The sad story of a murder-suicide

I am in the fortunate position to have access (via work) to the Times Digital Archive, searchable copies of The Times newspaper going back to 1785. While searching for an article for someone else, I thought I’d search for any mention of the Windsor Union Workhouse as I have become rather intrigued by it with many of my relatives seeming to have spent time there. I came across one article which, initially, sounded rather gruesome but of little interest to me, about an inquest that was held in the boardroom (quite a common practice it seems) of a man in Old Windsor who killed his children and then himself. It was only as I read further that I noticed a name that rang bells, then further down a name that I KNEW was in my tree, then another, all of whom mentioned that they were related to this family. I opened up my tree and there it was, this family was indeed in my tree.

Mary Ann Pope (b 1826, Old Windsor) was my 2nd great grandaunt. She married a John Richard Cook in Eton in 1853 and had five daughters with him. Sadly, she died in childbirth in July 1864. Now John was a hairdresser/barber (in Eton College as well as working from home) but had, apparently, taken to drink at some point and had lost a lot of custom and, with it, any financial security. He ran up debts and eventually filed for bankruptcy. He managed to scrape by with some money from the College and from local benefactors, but it seems it was always a struggle. When his wife died, it seems he gave up any form of work and withdrew himself away, only briefly speaking to neighbours & family. The children were never, apparently, hungry as the money he did receive was controlled by the local vicar, who organised for the money to be spent on food.

On Sunday 2nd October 1864, just a few months after his wife had died, neighbours grew concerned that they hadn’t seen the children all weekend and called for the local policeman. After looking through the window and seeing children laying on a bed on the floor and not getting an answer at the door, he forcibly made entry into the cottage and entered the front room, there on the bed were three children lying side by side, all dead. Upstairs, he found the eldest child in a bedroom, lying on the bed, still alive but with ‘something black about her mouth’. In the next room was John Cook, lying on the bed, still alive but with his throat cut and, next to him the remaining daughter, again with her throat cut, and again, still living. On questioning Mr Cook, he admitted to taking poison but said that the eldest daughter had given it to the other children (there was a quantity of tea, containing Vitriol (sulphuric acid) nearby). When asked if he’d instructed her to give the tea to the other children, he refused to answer. He died shortly afterwards. The girl with the cut throat (Adelaide Cook b c1858 ) was conveyed to the Windsor Infirmary immediately.

Sadly, the eldest daughter (who had been poisoned with Vitriol) died three days later despite the best efforts of the people around her.

Adelaide survived the ordeal and next appears in the census in 1871 in the Female Orphan Asylum in Beddington, Surrey. Ten years later and she’s back in Old Windsor, living with her uncle, John Arthur, after that the trail has gone cold.

At the inquest, it was revealed that John Cook had written a couple of letters, explaining that, since the death of his wife, she had visited him on numerous occasions, asking him to join her and bring the children ‘before the place at her side was taken by someone else’ she apparently told him that she believed the vicar would show mercy and allow him to be buried next to her.

The funerals took place a few days after the tragedy, the children were all buried in a single grave, near to their mother. John’s body was buried without ceremony in the farthest corner of the churchyard.

And the search goes on…

Since my last post, I have continued to search for the Attwell family and also Elizabeth’s ancestry too. Robert Ernest Smith is still a conundrum and I guess I will have to tackle that brick wall at some point.

Before moving on to Elizabeth’s parents etc, let me just complete what I have on the Attwells to date. I now have two more birth certificates for her children, both were registered without a forename, both were female and both birth dates match up with the approximate ages I had for them from previous sources. The first girl (Elizabeth) was born in November 1876 and registered in February 1877 by the Master of Windsor Union Workhouse. The second (Ellen) was born in February 1888 and registered in April 1888 by an E Roberts from the Workhouse who was present at the birth (this appears to be one Eliza Roberts who was a nurse at the Workhouse in the 1891 census).

The only child from this family that I have no record of birth or baptism is Kate (c1886). I have searched for various versions of the name and the only possibles are a couple of Kate Smiths born in the area. It seems unlikely to be either of these, though, as all of the others were definitely registered as Attwells. I will continue to search for evidence of her birth though.

Now onto Elizabeth’s ancestry. She was born 17th Jun 1855 in Windsor, the youngest of four children of parents George & Mary Attwell (formerly Weller), her siblings were George (1847), Thomas (c1851) and Mary Anne (c1853), all born in Windsor. A quick search of the BMD registers yielded the marriage of George Attwell & Mary Ann Weller in 1845 in Windsor. A trip to the Berkshire Records Office also supported this with the full marriage entry showing the aforementioned couple married on the 1st September 1845, both of full age. George’s father is given as Joseph Pope (another surprise!) and Mary Ann’s father was William Weller.

I haven’t got very far with Mary Ann’s ancestry yet as she was born in Pluckley in Kent in around 1819 according to the 1851 census (she died in 1857) and I can’t find any records online, so a trip to the Kent Records Office is on my to-do list for 2008.

George’s parentage was easier than I first thought after seeing a different surname for his father on the marriage entry. A quick search in the parish registers found a marriage between a Joseph Pope and Sarah Atwall (sic) in 1815 in Old Windsor. I knew George was born circa 1815, so it seems he was born before the marriage, but I haven’t managed to locate his baptism record as yet.

After the marriage, Joseph & Sarah Pope had eight other children: Henry (1817), John (1819), Charlotte (1820), Eliza (1822), Maria (1824), Mary Ann (1826), Alfred (1827) and Caroline Amelia (1830). I have since been in contact with a couple of descendants of Caroline Amelia Pope so I have quite a bit of info from them and have even found the home of one of her sons from c1904-1908 after one of my new cousins sent me a photo of the house.

I have yet to find any more information on Sarah Atwall apart from her birth place being given as Lambeth in Surrey, circa 1791 (from the 1851 census). She died in 1856.

Joseph Pope, however appears in the baptism records for Old Windsor and is the son of Thomas & Phoebe Pope. He was also born in 1791 and was the third child of six, the others being Thomas (1786), Ann (1790), Phoebe (1793), Sarah (1795) & William (1799). Thomas was born in Highworth, Wiltshire, where their parents married in 1786 (one month before Thomas was born). The couple then moved to Old Windsor where the rest of the children were born.

Phoebe’s maiden name was Peaty and she was the eighth of ten children: Jane & Mary (both baptised 1744), William (1746), Richard (1748), Elizabeth (1750), Ann (1753), Rachel (1755), Phoebe (1757), Sarah (1759) & Rose (1760). Their parents were Richard Peaty & Mary Page.

The next entry will talk about the benefits of living near where your ancestors lived and I have been very lucky on most of my branches in that respect.