Friday, 27 March 2020

Margaret Messenger 1881 – Sprunston, Durdar.


Sprunston, just south of Durdar, near Carlisle
 At 1pm on the afternoon of Tuesday 28th June 1881, at Sprunston, Blackwell High, near Durdar, Carlisle, it was realised that three-year-old John Mark Pallister was missing from the family home. He had been with his father in the kitchen, but Mr. Pallister had dozed after dinner and when he woke the child was no longer present. A search was quickly mounted by the family. The servant, 13-year-old Margaret Messenger went to the well with a water tin to fetch water. She found the child drowned at the bottom and quickly alerted Mr. Pallister. An inquest was convened that afternoon at Sprunston and after hearing the circumstances the jury reached a verdict of ‘Accidentally Drowned’.

Margaret was the daughter of the foreman at the nearby chalk quarries and had worked for the Pallister family only from 9th June; she was regarded as an intelligent girl who was engaged to look after the three children and do minor household chores. They had one other servant, a lad called George Haffen, who did farm work.

At about 8am on 2nd July Mr. and Mrs. Pallister left the children, Margaret Hodgson (5yrs) and an infant Mary Elizabeth Pallister, in the care of Margaret while they went into Carlisle. She was instructed to strictly care for the children and not to do any work. George was working in a field approximately 100 yards from the house hoeing potatoes, and at about 10am he heard the baby cry, which he placed little importance to. Shortly, five-year-old Margaret Hodgson, the oldest child, shouted that he had to come, saying a man had taken the baby. He then spoke to Margaret Messenger who repeated this account saying the man had left and went in the direction of the orchard and well. He himself thought they were joking, but checked and found no man, nor any sight of the child. He continued with his work. About half an hour later he then saw Margaret Messenger carrying the body of the infant across a field called Lamb Close, with the five-year-old following her. It was now around 11:30am and a neighbour called Mrs. Story, was quickly called from her house 300 yards away. She found Margaret Messenger stood over the body in a yard and also noticed the front of the body was dirty and wet, but the back was dry; the body was still warm to touch. She asked Messenger what had happened and was told the same account of the man by her. When asked, she added that the baby was found near the well in a pool with a big stone on top of its head. Mrs. Story accused her of lying, saying that she had done this. Mr. Story had returned from Carlisle and guarded her in the house, which he had now locked her in. He also questioned Messenger she now stated that she had fallen asleep while nursing the child in the Lamb Close field and when she woke the child was not there. This further alerted his suspicions as the child could not have walked to where it was ‘found’ by Messenger. She showed him the place, which was a boggy piece of ground just below the well. He confronted her, stating that there were a lot of footprints of her clogs, but none made by any man, and a mark existed where a stone had been lifted, with further clog marks of hers present at that location. She then burst out crying, saying she would tell him the truth, but he warned her to keep it for the authorities. The Pallister’s later returned to learn of this second tragic death of another child.

Superintendent Sempill was called and attended at 6pm. He asked Mrs. Story to retrieve the clogs and clothing worn by Messenger that day. She went with the servant to her room and asked her to tell her the truth. After hesitating, Margaret Messenger then admitted that she had done this terrible deed. The Superintendent was called to the room and Mrs Story told Messenger to repeat to him what she had told her. The Superintendent realised something significant would be said and cautioned her; she then repeated her admission to causing the death of the infant, which he took down into writing. She stated that she had put the child in the bog and no one helped her. He then had plaster casts made of the clog prints near the scene, for later production at court as evidence. Margaret Messenger was then arrested on suspicion of murder.

On Monday 4th July an inquest was commenced at the family home, but adjourned, awaiting the result of the post-mortem. Messenger was further remanded by the magistrates after the inquest adjournment. Doctors. Moffat and Brown conducted a post-mortem and were able to later state that the cause of death was suffocation when immersed in mud. The inquest was reconvened on Monday 11th at The White Quey Inn, Durdar and the verdict was one of Murder of the infant. She remained on remand at the gaol and her mother allowed to pay her a visit.

