‘Peculiar’ & ‘Unnatural’ Crimes (Part 1)

Fanny Talmer and her son Richard were both charged with felonies in the mid 1800s. In the first part of this blog, I explore Fanny’s story, looking at her crime in the context of early Victorian society. In today’s Britain, Fanny would have had a drastically different experience, both in her life opportunities, and within the justice system.

Trigger Warning: Please note that this blog post includes details of infant deaths and possible physical abuse towards infants.

Part 1: Fanny Talmer

Frances Talmer, known as Fanny, was a half-sister of my 3x great grandfather, William Talmer. She was born in about 1824 in The Lee, Buckinghamshire — a village and group of hamlets in the Chiltern Hills. Fanny was the second child of William Talmer, an agricultural labourer, and Judith Pierce (or Pearce). The Talmer family (also spelled ‘Tarmer’ and ‘Tamer’, but I’ll use ‘Talmer’ throughout), had been in The Lee for at least one prior generation, and my grandmother, Joan Talmer, was born and raised there over 100 years later. They were a poor family, in a small close-knit rural community where everyone would have known everyone else’s business.

The Lee, from the lee.org.uk

When Fanny was just four or five, her mother died, leaving three children motherless, and the following year her father remarried to Frances Holmes, also known as Fanny. William had three more children with his second wife, including my ancestor.

It’s unlikely that Fanny received any education as a child; the first school in the village opened in the new Methodist Chapel in the 1840s. In the 1841 census, the Talmers were two of a dozen households in the hamlet of Lee Common. Fanny, 16, lived with her grandfather Thomas Talmer and 45-year-old spinster aunt Mary. Her father, step-mother and siblings are the preceding family enumerated, and probably lived next door. No occupation is listed for Fanny or her aunt. However, the same page shows that many of the women in The Lee were working as lace makers or straw plaiters, skills they could learn as children and use to help supplement the family income. It’s possible that Fanny and her aunt were in fact engaged in these cottage industries, though it seems likely that this would have been recorded as it had been for their neighbours. Unfortunately, Fanny’s grandfather died soon after the census. If Fanny had no commercial skills, this might have left her in difficult circumstances, even homeless. The paper trail next picks up in 1845 in Amersham workhouse — where Fanny, age 20-21, gave birth to an illegitimate child.

Fanny’s child, born on 16 May, was a boy whom she named Richard. There are no hints as to the father’s identity on his birth certificate, or in his entry of baptism.

Birth certificate of Richard Talmer (Tamer).

A bit of background on Amersham Workhouse

The Lee was part of Amersham poor law union, which covered 111 square miles and a population of 18,000. Until 1835, paupers from The Lee went to Chesham workhouse, about five miles away, but by 1838 they had to go two miles further, to Amersham. From 1835-1838, while a new workhouse was constructed in Amersham, the Board of Guardians decided to house all male inmates in the current Amersham workhouse, and females at Chesham.1 On 23 May 1835, when elderly male inmates were loaded into carts to take them from Chesham to Amersham, a whole two miles away, it caused rioting. Locals pulled paupers from the wagons and beat up the magistrate! A detachment of the new Metropolitan Police was sent from London to restore order.2

In 1838, the new Amersham workhouse opened, an imposing Tudor-style building of red brick and flint. Paupers who entered the workhouse wore a numbered uniform and could have no personal possessions. They followed a strict timetable, and took their meals in silence. Fit inmates performed ‘harsh difficult work … at all times.’ 1 But what was the workhouse like for a woman who went there to deliver her baby?

Birth in the workhouse

Women would spend confinement (labour, childbirth and recovery) in the lying-in ward, which was supervised by the workhouse physician. A ‘nurse’ would attend the birth and the newborn child. However, ‘early nursing care in the union workhouse was invariably in the hands of female inmates … such nurses were also often drunk, with commonly prescribed spirits such as brandy either being purloined in transit to the patients or traded by their recipients in return for food or attention from their carers. Before 1863, not a single trained nurse existed in any workhouse infirmary outside London.’3

Even as late as 1898, Louisa Twining (philanthropist and workhouse reformer & member of the Twinings tea family) reported that ‘The lying-in ward … which was only a general ward without even screens, had an old inmate in it who we discovered to have an ulcerated leg and cancer of the breast; yet she did nearly everything for the women and babies, and often delivered them too. The women’s hair was not combed, it was “not lucky” to do so, and washing was at a discount. The doctor and myself could not imagine at first why the temperatures went up, and the babies nearly always got bad eyes and did badly.’4

