Newborn baby’s body found in water butt

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Today we being a three-part series of misery tales to welcome in the New Year

THE discovery of the body of a newborn baby in a water butt at Yarm sparked a police investigation leading all the way to Wearside – and a trial that never was.

“Now if that is a conundrum, then so was Miss Henrietta Mackay, one time governess and the lady accused of the little boy’s death,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.

Mackay had mysteriously vanished from the employ of the Sanderson family, of Stockton, in the spring of 1860 – turning up at a Wearside lodging house weeks later.

“Following her disappearance our Miss had suddenly acquired a wedding ring, the title of Mrs and a rather noticeable bulge under her crinolines,” said Norman.

The landlady of the Whitburn Street lodging house, Mrs Shield, quickly took young Henrietta under her wing, listening patiently to her lengthy tales of marriage woes.

Indeed, the kindly Monkwearmouth woman was even present when Henrietta gave birth to baby boy on July 3, 1860 – lavishing care and attention on both mother and son.

But, when Mrs Shield noticed that Henrietta was not suckling the child, she enquired as to the reason. “I can’t,” replied Henrietta, citing some strange family illness.

“No doubt concerned, the landlady made a return visit to her lodger on July 8, but found something was missing – the baby,” said Norman, a former police inspector.

“Not having seen any comings or goings, the landlady’s fears escalated – but Mackay provided a suitable explanation. Her husband’s family had taken the little lad away.

“Well, that was one problem explained away quite nicely, and Mrs Shield went about her business fear-free – until, that is, Henrietta did a moonlight flit two days later.

“She was last seen shuffling off towards Fawcett Street Station, carrying a very heavy carpet bag and a hat box, before boarding a train headed for her home town of Yarm.”

Henrietta popped in to see her friend Mr Wray, who lived close to the station, after arriving in Yarm. Tragically, the body of a baby was later found in Wray’s water butt.

The former governess was immediately arrested and forced to appear at an inquest into the child’s death, which was held in the waiting room of Yarm’s railway station.

“What have you done with the baby?” was the coroner’s first question. Henrietta played ignorant, replying that she had left him with her alleged “friend”, Mrs Mason.

When pushed, however, the supposedly grieving woman could recount no details at all about the fictitious Mason woman. It was, therefore, time for a change of story.

“No, no,” she mitigated. “The truth is I overlaid – and the bairn got killed.”

“Overlaying was common in Victorian times, causing many deaths,” said Norman. “Large numbers on one bed meant the smallest could be laid upon and suffocated.

“But two things went against Henrietta’s story – the fact the child had head and chest injuries, and the fact his body had been weighted down in the water butt by a large rock.

“Hardly the actions of an innocent woman.”

Further enquiries were deemed necessary and, as the death was presumed to have occurred in Monkwearmouth, Henrietta was taken for questioning in Sunderland.

Her former landlady, Mrs Shield, was duly knocked out of bed too, and the room in which Henrietta had stayed was examined. The bed proved of particular interest.

“Whilst there were no signs of violence, detectives noted that the bed was of the soft straw type, and was covered not in sheets, but in a piece of canvas,” said Norman.

“Doctors could not agree, but it was just possible that this type of bed could result in overlaying.”

There was some question, too, over the identity of the dead baby. Solicitors acting on Henrietta’s behalf demanded to know what evidence there was to tie her to the child.

Very little, however, was forthcoming from detectives – but magistrates still waved all identification concerns aside and committed Henrietta for trial on a charge of murder.

“The poor woman, obviously still in shock, sat throughout the hearing with a veil over her face – while angry mobs in the courtroom bayed for blood,” said Norman.

“At least there would be more decorum at Durham Assizes.”

Many jurors believed Henrietta to be guilty. Had she not repeatedly lied? And, if the baby wasn’t hers, why had it been wrapped in flannel stolen from her old lodging house?

On the day of her trial however, the judge decided to drop the matter. Henrietta was released without further blemish to her character, and allowed to go back to Yarm.

Innocent or just plain lucky? Probably the latter.

“All the evidence certainly pointed towards her son being battered to death, wrapped in a flannel, stuffed in a carpet bag and left to rot in a water butt,” said Norman. “But, the learned gentlemen of the court did not see it quite that way and, in not pursuing the murder charge, Henrietta’s son was denied the justice that he deserved.

“That many in Sunderland were left scratching their heads in disbelief goes without saying. That Henrietta Mackay escaped her fate simply beggars belief.

“But that’s the law for you!”