Monday, 31 October 2016

Mary Ann Cotton, she's deed and she's rotten

Mary Ann Cotton, she's deed and she's rotten
Lying in a' coffin with a' belly wide op'en

This was the rather ghastly rhyme my grandma while cradling her children and grandchildren. I have known this version of the rhyme probably my whole life, although it does differ from the official version.

I was amazed to discover, fairly recently, that I have a distant connection to Mary Ann Cotton. But who exactly was she? 

Mary Ann Robson was born on 31 October 1832 at Low Moorsley, Durham, and was baptised on 11 November at West Rainton. Her parents were Michael and Margaret Robson (née Lonsdale). Michael Robson was a pitman, later described as a pit sinker. 

Mary Ann's baptism at West Rainton
(then Rainton Chapel)

When Mary Ann was still a young girl, her family moved to East Murton, where her father got a job at the local colliery. They weren't there for long when her father Michael died after falling down the pit. After Mary Ann's infamy rose, there were stories that Mary Ann witnessed her father's mangled body be brought back to the family home in a wheelbarrow, owned by the colliery. Her mother remarried to a man named George Stott shortly after, whom Mary Ann was not very fond of.

Mary Ann became known as the first and most prolific serial killer in British history. Cotton was the name of her fourth and final husband, although it was a bigamous marriage. Hers was a truly sick and horrific Victorian tale. She is thought to have murdered 21 people, including husbands, step-children, her own mother and eleven of her thirteen children. Arsenic was her poison. 

Mary Ann Cotton

Mary Ann Cotton is still a rather grisly name in the north east of England, but I doubt very many people outside of the region have heard of her. 

So how is it that I am connected to Mary Ann Cotton?

Mary Ann moved to Seaham Harbour after the death of her first husband in 1865. She soon after struck up a relationship with a man named Joseph Nattrass, who was already engaged to be married. After Joseph married, Mary Ann left Seaham Harbour. 

Mary Ann and Joseph rekindled their relationship years later, sometime after 1871. Joseph had been widowed, and was now living in a village nearby. On discovering this, Mary Ann convinced Frederick Cotton, her new husband, to move to the same village. Frederick Cotton was killed a few mere months later, and Joe became the lodger of Mrs Cotton

Joseph Nattrass may have been Mary Ann's on-off lover for a few years now, but that didn't stop him following the same fate as his predecessors. Joseph became ill in 1871, suffering with gastric fever - like all those before him, and died soon after.  

Joseph was the son of Henderson and Mary Nattrass, who had an elder brother named Michael. In 1862, at the parish church of Gateshead Fell, Michael Nattrass married a lady named Margaret Errington - Margaret's sister Isabella was my great-great-grandmother. Isabella and her husband Matthew Taylor (my great-great-grandparents) were the witnesses to the union. 

Michael Nattrass
and my aunt Margaret did not have any children, and separated only a few years into their marriage. They both met new partners, and married bigamously, but t
hey both seemed rather happy with this arrangement.

After Mary Ann Cotton was found out, her details and those of her victims were written about extensively in the media of the time. The following was written about Joseph 'Joe' Nattrass in the Shields Daily Gazette, 8 October 1872;

"Strange to say, at this period, "Joe" Nattrass, one of the men she is accused of poisoning at West Auckland, was lodging with his brother, Michael Nattrass, at the back part of the property at which she lived. Mrs Wallerson, a neighbour, is not aware that she knew Nattrass then, although she might, and he able to conceal the knowledge of such acquaintanceship from her. Joe Nattrass was married about this time to a young woman, named Thubron, daughter of John and Mary Thubron, who were then living in Back Terrace, Seaham Harbour. After his marriage he went to live at Shildon, where his wife died. He must then have gone to West Auckland, and by a singular coincidence fallen in with the woman Cotton and gone there to lodge. Michael Nattrass and his wife have since died."

Mary Ann Cotton was sentenced to death, and she was hanged on 24 March 1873 at Durham County Gaol. 

