Real life murder on the Basingstoke Canal

In my novel, Death at Crookham Hall, a murder takes place in 1920 in the real-life location of the Basingstoke Canal as it runs through Crookham. When I wrote this book, I had no idea that a tragic murder had taken place there in 1925…

I’ve transcribed newspaper articles of the day that tell the sad story of Evelyn Spreadbury’s murder of her 10-month daughter, Gwendoline, in November 1925.

Hampshire Telegraph - 26th February 1926

Death Sentence Passed

Girl Mother’s Crime

There was a pathetic scene on Wednesday, when Evelyn Spreadbury (19), was found guilty of the murder of her 10-month-old baby girl by drowning it in the Basingstoke Canal, near Crookham, in November last.

Mr Casswell was for the Crown, and Mr J. C. Maude for the defence.

The short story for the prosecution was that owing to complaints at the girl’s home at Mattingley, because the baby cried so much, the accused was told that she must take her baby elsewhere, and on a Sunday night in November she left with it, and came back, saying she had placed it out to nurse. In January, the body of the child was found in the canal by William Sims of Crookham.

Dr. F H. Greenish, of Fleet, said death was due to drowning. The child was apparently 8 to 10 months old, and he first formed the opinion that the body had been in the canal for a month. He afterwards thought, having regard to the severe weather conditions, that the body might have been in the water for a much longer period.

Mr Maude: "Would you agree that family history may have a great deal to do with lunacy?"

Witness: "Yes."

Mr Maude: "Would you agree that if a great-grandfather, a grandmother, and a great-aunt had been in a lunatic asylum that would give rise to anxiety as to whether a girl would be the subject of a mania herself?"

Witness: "Yes."

Mr Maude: "Would you agree that it is possible to have temporary and acute mania?"

Witness: "Yes."

Mr Maude: "It might last a matter of minutes, so little as that, or it might last hours?"

Witness: "Yes."

Mr Maude: "And there might be no signs afterwards and it might never recur?"

Witness: "Possibly."

Mr Maude: "You would also agree that one of the causes which would bring about an acute mania would be intense worry?"

Witness: "Yes."

Mr Maude: "Would you also agree that it was possible that in a family one generation or even more, might pass without insanity appearing, but that if an inciting cause happened to come along, insanity might still come out later on?"

Witness: "Yes."

Mr Casswell: "Would you expect to hear instances of previous outbursts of insanity?"

Witness: "Yes, you might."

Mr Casswell: "Would you expect outbursts either in childhood or later?"

Witness: "Yes, if there was a family history of insanity."

His Lordship: "You mean that where there is a family history of insanity there may be a tendency to insanity, not that there must be?"

Witness: "Yes."

“Grumbled at at Home.”

Supt. Davis stated that he asked the defendant if he could see the child. The defendant replied that he could not do so as the child had been adopted by Mrs. Northway. He told the defendant that that was not true, and that on the previous Thursday, the dead body of a baby girl had been found in the Canal.

The defendant almost swooned and burst into tears. When subsequently charged with having wilfully murdered her child, the defendant replied: “I did it. They were always grumbling at me at home, and told me to clear out with the child because it cried so. The day I did it, they were grumbling at me all the morning. It was on a Sunday afternoon at the end of November.”

Later, she made a further statement to the effect that she left home without having any dinner and that her father had been at her all the morning. Later, she threw the child into the Canal, she saw its face and tried to get it out with a stick, but she could not do so, and ran away.

Mr. Maude, for the defence, called on evidence, but suggested to the jury that the mother, driven to the point of distraction turned against the baby she loved and did the act in sudden insanity.

His Lordship reminded the jury that the exercise of mercy was the prerogative of the Crown, acting on the advice given him. The statement that the accused, after she had thrown the child into the water, made an effort with a stick to get it out again, was no answer to the charge, for the question was, did she intend to drown it when she threw it in? Not only had the prisoner told a falsehood when she left the house with the baby, but she kept up that false story until she was confronted by the police superintendent. Only when she was told that the body had been recovered was she forced to admit what she had done. She did not suggest that she did not know what she was doing at the time and not one of the witnesses who had known her had ever seen any signs of insanity. He could suggest no other verdict but that of wilful murder, leaving the responsibility for the exercise of mercy with those whose prerogative it was.

The jury returned a verdict of “Guilty with a strong recommendation to mercy.”

The accused stood quietly with her eyes intently on the Judge, who beckoned the Chaplain to his side. The jury stood, and his Lordship, addressing the prisoner, said: “The recommendation of the jury will be forwarded to the proper quarter, where it will receive every consideration. My duty is to pass upon you the only sentence which is known to law for the crime of which you have been convicted.”

His Lordship then uttered the solemn words of the death sentence.

The prisoner walked almost unaided from the dock, and, with the concurrence of the Governor of H.M. Prison, his Lordship gave permission for the parents to see their girl before she was removed to the prison.

Mother Reprieved Headlinepng

The Daily Mirror - 2nd March 1926

Mother Reprieved

Girl of Nineteen Who  Drowned Baby Not to Go to Scaffold

Evelyn Spreadbury, nineteen, sentenced to death at Hants Assizes for the murder of her ten months’ old child by throwing it into the Basingstoke Canal at Crookham, has been reprieved.

The Iris Woodmore Mysteries are available in hardback, paperback, ebook and audiobook from Amazon and bookstores.