BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Teen brings 'penny dreadfuls' to life
, February 11, 2017
THE WICKED BOY: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer
By Kate Summerscale
Paperback: 307 pages
Price: AUD $27.99
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
In July of 1895 Londoners were horrified to read about a boy who had murdered his mother.
British author Kate Summerscale, the author of other true crime books, recounts the story of Robert Coombes in The Wicked Boy. She first became aware of the crime while reading through late Victorian newspapers that contained sensationalistic and lurid accounts of the crime.
In the early hours of Monday July 8, 1895, 13-year-old Robert entered his mother’s bedroom and stabbed her to death. His father, a ship’s steward, had sailed only a few days before for a round trip to New York and was to be away for approximately a month.
That same morning, Robert set off with his younger brother Nattie to watch a cricket match at Lord’s, doing so again the following day. On Wednesday, they set off to find a family friend, John Fox. Telling him that they were alone as their mother had gone to visit family elsewhere, Fox joined the boys.
They spent the next few days reading, and playing games, supporting themselves on housekeeping money and, when that ran out, by pawning various possessions.
Becoming suspicious of her sister’s whereabouts, the boys’ aunt visited them. Refusing to accept Robert’s excuses, and overcome by a foul odour emanating from the bedroom upstairs, she pushed past Robert. Entering the bedroom, she discovered the decomposing body of his mother.
Robert was immediately arrested. Confessing to the murder, he argued that he had killed his mother because she had threatened to give Nattie a beating.
Newspapers portrayed him as a monster; for example, they noted that he displayed little if any remorse in the dock, but instead was at various points in the trial observed smiling.
In trying to determine what provoked such a horrible crime, many people at the time blamed the stories in “penny dreadfuls” for inciting Robert. These were sensationalistic stories, often published weekly in serialised form, costing one penny. Subject matter included stories of criminals and science fiction.
They were popular among the working classes – who could by the late 19th century read as a consequence of universal education – their low price making them an affordable form of entertainment for them. However, they were generally viewed with disdain or regarded as subversive by the middle and upper classes.
Robert Coombes was found guilty of the murder of his mother, but judged to be insane. He was committed to the lunatic asylum at Broadmoor, where he was to remain for 17 years. In this environment, he flourished, acquiring skills as a tailor and a cornet player.
At this point in the narrative, Summerscale provides a detailed description of Broadmoor, whose residents included Dr W.C. Minor, who made significant contributions to the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Intrigued by the question of Coombes’ fate, Summerscale’s research revealed a story of redemption that she details in this monograph. Coombes was released from Broadmoor in 1912, and emigrated to Australia. Enlisting in the AIF in 1914, he saw action at Gallipoli and on the Western Front as a stretcher-bearer, and was to receive the Military Medal. He was also a member of his battalion’s band.
After the war he returned to Australia, and became a farmer. Ironically, he became the foster father of a boy named Harry Melville who ran away from home to escape a violent stepfather.
The author’s assessment of Coombes’ motives and the reconstruction of what actually occurred is detailed and well researched.
At times the narrative is somewhat lengthy, particularly the chapters that discuss the trial itself. However, this is counterbalanced by fascinating descriptions of the social background.
For example, Summerscale reconstructs what life was like for lower-income people in the East End of London – even down to detailing how they would have managed their family budgets, and their diet – as well as the conditions at Broadmoor, and gives an account of “penny dreadfuls”.
Michael E. Daniel is a long-time contributor to News Weekly.