Bendall, unsure

Bendall, unsure            1881 November 26th           Trowbridge/Whiteparish

Attempted Child Murder and Attempted Suicide of the Mother

The little village of Whiteparish – a quiet, humdrum, rustic tything – has, it is feared, been the scene of a very distressing and painful case of child murder. The victim of the crime is an infant six or eight months old; the suspected perpetrator the child’s own mother, a poor unfortunate creature who, though the mother of nine children, is even yet not passed the meridian of life, and who endeavoured, when accused of the misdeed, to escape the consequences by wilfully destroying herself.

On Tuesday in last week, a young fellow named Bloomfield, observed the dead body of a child floating on the water in Cowesfield pond. The body – decomposed and discoloured – was soon dragged from the water, and placed in the custody of PS Gale. Gale, not recognising the child as belonging to or being connected with any of the villagers, prosecuted inquiries. There was no child missing.

Mr Superintendent Stephens, on being communicated with, at once caused extensive enquiries to be made. News of the discovery soon fled through the village; and presently it became rumoured that a strange woman having with her a child similarly apparelled had but a few days previous been seen in the neighbourhood.

The landlady of the “Three Crowns” inn, a hostelry in a neighbouring village of Whaddon, remembered a strange, weary, ill-looking woman calling upon her between the 2nd and the 5th of November., accompanied by an infant child clad exactly as the dead child. Her tale – a sad one of having left her home near Bath to discover a reprobate husband who had deserted her and was now supposed to be at Southampton – attracted the landlady’s pity. The poor little infant – clad in wet, uncomfortable clothes – was crying, and the compassionate lady gave it a biscuit soaked in milk. Calling her sister, the landlady asked her to bring some cold meat; and the woman, cutting the fat from it, gave it to the child. At about four o’clock the woman left, carrying her baby under a cloak, and an umbrella and a small parcel – containing some dry baby’s clothes which the landlady had given her – in her hands.

At about five, the attention of an old woman named Feltham was attracted to a strange weary woman who, carrying an umbrella under her arm and a small parcel in her hand, was slowly walking through the village in the direction of Cowesfield. Half-an-hour afterwards a man named Hatch – returning from his work at Cowesfield – passed a woman on the road, the woman holding an umbrella over her head and carrying something, the darkness would not allow him to distinguish what, on her arm. Later on still, as a lad urged his pony into the Cowesfield pond, he observed a woman seated on the bank tying up a small parcel. “Why the d—l don’t you keep in the middle of the road,” she somewhat fiercely exclaimed, the lad at the time imagining that she was afraid the pony would kick her.

These facts reaching Mr Supt Stephens ears, he carefully gathered up the threads. Continuing his inquiry he traced the same woman on to neighbouring villages – almost into Romsey. Suddenly he lost all trace. Retracing his steps, he discovered that a woman, similar in appearance and dress and accompanied by an infant child, had been observed coming from the direction of Trowbridge. He at once communicated with the constabulary there.

At Westbury they learnt that a woman, corresponding to the one they were in search of, had left the town accompanied by her child on the 1st, and on the 7th had returned, footsore, depressed and ill, without the child, informing her friends that she had agreed with a woman to pay 3s 6d a week for its keep.

This woman, they learnt, was at Messrs Laverton’s factory. Sergeant Priest and Inspector Hobbs proceeded to the premises. After making inquiries they requested to see the woman, whom they subsequently found to be Ruth Bendall. The woman, answering in all respects the communicated description, was brought before them. She asked to be allowed to put on her shawl, and at once stepped through the doorway for that purpose, the policemen imagining that there was no other mode of exit from the premises than that one. She, however, not returning, they became alarmed. Sergeant Priest went round behind, and soon learnt that the poor creature had attempted to escape the consequences of what was strongly suspected to be her crime by jumping into an adjoining pond with water 12ft deep.

