The O’Donovan Saga: Tales of 19th Century Ireland & America

One of the greatest joys for me since stepping into the publishing world, has been the opportunity to meet and befriend fellow authors, particularly those who write historical fiction. So I am delighted this evening to host Irish-American author, Patricia Hopper Patteson. Earlier this year, Patricia and I met for the first time, face-to-face, on one of her trips home to Dublin. I also had the opportunity to attend Patricia’s Irish book launch for Corrib Red. The O’Donovan Saga: Tales of 19th Century Ireland & America

A Conversation with Lorna Peel

This evening in the Library, I am delighted to welcome, Lorna Peel­­­­­­, who has dropped in to say hello and to share some insights into her life as an author.

You are very welcome Lorna, please introduce yourself:

lorna-peelThank you for inviting me into the Library and interviewing me, Pam. I am an author of historical romance and romantic suspense novels set in the UK and Ireland. I was born in England and lived in North Wales until my family moved to Ireland to become farmers, which is a book in itself! I live in rural Ireland, where I write, research my family history, and grow fruit and vegetables. I also keep chickens and a Guinea Hen called Gertrude who now thinks she’s a chicken!

Did you read much as a child? Are you an avid reader now? Do you prefer books in your own genre or are you happy to explore others?

Yes, I read a lot as a child – and I mean a LOT! My favourite author was Enid Blyton. I devoured everything she wrote and I remember saving up all my pocket money so I could buy the books from The Famous Five series at W.H. Smiths. They were 50p at the time!

I don’t read quite as much now as I simply don’t have the time. When I do read, I like to take a break from the genres I write in, so it’s mostly historical fiction, especially Sharon Penman (I’m working my way through her Richard The Lionheart novels at the moment) and C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series.

Are you self-published or traditionally published?

Both. I have four novels with indie publishers and my two most recent novels are self-published.

Which genre do you write in and why?

I write historical romance and romantic suspense novels. I love writing romance but I don’t write insta-love. I prefer to write about relationships which develop over time, so I send my heroes and heroines on a journey in search of their happy ever after. As well as that, I’ve always had an interest in history and genealogy and I’m lucky that I have very varied ancestors – I’m of Irish, Dutch, Welsh, German and Scottish descent – so I like to combine romance with history and/or genealogy in my novels with plenty of suspenseful twists and turns to keep everyone on their toes!

Who has been the biggest influence on your writing?

A teacher (inadvertently) and myself and my own stubbornness. I was never encouraged to write imaginative essays at school and one teacher even refused to read or mark any of their class’ imaginative essays. I wasn’t going to allow that teacher to discourage me from even trying to write, but it wasn’t until I left school that I began writing and I’ve been writing ever since.

Has your country of origin/culture influenced your writing?

The city of Dublin plays a large part in my family history so I’ve always wanted to write some novels set there. My paternal ancestors were from Dublin and I’ve done a lot of research on the family tree as well as research into the areas where they lived and also into what they did for a living. I’ve also lived in Dublin, so having all that work done and being able to visualise streets and buildings and know how long it takes to walk from A to B was a great help to me when I sat down to write A Scarlet Woman. I still had to undertake a great deal of research for the novel but the groundwork was already complete.

What part of the writing process do you find most difficult? How do you overcome it?

The difficult part is finding the time to actually sit down and write something, especially in Summer. Summer is so short in Ireland (if we get one at all!) that I’m outside in the vegetable garden as much as possible or cleaning out the henhouse, whether I’m in the humour for it or not! To keep on top of my writing, and so that I continue to produce new novels, I now edit during the Summer months and write during Winter. 

Do you have a favourite time of day to write?

I used to write very late at night as I’m a night owl. More recently, it’s been in the afternoon (when possible) and in the evening. I must be getting old!

What is the best thing about being an author? And the flipside – what is the worst?

The best thing is when someone you don’t know tells you they enjoyed reading your novel(s). That makes all the hard work worthwhile. The worst is promotion. It has to be done, but I’d rather be writing.

Is social media an essential chore or something you enjoy? Which forum do you prefer?

I do find social media an essential chore. I don’t like Facebook, it’s far too Big Brother-like IMO, but I need a Facebook Author Page. I much prefer Twitter as tweets are short and to the point (for now!) and, so far, Twitter doesn’t restrict who can see them.

