Preston woman jailed for six months after trying to kill her child in a shocking case from yesteryear

Local historian Keith Johnson looks back at a court case that heard how a woman was stopped from choking her child by a passer-by.

Thursday, 11th February 2021, 3:45 pm
Fletcher Road in Deepdale where the incident took place
Fletcher Road in Deepdale where the incident took place

At the Preston police court on the first Wednesday of August 1859 Elizabeth Dixon, described by a court reporter as a bad looking female, appeared in the dock charged with attempting to destroy her infant child by strangulation.

Mr. Blackhurst led the prosecution case and he called a youth named Thomas Walmsley who worked at Mr. Goodair’s factory on Peel Hall Street. He told the court as he was leaving work at about 6 o’clock the previous evening and walking along Fletcher Road he saw the accused who had a child in her arms.

She had an handkerchief round the infant’s neck, and was pressing it’s head with one hand and pulling at the handkerchief with the other. In his opinion she was behaving in a brutal manner so he approached her telling her to stop it.

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Swearing and cursing she told him it was none of his business and fearing the child was choking he tried unsuccessfully to get the infant from her.

A young lad named William Levett was then called and he corroborated Walmsley’s account of the incident and stated that he had pleaded with her to cease her unruly behaviour, only to receive verbal abuse off the woman.

P.C. Barton then testified that he was in the neighbourhood and observed the commotion, which had attracted a number of bystanders, and fearing for the infant’s safety, with the help of others, he took it from her grasp. He told the woman, who appeared intoxicated, she was under arrest for ill treating the child. After calling for assistance he arranged for the woman and the child to be taken to the Earl Street police station.

A female named Elizabeth Byrnes told the court that on the Tuesday morning she had heard the prisoner talking about a recent child murder at Burnley and claimed she had said people make away with their children nowadays and only get six months in prison.

Supt. Gibbons, the chief constable, then testified that he arranged for surgeon Dr. Moore to examine the child in his company. The surgeon concluding that although there were no visible marks upon the infant it was clearly distressed. The surgeon arranging for the child to have a warm bath and to be kept under observation that night. During the night the child had a couple of fitful spasms.

In her defence the prisoner told the court that her child was frightened to death by the manner it was dragged from her. She claimed that Elizabeth Byrnes, despite being on oath, had spoken untruthfully and that she herself had said that child killers should be hung. She denied abusing the child and described claims that she wanted to kill the infant as nonsense.

The Mayor, William Birley, then held a short consultation with the other magistrates before addressing the prisoner in a stern manner. Telling her that her conduct had been exceedingly disgraceful and that such cruel treatment could have killed the child. He then stated that he had no alternative but to commit her to the House of Correction for six months.