Woman disappeared in Preston after drowning her new-born baby

Local historian Keith Johnson looks back at the tragic death of a baby found drowned in a brook.

By Henry Widdas, Communities Content Page Manager
Thursday, 17th February 2022, 4:35 pm
Updated Thursday, 17th February 2022, 4:36 pm
The stranger at the Unicorn Inn aroused suspicions
The stranger at the Unicorn Inn aroused suspicions

In the 19th century the Preston Overseers worked tirelessly to care for the poor of Preston not only helping in providing food and shelter, but also on hand for any medical emergency, giving their services willingly.

On the second Monday of May 1847 a heavily pregnant woman arrived at their Lord Street premises and local surgeon Mr. Corless was immediately sent for. Within a couple of hours she was delivered of a fine healthy looking baby girl.

She told the Overseers that her name was Bridget Ferguson, that she had been lodging overnight in Preston and that she was on her way to St. Helens to join her husband and hoping to sail to America. There was a certain anxiety about her and despite the surgeon’s advice to stay sheltered she went on her way on the Wednesday morning.

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On the following Friday Seth Orrell serving at the Unicorn Inn in Walton-le-Dale had an early morning visitor when a woman wearing a blue cloth cloak, with a child in arms and speaking with an Irish accent entered the inn asking for a pennyworth of gin to treat her sickly infant.

She told him she was heading to Darwen in search of the child’s father.

On the following Monday afternoon as two boys were playing in the meadow, near the bridge crossing Gregson Lane brook they discovered a child’s body in the water. One of the lads immediately gave the alarm, and the body was removed to the house of local farmer William Slater.

On the next day an inquest was held at the home of the farmer before deputy coroner Joseph Walker. Farmer John Bull told the hearing that he had gone to the scene and recovered the dead body of the child from the brook. The body wrapped in flannel being face down in six inches of water and partially covered with sand.

Seth Orrell testified that he had served the stranger at the inn on the Saturday morning and that later on Saturday afternoon the woman had passed by the inn again, but she had no child with her. William Crook then testified that he had earlier seen a woman wearing a blue cloak seated on the bridge over the brook holding a child wrapped in flannel.

Elizabeth Hayhurst was next to be called and she testified as to also seeing the woman who was at the time suckling the child. She had asked her the way to Blackburn and she described her as a fresh looking woman of about 35 years of age with an Irish accent.

Mr. Spencer, a Preston surgeon, had made a post mortem examination and he considered the child to be less than a fortnight old. Stating that the colour of the child’s skin was livid and had the appearance of being in the water a couple of days.

Upon the child’s face there were three abrasions, but the internal organs appeared perfect, except for the blood vessels of the brain that were congested. He considered that death was due to submersion in water.

The jury after a short deliberation returned with a verdict of ‘Wilful Murder against some woman unknown’.

Following the inquest every exertion was made to apprehend the child’s mother.

It was ascertained that she was the same woman who had given birth to the child at the Overseers office.

It was reported that she had been seen back in Preston late on the Saturday night, but not heard of afterwards.

Her description was circulated describing her as of low stature, with dark brown hair, dark green eyes and a rounded freckled face.

Despite the best efforts of the Lancashire County police the search for her was to prove fruitless.

What her final fate was remained a mystery, perhaps she had been reunited with her husband and sailed to America to flee the consequences of her cruel action.