The Sad History of Emily Jane Popejoy

Emily Jane, known as Jane, was the sixth child daughter of George Popejoy, a carpenter, and his wife Rose, of Jenkins Hill, Bagshot. Like many village girls, on leaving school she went into domestic service, finally taking a position with a Mrs Camilla Nicholls, of 14 Pitt Street, Kensington in 1896.

From her letters Jane seemed contented, but a year later her parents were warned that their daughter was ill and would be returning to them at once. On arrival on Friday 24th December the girl was in such a state that medical assistance was called from Dr Osburn of Bagshot. In addition to multiple sores, extensive bruising, a broken finger and nose and bronchial pneumonia, he noted that, although 5 ft 2, Jane weighed less than 4½ stone (less than 30 kilos). She had clearly eaten very little for a long time, and was also filthy. When questioned she alleged that her injuries were due to ill treatment from her mistress. Dr Osburn advised that the authorities be called in and a deposition was taken by Constable Nunn of Bagshot. Jane died on Monday 27th December. She was seventeen.

An inquest opened on 30th January 1897, most of which was held at the Bagshot Institute, with Mr G F Roumieu presiding as Coroner.

Dr Osburn had carried out the post mortem, assisted by Dr Creasy of Windlesham. They found that Jane had died of heart failure produced by extreme weakness due to lack of food. She was also suffering with pneumonia.

Her employer, Mrs Nicholls, testified that Jane had been employed for general duties and to help with the invalid daughter of the house. Mrs Nicholls had bought her clothes, fed her well and paid her more than was requested, but found that Jane was delicate and subject to fainting fits. The girl had also behaved "improperly", had stopped washing herself and on one occasion, had come in smelling of spirits. Eventually a doctor had been called and Jane was sent home. Some of this testimony was supported by another servant, Edith Garrett, who seemed to have been set to spy on Jane's behaviour. Edith did, however, cast doubt on the adequacy of Jane's diet and had witnessed physical ill-treatment on occasion. The London doctor, who had made only a perfunctory examination, then testified that he had advised sending the girl straight to hospital.

Other witnesses were called. A previous employer described Jane as a strong, healthy-looking and cheerful girl. Neighbours and tradesmen from Pitt Street had noted the deterioration in her condition and the transformation from a normal clean young woman to an under-nourished, verminous, frightened wretch, scavenging crusts and begging neighbours for food. More than one witness had seen Mrs Nichols ill-treat her, and the catalogue of physical abuse revealed through the evidence was chilling. Former servants testified to the poor diet at Pitt Street, and it emerged that the apparently cheerful letters Jane had sent home had been dictated by her mistress. Local feeling ran high and enraged crowds heckled Mrs Nicholls when she appeared.

The Coroner's Jury returned a verdict of Manslaughter by starvation and ill treatment on the part of Mrs Nicholls, following which she was arrested and brought before the Magistrates Court at Chertsey. There were further hostile demonstrations and she was pelted with dry crusts.

The Director of Public Prosecutions now intervened. He deemed the case so serious that it should be heard in London. Mrs Nicholls was now to be charged with the manslaughter of Emily Jane Popejoy, neglecting to provide her with sufficient food, unlawfully causing her bodily harm so that her life was endangered, and assault. After an initial hearing at Bow Street Police Court it was referred the Central Criminal Court (The Old Bailey), where Counsel for the Defence was the celebrated barrister Edward Marshall Hall. Character witnesses were called for Mrs Nicholls while the medical evidence and the probity of some of the prosecution witnesses was called into question. However, despite Marshall Hall's best efforts, the case went against Mrs Nicholls who was sentenced to 7 years penal servitude. After the court case further information emerged regarding her marital and financial status, family background and personal history.

Following the verdict the Weekly Dispatch raised a public subscription for a memorial to Emily Jane Popejoy. It was made by Edwin Spooner, the Bagshot builder, from Sicilian marble and unveiled in Bagshot cemetery on 28th December 1898. The memorial was restored by the late Mr John Jillings of Bagshot. The cemetery is today maintained by Windlesham Parish Council.

Emily Jane Popejoy, a Bagshot Tragedy by John Jillings is an account from the newspaper records of the inquest and trials. It is available from Surrey Heath Museum at £5.00 plus 75p postage and packing (cheques payable to Surrey Heath Borough Council). Please contact the museum on 01276 707284 or museum@surreyheath.gov.uk for further details.