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. 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).

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Escaping the Workhouse

Mary Ann Finn was born in Saltwood, just up the hill from Hythe, in 1825 and baptised at the church of SS Peter and Paul there on 10 April the same year. Her parents were Thomas, a labourer and Margaret nee Norcock (though she often called herself Harriet). Thomas Finn had himself had a difficult start in life, having been left an orphan. The overseers of the Poor in Saltwood where he was born put him out as an apprentice and he later moved to Dover before returning to the Hythe area. He and his wife had two more daughters after Mary Ann, Emily and Esther. Esther was described in the census records as ‘an imbecile from birth.’ The family moved to Church Hill in Hythe, where they lived next door to a family called Piety.

Church Hill, Hythe, today

The Piety family comprised John, his wife Ann and two sons, John and Thomas, who like their father were labourers. John senior had also apparently diversified into smuggling, as did so many others. In 1832, he and his brother Thomas were caught landing smuggled goods near Fort Twiss in Hythe and sent for trial, but were released when the evidence of the leading witness was contradictory, as it was so often found to be.

But both smuggling and legitimate work were sometimes not to be had in the harsh economic climate of the 1830s and both John Piety and his neighbour Thomas Finn were obliged to throw themselves occasionally on the mercy of the Overseers of the Poor later in the decade.

The year 1845 brought a watershed for both families. John Piety senior had already died and now both his widow Ann and his next-door-neighbour Thomas Finn died. The widowed Margaret/Harriet Finn took Emily and Esther and went to live in Stade Street in Hythe , where they subsisted on ‘outdoor relief’ paid by the parish overseers. Mary Ann, however, stayed in Church Hill, moving in next door with John Piety junior, twenty years older than her, as his ‘housekeeper’.

The relationship was clearly more than that, however, and the couple married on 12 October 1851 at Saltwood parish church in a ceremony witnessed by John’s brother Thomas and Mary Ann’s sister Emily. None of the party were able to sign their names and made their marks on the marriage register. This is the last time that Thomas Piety appears in the records. He seems to have vanished, or more likely just changed his name and tried his luck elsewhere.

Mary Ann was pregnant when she married and her daughter, another Mary Ann, was born before the end of the year. Almost exactly two years after their marriage, John Piety died and was buried on 23 October 1853. Mary Ann was destitute. John had left no other family, and her own mother, living on parish relief and with a disabled daughter, was in no position to help.

Mary Ann took work as a charwoman when she could, but between 1854 and 1855 she often had to apply for relief from the Parish Overseers herself. Unlike her mother, she was sent to the Elham Union workhouse. This was in Etchinghill,  four miles north of Hythe, and opened in 1836. She was in and out of the establishment every two or three weeks, sometimes with her daughter, sometimes without (perhaps she left the child with her mother). Then on 16 March 1856, she gave birth again, in the workhouse this time, to a son, William Henry. He was baptised in the nearest church, at Lyminge, on 14 June 1857.

A sketch of Elham Union Workhouse at Etchinghill, now demolished

The pattern of frequent admission to the workhouse continued, usually with both the children. But the frustrations of her unsettled life began to tell. On 8 September 1859, she was sent to gaol for forty-two days for an unspecified offence. She was returned from prison to the workhouse, but in January of the next year she smashed seventy panes of glass at the workhouse over a two-day rampage, and in March was sent back to prison for another forty-two days’ hard labour at Canterbury prison.

St Augustine’s Prison and House of Correction, opened in 1808 in Canterbury

On her release – again back to the workhouse – Mary Ann tried another way to vent her feelings. On 15 May 1860 she was charged with damaging a bolster. Another inmate reported that during the night she ripped open the bolster, which was filled with straw, took it down to the courtyard and set fire to it with a candle. When asked what she was doing she replied that she was ‘burning the foreigners’. The workhouse medical officer reported that the last time he had seen Mary Ann she was dressed ‘in a singular style,’ behaving oddly and talking about selling vegetables and watercress which she believed she had in her possession. He believed that this was all an act as she had previously been reasonable. The master of the workhouse told the court that she was ‘eccentric and sometimes violent’. He said that if she was dissatisfied with her lot, she would work herself up into a rage. She was judged not to be insane and sent back to prison for another six weeks. This would have suited the Poor Law authorities very well, as, had she been sent to the County Asylum in Maidstone, they would have had to foot the bill for her care.

After that brief period – when she may well have been suffering from psychotic episodes – Mary Ann settled down, and, in 1862, got married again. Her choice of husband, John Finn Avery, may, to judge from his name, have been a kinsman, and was fourteen years younger than her, having been born in Dover in 1839. He was a labourer, and the couple lived together, apparently quietly, in Folkestone, and Mary Ann took in washing to make ends meet.

