On Tuesday, 26 February, 1856, ‘the avenues of Clerkenwell police court were [once again] crowded to excess by persons anxious to obtain a sight of the murderess’, Celestina Sommer. She was there to be re-examined for killing her daughter, Celestina Christmas, 10 days before.
However bad the crowding was, the Morning Post added, it was not as bad as it had been at the first police court hearing on Monday 18th:
It must have been an intimidating sight for Celestina, for the witnesses, and for officials charged with keeping order – especially after the mobbing incident after the inquest held on Wednesday 20th.
This time the court was taking no chances. Celestina’s hearing was scheduled for that morning, so the spectators probably arrived in good time. But the Mount sisters, who’d been chased by the mob after the inquest, were smuggled into the building even earlier to keep them from harm. They were probably terrified.
The police also took them away in a cab after the hearing. But, as the Morning Post said,
Just before noon Celestina Sommer was ‘placed in the dock’ before William Corrie, the same magistrate who’d tried her at the first Clerkenwell police court hearing. The Morning Post commented that she ‘appeared a great deal better than on the last examination’. Inspector Payne, the N Division (Islington) policeman who’d searched the Sommers’ house for a murder weapon, was also there ‘to watch the case’.
The hearing started with the chief clerk, Mr Mould, reading out the evidence taken at the previous police court hearing. This would’ve taken some time. Then the first witness was called – my 3x great grandmother, Julia Harrington.
Poor Julia, having to go through the details again and knowing her name would once more be splashed in the papers. I wonder if she was afraid of a negative reaction against her giving evidence, after what had happened to the Mount girls after the inquest? But she was only giving the bare facts of Celestina Christmas’s life with her. It couldn’t be seen as snitching to the peelers.
There’s one new detail there: that Celestina Sommer told Julia that she’d got little Celestina a job as a nursemaid. There’s no evidence that this is true. And, according to the Cheltenham Chronicle, Celestina told her sister Elizabeth Grobe, when she took her daughter away from 16 Murray Street, that she’d found ‘a place for her at a green-grocer’s’. So once again it looks as if the older Celestina had already made her plans to get rid of her daughter… for good.
The only other new evidence apart from Julia’s came from police constable Hone, 134 N Division. He told the court that, after Celestina’d been taken from the courtroom at the end of the hearing on Monday 18th, she was put into the gaoler’s room at the back of the court to wait for a police van. There she began talking in such a bizarre way that I’m going to reproduce the Morning Post report in full:
This is odd on many levels. First, talking about performances of Shakespeare plays when she’d just been committed for trial for ‘wilful murder’. Could it have been part of her plan to appear ‘insane’? A way of distracting herself? Or of showing that she was cultured, not a common criminal? Was she genuinely so shocked that she had no idea of what she was talking about? Of course, murder is an important feature of both plays.
Then there’s her claim that little Celestina was her brother’s child. She’d said this before Inspector Hatton and Sergeant Edward Townsend had questioned Julia Harrington after the first trial, so at the time she didn’t know that she would soon be revealed as the murdered girl’s mother. Presumably she was still trying to keep up the pretence that Celestina Christmas wasn’t hers. The claim that the child belonged to her brother was repeated in several papers.
Why would she choose her brother as little Celestina’s parent? William and Elizabeth Christmas had two sons, William Foster, named after his father, born in 1820, and Alfred, the one whose birth in 1828 seems to have triggered the Christmas family into having the triple baptism I mentioned at the beginning of the story.
Little Celestina was born in late December 1845 (not November, as Julia said, but there’s no reason why she’d have remembered the exact date 10 years later). That puts her conception in March 1845. Alfred would’ve been old enough at 17 to be the father, but my money’s on the then 25-year-old William as the brother Celestina meant.
There’s a powerful reason for this. William appears in the 1841 census at the Christmas’s house in King Square, but not in the 1851 census. Had he moved away? I found a William Christmas in 1851 in the same parish, St Luke, but he was a journeyman, a basket-maker; not a likely career for the eldest son of a silversmith. There’s another in Shoreditch who’s a house servant. And there’s an entry for a William Christmas in the FreeBMD death register for the last quarter of 1846, also in St Luke. If this is William Foster Christmas the younger, he’d be the ‘poor dead brother’ Celestina referred to. It makes her claim more plausible.
The idea that William was the child’s father hung around for a while, and when it was established that Celestina was the mother, a suggestion of incest could be inferred. It would certainly explain how some man ‘got at’ this young girl. But I’m not convinced. What do you think?
Then Celestina said that she paid for the little girl’s keep, five shillings a week, out of her earnings as a music teacher. We know she was a professional singer, or ‘vocalist’, so this is quite credible.
Except that, again after she made these claims on Monday 20th, the papers, including the Worcester Journal, three days later, had reported:
Which is interesting. Celestina’s husband Charles Sommer said he was the one who paid for the child’s keep; he paid it willingly; and perhaps most interesting, it had been agreed before the marriage that he’d pay. Presumably this was a condition of his getting the wealthy silversmith’s daughter and a decent dowry, but who knows? I don’t think it was a love match, anyway.
The other important fact in the last newspaper report is that she and Charles quarrelled, and that she said this was the reason why she killed her daughter. Keep that in mind.
Going back to the Morning Post, though, Celestina Sommer also claimed that she ‘did not like to put the child out to service, for she was not old enough to work’. So much for getting her a place as a nursemaid or at a greengrocer’s. Celestina’s story was unravelling fast.
After PC Hone had finished giving his evidence, the hearing came to a quick end. Celestina’s ‘defence was reserved by Mr Humphreys, junior, who attended for her’. I take this to mean that he preferred not to speak to her defence until the next – and most important – trial.
William Corrie, the magistrate, then committed her to Newgate for trial, ‘upon the charge of having wilfully murdered Celestina Christmas, aged 10 years’. The witnesses were bound over to appear at the future trial and ‘the case, as far as this court was concerned, terminated’. There seems to be a sigh of relief implied in that last sentence. I imagine all at Clerkenwell police court were glad to have finished with this difficult case.
Once again, Celestina’s story raises almost as many questions as it answers. Why had Celestina behaved so strangely in the gaoler’s room? Why tell a different story from Charles’s about how much was paid for Celestina’s keep, and who paid it? Why say her brother was the father? Was she showing signs of mental illness? Deliberately? Or was she so distressed she hardly knew what she was saying? And how significant were those quarrels with her husband?
One thing’s for sure. She’d have been terrified as the van took her away to perhaps the most dreaded and notorious prison in London – Newgate.
* Picture credits:
Suffer the Little Children, photograph of statue of anti child labour campaigner Richard Oastler, Northgate, Bradford: Creative Commons, by Peter Hughes
Photograph of an older Samuel Phelps: Jbarta, Creative Commons via Wikimedia
Newspaper reports: The British Library Board, via Findmypast