In the opening of Oliver Twist, first published in 1837, Dickens describes Oliver’s birth in brilliantly sardonic fashion:

‘Although I am not disposed to maintain that the being born in a workhouse, is in itself the most fortunate and enviable circumstance that can possibly befall a human being, I do mean to say that in this particular instance, it was the best thing for Oliver Twist that could by possibility have occurred. The fact is, that there was considerable difficulty in inducing Oliver to take upon himself the office of respiration,—a troublesome practice, but one which custom has rendered necessary to our easy existence; and for some time he lay gasping on a little flock mattress, rather unequally poised between this world and the next: the balance being decidedly in favour of the latter. Now, if, during this brief period, Oliver had been surrounded by careful grandmothers, anxious aunts, experienced nurses, and doctors of profound wisdom, he would most inevitably and indubitably have been killed in no time. There being nobody by, however, but a pauper old woman, who was rendered rather misty by an unwonted allowance of beer; and a parish surgeon who did such matters by contract; Oliver and Nature fought out the point between them. The result was, that, after a few struggles, Oliver breathed, sneezed, and proceeded to advertise to the inmates of the workhouse the fact of a new burden having been imposed upon the parish, by setting up as loud a cry as could reasonably have been expected from a male infant who had not been possessed of that very useful appendage, a voice, for a much longer space of time than three minutes and a quarter. … he was enveloped in the old calico robes which had grown yellow in the same service, he was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once—a parish child—the orphan of a workhouse—the humble, half-starved drudge—to be cuffed and buffeted through the world—despised by all, and pitied by none.’

Unfortunately, almost no records from Amersham workhouse have survived. However, Richard was baptised two years after his birth at Amersham, not The Lee, which suggests that they stayed in the workhouse until at least 1847. The next record I have is from census night, 30 March 1851, when mother and son were once again in Amersham Workhouse. Fanny, 27, unmarried, stated she was a bonnet plait maker, while 5-year-old Richard was a scholar. It seems that Fanny had, after all, acquired skills in straw plaiting, and perhaps she and Richard had been able to return to The Lee for some time.

Fanny and Richard Talmer in Amersham Workhouse, 1851.
Census Returns of England and Wales, 1851. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA). Class: HO107; Piece: 1717; Folio: 460; Page: 12; GSU roll: 193625. Accessed via Ancestry.co.uk, 22/3/21.

It’s always sad to see ancestors, or anyone, listed as paupers in a place of last resort, but Fanny’s situation was even darker than the census could reveal. Just two weeks before, Fanny had been tried at the Bucks Assizes for ‘wilful murder’ of another ‘bastard child’.

A second illegitimate child

On 2 November 1850, Fanny had delivered a second baby at Amersham workhouse, whom she named Henry. As with Richard, there was no information about Henry’s father.

Birth certificate of Henry Talmer (Tarmer)

It’s always worth a reminder that conception was not necessarily the result of a consensual relationship. I also note that although women and men were ‘strictly segregated’ in the workhouse, that did not necessarily prevent sexual encounters. I was disturbed to read about an ex-Grenadier Guard Sergeant who had been appointed to supervise the female paupers in the Chesham Workhouse; he was dismissed in November 1835, after making one of the inmates pregnant.1 And when I reviewed the Amersham Union Minute Books at Bucks Archives, I came across another incident of the workhouse master being dismissed for making an inmate pregnant in the 1860s. On a recent visit to York Castle Museum, I also learned about the case of teenager Mary Burgan, who was accused of infanticide at the beginning of the 18th century. While awaiting trial in prison, she was impregnated by a member of prison staff. She was found guilty and sentenced to death, but the pregnancy saved her life. It seems that the situation for women accused of this crime, and imprisoned women in general, had changed little since then.

Charged with ‘wilful murder

On 6 January 1851, when Henry was nine weeks old, he sadly died. Fingers were pointed at Fanny, and an inquest was held at the workhouse. The outcome was published in local newspapers: ‘After a lengthened investigation, and a post-mortem examination of the body, the jury were unanimous in their verdict, which was “Wilful Murder” against the mother, Frances Talmer. The woman belongs to Lee Parish, but has lately been an inmate of the Amersham Union. She was committed on the coroner’s warrant to take her trial at the ensuing Spring Assizes.’5

Henry’s death certificate, registered the day after his death, shockingly states his cause of death in black and white as ‘Wilfully murdered by his mother Frances Talmer’:

Death certificate of Henry Talmer

On 9 January, Fanny was committed to Aylesbury Gaol. Another woman was committed the same day; Mary Smith from Upton-cum-Chalvey was accused of the exact same crime of ‘murder of her male bastard child.’6

