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Saturday, 12 April 2014

The Battersea Baby Killer:

Perhaps because no mother would willingly hand her child over to a male stranger, the common Victorian practice of “baby farming” was almost entirely a female venture or occupation that was perpetrated against members of their own gender and the most vulnerable of victims; children. At a time when contraception was as much a case of luck, as any sort of planning, it was not unusual to find large numbers of young unmarried women looking for solutions to their unexpected pregnancies and what to do with the babies, which were generally unexpected and unaffordable.
 
Florence Jones found herself in this predicament towards the end of 1897, when as the result of a relationship she delivered a baby girl called Selina Ellen in December of that year. Florence was not married to Selina’s father and still lived at home with her parents in Croydon, but with financial help from her partner she arranged for the baby to be fostered out with a Mrs Muller for the first three months of her life, during which time she was said to have thrived.
 
She would later testify that she had removed Selina from Mrs Muller because of concerns over the baby’s health and re-housed her with a Mrs Wetherall at a cost of five shillings a week and this was where the baby remained until the end of August 1899. Sometime during this period Selina’s father was thought to have stopped paying towards her keep and the weekly amount paid to Mrs Wetherall was reduced to half-a-crown per week, although this obviously did not affect her care of the child.
 
Although Florence seems to have been entirely happy with the care offered by the foster mother, this did not stop her noticing an advert placed in the Woolwich Herald in August 1899, which stated that a young married couple would like to adopt a healthy young baby provided that certain terms were met. She subsequently contacted a Mrs Hewetson from Hammersmith who had placed the advert, enclosing a photograph of Selina and requesting that she provide full details of the arrangement and terms required. Within days she had received a reply from the advertiser, stating that she and her husband would like to adopt Selina, they required a fee of £5 and would like to meet her personally to discuss the matter more fully.
 
On the 24th August 1899, Florence met Mrs Hewetson at Woolwich railway station to discuss the matter of a possible adoption. The two women visited Florence’s mother in Croydon and it was agreed that Selina would stay with the Hewetson’s for a while, but would ultimately be returned to her family and that both Florence and her mother would visit Selina from time to time, all of which was agreed to by Mrs Hewetson. Before they parted, Florence told Hewetson that she would bring Selina to their next meeting, in a week’s time, that she would hand the child over then and pay her three of the five pounds that they had agreed for Selina’s costs.
 
Seemingly happy that she had made a good decision for her daughter’s care, Florence later contacted Mrs Wetherall and told her that she had made new arrangements for Selina and that she would collect her on the following Thursday, the 31st August. In the days prior to this date, Florence was reported to have bought some new clothes for her daughter, as a gift for her new foster parents, including a new plaid dress, which would later become a significant item in the subsequent murder trial.
 
On Thursday 31st August 1899 Florence arrived at Mrs Wetherall’s home to collect her daughter and after a tearful farewell she left with the 21-month-old, along with a bundle of clothes and proceeded to her meeting with Mrs Hewetson at Charing Cross Station. The two women having met, they then travelled to Hammersmith where Florence was shown the Hewetson’s new house there, but wasn’t able to go inside the property as a group of workmen were busily renovating it. They then walked to the home of one of Mrs Hewetson’s friends, Mrs Woolmer, where they took tea and settled the matter of the £3 down-payment which had previously been agreed between the two women.
 
With their business concluded, the two women and Selina walked back to Hammersmith station where Florence took her leave of Mrs Hewetson and her daughter and made her way back to her parent’s home in Croydon. On parting, they had agreed that Mrs Hewetson would contact Florence in a day or so, in order that she could settle the balance of the money owed to the couple, but not having heard from them after a few days she became increasingly worried about her young daughter.
 
On Sunday 3rd September 1899, Florence travelled to Hammersmith and immediately went to the house that Mrs Hewetson had identified as her home. Having knocked on the door however, it soon became clear that the family within the house did not know anyone called Hewetson and had no knowledge of her daughter Selina. Florence then walked to the local newsagents, that was owned by a Mr Canning and asked about Mrs Hewetson, but he was unable to offer any information that would help to locate the mysterious woman. It later transpired that his shop was being used as a “mail box” by a number of different people, who paid a penny for every letter delivered there and who would simply turn up and collect the letters on a regular basis.
 
