Robert Deacon came from Somerset to make his fortune in Cardiff. He brought with him his wife Mary. Their first south side home in 1851 was in Peel Street, Butetown where he lived with his wife and five children. Very quickly he earned enough to employ a female house servant aged sixteen called Sarah Bird.
His business as a coal agent was doing well, so he moved to the north side, an affluent part of town, 5 Windsor Place. His money came from the booming coal business and the links between the coal distributors at the colliery door and coal merchants supplying domestic users. His family grew to eight sons and three daughters.
They were a model of the success of entrepreneurship. It is what most people strived for. He had domestic servants to assist in the day-to-day running of the home; fetch the coal, keep the fires going, wash the clothes, etc. Servants were cheap and plentiful and a hard, loyal worker was worth keeping. House domestics were always female and a job in a fine house assisted the prosperity of the servant’s own household, where most of the meagre earnings usually went.
Sarah Bird was an archetypal general domestic servant and had worked for Mr and Mrs Deacon for almost a decade. Her room, as was usual in larger houses, was at the top. Sarah appears to have been an orphan and together with her sister Harriet lived for some time in a central Cardiff residence with forty-five other girls, most under the age of fifteen. Presumably a house for homeless girls.
It was October 1860 and the Deacons had a problem. They had both noticed that Sarah, who was now around 29 years of age, had all the signs of being pregnant, yet it seemed to them impossible. She was an attractive, good, hard-working young lady, who to the knowledge of Mrs Deacon, had never been seen with a man and was of the highest moral calibre. Sarah, on being questioned, said that she was not pregnant, and she was having problems with her weight. She was believed.
Early one morning Robert Deacon heard a sound as if someone had fallen down the kitchen steps into the garden. He dressed and called upstairs to Sarah and asked her to look after their baby while he went down to check the commotion.
One of his young sons told him that Sarah was downstairs and lighting the fires and she had a bad arm. He appears to have been slightly annoyed as the fires were being lit late. He questioned Sarah after he had to carry his own baby downstairs. Sarah replied, ‘I was carrying the coal box and I fell.’ Her arm was obviously injured, and it was bleeding. She was ill and in distress.
Deacon went to get some feed for their chickens kept in the rear garden. He noticed that several areas of the floor had recently been washed. He also noted spots of blood on the floor of the toilet closet. He looked down the pan and saw nothing, it was dawn and the closet was still dark.
He had a chat with his wife and told her that Sarah was unwell and appeared to have had a nasty fall whilst carrying the coal box. He also told her about the blood spots which he assumed came from the servant’s injured arm. When it was fully light, he went outside again and saw more of the blood drips. On looking down into the toilet he saw the foot of a newborn child. He must have recoiled in horror before finding a garden tool to pull it out. He struggled to do so and left it there before running in the house and telling his wife. One would imagine they were terribly upset, especially the wife, who it is said ‘was very excited indeed.’
Robert Deacon sent a runner for the police and a doctor. It was Inspector John Lynn who attended. He pulled out the naked baby girl from the toilet. It was obviously deceased. All paths led to poor Sarah Bird who was suffering, not only emotionally, but physically after falling downstairs.
It was found that Sarah had separated herself from the child, and even attempted to clean up, probably embarrassed because of the blood on her mistress’s floor.
Inspector Lynn searched Sarah’s small room. The bed had not been slept in and there were no items of under-clothing in any of the drawers.
Inspector Lyn: ‘Have you any underclothing, there was none upstairs?’
Sarah Bird: ‘No.’
She pointed to a chest of drawers in the kitchen. When opening drawers, he found the blood-soaked under-clothing of Sarah and the afterbirth. The cord was cut about six inches from it. It must have been a chilling experience.
It was an upsetting and torturous experience for Sarah Bird. It is hard to imagine what this hard-working and loyal lady had been through in the previous few hours. She was ill and the doctor who attended verified she needed medical care at the earliest opportunity in a hospital.
Lynn purposefully spoke to Sarah, acting only on the information that had been put in front of him. He did not have a cause of death. ‘Whatever you say now may be given in evidence. You don’t have to say anything unless you want to. I am charging you with concealing the birth of your baby and throwing it down the privy. It is very likely a more serious charge will be preferred against you later.’
Sarah Bird: ‘I don’t deny it.’
The doctor made arrangements for her to be taken to the infirmary at the earliest opportunity. The baby was conveyed to a dead house.
The post-mortem would determine Sarah’s fate. Concealment of birth (imprisonment) or murder (death penalty). Once again it was Doctor Paine (who was also a town magistrate) who undertook the procedure.
Those of us who have the displeasure of witnessing post-mortems know that the grizzly business is done clinically and without emotion. Doctor Paine must have performed scores of post-mortems as his name frequently cropped up in murder trials of the day. He would have known exactly what he was looking for.
Inspector Lynn, or another police officer, would have also been in attendance to discuss findings and take any notes the doctor instructed. If, for example, a wound was found on the neck of the baby, he would point it out straight away to negate any later allegation that the wound may have been caused during the post-mortem.
- There was no sign of any injury caused to the baby externally.
- The cord was torn off and one inch long.
- The lungs filled whole cavity of chest and were bright pink in colour.
- In water they floated showing they had filled sufficiently with air.
- Opening head showed labour was difficult and had taken a long time.
- There was extravasation of the brain. (Leaking fluids)
There was an internal bone injury which could have been caused by being dropped or thrown to the ground. He felt it was more likely the baby was thrown down the toilet and that caused death. He concluded it had breathed and had an independent life away from the mother.
The all-male inquest jury was convened by the coroner and called at the earliest opportunity, Friday afternoon. After hearing the evidence, the jury members recommended a charge of wilful murder. The coroner agreed. Sarah Bird was not present, she was too unwell. The case was to go to trial.
It was at the Winter Assizes that Sarah Bird stood in the dock charged with wilful murder. As the case proceeded, her life hung in the balance. It was now down to the power of persuasion by her barristers to determine her fate. How was the damage to the skull caused and did the baby have a separate life away from the mother? The jury were not out long.
Clerk: ‘Members of the Jury. What is your verdict to the charge of Wilful Murder?’
Foreman: ‘Not Guilty.’
Sarah Bird was found guilty of ‘Concealment of Birth’ and sent to prison for four months. Was the father in the rear of the court watching? Was the father following the case in the news sheets? Was he even aware of the consequences of those few minutes of passion?
Some 150 years later, 5 Windsor Place is a well-established, up-market and fine Italian restaurant. Sarah Bird is long forgotten. Many houses in the area have secrets locked within them. 11 Windsor Place, e.g.: is where many séances took place, others have more macabre tales to tell.
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This tale of Victorian policing comes from Horrors of the Dead House. As a former police officer, John F. Wake brings his investigative expertise to the macabre true crime stories that haunt Cardiff’s streets.