Book review: The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer

Kate Summerscale

Kate Summerscale

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Meticulous research underpins this brilliant study into the unexpected life of a Victorian East End boy who killed his mother

The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer by Kate Summerscale | Bloomsbury, 351pp, £16.99

On a blazing July day in 1895, Robert and Nattie Coombes, aged 13 and 11,went from their East End home to Lord’s to watch the Gentlemen v Players cricket match. They left their mother dead in the bed she had shared with Robert; he had stabbed her, perhaps in collusion with Nattie. They went back to Lord’s the next day and saw WG Grace score a century. Cricket was one of Robert’s passions, along with music and reading the sensational literature known as “Penny Dreadfuls”. Their father was away at sea and for a few days the boys enjoyed themselves while their mother’s body lay undisturbed. They told neighbours and their aunt she had gone away, and they brought in a slow-witted family friend, ostensibly to care for them, in reality to take goods to the pawnbroker’s.

Of course it couldn’t last. The aunt became worried, called round, and the body was discovered. Robert admitted his guilt, saying he had killed his mother because she had beaten Nattie. The boys were arrested, likewise the slow-witted friend who was charged with being an accessory after the fact. The case went to the Old Bailey, by which time the Crown had discharged Nattie, preferring to call him as a witness. The newspapers were full of the usual stuff about degenerate slum children and the pernicious influence of cheap literature. (Nothing changes; a few years ago it was video nasties.) Robert, who was intelligent and highly strung, was found guilty but insane, and sent to Broadmoor.

The regime there was – surprisingly? – humane. He learned tailoring, played in the hospital band and in its cricket team. He was eventually released to the care of the Salvation Army, and then emigrated to Australia, where Nattie, a ship’s stoker, had preceded him. In 1914 he enlisted in the Australian Army, played cornet in the battalion band, and won a Military Medal for his bravery as a stretcher-bearer at Gallipoli. Back in Australia he lived on a small-holding, and late in life informally adopted a boy who was being maltreated by his stepfather. The boy, whom Kate Summerscale met as a very old man, remembered Robert fondly; she doesn’t know if Robert ever told him about his past. Probably not, one surmises.

It’s a fascinating story and Summerscale tells it beautifully. Her research in official documents, court records, newspapers and magazines has been thorough. She probably knows more about Robert Coombes’s life than anyone else has ever learned. Even so, she is unavoidably driven to speculation. It’s impossible to know what drove him to murder his mother. She seems to have been temperamental, but in general the boys were well cared-for. The trigger appears to have been the beating she gave Nattie, reportedly because he stole food, so it may be that the boys were under-fed. They were small, but no smaller than many poor city boys. They had once tried to run away. This may suggest they were miserable and afraid. On the other hand it may have been an adventure. Why was it Robert and not his younger brother who shared their mother’s bed; is there any significance in this? It may have simply been because he suffered bad dreams and required comfort.

The boys seem to have lived pleasantly in the days between the murder and their arrest, as if they had blotted out the reality of the deed and the future would never happen. Psychologically this rings true; it’s a state of mind portrayed in several of Simenon’s crime novels. Robert’s inner life remains inevitably mysterious; we don’t know if he felt remorse. Interestingly there is no evidence that he resented Nattie, who gave evidence against him and escaped scot-free, even though by Robert’s account the murder was jointly planned. Matricide is a horrible crime, but no one who knew him seems to have thought Robert a horrible boy. One the contrary, he was likeable. The “wicked” of the title was a newspaper description. Before the killing he was a boy who generally won approval. After it, the rest of his life seems to have been admirable. People are what they are, and are not necessarily defined by single acts, however terrible.

Summerscale’s sympathetic and intelligent study is full of social interest too. I can’t imagine that it could have been done better. n

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