred testified Fanny was drunk when the assault took place, however this was denied by PC Dyer who testified in her favor. [xii]
In January 1886 there was another court case, when William was assaulted by three men forcing an entrance into his and Fanny’s home. William was admitted to hospital with injuries to his nose and ribs from where he had been punched and kicked.[xiii] For Fanny, living in the same house with children, this must have been terrifying.
The next step is to discover how Fanny came to be living in Folkestone, Kent, instead of with her husband in Bath. A search of the National Archives online database shows that records are held for Fanny.
The National Archives, which can be searched either in person, or through research services with results being posted, houses the depositions used in her trial, which were taken on the 14th July 1888. These name the deceased child as Eliza and give her age as 3 – 4 months. Dr Marcus George Bateman testified that the child was half the weight she should be at this age, but there were no signs of abuse on the child. He stated that he examined Fanny at the hospital following her admission and she kept repeating “I am mad”. In his opinion she was sober and she stated that her little boy had gone into the sea and she had followed, carrying her baby daughter, to bring him out when a large wave took her and knocked her over.[xiv] His account of her sobriety was confirmed by Nellie Hollman, a barmaid at the Alexandra Hotel, who stated Fanny came into the hotel at about a quarter past seven and stayed for an hour and a half. She purchased a glass of beer but did not appear drunk.[xv]
In conflict with Dr. Bateman’s testimony were the depositions of two women who walked with Fanny, and her children, to The Alexandra Hotel in Sandgate. Both stated that she was drunk and threatened to drown herself, her son and her baby. The last they saw of Fanny was when she entered the Alexandra Hotel.[xvi]
She was next seen by Richard Callingham, who, in his deposition, saw her walking down the beach at Sandgate, straight into the rough sea with the children. It was he who ran down to the beach and pulled out the young boy and then returned to the water to retrieve Fanny, who by then was unconscious. The baby, Eliza, was missing but was found on the 11 July between 7 and 8 pm, washed up on Folkestone beach by William Thomas Rogers.[xvii]
There is a further deposition from John Taylor, Superintendent of Policing, Folkestone. He stated that he had known Fanny for two to three years and that although married; she was living with John William, the reputed father of her two younger children.
From court, Fanny was sent to Maidstone Prison where she was examined by Francis Pritchard Davis, the chief medical officer and superintendent of the Kent County Asylum, Barming Heath, Maidstone. He spent nearly three hours with Fanny in July 1888 and his letter to Sir Augustus K Stephenson K.C.B. (Knight Commander Order of Bath), Director of Public Prosecutions, gives a deeper insight into the life of Fanny.
He starts by stating that Fanny had married William on the 3rd October 1878 and that she had four children by him. At this time she was a sober woman, but her husband, a quarryman, was a drunkard. In her marriage, she suffered brutality from William, and two of her children had died due to his abuse. Fearing for her life, she left him and moved to Folkestone, gaining employment as a laundress. She worked for four months and then returned to her husband. Two months after returning she became pregnant and he reinitiated his violence towards her. Again she left him, departing for Folkestone where she took up her laundress job once more, lodging with a Mrs. Williams. Also in the household was Mrs. Williams’ husband, William and their son, John. According to his report Fanny then entered a “criminal intimacy” with John which resulted in pregnancy. Dr Stephenson notes that it was at this time, with the shame of the pregnancy, that Fanny started drinking. John WILLIAMS lost his job as a consequence of their liaison, and he became verbally abusive to her. Being unemployed John too took to drink.
John’s father also treated Fanny badly. On the morning of 15 June 1886 she states that she was “insulted, called a whore” before he violently assaulted her. She had to leave her work and her home, and it was at this point she decided to commit suicide and was charged with trying to throw herself off a pier. She also mentioned the charge of trying to drown her son in a bucket of water but stated the case was dismissed.
The doctor then focused on her daughter, mentioning she was about nine years old (Rosa, from the 1881 census). He refers to this child as “very peculiar” who told lies about her mother. He finished his comments regarding the daughter by stating “I have serious doubts as to the mental soundness of this child”. An uncle, her mother’s brother, Joseph Stagg, was also discussed, and Fanny stated that he was living in an asylum in Wiltshire.
