In 1863 a horrific incident occurred in Woolton when a child died of severe burns, but the person suspected of causing the death was acquitted at his trial.
Messrs Bagot and Wells Drapers were based at 43 Allerton Road in Woolton, which doubled as the shop and Bagot's home. John Bagot was a 38 year old bachelor and Wells a widower. Although Wells lived in Halewood, two of his sisters lived in Woolton with Bagot.
At the beginning of January 1863 Wells took care of his niece Evelyn, who was two years and two months old, as her mother was about to have another baby. However rather than be looked after at Wells's Halewood home, Evelyn was instead left mainly at Bagot's home with Alice Ashton, a fourteen year old girl who did chores for him.
On Thursday 8th January Evelyn suffered terrible burns after sitting on an iron stool that had been by a fire for several hours that afternoon. How she came to be sat on that school was never established for certain, but it was generally accepted that she must have been placed there by somebody. She died two days later, leading to Bagot being taken into custody on suspicion of causing her death, although he was released on bail.
The inquest took place at the Coffee house pub on Saturday 17th January, where principal witness was Alice Ashton, described by the Daily Post as a 'very intelligent girl'. She said that only her, Evelyn and Bagot were in the house on 8th January and that soon after Bagot moved an iron stool from the fire to change the coal the little girl had asked for a glass of water. She said that she placed her on the sofa then went to the pantry to get the water and heard a scream, returning to find Evelyn sat on the stool and her petticoats removed, with Bagot stood by the shop door. Her bottom and back of the thighs were burnt and at first she though perhaps she had fallen over the dog and landed on the stool, but she then saw the dog in the shop. Alice then stated that Bagot said nothing and went into the shop but when she asked what she should do he told her to go away and not bother with any more questions.
Continuing her evidence, Alice told the coroner that she went to a local druggist called Mr Blabey for help and was given some linseed oil and limewater to rub into the burns, before putting Evelyn to bed. Bagot then told her to go to bed herself or he would 'make her dead quick'. She went to bed with Evelyn who was not distressed but remained awake. She then described how Bagot was walking around the house shouting 'little devils'. Although Evelyn had not shown signs of distress overnight and was singing in the morning, Alice recounted that she had some oil applied by Matilda Millichip, who was the housekeeper and Wells's sister. For some reason she had spent the night in question with her brother in Halewood, rather than look after Evelyn. Soon after Mrs Millichip had attended to Evelyn, she fitted and a surgeon was called for.
Alice described Bagot as a man who got drunk every night except Sundays and didn't like Evelyn, referring to her as a 'round faced little devil'. She insisted that Evelyn could not possibly have climbed onto the stool herself and that it had been so hot on being moved from by the fire that towels had to be used to hold it. Under cross examination by Bagot's solicitor Mr Worship, Alice admitted that Evelyn was able to speak but she hadn't asked how she got onto the stool and that it was feasible she could have used Bagot's dog as a stepping stone.
The next witness called was the shop boy James Oliver, who was unable to say much except that he was out buying more beer for Bagot during the whole time that the events occurred. Mrs Millichip stated that she too believed Evelyn could not have climbed onto the stool unaided, but accepted she had blisters on her thumb and one of her fingers. She also said that Evelyn had fitted before when having teething troubles.
Dr Rigg's evidence did not appear to indicate that Evelyn had climbed onto the stool either unaided or by stepping onto the dog first. He said that the burns on her fingers were so slight that they could not have occurred by grabbing the stool and that there were two marks on her head which seemed to have been caused by force, as if pressed by fingers or thumbs. Death he said, was as a result of convulsions caused by the shock of the burns.
The final witnesses appeared on behalf of Mr Bagot. One of them was Henry Jones, a tailor employed by him who said that his boss had great affection for Evelyn. An assistant at the druggists then testified that Alice told him Evelyn had fallen over the dog onto the stool.
In summing up, the Coroner told the jury they had to determine how much credibility they should give to the evidence of two children. He then pointed out that the medical evidence showed that the lack of serious burns on the hands meant she could not have got onto the stool herself. He told the jury they had to consider three things; that Alice may have manufactured a story about Bagot to deliberately get into trouble, that Evelyn was sitting or standing on the dog then fell onto the stool, or that she had been deliberately placed on the stool by somebody. If it was the last option, their verdict should be wilful murder if that act was intended to cause Evelyn harm, or manslaughter if it was an act of recklessness.
The jury were out for an hour and on their return the foreman said they had returned a verdict of wilful murder due to being placed on the hot stool but that 'by whom she was placed we consider there is not sufficient evidence to show.' The Coroner said this was the correct verdict and granted further bail to Bagot, telling him to attend the magistrates court the following Monday when he would find if any further action was to be be taken against him.
At a special sitting of the magistrates' court in Woolton police station, it was decided to hear all the evidence from the inquest again. Superintendent Fowler asked the questions for the police and Bagot was again represented by Mr Worship.
Alice Ashton added to her testimony that for four weeks she had locked her door at night as Bagot had a habit of coming in the room with a lighted candle and holding it near hers and Evelyn's face. she also said that he had once threatened to do something to Mrs Millichip that she would remember all her life. Asked why she had not mentioned this at the inquest, she replied that she was about to but Bagot's solicitor prevented her from doing so and moved on to another question. She insisted that she had not paced Evelyn on the stool and when she finished the magistrates commented that they had never heard someone so young give their evidence in a such a clear manner.
James Oliver said that when he returned from buying ale for Bagot, he was stood at the kitchen door looking at Evelyn. He then took the ale and returned into the shop, leaving James to look after the toddler while Evelyn sought medical help. Dr Rigg was asked about the convulsions, and gave his opinion that they were as a direct result of the burns. Dr Cross who assisted with the postmortem gave a slightly different opinion, saying he believed the convulsions were a result of effusion of the brain, but that itself had been caused by the shock of being burned. He also said that Evelyn could not possibly have climbed onto the stool herself without getting burns on other parts of her body.
Mr Worship then made an address to the magistrates, saying there was no motive whatsoever on Bagot's part to harm Evelyn. He suggested that if he wanted to kill her, there better opportunities to do so without being caught and that if he was drunk, he would have been incapable of doing such an act in so short a space of time. A far more likely explanation, he maintained, was that Alice had carried out the act foolishly and then tried to heap the blame on Bagot.
After a short period of consultation the chair of the magistrates said that weighing up all the evidence they had to send Bagot for trial on a charge of manslaughter. They allowed him bail at £400, equivalent to £45,000 today. On 27th March Bagot appeared at the assizes before Baron Martin, where the case collapsed after Alice's cross examination by his defence counsel. Asked if she felt the dog could have knocked Evelyn onto the stool she replied yes, leading to no further evidence being offered by the prosecution and Bagot was discharged from the dock.