The Inquests

The inquests were held very quickly. Emma had died on the Wednesday, The police had become involved in the early hours of Friday morning. Thomas Ratcliffe died on Friday night. Emma’s inquest was held on Saturday. It was the 25th August 1855. The Coroner was Philip Finch Curry, aided by his Beadle, James Blake. The jurors listed on the Coroner’s inquisition were as follows:

David Kennedy, George Williams, William Frederick Middleton, James Whiley, Robert Williams, James Grayson, William Lloyd, James Bardsworth, William Eiken, George Fendler, Michael Lipnot and Richard Brereton.

The Coroner led the jury on a reconnoitre to the Aspinall home. It would have been a short walk from the courthouse but Curry frequently ordered carriages to convey juries to locations relating to inquests and to view bodies of the deceased. A crowd had gathered at Eldon Place where the events had caused a great deal of excitement. The jury were able to view for themselves the squalor in which the children had spent their unhappy lives. The surviving children were still in the house.

Back at St Georges Hall, only William was present in the dock. Curry explained to the jury and to a packed courtroom, that in the light of the evidence made available to him, he felt would not be doing his duty if he did not also call for the apprehension of Aspinall’s wife.

At this point, Mary Aspinall emerged dramatically from the body of the courtroom crying out in a loud and excited voice, “I am the wife, sir, and I’ll come, I’ll come.”

Mary was taken into custody and stood in the dock beside her husband who acted as if he was oblivious to her presence. Her appearance was perceived by reporters as somewhat genteel. She was wearing a black Coburg dress, a short black flounced cape, a black transparent bonnet, and black lace veil. Essentially this was Victorian mourning attire.  Nevertheless her face was described as sinister and manifesting signs of  debauchery.

Initially Mary took the blame for what had happened upon herself. She said that she alone was responsible and that when she had accused her husband she must have been out of her mind.

As proceedings began she realised immediately that William intended to put the entire blame upon her. After exonerating him from all blame, she quickly back-tracked and began to defend herself vigorously, describing a catalogue of ill-treatment that she had been subject to.

At one point she cried out hysterically,  “lf he had not been base and cruel to me, I would have suffered imprisonment — death — anything and everything, for his sake; but not now — oh! no; the whole truth shall come out.”

The truth varied according to whether Mary or William’s account was to believed. William told a tale of his wife’s feckless and drunken behaviour total neglect of domesticity or care of her family, and squandering his wages on alcohol. Mary, on her part, claimed that William ill-treated her, was violent and controlling, and kept her short of money.

Their son, John, was called as a witness. He stated:

“My father is a clerk in one of the booking offices at the Waterloo station of the London and North Western Railway in this town, and resides at No 64 Eldon Place. I have five brothers and two sisters, besides the two that are dead. Emma died on Wednesday. Her body was wasted to a skeleton. I had all my meals at home, generally with my father, and sometimes my mother took her meals with us, but not always. The deceased was one year and ten months old. She could not speak but frequently cried. I did not see my mother feed her often, but I have seen my father feed her. I had observed the deceased gradually wasting away but I can’t say that I made any remark to my parents on the subject. My father also observed the state of the deceased and he said to my mother he believed it was the consequence of her not taking proper care of her. I can’t say whether the deceased had or had not sufficient food. Father and mother frequently quarrelled. Mother was in the habit of taking drink. I have heard her complain to my father that she had not sufficient money to procure food for the children. I last saw the deceased alive on Wednesday, at dinner time. She was then very ill but the doctor was not sent for then or at any other time.”

In reply to questions from the Coroner, John said:

“I left home on Wednesday morning last to go to my employment about eight o clock and the deceased was naked. I found her in the same state on my return. No remark was made then by my father. Sometimes the deceased was on my mother’s knee at meal times; and I have seen my mother intoxicated on these occasions and heard my father and mother quarrelling. I have had bread and butter and coffee for breakfast; for dinner, potatoes and meat; sometimes bread for tea, the same as breakfast and plenty for each meal. The deceased has been present sometimes at mealtimes as well as the others. They have sometimes cried for food but did not always get it.”

John confirmed that his parents had quarrelled about a man named Samuel Fowler when they kept a beer house in Lawton Street.

The next witness was fourteen-year old Mary. She corroborated her brother’s evidence and told a similar story of neglect:

“We have four bedrooms in the house but they are empty. The only bed is in the kitchen. We have some chests of drawers and boxes but there is little or no clothes in them. I have pledged clothes at the request of my mother. When she had the money for the house, mother spent some in drink. Both my parents drank. I looked after the children then. I have been without food from morning till night three or four days in the week. ”

In addition to the lack of food and filthy conditions, it emerged during questioning that under the instructions of her mother, about three weeks earlier, seven year old Elizabeth Jane had been washing Emma in cold water in the sink, pumping water direct from the tap onto the frail toddler, and leaving her afterwards in the sink, naked and malnourished. This seemed to have signalled the start of Emma’s decline. In an already fragile condition, she caught a cold from which she never recovered. It was also recounted that the younger Aspinall children, half-starved themselves, had frequently pinched Emma and stolen bread out of her hand.

The Coroner asked the jury if they had heard the crowd at Eldon place comparing the case with that of a man named Gleeson Wilson who had been notoriously hanged a few years earlier for the gruesome murder of the pregnant wife of a ship’s captain and her two small children. The Jury replied that they had. Curry warned them, somewhat disingenuously, to ignore such claims, and then went on to remark that this case was worse: at least Gleeson’s victims, who had been stabbed and bludgeoned to death, had died quickly, whilst poor little Emma had suffered cruelly over many months.

