White Hart – where the inquest took place

Another week has passed by as I did a final edit of my book, and it made me realise how lucky I am to have a husband, who takes over the household chores when I am pushed for time.  Without him, I wouldn’t be fed, watered nor have clean clothes to wear, but things were so different for our ancestors, as I discovered when I researched the case of Mary Ann Plumb.

Like many women in Victorian times she put up with her lot, seeing no way out, until she set out to destroy herself and her family, and almost succeeded. In prison she wrote a letter for her remaining children summing up her miserable existence. ‘Forty long years did I live and did not think I had a God nor a soul to save, and now my sins have found me out. I have not said much when I have been told, for I was ashamed of my sinful state before God and man. If I had never been brought to Lewis prison I have done plenty to deserve a worse death than mine.  I do pray to be forgiven by God and man through the blood of Him that died upon the cross, and if God be merciful to me I think I shall be the biggest sinner that ever was pardoned.’  

Mary Ann was the eldest of five children born into a poor hard working rural family.  She received a simple education but her local school deemed her to be lazy, and a devious child. One day she was left in the house alone while her parents were working in the fields.  They returned to find they’d been robbed of several articles of clothing, and Mary Ann denied all knowledge of their whereabouts, but it transpired she had pawned them.  She was sent into service as a maid, but was more interested is flirting with a farmhand, Richard Geering, than working, and when it was discovered she was pregnant she was sent home in disgrace. Her parents were horrified. They had a good reputation in the community as an upright family, and didn’t want the shame of having an unmarried daughter to cope with. They insisted she married Richard, but she was equally defiant that she didn’t love him, but after much pressure reluctantly married at Westfield church, near the family home. Three months later Mary Ann’s first child was born and they moved near Guestling, where Richard found work as a labourer for Mr John Veness.  Richard had a quick and violent temper, and with her explosive temperament, it was not a happy relationship but despite frequent quarrels they managed to produce eight children. Mary Ann became a devoted mother, and although she rarely took them to church, she taught them to pray and herself to read and write, by copying from the children’s school books. Her relationship with Richard was one of constant arguments and unhappy tolerance. He considered her extravagant with money, she accused him of being tight-fisted, and it soon became a habit for her to travel to Hastings on a Monday morning, pawn the families’ Sunday best, returning on Saturday so they could wear their Sunday best.  Despite being poor, all those employed paid weekly into the Guestling Friendly Society, entitling each member of the family to a payment of eight-pence a day during illness, and all funeral expenses in the event of death. In times of no state benefit this was essential in order for a family to survive.

Guestling East Sussex

When Mary Ann was 48 years-old, her eldest son William’s wife died of consumption leaving three small children, and he agreed to move in with his parents and pay nine shillings a week for board and lodgings.  However it turned out to be less than ideal, as Mary Ann’s younger boys were jealous of her taking on the role of mother to the little ones.  In revenge her own children began to take Richard’s side in quarrels, making life even more difficult.  No doubt she felt isolated and sought solace by becoming a regular church goer.  One day three words in a sermon ‘A murdering mother,’ reverberated around her mind, plaguing her by day and giving her strange dreams at night. Two years earlier Richard had inherited a sum of £20 and had placed it in a savings bank in Hasting, giving the book to his sister for safe keeping.  At the time they were in debt, and Mary Ann thought the money should have been used to clear their debts. In March the following year Richard asked his sister to withdraw £5 for him and keep the book. Mary Ann was furious and a few months later she asked her sister-in-law for the book saying that her son had asked to see the book.  The sister handed the book over, but didn’t tell her brother. Mary Ann went straight to the bank and withdrew most of it, leaving just one shilling and four pence in the account.  In September 1848 the couple had yet another row about rent arrears. Richard was now working as a labourer on Mr Arkoll’s farm and one day he and fellow worker William Apps were ordered to collect oats. At midday both men sat under a hedge to eat their lunch, and share some home-brewed beer supplied by the master. Each worker was given a horn holding about half a pint of beer, which they usually gulped down in one swallow, but Richard had great difficulty, and only managed to drink about half.  Later that afternoon he was violently sick, but continued to work until around 7pm.  The next two days he appeared to be fine and went to work as usual, but on the Saturday Apps called for Richard, and Mary Ann told him Richard wouldn’t be going to work as he’d been sick for most of the night.  After his shift Apps called back and was informed he was no better.