Florence then made her way to the home of Mrs Woolmer, the “friend” of Mrs Hewetson, who told her that Hewetson had in fact simply rented a room from her, but had subsequently left the property and had left no forwarding address. It now began to dawn on Florence that all was not as it seemed and having returned to her parents to inform them of the circumstances, she then contacted the Police and made a formal complaint.
 
It didn’t take long for the Police to follow up Florence Jones’ own enquiries, at the house in Hammersmith, Mr Canning’s newsagents shop and the home of the entirely innocent Mrs Woolmer. They soon learned that Mrs Hewetson was in fact a woman called Ada Chard Williams, who was married to a school teacher called William Chard Williams, both of whom had seemingly disappeared from the area. With very little information to go on and given the itinerant nature of the two suspects, the Police soon ran out of leads in their investigation and it became temporarily stalled, leaving Florence uncertain as to her young daughter’s ultimate fate.
 
On the 27th September 1899, a bargeman called William Stokes who was working on the River Thames near Battersea made a grim discovery that would ultimately confirm Florence Jones’ worst suspicions, when he spotted a parcel that seemed to contain the body of a child. Calling to a Police Officer named Voice who was patrolling nearby, he identified the package and the constable retrieved it from the waters edge, immediately noting that a young child’s foot was sticking out of the tightly bound parcel.
 
PC Voice accompanied the body to the local mortuary at Battersea and was involved in unwrapping and untying the tightly bound remains, observing that the body was that of a young girl who had been wrapped in flannelette, wore a napkin around her lower portions and had her head covered with a white bag. Around her neck was a length of material, similar to the bag and her limbs had been tied with pieces of window sash cord and string. As a former naval man, Voice also noticed that both the cord and string contained a number of different knots including reef, half-hitch and the less usual fisherman’s bend, a discovery which would ultimately prove to be significant.
 
Once the body had been unwrapped and untied, the Divisional Police Surgeon Doctor Kempster was able to perform an autopsy on the young girl and determined that she had died from being suffocated, having first been beaten unconscious by her attacker. Although it was later suggested that she might have been drowned by being placed in the river, the surgeon was confident that his findings were correct and the girl had been strangled or suffocated before being placed in the water. It also became clear from his examination that despite some level of decomposition, the body might well have been in the water for a relatively short time, suggesting that the girl might only have been killed fairly recently.
 
The following day, Florence Jones was asked to attend the mortuary and quickly identified the body of her missing daughter. Although she was the mother of the child, the Police also requested that Martha Wetherall, Selina’s former carer, should make a formal identification of the remains which she did, pointing out a small scar on the child’s face that she herself had accidentally caused.
 
With this painful part of the investigation completed, the Police were now seeking two murder suspects and it was Ada Chard Williams herself that would initiate the next phase of the inquiry. The capital’s newspapers all carried details of the gruesome case and it was as a result of their headlines that Williams became aware that the body of young Selina Jones had in fact been recovered. Keen to distance herself from any sort of responsibility in the murder, she wrote to the Police admitting her part as a baby farmer, but claiming that she had handed the child over to another woman called Smith who lived in the Croydon area and that she herself had played no part in the young girl’s death.
 
However, her act of contacting the Police to declare her innocence soon led them to her door and on December 8th 1899 both she and her husband were arrested and charged at their home in Gainsborough Road, Hackney by Detective Inspector Scott and Sergeant Gough. With the couple in custody a search of their house and belongings was made by officers and a large number of child’s clothes were found at the Gainsborough Road property. It has also been claimed, that during their search the Police discovered a number of packages that were bound with string and found to contain the highly unusual fisherman’s bend knot that had been found on the restraints holding the dead girl’s body.
 