However, Mary Ann’s daughter was not included in the happy family and was left in the workhouse. On 15 May 1868, aged sixteen, she was ‘moved to the home at Dover’. She must have run away, because on 25 April 1870, she was readmitted to Elham Union workhouse under an order of removal from London, together with a child who had been born in February that year, although no record exists of its birth in London or anywhere else. She left the workhouse with her baby daughter two days later, and perhaps she did now go to her mother, for the child died in Folkestone shortly afterwards and was buried at Christ Church in the town on 5 May 1870.

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The tower of Christchurch, Folkestone. The rest of the church was destroyed by enemy action in 1940

Mary Ann junior then seems to have tried working as a servant for a living, but it didn’t work out. She was readmitted to the workhouse, destitute, on 6 Feb 1871. She somehow got herself out of the place and went back to London, where she met and married James Dabbs, a second-hand bookseller eleven years older than her. They married in Holborn, where they continued to live, in the Peabody Buildings there, and where they raised a family of three sons and three daughters. There was no more workhouse for Mary Ann Dabbs and her children. Frederick, the eldest, was apprenticed to an engineer but went into the printing trade; James and William became warehouse porters; Ruth worked as a machinist making children’s clothing; Mary Ann was an album binder; and Ellen, the youngest, kept house for her father after her mother’s death.

Mary Ann Dabbs nee Piety died in 1907. She had escaped the cycle of poverty and destitution and overcome her early mistakes and her upbringing. Meanwhile, her sisters had also died, Esther, the disabled child, in the workhouse. Her mother, widowed again in 1900 and too old now to take in washing, went back to the workhouse herself and died there in 1906.

And what became of her son, William Henry? He disappears from the records after his mother’s marriage. There is nothing in the censuses or the records of death and marriage. He appears not to have taken his step-father’s name either. Perhaps he was adopted, or sent abroad, or maybe even claimed by his natural father.

The Fortunes of War

Daniel Stringer Lyth was born in Richmond, Yorkshire to Robert, a shoemaker and Louisa nee Stringer and baptised there on 2 October 1864, their second son and fifth child. The family lived in King Street, just off the market place. Louisa died when Daniel was only four. In January 1872, he was admitted to the National School in Richmond, and on leaving worked as a farm labourer. He then joined the army, serving with the 4th West Yorkshire regiment. The doctor who examined him reported that the whole of his chest was scarred. This is likely to have caused by burning. Nineteenth century newspapers abound with stories of children falling into fires, often with fatal results.

He did not like the life and bought himself out, but then changed his mind again and re-enlisted in the King’s Royal Rifles on 12 July 1886, signing up for twelve years. He was 5 feet 8 inches tall, with dark grey eyes and dark brown hair. He did not immediately settle here, either, and In December the same year spent a month in prison for an unspecified offence. Thereafter, though, he kept out of trouble. Three years later he was sent to Manipur in north-east India, a princedom which was part of the British Empire and almost continually at war with its neighbours, including Burma, which was Daniel’s next posting.

He was sent home in 1892 and spent the last six years of his service in the UK, being promoted to Lance-Corporal in 1892. Probably some of this time was at Shorncliffe barracks near Folkestone in Kent, because on 9 May 1893, at St Leonard’s church in Hythe, he married a local woman, Hannah Cloke, a dressmaker. A daughter, Dorothy, was born in 1895; another, Christine, in July 1896; and a son, another Daniel Stringer Lyth on 7 August 1898. Exactly a month before, Daniel senior was discharged from the army, having completed his time.

Daniel took an unusual job to supplement his army pension, that of verger at St Leonard’s church, responsible for the order and upkeep of the church, including its furnishings, and grave-digging responsibilities. He also showed visitors around the crypt at the church, which contained (and still does) an extraordinary collection of skulls and long bones. He was present during the 1912 visit by Dr Cross, a well-known phrenologist, who claimed to be able to detect the character of individuals through examination of their heads. Cross opined that the owners of most of the skulls in the crypt had ‘the spirit of warfare’ in them and that one woman was ‘very crafty and cunning and would not have hesitated to kill her husband.’

