the social, cultural and political climate of Victorian England combined to
create a perfect storm of crime, murder and sensationalism.
Donovan, author of The Mysterious Mrs Hood, provides the historical backdrop to
her great -great aunt’s murder in 1900.
1898 --It has been ten years since Jack the Ripper terrorised the streets of
Whitechapel, London. Charles Booth and his team of socialists have been working
on a project to map wealth and poverty across the city since 1886, and have
recently named Stockwood Street, which was home to Mary Jane and Herbert
Bennett, as being one of the ‘lowest class’ streets in Victorian London. It was
at this point that Mary Jane and Herbert made a choice: to turn to crime to
escape poverty. Mary Jane’s desperate struggle for survival had begun.
Booth’s work would eventually result in a colour-coded map of the city, which carved
out and demarcated the poorest streets with thick black lines. Booth classified
these areas as being home to the ‘lowest classes.’ The notebooks that accompany
Booth’s poverty map add vivid detail about the social character of each street,
which helps to give us a sense of the conditions in which people were living at
the time. Stockwood Street, a dingy thoroughfare off Plough Street, near
Clapham Junction, was described as being awash with ‘drunken, rowdy and
troublesome people’. It is easy to imagine the danger that may have lurked on
the ‘vicious and semi-criminal’ street after dark. It is no surprise, then,
that a heavily pregnant Mary Jane would have urgently sought to liberate
herself from these challenging social conditions.
researchers documenting the conditions on London’s streets would at times be
accompanied by the police officer for the district in which they were charting.
It was a time when officers walked their beats. Forensic science was in its
infancy, and the police still relied heavily on clues to solve crimes. The
Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of Scotland Yard had been set up ten
years before, and plain clothed police officers, who had originally been
thought of as ‘spies’ had made significant strides in winning the trust of the
public. Despite this more robust police force, Mary Jane and Herbert would
successfully evade the scrutiny of the authorities as they travelled across the
country, graduating from fraud to theft, and eventually to arson, while leaving
a trail of disgruntled people in their wake.
relations between the couple eventually began to sour, it is unlikely that they
would have considered divorce. Although legal by that time, divorce was expensive
and brought with it great shame, especially for women. Mary Jane would have
been dependent on her marriage for reasons of reputation, and she would have
been reliant on her husband for money.
the great swathes of black on Booth’s map of London, social conditions across
the country were being to improve. The Bank holiday Act of 1871 had introduced
four regular bank holidays, which gave workers more time for leisure activities,
and the development of the railways made it possible to travel longer distances
with more ease. Seaside resorts had begun to spring up, and Great Yarmouth in
particular became a popular holiday destination. It was here, on a holiday with
her infant daughter in September 1900, that Mary Jane would meet her tragic end.
increase in leisure time coincided with a rise in literacy levels and the development
of a more affordable and less regulated press, which, in turn, led to a
dramatic rise in newspaper readership. The Victorians had a reputation for being
avid consumers of violent entertainments, and a new-fangled form of journalism
dubbed ‘Tabloid Journalism’, or ‘Yellow Journalism’ (in North America) had started
to develop. Articles in this style had a focus on bold headlines, emotive
writing and sensationalist stories. They were, broadly speaking, a development
of the Broadside, a type of street literature that had been infamously sold at
public executions in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
sensationalist reporting of crime was at odds with a legal system that required
impartiality, and there were calls at the turn of the 20th Century to regulate
the press through fear that sensationalist reporting would prejudice active cases.
It was into this press that the story of Mary Jane’s murder found its way, and
it was through a newspaper report that her father would learn of his daughter’s
murder. The press whipped up such a frenzy around the case that the ensuing
trial attracted attention from across the country and Mary Jane Bennett became a
household name. She had escaped poverty, and her desperate struggle for
survival had come to an end, but not in the way she would have hoped for.
The Mysterious Mrs Hood by Kim Donovan (Orion Publishing) Out Now
A true Victorian murder mystery... Great Yarmouth, September 1900: A young woman is found dead on the beach, a bootlace tied tightly around her neck. Despite her death attracting national attention in the press, nobody claims her. Detective Inspector Robert Lingwood of the Great Yarmouth police force declares he will not rest until the mystery of the young woman's death is solved. But it's only once the case has been referred to Scotland Yard that the layers of mystery start to peel away... 'Mrs Hood' was in fact Mary Jane Bennett, and this is her story. Following clues and tracking red herrings leads the police to close in on their one and only suspect. With arson, fraud, an affair and a sensation-hungry press, the murder gripped the nation in one of the most eagerly anticipated trials of the early twentieth century.
Kim Donovan can be found on X @Kim_Donovan_