Aylesbury Gaol (public domain)

When Fanny entered the gaol, she became one of 198 prisoners.7 The number of women incarcerated in the separate women’s wing is unknown. However, Fanny would have had almost no contact with other prisoners. A new prison building had opened in Aylesbury in 1847, one of dozens built across the country from 1840-60 modelled on the pioneering design of Pentonville.8 The layout of the prison was intended to support the solitary regime, which kept prisoners alone and apart from each other as much as possible, with the aim of forcing them to reflect on their crimes and mend their ways. Prisoners spent much of their day in their own cells performing gruelling, monotonous activities, especially oakum picking. This routine started at 5 am daily, and the tedium was only broken for meals (mostly of bread and gruel) and chapel9 — in which seats were arranged in such a way that prisoners could see the chaplain, but not each other.10 Fanny, a mother who had recently lost a newborn, endured this harsh environment — even worse than the workhouse — for two months. Meanwhile, I assume that Richard was alone at the workhouse. He was just 5 1/2 years old.

Leading up to the Assizes, newspapers listed the cases that would be heard. On 1 March, the Bucks Herald speculated that ‘There is every probability of the business being rather heavy, including cases of a peculiar nature; already 4 prisoners stand committed for child murder.’

The crime of infanticide

The murder of a child under 12 months of age was known legally as ‘infanticide’. It’s believed that cases of infanticide and abortion increased sharply after 1834, when the New Poor Law Act’s ‘Bastardy Clause’ made illegitimate children the sole responsibility of the mother. Poor-law authorities no longer tried to identify a father or attempt to obtain the father’s financial support, since this support was believed to have encouraged illegitimacy.11 The new law left pregnant women in a dire situation, with no financial support, and the intense stigmatisation and marginalisation faced by unmarried mothers. It’s not surprising that some women, particularly single women and domestic servants, took desperate measures. Between 1838 and 1840 there were 76 confirmed cases of infanticide in the UK (one third of all murders).12 However, the actual number was probably much larger, as coroners found it difficult to be absolutely sure that a baby’s death was intentional.

Nevertheless, newspapers also exploited and amplified these intimate tragedies: ‘sensational news reports of illicit sexual liaisons, of childbirth and grisly murder, appeared regularly in the press, naming and shaming transgressive unmarried women and framing them as a danger to society.’13 By stoking terror and outrage, I can’t help but think that newspapers helped to create a climate of moral panic and misogyny in which women were more likely to be suspected of murdering their unborn child or infant. It became, essentially, a witchhunt. The only positive aspect of the emotive coverage is that it did help to highlight the negative repercussions of the Bastardy Clause, and increase support for its repeal.

Infanticide was a felony and capital crime, which is why Fanny’s case would be heard at the Assizes rather than the Quarter Sessions. If found guilty, Fanny could potentially face the gallows. However, infanticide was viewed as so ‘peculiar’ and contrary to nature that the mother must not be in her right mind (similarly, women who mistreated older children were known as ‘unnatural mothers’). Therefore, most women who were found guilty escaped execution.14 However, a woman’s fate could be determined by the attitude of a particular judge; this was the case for Mary Morgan, a 17-year-old executed in 1805. Though the death penalty was rare, Fanny, and the other women who waited for their trials, must have felt real dread.

Fanny’s Trial

On 11 March 1851, at 10 am, the Bucks Lent Assizes commenced at Aylesbury, as the Lord Chief Justice, Sir John Jervis, Knight, took his seat. As reported by the Bucks Herald, business opened with a proclamation against vice and immorality, read by the clerk. The Lord Chief Justice then addressed the Grand Jury of 22 men, providing an overview of the cases they would hear. ‘The calendar’, he informed them, ‘contained three cases of child murder, unfortunately an offence too frequently found in the calendars at the present time; if they were substantiated, they would call for an example to be made, in order, if possible, to prevent their recurrence. There might be doubts in the minds of the Grand Jury in those cases. There was also among them a peculiar case of an attempt on the part of a mother to strangle her child: if the attempt was proved, it was a felony under the Act of Parliament, but they must be satisfied of that fact before they found a bill: in the other cases it was necessary that they should be satisfied that the children were born alive.’15

The Crown Court opened on 12 March at 9 am precisely, with the first woman accused of willful murder of her illegitimate child — Mary Johnson, a servant. The Lord Chief Justice noted that the coroner’s report was inconsistent and did not include the names of the jury. She was duly acquitted. Next up was Mary Clements aka Mary Smith, also a servant. She had attempted to conceal her pregnancy and delivery from her employer. However, when she was found ill in bed, childbirth was suspected, and a doctor was called to examine her; he confirmed she had indeed given birth. A police officer then found the body of a child in a closet [water closet, i.e., toilet] with a piece of bed lace wrapped tightly around its neck. The doctor who had examined the baby’s body gave his testimony; it was his opinion that the infant had been born alive, and that the lace had caused the child’s death. However, the doctor who had examined Mary Smith was also called to give evidence. It was his opinion that ‘she had gone only six or seven months’. He could not swear that the baby was born alive, and thought it possible that Mary had used the piece of lace to help deliver her own baby.

