THE baby was the daughter born to Mary Ann Cotton, of West Auckland, in Durham jail on January 7, 1873. We told the story in Memories 96, with, as ever, a few inaccuracies. An army of readers – many anonymous, others marshalled by Tim Brown of Ferryhill Local History Society – and some relatives have helped put us right.
Mary Ann Cotton’s trial, for allegedly murdering her stepson Charles, was delayed for several months so that she could give birth. Facts concerning Mary Ann are difficult to pin down, but this was definitely her eighth child – she had several miscarriages and there may have been other children.
When Mary Ann christened the baby with its distinctive surname, it identified the father. He was John Quick- Manning, who was probably the excise officer at West Auckland Brewery and who was definitely married to someone else. He fled and changed his surname: some say he went abroad; others that he returned to his hometown of Darlington where, reconciled with his wife, he ran a small beerhouse.
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The trial got going on March 3 and Mary Ann was found guilty of the one murder four days later. The word was that she had killed anything up to 21 of her husbands, lovers, children and stepchildren, and even her own mother – making her Britain’s most prolific mass murderer until Harold Shipman.
Mary Ann nursed the baby in her cell – one visitor told The Northern Echo how he had encountered “Mrs Cotton sitting on a stool close by a good fire, giving the breast to her baby” – until all avenues of appeal were exhausted.
A week before her brutally botched execution on March 24, she gave the infant to be adopted by a couple she knew in West Auckland, William and Sarah Edwards.
Baby Margaret seems to have been their only child and, according to the 1881 census when they were living in Leasingthorne, she was using the Edwards surname.
In late 1890, 17-year-old Margaret married Joseph Fletcher, a south Durham miner, and in 1892, they had a daughter, Clara, who was born at Windlestone.
What clouds hung over the family? In a close-knit community like the Durham coalfield, it would have been impossible for Margaret to escape the notoriety of her birth. Perhaps this is what caused the young family, in May 1893, to sail from Liverpool on RMS Umbria to New York for a new life.
The ship’s manifest shows they were bound for Pennsylvania – a coalmining area where Joseph presumably planned to find work. But when their son, William, was born a few months after their arrival, his place of birth was listed as Imperial County in California – a desert through which canals were being dug to create farmland.
With this baby still in nappies, Joseph disappeared. It is believed that he was killed in a railway accident.
IN October 1894, Margaret, by now a 21-year-old widow, sailed from Boston, Massachusetts, on RMS Cephalonia, with her two toddlers, Clara and William, back to Liverpool.
She was coming home to Durham, and to her adoptive parents, pregnant with her third child.
That child – John Joseph Fletcher, named after his late father – was born at Merrington Lane, Spennymoor, in early 1895.
The 1901 census found 28- year-old Margaret and her three children living with her adoptive mother Sarah at the Greyhound Inn, Ferryhill – her adoptive father, William, had died aged 54 in 1897, and Sarah was the pub licensee.
The census revealed that her boys were working underground – William was a collier and John was a pony driver.
Later in 1901, Margaret married Robinson Kell, a miner at the Dean and Chapter Colliery in Ferryhill, and had his son.
The 1911 census lists Margaret, Robinson and her three sons living in Watt Street, Dean Bank. Her daughter, Clara, 19, was living with Sarah in St Luke’s Terrace, Ferryhill.
Then came the First World War. William and John went off to fight. Neither came home.
John joined the Green Howards, rose to be a lance corporal, and was killed, on June 11, 1917, at the Battle of Messines, near Ypres.
A mortar shell exploded over his head and no trace was ever found of his body.
His name is carved with countless thousands of others on the Menin Gate at Ypres.
William joined the Durham Light Infantry and ended up in the London Rifles. He was seriously injured in 1918 on the Somme, but refused to be sent home, probably because he believed he would recover and rejoin the frontline.
He didn’t. He died in a field hospital on November 4 – a week before the armistice. He is buried in Cambrai cemetery.
Both of Mary Ann Cotton’s grandsons have their names engraved on Ferryhill War Memorial.
Perhaps at this point, it would be best to draw a discrete veil over the family tree, except to say that Margaret lived into old age with the stigma of being the daughter of one of Britain’s most notorious killers.
It is quite clear that much of south Durham knew her life story, but it is also clear that she was accepted, and even admired, by that community.
Her family describe her as being “immensely private, intelligent, warm and kind-hearted, and a devoted wife, mother and grandmother”.
Memories is aware that there are quite a lot of direct descendants of Mary Ann Cotton living in our area, and we’ve been asked to let their sleeping dogs lie.
With thanks to Vivienne Smith, Durham; Joyce Malcolm, Newton Aycliffe; Alistair Fraser, the Western Front Association; John Dinning and Geoff Wall, the Ferryhill Heritage Centre; Tom Hutchinson, Bishop Auckland; Vi Steventon of Newton Aycliffe; Ian Smyth Herdman of Hartlepool and everybody else who has been in touch.
SO how guilty was Mary Ann Cotton? She was convicted of just the one murder, of her young stepson, but the evidence against her was vague and circumstantial, and it is extremely doubtful that it would stand up in a modern court of law.
The mother who murdered her own children was, though, a sensational story, and the media of the day – led by The Northern Echo’s famous editor, WT Stead – whipped up feelings against her.
That is not to say she was entirely innocent, although it does seem very unlikely that she murdered her own mother, who died of hepatitis.
A fascinating website, put together by “Robson Cotton”
and which puts Mary Ann in a different light, is well worth a visit at maryanncotton.co.uk