The Scandalous Love Life of Sophie Dawes

The Scandalous Love Life of Sophie Dawes

I love a good smuggling story and I’ve been exploring the Isle of Wight in search of secrets from its shady past. When I visited the village of St Helens for the first time, I had no idea that one of its past inhabitants was a courtesan, self-styled aristocrat, and maybe even a cold-blooded murderer. Looking out onto the green at the centre of the village, a few doors along from The Vine Inn, there is a small wisteria-covered cottage with a blue plaque. This is the humble birthplace of Sophie Dawes, a smuggler’s daughter who became Madame de Feuchères and frequented the court of French king, Louis XVIII. Her astonishing history is a real-life rags-to-riches story, with a rather sinister twist at the end.     Sophie was born at Freefolk Cottage, in St Helens, around 1792. She was one of the ten children of Richard ‘Dickie’ Dawes, a fisherman and renowned smuggler. When her father died, Sophie aged 11, was forced to enter Newport Workhouse with her mother and surviving siblings. It was there that she learned to read and write, as well as basic domestic skills, which would change her life forever.     After about two years in the workhouse, Sophie left and travelled first to Portsmouth, where she worked as a chambermaid, and then to London. A few years later, she was working in a brothel at Piccadilly, where she met the exiled Duke of Bourbon, who had escaped to London in the aftermath the French Revolution. Allegedly winning the attentions of young Sophie in a game of cards, when the 54-year-old duke returned...
Inside Reading Prison

Inside Reading Prison

I first visited Reading Prison when it was still a young offenders institution. I had a fascinating tour with one of the warders who shared stories from its long history, including some ghostly sightings. Now that it has been decommissioned, Reading Prison has opened its doors to the public and this time, I was able to wander…. The prison seems to be mostly unchanged since I was last there, although it looked like main entrance corridor had been painted. As you make your way in to the prison, past a row of innocuous-looking office doors, there is no warning that the convicted’s cell and drop room were once housed behind them. On my first visit there were plaques recalling the original use of the rooms, but these have now been removed.       The prison is a typical Victorian penal institution constructed on the model of Pentonville Prison, with wings radiating from a central hub. The structure is more or less unchanged since its opening in 1844, with narrow metal gantries and steep staircases, from the top of which there are dizzying views of the interior. There are three wings, each with three floors joined by the clattering iron stairways. The passages are so narrow that you can hardly pass by another person, all adding to the rather claustrophobic atmosphere. Incarceration there was even worse for the Victorian inmates who were forced to wear a Scottish cap, in keeping with the ‘separate system’. Developed at Pentonville this harsh régime kept the prisoners in isolation and, when they were allowed out of their cells for brief periods, they wore...
The Ballad of Reading Gaol

The Ballad of Reading Gaol

On 7 July 1896, trooper Charles Thomas Wooldridge was executed at Reading Prison. The hanging was immortalised by Oscar Wilde, in his haunting and deeply moving poem: The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Charles Wooldridge was born in 1864, in East Garston, Berkshire. A labourer’s son, he began work as a plough boy, together with his younger brother, Albert. By 1891, Charles had joined the Royal Horse Guards and was stationed in Farnborough, Hampshire. Three years later, he married Laura Ellen Glendall, a salesman’s daughter from Bath. Shortly after the wedding, Wooldridge was transferred to guard duty at Windsor Castle, but as the marriage hadn’t been sanctioned by his commanding officer, the couple were forced to live apart. In 1896, Charles was living at Hyde Park Barracks, where he was on duty at Buckingham Palace and Laura, known as Nell, shared rooms with Alice Cox, a colleague from the post office where she worked, in Windsor. A jealous and possessive man, Wooldridge was suspicious of his wife and he would arrive at the house unannounced to try to catch her with another man. On 16 March, Charles visited Nell and a terrible row broke out between them, culminating in Charles punching her repeatedly in the face. She was left with black eyes and a bleeding nose. Seemingly repentant of his violent act, he returned to her house a fortnight later, with a letter vowing that he would never touch her again. But as soon as Nell’s housemate went upstairs to get her hat and coat, leaving the pair alone, another fight broke out. At 9.10 pm, a neighbour heard shouting in...
A Walk with Amelia Dyer

