Local historian Keith Johnson recalls the story of the servant girl accused of setting fire to her mistress's home in Preston.
Miss Jane Harris, schoolmistress, living at 21, Frenchwood Street in Preston, was awakened early on the third Sunday of March 1879 by a suffocating smell of burning.
Clad in her dressing gown she hastily left her room and discovered a quantity of turf and paper smouldering on the stairs carpet that had partially burnt away. She stamped out the fire and went downstairs into the dining room, where she found a lighted candle laid on the carpet.
This she put out, and then went into the kitchen where she found the gas lighted and the wooden bracket turned and on fire. She succeeded in putting out the flames, and gave the alarm upstairs.
It was later discovered that Annie Lindley, aged 14, a domestic servant who lived in, was missing. It appeared she had left the house by the cellar grate, and had taken with her a quantity of goods in a box that belonged to Miss Harris.
The girl was apprehended the same day and Chief Constable Oglethorpe was in communication with her
parents in Manchester and made them aware she was remanded in custody.
Within a fortnight Annie Lindley appeared at the Manchester Assizes before Mr Justice James Stephens accused of unlawfully and feloniously setting fire to a dwelling house and stealing a watch and other items from the property. She pleaded guilty as charged and, after hearing the depositions, the judge commented that it was a very extraordinary case and before sentencing he would like to hear some explanation.
Miss Harris, who was called at the request of the Judge, testified that the prisoner had been in her service six months. She had a good character, had no bad companions, and she could not
account for her conduct.
The girl’s father, who was a gardener, was next called. He stated that his daughter had been a little strange in her head of late, and had been attended by Dr. Renshaw of Sale. The proceedings finished for the day with the father directed to get the doctor to attend court before he passed sentence.
The next day Dr. Renshaw took to the witness box and testified that he had attended the girl two years earlier.
Having at the time observed that she had, besides suffering from acute rheumatism, most peculiar mental symptoms and he thought it highly likely they had recurred, as she was at a critical time of life.
After much consideration and conversation with her father, Justice Stephens handed the girl a caution and liberated her into her parents’ care on the understanding that they enter into recognisances to appear whenever called upon.
He concluded by saying that he felt bound to act as any father of children would wish him to do, and sent the girl home to her parents under strict supervision.