Child Murder in Georgian England: Anne-Marie Kilday and Katherine Watson Explore 18th-Century Child Killers, Their Motivations and Contemporary Attitudes towards Them

By Kilday, Anne-Marie; Watson, Katherine | History Today, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Child Murder in Georgian England: Anne-Marie Kilday and Katherine Watson Explore 18th-Century Child Killers, Their Motivations and Contemporary Attitudes towards Them


Kilday, Anne-Marie, Watson, Katherine, History Today


AT ONE LEVEL THE convictions of the child murderers Ian Huntley (December 2003) and Francisco Montes (June 2004) have allowed the British public to close the book on a traumatic chapter in the nation's recent history, for two of the most reviled men of modern times have been safely locked away from the children they prey on. But underlying the sense of relief is a deeper fear. When, we wonder, will it happen again?

Nothing is more revealing of attitudes to children than the community concern aroused by news of a missing or murdered child, with contemporary cases often being granted the status of national tragedies. It is no surprise that the crimes deemed most shocking in recent years have been those involving the murder of children, nor that a steady succession of individuals have found themselves wrongly accused of child murder by over-zealous officers of our socio-legal institutions. Given that we live in a child-centred society we might think it was ever thus, but nothing could be further from the truth. There has in fact been a remarkable transformation in the status of children in English society, one that becomes strikingly evident when we compare reactions to child murder in the eighteenth century with those of today.

The most dramatic proof of this change can be seen in the cases that parallel the heinous crimes of Huntley and Montes. Although it is difficult to ascertain the incidence of sexually-motivated child killings in the Georgian period, it is clear not only that such murders occurred, but that the men who committed them were rarely, if ever, subjected to the rigorous investigation, widespread vilification and legal severity now reserved, almost exclusively, for individuals who kill children in such circumstances.

The deeply distressed families and neighbours of these earlier child victims, who sought to have the suspects charged with murder--hence the declarations made before magistrates and coroners--found the legal infrastructure to be stacked against them. Without an eyewitness account of the crime, or a confession, all-male juries were unlikely to convict men who were otherwise of good character, even in the face of strong circumstantial evidence. In 1742 Londoner John Thompson was tried for the rape-murder of a nine-year-old girl, medical evidence confirming that she had died as a result of the sexual injuries inflicted. Even though the child had been able to tell several people that Thompson had attacked her, there was no way to link him to the crime, since the court refused to accept the statements of a child so young, and forensic science was then unheard of. With no other evidence against him, Thompson was acquitted.

Since 1275 English law stated that men could have sex with a child over the age of twelve. The age limit was raised to thirteen in 1875 and then again to sixteen in 1885. As a result of this legal leniency, many adults were reluctant to intervene in situations that today would draw angry reactions from the public. In April 1802 thirteen-year-old Ann Ainley was found dead in a river, twelve hours after she was seen with a soldier named John Ferrand. Two witnesses testified that he had had a tight grip on the girl's arm, and that although she had pleaded with him to release her, he had dragged her into a churchyard. One man told Ferrand that 'it was a shame that he should take up with so young a girl', while the other ignored Ainley's plea to 'make this man let me go'. The legal records do not state whether there were any signs of sexual assault, but newspaper accounts indicate that local people were convinced of Ferrand's guilt, and he was charged with murder by the coroner (an office then much more integral to the detection of crime than is the case today). As often happened, however, the evidence was not strong enough to convince the grand jury sitting at York, who refused to indict him. Approximately 15 per cent of all cases brought to the assizes were not indicted, reflecting the weak standards of investigation common to the Georgian period. …

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