Near to Cornwall’s border with Devon sits the little coastal village of Portwrinkle, at the western end of Whitsand Bay. Although it was traditionally a fishing village, there was also a lot of farming. My 2x great-grandfather, William Stribling, was born in North Devon but moved south and settled in Portwrinkle after his 1851 marriage in Stoke Damerel.
One of William’s daughters was Emma, born in 1857. In 1877, Emma gave birth to an illegitimate son whose death was registered in the same quarter in which he was born. Emma then found employment as a domestic servant with a family in nearby Antony who owned a chemical manure factory in the area.
Emma is listed with them on the 1881 census, and it may be worth noting that the family had a son of a similar age to her…
Being unable to find Emma on subsequent censuses, or a marriage or death for her, I looked at other records and discovered her name on the Calendar of Prisoners Tried at the Assizes (via FindMyPast). The record showed that she had been taken into custody on 10 August 1881, held at HM Prison Bodmin, and tried on 2 November 1881. The charge read,”Wilfully and of her malice aforethought killing and murdering a certain child, whose name is unknown, at the parish of Antony, on the 21st July, 1881.” Most, if not all, genealogists find skeletons in their own cupboards, or black sheep in their families, but child murder was a bit of a shock!
However, when I saw that she had only been found guilty of concealing the birth of a child and sentenced to just one day without hard labour, I began to put two and two together. Was it possible that she had given birth, alone, to either a stillborn child or one who had not lived for long?
There were plenty of newspaper reports to read. From them, I was able to piece Emma’s story together. The mistress of the house had been away visiting friends for six months and, on her return, noticed that Emma didn’t look well and had put on some weight. She asked Emma if she was ‘in the family way’ but Emma insisted that she wasn’t. The mistress sent Emma to her room to rest and visited her several times, but found nothing amiss. The following day, the family’s char thought that Emma seemed unwell, even though she had swept the dining room and washed some sheets. The mistress of the house was still suspicious and sent Emma home to her parents in a trap. Among the belongings she took with her was a bandbox bound with cord and wrapped in her ulster (a thick, heavy overcoat).
On the journey home, Emma asked the driver to stop the trap as she had something to deliver to a nearby farm. She left the trap with the bandbox and returned without it, and continued her journey home. Sometime later, the police discovered the box, in fragments, covered with blood, and the body of a newborn baby nearby. The baby had some marks on her upper chest/lower throat area which could have been caused by fingers. The baby was full-term and, after conducting a post mortem, the coroner decreed that the child had breathed and had a separate existence from the mother. He also stated that the condition of the body was consistent with having been strangled. He had seen Emma recently, and noted that she looked pale and weak, as if she had recently been delivered of a child. So Emma was charged with the wilful murder of her child and held in custody for almost three months until the Assizes the following November.
The presiding Judge stated that if the mother was having a difficult birth – and particularly as she was alone at the time, scared and panicking – she could easily have made marks on the child while it was breathing but not yet fully born. He advised that the jury should not return a verdict of guilty on the charge of murder. Both the prosecutor and the defender agreed to leave the case in the Judge’s hands, and when the Judge summed up the case, he stated that the evidence was inadequate, and insufficient to convict Emma of wilful murder. However, he did say that the jury, if they saw fit, could find her guilty of concealing a birth.
This is what the jury decided and, because Emma had been in prison since the end of July, the Judge discharged her.
So what became of Emma? I have been unable to find out, as I can still find no trace of her after her court appearance in November 1881. I would assume that perhaps she changed her name; despite being found not guilty of child murder, the charge and her subsequent custody would certainly have brought shame on both her and her family. The birth of a second illegitimate baby would have been scandal enough, let alone without the added ignominy of a murder charge. With a surname like Stribling, Emma would be unlikely to fade into the background, and her character would be blemished despite being acquitted.
Sadly, there is still a blemish on Emma’s character to this day. I recently ordered a copy of her child’s death certificate and was quite outraged to discover that the coroner had supplied the cause of death as “Murder by Emma Stribling”. What happened to “innocent until proven guilty”? In my humble opinion, Emma should not be noted on a legal document as the murderer of her own child when a Judge and jury found her not guilty. I would really like to clear Emma’s name in this respect and have written to the local Register Office (as advised by HM Government’s website) but, as yet, have not received a response. I’m not very hopeful because they have some strict requirements, including the current contact details for the coroner. As the event took place well over 100 years ago, I think perhaps the coroner may no longer be available!
If anyone reading this has any ideas of where I could look for Emma, they would be received very gratefully.