Today’s guest blog is by Caro Peacock (aka Gillian Linscott) a former journalist. Her novel Absent Friends won the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger and The Herodotus Award for the Best International Historical Mystery Novel in 2000.
You finish writing a book and, for better or worse, that’s it. I finished my latest Liberty Lane book, The Path of the Wicked, last year and it’s out now. (Published on 31 January.) Only there’s something in it that won’t let me go. Somebody, that is. Or rather, she’s in it only she isn’t. She has an existence outside the book and her real story, as far as I’ve managed to follow it, is as strange as any fiction I’ve written.
It started for me in Cheltenham local history library in the winter of 2011. I had the general idea for the next Liberty Lane case and knew that it would be set in and around Cheltenham in 1840. The next step for me was to read the local papers of the time to build up the picture and, with luck, collect some ideas. In the Cheltenham Examiner, 15 April 1840, I came across this:
CELIA TIPPINS. – The situation of this unhappy female, now under sentence of death, is creating a painful interest in the public mind.
I read on and followed the story through some other regional newspapers. At the recent Gloucester Assizes, Celia Tippins, 34 years old, had been carried fainting from the dock.
She’d just heard the judge sentencing her to be hanged for the murder of her five-week-old baby, adding that she was “a melancholy instance of the consequences of the first deviation from virtue.”
The case of Celia Tippins was a Victorian melodrama in real life. She’d gone to the house of the father of her illegitimate child in Hereford to ask for money to maintain the baby. The father – “the wicked author of her Sin” – as the jurymen who convicted Celia described him – said he didn’t know her and pushed her out into the rain. Even the workhouse wouldn’t take her and the baby because she had a husband who should support her.
However, her husband was sixty miles away in Bristol and he’d only take Celia back if she got money from the biological father for the baby’s upkeep. She’d walked with the baby all the way from Bristol to Hereford. She was hungry and penniless. She’d even had to part with her apron to pay for a night’s lodging. Now she had no alternative but to start walking back to Bristol with the baby in her arms. At some point on a lonely road in the wet November night, the child died. Within days, Celia was in prison charged with his murder.
The prosecution case was that she’d drowned the baby. There was always considerable doubt about that. At the trial, the barrister who’d taken on her case from public spiritedness argued strongly that he’d died from natural causes; a victim of his mother’s suffering. “The fatigue she had undergone and the exposure and distress which she had suffered must have had such an effect upon her health as to impair the quality of her milk and be likely to produce illness in her child.” The jury found her guilty with obvious reluctance and added a strong recommendation for mercy, which the judge ignored. So all twelve of the jurors signed a petition to the Home Secretary asking for her life to be spared on the grounds of “the very distressing and peculiarly lamentable conditions of the unhappy prisoner”. (The petition is still there in the government archives – an imposing document on stiff parchment.) More petitions came in expressing, as one of them put it, the “general sympathy of a discerning and intelligent public.” The Home Secretary relented – up to a point. The death sentence was commuted to transportation for life.
Authors are greedy things, browsing sharks for other people’s dramas. I fictionalised some aspects of Celia’s case in The Path of the Wicked. I gave her a different name and background, made her younger. In the book, the sentence of transportation has been carried out on the fictional Joanna Picton and my plot centres on attempts to have her brought home from Van Diemens land. That should have been that – but as I was to find out – the real Celia Tippins was a determined woman. Even 172 years on, her story wouldn’t let go of me. What had happened to her after that sentence of transportation?
Answering that question should have been easy. If you’re researching your ancestors and have the luck to own one who was transported you’ll be grateful for the meticulous records kept by the State Library of New South Wales (www.sl.nsw.gov.au Go to the research guides page, enter convicts). Even better if the ancestor was female as there’s a volunteer-run site specialising in women who were transported (www.femaleconvicts.org.au) The only problem was that neither of these excellent resources had anything on Celia, either as Tippins or under her maiden name of Corbett. No record either that she’d died on the voyage.
So, to Gloucester Archives. (Has anybody else noticed that archivists seem to be secular saints – constantly patient, encouraging, and seemingly happy in their work?) But all we could turn up there was that soon after she’d been sentenced Celia Tippins was transferred from Gloucester Gaol with no hint of where she’d been sent. Months later – because yes I did have a life to lead and Celia had to fit in where she could – I found myself sitting at a desk in the National Archives at Kew with an alphabetical register of convicts in front of me. There was Celia Tippins with three words against her name in tiny handwriting in the right hand column: Gloucester Lun. Asy. Later I found a fuller version in a newspaper in her home city of Hereford: This wretched woman … has become quite insane and on Wednesday last Capt. Mason, the governor of the county gaol, received an order to remove her at once to Gloucester Lunatic Asylum …She will of course receive all the attention her pitiable condition requires.
End of story, then. Celia, driven mad, ends her days in Gloucester lunatic asylum. Only it wasn’t the end of the story. Another day, another reading desk at Kew, another bundle of documents. These included letters from Gloucester lunatic asylum to the Home Office ten years after her committal, arguing strongly that Celia Tippins was now entirely sane, had been so for some years and should be released. Reading between the lines, it seems clear that she’d never been insane at all – though probably and not surprisingly severely depressed. In what seems to have been the relatively humane regime of Gloucester asylum she recovered and obviously impressed the authorities enough for them to take some trouble in making a case for her freedom. Eventually a civil servant noted on the back of one of the letters: I should think that she may be discharged without danger. Then two weeks later, 6 January 1851 – eleven years and two months after the night when her child died – another note in small handwriting records that Celia Tippins has been given a free pardon.
She would have been 44 or 45 by then. Where did she go? What did she do? I don’t know. Celia Tippins has done one of her disappearing acts again. I’m trying to follow her, and it’s not easy. Perhaps I should just let her go and move on to something else, but her story touches on so many aspects of early Victorian life that I think it’s one that needs telling. So if your name happens to be Tippins (or Corbett, her maiden name) and if there’s anything in your family, history that you think gives a clue to any of this, please get in touch via my website www.caropeacock.co.uk. or Caropeacock@aol.com.
Caro Peacock’s latest Liberty Lane novel, The Path of the Wicked, is published by Severn House. Caro also writes as Gillian Linscott. Her series of books about the suffragette detective Nell Bray are about to come out as eBooks.