The Tragic Life of Louisa Kidder Staples

William Henry Kidder was born on 24 July 1827 to George and Mary Kidder. His father was a baker and the family lived in Saltwood.  William grew up to become a nineteenth century ‘man and van’, except that he had a horse and cart. He variously described himself as a carrier, potato dealer, greengrocer or hawker of vegetables. He formed a relationship with a young woman, Eliza Staples, who lived with him in Theatre Street in Hythe and who had two children with him, Louisa in 1857 and Ellen in 1862. Eliza died before Ellen’s first birthday and the child was sent to live with her Staples grandparents in Sellindge.  Louisa stayed with her father.

William started another relationship with Frances Turner, a young woman working as a servant in Sandgate. On 1 February 1865, when twenty- two-year old Frances was eight months pregnant, William married her in St Leonard’s church in Hythe. One, or both of them, was aiming for respectability. There was even a marriage announcement in the Maidstone Journal and Kentish Advertiser, and in the Canterbury Journal.

It was a stormy relationship from the start and Frances, or Fanny as she was known, appears to have been a woman whose temper was on a very short fuse. In September 1865, she was convicted of assaulting an elderly neighbour and fined. In November that year, Fanny complained to the police that William had kicked her while wearing his outdoor boots and then pushed her out of the house into the pouring rain. He said he would murder her if she went to court. He was starving her, she said, she had not eaten for two days, and he had ordered her not to suckle her infant daughter, Emma,  because ‘she should not live’. A warrant was issued for William’s arrest. Presumably Fanny withdrew the complaint, as it was taken no further.

According to witnesses who came forward later, Fanny loathed her step-daughter Louisa and treated her appallingly. She regularly beat the child with a broomstick so that she was covered in bruises. She hit her about the head and face hard enough to make her nose bleed and the girl was often seen with blood on her pinafore or with black eyes. She was dressed in rags with broken boots, fed only on scraps of bread and butter and made to sleep in a potato sack in a corner of the cellar. Fanny spoke of her as ‘that bitch.’ Neighbours complained to the police about Fanny’s behaviour, and for a while Louisa was removed from the family to her Staples grandparents, but William neglected to pay for her upkeep and she was returned home. Richard and Rebecca Staples still had six children of their own at home and their granddaughter Ellen, all supported on a railway labourer’s wage.

In June 1867, Fanny was accidentally thrown out of  her husband’s cart, and injured and returned to her family home in New Romney to convalesce. She took with her Louisa and her own child, Emma. On 25 August 1867, William went to fetch them back, but on arrival at the Turners’ house found that found that Fanny had gone out with Louisa, but returned without her. She was sitting weeping in the front room, her gown sodden.

William together with Fanny’s father, John Turner, took lanterns and went to search for Louisa. They soon found her, drowned in a shallow ditch. On their return to the house, Fanny said the child had fallen into the ditch, but William did not believe her and called the police. By the time they arrived, Fanny had changed her dress for a dry one, but the officers found her wet garments stuffed under her bed. They arrested her on suspicion of murder.

The news was all over Hythe by the next day.  Christiana Potter, the headmistress of the Girl’s School,  wrote in her log book on 26 August: received news that one of the scholars was dead – murdered by her mother.  There was no presumption of innocence from the start.

Fanny’s first hearing was at the magistrates’ court soon afterwards. She repeated the story that Louisa had fallen, and added that she had tried to save her, but the magistrates did not believe her either and remanded her in custody to stand trial for murder at the assizes in Maidstone. Meanwhile, Louisa was laid to rest in the churchyard at Sellindge.

Fanny appeared at the assizes in March 1868. William had refused to pay for a defence counsel for her, and the court had to appoint someone. In was in vain. The jury did not believe Fanny’s story that Louisa had been frightened by two horses and run away, or that she had tried to save her. The girl had drowned in less than a foot of water, and could easily have been extricated. It did not help that Fanny’s husband, both parents and a sister testified against her. After only twelve minutes the jury brought in a guilty verdict, and Fanny was sentenced to death.

Back in Maidstone prison, awaiting execution, she became sullen and ill-tempered, apparently complaining that she had been ill-used by the court. She showed no sign of remorse and instructed the Governor of the prison to write to William and tell him to stay away.

However, the tide of popular opinion, which had been against Fanny, began to turn. The Kentish Gazette of 24 March reported that she had been ‘very badly brought up and sadly neglected.’ It noted her illiteracy and complete ignorance of Christian teaching, and her good behaviour in service until she met William Kidder. He, the paper said, had behaved shamefully towards her and had treated his daughter almost as badly as Fanny had. Even worse, he had now taken one of Fanny’s sisters, a girl aged only seventeen, into his house to live with him. In Hythe, the mayor, James Watts, got up a petition for clemency to send to the Home Secretary. The citizens of New Romney did the same.

Fanny relented and dictated another letter to William asking him to visit. She had already received a visit from her parents. She did not admit her guilt to them or show any sign of contrition. The Home Secretary considered the petitions from Hythe and New Romney, but declined to intervene in the case and the execution was set for 2 April 1868.

On 1 April, Fanny’s mother and two of her sisters, one only a few months old visited. So too did William. It was a short interview. Fanny reproached him for having taken up with her sister and he left. His departure upset her, and she shrieked and wailed terribly. The prison chaplain told William to go home and remember that he was the cause of his wife’s suffering and to mend his ways. He went to the pub near the gaol instead and then back to Hythe.

His reception in the town was not a welcoming one. During the evening, a mob estimated to be three to four hundred strong paraded through the streets with an effigy of William which they burnt in front of his house while pelting the building with stones.

Executions were still public in April 1868. It was not until May of that year that legislation was passed to move the events inside the prison. On 2 April, at noon, Fanny was hanged in front of a crowd of two to three thousand people outside the main gate of Maidstone Prison, the last woman in England to be publicly executed. She had been composed during the morning, and dictated to the chaplain a letter to her parents saying she was sorry for her crime. Her last words on the scaffold were ‘Lord Jesus, forgive me’. Once dead, her body was left hanging for an hour, and then taken away for immediate burial within the prison grounds.

William Calcraft, Fanny’s executioner

William stayed in Hythe, with Emma, although it seems the relationship with Fanny’s sister did not endure. No subsequent census return shows him living with a woman, and he did not remarry, dying in 1908. He must have acquired a degree of respectability as in 1904 he was offered a place in St John’s alms house in Hythe – one of their criteria for acceptance was that the person be ‘of good character’. (1) Emma lived with him until she herself got married on 31 August 1891 in St Leonard’s church. Her husband, Benjamin Thomas Jones, was a groom working for the army in Hythe. They did not have children and lived quietly, a far as can be known, in Market Street in Hythe (now Dymchurch Road).

  1. Kent Archives EK2008/2/Book 15

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