Local historian Keith Johnson takes a look back at a tragic and horrific tale from the turn of the 20th century...
On the last Tuesday of May 1901 in a whitewashed, old fashioned little cottage, ten miles from Preston and within three miles of Garstang a shocking tragedy took place.
That morning Edwin Simpson, a miller, asked his wife if she and their three children would go with him to Calder Vale, where a Whitsuntide festival was being held. She refused, preferring to stay with the children at their Sandholme Lane home in Barnacre to do the weekly washing. Disappointed at the rebuff he resolved to go alone to Morecambe for the day, his wife raising no objection.
When Mr. Simpson returned at 10 o’clock that evening, he discovered, to his amazement, that the house was in darkness. Entering, he met his wife, who asked if he wanted any supper, she having prepared a glass of milk and sandwiches.
Mr. Simpson then noticed his wife was wearing a black dress, and that her hair was wet and pinned up. He then began to tell her he had brought some sticks of rock home for the children, but before he completed his sentence she interrupted him saying, “I have drowned them, they are in the bedroom upstairs.”
Turning up the lamp he rushed immediately into the bedroom and found their three children lying on the bed. They were wet, fully clothed, and their hair had been carefully parted, as was her custom after bathing the little ones. Life was extinct and his attempts to revive them were in vain. A dolly tub, half filled with water, stood at the bottom of the bed.
The distraught husband then confronted his wife asking her, “Whatever have you done it for?”. She gave no reply and taking her by the arm he hurried to the nearby Sandholme Mill, the home of his employer Mr. Smith, where he told of the terrible tragedy that had befallen his family. The police were at once alerted and the deaths of Annie, aged four, Florence, aged three, and Allan Edwin, aged three months, were sadly confirmed.
Shortly before midnight Mary Annie Simpson, aged 25, was formally arrested and the coroner informed. She was brought before the Garstang magistrates the following morning and charged with the murder of her three children. It was claimed she had drowned the three infants separately and then unsuccessfully attempted to take her own life. The magistrates ordered her to be detained in Preston Gaol.
Mr. Smith, who had employed the husband for many years, was as stunned as the rest of the neighbourhood at the tragic events as he felt they were a happy couple.
Telling startled folk, “They had as bonny a home as ever was, and the prettiest children in the whole countryside; and they lived as happily as man and wife could do. Never a cross word went between them.”
Mrs. Simpson’s next appearance before the magistrates ended with her being ordered for trial at the next Lancaster Assizes in early July 1901. At the Assizes she who looked very pale, was brought into the dock flanked by two female warders.
Mr. Justice Ridley stated that the first question was if the woman was fit to plead. Under his directions Dr. Moore, the medical officer of Preston Gaol, was called.
He told the court that since late May she had been under his medical supervision and had appeared dull, listless, apathetic, and entirely indifferent to her surroundings.
She had taken no interest in anything, did not realise her position and was incapable of giving instructions. His diagnosis was confirmed by Dr. Percival of the Whittingham Asylum who was sure she was not fit to plead.
His Lordship then announced that the order of the court would be that Mary Annie Simpson be kept in strict custody until His Majesty’s Pleasure be known.
Showing no emotion the prisoner was removed from the dock.