Mother acquitted of Morecambe baby murder despite ‘strong’ evidence against her
Local historian Keith Johnson looks back at the tragic and mysterious drowning of a baby...
Preston barrister Ernest Wingate-Saul had a formidable task in early November 1905 when he was assigned to defend widow Matilda Arnold, aged 35, at the Lancaster Assizes.
She was accused of the murder of her female child at Morecambe in the second week of September.
The body of the infant had been found floating in 10 inches of water in a ditch on White Lund Road, near Torrisholme, in mid-October.
At the inquest that followed Dr. Clegg of Morecambe stated that the naked body was up to a week old and well developed and showed no evidence of injury.
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In his opinion that child had lived and cause of death was drowning.
Agnes Dixon, a plumber’s wife from Morecambe, told the inquest that Arnold had come to lodge at her house in Hanover Street for a week in early September and on the Tuesday she gave birth to a child, with a local midwife assisting.
A couple of days later she told her she had made arrangements for the infant to be looked after by a couple in Lancaster who had recently lost a child.
On the following Sunday she left the lodging house saying that she was off to Lancaster by train with the baby.
It was then stated that the distance from the lodging house to where the body was recovered was just over a mile and that according to the Morecambe railway station clerk Matilda Arnold had not purchased a ticket for the Sunday morning train to Lancaster.
P.S. Christie spoke of recovering the body from the ditch and of his arresting of the accused at Bristol where she had resumed her work as a wardrobe mistress with the touring Compton Comedy Company within days of leaving Morecambe.
Throughout her conversations with the police she denied all knowledge of the affair and when the deputy coroner Mr. Holden asked if she wished to speak she declined the invitation.
After some discussions and a concern by some members of the jury that someone else could have been involved, a verdict of ‘Wilful Murder’ was recorded against Arnold.
The Grand Jury at the Lancaster Assizes had no hesitation in delivering a true bill against the accused as she pleaded not guilty.
The prosecution case seemed overwhelming with identification of her attendance at the lodging house and testimony that she had taken away the child and then gone to resume her employment with the theatre company without mention of her confinement.
According to P.S. Christie she had when asked if she wished to see the child remarked, “I never touched it when alive, and I don’t want to see it now.”
It was then stated that the clothes worn by the child when taken away from Morecambe had been discovered in a box in the theatre company’s wardrobe.
In her defence Mr. Wingate-Saul contended that there was not sufficient evidence of identification, including the fact that Mrs. Dixon when taken to see the body of the child could not swear that it was that of the child born in her house.
Throughout the trial the accused chose not to speak.
In his summing up His Lordship Mr. Justice Ridley made it clear he considered the evidence strong in fact and deduction.
Nonetheless, the jury after an absence of only 20 minutes returned with a verdict of not guilty. Perhaps the reality that if she had been found guilty she would be sentenced to death persuaded the jury to decide otherwise.
It was an unexpected outcome for Mr. Wingate-Saul who in later life was the Recorder of Preston from 1921-28.