Fortunately, her mad act was not unobserved. A boy who witnessed the deed had given the alarm to a workman, who had procured a boat and was attempting to drag her out. This was only done after considerable difficulty. Entangled in, or clutching, the weeds in the pond, it was only that she was rescued when life itself had almost departed. Insensible and in a wretched condition she was taken to the fire-engine house. Two medical men – Messrs Clutterbuck and Shorland – were soon in attendance, and after considerable difficulty she was restored to consciousness.

Ruth Bendall, the accused, has lived a life of unhappy vicissitudes. Though but 33 years of age, she is the mother of nine children, four of whom died young and another – of whom it is said she was very fond – but a few weeks before this event. Married early in life to a reprobate husband, she has several times been deserted by him. Some months since, he again left her, leaving five children dependant upon her efforts. Of these three – aged eleven, six and three – are now in Semington workhouse, where they have been for some time.

She found plenty of employment at Trowbridge – where she really belonged, Westbury and Bradford. Until towards the end of October she had been at work at Trowbridge, but she suddenly left that town and went to Westbury, five miles off. She obtained work at Messrs Laverton’s mills, and for a short time worked there, leaving her child, whose clothing there, it is said, corroborates with that found on the deceased, at her lodgings. On the 1st she suddenly left the town accompanied by the child. On the 7th she returned, suffering so severely from the evident effects of her journey that she was unable to wear her boots whilst at work. Indeed, between that time and her arrest she scarcely left the factory, except to return to her lodgings. She avoided all publicity; her meals were brought to her and her actions were all governed by apparent fear. Since her return she had been very reticent – evading conversation, communing only with herself, and speaking only when spoken to.

The evidence against the woman is purely circumstantial; but it is certainly strong. The trace of a woman answering her description from Westbury to Whiteparish has been clearly established. A carter, observing her dejected appearance, gave her and a child a lift at Wylye. At Wilton she was relieved, and indeed, stayed there the night of the 2nd. On the 3rd she was in Salisbury and remained there the night, on the morning of the 4th pursuing the road leading towards Whiteparish. At the “Three Crowns,” she rested for a brief space and the child partook of some food. Curious to relate, in the stomach of the dead body of the child was found a portion of undigested fat meat and carraway seeds.

The tracing is continued further on in the direction of Romsey, where the woman, whoever she was, arrived in a very exhausted condition. Surmise has it that she must have retraced her steps, for at Wylye the same carter who gave her a lift a few days before again met her. He addressed a few words to the poor dejected creature, but received no answer.

The Inquest

The inquest on the body was held at the “White Hart” inn, at Whiteparish, on Saturday, before Mr R M Wilson (county coroner) and a jury (of whom Mr John Holloway was foreman). Mr Superintendent Stephens watched proceedings on behalf of the police.

The first witness called was Mr John Bloomfield, a labourer, residing at Cowesfield. He deposed : Between seven and eight on the morning of Tuesday, the 15th inst, I was close to the edge of the pond on Cowesfield Green, and observed the dead body of the child in the water. Someone coming down the road I called to them, and, on their arrival, they pushed the child towards me with a stick, and I pulled it out upon the bank. The child was dressed in a brown skirt – originally white, perhaps, with a red hood and black socks. Leaving the body upon the bank, I went for a policeman. Together we afterwards returned to the pond. On the previous days of that week I had passed the pond, but had never seen the body. Had it been floating on the surface of the water I must have seen it.

PS Gale stated : I am stationed at Whiteparish. On Tuesday last from information I received from Walter Bloomfield I went to Cowesfield pond. I saw on the bank the dead body of a child. The body was clad in a dress of a brownish colour, a red hood, black worsted stockings and a coloured petticoat. After I brought the body down here, and Mr Ross, the local surgeon, saw it.

Mr Edward Alexander Ross, surgeon, of Whiteparish, said : I saw the body of a child on Tuesday last in this house. Judging from the appearance of the child, I should say it was between six and eight months old. It gave evidence of having been fairly nourished – though not well nourished. The body – which bore no marks of violence, was partially decomposed, the discolouration being especially apparent over the face and chest. I should not think, however, that it had been dead more than a week. There was nothing unusual in the external appearance of the body: the tongue was greatly swollen and slightly protruding between the teeth; the two lower teeth were cut; and the hands were clenched.