The trial took place at the Assizes court which sat on Wednesday 2nd November 1881 and the above evidence was given. Mr. Page was one of the prosecuting barristers and then went on to outline the possible defences to a charge of murder. Three were quickly discounted as not feasible:

·        If a man took the child where were his footprints?

·        The child could have fallen into the pool and drowned, but no water was in the lungs.

·        If the child had fallen from someone’s arms into the bog, who had carried it there? If it were the prisoner, why had she not merely lifted it back out?

He then paid particular attention to a fourth defence in that it had not been proved that the child had Guilty Knowledge’. He had earlier spoken at the start of the trial on this subject. A person under seven years could not have such Guilty Knowledge to commit a crime, neither could a child between seven and fourteen but in this older child that was only a prima facie presumption that could be rebutted, if such Guilty Knowledge could be shown. Had the child done the deed and then openly stated she had killed the infant then Guilty Knowledge would be difficult to show. In this case a murder had taken place and means had been used to prevent the truth being found out. The question for the jury was one whether this constituted that Guilty Knowledge to what she was doing was wrong.

The Messenger family were from the parish of Rosley, near Wigton, and the vicar and also the schoolteacher gave good character references for Margaret as an attentive and kindly girl, the schoolmaster had placed her in charge of his own children.

There then followed a spirited plea to the jury by the defence, before the judge summarised the case. He reminded the jury it was not their prerogative to show mercy, but that it was their sworn duty to ensure justice was done, based upon the evidence presented. He then summarised the evidence, touching on the issue of possible motives and defences. The jury retired for only ten minutes and returned to the courtroom with a verdict of Guilty with a plea to mercy on account of her age. The learned judge then had a terrible duty to perform, for there was only one sentence he could pass. He donned the black cap and said:

‘Margaret Messenger, you have been found Guilty, after a very careful and long trial, of the heinous crime of murder. Your life is now at the mercy of the Queen’s prerogative alone. I shall not prolong the misery, agony, and pain of you and all who have heard this case by one word of reproach to you. My solemn oath is to pass upon you the dread sentence of the law. That is, that you be taken hence to the place from whence you came, and from thence to the place of execution, and there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that your body be afterwards buried in the precincts of the prison in which you shall have been last confined after your conviction, and may the Lord have mercy on your soul.’

The judge himself was much affected by the sentence he had to pass on this fourteen-year-old girl. Margaret was removed to the goal and appeals were submitted to the Home Office, for consideration by the Crown. The early appeal pointed out that Margaret now showed remorse for her deeds and had written a letter to Mr. and Mrs. Pallister for murdering two of their children, saying also that God had forgiven her as she now hoped they would also. She also said that she hoped a new servant would serve them better than she had done.  She was examined by Dr. Orange, of the Broadmoor Asylum and Dr. MacDougall, the Carlisle Gaol surgeon, with a view to ascertain her state of mind. Dr. Orange reported to the Home Office and on Tuesday 13th December Mr. Haverfield, the Carlisle Gaol Governor, received that commutation of the death sentence to one of penal servitude for life.

The Messenger family had lived at Chalk Foot, Cumdivock, between Curthwaite and Dalston; Margaret was born there in 1867 and spent her childhood in that area. After penal servitude she was released in December 1891 from Woking prison and is then known to have lived with her younger brothers, George and Joseph, at Howrigg, at Woodside, Rosley, and was employed as a dressmaker. In 1939 she is known to be living about a mile from that location at Howend Cottages, Thursby, now on her own. It is believed she lived to the age of 91, dying as a spinster in 1959 in the Wigton area, which Howend would be part of. 

Howrigg and Howend, near Thursby, west of Carlisle.