Some of the skulls at the ossuary in Hythe

The family lived at first in the Hythe High Street and later in Marine Walk Street. Here another son, named for Daniel’s father was born, but little John Robert died aged only seven months in March 1902 and is buried in St Leonard’s churchyard.  There would be no more children

Daniel also worked for a while as Town Sergeant, but it was not a long tenure. This may have been because he was frequently at odds with Hythe Town Council and aired his opinions in the local press. In 1912, by which time he had moved to’ Craigside’ at 1 Castle Road, the Council suggested that as his steps encroached onto the pavement, he should pay an annual ‘acknowledgement’ of two shillings and sixpence, as was usual. He said it was too much and refused to answer the Council’s letters, before offering to pay sixpence. The Council refused his offer and told him to pay the full amount or demolish the steps – which he did. In 1917 he became exercised by the council’s plans to remove vehicle access to Castle Road from the south. Another drawn-out battle ensued, which this time Daniel won, with removable posts to which he had a key supplied. He was described in one newspaper report as ‘gloomy’ and in his obituary as a ‘silent and reserved man’, though to be scrupulously fair, another reporter said he had seen him laugh.

The years of the first world war were to prove devastating for the family. Just before its start, in July 1914,  Dorothy Lyth died aged only nineteen and was buried in Saltwood churchyard (‘Craigside’ was in the ecclesiastical parish of Saltwood by a few yards).

When war broke out, Daniel was still a reservist but too old to be called up. Instead he joined the Cinque Ports Battalion of the Kent Volunteer Force as its Second-in-Command. He combined this with his on-going work as a verger. In the early evening of 25 May1917, twenty-three German Gotha bombers, unable to find their London targets in thick cloud, turned south, followed the railway line to the Channel ports. They dropped bombs en route, including at Hythe, where Daniel was chatting to the vicar, Herbert Dale, and Mrs Dale just outside the church. Daniel was struck in the thigh by a piece of shrapnel. His femoral artery was severed and though he was taken to hospital in Folkestone and operated on, he succumbed that night.

The bombers finished the job in Folkestone, killing sixty-one people, mostly women and children queuing for potatoes.

A map of the raid which killed Daniel Lyth

Daniel was buried in Saltwood churchyard, the service being read by Herbert Dale, who had survived because he had a tin box in his pocket which deflected the shrapnel which hit him.

Daniel’s grave

Daniel junior had by now left home. He was an apprentice seaman with Cardille Turnbull & Sons from November 1914, but was released from his articles when he joined up on 2 March 1915 at Dover. He was then living at Wouldham near Rochester. His surviving sister, Christine, joined him there. He did his initial training at Aldershot and passed out in June 1915. He was recorded as being 5ft 8 inches tall with a dark complexion and dark brown hair- exactly as his father had been at his age.

He originally asked to serve in the Royal Army Medical Corps and sailed from Southampton on 21 September 1915 to Rouen. He transferred to the Buffs in October 1917 at his own request. Daniel, again like his father before him, found it hard at first to settle into army life and was often in trouble for minor offences. He was on leave in the UK from 2 February 1918 to 17 Feb 1918 but was killed in action two months later. His body was recovered and his personal effects – a silver watch, a wallet, dictionary, compass and map – returned to his mother. Perhaps he was buried, though in the turmoil the grave was lost.

Daniel is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial in Belgium which bears the names of some 35,000 men of the British and New Zealand forces who have no known grave, nearly all of whom died between August 1917 and November 1918. Both Daniel and his father are named on the Hythe War Memorial.

See the source image

Hythe War Memorial

 

Daniel’s misspelt name on the Tyne Cot Memorial

(Folkestone Family History Society)

By the end of the war, the Lyth family had only two members left alive, Hannah and Christine. After Daniel junior had joined up, Christine, who had excelled at school, went to the Bishop Otter Training College in Chichester to train as a teacher.

Bishop Otter College, an establishment for women students

After she had qualified she stayed in Sussex, living and teaching in Hove, and was joined there by her widowed mother. When Christine retired she and her mother moved to Wallington in Surrey, where Hannah died aged ninety-seven in 1961 and Christine in 1976.

Almhouses and Vagrants

Being  poor in the seventeenth century was not for sissies. Life was, however, better than it had been a hundred years earlier. In 1601, in the last parliament that Elizabeth I called, the great slew of Poor Law legislation that had been passed in the preceding years was consolidated.

Parishes were now required to elect overseers of the poor, collect a poor rate, and distribute relief to the deserving. It meant, in short, that no-one in England need ever again have to starve to death through poverty. This did not mean that their lives would be anything other than brutally hard, but relief for those too ill or too old or too young to work was to be provided in the form of a payment or items of food or clothing.

The poor had earlier been supported by alms given as acts of Christian charity. Now, however, even those who were not of a particularly charitable disposition were expected, and indeed compelled, to make a contribution. Each parish was responsible for its own poor, and inevitably disputes arose about exactly who qualified as a genuine resident. The 1662 Poor Relief Act clarified matters by establishing the principal of a ‘parish of settlement’, which would have responsibility for supporting a person if they fell upon hard times.

