Drainage mills in the Fens, John Sell Cottman

The Regency poisoning of Mary Biggadike

Mary Biggadike was born May 1801 and baptised in the parish church, of Whaplode, a village in Lincolnshire, by the somewhat forthright vicar, Samuel Oliver.

In early 1818 she found herself pregnant and so, doing the right thing, James Cawthorn, a labourer of Whaplode walked her up the aisle her in August of that year. In due course, she gave birth to a daughter, Marian, who tragically survived for only a few months.

Two years later the couple had another child, a son, James, but by this time their marriage was well and truly ‘on the rocks’ and in March 1821, James clearly needed to find a way of extricating himself from the marriage as he had found a new love.

James found his means of escaping the relationship – but it was to come at the highest price of all, for in August 1821, he found himself indicted for the wilful murder of his wife on 23rd March 1821.

The indictment was that he

wilfully, feloniously, and of malice aforethought, did secretly mix and mingle with milk, flour and sugar, a certain deadly poison, viz. one drachm of arsenic, which he knowing it to be poison, did give to his wife of the 19th March 1821, intending that she should drink it.

He was also charged with assaulting Mary on the day of her death by strangling her.

Mr Franklin representing James wanted him to be charged on only one count, which eventually the prosecution agreed to and it was the charge of poisoning that they proceeded with. The first witness, John Smith who lived close by and knew the family well, he confirmed that he had seen Mary on Monday 19th and she appeared fit and well. He then saw her on Thursday 22nd, when she appeared extremely unwell, her face was swollen and her eyes black and bulging. His wife who also saw her said she thought that Mary had been beaten. At six o’clock the next day he heard that she had died in great agony.

Mary’s mother lived a mere 200 yards from her daughter and when called to give evidence, she said that the young couple had not been getting along well for six months prior to her daughter’s death.  She also confirmed that she saw her daughter every day from Sunday 18th March to Thursday 22nd March and that her daughter had been taken ill on the Monday. Mary’s sister Elizabeth had called upon her on Tuesday and at which time Mary was very sick and complaining of stomach pains.

Mary was convinced she was dying and told Mrs Smith that when her husband returned on the Monday he told her that he felt unwell and asked her to make him some ‘thickened milk’ and having eaten part of it, he asked her to go to the public-house and fetch him a pint of ale, leaving him alone in the house. On her return, he said he had eaten enough and that she should finish the remainder, which she did, and it was then that she was taken ill.

Next to be called to give evidence was Mr Franklin, a surgeon, of Holbeach, who said that Mary had a purple hue on her face, purple spots on her body and a small wound on her leg and internally she showed signs of inflammation. Franklin attempted to carry out tests on her body but was unable to prove conclusively that she had been poisoned.

Mary Sindall was called in to lay out the deceased and she confirmed that the prisoner had followed her upstairs and taking hold of Mary’s cold hand, said ‘Bless you! I little thought your death so nigh’.

Robert Collins, the constable of Whaplode, received James into his custody to take him to Lincoln Castle on the Coroner’s warrant, but just before setting out from Whaplode, James, who up to this point had remained calm, asked to hold his son before they left, at which point he broke down in tears at leaving his only child and as if he knew he would never be returning.

Landscape with a Stagecoach c1840. Metropolitan Museum
Landscape with a Stagecoach c1840. Metropolitan Museum

The carriage took them on to Spalding and when they arrived at the White Lion, James asked permission to write a letter. This letter was to the love of his life, Charlotte Tomlinson, a girl from the same village.  James asked the constable to deliver the letter to her, but instead, Collins kept it as evidence. James continually declared himself innocent of the crime and said in court that he was forced to write the letter, which was vehemently denied by the constable.

The letter was produced in court.

March 26th, 1821

Dear Charlotte – I for the love of you a desolate death must go through. I hope you will have a good Christian heart in you for to come up this afternoon, my dear, and let me bid you adieu. Love don’t feel yourself unhappy, I pay the debt for you. Come up today, love, for I am sure to be put to death. O! Charlotte, what must I go through.

James Cawthorn

It took the jury just minutes to find James guilty of murder and Mr Justice Park pronounced the sentence of death. He confirmed that James was to be executed on Thursday at midday and his body was to be delivered for dissection.  James remained unmoved.

The night before his sentence was to be carried out he made a full confession saying that he could not suffer enough for what he had done. He acknowledged that her murder was carried out by putting poison in the milk.  Having been used to church music, at his request, a psalm was sung at the preaching of the condemned sermon, and he took a part in the melody.

Mary was buried March 26th, 1821 at Whaplode church, aged just 20. Samuel Oliver, who baptised and married her, now buried her, with a note in the register (as he frequently did!) stating that she was

murdered by her husband in the night in a most deliberate manner! The inquest continued for three days!

The love of his life, Charlotte Tomlinson went on to marry in Whaplode, three years later.  The child James went on to have three children of his own who were baptised at Spalding – John, Elizabeth and Mary Ann Biggadike Cawthorn.

UPDATE

Following questions raised by one of our lovely readers I did some more digging and have just discovered this letter which James sent to Charlotte two days after the previous one above, which, it could be argued raises some doubt as to his guilt.

Featured Image

Drainage mills in the Fens, John Sell Cottman. Yale Center for British Art. Paul Mellon Collection.

Whaplode near Holbeach, Lincolnshire.

