When aged just twenty-one years of age, Ann Rollstone was married to Thomas Hoon, a labourer, at the parish church in Longford, Derbyshire, about six miles from the town of Ashbourne. Just nine months later the couple produced their first child, a beautiful baby girl whom they named, Elizabeth.
Tragically though their joy at this birth was to be short-lived as the child died the following April. Despite this loss and unknown to Ann at the time, she was already pregnant with their second child, another daughter whom they named Ann, after her mother. Ann was born at the end of January 1795.
The couple’s life continued as it did for most people, with Ann looking after the home and raising their daughter and Thomas going out to work.
In March 1796, this picture of domestic bliss was about to end abruptly as the story will now show from Ann’s trial at Derby Assizes. This tragic story came to the attention of the newspapers of the day due to its unusual nature.
On Friday last this poor creature, who is the wife of a laboring man, was about to heat her oven, and being short of wood, had broken down a rail or two from the fencing round the plantation of a gentleman in the neighbourhood, some of her neighbours threatened her with prosecution and told her she would be transported for it.
This so much alarmed her mind and the idea of being separated from her child, whom she had always appeared remarkably fond of, so wrought on her imagination, that she formed the horrible design of putting her to death, in order that, by surrendering herself into the hands of justice, she might be executed for the murder, and so be forever reunited in heaven with the baby whom she had loved more than life.
(Kentish Gazette, 22nd March 1796)
Her story continues – no sooner had her husband had gone to work she began to hatch a plan to put this dreadful thing into action. She decided that the best way to do this was to fill a large tub with water and plunge the child into to it causing it to drown. However, when she took the child in her arms and was just about to plunge her into the water, the baby, smiling up at the mother’s face, disarmed her for the moment, and Anne found herself unable to commit the dreadful act.
Having composed herself, she then lulled the baby to sleep at her breast, wrapped a cloth around her and plunged her into the tub, and held her under water till life became extinct.
She took the baby out of the tub and carefully laid her dead body on the bed. She then collected up her hat and cloak, went outside, locking her street door after her, and took the key to a neighbours for her husband to collect when he returned from work.
She then proceeded to walk about eight miles to a magistrate (which would, in all likelihood have been at Derby). When she arrived, she knocked on the door and asked to be admitted. Ann then proceeded to tell the magistrate the whole story, desperately wishing to be executed immediately for what she had done.
About an hour after she had left, her husband, Thomas, returned home from work and to his very great shock and dismay he found his dear little infant lying stretched out on the bed. It had such an effect upon Thomas, that he was insensible for quite some time. When he had composed himself he enquired of neighbours as to whether they knew where his wife was and was told that she went out about an hour earlier, but no-one knew where she had gone. Distraught he simply sat down by his dead infant and waited for Ann to return.
Ann did not get her wish of execution but was instead sent for trial at Derby Assizes whereupon it transpired that there had, in fact, been ‘many instances of insanity over the past four years’ and it was felt that this was the most likely cause of her dramatic action. This mitigating evidence was taken into consideration by the jury and somewhat surprisingly they found her … not guilty of such a heinous crime. It is well known that at that time many juries were reluctant to convict women of intentional killing and in fact, infanticide was not particularly rare during the Georgian Era and there are quite a few cases that appeared at The Old Bailey.
What became of the couple after this terrible event remains a mystery, did they return to the marital home in Longford or did they move elsewhere? There are baptism records for a William and a Thomas Hoon at Derby in 1800 and 1805 respectively, with parents named as Thomas and Ann Hoon: could the couple have moved to Derby for a fresh start? We may never know, we can only hope.
Family Sitting Outside a Rural Cottage, Attributed to George Morland, Courtesy of Buxton Museum