Be inspired by History, and the History Magpie, at the Rochester Litfest on October 10 2015

Poster for Rochester Litfest 2015
Poster for Rochester Litfest 2015

On Saturday 10 October, the third Rochester Literary festival – ‘Live’n’Local’ – will be kicking off a fantastic line up of literary events inspired by local people and places.

The Saturday programme is full of workshops and talks perfect for history fans and I’m absolutely thrilled to be running a creative writing workshop in the Guildhall Museum in Rochester between 10am and 12 noon.  I’ve been busy taking photos and arranging to borrow a few of the more tactile pieces from the museum’s collection for you to get your hands on and I hope the morning will inspire you to use objects as prompts for your own writing. The session is suitable for both fiction and non-fiction writers and I would love to see you there. (Cue sales pitch – tickets are £5 each and you can find further info here :))

What’s even more exciting is that the museum will also be hosting talks by these amazing speakers that afternoon:

Toni Mount Rochester Litfest

Toni Mount: 12 noon – 1pm

Prolific medieval specialist Toni will be unravelling the mysteries of ancient medicine and revealing a time when butchers knew more about anatomy than university trained physicians.

Truda Thurai Rochester Litfest

Truda Thurai: 2pm-3pm

Referencing short stories inspired by Rochester Cathedral and her own methods of research, Truda will share some of her secrets to writing historical fiction.

Sir Robert Worcester Rochester Litfest

Sir Robert Worcester: 4pm-5pm

Sir Robert’s talk inspired the festival’s history themed day. The Magna Carta is widely regarded as a potent symbol of the freedom of the individual and 2015 is the 800th anniversary of its sealing at Runnymede. Sir Robert, the Chairman of the Magna Carta 800th Anniversary Commemoration Committee, is a powerful and evocative speaker and during his talk he will be discussing its legacy.

Rochester Litfest is ‘run by writers for readers’ and materialises each year through the efforts of an incredible group of volunteers led by local writer Jaye Nolan. Jaye is one of life’s little whirlwinds, who filled with passion and commitment, has a knack for making things happen. This year’s ‘Live’n’Local’ festival is going to be amazing and I’ve only highlighted a few of its wide-ranging and diverse events.  The full programme can be found here and it would be wonderful if you could join us.

Looking forward to seeing you there.

Rachael

Anonymous copy of original 1693 'Cast out all Witches and Devils' poster

The 17th Century Trial of Elizabeth Wood – the Benenden ‘Witch’

Anonymous copy of original 1693 'Cast out all Witches and Devils' poster
Anonymous copy of original 1693 ‘Cast out all Witches and Devils’ poster

During the 17th Century the accusation of witchcraft was a real threat and on 8 September 1653 the people of Benenden eagerly awaited a verdict from the Kent Quarter Sessions.

Following an alleged quarrel between Mrs Elizabeth Hodge and her neighbour, Elizabeth Wood, ‘a singlewoman’, Mr Hodge had accused Elizabeth Wood of witchcraft on the basis that their six-year-old son had begun to be ‘taken in the night time with strange fits of crying’ that could not be gratified.

When giving his evidence before three Justices of the Peace (William Boys, Robert Gibbon and Richard Kilburne) Mr Hodge stated that Elizabeth Wood had threatened to take her revenge on his wife and for past two months their son had suffered, calling out to him saying ‘Here comes a black thing and teares me and pulls mee by the backe’. On another occasion he is alleged to have said that ‘Bess’ would kill him and Mr Hodge believed he was referring to Elizabeth Wood.

Testimonies from all three adult parties are recorded within the Kent Quarter Sessions papers* and following an examination of Elizabeth Wood the entry reads…

‘She doth deny that she did…or practice any witchcraft upon Edward Hodge (son of Edward Hodge of Benenden aforesaid labourer) or by any other… or thing whatsoever, not hath she any skill or knowledge at all in any kind of witchcraft whatsoever and she doth deny that she did fall out with the wife of the said Edward Hodge his father.’

