Heather Welford writes about the tragic tale of Charles, a young child from South East Northumberland who was killed in a saddening turn of events. The following piece has been researched with care in relation to Heather's family history but does contain stories depicting violence upon a young child, which may affect some readers.
What would lead a young mother to kill her toddler child?
Why did this happen early one sunny morning in 1898, in a quiet, peaceful Northumberland village?
Butcher's wife Annie Rath, 25, killed her son Charles, not quite two years old, in the bedroom of the family home. I'm researching Annie's life and story, and while I'm clear what happened, any explanation will probably remain unknown.
The inquest into Charles' death took place in the Anvil Inn, Guide Post, Northumberland, on July 1, just two days after the murder. A week later, Newcastle Assizes heard an account of the event. Neither inquiry attempted any more than a brief nod to what might have prompted it.
Annie and her husband Johann had only moved to Guide Post, part of Choppington, earlier that year. She had grown up in Newcastle's densely-populated neighbourhoods near the river Tyne, where tightly-packed streets housed large families, many of the adults working on the quayside and in the nearby factories and sweatshops.
Johann was German, one of thousands of pork butchers who emigrated to England and Scotland from the middle of the 19th century onwards, escaping severe poverty and even famine. Most were not pork butchers by trade, but had grown up as subsistence farmers, knowing how to use , preserve and cook a family pig from nose to tail. Many came to Tyneside, and there were a couple of dozen German pork butcher shops on or near Scotswood Road, Newcastle, according to trade directories of the time.
But Johann's family moved from there, and he took an assistant butcher's job in Choppington, a quiet spot with a population of 4500, about 15 miles from the crowded streets of the city. They took upstairs rooms in a house at the heart of the village.
On the day of the murder, Johann had already been at work for an hour or so, when at 9 am, the downstairs neighbour Mrs Thompson came running into the shop. She urged him to come home immediately, as she'd heard 'cries, shouts and other noises' from the rooms above her.
Johann came straight back home, and in the bedroom, he discovered Charles, motionless, lying on a bed, blood pouring from a head wound. The fireside poker was on the floor. Annie was at the bedside, weeping, but otherwise now silent.
Her husband ran downstairs and into the street, where he asked a youth to fetch a doctor. On returning upstairs, he saw Charles take a few shallow breaths, and then stop breathing completely.
The local policeman came soon after the doctor, and both gave evidence, along with Mrs Thompson and Johann, at the inquest. Mrs Thompson said Annie confessed immediately to her: 'I did it – I did it myself with the poker.'
The local newspapers followed the story closely. Right from the start, the events are described as a 'tragedy' rather than anything more sensational. There was a sombre tone of sympathy, including for Annie, who was removed from the scene with the policeman, and spent a night in Bedlington police station. From there, she went to Newcastle gaol, and she was committed to Newcastle Assize court on July 7.
Three doctors gave medical evidence. Their view was that Annie was not fit to plead, guilty or not guilty, to murder, and as a result, the judge declared there would be no trial.
In late Victorian times, it was well-accepted that mental disorders were responsible for, and even excused, serious criminal acts.
Earlier in the century, social reformers had been horrified at how 'lunatics' were housed and treated. The 'Lunatics Commission' of 1844 ensured a system of inspection and minimum care standards of all asylums in England, and county authorities became responsible maintaining asylums everywhere. A charitable asylum had been in Newcastle city since 1765, taking inmates from Northumberland and Durham.
Contemporary descriptions of life and 'care' are far short of what we would deem acceptable in the 21st century, of course. But it was a huge improvement on what had gone on before.
Dr William McDowell, superintendent of the asylum in Morpeth, told the court Annie had suffered an attack of rheumatic fever some weeks before, and that this had led to her becoming ‘mentally afflicted’. Current knowledge is that rheumatic fever is a rare complication of a bacterial infection, affecting the heart, joints and limbs. The idea it can affect the brain seems to have disappeared.
Annie was sent to Broadmoor, opened 1863, the first English hospital for 'the criminally insane'. She was there for more than twenty years. When she was discharged, she lived with her niece Minnie Spires in Gateshead. Minnie and her husband Herbie ran the Deptford Hotel pub in Gateshead, and Annie helped pay for her keep by making sandwiches and pies for the customers. She died in 1929, aged 56.
Annie, nee Richardson, was my husband's great-great aunt. The bare bones of her story came to us via his aunt Mary, happily still with us, who recalls being soundly hushed when she asked questions about it as a little girl. We found the rest of it in local newspapers and in the Northumberland archives, where the handwritten record of the inquest still remains.
Heather Welford lives in Newcastle upon Tyne. She is a journalist and writer, and is now developing her interest in family history.
find more of Heather's work at www.heatherwelford.co.uk
German Pork Butchers in Britain by Sue Gibbons. Anglo-German Family History Society Publications. 2001
Tracing your Ancestors in Lunatic Asylums by Michelle Higgs. Pen and Sword. 2019