Dr Stephenson next writes about the events following the birth of the newborn child. According to his account, taken from Fanny, Williams became more verbally abusive and was frequently drunk, talking of leaving her and actually going away for a week. On 8 July he informed her he was leaving and would not be back. Fanny then sold items she possessed to raise money which she spent on a drink before walking into the sea with her two young children.[xviii]
In his summary Dr Stephenson records that at the time of the drowning, Fanny was in a state of “acute melancholia” which although exacerbated by the alcohol, was induced by the violence she had faced from her husband and Williams. The fact that her daughter and her uncle were mentally unsound led him to believe that Fanny, although not insane, was not of right mind when she walked into the sea.[xix]
Further papers held by The National Archives provide information regarding her discharge and confirm that she was in the women’s prison in Woking. Seven years from the date her death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment there is documentation regarding her early release. Comments regarding her conduct and industry in prison are graded as “good” as is her bodily health and her mental health is graded as sound. It appears that she was discharged into a home, under license, managed by Mrs. Bramwell Booth with the anticipation she would attain employment as a cook, a job she was doing in the prison. Mrs. Bramwell BOOTH, the daughter-in-law of the founder of the Salvation Army, dedicated herself to improving the lives of women in poverty. There is no evidence within the documents to say whether she actually took advantage of this opportunity but by 24 September 1895 the Convict Supervision Office at New Scotland Yard recommended that the license should be lifted. The final document is a letter written by Fanny herself, to Sir Matthew White BIDLEY, Secretary of State to thank him for her release from prison without restrictions, dated 5 April 1896.[xx]
After Fanny was released from prison in 1896 she returned to her husband, William, with whom she was enumerated in the 1901 census. Also with them is a five-month-old child.[xxi] Newspaper records show their marriage remained a violent one.[xxii] In Fanny was charged with being drunk and incapable in Claverton Street. She was sentenced to pay a fine of 2s. 6d. or face three days in prison.[xxiii]
Fanny died in the last quarter of 1909 aged 52 in Bath. No cause of death is given.[xxiv]
Fanny appeared to be a difficult or non-desirable ancestor. Research using birth, marriage, death and census records, alongside newspaper articles and court records, portray a very different picture. Records show that only one of her children was fathered by John Williams, that she did not take to alcohol until she was faced with having an illegitimate child, and that there was evidence of mental illness in her extended family. Her conduct in prison was good which ensured her early release.
It is tempting to ‘Google’ new ancestors. When this is done for Fanny it produces two results:
- A chapter in a book entitled “The Scourge of Demon Drink” depicting Fanny only as a habitual drunk and ‘a baby killer’.[xxv]This is true but lacks background detail.
- An article on a cervical cord slide bearing the name of a Fanny, dated 18 December 1896. This article links the slide to a Fanny who died in the West-Riding Asylum (Yorkshire) and mistakenly ties her to the Fanny of this article who was still alive in 1896.[xxvi]
Never believe all you read and back up your findings with research. It is important that we conduct thorough research both for ourselves and when researching for clients. This is never more true than when our research leads us to difficult or “undesirable” ancestors.
(Published in the Association of Professional Genealogists March 2016 Magazine)
[v] Foster, M. (2012). Knaphill (All in one place) Publish Nation Ltd. London. p. 14.
[xiv] Criminal Case Records. (1888). Fanny. Court: Kent Assizes. Offence: Murder. Sentence: Death. Deposition of Marcus George Bateman. Reference: HO 144/215/A49089. Available from the National Archives. Kew, London. www.discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C4134291 : accessed 04 February 2015.
[xv] Criminal Case Records. (1888). Fanny. Court: Kent Assizes. Offence: Murder. Sentence: Death. Deposition of Nellie Hollman. Reference: HO 144/215/A49089. Available from the National Archives. Kew, London. www.discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C4134291 : accessed 04 February 2015.
[xvi] Criminal Case Records. (1888). Fanny. Court: Kent Assizes. Offence: Murder. Depositions of Laura Broadwater and Eliza Anslow. Sentence: Death. Reference: HO 144/215/A49089. Available from the National Archives. Kew, London. www.discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C4134291 : accessed 04 February 2015.
[xvii] Criminal Case Records. (1888). Fanny. Court: Kent Assizes. Offence: Murder. Sentence: Death. Deposition of Richard Callingham. Reference: HO 144/215/A49089. Available from the National Archives. Kew, London. www.discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C4134291 : accessed 04 February 2015.
[xviii] Criminal Case Records. (1888). Fanny. Court: Kent Assizes. Offence: Murder. Sentence: Death. Deposition of John Taylor. Reference: HO 144/215/A49089. Available from the National Archives. Kew, London. www.discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C4134291 : accessed 04 February 2015.
[xix] Criminal Case Records. (1888). Fanny. Court: Kent Assizes. Offence: Murder. Sentence: Death. Reference: HO 144/215/A49089. Available from the National Archives. Kew, London. www.discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C4134291 : accessed 04 February 2015.
[xx] Criminal Case Records. (1888). Fanny. Court: Kent Assizes. Offence: Murder. Sentence: Death. Reference: HO 144/215/A49089. Available from the National Archives. Kew, London. www.discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C4134291 : accessed 04 February 2015.
[xxii] Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette. (1900). Bath Police. Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette. Thursday 12th April. p.6F. www.britishnewspaperarchives.co.uk : accessed 25 August 2015. Also: Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette. (1901). Assault and Wilful Damage. Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette; Thursday 14th February. P.2D-E. www.britishnewspaperarchives.co.uk : accessed 25 August 2015.
[xxv] Easdown M & Sage L. (2006) “The Scourge of Demon Drink” in: Foul Deeds & SuspiciousDeaths Around Folkestone & Dover. Barnsley. Pen & Sword Books Ltd. pp. 75 – 79.
[xxvi] Beeley, Philip. (2013) Downward Slide: The sad tale of Fanny. https://history.medsci.ox.ac.uk/downwrad-slide-the-tale-of-fanny- / : accessed 25 August 2015.
Suggested Images for article:
Sandgate Beach – Image no longer subject to copyright.
Mrs Bramwell Booth c. 1912. Image no longer subject to copyright