6 October 1903 and PC James Price (41) was working a day shift, 8:00 am to 6:00 pm, out of the Town Hall Police Station.
An officer, from any era will feel dread when approached by an Inspector or operative from an organisation or charity dealing with a cruelty to children. If the policeman himself (and it was all male officers in this era) has children and a comfortable home, then to visit the scene of child cruelty was, and still is, dreaded.
It was normal for Cardiff Borough officers to be involved in backstreet brawls, drink-inspired outrages, and major domestic disputes, but what was to face PC Price was upsetting to say the least. He probably did not show it. It was his job.
Little Frederick Street was the continuation of Millicent Street travelling east along the congested terraced streets of central Cardiff. David Street ran south off it. The infamous Mary Ann Street ran through it and the street terminated to the east at Love Lane.
It was the heart of the nineteenth century immigrant population made up of Irish, Welsh from various parts of the Principality, and immigrants from the west of England, especially Somerset. It was a busy and vibrant area having scores of pubs, many licensed, many not, with poverty umbilically linked to drunkenness, prostitution, and extreme hardship.
Little Frederick Street area was demolished in the 1980s but Cardiffians may remember the Lifeboat Public House attached to the David Street school that disappeared in the 1970s. The street once supported several public houses, the Shamrock and Leek, Joiners Arms, Dublin Arms, as well as the Lifeboat.
In 1903 Timothy and Ellen O’Brian lived in 3 Little Frederick Street, renting a part of the house, giving them one bedroom upstairs and one down, a living room and scullery. In those days, a scullery would have been no more than a small room at the back of the house with a stone sink. There would have been shelves and perhaps a pantry to keep food cool in summer. Toilet facilities would have been in a shed in the yard, extremely basic and very unhygienic. In these conditions resided the mother, father and four children, the oldest Richard (11), Elizabeth (8), Hannah (4), and the youngest Ellen (junior) who was just under two years of age. A grandmother also periodically lived in the premises. Timothy was a Bute Docks labourer earning around 25 shillings a week (£1.25) and he would later claim he gave all that money to his wife.
On 6 June 1903 baby Ellen was taken to a doctor’s surgery on Wellfield Road and found to be suffering from severe impetigo (skin infection). She was given medical attention and returned on 10 June, where her condition was said to have improved but had certainly not cleared up. There is no further record of attendance by a doctor.
It is lunchtime on 27 September 1903, mother is drunk and lying on a bench. Her daughter Elizabeth’s hair was riddled with insects, she was dressed in rags, and her shoes were so badly broken her toes and feet were on show. Hannah was emaciated, could not stand without assistance, and kept falling down. She too was wearing a dirty rag as a dress but had no footwear. She was classified by the witness, an NSPCC operative, as an ‘idiot’. The baby, Ellen, was lying beside her drunken mother on the bench. She was filthy and covered in eczema. Head, face, neck, back, legs were blanketed in sores. The witness tried to open the little one’s eyes, but they were clogged together with dirt. His observations were later in a statement: ‘She was with eczema, her eyes were half closed with dirty obnoxious running matter, the clothing was filthy and inadequate.’
The mother, Ellen O’Brian, was warned she could get into trouble and she must do something about her drinking and look after her children. This was on 27 September. Another call was made by the same witness a few days later at midday on 2 October. The mother had been drinking but wasn’t classed as drunk, but the children’s condition remained unchanged. She again was warned about the state of their health.
There was such concern about the situation at 3 Little Frederick Street that the NSPCC witness called in again on 6 October, this time with PC Price. The desire was to see the children’s state of health improve and overall conditions to get better. They were to be disappointed. Timothy O’Brian was home and drunk, Ellen O’Brian was drunk. Nothing had changed except the baby was being cared for by a grandmother in another room. Little Ellen was bleeding from several eczema wounds on her head. The drunken parents were warned once again that they would get into trouble with the law if the baby was not seen soon by a doctor. The other children were exactly as before: emaciated, filthy and insect-ridden.
The NSPCC Inspector and PC Price realised then, perhaps too late, that something had to be done and they returned later in the afternoon of 6 October. This time they took with them Doctor McCall who worked at a local surgery and was well-known in the area. The men noticed that some effort had been made to clean the children. There had been a change of clothing, but they were in a near-death state. It was so bad that the doctor authorised the immediate removal of all the children, except the oldest, Richard, to the workhouse.
The following day, 7 October, baby Ellen died. The dead house was opened up for another child mortality.
The results of the subsequent post-mortem examination by Dr McCall was starkly graphic. Baby Ellen’s stomach was empty and its lining contained no fat. When examining the walls of the baby’s bowels he found them ‘so thin that in some cases they were transparent’. She weighed just 11lbs, even though she was almost two years of age. The conclusion of the post-mortem: ‘Baby Ellen died of ‘starvation’.
Her older sister Hannah was examined at the workhouse and found to be emaciated and half the weight of a healthy child. PC Price arrested both parents in the afternoon, the day after the death.
