Julia Harrington, wife of Thomas and mother of Catharine, Hannah and of my 2x great-grandmother Rebecca Harrington, was about to have a terrible shock.
It was Monday, 18 February, 1856, the day Charles and Celestina Sommer were charged at Clerkenwell Police Court.
In the Harringtons’ house at 4 Peter Street, Bethnal Green, Julia would’ve been busy, cleaning, tidying or preparing a meal for when Thomas, a dock labourer, got back from work.
Theirs was a newly-built house, and Julia must’ve felt very lucky to be in one of the few in the area with water closets. Hygienic, dry, small (in the 1861 census only three people were listed at the address), it would show that the Harringtons weren’t doing too badly these days.
I imagine Hannah, aged 20, and Rebecca, 14, helping their mother while there was still daylight. It’s possible that Hannah was working outside the home, most likely as a servant, but I’ve found no evidence to show what she did during the day.
There were missing family members, though; Catharine, known as Kate, had married Henry Thomas Drew and was living nearby with him and her 19-month-old son, Harry. And there was little Celestina Christmas, who’d lived with them since her birth just over 10 years earlier. Until she had been taken away by her mother, Celestina Sommer, a few days ago.
Then, in the early afternoon, came the knock. “Police! Open the door!” Not, perhaps, the most welcome of sounds for an East End family. Had Thomas been injured at the docks? Or caught doing a bit of black market work?
But it got worse. When Inspector Hatton and Sergeant Edward Townsend of the Metropolitan Police’s N Division came in, stovepipe hats tall under the low ceiling, and began to question Julia about little Celestina, the terrible truth would soon have become obvious.
The policemen were accompanied by the now freed Charles Sommer, and had come straight from Clerkenwell court.
The newspapers – by now the Standard had lost its exclusive coverage and the story was being picked up by the press as far away as Inverness – printed various versions of what happened next. I’ll use the most coherent ones here.
As the Leeds Mercury says:
And elderly woman? The cheek! Julia was born around 1808, so she’d only have been 47 or so. But putting that aside, two interesting pieces of information come up here. The paper reports that the murdered child was the illegitimate child of either Celestina Sommer – or her brother. Most papers have her as the older Celestina’s child, which is correct. I may go back to why the confusion arose, if you’re interested. Let me know in the comments below!
The other statement is that little Celestina was 10, not 14 as the Standard had reported, and had been ‘under the protection of Mrs Harrington nearly from its birth’.
The papers do tend to refer to the girl as ‘it’, which seems to have been the 19th century way for a child, even though at the age of 10 she had been not far off puberty and definite femaleness. Indeed the age of consent in the 1850s was 12, shockingly to us now.
I’ve already mentioned that little Celestina was probably ‘under Julia Harrington’s protection’ since her birth. A look at a copy of her birth certificate shows that the baby was born at 1 Grove Lane, where the Harringtons had been living from at least the time of the 1841 census.(Grove Lane was, as I’ve mentioned, once called Cut Throat Lane, a creepy foreshadowing of her fate.)
And it was Julia who reported the birth, as the ‘occupier of the house’. So baby Celestina had been born at the Harringtons’ house (perhaps Julia helped with the birth?) and lived with them for the 10 years of her short life. Blood ties apart, she was part of the family.
Except, of course, that she was in effect a paying guest. Celestina Sommer was paying 10/- a month towards her keep. That’s 2/6 (two shillings and sixpence) a week, which, calculated using the Retail Price Index, is worth about £10.43 today. It’s not a huge amount, but I expect the Harringtons lived fairly frugally and Celestina’s keep would only involve adding more food and some linen to the family budget. She wasn’t undernourished, we can imagine, if she’d been taken for a girl of about 14 by the police who found her body.
The Chelmsford Chronicle goes on with the story. The two policemen, with Charles Sommer, took Julia to Linton Street:
Poor Julia. Imagine the horror of seeing her little charge lying dead, the victim of murder. I hope the police had thought to cover the throat wound.
And how she must’ve blamed herself for letting the elder Celestina take her away. The Leeds Mercury report went on to say that Julia’d heard nothing from, or about, the girl since her mother took her. I’m sure Julia was agonising over not trying to find out what had happened to her.
But what could Julia have done? It was little Celestina’s mother who took the girl away. She’d said she couldn’t afford to pay the 2/6 a week any more. Julia’d had no right to stop her. Not that that would help with her grief now. And her name was now in the papers, linked with a sensational crime. Even if people who knew her couldn’t read, word would get round. Her troubles had probably only just begun.
Something happened between the time the police arrived at Peter St and their taking Julia to see Celestina’s body in the Linton St house. The three men went to see Elizabeth Grobe, Celestina Sommer’s sister. It throws a sinister but fascinating light on a possible reason why the little girl was murdered. I’ll come to that next time.
But for now, I have a question for you: are you interested in more of this Victorian murder story? I’ve got to the part where my family’s involved. Do you want more, or would you rather stop reading the Celestina saga and go back to more conventional genealogy?
* Picture credits:
Newspaper extracts: The British Library Board, via Findmypast
Map: Kelly’s Post Office Directory of London 1857 via Mapco
1850s peeler: Hoodinski, via Wikimedia (public domain)
Penny blood illustration: The Mysteries of London, via bl.uk