Monday, 26 December 2016

Dead Baby in a Pillowslip

When two boys found a dead baby whilst playing at low tide in the River Mersey, it led to an actress being convicted of murder but reprieved from the death penalty.

On 1st February 1916 two boys, William Williams and Charles Whiteley, were playing below the landing stage at the Pier Head. They noticed a bundle which had a hand protruding from it and on closer inspection found that it was a pillowslip containing the body of a mixed race baby. There was also an iron, which had appeared to have been used to weigh the pillowslip down.

Pier Head in 1907 (
A postmortem showed that the child was healthy and weighed eleven pounds. Death has been as a result of suffocation or drowning. A few days later, twenty eight year old Gertrude Hill, a dressmaker lodging at Cecil Street in Manchester, confessed her knowledge of the crime to her landlady. She said that she had accompanied fellow lodger Beryl Lingard to Liverpool and saw her throw the baby into the river. Hill remarked that she was haunted by this and she kept seeing the little brown legs of the baby, whose name was John. 

The police were called and she made a statement saying that she was present when Lingard placed the baby into a pillowslip, weighted it down with an iron, then threw it into the river. Hill said Lingard had wanted to run but she persuaded her to remain clam so as not to arouse suspicion locally. This led to the arrest on 4th February of Lingard and Hill, who were both taken to Liverpool and kept in custody.

Lingard had led an eventful life. Born in Seville in Spain, she had lost both her parents by the time she was sixteen and gone to Venezuela, where she met a Trinidadian she called Dr Punch. He was the son of a merchant and found her work in films in Australia, then persuaded her to return to Europe where she worked in London and Paris before heading to Manchester. 

In Manchester Lingard found that Punch had another woman with whom he had had a child. However she continued the relationship and after giving birth in December 1915 she and Punch lived at the Blackfriars Hotel, but were told to leave due to constant arguing, a result of Punch's womanising. Punch had then disappeared and Lingard moved to Cecil Street, where she became acquainted with Gertrude Hill.

The two women at the inquest
Hill was initially only arrested on suspicion of being an accessory before the fact but after the inquest and committal hearing on 9th February this was changed to murder. Their trial was set for 24th February when both women appeared together before Justice Bailhache at the Manchester assizes. 

Ethel Mason, the midwife who delivered the baby remembered that Gertrude had said during her labour that if the baby was black then she wanted it killed. Fellow lodgers told how Hill had confessed to knowing about the killing, while the proprietor of the Blackfriars hotel remembered how Lingard was in a pitiable position when she stayed there.

Justice BailhacheA key witness was George Jones, a train guard who recalled seeing the two women on both the outbound and return journeys on the day in question. He explained to the court that on the return journey, there was  a delay at Warrington and when he spoke to the ladies, he asked where the baby was that they had been carrying earlier. They responded that a family in New Brighton was now looking after it and recalled that they had done well to get there and back in time for the return train.

The jury acquitted Hill of all charges but found Lingard guilty of murder, but with a strong recommendation for mercy. She was sentenced to death in the usual way and then taken to Strangeways gaol to await her fate. On 7th March Lingard's solicitor Mr Geddes received communication from the Home Secretary that following his submissions the sentence had been commuted to penal servitude for life.

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