Tuesday, 8 September 2015

"You have been in great peril."

Gladys Ramsbottom, 1897

"She took them to a place near the edge of the (Coromandel) bush."

Costley Home - founded by the ladies of Auckland to carry out humane work.

For months the Auckland Police had been searching for a child born to a young Coromandel girl of 18.  It appeared the child had been  born in  Auckland in March 1897 and was subsequently boarded out under the Infant Protection Act to Mrs Cowie's Children's Home  in  Brighton Road, Parnell.

 Mary Ramsbottom had been  admitted to the Maternity Ward of the Costley Home on January 25, 1897,  she was confined on March 8, and discharged with her daughter, Helena  Gladys Mary (known as Gladys),  on March 22. Mary's father, Thomas Ramsbottom  a very respectable man from Coromandel, paid the confinement fees. In May, Mary insisted upon removing the infant from the Children's Home and took her to Coromandel.  Then it suddenly vanished.  The ladies of Auckland who knew the child's history and the detective force began to make inquiries.

Mary got employment at Coromandel but in December left suddenly for Auckland, where she was soon arrested on a charge of the theft of a diamond ring and a bicycle from her Coromandel employer.  Mary, during her detention in gaol awaiting her trial for theft, suddenly made a statement which led to a horrifying discovery.

"Child Murder Coromandel" -   "The Coromandel Sensation" - "A Shocking Affair" shouted the headlines of reports which detailed the  death of a  child which had been abandoned and left to die in the bush at Long Bay, Coromandel by its mother.

In January 1898, Mary Ramsbottom led detectives to a quiet spot in the ti-tree about three miles from the Coromandel Post Office. On the road she told them that they could not very well miss the place as the baby's  bottle would be there.  She took them to a spot near the edge of the bush and at the top of a hill.   They saw on the surface of the ground what they took to be a human skeleton, some rotten baby's clothing, a tiny pair of bootees and a feeding bottle.  Mary pointed to remains and said "that is my baby and there is the bottle."  The remains were found a mile from any proper road and about 20 yards from a track.
A charge of child murder was laid against Mary Ramsbottom, sometimes called Polly, alias Ramsey. It was noted that at times the girl seemed to feel her position and at others she laughed and treated the matter lightly.

At the Police Court, Mary, neatly dressed, tripped smilingly into the dock and appeared to regard the affair with little concern.  When the charge was read she turned her head slightly, but said nothing.  She was described as a young and good looking girl.  She wore her brown hair down her back and was attired in a black velvet blouse, short green skirt and gem hat.  She kept her face averted from the crowd in the court.

At the trial, Agnes Henrietta McFarlane, matron of the Children's Home,   said that about May 5, 1897, Mary Ramsbottom asked her to take in her child as she wished to take employment.  Gladys was younger than usually admitted, but owing to the pleas of Mary her request was granted.   After keeping Gladys for a short time it was suspected that Mary had not taken employment, but was leading an immoral life; as well, after 20 days in the Home, the weekly payments for Gladys were not forthcoming.  The Inspector of Police was then requested to have the child removed. Gladys was subsequently handed back to Mary in the Inspector's presence.  The child was taken away on May 25, Gladys had been delicate in health and was attended to by Dr  Arthur E Marsack when in the Home She was not a particularly robust child; she was rather below the average.  However the doctor pronounced her much better on the day of departure. This was the last he or the matron saw of the child. 

Constable Kennedy testified that Mary had arrived in Coromandel from Auckland by steamer early on a May morning. The child was left alive in the bush with a feeding bottle.  Two days later Mary returned to the place and the baby was dead.  She did not bury it.  He had known Mary for two years and had never thought there was anything wrong with her mind.

Dr Stanley Arthur Bull, of Coromandel, said the exposure of the child would certainly cause its death. There were no fractures of bones or anything to indicate a violent death. Dr Bull said he was struck by Mary's utter callousness.  She did not seem to grasp the situation at all.  This tended to show that her mind was not as healthy as that of a normal woman.  He judged her moral sense wanting and said she was what was known to doctor's as morally insane.  It was very exceptional for a woman to show no sign of affection for their children, even if they were illegitimate.

The defence urged the jury to take into account Mary's extreme youth and pointed out she had lapsed from the path of virtue at an early age and now it was hard to reform.   The jury were asked to consider her condition when arriving at Coromandel in the morning from Auckland.  Having no one to meet her and knowing that she dare not leave the baby at her father's house, she wandered away and left it in the bush.  Was it clearly her intention to abandon the child in order to cause its death? Might it not have been that the girl left it there intending to go back two days later?  Were her circumstances not so desperately unfortunate as to be enough to turn her mind?  He asked the jury to deal with the case as mercifully as they could.

When the Coroner tried to read aloud Mary's statement, he was so affected he had to ask Detective Grace to do it instead.  It said, in part, "I suppose you know what I done with it.  I left it down at Coromandel, at Long Bay, with nobody in the bush . . . I was at home between the time I left the baby and the time I returned to see two days afterwards.  The place where I left the baby is about a quarter of an hour's walk from my father's place . . .I do not think anyone saw me with the baby at Coromandel . . . I saw it about two days after I left it.  It was then dead.  I came away and left it there.  I did not bury it."

Mr Justice Connolly, in his charge to the Grand Jury, said it was clear at law that if the woman knew, as she must have known, that leaving her child away from the road, at winter time would cause its death, then she was just as guilty of murder as if she had used violence to accomplish her purpose.

The jury retired at 2,10pm and returned 25 minutes later  with a guilty of manslaughter verdict.

