1878 Child murder at Silverhill

From Historical Hastings

On the 6th of December, 1878, a labourer by the name of James Chainey was in the field known as 'Drapers Turnip Field' behind Springfield Road, when he came across the naked body of a newborn boy resting against a turnip. He rushed to Silverhill to summon the police, bringing Sergeant Beck back with him. The body of the child was laying behind 17 Springfield Road, a small wall measuring approximately four feet in height separating the house from the field, and the child's body between nine and twelve feet into the field. Examining the scene, the Sergeant found blood on one of the turnip leaves near to the child's feet, the hands and feet both being dirty and the child being in a state of rigor mortis[1].

After removing the body, the Sergeant returned to the scene where the child had been found in company with Dr. Otho Travers of Upper Springfield Terrace. They discovered further blood spots on the pebbled path in the garden between number 17 and the wall together with further blood spots on some leaves. Near to where the child's body had lain there was evidence of bodily functions indicating that the child had been alive when it landed in the field. An autopsy on the child revealed that, although the child had sustained a fractured skull upon landing, the cause of death was most likely to have been exposure - the clumps of soil found grasped in the child's hands indicating it was still alive for some time after landing, and had mostly been out all of the previous night[1].

Suspect Arrested

Upon making enquiries, suspicion fell on the 21 year old maid working at the house - 17 Springfield Road, Alice Small Cardew. Upon being requested to submit to a medical examination she agreed. Both doctors who examined her agreed that it was apparent she had recently given birth. This was sufficient for the police to make the decision to arrest her under the suspicion of murder. Upon being arrested she said "I am very sorry, I know I did it. I went to the closet and something came from me - I did not know what it was. Taking it in my petticoat, I went and threw whatever it was over the wall", although PS Beck did not write this down. Upon examination in front of the County bench Alice was declared competent to stand trial and therefore committed for trial at the Assizes[1].

The coroner's inquest, held at the Welcome Stranger returned a verdict that the child had most-likely been murdered[1].


At the trial, presided over by Mr. Justice Hawkins, with Mr. Merrifield prosecuting and Mr. Slade-Butler for the defence, during the introduction of the case, attention was drawn to the fact that Alice's confession had been made immediately post-arrest and that the evidence about her utterance submitted to the inquest differed from that to the committal hearing - being "I did it" at the inquest whereas in front of the magistrates it was "I have done very wrong" . Whilst the presiding judge stated that he felt this was quite improper, however if the statement had been made prior to arrest it would have been perfectly permissible to use against the prisoner. Sergeant Beck was the prosecution's first witness and gave evidence detailing the above events. In giving her evidence, Miss Kate Viccers, the owner of the house, and employer of Alice stated that she (Alice) had been working for her approximately seven years, describing Alice as a kind girl. She (Kate) had some suspicion about Alice's state after returning to the house after spending spring and summmer away from the town, however Alice denied being pregnant, and said there was no point in calling a doctor. Alice continued to work as normal and appeared to be working harder between the 5th/6th of December. When Mr. Slade-Butler cross examined her, Miss Viccers stated that Alice seemed hurt at the suggestion she may be pregnant, reiterating that Alice had not committed any cruel act that she could think of. Sgt. Beck was then recalled and chastised for not having written down Alice's utterence - the judge giving Beck advice that he should write everything down[2].

This fairly well summed up the case for the prosecution. Mr. Slade-Butler in opening the defence stated that infanticide was one that the law took a merciful view on, and for a charge of murder to succeed it must be certain that the child was born alive. Doctor Travers had given his evidence that the childs lungs were inflated at the time of the autopsy, but unfortunately the evidence of the second doctor was not in front of the court. In addition, inflation of the lungs was something that could occur prior to life as such commencing. The law required that a separate existence must take place to prove life. In addition, Alice had been unaware that she was about to have a child, the evidence provided by her employer proved that Alice, had she been aware of what had just transpired would be unlikely to have committed such an act as that proposed by the prosecution[2].

In summing up, the judge stated how the law stood and that the jury had a number of decisions to make; had Alice intended the child to die? or had she placed the child where it was found in the hope that someone would pick it up and care for it? or was the child deceased prior to being thrown or placed into the field[2].


After a brief consultation, the jury returned with the verdict that Alice was guilty of the concealment of the birth, but not guilty of murder. Alice was then sentenced to one months imprisonment without hard labour[2].

References & Notes