A Walk with Amelia Dyer

My interest in the notorious Victorian serial killer, Amelia Dyer, came from my discovery that her tiny victims were found in the river Thames close to where I live in Caversham, Reading. I shiver to think that, before I knew her chilling story, I had spent many happy days down by the river picnicking and playing with my own children. It is a beautiful, and usually peaceful, stretch of the river Thames. I visited the area again recently with photographer Sigi Kirkpatrick to re-trace the steps of the infamous Mrs Dyer.     We began our walk – in the pouring rain – at the row of houses called Elm Villas, where Dyer lived when she first arrived in Reading. The pretty houses with colourful gardens are very close to the river, and to the path she would have taken to the spot where she dropped in the bodies of the babies in her care. Dyer’s second residence is just around the corner in Piggott’s Road. Like the others, the house is still there and looks completely innocuous from the outside. A two-up two-down terraced house, there is no indication of its violent past.     Next we followed the paths that Amelia Dyer took to the Clappers Bridge over the Thames, where the babies were found. The leafy paths alongside the waterway are more or less as they were when she walked along them on her sinister nocturnal errands. I haven’t dared walk there at night, but I should think it feels very creepy and there have been sightings of Dyer in her long, dark cloak…     We...
‘Another Reading Horror’

‘Another Reading Horror’

The spring of 1896 was a traumatic time for the residents of Victorian Reading. On 30 May, just a week after notorious baby farmer Amelia Dyer had been convicted of murder, yet another dreadful case of infanticide shocked the town. The event took place at 12 Chain Street, off Broad Street in the centre of Reading, above Samuel Drake’s jeweller’s shop. The Drakes had arrived in Reading from Dorset in the late 1880s and Samuel, who was a watchmaker, had established his shop with the help of his two sons. In the mid 1890s they employed 21-year-old Jane Cox, who assisted them in the business as a domestic servant. By early 1896, Jane had fallen pregnant and it seems that she hid her condition from her employers, probably because of the deep social stigma against unmarried mothers at the time – had she been found out, it was likely that she would have lost her job and her home. At 11.30 pm on Saturday 30 May, Mrs Drake was about to go to bed when she heard loud groans coming from Jane’s room above the shop. She rushed in to check on the young woman, unprepared for the gruesome sight she faced as she opened the door: Jane’s nightclothes were covered in blood. She admitted to Mrs Drake that she had just given birth. When local surgeon Mr Key arrived shortly after, he found the body of a baby boy wrapped in some bedclothes. He concluded that the child had been born healthy but had sustained horrific injuries seemingly inflicted by his mother, who was sitting quietly in a...
To Catch a Child Killer

To Catch a Child Killer

When a carpet bag was found in the Thames at Caversham, Sergeant Harry James of the Reading Borough Police, was the first officer on the scene. After 15 years of policing the relatively quiet streets of Victorian Reading, he set out to catch a child killer in a case that would shock the nation. On 10 April 1896, Sergeant James was supervising the dragging of the river, following the discovery of three infant corpses near Caversham Weir. The first child had been found on 30 March and in the following week, there were two more. The sergeant was in the lock house when labourer Henry Smithwaite raised the alarm and he rushed to the Clappers bridge, which was adjacent, to see what he had recovered from the water. Pulling away the cloth at the opening of the sodden bag, Sergeant James revealed the body of baby girl, who was later identified as Doris Marmon, aged four months. The police officer then took the bag to the police station where a second body was found underneath; 13-month-old Harry Simmons. This significant event would form the key evidence in the case against notorious baby farmer, Amelia Dyer, whom Sergeant James had arrested the week before with his colleague, Detective Constable James Anderson, after the first gruesome discovery was made in the river. Harry James, originally a hotel porter from Holdenhurst in Hampshire, joined the Reading Borough Police Force on 29 January 1881, at the age of 24. He was 5 feet 8 1/4 inches tall, with a fresh complexion, brown hair and grey eyes. All photographs show him sporting a particularly...