Family Lessons 10: the Brookholme Murder

My great, great aunt suspected a murder of having taken place on, or close to, the family farm, back in 1872. Remarkably, she was only six years old when she reported to her father, my 3x great grandfather, that a strange woman who had asked directions while holding a child, was seen an hour later without her.

The newspaper report, below, is from 1893, and reports the murderer’s release from prison, twenty tears later. For those disinclined to read the details, I’ll offer a brief summary here:

  • The woman, Miss Davidson, from Salford, killed her child, Caroline, by drowning in a pond by the farm.
  • The police were notified of the missing child, and traced the murderer’s movements to the railway station, and from thence to Carlisle, then back down to Cheshire, where she was arrested.
  • She was found guilty of murder at the Lancaster Assizes the following March.
  • She was spared hanging, on account of her age and circumstances, and petitions for clemency sent to HM government.
  • She was released after twenty years.

Further research reveals that she was having to pay 4 shillings a week for the child’s care, and the little girl's existence was preventing the mother from marrying her current sweetheart. Desposing of the child would both save her the expense and allow her desired marriage. Sadly, the murder incurred her twenty years of her life and the very marriage she had calculated would be hers.  

The jury at her trial took only ten minutes to determine her guilt, but the foreman, Richard Gardner, a Walton-le-Dale corn merchant, recommended mercy. Mr Justice Archibald, the judge, accepted the verdict, but rejected the recommendation, and passed sentence of death, remarking that the crime had ‘made him shudder’. It was Mr Gardner himself who then wrote to the Home Secretary, Mr Robert Low, MP, telling him that the jury felt that Miss Davidson's life should be spared. Days later, the Home Secretary replied that he had advised Queen Victoria that the capital sentence be commuted to Penal Servitude for Life, with a minimal term of twenty years.

It seems remarkable that the jury’s foreman -who pronounced her guilty- should concurrently request mercy on her behalf. We have here a surprising example of Victorian compassion for a single mother, but also of a profound theological truth. The gospel declares that a righteous God finds us all guilty of sin, yet it is He Himself who also calls for mercy. The God who shall judge the world for its evil is also the God who hung upon a cross that He might bear the penalty that His own righteousness imposed. Whereas justice demands that the sinner must die, it is overruled by a higher power, the law of atonement, which declares Christ’s death is sufficient to commute the sentences we so very much deserve. Oh, and it is not merely reduced to penal servitude, for we are adopted as sons and daughters of the very Judge whose mercy we receive.

For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit. 1 Peter 3:18

Release of Mary Davidson: Lancaster Gazette, 11 March, 1893:

The release of Mary Davidson, domestic servant, who was convicted of the murder of her illegitimate child at Lancaster Assizes on 11 March 1873 is announced. The case excited a great deal of interest at the time in Lancaster and will no doubt be remembered by many of our readers.

The prisoner resided at Salford and left her home to go to Carlisle on the 8th November 1872 taking with her child. She broke her journey at Lancaster and had then her baby with her. She was seen at Brookholme Farm by Jane Airey, an intelligent little girl, six years of age, the daughter of Mr George Airey, who then kept the farm. She saw Davidson in the farm yard with a little girl in her arms. Davidson enquired the way to Aldcliffe and the servant, Mary Halstead, directed her to go along the field bottom. The little girl on looking through the window some time afterwards, saw her still on the field bottom. An hour later, Jane Airey saw the woman in a field called Brocker and she had no child with her then. The girl told her father, Mr Airey, what she had noticed and information was given to the county police. The girl and the servant both identified the prisoner as the woman they had seen. One of the ponds near Aldcliffe Hall was dragged and the body of a child was recovered.

The movements of the woman were traced to Castle Station and thence by rail to Carlisle. Mr Supt. Jervis having got trace of the suspected person, followed her to Carlisle. He had obtained a description of her dress from the Brookholme witnesses. Ultimately he apprehended Davidson on the 18th November at Northendon in Cheshire. When apprehended and charged she said “No it’s not me; I never had a little girl”.

The prisoner was convicted at the March Assizes 1873 and sentenced to death. Great interest was taken in her case on account of her misfortune and her age. When convicted she was only twenty one and her child twelve months old. Petitions were got up for a reprieve, and they were fortunately successful, the sentence being commuted to penal servitude for life. Twenty years imprisonment expired today, Saturday. The attention of Mr Williamson MP, the member for this division, was drawn to this fact. He laid the matter before the Home Secretary, and a few days ago the prisoner was released, and is now with her friends.

Image by Prawny from Pixabay. Thanks to Keith Johnson and Henry Widdas, Lancashire Evening Post, and the Lancaster Gazette