The Lord Chief Justice addressed the jury, pointing out that there was no evidence of murder. However, he reminded them that they could find her guilty of another crime, ‘concealment of birth’. This offence was first formally enacted in 1803, and was only applicable to unmarried women. It was effectively a way to punish a woman for suspected foul play, when murder couldn’t be proven.16 However, in these circumstances the baby could certainly have died from natural causes, as many legitimate babies sadly did. In Mary’s case, ‘The jury accordingly acquitted the prisoner of the charge of murder, but found her guilty of concealment of birth. … The Lord Chief Justice addressed the prisoner very feelingly, remarking upon the frequency of the offence in this locality, and observed that it was absolutely necessary that an example should be made, and sentenced the prisoner to be imprisoned with hard labour for six months.’

Next, it was Fanny Talmer’s turn to face the judge and jury. I have recently reviewed the surviving records from this case, consisting of an indictment, and the coroner’s inquest from which the indictment was drawn. I was shocked by the language used, which was positively medieval:

‘The Jurors for our Lady the Queen upon their oath present that Frances Talmer late of the Parish of Amersham in the County of Buckinghamshire Singlewoman not having the fear of God before her eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigations of the Devil … did Kill and Murder against the Peace of our said Lady the Queen her Crown and Dignity.’

The same language about the influence of the devil was also used in the indictments against Mary Johnson and Mary Smith. It’s startling that in what was then one of the most industrially advanced countries in the world, a court of law was still steeped in superstition.

Both the indictment and inquest stated that Fanny … ‘feloniously wilfully and of her malice aforethought’ violently clasped, forced, pressed and squeezed this child of a ‘tender age’ with both of her arms, and violently shook him several times causing a ‘mortal congestion of the left lung and right lobe of the liver.’ The inquest also reported that the infant ‘did languish and languishing did live’ until the following day, when he died. It made for upsetting reading, not only to hear about the suffering of baby Henry, but also to read the inquest jury’s unequivocal conclusion that Fanny had murdered her child.

Indictment against Frances Talmer
Coroner’s Inquest into the death of Henry Talmer, with jurors’ signatures and seals

Newspaper reports of the trial show that Fanny appeared in court without any legal representation. They also included witness testimonies, which shed much more light on the circumstances of this tragedy:

Bucks Herald – Saturday 15 March 1851 , retrived on 21 Mar 2021 from BritishNewspaperArchive.co.uk

The witnesses described Fanny’s attempts, and sometimes refusals, to nurse her baby. Another woman in the workhouse had started to feed him (perhaps with gruel?) from around 1-5 January. Fanny had tried again to nurse him on the 5th. But that afternoon, three women saw her shaking her baby. One of them, Mary Hazel, had two illegitimate children of her own. Mary Cox, a widow in her thirties with the workhouse position of ‘Pauper Nurse’, who had assisted Fanny with her labour and delivery, reported that as Fanny shook her baby she said “it should not suck her for she would shake its inside out.” Henry died early the following morning, and was found to have injuries to his lungs and liver.

I can’t possibly know whether Fanny intended to injure her baby at that moment. However, I think it very likely that she was overwrought with not only post-natal physical and mental exhaustion, and the difficulties of feeding a newborn — within the stark confines of the workhouse — but also the stressful prospect of caring for a second illegitimate child. She desperately needed help.

A public health nurse who read this story provided expert insights into the physical and emotional effects of the situation faced by both Fanny and her child: ‘I wondered if she shook baby out of frustration with feeding (very plausible given the conditions these women were in). Problems with breastfeeding and feeding him gruel could have led to failure to thrive; gut and organs are not mature enough to cope with solids, risk of choking would be high, and baby would quickly become nutritionally deficient, dehydrated and at high risk of infections. … Additionally, PTSD as a result of birth is common, and also as a result of conception after rape, which can cause attachment and bonding difficulties, breastfeeding difficulties and post natal depression. It seems that baby had a number of high risk factors going on.’