A month earlier in November 1899, Detective Inspector Scott, accompanied by Sergeant Windsor had visited the Williams’ former home at Grove Villas, Grove Road in Barnes and found the property empty but for some window cord and string, similar to those that had been used to bind Selina’s body and the wrappings used to cover her lifeless form. As part of their investigation, the officers had spoken to Mr and Mrs Loughborough who lived at No. 2 Grove Villas, who informed them that Ada and William Chard Williams had been their neighbours, living at No. 3 Grove Villas until around October 1899.
 
More significantly, Mrs Loughborough remembered that initially the Williams’ had lived at No. 3 with a baby boy called Freddy, who she thought was around 10-months-old and was the only child in the house up until August of that year. In the first week of September however, a young girl arrived at the house, who Mrs Loughborough considered to be around 2-years-old. Ada Williams had told her that the little girl was called Lily and that she was her sister’s daughter who lived in Uxbridge.
 
The witness also told Police about Mrs Williams’ apparent cruelty to the child, having seen her slap the girl for no obvious reason and related how Williams was reported to have beaten her with a stick because she was unfortunate enough to have soiled herself. It also became apparent from her evidence, that William Chard Williams, the husband, appeared to be completely dominated by his wife, but tried to be kind and to defend the young girl that had recently arrived in their house.
 
A couple of days after Ada Williams was reported to have beaten young Lily, Mrs Loughborough told how she had called round to No. 3 Grove Villas and had actually seen the weal’s on the young girls back which were dark red in colour. She remembered asking herself how any woman could leave their child with someone like Williams. Her memory of the girl called Lily was that she was thin and never seemed to be allowed in the garden, taken out for exercise and always seemed to be crying.
 
Over the weekend of the 25th September 1899, Mrs Loughborough and her family went away to visit relatives at Greenwich and only returned on the following Monday. Having arrived back, she was immediately struck by the lack of noise from No. 3 and when she asked Ada Chard Williams about Lily was simply told that the little girl had gone home to her mother. Around the same time Williams was also said to have offered an exchange to Mrs Loughborough, swapping some clothes Lily’s mother had left behind for a flower pot that Williams had seen in the Loughborough house. The items of clothing given to her by Chard Williams included; two flannel petticoats, pink socks, vests, drawers and more significantly a plaid frock, all of which were later handed to Detective Inspector Scott and were subsequently identified by Florence Jones as having belonged to her daughter Selina.
 
With the mass of evidence laid against them, both Ada and William Chard Williams were indicted for the murder of Selina Ellen Jones and stood trial at the Old Bailey between the 16th and 17th December 1899 before Mr Justice Ridley. After two days of almost irrefutable prosecution evidence, countered only be the habitual excuse of a fictional third party being involved in the girl’s death, it only took the jury a little time to convict Ada Chard Williams of murder. Her hapless husband was far more fortunate than his spouse, the jury choosing to believe that in all probability he played no part in killing the helpless toddler. He was however convicted of assisting and harbouring Ada Chard Williams who had committed murder, but at least escaped with his life.
 
On the morning of Wednesday 8th March 1900 James Billington entered the condemned cell at Newgate Prison, the last time any British executioner would do so and quickly pinioned Ada Chard Williams’ arms to her side. He then led her along the same route that some eight weeks before Louise Masset had walked, across the prison yard to the execution shed which stood across the way. Placing her on the trapdoor of the gallows, Billington quickly strapped her legs beneath her long skirt, placed the rope expertly around her neck and placed the white hood over her head. With all completed, he then stepped back, released the holding pin and pulled the lever which sent her plummeting into the space below and causing her neck to dislocate instantly.
 
Although the 24-year-old was tried and convicted of only one murder, there were suspicions that she was likely to have committed many more in her career as a baby farmer, all of which remained unsolved or simply unreported. Whatever the merits of those suspicions however, the fact that she lost her life for a measly three pounds, albeit a decent sum at the time, is testimony to the greed and foolishness of those women who chose to pursue such a career path. Her only contribution to society is to be remembered as the final woman to be hanged at Newgate Prison, before such practices were finally removed to the new penitentiary at Holloway, a truly miserable epitaph for any woman.  

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