I made a post mortem examination. The lungs I found greatly distended, the bases congested, and small air bladders gathered the both. On cutting the lung, I found frothy mucus with blood escape. The heart was healthy – the left side, however, was completely empty, whilst the right was filled with a dark liquid flooding. The stomach contained undigested fat meat and carraway seeds. The mouth and the larynx contained mud and slime – not found either in the lungs or windpipe. These evidences lead me to the conclusion that the child was placed in the water alive, the condition of the lungs particularly emphasizing this.

A juror : Might not the body have been in the water longer than a week? Oh, yes.

Another juror : It generally comes up at the ninth day, doesn’t it? In the summer it may come up at the third or fourth, and in the winter between the twelfth or sixteenth; it, however, depends upon the state of the child. It is impossible to form a decided opinion as to the time it was in the water.

Mary Godwin, single woman, of Minstead, Hants, but at present staying with her sister, the landlady of the “Three Crowns” at Whaddon, deposed : Between Tuesday and Saturday in the week before last – and I am able to estimate that it was on either of the three intervening days because on Tuesday my sister’s servant girl left us and on Saturday my sister went to Salisbury, and I know it was between those days – a woman carrying a baby came into the “Three Crowns” at about half-past three in the afternoon. She was somewhere about thirty years of age. The child she carried was, so she said, about seven months old, and was dressed in clothes similar to that the last witness described the dead body as being clothed in. After listening to her story, my sister asked her if the child, which was crying, was hungry. She replied “I don’t know,” and my sister then gave the child a biscuit soaked in milk.

The biscuit was a soft one, and contained a number of carraway seeds. Afterwards my sister told me to go and cut some bread and meat, and the woman cutting off some pieces of fat meat gave it to the child. During her conversation with us, she said she was on the way to Southampton, where she hoped to find her husband, whom she believed was earning 5s a day in that town.

The Coroner : Did she say she had any more children? Yes, sir, and that she had left them with her mother.

The Coroner : Did she say how many she had? I can’t remember whether she said she had five or seven.

The Coroner : Did she say where her mother lived? I think she told us she came from Bristol or Bath or there vicinity. Indeed, I remember now I said to her “Is that near Bath?” and she replied “Yes.” I asked if she had walked all that way and she again replied in the affirmative.

The Coroner : Did she appear in depressed spirits? She seemed very low.

The Coroner : At what time did she leave your sister’s house? At about four.

The Coroner : Would you say the red hood is the very one the child had one or one very like it? It is certainly one very like it.

A juror : Didn’t your sister give this woman some clothes? Yes.

The Coroner : Did she put them upon the child at the time or take them away? Took them away. My sister, seeing the child’s clothes were wet, said “Take these, you will have some dry clothes to put on the child when you get to Southampton.”

Mary Feltham was next called, but she exhibited a great disinclination to being sworn. “No sir,” she said to the Coroner, “I only saw a woman for about a minute, and I shouldn’t like to say it was her.” “But,” replied Mr Wilson, “I only desire you to swear to the truth.” The woman at last, though not without considerable hesitancy, accepted the oath. She stated : I live at Whiteparish with my husband, whose name is Charles. A fortnight yesterday (the 4th inst) I saw a weary, ill-looking woman pass through the village going in the direction of Cowesfield.

The Coroner : How do you remember the day? It was a very wet day.

The Coroner : That I don’t dispute. But how can you say it was on a Friday and not on a Thursday? I can’t bring any particular proof. Yes, I can, though. There was a woman opposite ill and she had asked me to come over to her. At the time I was standing at my own gate. It was about five o’clock. The woman was walking very slowly. I didn’t speak to her. She was dressed in dark clothes but I could not distinguish the exact colour. In one hand she carried a little bundle and under her arm an umbrella. I can’t say whether she had a cloak on or whether she carried any other bundle.

The Coroner : Had she a child with her? I can’t say.

