This story of Eliza Adkins provides a poignant example of not only the devastating effect of poverty, but the gulf between rich and poor in the Victorian era.
On the morning of Saturday, 30th July 1865 the body of four year old Zadock Adkins was found at the bottom of a communal well in Peggs Green. A post-mortem revealed that he was alive before being pushed down the well, his death being caused by drowning. His feet were badly blistered and his stomach contained nothing but a few wild gooseberries.
The boy’s mother Eliza, was arrested and charged with his murder. Her subsequent confession was disturbing: she had become destitute after her husband died and with a child in tow, she was unable to secure work as a live in maid. Therefore in order to qualify for parish relief she and her son were forced to enter Loughborough Workhouse on Regent Street.
She was immediately separated by her son who she could only see through an iron grill. The harsh system of the workhouse became synonymous with the Victorian era, an institution which became known for its terrible conditions, forced child labour, long hours, malnutrition, beatings and neglect. It would become a blight on the social conscience of a generation leading to opposition from the likes of the Charles Dickens, treatment was so harsh. After a few days of hearing her son constantly crying for her, she managed to grab him and escape. They walked the lanes bare foot and ended up in Peggs Green, all they had found to eat was a few wild gooseberries.
Eliza could get a situation for herself but not her son. “I did not know what to do with the child, I had no home, nothing to eat and not a friend or relation to go to.” She had drowned her son out of desperation and to save him from further suffering; she was also convinced that he was “now in heaven”
It was distressing to consider that Eliza’s predicament was not due to youth, she was reported to be 42 years of age or older. Between her arrest and the trial press reports and numerous letters commented on her tragic situation and expressed sympathy for her plight.
Eliza Adkins was tried for the murder of her son at Leicester Assizes on Saturday 16th December 1865, before Mr Justice Mellor. Her defence council proposed that the stress of her dire circumstances had triggered a temporary state of insanity, that had led to the murder. Rejecting the plea the Jury found Eliza Guilty, and she was sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead. See record of trial in Leicester Chronicle.
Under pressure of public opinion the Home Secretary, Sir George Grey (see footnote) issued a reprieve, and the sentence was commuted to penal life service. If she had been convicted a few years earlier she would have been transported to Australia. If she had survived the journey it is unlikely in her condition to have survived the life which was unbearably hard for women.
The Poor Law Board instigated an enquiry into her allegations of cruelty in the Loughborough Union but the Workhouse staff indignantly refuted the accusations and denied any culpability in the tragedy and insisted that she and her son had been treated humanely.
Loughborough Workhouse was converted into a Local Authority old peoples home called the Regent Hospital but even in the 1970 old people still associated it with the Workhouse. It has been pulled down for even more housing.
As Peggs Green was in The Ashby Union of Workhouses, Eliza was from the Loughborough area and so the tragedy happened in Peggs Green by chance. We do not know where she came from or how long she survived in the prison. .
In this period unmarried women and widows depended on the support of their immediate family. This is borne out by census records which show small children living with their Grandparents and their parents siblings.
In 1846, Sir George Grey, "himself a zealous advocate of hydrotherapy succeeded in getting passed The Baths and Washhouses Act, which promoted the voluntary establishment of public baths and washhouses in England and Wales. A series of statutes followed, which became known collectively as "The Baths and Wash-houses Acts 1846 to 1896” This was an important milestone in the improvement of sanitary conditions and public health in those times.[ A fine example being Loughborough baths on Granby Street
An account of this tragedy is also told in Samuel T Stewart's publication 'The Story Of A Shocking Child Murder In Peggs Green 1865 '