The Weather in Whaplode, Lincolnshire

It’s a well-known fact that we Brits are obsessed with the weather… and with talking about it. Being an island, the old saying of ‘four seasons in a day’ sometimes seems more than a little accurate, and the weather can – on occasion – change quite dramatically in the space of a few hours. However, despite this, more often than not, the climate is generally reasonably calm and mild. Still, we love nothing better than a grumble about the rain and it’s quite frequently either ‘too hot’ or ‘too cold’ for us.

One theory is that the British are known for polite detachment when dealing with others, and hate to show too much emotion. The weather is a safe and neutral topic of conversation… but we think it’s more than that. We are, as a nation, genuinely fascinated by the subject. And so, it came as quite a delight to find that the Reverend Samuel Oliver (c.1756-1847), the curate of St Mary’s church at Whaplode in the remote Lincolnshire fenland, was obsessed to such a degree that he carefully recorded information about the climate in the spare pages of his parish burial registers.

Whaplode near Holbeach, Lincolnshire.
Image via South Holland Life.

Sunday, February 2nd, 1817

During the last ten days, the weather has been more serene; warm; & remarkably mild; than ever I knew it in the month of May, during the term of my residence here; which is nearly fifteen years.

Sunday, February 9th, 1817

Last night, for the first time (I think) these twenty years, the atmosphere was very strongly illuminated with Aurora Borealis. The moon entered her last quarter yesternight, a 46 min. past 7 o’clock. Today has been exceeding warm, & mild.

Monday, March 29th, 1819

This last has been the most mild, warm, & open winter ever known, in the memory of any man living. Polyanthuses & Anemonies have always been in flower.

Friday, June 29th, 1821

The season has been so excessively cold, that we were under the necessity of having large fires in the Keeping Room up to this day; when, suddenly, it became very hot!

Friday, July 6th, 1821

The cold weather has returned, so violently, as obliges us to rekindle our K. Room fire.

A View in the Fens; John Leslie Thomson
A View in the Fens; John Leslie Thomson; Perth & Kinross Council

Thursday, July 25th, 1822

The former part of last winter was excessively wet, the new year brought fine weather, the spring was uncommonly dry & warm; & the season altogether the most forward & plentiful ever known.

Friday, November 7th, 1823

From the first week in July to the first week in September, we were scarcely 12 hours without rain; from thence to October 30 was remarkably fine; October 31 and November 1 were most excessively tempestuous.

Thursday, July 22nd, 1824

The last winter very much resembled that [of] 1821, 2; the spring was indescribably dry, cold, & unhealthy; the wind being nearly due east for the space of two months. Midsummer brought fine weather, & the prospective harvest is good as a human heart could wish.

Friday, December 31st, 1824

There have been more storms, tempests, inundations, & shipwrecks; & a greater quantity of rain has fallen this year, in various parts of Europe, than for a century back. Yet we had a fine spring seed time, hay time, & harvest. Not many apples.

Drainage mills in the Fens, John Sell Cottman
Drainage mills in the Fens, John Sell Cottman. Yale Center for British Art. Paul Mellon Collection.

Thursday, March 22nd, 1827

From the beginning of March 1826 to this day, has been the driest year ever known. Hay, oats, beans, & barley, were very deficient, so were potatoes, wheat good, both crop & quality.

Saturday, September 15th & Tuesday, September 18th, 1827

These two evenings the Aurora Borealis was remarkably brilliant; & merry dancers, very active.

1829

This was an excessive wet, cold, & stormy summer. Wheat good, crops & quality. About November 18, the snow & frost commenced, & was not completely gone before March 1st, 1830.

Old Draining Mill in the Huntingdonshire Fens; Edward William Cooke
Old Draining Mill in the Fens; Edward William Cooke; Norris Museum

Monday, August 27th, 1832

We have had four very cold, wet, & luxuriant summers, in succession; wheat is generally well got in. Last winter was very much like that of 1818, 19.

Thursday, July 22nd 1824, Dr Goddard the Archdeacon made his Parochial Visitation; & ordered repairs of the Vestry Room, a new fence to the Vicarage yard, & all necessary repairs to the House & Premises.

March 20th, 1835

The dykes, within the last three weeks, have become tolerably full of water, at least a foot deep; where, for the last three years, the water has never stood, 12 hours together, at the depth of six inches.

November 20th, 1839

These two last summers have been remarkably wet & cold.

Fenland Scene by J. Lamnier
(c) Rossendale Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

And, from the back of the marriage register, we find this entry. Not about the weather but also clearly a subject of huge importance to the curate, judging by his increasing use of exclamation marks.

May 28th, 1821

On this, & the three subsequent days, the population of the parish was taken (by Act of Parliament). Mr Longstaff, the Overseer of the Poor, taking Mr Roberts, the Vestry Clerk, to assist him. I also went round the Parish, in my Ecclesiastical capacity, & found 154 Persons unXtned; & eight couples who notoriously cohabit, as Man & Wife, together! Four of these couples call themselves Methodists, & regularly attend the Meeting Houses! One couple holds a Meeting in their own House! Two couples are within the degrees of Affinity! And five couples have had children born!! I likewise found another couple, who will not acknowledge that they sleep together, tho’ they both sleep in one room!!!

Reverend Samuel Oliver, Curate

Rev Oliver was the curate at Whaplode for 42 years, preaching three times every Sunday, until, in 1842 the vicar of the parish died and the Rev Oliver was removed from his curacy. A few months later, and despite his advanced years (he was 84), Rev Oliver was appointed to the living of Lambley in Nottinghamshire, worth £1,000 per year. There he died on the 9th August 1847.

Sources not mentioned above

Lincolnshire Chronicle, 13th January 1843

Nottingham Evening Post, 2nd June 1950