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Wednesday, 25 March 2020

The 1854 visitation of a shoal of whales to the Solway Firth coastline


On Saturday 16th December 1854 an event of marine nature began to unfold which would culminate in a gruesome but welcome harvest for both the Scottish and English communities of the Solway Firth coastline. On that day, fishermen were plying their trade in the Irish sea when they became surrounded by masses of whales, up to 30 feet in length, and these sailors were in fear of being capsized. The creatures, which were visible as far as the eye could see and estimated in news reports as in their thousands, appeared to be in a state of exhaustion.
 Through the night they were swept by the tide into the Solway Firth and the coastal residents were alarmed by the sounds emanating across the shores of Dumfriesshire and Cumberland. The Crimean war was underway and local people even speculated to the sound being a Russian invasion. The morning however was to enlighten them to an unlooked for but welcome bounty of meat and oil, which would both feed the communities and lighten their lamps for years to come. The greatest number were thrashing at the ebb of the tide and in a state of exhaustion, and were stretched out from Annan Waterfoot, to Sarkfoot, although the greatest number were near Browhouses, Eastriggs; the largest was estimated at 40 feet in length. The local population fell upon the creatures, described as 'conductor' or 'calling' toothed whales from the northern oceans, with any form of cutting tool that could be utilised to kill, then strip the skin and blubber from the carcasses. The largest fought against the impending death and resisted the crowds eager to kill it. One man unwisely climbed onto its tail to prevent the animal from thrashing about and was thrown 20 yards along the shoreline from a single flick. The slaughter continued despite there initially being insufficient horses to draw the creatures higher up the beach, and many were left in the sea with their throats cut to be thrown onto the sands with the next incoming tides, when more horses had by then been acquired. The oil bounty was estimated at a quart for every 4Ibs of blubber rendered in the cooking pots. 
By the Tuesday over 200 of the creatures had been slaughtered in Annan and other places, with the subsequent rendered oil selling at between 4 and 6 shillings a gallon, dependent on quality. This was valued at £600, a typical wage of the time would have been £1. In Silloth Bay alone 20 were killed, with others being taken at Port Carlisle, Bowness, Cardornock, and several other places along the coast. It was said that had more people been at hand many more could have been killed, although between 300 and 400 people had been engaged in the Annan harvest. One whale, presumably that had been landed at Port Carlisle, was exhibited at Carlisle and drew large crowds, unused to such a sighting of a creature of the depths.

Image taken from The Illustrated London News depicting Silloth Bay.


On Thursday 28th December a business opportunity presented itself when one of the whales, which was 20 feet in length, was seen floating dead off the West Pier. The tug brought it on shore at the old quay and it was put on public display in a temporary shed at a fee of 2d per head, from which the tug owners recouped a considerable sum of money. A further whale was washed ashore at the ship building yard of the town.
This mass beaching was considered as one of, if not the greatest, landing of whales upon the shores of the nation that had ever been encountered. Scientific speculation abounded at the reasons for such a beaching. One was that they had followed the herrings which were, some time previous, found in abundance in the Firth, but none were found in the stomach contents. Another was that they had been frightened from the native grounds by tremendous storms that had recently passed over India and the Crimea. The most likely theory settled upon was that of some submerged volcano would have stunned and stupefied them, only to be caught in the current which sets around the Isle of Man, which would speedily carry them into the Solway. 
Further whale sightings would occur in the firth; four of 30 feet length, were sighted in July 1860 between Ross and Abbeyburn, but returned back to sea; on Sunday 13th July 1862 a number were seen at Brow Pow (Powfoot?), near Brow Well, Dumfries, although they returned to the ocean. In July 1863 the shores of Dumfriesshire were again visited by whales, with 6 beaching near Priestside; all 6 were killed and rendered to extract the valuable oil. A further one was landed a month later at nearby Waterfoot. Single whales or small shoals continued to be sighted in the late 1800's, but none ever came close to matching the huge shoal of December 1854.

**Taking into account the image, the whales were toothed and from the 'northern oceans', their main size of up to 30 feet in length and the name of conductor or calling whales, there seems little doubt that these were sperm whales. This was a term not commonly referred to in the early and mid 1800's, although some references exist. The term comes from an oily waxy substance within the whales head used for echo location called spermaceti and could be up to 1,900 litres. That 'echo' was most likely the 'conductor' or 'calling' sound the creatures made.**
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