I recently joined Instagram, but my favourite social media platform is Pinterest. I can spend hours there. I have boards for all my novels, one board with some great old photos of Dublin (which was an enormous help to me in writing A Scarlet Woman) and many more, including my favourite TV series, films, music etc. 

If you weren’t an author, what would you be up to?

Something involving historical research. I love research! I’m a research nerd!

It’s the last day and the earth is facing oblivion – what book would you read?

If the earth is facing imminent oblivion, I don’t think I would be reading! I would be saying goodbye to family and friends instead. But if I was stuck on a desert island, my books of choice would be Sharon Penman’s Welsh Princes Trilogy – Here Be Dragons, Falls The Shadow and The Reckoning. I was brought up in North Wales so I’ve either been to or know of the places mentioned in the novels.

Please tell us about your latest published work.

A Scarlet Woman by Lorna Peel eBook CoverMy latest novel is an historical romance called A Scarlet Woman and it is the first in The Fitzgeralds of Dublin Series. A Scarlet Woman is set in Dublin, Ireland in 1880 and tells the story of Will Fitzgerald, an idealistic young doctor and Isobel Stevens, a fallen woman.

Will left his father’s prosperous medical practice to live and practise medicine in the poorer Liberties area of Dublin because he was tired of treating rich hypochondriacs and he wanted to do some good elsewhere. His parents were appalled and his fiancée broke off their engagement and married a rich barrister instead. So, when the novel opens, Will is nursing a broken heart and is expecting to be a poor, lonely bachelor doctor for the rest of his life. But when Will reluctantly spends a night in a brothel on the eve of his best friend’s wedding, little does he know that the disgraced young woman he meets there will alter the course of his life.

Isobel Stevens is the daughter of a cruel and vindictive clergyman from Co. Galway who ruled his family with an iron fist. Isobel was well educated and her father hoped to secure a good marriage for her but she was seduced and deserted by a neighbour’s son, leaving her viewed by society as a fallen woman through no fault of her own. Isobel’s father threw her out, so she travelled to Dublin and fell into prostitution, doing what she must to survive. On the advice of a handsome young doctor, Isobel leaves the brothel and finds work as a parlourmaid in a house on Merrion Square. Isobel never expected to see Will again, but their paths cross and their lives become intertwined and they find themselves falling in love. But is Will and Isobel’s love strong enough to flout convention and challenge the expectations of Victorian society?

A Scarlet Woman: The Fitzgeralds of Dublin Book One is out now on Kindle, in paperback and on Kindle Unlimited.  Buy Link: Purchase on Amazon

If you would like to know  more about Lorna and her work please check out her links below:

A Conversation with Author Nancy Jardine

Today in the Library we have Nancy Jardine, who has dropped in to say hello and to share some insights into her life as an author.

Hello Nancy, you are very welcome. Please introduce yourself:

Hello! I’m Nancy Jardine. I live in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, a fabulous place for anyone who adores history as much as I do. My week vanishes in a blur of reading, writing, marketing, blogging, news and politics. I’m a fair weather gardener and like thousands of retired people across the UK, I officially (unpaid for government statistics) look after my grandchildren about two and a half days a week. Since they stay next door to me, the rest of the week can be ad hoc minding or just happy interruptions from the 3 and 5 year olds. Any time left during the week is for general living, breathing and sleeping. Many Saturdays, and some Sundays, from April to December I can be found at Craft Fair venues around Aberdeenshire. I sell paperback versions of my novels at these events and get bookings for doing local author talks to various types of groups. I’m a member of the Romantic Novelists Association, the Scottish Association of Writers and the Federation of Writers Scotland. A Conversation with Author Nancy Jardine

When Family History Inspires

Many writers draw on their family history, or indeed history in general, when putting pen to paper. For anyone involved in researching their family tree, it can be quite frustrating trying to pin together their ancestors’ lives. For many years, I dug around in Irish and UK records, trying to hunt down and piece together the  lives and times of various characters from the past. It was a challenging business, as many Irish records were destroyed in the War of Independence, leaving very few sources. I was often lucky. Through various contacts I made, some progress was achieved or I came across a clue buried deep in a library or an on-line source. When Family History Inspires

The 19th Century Writing Box

What a joy it is when beauty and function are combined!

On a recent research jaunt into the vaults of the interweb, I discovered what a remarkable collection of items were made to facilitate the Victorians’ love of writing. In particular I was fascinated by their equivalent of the laptop – the lap desk/box or portable escritoire.