At the end of the hearing the jury took only fifteen minutes to pronounce a verdict of wilful murder against both parents. They were committed to Kirkdale Gaol. William fainted, but Mary stood apparently unmoved.

Thomas Ratcliffe’s Inquest was held on Monday 27th. The jurors listed in the inquisition were:

Charles Munro Midgely, Thomas Mercer, Michael Boyce, James Whiley, Peter Wright, James Cahill, William Smith, Dennis McKee, William James Oakes, John Morris and John Broadwood.

It is not clear why there are thirteen jurors listed, or why James Cahill would be allowed to serve on both juries when Curry took pains to keep these two inquests completely separate.

Much of the same ground was covered again at this inquest, but by then the photographs of the dead and emaciated children had been developed and they sent shockwaves throughout the courtroom.

The surgeon, George Kemp, revealed that he had already exhibited the photographs, displayed on ground shaped like a coffin lid, to his friends. Kemp had also shared these photographs with reporters outside the courtroom.

And there were further revelations. Mary’s reputation was traduced when it was confirmed in court what had previously been hinted at: that she had been having an affair with a tradesman called Samuel Fowler, which had started when they kept a beer house in Lawton Street.

Fowler, adding to the drama, was a spectator in the courtroom. William pleaded that he be removed. The coroner initially refused but after a juror pointed out to the coroner that he had been laughing inappropriately and staring and smiling at William Aspinall whilst he was giving evidence he was then ejected from the courtroom, bowing obseqiously to the court in a mocking and ostentatious manner.

The two elder children, John and Mary, again recounted details about the dreadful conditions they lived under and their parents’ drunkeness and neglect. The children wept, and so did many of those present in the court.

Medical evidence from Edward Brown and Frederick Dicker Fletcher’s post-mortem examination confirmed that Thomas Ratcliffe had been extremely emaciated and had died from lack of food.

The jury heard, however, that Mrs Aspinall had breast-fed her baby but had not had sufficient milk. This was corroborated by her daughter, Mary. He had been fed on milk and oatmeal porridge, but had been a delicate baby from birth. The children reported that the child was not ill-treated, but treated kindly by his mother, and had never been placed under cold water like his sister.

The evidence in the inquest for Thomas Ratcliffe was flimsier than that put forward for Emma’s death, but feelings were running high, and the gruesome photographs of the dead and starving children no doubt swayed the court to feel that the utmost retribution was required. At the end of the trial the inquest jury again returned a verdict of wilful murder against both parents and they were committed to Kirkdale Gaol to await trial at the next assizes. Young Mary and John wept loudly and bitterly on seeing their parents being taken into custody. The jury made the suggestion that the Home Secretary be applied to for financial assistance to provide for the two youngsters who were bound over to appear as witnesses at the assizes. The other children in the family were to be taken into the workhouse.

Rumours were rife that other children in the family had earlier been ‘made away with’ by their parents, but the coroner reported that these reports were unfounded.

Courtroom at St George's Hall

Courtroom at St George’s Hall

The charge of murder found by the coroner’s inquest wasn’t as straightforward as it might have seemed, as the writer of an article in the Liverpool Courier pointed out soon afterwards. The role of the coroner’s court should have been to establish the cause of death, not to define the legal nature of any offence that might have been committed.

The court had no jurisdiction to pronounce a charge of wilful murder, and despite the indignation that the case had excited, the writer had reservations as to whether such a charge could be upheld. He went on to say:

“The history of the affair is only the too common history of drunkenness leading to the destruction of all the better feelings of humanity, to domestic happiness and parental neglect, and to consequent wretchedness, disease and death. To constitute wilful murder we think something more than this must be proved. At any rate, from what we have seen before, we know that another tribunal may pronounce a very different verdict – may reduce the crime to manslaughter, or even misdemeanour.”

The article concluded:

“The idea of a court dealing in capital convictions without having the power to inflict the slightest penalty is ridiculous.”

The Courier writer proved accurate in his prediction that the inquest jury had overstepped their brief. Charges of murder did not stand up in the County Assizes. No charge was brought in respect of the death of three month old Thomas Ratcliffe, and the charge relating to the death of Emma was reduced to one of manslaughter. Meanwhile, interest in the family continued.

Liverpool Mercury Fri 31st Aug 1855

The Aspinall Children

We are happy to be able to state that the remaining children of Mr. and Mrs Aspinall, who were committed on Monday last for wilfully murdering (by starvation) two other of their children, are progressing favourably at the workhouse. Five of the children are now restored to perfect health and strength, proper rest and regular meals having effected a wonderful change in their appearance for the better. The sixth and youngest surviving child is also progressing favourably, and hopes for its final recovery are now entertained, The care and attention bestowed on the poor little sufferer by the nurse in whose care it is placed in the workhouse: have produced a marked improvement in it; and no doubt, under a continuance of the same kind treatment; a few weeks will see it perfectly restored to health. The children are placed in the care of a nurse and have a separate apartment appropriated to themselves, on the ground floor of the hospital, where for the present they seem to be perfectly happy and contented. Too much praise cannot be given to Mr Carr, the Governor of the workhouse, for the prompt energy and humane attention which he has exhibited towards these hitherto neglected little ones.

The report was premature and it was not a good outcome for all the remaining children. Continue reading to find out what happened next.

The Trial

The Survivors

The Key Characters