The Wicked Boy, by Kate Summerscale

Kate Summerscale’s nonfiction The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer (2016) is a detailed examination of a case of matricide, and what happened to the perpetrator.  It opens in an oblique manner, in July 1895 with brothers 13-year-old Robert and 12-year-old Nathanial (known as Nattie) heading out from their terraced home in Plaistow, then in Essex, to watch the cricket at Lord’s.  At this point we do not know how it is they enjoy so much freedom at such a young age.  Only slowly does it become clear why they are seemingly exempt from parental supervision.

Their father, Robert Snr, was working as chief steward on a ship sailing to New York.  The boys told enquirers their mother Emily was visiting relatives in Liverpool as the family had come into a considerable amount of money.  To get ready cash they pawned valuables and went on trips to the seaside and the theatre.  Robert, who was intelligent and had reached a high grade in his education, had already left school but had quit his job at a shipyard after only a fortnight.  Nattie skipped classes as they mimicked the lifestyles of the well-off middle classes.

With funds low, Robert tried without success to obtain an advance from his father’s employer, and wrote a newspaper advertisement requesting a loan and offering generous interest.  They also persuaded a family friend, John Fox, to stay with them on the promise of pay when their mother returned, an adult in the house giving the appearance of normality two boys on their own would not have had.  They also involved him in pawning valuables.  The three slept in the back parlour, even though there were bedrooms upstairs.

The boys’ story began to unravel when relatives became suspicious and established that the boys’ mother was not in Liverpool.  A horrible smell from the house in the intense summer heat led to the discovery of her badly decomposed body lying in bed.  The rather slow Fox found himself caught up in the drama as he was arrested along with the boys.

Robert confessed, saying his mother, who was habitually ‘excitable’, had beat Nattie for stealing food.  The implication of this characterisation is that Emily suffered from mental illness, but financial stresses and the absence of her husband for long periods would also have been a factor, if indeed there had been unduly harsh punishments.   Robert had bought a knife for the purpose of killing her, indicating premeditation.

We follow the trio through the legal process, highlighting the way children were dealt with.  The case attracted widespread public interest, with speculations on Robert’s character and his motives.  This was considered such an unnatural crime that it was thought he might be an atavistic throwback to an earlier period and was a degenerate, tying with current concerns that western civilisation was in a process of degeneration.

His intelligence was not thought to be a counter to the degenerative process, rather his precocity was perhaps actually a symptom of it, plus he may had inherited his mother’s ‘excitability’.  He was also seen as a product of stresses and moral squalor that characterised urban living, and the lack of open-air stimulation afforded to rural children which could turn inwards for lack of a suitable outlet.  Robert stood in for middle-class distrust of the proletariat.

As in later moral panics where child crime was blamed on unsuitable reading and viewing matter, penny dreadfuls, which Robert read avidly, were deemed a deleterious influence.  True, these may have helped to shape his imagination and taste for adventure, but as with later panics, it is not possible to find a direct link between the stories and real-life violence.  They may though have helped to feed into a dissatisfaction with career prospects as a working-class boy that were well below his intellectual capacity.

Fox was cleared, while Nattie was released to his family and became a witness testifying against Robert.  Robert was found guilty but insane, meaning there was no need to delve too far into motives, and he was sent to Broadmoor.  Despite a story of Nattie giving a signal for Robert to commit the murder, the degree of Nattie’s complicity was unclear (I have to confess I was half-expecting a twist, Nattie killing Emily and big brother Robert covering for him).

Ignoring his tender years, there was a current of public opinion which felt Robert had been treated with unjustifiable lenience by not receiving a prison sentence.  The regime at Broadmoor was surprisingly relaxed, the emphasis on treatment, and rehabilitation where possible, achieved through kindness.  Robert worked in the tailoring shop and kept an allotment, but there were opportunities for creative expression.  He played chess and cricket, and his interest in music flourished, enabling him to become a multi-instrumentalist.

In 1912, after 17 years at Broadmoor and now aged 30, he was granted conditional release into the care of the Salvation Army which had a large settlement in Essex.  Here he worked as a tailor and gradually reintegrated into society.  In 1914 he emigrated to Australia, working as a clerk.  Saying farewell to England might have concluded the most interesting part of his life, but the First World War provided a second act.

He volunteered in 1914 and served with distinction.  Always keen on music, he played in the battalion band and was a stretcher bearer (an extremely hazardous role) at Gallipoli and later on the Western Front.  That he survived the entire conflict was remarkable, one of a small number to do so.  He was promoted to sergeant and awarded the Military Medal.  Nattie served as a ship’s stoker.

After the war, Robert returned to Australia and became a market gardener in New South Wales.  Nattie also settled in Australia.  Robert lived a quiet life, but took in a child who was badly treated by his stepfather (family connections which allowed Summerscale to trace details of Robert’s later life).   He died in 1949.

Utilising a wide range of archival sources, Summerscale expands the bare facts of the case to show much more than a sordid murder.  There are insights into Robert’s domestic life and social situation, the shipping industry, the English legal system, how those judged insane were treated, the Australian contribution to the war which forged its sense of nationhood, and the precarious life experienced by those who lived in Australia’s rural areas.

The one element missing is Robert’s own testimony, and we, like the jury, never discover what was going on in his head.  Whatever the reasons, or lack of them, for his crime and bizarre actions immediately afterwards, the verdict was a fortunate one.  In a sense Broadmoor made him.  It equipped him with the skills and character that stood him in good stead for the rest of his life; far more than time in prison would have done.  It was a remarkable journey for someone from the grimy streets of Plaistow.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: