Agnes Weston and Henry James Gilbert – Concealment of a Birth
This is a sad story of the death of a newly born baby and the subsequent trial of the parents, Agnes Weston and Henry Gilbert, in August 1891.
Agnes Weston was indicted and on bail for concealing the birth of her illegitimate child on 10th August and appeared at the Bedfordshire Assizes on Saturday 21st November. At the trial Mr Bonsey prosecuted and Mr Harris QC defended. Whilst on bail Miss Weston left Bedford to spend time with her family in Wiltshire, returning to stand trial on 21st November; she also spent a month at the Bedford Infirmary during this period.
Agnes Weston was a 22-year-old cook and domestic servant, single and in service, employed by Mr Leggatt who lived at Sunnyview, 23 River Crescent, ‘Gwyn-street’ near the Embankment in Bedford. There were ten people altogether in the household, Mr and Mrs Leggatt, their two sons and two daughters, a governess, Philip Heisch, brother-in-law, Rose Currington, house and parlour maid and domestic servant and fellow servant Agnes Weston. Rose and Agnes lived at their place of work, where they shared a bedroom. Prior to 8th August Rose, a witness at the trial on 21st November, noticed that Agnes was enceinte [French pregnant] but had not commented on this. On the morning of 9th August Agnes asked her to get the breakfast and Agnes then came downstairs at 8.30 am, when she fainted and went to bed; she returned to bed twice during that day. In the evening Agnes was given leave to go out and returned about 10 and went to bed. The following morning Rose woke about 5 and saw Agnes leave the room with a foot-bath full of linen and carrying her shoes in her hand. After breakfast the prisoner told her she had a mishap on Sunday morning and Rose saw a sheet in the copper which Agnes had washed. On Monday evening Agnes went out and borrowed Rose’s mackintosh. When she came in Rose made her bed and noticed only one sheet, doubled (she elaborated on the state of the bed at trial). On the Wednesday Agnes told her that she had hidden the child’s body in a copper on her master’s premises and then locked it in her box during the Sunday and took it out on Monday evening to Harry who threw it in the river, and that was why she wanted her mackintosh. Harry was her ‘young man’. Although the time-scale is somewhat confusing, there is no doubting the outcome of Agnes’s actions.
Detective Gordon confirming that he went to the prisoner at the house in ‘Gwyn-street’ to explain to her that she would be arrested, also said that two days previously [on 24th August] he and Sergeant Setchel had dragged the river and recovered the body of a newly-born child wrapped up and tied with string and copper wire to a brick. It was after his visit to her that she left Bedford and returned to Wiltshire. It was stated that the prisoner ‘left the house on Friday’.
Dr Phillips stated that he opened the parcel and found no marks of violence whatever upon the body of the child. He examined the child and also confirmed that there was no evidence that the prisoner had given birth to a child but there was evidence of a miscarriage; he queried whether evidence of a birth was required for a conviction for concealment following a birth. He stated that ‘certainly there was no evidence of concealment’.
Rose knew of Agnes’s condition since March but did not tell her mistress. Agnes was apprehended on 26th [August] and charged. On the 24th [August] Rose had seen a parcel containing the body of a child pulled out of the river near Mr Leggatt’s house, and she pulled out a piece of mackintosh. P.s. Setchill deposed [witnessed] to dragging from the river the body of a child. The same day he examined the prisoner’s bedroom and in her box found a bottle labelled ‘steel drops’. [Steel Drops are still available and are advertised as ‘a good source of iron’]. Discussion ensued and Mr Harris submitted that there was no case, there being no evidence that the prisoner had had a child but only evidence that she told Rose Currington so. Mr Bonsey said if the jury believed Rose Currington they must convict the prisoner.
Mr Harris pointed out that the prisoner had made no attempt to conceal the matter from the fellow servant and that concealment of the body did not amount to concealment of birth. However, in summing up the judge said there was clear proof that the girl had given birth to a child and there was her own statement that she had locked it in her box. He stressed that if they were satisfied with Rose Currington’s evidence they must find the prisoner guilty. The jury then retired to consider their verdict.
The prisoner was found guilty but the jury strongly recommended her to mercy.
The judge said because Miss Weston had given every information to the authorities, he would – under these circumstances – take a very lenient view of the case, and his sentence would be that she would be discharged from prison to come up for judgement when called upon. This was received with loud applause at the back of the Court.
Henry James Gilbert was similarly indicted for concealing the birth of the illegitimate child of Agnes Weston at Bedford on 10th August. He pleaded not guilty. Mr Bonsey opened the case and said that although girls were often charged with concealing the birth of their illegitimate children it was unusual for their seducers to be placed in the dock on a similar charge and although the sympathy of the jury would be naturally enlisted on behalf of the girl, he did not think there was much room for sympathy for the man who was the cause of her trouble.
Rose Currington gave similar evidence as with the previous case and said she knew the prisoner kept company with Agnes Weston. P.s. Setchell said on 24th August he saw the prisoner who said to him ‘Do you want me?’ and they went to the police station. The prisoner subsequently made a statement that one night Agnes Weston came out of Mr Leggatt’s house and gave him a parcel which they took to the recreation ground; they both tied a brick to the parcel and she sat on the form while he threw the parcel in the river near the overshot. The prisoner directed the witness [P.s. Setchell] to the spot and he recovered the parcel from the river. The proceedings continued and the Bedfordshire Mercury reported as follows:
‘Agnes gave him a parcel one night outside Mr Leggatts’ and they went down to the river over the Suspension Bridge, to the Duck Mill meadows, near the back of the over-shot. She sat on a form and helped him to tie up a parcel; she still sat there whilst he went and threw it into the river. In answer to a question by the Inspector, he said that he knew that she had been ill and he had reason to know what was the matter with her. Afterwards Gilbert went with them to the spot by the river, showed them where the girl sat, and where he threw the parcel in. Detective Gordon commenced dragging, and they soon brought up a parcel to which was attached a red brick, on which Gilbert said, “By God, you’ve got it.” On being charged, the prisoner signed a statement admitting that he received a parcel from Agnes Weston, that they then went to the river, and he threw it in.
‘Detective Gordon corroborated part of the evidence of the Police Sergeant, and added that the prisoner had said he had offered to marry the girl in March.
‘Dr. Phillips was again called, and stated that he opened the parcel and found no marks of violence whatever upon the body of the child.
‘Mr Harris, addressing the jury for the defence, contended that the man did not know that the parcel contained the body of the child. There was no doubt, according to evidence, that it contained the body, but there was no evidence that he knew it. It might have been a foetus or some other matter that she desired him to throw into the water. Prisoner had acted perfectly straight in the matter, and there was a good deal to be said on his behalf.’
In summing up, his Lordship pointed out that the very fact of concealing the body was a crime and if such a thing were allowed it would be a strong temptation for hundreds of illegitimate children to be murdered. If the prisoner assisted to put the body in the river that was a secret disposition but he also commented that according to his statement the witness ‘seemed to have done all he could to undo the wrong he had committed’. He stated that ‘In all of these cases, which unfortunately were not rare, there was a great temptation on the part of those concerned to get rid of the body at any costs, and it required a great moral courage on the part of the girl to stand up against the opprobrium of public disclosure’.’
Mr Harris stated in his client’s defence, that Gilbert had offered to marry the girl but she declined, and that ‘both were very respectable’. The girl had come out of the infirmary that morning and the affair had nearly killed her. When they heard the police had got the matter in hand both gave themselves up directly.
The chaplain of the Bedford Infirmary said Agnes Weston had been there a month, and had expressed sincere contrition for what she had done. His Lordship thought that in the circumstances the jury were justified in recommending both prisoners to mercy.
After some deliberation the jury found the prisoner guilty and hoped the judge would deal leniently with him.
Agnes Weston and Henry Gilbert were both discharged and told they were to come up for judgement when called upon. This decision was received by the public in court with loud applause.
It is interesting to note that some of the blame was apportioned to the man by the court, and not just to the woman, which is unusual for the 19th century and a male-dominated society.
The records show that Henry James Gilbert born in 1865 and aged 26 at the time of the incident and indictment, went on to marry in the autumn of 1901 and the 1911 census shows him and Rhoda Robinson Gilbert nee Bayes living in Kempston with son John Henry.
Henry James Gilbert was buried at Foster Hill Road cemetery on 5th January 1931, aged 66 years. The address was recorded as St Peter’s Hospital, St Peter’s, Bedford. Grave reference Q.715.
Agnes Weston was born in 1867 in Devises, Wiltshire. The death register indicates that Agnes Weston spinster died in 1950 aged 83 at Rotherham; no other references have been found.
Baby Weston was buried at Bedford Cemetery, Foster Hill Road, Bedford. The age was recorded as ‘a few minutes’. The baby is buried in an unmarked grave and the burial took place on 27th August 1891. The name is recorded as ‘Female Child of Agnes Weston’.
IN REMEMBRANCE OF ALL OUR BABIES
SO DEARLY LOVED
“AND HE TOOK THEM UP INTO HIS ARMS
AND BLESSED THEM”
St Mark Chapter 10 Verse 16
The Bedfordshire Mercury, Saturday November 21, 1891 p.6
The Bedfordshire Standard, Saturday November 21, 1891 p.6
The 1891, 1901 and 1911 Census
Baby Weston’s Grave ref. A.885
The burial record entry is No. 860 and is on page 172 of Register No 11
Copyright: Brenda Fraser-Newstead
20 September 2019
Postscript: My sincere thanks to Linda Ayres and Colin Woolf for their valued support with research.
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