The next day Mr Pocock, a local surgeon was called and some medication was prescribed, but when he returned to see how the patient was progressing, he had died and based on what Mary Ann said issued a certificate that Richard had died from a heart disease. That same day Mary Ann applied to the Friendly Society and received £4.18s towards the cost of the funeral, and a further sum of 3s 4d for the days he was ill. Fifteen weeks after his father’s death,  George, her son became ill and when Judith Veness called, Mary Ann told her George was suffering from the same heart condition as his father. For several weeks his mother nursed him by day and his brother, James at night.  Sometimes he felt better, but always complained of a raging thirst with violent bouts of vomiting. Mr Pocock prescribed doses of castor oil, but George grew worse and died. Mary Ann sent for Mrs Veness and asked her to prepare the body for the coffin.

Westfield church – where Mary Ann and Richard married

Six weeks after George’s funeral, financed by the Guestling Friendly Society, James became ill with symptoms resembling those of his father and brother, and on March 6 he died.

Three weeks later on Good Friday, Ben, another son became ill and after drinking tea for breakfast he was violently sick, but managed to go to the farm to feed the animals.  For two days Ben complained of a ‘heat in his inside,‘ then made a slight recovery before slipping into a relapse after having a drink with his dinner, and three days later Mary Ann called  Mr Ticehurst, a medical attendant, who suspected Ben was being poisoned and removed him from the cottage. Mr Ticehurst contacted the coroner and the bodies of Richard and his sons were exhumed and tested. Mary Ann was suspected of administering poison and was taken to Hastings, whilst her three youngest children were taken into a poor house.

The Inquest was held at the White Hart at Guestling, and evidence was given that Mary Ann had, on various occasions, bought packets of arsenic from a Hastings chemist.  Medical evidence showed that Richard and James had arsenic in their bodies, and James mercury.  Although she pleaded not guilty to three charges of murder and one on the attempt on the life of Ben she was committed for trial on 7 August 1849, and the case became known as the Guestling Murderess. The sad marriage was examined in fine detail, and the witness for the Crown, Mr Hunt, did his best in her defence, stating that as arsenic was not found in the body of George and Richard this could easily have taken by mistake. As for the money received from the Friendly Society, he said it was certainly not enough to murder for. Mary Ann, he said, was a kind and affectionate mother, and although there was much quarrelling it couldn’t have been a motive. His arguments had no effect and Mary Ann was sentenced to hang.  Eleven days after sentence a huge crowd began to assemble early on both sides of North and Little East Street, Lewes.  Thousands of people gathered on the slopes of Cliffe Hill and police were stationed at every corner in case of trouble. The lower windows of the houses opposite the prison were barricaded, but the upper floors were filled with spectators.  All morning there was a buzz of excitement and as midday approached and the prisoner, dressed all in black, bare headed and with a black shawl with a multi- coloured border pinned around her neck appeared, supported by two turnkeys.  She mounted the steps and stood still as the clergyman said prayers, then the executioner stepped forward, placed a cap over her head and fixed the cord around her neck, passing it over the cross beam.  Her hands were not tied and the crowd could see they were clasped in prayer, and finally she was at peace, her tragic life over.  Before her execution she made a full confession to the chaplain who believed she was truly sorry, and claimed she didn’t murder for money, but to put an end to her misery.  She told the chaplain she had contemplated suicide in prison but reading her bible she came across the words, ‘he that endureth to the end shall be saved, and so maybe I’. I am sure everyone reading this will spare a thought for Mary Ann and her tragic life.