The precursor to the writing box was the bible box. As these books were very costly, the box provided a safe way to transport them. Some had a slanted or angled top with a lower lip, meant to hold the Bible for reading, when the box was placed on a table; a type of portable lectern.

1718 Bible Box


Boxes for holding ink and pens had been in existence for some time but it was during the dying decades of the 18th century that they came into widespread use. Increased travel and war necessitated access to a stable surface to write upon with handy storage for pens, paper and ink. Army officers had their own boxes, using them both for army business and for writing home. Whether you were on a military campaign, writing to your nearest and dearest while on a prolonged sojourn at a country pile, or a young buck off on the Grand Tour, the portable desk became a staple travel accessory. They had to withstand the rough and tumble of strenuous journeys, sometimes strapped to the outside of a coach, exposed to all kinds of weather.

A huge and beautiful selection of all shapes and sizes, have survived and I have to admit to some serious envy.

Captain’s Box c. 1810


A Captain’s Writing box was a brass bound box, usually of mahogany. This sample is English, made around 1810. They were made in this shape to make travel easier but when opened contained a sloping writing surface. Compartments for ink, pens and paper where also provided.




Here is a more ornate example of Indian Sandal wood, trimmed in ivory.

19th Century

The boxes ranged from extremely plain in the early part of the 19th century to those which were more ornate as people exercised their personal taste. Many a famous letter, novel, postcard or dispatch was born on a lap desk. Many a love letter was locked away in a secret compartment too!



Early 19th century examples tended to have thick veneers of mahogany, rosewood, yew or fruitwoods with brass inlays, fine lines or floral swags. Some had fine mother of pearl inlay on the lids and marquetry of naturalistic, neo-classical or geometric designs.

Later examples could be made of mahogany or pine with a thin veneer in walnut, maple, chestnut or rosewood. More expensive boxes had thicker veneers. Brass bindings were glued and secured by small brass studs with the exterior and interior french polished and glossy and secret drawers and compartments were common.

Such a shame that the art of letter writing is disappearing – who wouldn’t want to use one of these?




Recipes from the Victorian Sick Room


Anyone reading Regency or Victorian novels will be all too well aware of the obsession with remedies for invalids that were handed down arsenicfrom generation to generation. Some may have worked (most were at least nutritious) and we cannot really blame them for quacking themselves when terrible diseases lurked in their homes and haunted their nightmares. With medical hindsight we can, of course, laugh at some of their ‘cures’ but huge reliance was placed on traditional recipes. Many books were written on the subject and newspapers were full of advertisements for all sorts of medicines and remedies (often lethal ones at that). Recipes from the Victorian Sick Room

Dublin’s 19th Century Sweep School

vicchimneysweepOne of the most deplorable uses of child labour in 19th century Ireland was for the sweeping of chimneys. A master sweep would obtain very young boys, some as young as seven, to train as apprentices. The boys were sent up the chimney flue to brush and scrape the soot loose. The dangers were numerous – suffocation from soot, getting stuck in the flue, falling from the chimney stack or even being badly burned. A contemporary commentator on Dublin city life wrote:

‘no class of the community has so much and so deservedly excited public commiseration as that of young sweeps, and we think the existence of such a trade is a reproach to the police of any state where it is permitted.’

However, it took a famous court case in Dublin to bring the subject into the public domain. It resulted in a master sweep being jailed for cruelty to his apprentice who he whipped repeatedly and burned with coals. The child was carried into court wrapped in a blanked and covered with ointment but died shortly after the trial. The sweep was sentenced to a public whipping and a huge crowd gathered to witness it.

This case led to the formation of the Society for the Protection of Young Chimney Sweeps in 1816. It emerged that many of the children were forced by their masters to engage in night-time burglaries as well. Once the children grew too big they were abandoned and left to fend for themselves.

Destitute children typical admissions to Dr Barnardo's Home in 1874

A ‘School for Young Sweeps’ was set up in Drumcondra, Dublin, to look after these abandoned young sweeps.  On Sundays, the children gathered at the school and were fed and kitted out with new shoes, shirts and caps. They were given bars of soap and a few pennies to get them through the following week. A basic education in reading, writing and arithmetic was provided as well. However, the school closed down after accusations by Catholic clergymen that the school was a front for the conversion of Catholic children to the Protestant faith.

The practice of using children to climb chimneys ended in 1864 when the Act for the Regulation of Chimney Sweepers was passed.