It is entirely possible that my aunt Margaret Errington knew the ill-fated Joe, and perhaps she was even acquainted with Mary Ann Cotton herself. Margaret died many years later, so must have known about the Mary Ann Cotton murders, as just about everyone in the north east would have. 

My maternal grandmother would sing her version of the Mary Ann Cotton rhyme to her children and grandchildren, whilst she cradled, rocked, or bounced them on her knee. I can only assume her own mother, Sarah Jane Taylor, sang the rhyme to her - and she possibly learnt the rhyme from her own mother, Isabella Errington

ITV have filmed a period drama detailing the Mary Ann Cotton murders - It stars Joanne Froggatt of Downton Abbey fame as Mary Ann, and airs tonight at 9pm.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

By This Misfortune

Last year I wrote a blog post on my 4x great-grandmother, Martha Robinson. Martha suffered multiple tragedies in her life, and it was important for me to document the key points in her life. 

Last week I discovered yet more about my resilient ancestress, and thought I'd update my blog accordingly. 

To Summarise

  • Martha was born in 1783 at Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, to George and Jane Robinson (née Simpson).
  • Lost her father, three brothers and nephews to the sea one fateful day in January 1808.
  • Martha moved down the coast to Cullercoats when she married a fisherman named John Armstrong, at Tynemouth in January 1810. 
  • In April 1810, John Armstrong drowned at sea, after marrying Martha only three months before. In a cruel twist, Martha discovered she was pregnant soon after.
  • Martha returned to Newbiggin shortly after. There she gave birth to her son, George John Armstrong, in November 1810
  • Martha married John Renner, my 4x great-grandfather, in August 1817. John Renner was the elder brother of her sister-in-law, Ann Renner Robinson.
  • Martha and John Renner had three children; Ann in 1818 (my 3x great-grandmother), Edward in 1821 and Johnny in 1822. 
  • John Renner died in May 1847, and Martha's son Edward died in May 1854. 
  • Martha's youngest son, Johnny, drowned just off Newbiggin's Church Point in December 1861.
  • Martha died in January 1867 of old age. 

Last week I found that Martha applied to receive some relief from The Corporation of Trinity House of Deptford Strond, when she was widowed for the first time in 1810. The Corporation is now known just as Trinity House. Trinity House was responsible for distributing charitable funds to sailors, pilots and fishermen who had fallen on hard times, but also their widows and children, should they have any. 


It reads:

To the Honourable the Master, Wardens, and Assistants of the CORPORATION of TRINITY-HOUSE, of Deptford Strond.

The humble Petition of Martha Armstrong of Cullercoats in the Parish of Tynemouth, in the County of Northumberland, aged 28 years, and Widow of the late John Armstrong, Fisherman, humbly

THAT your Petitioner's Husband the late John Armstrong was bred and served as a Fisherman at Cullercoats many years. He and many more went off in cobles on the 6th of April last, when a violent storm arose and a Life-Boat was employed to save the People, and the Crews of the other Boats in company, but by the violence of the Waves the said Life-Boat was dashed in Pieces, when your Petitioner's Husband and many more perished! By this Misfortune, your Petitioner is left a Widow and is pregnant. 

That your Petitioner is not now able to Support her self without the Charity of this CORPORATION, having no Pension or Relief from any other Public Charity or Company whatsoever.

Your Petitioner, therefore, most humbly prays that she may he admitted a Pensioner to this CORPORATION at the usual Allowance. 


The document is dated 4 May 1810, just short of a month following the death of Martha's husband, so the situation must have been pretty dire. 

My next task is to try and find out how much the "usual allowance" was, and how long Trinity House supported Martha and her son for. I can only assume that the payments stopped when Martha married John Renner in 1817. 

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Wall Knoll

I've recently returned from a little hiatus away from the genea-world, but through that time I was away, I still made sure to check for any new records or information coming online. 

One record set I am particularly interested in is the Newcastle upon Tyne, Electoral Registers over on Ancestry. The records date from 1754 to 1974. Numerous family lines passed through Newcastle at some time or another, but the majority of my family went on to settle in the Tyneside area. 