His Honour in sentencing Mary, said "Prisoner, you have been exceedingly fortunate in that the jury have taken such a lenient view of your case.  They would have been quite justified in arriving at a different verdict, which would have placed your life in danger.  You have been in great peril.   I can hardly imagine, under the circumstances, how you could be guilty of such cruelty as to leave your unfortunate child to die of starvation."  He sentenced her to two years hard labour.

 She was also committed for trial on a charge of stealing a bicycle but the case was not proceeded with.  Mary, who did not appear to be affected, was removed to the cell.

'The infant that was left to starve' ran the Evening Post headline as newspapers across the country  reacted with indignation at the sentencing.  The New Zealand Herald admonished ". . . if ever there was a cruel and wanton crime that called for adequate punishment, this was one.  The verdicts of the juries are not always easily explicable . . . A jury of women would probably have come to a different conclusion. . . . Had she set fire to a stack of hay she probably would have been more severely punished.  We are afraid that if infanticide is to be effectively suppressed it will not be by the passing of such light sentences.  The punishment must be made more Draconian."

There was a flurry of letters to the Editor of the Auckland Star between the Rev George  MacMurray of the St Mary's Anglican Vicarage, Parnell,  and the Rev Joseph Parker  of the Beresford Street Congregational Church.  The  Rev Joseph Parker had given  a special address to the young women in his congregation referring to Mary Ramsbottom.  He said that he regretted that at a time when the young woman was least fitted to have the care of her child she took it out of the home where it was being cared for.  The fault of the mother was in his mind an evidence that she ought not to have the child at all; in France or Russia mother under similar conditions would not have been forced to take charge of her child again, and he hoped the day would come when in Auckland there would be an institution to care for the most helpless when "sin abounded."

Rev George MacMurray took great umbrage to this saying that "the reverend gentleman took occasion to throw a stone at the Children's Home, Parnell, with the hope of hitting the Anglican Church."  He explained that the Children's Home was not under the control of the Anglican Church,
It was private enterprise of Mrs Cowie who, at her own risk, founded it in order to assist girls who had fallen to return to virtuous living.  Mrs Cowie's experience led her to the conclusion that such girls were terribly handicapped in the battle of life for the want of a suitable home where their children would be cared for, whilst they were set free to earn a maintenance for themselves and their children.  "Mr Parker, from his pedestal of lofty ignorance, has cast a reflection upon this work of charity . . . "

A perplexed Rev Joseph Parker, as a newcomer to Auckland, pleaded ignorance of Mrs Cowie's Home and even of Rev MacMurray's existence.  "The whole trouble has been that Mary Ramsbottom did not get to the right place" - the right place being, in his opinion, an industrial school.  "Those who know the sad sequence to her story will exclaim 'What a pity she didn't know the right place to take her helpless child to."

To which the maddened Rev MacMurray replied "Mr Parker seems to think it would be desirable to provide facilities for Mary Ramsbottom and others of her class to get rid of their offspring without trouble . . . The Industrial School Department deals with the matter wisely. inasmuch as it indulges no maudlin sentimentality.  If a girl has a child she is responsible for it and must keep it.  If she leads an immoral life the police are authorised to interfere so as to protect the child from being trained in immoral ways . . .I must admit that the police are sometimes too slow to act in cases of demonstrated unfitness.  I know one case of a notorious prostitute, who lately lived in Parnell, who has two beautiful children who ought to be at once taken away from her . . ."

The disturbed state of mind that Mary Ramsbottom was clearly in was no doubt a consequence of  cruel circumstance.  Pregnant outside of marriage and abandoned by the father resulted in the almost unbearable stigma of single parenthood.
No mother is mentioned and although her father was noted as  respectable, and paid for the confinement, he obviously did not want  Mary with her child back.   Newspaper reports allude to a life gone off the rails; perhaps her responses were not so much callous as  numb, an effect of post natal depression.  Mary also seems to have fallen through the cracks - the option of the Industrial School wasn't pointed out to her.  Or maybe it was and she rejected it. Industrial School's were not always a safe alternative.  Perhaps she had experienced something similar in her childhood.

Abandonment or exposure is one of the oldest methods of infanticide. It is thought that in some cases the parent acts in  the naive belief that their child will be rescued.

Three month old Helena was most likely buried by Charitable Aid, something she and her mother most desperately needed in life, not death. 


Eliza Cowie  - 'loving deeds and a good example.'
Eliza Cowie's Home gave shelter and hope to single mothers who were expected to stay for six months, change their living habits and learn sewing, laundry and housework before being reinstated into society.   Eliza was well known for her work with the less fortunate of Auckland in an era when there were barely any social services for women.   The women's home (now St Mary's Family Centre) and her work with distressed women and children are her great legacy.    She was described as 'one of those gentle Christian women whose loving deeds and good example can be ill-spared', and by Maori clergy as 'our mother, Mrs Cowie'.

The Costley Home  was founded by the ladies of Auckland to carry out humane work among the people there.  It was eventually taken over by the Hospital and Charitable Aid Board.  The average number of inmates was about 175.  There were two dormitories used for maternity wards and  accommodation for fifty female inmates.


(Source:  Papers Past;  Images: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19101110-10-6 , 18981209p004, 19020821;  Wikipedia - Infanticide;  Cyclopedia of NZ - http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-Cyc02Cycl-t1-body1-d1-d21.html;  Judith Bright. 'Cowie, Eliza Jane', from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 30-Oct-2012 URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/2c35/cowie-eliza-jane)

© Meghan Hawkes and Dead Cert 2015

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