A Conversation with Author Tom Williams

Today in the Library we have ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Tom Williams, who has dropped in to say hello and to share some insights into his life as an author.

Tom used to write about boring things for money. If you wanted an analysis of complaints volumes in legal services or attitudes to diversity at the BBC, then he was your man. Now he writes much more interesting books about hi1975150_753942814623481_2115745955_nstorical characters and earns in a year about what he could make in a day back then. (This, unfortunately, is absolutely true.) He also writes a blog ( which is widely read all over the world and generates no income at all.

Besides making no money from writing, Tom makes no money out of occasionally teaching people to tango and then spends all the money he hasn’t made on going to dance in Argentina.

Please save Tom from himself and buy his books.

A Conversation with Author Tom Williams

A Conversation with Author Catherine Kullmann

Today in the Library I am delighted to host Irish historical fiction author Catherine Kullmann, who has dropped in to say hello and to share some insights into her life as an author.

You are very welcome, Catherine and congratulations on the publication this week of your book, The Murmur of Masks.

Hello and thank you for inviting me to the Library. I was born and brought up in Dublin. Following my marriage I moved to Germany where I lived for over twenty-five years. My husband and I returned to Ireland in 1999 and celebratCatherine Kullmann 4 MBed our ruby wedding in 2013. We have three adult sons and two grandchildren. I have worked in the Irish and New Zealand public services and in the private sector. I took early retirement some years ago and was finally able to follow my life-long dream of writing fiction

Did you read much as a child?

As a child I always had my nose in a book. I had tickets for the public library and the children’s section of the RDS library and visited both several times a week. The librarian of the public library allowed me join the adult library early as I had read everything in the children’s library.

Are you an avid reader now?

Yes. I have to read every day. I buy a lot of new books, but also love second-hand bookshops, book fairs and charity shops as you never know what you might find.

Do you prefer books in your own genre or are you happy to explore others?

I generally read fiction for pleasure and non-fiction for research. I love historical fiction and detective stories set in all periods, but also read nineteenth and twentieth century fiction, contemporary fiction, paranormal and fantasy.

Are you self-published or traditionally published?


Which genre do you write in and why?

According to traditional publishers, my books fall between two stools—historical romance and historical fiction. I describe them as ‘historical fiction for the heart and for the head’. They are set during the extended Regency period, an era that has always fascinated me. It started with Jane Austen, I suppose, but as I came to know more about the period, I realised it was the one which shaped both the United Kingdom which came into being with the Act of Union in 1800 and modern Europe through the Napoleonic wars and their aftermath. Although a time of revolution, reform and transition, it was still a rigid, patriarchal, class-ridden society. I enjoy the challenge of creating characters who behave authentically in their period while making their actions and decisions plausible and sympathetic to a modern reader.

Who has been the biggest influence on your writing?

I would have to start with my English teachers and the essays I wrote every week, then my professional training in drafting accurately and, as far as possible, elegantly. Novelists who influenced me include Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, Georgette Heyer to whom all ‘regency writers’ owe so much, and Dorothy Sayers. In Gaudy Night, when her heroine is faced with writing a very tricky letter, she has her ask herself, “Why can’t I write a straightforward piece of English on a set subject?” This question makes her identify the real reason for her difficulties. Once she realises what the problem is, she is able to deal with it.

Has your country of origin/culture influenced your writing?

Yes. In many ways the Ireland I grew up in was more similar to Regency society than to modern twenty-first century society. Attitudes to sex and sexuality were very different. Contraception was illegal, as was divorce. Pre-marital sex was frowned upon and it was almost unheard of for an unmarried mother to keep her baby. It was not usual for married women to work outside the home and many employers, including the civil service, refused to continue a woman’s employment once she married.

At the time I moved to Germany, air-travel and international phone calls were very expensive and there was, of course, neither  internet, Skype, Facebook, texting nor anything of that sort, so I know what it is like to be isolated in a new environment and dependent on letters to maintain relationships and friendships.

Some people have asked me why I don’t set my books in Ireland but it would be impossible to do that and ignore the political and social situation in Ireland at that time. That would result in a different, bleaker book that I don’t want to write.

What part of the writing process do you find most difficult? How do you overcome it?

Because my books are pure fiction, I do not start with a real storyline or characters. It is usually something quite small that triggers a book—a ‘what if?’ or ’what then?’ In the case of The Murmur of Masks, it was a small throwaway line in another book Perception & Illusion which, although it was written first, will not be published until next year. The most difficult thing is fleshing out that little idea. First I create the characters and then work on an outline of the plot, although that will change considerably as I write the first draft.

