The Sad Case of Miss Elizabeth Lavender

By Steve Green

Over 200 years ago on the 20th January 1799, the body of a new born baby boy was found in a wooden barrel. Suspicion immediately fell on a young woman named Elizabeth Lavender. Apparently, the day before a doctor had attended during her labour and the body discovered the following day. The Coroner was summoned and at the inquest determined that the baby had suffered a stab wound it his throat five inches long and three inches deep.

In due course the Coroner’s Jury returned a verdict of wilful murder of her male ‘bastard’ child. Elizabeth was arrested placed in goal and sent to the next Sussex Assizes for trial (she had to wait until July 19th  because a key witness, Elizabeth Hedgecock, was heavily pregnant and could not travel) where Elizabeth twice pleaded not guilty. Nevertheless, the court found against her and she was sentenced to be hung for infanticide (‘murder of a bastard child’ as it was known in the day) three days later on Horsham Common; this was summery justice 18th style.  Anyway, if that was not bad enough, her body was then to be given over for medical research to be dissected and anatomised as required under the ‘1752 Murder Act’. At the time there were four others who on the day were found guilty of capital offences and they were subsequently pardoned (although they don’t appear to have committed murder) so unsurprisingly (after all it was 1799!) no such reprieve for poor Elizabeth Lavender, quite rightly you might say given the ghastly crime.

Therefore on the morning of 22nd July 1899 she was duly taken in an open cart to her place of execution to be greeted by crowds of onlookers. This was entertainment of the worst kind. Apparently, the Horsham hangings became known as the ‘Horsham Fairs’. I suppose this was an 18th century version of going to the pictures.  In tears, Elizabeth was led up the scaffold to be greeted by a priest who gave her what words of comfort as he would allow himself. She listened attentively and expressed ‘a hope that all other females would take warning by her untimely fate’ she was turned off about half past twelve, and expired without any apparent agony. (The London Chronical.) She was just eighteen years of age.

If she’d known, Elizabeth might have considered herself to have been a little unfortunate to be sentenced to death despite her grievous crime. In her case there were some strong mitigating circumstances. Surprisingly thanks to the internet, I didn’t have to look far to find a few women found guilty of infanticide in the 18th century only to have escaped being executed and here are just a few;

Sarah Tolly in 1735 (no detail at present I’m afraid),

Katherine Hill in Wiltshire in 1779 was found guilty of throwing her new born baby down a well. Her mistress Mary Smart’s brother was suspected of being the father but he had fled to avoid arrest. Mary was also put on trial as accessory to the killing but acquitted; Katherine was convicted but later pardoned.

Mary Curtis in 1740 at the Surrey Assizes was accused of strangling and hiding her new born baby. She claimed that it was born dead and that she was in such………’ great pain I knew not what I did’ the jury found her guilty but recommended mercy. Mary was not executed.

The most common method of infanticide in the 18th century appears to have been drowning, stabbing and strangling.

So why was Elizabeth ‘turned off’ as the expression goes. As you can see in at least two of the cases, the crimes were nearly as bad if not worse than that of Elizabeth Lavender.  So were there instances of mitigation (Post Natal Depression? This condition wasn’t recognised until the 20th century) in these cases or perhaps they were pardoned due to some technicality or other?  Maybe, but mitigation in cases of murder wasn’t an established defence in law at this time.  However, Elizabeth may have had a strong argument for leniency anyway that might have been considered even in those harsh days of justice and here is some food for thought.

According to Eddy Greenfield in his book A to Z of Horsham, People- Places-History, Elizabeth’s father William Lavender was the father of the child and was putting pressure on her to blame another man (clearly hoping to avoid falling foul of the law and the approbation of the community in which he lived). He was, according to Greenfield’s book sent to prison for incest.  One wonders then, how Elizabeth’s father became implicated with incestuous behaviour with his daughter?  Was this part of a separate investigation or did evidence arise in Elizabeth’s trial. There were three other witnesses (one of whom appeared to be a relation of Elizabeth Hedgecock, the pregnant witness) at the trial; did their evidence link William with incest?

As far as our historical and human interest goes, this could introduce all sorts of possibilities in support of young Elizabeth’s defence.  Was she coerced or was she raped. Could someone else have been responsible for the murder?   After all, she did plead not guilty. She had been one of eight siblings and the register of births, deaths and marriages show that her fifteen year old sister Ann gave birth to a ‘bastard’ child in October of the same year. Sadly we may never find out the full truth of the circumstances that led to Elizabeth’s tragic situation. Additionally, transcripts of trials were not a feature in the 18th century court system so we don’t know exactly what was said at the trial. This requires more research may and may result in a further article. I have requested the Assize records from the National Archives.

Therefore after brief exploration of Elizabeth Lavender’s case that she might well have been pardoned and spared. So why was she given no leniency?

It may have been unfortunate that the Judge presiding over her case was one Francis Buller. He was apparently the 18th century’s equivalent of Judge Jeffries. He was subject to much criticism and ridicule even in his own day for harsh sentencing and was the judge who was alleged to have said that it was alright for a man to beat his wife with a stick providing it was no bigger than his thumb; hence the expression ‘rule of thumb’.  He was also one of three judges who upheld the right of the slave ship Zong to throw its cargo [slaves] into the sea. (executed So perhaps we might consider that Elizabeth was just a little unlucky to have a judge presiding over her case who seems to have been unyielding for upholding 18th century values.

Moving forward two hundred years. In1999, a 15-year-old girl stabbed her new born baby to death after giving birth in secret at her family home in Sutton-in-Ashfield near Mansfield. The girl admitted killing the child while the balance of her mind was disturbed because she had not fully recovered from giving birth. Her plea of not guilty to murder was accepted. (Guardian 4th Oct 2004)

On October 12 2010 a young woman aged seventeen appeared at Winchester Crown Court and was convicted of infanticide, having stabbed her new-born baby with a knife and concealed the body in a litter bin. She was sentenced to a 12-month Community Supervision Order and a Youth Rehabilitation Order. (West Sussex Gazette 29th Dec 2010).

This is all very interesting but what does this have to do with the Fairlight History Group and our village?

According to the births, deaths and marriages register, William died in 1800 and is buried at Fairlight church. The body of the baby was found in Fairlight and the coroner’s inquest held at Fairlight Church.  It would also seem, in all likelihood, that the Lavenders were a local family.

By Steve Green

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