The Coroner : Did you see anything to make you believe she had anything under her cloak or clothes? I was on the left side of her and if she had anything under her right arm I could not see it.

The Coroner : What did you tell Mr Stephens, Mrs Feltham? Only what I have told you, sir.

Mr Stephens : Did you not tell me she appeared to be carrying something under her shawl?

The Coroner : Is that so? Yes, she appeared to be carrying something and walking very slowly.

The Coroner : Now, did you see anything under her cloak? I saw the woman pass with something in her hand and an umbrella. I can’t say if she had anything else.

The Coroner : Would the bundle you observed be large enough to conceal a child? No, it was but a small one she carried on her fingers.

Miss Godwin was recalled at this juncture, and deposed that the woman when she left her house carried both an umbrella and small bundle – the small bundle, indeed, contained the clothes her sister gave her. At first it apparently contained some small pieces of bread.

The Coroner : What did she do with the child when she left your house? She put something around it and then wrapped it in her own shawl. She put it under her own shawl because it rained.

The Coroner (to Mrs Feltham) : You can’t tell what it was she carried under her cloak? No, sir.

A juror : The only thing you noticed particularly was that she appeared very ill? Yes, sir.

Another juror : Would not this have been after tea? If it was the same as was at the “Three Crowns” – being apparently in a weak condition – she would scarcely got up there in the time.

Witness : Well, I think I had had tea.

Henry Lockyer, a lad who gave his evidence with considerable precision, deposed : I work with my father who is a blacksmith living in this neighbourhood. Yesterday fortnight I was returning on horseback from Rowden’s farm where I had been to shoe a horse, when, as I approached Cowesfield pond, I saw a woman dressed in dark clothes seated on the bank. I saw no baby; neither did I notice an umbrella. At the time the woman was tying up a small bundle. Anticipating my intention of riding through the water she shouted out to me “Why the d—l don’t you keep in the middle of the road.” I, believing she was afraid of the pony, told her it would not hurt her, and she replied, “Oh, I was afraid it might have kicked me.” After the pony had drank, I pursued my way, leaving her still sitting on the bank of the pond.

The Coroner : If you were to see the same woman do you think you would be able to recognise her? I don’t think I should.

The Coroner : Where was she sitting? At the upper end of the pond.

A juror : And it was not ten yards form there that the baby was found.

Bloomfield, recalled, stated that the body when he observed it was at the upper end of the pond.

James Hatch, a labourer, whose work takes him every day from Whiteparish to Cowesfield, stated : On the 4th of November – and I remember it because it was the day before the Guy Faux celebration – I was returning from Cowesfield at about half past five in the evening, when, at about 300 yards on the Whiteparish side from the pond, I met a woman carrying something in her left arm. In her right hand she carried an umbrella which protected her from the rain. Of course, I can’t say what was in the bundle as it was quite dusk. I saw no other small bundle.

This concluded the evidence, and the Coroner, in presenting the facts, said it was the duty of the jury in a coroner’s inquiry to ascertain how the person upon whose body they were holding the inquest came by his or her death. And having discovered that, if they were of opinion that the person came by his or her death through the act of any human being, it was their duty to ascertain who that human being was.

This case, he feared, pointed but to one conclusion. First of all, they had the evidence of Bloomfield, who described the clothes the child wore – a description that enabled Miss Godwin, who gave her evidence with remarkable clearness, to partially identify the child as one which a suspected woman brought to her sister’s house.

The evidence of Mr Ross followed, and whilst important from a medical point of view, was the more important because it added to the chain of identification – the stomach at the time contained undigested fat meat and carraway seeds, and curious to relate the landlady of the “Three Crowns” gave the child a carraway seed biscuit and the woman some meat, the woman afterwards giving the child the fat portion. Above this, Mr Ross from the symptoms was able to arrive at the conclusion that the child was thrown into the water whilst alive. He (the Coroner) said “thrown” because if the child was in the custody of some person it could not have got into the water by itself.