Do you have a favourite time of day to write?

I prefer the mornings but write in the afternoon as well.

What is the best thing about being an author? And the flipside – what is the worst?

The best is when a book takes flight, when your characters suddenly determine the route of their journey. The worst is when they stubbornly refuse to budge.

Is social media an essential chore or something you enjoy? Which forum do you prefer?

As you know, I came very late to social media and regard it more as a chore than an essential part of my life. To my surprise, I find I enjoy Facebook, especially the interaction with other writers. I also blog about historical facts and trivia relating to the extended Regency

If you weren’t an author, what would you be up to?

That is a hard one. I am retired and have no wish to return to the day job. I think I would have to find something else creative to do, but am not sure what.

It’s the last day and the earth is facing oblivion – what book would you read?

I wouldn’t read; I would listen to Bach’s St Matthew Passion and Handel’s Messiah

Please tell us about your latest published work.

Portrait of Lady Morgan (Sydney Owenson) (1776-1859), Writer, c.1818, Artist: RenÈ ThÈodore Berthon. A lady in an empire line dress seated on a chair beside a writing desk. Pen in hand. A vase of flowers.

My debut novel, The Murmur of Masks, is now available on Amazon as an e-book and paperback. It is a story of loss, love and second chances set against a background of the Napoleonic wars, culminating in the Battle of Waterloo. It is available worldwide on Amazon.

If you would like to know more about Catherine and her work please check out the social media links below:

Blog   Website: Facebook  

or you can send messages to my Page at



Victorian Murder: The ‘Barnes Mystery’

The terrible crime at Richmond at last,
On Catherine Webster now has been cast,
Tried and found guilty she is sentenced to die.
From the strong hand of justice she cannot fly.
She has tried all excuses but of no avail,
About this and murder she’s told many tales,
She has tried to throw blame on others as well,
But with all her cunning at last she has fell.

Julia Thomas
Julia Martha Thomas

One of the most notorious crimes of the late Victorian era in Britain was the murder of Julia Martha Thomas by her Irish maid, Kate Webster in March 1879. A widow, Julia Thomas lived at 2 Mayfield Cottages on Park Road in Richmond. It was a quiet and respectable area. A small, well-dressed lady of about fifty, Julia was said to Mayfield Cottageshave had an excitable temperament and was regarded by many as eccentric. She was not particularly wealthy, but she always dressed up and wore jewellery to give the impression of prosperity. Her employment of a live-in maid was more to do with status than practicality. However, she had a reputation for being a harsh employer and she had difficulty finding and retaining servants.

Kate Webster
Kate Webster

Kate Webster was born as Kate Lawler in County Wexford, Ireland, around 1849. She was said to be “a tall, strongly-made woman of about 5 feet 5 inches in height with sallow and much freckled complexion and large and prominent teeth.” Much of her early life is unclear but she claimed to have been married to a sea captain called Webster by whom she had four children, all of whom died, as did her husband, within a short time of each other. She was imprisoned for theft in Wexford in December 1864, when she was only about 15 years old. She moved to England in 1867 and fell into a life of crime, being frequently imprisoned for robbery. However, she was recommended as a maid to Julia Thomas by someone who had employed her temporarily. Julia engaged her immediately without checking out her character or past.

Their relationship rapidly deteriorated with Julia disliking the quality of Kate Webster’s work. Kate said of Julia Thomas: “At first I thought her a nice old lady … but I found her very trying, and she used to do many things to annoy me during my work. When I had finished my work in my rooms, she used to go over it again after me, and point out places where she said I did not clean, showing evidence of a nasty spirit towards me.” The situation reached a crisis point and it was arranged that Kate Webster would leave Julia’s service on 28th February. Julia recorded her decision in what was to be her last diary entry: “Gave Katherine warning to leave.”

But Kate persuaded her employer to give her a few days grace until Sunday 2nd March. She had Sunday afternoons off as a half-day and was expected to return in time to help Julia prepare for evening service. But Webster returned late, delaying Julia’s departure. The two women argued and several members of the congregation later reported that Julia had appeared “very agitated” on arriving at the church. Julia returned home and confronted Webster. According to Webster’s eventual confession:

“Mrs. Thomas came in and went upstairs. I went up after her, and we had an argument, which ripened into a quarrel, and in the height of my anger and rage I threw her from the top of the stairs to the ground floor. She had a heavy fall, and I became agitated at what had occurred, lost all control of myself, and, to prevent her screaming and getting me into trouble, I caught her by the throat, and in the struggle she was choked, and I threw her on the floor.”

