Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Attempting to Murder His Illegitimate Child

St. Peter & Paul, Aston
The parish of Aston was one of the largest in Birmingham. The Rev. George Peake, vicar of the venerable church of St. Peter and Paul, employed no fewer than four curates to assist in the various ecclesiastical duties and services. In September 1855, a new curate arrived, the Rev. Patrick King. Little was known of Mr. King other than that he was a "seceder" from the Roman Catholic Church, having "renounced the errors of popery" in 1852. He was then received into the Church of England. King was 37 and unmarried.

Early in 1856, a woman named Anne Downes came to Aston; she was pregnant. The Rev. King took some interest in her, saying she was the wife of a friend now living abroad. Mrs. Downes had chosen to return to England for her confinement and then recruit her health. Her son was born in the spring and - as was not uncommon - while the mother recovered, the infant was placed in the care of a local woman, Mrs. Jones, in Thimble Hill. The Rev. King visited the infant regularly, showing almost paternal concern which, of course, gave rise to censorious gossip. 

In the late afternoon of 30 May, in Lapworth, a village fifteen miles south of Aston, 14 year old Walter Wood was tending some cows when he heard the cries of a baby. The lad was led by the wails to find an infant lying just off the high-road, on the slope of a hill above a pool of water. Walter brought the baby to the farmhouse of his employer, a man named King (apparently no relation to the curate). At the Solihull Union Workhouse, the infant was examined - although the baby had been poorly fed, there were no signs of violence. Police visited the scene in Lapworth and determined that some person, unwilling to intentionally drown the infant, left him there to either die of exposure or roll down the slope into the pit.

After a fortnight of inquiries, there was an "extraordinary sensation" when Warwickshire police arrested the Rev. Patrick King on a charge of wilfully and maliciously attempting to murder by drowning "a certain child," his illegitimate son. King made no effort to deny paternity. The child was his. "Mrs." Downes was not the wife of a friend but actually the curate's half-sister by the same mother. She'd come from no farther away than Coventry.

According to Mrs. Jones, on 30 May, the Rev. King came to her cottage, asking to have little Arthur as his mother wished to see him. But she watched as King got into a cart and the carman headed in the other direction, south by the turnpike road in the direction of Stratford. Police later claimed that, about two miles beyond Hockley House, in a lonely place along Lapworth Hill, the wagon halted. King walked off with the baby and was gone for some little time but returned to the cart alone. 

At the Warwick Assizes, the Crown insisted that the defendant had left the helpless infant on the steep slope "where, on the slightest movement, he would have rolled into the water and been drowned." But Justice Cresswell did not think the evidence necessarily proved any intent to drown the infant. Thus, on the graver charge, King was found not guilty. He was, however, convicted of a common assault, having "exposed the child, whereby it sustained injury." Cresswell acknowledged that infanticide was tragically all too common in England. Thus, the shock of this case. "If we cannot expect a clergyman of the Church of England to resist the temptation to commit an offence of this description, what may we expect of those who, without education, without religious instruction, without a sense of their responsibility, are tempted to conceal their shame by dealing with infant children in such a manner."

The Rev. Patrick King maintained the "greatest composure" throughout the proceedings. Hearing word of his six month jail sentence, he simply bowed and retired. There was a public kerfuffle when it was reported that the Rev. King had been allowed to preach to the inmates in Warwick's county jail. Upon his release, however, he disappears from all the clerical directories. As the weekly Lloyd's had predicted, no amount of time would suffice to cleanse Patrick King of "prison taint."

Arthur was back with his mother. Miss Downes had also been charged but not prosecuted. Upon payment of the workhouse fees, she was reunited with her son. They cannot be traced.

Thank you for visiting this unique blog. May I remind you that Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Volume 2 is now for sale, exclusively through and The collection includes five full-length accounts of "extraordinary" scandals involving Victorian clerics. Tales of blackmail, adultery, seduction and more. A cozy collection for the Anglophile on your list!

*Aston Church (1851)

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