Timothy O’Brian said, when being told he was being arrested, ‘It’s a bit thick’. What he meant by that is anyone’s guess but he obviously thought he had done nothing wrong. The case was to take a bizarre turn when it became known that the children were insured. Ellen O’Brian had previously gone into an insurance office and paid 4/8d (23p) informing the clerk that one of the children had died.
A coroner’s court was, as normal, assembled within 24 hours of the death. The court did not sit long as the evidence was strong against the O’Brians and the jury made the recommendation to the coroner that they should be charged with wilfully neglecting the four children and causing them unnecessary suffering, and of ‘Feloniously killing and slaying one Ellen O’Brian on the 7th October, 1903.’ The couple were remanded in custody to appear at the magistrates court later.
They appeared at the Town Hall Magistrates Court charged with the above offences. More snippets of evidence emerged. PC Price was aware that the children appeared to be insured but knew nothing more than that. When he had arrested the mother at 3 Little Frederick Street she handed him a Royal Liver Friendly Society insurance book. It contained the names of four children, including the deceased baby. He made enquiries. On examination of the book it was seen that the dead baby was insured for £3 and the other children for various amounts up to £20.
John Hinton of 44, Cathedral Road, was a clerk of the Royal Liver and used to deal with Mrs. O’Brian. He saw her on 8 October, and he remembered her being in a drunken condition. She had in her possession the payment book and asked if she was up to date. Mr Hinton said she was but there was now a payment of 7/3d owing. She contributed 4/3d towards it and he remembers her at that point saying that one of her children had died from eczema.
Another grim entry in the payment book was related by Mr Gerrish of the Royal Liver. Mrs O’Brian had received a pay-out in February, some six months earlier, for the death of another child called Mary. Surprisingly, the magistrates granted both parents bail with sureties to appear at the assizes.
On 22 November 1903 they stood in the dock at the Swansea Assize Court, the charges now covering wilful neglect during September and October. There was a manslaughter charge against both the defendants for the death of their child, Ellen, on 7 October. All the witnesses were there to give evidence including Constable Price, Mr New (the NSPCC Inspector), and Doctor McCall.
The judge, after hearing the evidence, told the court that it would be an injustice if the man, Timothy O’Brian, was to remain charged before his court with manslaughter. In his opinion the husband was only aware that the baby was suffering from eczema, and had nothing to do with any wilful starving of the child. Quote: ‘He would not be expected to know that’. It was only the woman who knew that the baby was being starved and was dying therefore he could not possibly be complicit. The judge told the jury there was no case to answer against Timothy O’Brian and the charge of manslaughter against him was withdrawn.
It is hard to comprehend what the judge was thinking in dismissing the manslaughter charge. Was it solely a woman’s job to look after and feed the children when there was a working man in the house? Surely anyone, let alone the father, seeing the state of the children, would be complicit? Baby Ellen was almost cadaverous, she looked horrific, her body riddled with foul sores, and dirt clogging every orifice. Wasn’t that enough evidence of complicity? Obviously not. In fact, the charges of neglecting his children were waived too. He was a free man, but he left the Assize Court with a warning from the judge: ‘It would be much better if you kept a keen eye on your wife. When she comes out, put a sharper eye on her.’ By today’s standards this account is shocking. Yet it created no uproar in the media, nor on the streets. Society accepted this position as right and normal.
As far as Ellen O’Brian was concerned, she denied she was ever drunk or that she kept her children dirty. She denied that the NSPCC Inspector had told her about her drinking or required her to take the child to a doctor. In fact, she was quite innocent of any charge against her. She even stated she had given the baby some cabbage on the day it was taken away to the workhouse infirmary, therefore the allegation that the baby had nothing in its stomach was wrong. The woman’s barrister told the court that the cause of death was surely a natural physical weakness of the child and not starvation.
So, was it Wilful Neglect or Manslaughter? The judge told the jury he had never heard a clearer case. The jury agreed and in a very short time found her guilty of manslaughter. She was sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labour. As far as the insurance claims were concerned, the Judge said he ‘hoped’ the life insurance on the children had nothing to do with her behaviour.
Had he not heard the description of the NSPCC of those children? It is horrific to read today, let alone be there to observe at the time.
Did hard-working docks labourer, Timothy O’Brian, come across as a gentleman totally in fear of his drunken and disgusting wife? So much in fear he did not even comprehend what was going on? Highly unlikely. Was Ellen O’Brian the most conniving and horrible woman who was totally, one hundred per cent, to blame for the deprivation of her family? Also, highly unlikely. Yet, Ellen O’Brian had over sixty prior convictions including robbery with violence, assault, theft, drunkenness and had spent numerous periods in prison with hard labour.
It is difficult to fathom why the insurance book and claims were not a part of the evidence. There seems no mention either of the other child, Mary, who had died and insurance monies paid out. One has to wonder whether she was paid out on the death of the little one, Ellen. It surely could not have been, after the finding of guilt of manslaughter, but in this particular case nothing would be a surprise.
The evidence of the NSPCC, the police, and the medical men portrayed a house of horror in which the children lived. Only one parent was judged as blameworthy and went to gaol. It was a sentence Ellen would surely see through with relative ease: it was just two years.
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.