The neighbours heard a single thump like that of a chair falling over but paid no heed to it at tNeightbourshe time. Next door, Webster began disposing of the body by dismembering it and boiling it in the laundry copper and burning the bones in the hearth. The neighbours later said that they had noticed an unusual and unpleasant smell. However, the activity at 2 Mayfield Cottages did not seem to be out of the ordinary, as Monday was traditionally wash day. Over the next couple of days Webster continued to clean the house and Thomas’ clothes and put on a show of normality for people who called. Behind the scenes she was putting Thomas’ dismembered remains into a black Gladstone bag and a wooden bonnet-box. These were disposed of in the Thames. She was unable to fit the murdered woman’s head and one of the feet into the containers and disposed of them separately, throwing the foot onto a rubbish heap in Twickenham. The head was buried under the Hole in the Wall pub’s stables a short distance from Julia’s’ house, where it was found 131 years later.

However, the next day, the box was found washed up in shallow water next to the river bank about a mile downstream. The discovery was immediately reported to the police. Around the same time, the foot and ankle were also found. Although it was clear that all of the remains belonged to the same corpse, there was nothing to connect them and no means to identify the remains. The doctor who examined the body parts erroneously attributed them to “a young person with very dark hair”. An inquest returned an open verdict and the unidentified remains were laid to rest in Barnes Cemetery on 19 March. The newspapers dubbed the unexplained murder the “Barnes Mystery”, amid speculation that the body had been used for dissection and anatomical study.

Webster continued to live at 2 Mayfield Cottages while posing as Julia Thomas, wearing her late employer’s clothes and dealing with tradesmen under her newly assumed identity. On 9 March she reached an agreement with John Church, a local publican, to sell Thomas’ furniture and other goods. By the time the removal vans arrived on 18 March, the neighbours were becoming increasingly suspicious as they had not seen Julia for nearly two weeks. Her next-door neighbour, Miss Ives, asked the deliverymen who had ordered the goods removed. They replied “Mrs. Thomas” and indicated Webster. Realising that she had been exposed, Webster fled. The police were called in and searched 2 Mayfield Cottages. There they discovered blood stains, burned finger-bones in the hearth and fatty deposits behind the copper, as well as a letter left by Webster giving her home address in Ireland. They immediately put out a “wanted” notice giving a description of Webster.

Scotland Yard detectives soon discovered that Webster had fled back to Ireland. The head constable of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in Wexford realised that the woman being sought by Scotland Yard was the same person whom his force had arrested 14 years previously for larceny. The RIC were able to trace her to her uncle’s farm near Enniscorthy and arrested her there on 29 March. She was escorted back to England to stand trial.

The murder caused a sensation on both sides of the Irish Sea. When the news broke, many people travelled to Richmond to look at Mayfield Cottages. The crime was just as notorious in Ireland; as Webster travelled under arrest from Enniscorthy to Dublin, crowds gathered to gawk and jeer at her at nearly every station between the two locations. The pre-trial magistrates’ hearings were attended by many. Webster went on trial at the Old Bailey on 2 July 1879. The prosecution was led by the Solicitor General, Sir Hardinge Giffard. Webster was defended by a prominent London barrister, Warner Sleigh, and the case was presided over by Mr. Justice Denman. The trial drew intense interest from all levels of society; on the fourth day, the Crown Prince of Sweden – the future King Gustaf V – turned up to watch the proceedings.

Over the course of six days, the court heard a succession of witnesses piecing together the complicated story of how Thomas had met her death. Webster had attempted before the tConviction_of_Kate_Websterrial to implicate the publican John Church and her former neighbour Porter, but both men had solid alibis and were cleared of any involvement in the murder. She pleaded not guilty and her defence sought to emphasise the circumstantial nature of the evidence and highlighted her devotion to her son as a reason why she could not have been capable of the murder. However, Webster’s public unpopularity, impassive demeanour and scanty defence counted strongly against her. A particularly damning piece of evidence came from a bonnetmaker named Maria Durden who told the court that Webster had visited her a week before the murder and had said that she was going to Birmingham to sell some property, jewellery and a house that her aunt had left her. The jury interpreted this as a sign that Webster had premeditated the murder and convicted her after deliberating for about an hour and a quarter.