Mrs Feltham – who, unlike Mary Godwin, was not an example of the fact that women as a rule gave their evidence better than men – afterwards stated that she observed a woman, corresponding curiously to the woman who went into the “Three Crowns,” pass her in the village carrying an umbrella and a small parcel. Later on, and the time very wonderfully corroborated, a woman carrying a bundle – perhaps the child – and an umbrella was seen by Hatch; and, later on still, a woman – again dressed in black – was seen on the edge of the Cowesfield pond.

This was sufficient evidence to enable to jury to arrive at a conclusion; and he was informed by Mr Supt Stephens, who had exerted himself extremely in ascertaining to whom the child belonged, that he had every expectation of proving who the woman and who the mother was. Of that they had no evidence. Justices of the peace thought matters of this kind were much better investigated by them than at the coroner’s inquest. That, however, was a matter of opinion. But after all, if he adjourned the present inquiry in order to get all those witnesses from where he could not tell it would be putting them to great trouble and the county to considerable and needless expense, considering the whole matter would have to be recapitulated before the magistrates.

Formerly they used to be content to let the coroner complete; but now, the whole matter having to be re-gone into, he did not see why, they having ascertained how this child came by its death, they should not return a verdict – “that the child came by its death by being murdered by some persons unknown.” To them as yet the identity had been proved and established. Personally, however, he had not the least objection to investigate this further. It was entirely a matter for them to consider.

The foreman : I think there is sufficient evidence for us to decide as to the cause of death, and leave it to the magistrates as to who is the culprit.

The Coroner : I suppose, Mr Stephens, if that were the verdict, you would consider it your duty to carry the matter further?

Mr Stephens : I may say I am in a position to do so.

The jury then returned an open verdict – “That some person or persons unknown did wilfully, feloniously and of malice aforethought, cruelly murder the said child by throwing it into a pond at Cowesfield, in the parish of Whiteparish, in the county of Wilts, on Friday, the 14th of November instant.”

On Tuesday, at the County Petty Sessions, before the Right Hon. The Earl of Radnor, the Right Hon. The Earl of Pembroke and other magistrates, Mr Supt Stephens applied for a formal remand of the accused. Bendall herself was unable to be present owing to her extreme weakness and debility – an illness resulting from her serious attempt at suicide. The remand was granted.

Magistrates Hearing 1881 December 3rd

I will not recap this evidence. The accused was accompanied by two or three female attendants, and, “the prisoner – though in her 33rd year almost girl-like in appearance – presented a very sad and dejected appearance. Her face was wan and thin, her eyes heavy and large. Taking little or no notice of what occurred around her, she from time to time would lift her eyes almost beseechingly to the face of Mr Jones, a solicitor of Bradford, who watched the case on her behalf.”

Thirteen witnesses were gone through, taking several hours, mostly tracing the journey from Westbury to Whiteparish. Mr Ross, the surgeon, was cross-examined to a certain extent, admitting that he had not done a post mortem of this type before.

Mr Jones summing up for the defence was as follows :

He said before the charge was formally read to the prisoner he wished the Bench to consider carefully whether there was any case whatever to go to a jury. Was there any evidence at all to show that the child came to its death from drowning? It was perfectly clear that the prisoner had throughout treated the child with the utmost care, kindness and consideration. What motive therefore could she have had for destroying it? And did not the medical testimony show that the appearances which presented themselves were compatible with the theory of the defence that the death of the child arose from convulsions. He asked the Bench, therefore, seriously to pause before committing the prisoner for trial on so terribly serious a charge as that of Wilful Murder.”

The prisoner was committed to the next assizes on a charge of Wilful Murder.

Assizes Trial 1882 January 14th

Most of the evidence was gone over again at this trial. Then,

These were the facts adduced at the time of the sad occurrence. Mr Norris – who defended – now asked for the motive for the crime. The case was stopped by Mr Justice Bowen without calling upon Mr Norris for the defence; and the woman was formally acquitted.

FreeBMD shows the birth of a Frederick William Bendall at Melksham in Apr-Jun 1881; this is probably her baby. The April 1881 census shows Ruth with her baby in Semington workhouse, and her three other children also there (though of course separate from her).


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