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.