However, I did manage to find a few ancestors listed in the registers, and to be honest I'm completely bemused by it. Two of my ancestors appear in the List of Burgesses in the 1853-1854 year. Their names were Andrew Queenan and Peter Coyle, my 4x great-grandfather and my 3x great-grandfather, respectively. 

Their entries aren't very detailed, but I am able to glean a fair bit of information from them. Both men were living in Kimpster's Tenements, Wall Knoll, Newcastle, their families occupying a room each. Back in the 1851 census, both families are listed on the same census return page, living adjacent to each other. The address is described only as "Wall Knoll," so Kimpster's Tenements is brand new information to me. 

Andrew Queenan disappears from the electoral registers after that date, so I can only assume that by the following year he and his family had moved to Philadelphia, Murton near North Shields. Andrew later died in 1859. 

Peter Coyle appears in later registers for 1858 and 1859, both times living in a public house on Sandgate. Sandgate was alongside Wall Knoll, so the Coyle family hadn't moved very far at all. The register does not say which public house it was, but I already know it to have been the White Swan. By 1861 the Coyle family were living in Philadelphia, Murton, close to the Queenan (now Quinnin) family. 

Both families were Irish migrants, paupers. I will need to do some research into how and why the two men were able to vote. 

Below are a few select excerpts of what life was like living in Wall Knoll during that time:

"Maria Graham, for robbing another foreigner of a silver watch and £1 10s, at a house of ill fame in Wall Knoll, was committed for two months. - Jane Morpeth, was charged with robbing a young man named John Young, of his coat, in Wall Knoll. The case against her not being complete, she was remanded until Wednesday."
- Newcastle Guardian, 23 July 1853

"Jane Morpeth, a notorious character, was brought up for stealing £1 13s 6d from the person of Charles Porter in the Wall Knoll; but the prosecutor not appearing she was discharged." 
- Newcastle Courant, 9 September 1853

"Before Ald. Hawks. - Patrick Grant, glass-cutter, was charged with assaulting and robbing Ralph Liddell, of his watch. The complainant, while passing along the Wall-knoll, was suddenly attacked by the prisoner, who struck him, and attempted to snatch his watch from him, but, while struggling, a police-officer fortunately came up, and captured the prisoner. On examining the place, the watch was found lying on the ground. The bench, under the circumstances, fined the prisoner £3 for the assault, and in default of payment committed for two months."
- Newcastle Courant, 11 November 1853

"Harriet Edgar and Ann Wilson, robbing a Dutch sailor of 8s 6d, in a house of ill fame, in the Wall Knoll, were committed for three months."
- Newcastle Guardian, 31 December 1853

"All Saints' District, particularly Pandon, Silver Street, Wall Knoll, and the more densely populated parts of the district generally, were also in so bad a sanitary condition that parts of it could not be worse. Mr Simon enquired as to whether the excrements were thrown out in any of these places? Mr Rayne said it was so, and if Mr Simon were to walk down there at night he would most likely get a shower. (Laughter.)"
- Newcastle Journal, 28 January 1854

It is quite clear to all that Wall Knoll was a hotbed of crime, disease, filth and unsavoury characters, and this was the street in which my ancestors lived. 

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

The Sea Unicorn

The British Newspaper Archive have recently added a new newspaper, the Tyne Mercury; Northumberland and Durham and Cumberland Gazette. They only have early years so far, and already I have found so much. 

This is my favourite little find so far:

"On Wednesday se'nnight, an animal, supposed to be what is commonly called a sea unicorn, and measuring about 15 feet in length, was found lying on the beach between Cambois and Blyth. It had been previously washed ashore at Newbiggen, but the fishermen not knowing what it is, suffered it to be carried away by the ensuing tide."
- 23 September 1828

This particular newspaper appears to be quite fond of the word "se'nnight," which I had never heard of before. A quick Google search tells me that "se'nnight" is an old word meaning "week". 

Presumably the sea unicorn was a narwhal, a very rare sight on the Northumbrian coast.