Broadcast on Wednesday 18th October 2017 during 'Unsigned Madness' with Stephen and Anne on EGHRadio
Hannah Clive had us all enthralled in the chat room last week with the grisly story of the discovery of a skull in what is now David Attenborough’s garden in 2011. An inquiry subsequently proved the skull to be that of Julia Martha Thomas who was brutally murdered, dismembered and then boiled by her maid Kate Webster in March 1879. Body parts were scattered about London with a foot being found in Tottenham, but the majority of what was left of Mrs Thomas was unceremoniously boxed and dumped in the Thames.
Well, being a general nosey parker as well as a genealogist more digging was required. I was not disappointed – the papers of the day covered the story extensively and often graphically, such was the Victorian taste for the macabre. The lengthy transcript of her trial at the Old Bailey on the 30th June that same year is also available online.
It transpires that Kate Webster was born Catherine Lawler in Ireland in 1850. She left a veritable trail of crime in her wake and served several prison sentences for theft between 1864 & 79 using several different aliases. The case in question, however, appears to be her first and last foray into murder. Perhaps she may have evaded capture if she had not left a note with her uncle’s address in Ireland at the crime scene. It was to her uncle that she fled with her five year old son and where she was apprehended on the 29th March. As a direct descendant of a gentleman who danced the hangman’s jig in 1816 I was intrigued to know more about her young son. Fearing the worst I set off to find out.
A child named John Webster aged about 6 years was admitted here on March 29th. His mother was charges with the murder of a woman named 'Thomas' in London. The boy was sent to the Workhouse with an order from W Ryan R.M. to have him admitted pending inquiry being made as to his reception into an Industrial School
That was narrated by my colleague Michelle Leonard @genealogylass reading from the Poor Law Guardians minutes held in Wexford County Archives. So - the uncle washed his hands of his nephew the same day his mother was arrested. Under the Habitual Criminals Act of 1869 made provision for children under 14 of women twice convicted of ‘crime’ to be sent to such Schools. As such the result is not unexpected. John Webster’s trail has run cold for the moment, and the lack of surviving census records in Ireland isn’t helping. If the normal pattern of events unfolded John Webster would have been returned to the parish of his birth, allegedly Kingston upon Thames, or they at least would have been responsible for his costs. A little more research may be required this side of the Irish Sea.