The law said that the ‘lame, impotent, old, blind’ should be accommodated in parish almshouses, though it was clear that the primary responsibility for the aged and for children rested with their families. Hythe already had two medieval hospitals which formed the basis of the town’s almshouse provision. St John’s, on the main street, probably survived the Dissolution because it had fallen into disrepair by then, but in 1539 it was conveyed by the Church to trustees for use as an almshouse, to be run by the town’s jurats.  A warden was elected from among them every year. In 1562 it provided maintenance for eight needy poor people and ‘such as are maimed by war’. Local men who had been pressed into the army or navy sometimes returned home from serving their country both destitute and crippled as their reward.

For most of the seventeenth century St John’s had five residents, both men and women. In addition to lodgings, fuel and some clothing, they received one shilling and threepence a week, with double at Christmas and Easter, and a Christmas gift of a shilling.  It was enough to survive on, and if they were sick, extra food, usually mutton, was provided free. Mutton from the Romney Marsh was in good supply in Hythe, and meat was regarded as the best food for an invalid. Vegetables were held to be indigestible and to be avoided if you were ill. There were occasional treats, too, such as a small feast when the plums in the garden were picked.

St John's Hospital Hythe

St John’s Hospital , Hythe

Among St John’s residents in 1614 was Richard Tilden, who had returned home to Hythe from the wars terribly injured. He was provided with custom-made wooden legs, and, touchingly, given specially knitted hose to cover them. St John’s also provided for other poor people in the town, buying shoes and clothes, most often for widows and children, and paid for the funerals of paupers.

St Bartholomew’s hospital, on the western extremities of the town, had been founded in 1336 by the Bishop of Rochester, Hamo, who had been born in Hythe. It also escaped the Dissolution and  continued to receive charitable donations.  St Bartholomew’s ten residents, made up of equal numbers of men and women, were known archaically as ‘Brothers’ and ‘Sisters’. Vacant places were filled by election by the residents and wardens. It was not easy to get a place there. Applicants had to be elderly, to have been born in the town and spent most of their lives there, to be of honest and sober behaviour and to have fallen into poverty, which narrowed the field considerably and disqualified newcomers. A feast was held to welcome each new arrival. Some of the profit from the lands the hospital rented out was shared among the residents – in 1657 this was nearly eighteen pounds. It also supported needy people outside, by repairing houses, for example.

'The Hythe birthplace of Hamo de Hethe, Bishop of Rochester
The Hythe birthplace of Hamo de Hethe, Bishop of Rochester

The almshouses between them took care of fifteen poor people, mostly elderly. Of the rest we know less of where they lived.  Hythe  corporation leased houses to the overseers of the poor, and these were used for multi-occupancy. In 1657, for example, Henry Philpott, Edward Keys and the widow Beale lived all lived in such a house.

The resident poor were one thing, vagrants quite another. Despite the poor laws, men still preferred to work for a wage rather than rely on parish relief, and tramping to seek work became an endemic disease of the poor in the seventeenth century. Men tramped most often between June and October, when agricultural work might be available, resting in barns and alehouses. They were unwelcome in towns and villages where locals feared they would take their jobs and undercut their wages, and where they were feared as potential criminals. The corporation was supposed to deal with destitute vagrants by whipping them, locking them up in a House of Correction and then sending them back to their parish of legal settlement, usually the one in which they had been born or had lived for the last three years. The Hythe jurats never got round to building a House Of Correction (implementation of the legislation nationally was always patchy and depended on individual governing bodies’ interpretation), but in extremis the gaol could be used. It was a suitable deterrent. In 1618 Edward Harward escaped from the place because he said he feared starvation and five years later John Hawks hanged himself there.

The definition of a vagrant extended beyond the tramping men. It applied also to those who became a charge on the parish but who had not been born there or lived there long enough for it to be their parish of settlement. Often, the poor person or family was removed to a neighbouring parish, such as Newington or Saltwood, which were only a mile or so away, but the interpretation of the vagrancy laws could be harsh, especially for children. In 1613,   Katherine Rolfe, an orphan child was ricocheted between Hythe and Dover while the authorities argued about which of them had responsibility for her.  Nearly sixty years later John Lacy found himself in a similar situation in the neighbouring parish of Saltwood. His parents, who had scraped a living selling brooms, had for about seven years before their deaths been based, though not continuously, in Saltwood.  When they died, the locals decided that John was not their responsibility, but that of New Romney. He was duly whipped and sent there. The overseers of New Romney refused to accept him and sent him back, although after a year of haggling, they finally conceded defeat.  John Lacy was six years old.