Returning to the newspaper report, I was confused to see that Fanny’s indictment was in fact manslaughter. It seems that that in spite of the coroner’s jury accusing Fanny of murder, a grand jury at a second inquest had not found there to be sufficient evidence to support that charge, and instead charged her with manslaughter. The judge summed up the case by stating that in his opinion, it was ‘wilful murder’, and that the other juries hadn’t done their jobs properly. However, he added that the jury at the Assizes should only look at the evidence presented. Evidently, the jury did not find the evidence to be robust enough for a conviction even of manslaughter. They found Fanny ‘Not Guilty’.

Fanny’s case was immediately followed by that of Ann Addison, another servant, charged with attempting to suffocate and strangle her child. Like Mary Johnson, Ann had concealed her birth until she went into labour, and a child was found in a closet with a cord around its neck. The indictment charged her with ‘attempt to choke suffocate and drown … the male child … by casting and throwing [him] into and amongst the soil waters and filth then being in a certain Privy.’ However, someone retrieved the infant from the closet, which fed into a ditch, and the child survived. Ann was found to have several items of baby clothing in a box, suggesting she intended to keep her baby, and she stated that the muslin around his neck was used ‘to release her of her pain.’ Ann, the only woman accused of infanticide who was not deemed to have been seduced by the devil, was found ‘Not Guilty’.

After the trial

Very surprisingly, four years later, Fanny — mother of an illegitimate 10-year-old child and a once-suspected murderer of another illegitimate child — married. Her husband, George Wright, was a farm labourer four years her junior. However, on 3 June 1859, after only three years of marriage, Fanny died at Great Missenden (between Amersham and The Lee). She was 36 and had suffered with phthisis (TB) for three months. Fanny and George don’t seem to have had any children.

Death certificate of Fanny Wright nee Talmer

I don’t know whether Richard Talmer, Fanny’s surviving son, ever lived with his mother and her husband, because Fanny and George’s short marriage took place between two censuses. However, it doesn’t seem that George took any responsibility for his step-son after Fanny’s death. On census night 1861, George was living alone in Great Missenden, while Richard, by then a teenager, was again an inmate in Amersham workhouse. And soon, he too would be featured in the newspapers, charged with a serious and ‘unnatural’ crime.

Read Part 2: Richard Talmer

Read about Dickens’ inspiration for the workhouse depicted in Oliver Twist, at the British Library’s blog.

Learn more about the Chesham Riots of 1835 here and here.

  1. Gilbert Scott Court (Workhouse), AmershamMuseum.org
  2. Impressive history of old Amersham workhouse, Bucks Free Press
  3. Medical Care in the Workhouse, workhouses.org.uk
  4. Workhouses and pauperism and women’s work in the administration of the poor law, Louisa Twining, 1898
  5. Bucks Herald – Saturday 11 January 1851
  6. Bedfordshire Mercury – Saturday 11 January 1851
  7. Bucks Herald – Saturday 11 January 1851
  8. 10 Historic Urban Prisons, English Heritage
  9. Victorian Crime and Punishment, Buckinghamshire Archives
  10. Monument Record for HM Prison, Bierton Hill, Bucks County Council
  11. Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, Wikipedia
  12. Infanticide and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century Britain, R. Sauer
  13. Infanticide in 19th-Century England, Nicolá Goc
  14. Bad or Mad? Infanticide: Insanity and Morality in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Paige Mathieson
  15. Bucks Herald – Saturday 15 March 1851
  16. Concealment of birth: time to repeal a 200-year-old“convenient stop-gap”?, Emma Milne

Featured image = Woking Convict Invalid Prison: five women prisoners convicted of infanticide. Process print after Paul Renouard, 1889. License: Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) Wellcome Collection.

Updated 7/1/22 with the earlier cases of Mary Burgan and Mary Morgan

7 thoughts on “‘Peculiar’ & ‘Unnatural’ Crimes (Part 1)

  1. Enjoyed reading about one of our ancestors.( perhaps ‘enjoyed’ isn’t the right word?)
    A very sad story, demonstrating how women were often treated in the past.
    Little understanding or compassion.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am sure this story wasn’t easy to write but I think you really brought out the difficult circumstances these women found themselves in. They definitely deserved some compassion. How many were suffering post-natal depression? Thanks for writing about the subject.


  3. I agree, Jude. I really struggled with my mental health after my firstborn, but I had the love and support of my family. I can’t imagine what it was like to be in that position, probably suffering from depression, alone, and so morally judged as well.


  4. Such a moving story. So emotive, you can’t help but empathise with poor Fanny and her state of mind. What a different outcome she would have faced if it happened today.


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