Desperate Lancashire woman drowned her baby so she could wed

Local historian Keith Johnson looks back at the tragic killing of a young girl by her mother...
Lancaster Railway Station where mother and child were spottedLancaster Railway Station where mother and child were spotted
Lancaster Railway Station where mother and child were spotted

In mid-November 1872 the body of a female child, of about 14 months, dressed in a cotton frock, was found drowned in a pond at Aldcliffe, near Lancaster and a hunt for the killer got under way.

On the previous Friday afternoon, a good looking young woman, aged about 25, and wearing a brown cloth jacket, black hat and veil and a green plaid skirt had been seen carrying a child and heading towards Aldcliffe.

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A young girl who observed her movements through the fields had seen her with the child and later without it in the vicinity of the pond close to Aldcliffe Hall.

The woman had been seen at Lancaster Railway Station and had left luggage there which she collected later in the day. Initially, it was thought she came from Preston and a photograph of the child was forwarded to all the county police stations. Fortunately, the news of the killing eventually reached the attention of Mrs. Dawes of Castle Hill, Lancaster and she recalled a woman having called at her house asking for a cup of tea on the Friday afternoon.

The woman had told her she was very tired after making a long journey from 12 miles beyond Manchester and was heading to Carlisle to visit friends.

The county police, based at Preston, upon hearing this evidence dispatched a couple of officers to Carlisle where they discovered that the woman had been in lodgings there for a whole week, leaving on the Friday. Supt. Jarvis then undertook to track her down tracing her journey to Manchester, then Cheadle, and thence to Northenden in Cheshire where she had taken a room for the night. Early next morning the officer knocked on her door and charged her with the crime, which she denied.

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Within days the woman, named as Mary Elizabeth Davidson, was in court accused of the murder of her illegitimate child Caroline Davidson. Evidence gathered revealed that she had been in the service of a Mrs. Groves who lived in Salford and that since that time in April 1872 had left her child in the care of a Mrs. Taaffe in Salford who she paid 4 shillings a week.

Whilst working for Mrs. Groves, who also had a country house in Cheshire, she had made the acquaintance of a young man named Gresty, the son of a Cheshire market gardener, and the pair had become engaged, although he knew nothing of her child.

The trial of Miss Davidson took place at the Lancaster Spring Assizes in mid-March 1873 before Mr Justice Archibald and the prosecution claimed that she had resolved to get rid of her child. Suggesting that it was costing her a small fortune in child care costs, and that the child’s death would enable her to marry her suitor free of any obligations. In her defence it was argued that whilst she was in state of anxiety she had thrown the child in the pond and that nothing was premeditated about her actions.

The jury were absent for about 10 minutes and when they returned the foreman Richard Gardner, a Preston corn merchant, of Mill House, Walton-le-Dale, announced a verdict of guilty of wilful murder, with a recommendation for mercy. Mr. Justice Archibald then proceeded to pass sentence of death, remarking that the crime had been deliberate and made him shudder.

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His Lordship concluded by saying it was not in his power to extend mercy. She was then taken from the dock amidst silence.

Richard Gardener immediately sent a letter to the Home Secretary outlining his view of the trial and stating that the members of jury had all felt the convicted woman deserved to have her life spared. Within days he received notice from the Home Secretary that he had advised Her Majesty Queen Victoria that the Capital Sentence be commuted to Penal Servitude for Life.

Memories of the sad events of 1872 were recalled in early March 1893 when it was announced that Mary Davidson had been released from prison, after serving twenty years behind bars. Family and friends greeting her upon her release.