Shortly after the jury returned its verdict and just before the judge was about to pass sentence, Webster was asked if there was any reason why sentence of death should not be passed upon her. She pleaded that she was pregnant in an apparent bid to avoid the death penalty. The Law Times reported that “upon this a scene of uncertainty, if not of confusion, ensued, certainly not altogether in harmony with the solemnity of the occasion.” The judge commented that “after thirty-two years in the profession, he was never at an inquiry of this sort.” Eventually the Clerk of Assizes suggested using the archaic mechanism of a jury of matrons, constituted from a selection of the women attending the court, to rule upon the question of whether Webster was “with quick child”. Twelve women were sworn in along with a surgeon named Bond, and they accompanied Webster to a private room for an examination that only took a couple of minutes. They returned a verdict that Webster was not “quick with child.”

Before she was executed, Webster made two statements. The first was false in which she tried to implicate two others; the second in which she took full responsibility. She was hanged the following day at Wandsworth Prison at 9 am, where the hangman, William Marwood, used his newly developed “long drop” technique to cause instantaneous death. She was buried in an unmarked grave in one of the prison’s exercise yards. The crowd waiting outside cheered as a black flag was raised over the prison walls, signifying that the death sentence had been carried out.

The trial was a sensation and was widely reported in the press, both in Ireland and Britain. Within weeks of her arrest, and well before she had gone to trial, Madame Tussaud’s created a wax effigy of her and put it on display for those who wished to see the “Richmond Murderess”. 220px-Execution_of_Catherine_Webster_at_Wandsworth_GaolIt remained on display well into the twentieth century. Within days of her execution an enterprising publisher rushed into print a souvenir booklet for the price of a penny, “The Life, Trial and Execution of Kate Webster. The Illustrated Police News published a souvenir cover depicting an artist’s impression of the day of the execution. The case was also commemorated, while it was still ongoing, by street ballads—musical narratives set to the tune of popular songs.

Webster herself was characterised as malicious, reckless and wilfully evil. Servants were expected to be deferential; her act of extreme violence towards her employer was deeply disquieting. At the time, about 40% of the female labour force was employed as domestic servants for a very wide range of society. Servants and employers lived and worked in close proximity, and the honesty and orderliness of servants was a constant cause of concern.

Another cause of revulsion against Webster was her attempt to impersonate her dead employer for two weeks, implying that middle-class identity amounted to little more than cultivating the right demeanour and having the appropriate clothes and possessions, whether or not they had been earned.

Perhaps most disturbingly for many Victorians, Webster was seen as having violated the expected norms of femininity. Victorian women were supposed to be moral, passive and physically weak. Webster was seen as quite the opposite and her appearance and behaviour were seen as key signs of her inherently criminal nature. Her behaviour in court and her sexual history also counted against her. Being Irish was a significant factor in the widespread revulsion felt towards Webster in Great Britain. The depiction of Webster as “hardly human” was of a piece with the public and judicial perceptions of the Irish as innately criminal.

In 1952, the naturalist David Attenborough and his wife Jane bought a house situated between the former Mayfield Cottages (which still stand today) and the Hole in the Wall pub. The pub closed in 2007 and fell into dereliction but was bought by Attenborough in 2009 to be redeveloped. On 22 October 2010, workmen carrying out excavation work at the rear of the old pub uncovered what turned out to be a woman’s skull. It was immediately speculated that article-2011513-0CE0655900000578-260_468x594the skull was the missing head of Julia Martha Thomas, and the coroner asked Richmond police to carry out an investigation into the identity and circumstances of death of the skull’s owner. Carbon dating found that it was dated between 1650 and 1880, but it had been deposited on top of a layer of Victorian tiles. The skull had fracture marks consistent with Webster’s account of throwing Thomas down the stairs, and it was found to have low collagen levels, consistent with it being boiled. In July 2011, the coroner concluded that the skull was indeed that of Thomas. DNA testing was not possible as she had died childless and no relatives could be traced; in addition, there was no record of where the rest of her body had been buried.

The coroner recorded a verdict of unlawful killing, superseding the open verdict recorded in 1879. The cause of Thomas’s death was given as asphyxiation and a head injury. The police called the outcome, “a good example of how good old-fashioned detective work, historical records and technological advances came together to solve the Barnes Mystery.”