She was later acquitted.

Sources: 

These Kent Quarter Sessions papers can be found at the Kent History and Library Centre in Maidstone under the reference of: Q/SB/4/52

Additional information was sourced from B.R.Dyer’s book ‘Kent Witchcraft’ published by James Pike Limited. 

Pre WW2 boys at St Matthew's School, including Syd Dixon, who died 12 December 1942, aged 20

Take a war time history walk with ‘Southborough War Memorial’ author Judith Johnson – September 12 2015

Pre WW2 boys at St Matthew's School, including Syd Dixon, who died 12 December 1942, aged 20
Pre WW2 boys at St Matthew’s School, including Syd Dixon, who died 12 December 1942, aged 20

For years, local history author Judith Johnson researched the stories of the 250 people remembered on the Southborough War Memorial. She visited their former homes and workplaces, talked to their relatives and laid local mementos at their distant resting places. Within the pages of her book ‘Southborough War Memorial: The Stories of Those Commemorated’ she has retold their stories and now, as part of the Heritage Open Days programme, she is giving you the opportunity to walk in their footsteps too.

Judith is passionate about these people and I’m thrilled that she has taken the time to tell us a little more about the walk and how her book originally started.

Over to you, Judith….

When I set out some years ago to find out as much as I could about the names on the Southborough War Memorial, the first step was walking up onto Southborough Common with a pad and a biro and making a list. I hoped to excavate some of the history of the more than 250 people from Southborough and High Brooms who were recorded there as having died in the First and Second World Wars, and make some kind of record that anyone interested might read.

There were to follow many hours down Tunbridge Wells Library at weekends searching through old newspaper reports on the microfilm machine. I had some very rewarding encounters with a number of close relatives, who were kind enough to share their memories with me. As they recalled their loved ones, they were  frequently moved to tears as the pain of their loss was revived. I was grateful too for the help and generosity of other local amateur historians, including members of the Southborough Society and medal collectors, who I found were always eager to give me whatever material they had discovered.

When my book was completed, my husband and son gave their time to proofread the text. Both of them were surprised at how moving it was to read of those, long dead, who they had never known and the cumulative impact of taking in the patchwork of information I’d gathered about these men (and one woman). Many of the relatives of those named on the memorial were prompted to tell me how touched and grateful they felt that the sacrifice of their loved ones had finally been honoured.

Some years later, I volunteered to do a guided walk of High Brooms as part of the Tunbridge Wells programme for the Heritage Open Days weekend. I spent several days walking around the streets of High Brooms with my husband, book in hand, researching a route (there are indexes at the back of my book which list the names in order of surname, military unit, place of rest, residence, and death date). I was amazed, given that I had been familiar with so many of the men’s details, at the further emotional effect of actually standing in front of their houses, speaking of them, and considering how it must have felt for the families left behind, who went in and out of those front doors.

I’m looking forward to repeating that guided walk, which will also include some High Brooms’ war-time experiences, on Saturday 12 September. This year will be particularly resonant, being the 100th Anniversary of the sinking of HMS Hythe. I also hope that we shall have access to the Hythe Memorial in St Matthew’s Church.

The walk will last for approximately ninety minutes and we will be leaving from outside St Matthew’s Primary School in Powdermill Lane (TN4 9DY) at 2.30pm. Therefore, anyone planning to attend should aim to be outside the Primary School at least five minutes before we leave. I’d recommend some comfortable walking-shoes, and you should be prepared for some steep walks uphill. Look forward to seeing you there!

Author Judy Johnson
Author Judy Johnson
Toad Rock at Rusthall Image Rachael Hale

Finding Toad Rock at Rusthall

For years the sign post pointing to Toad Rock in Rusthall has intrigued me but, until now, I have never managed to find out what it actually looks like. So today, I followed thousands of Victorian tourists, who travelled via the newly installed railway to see it, and took a little detour to find the crouching toad.  This is what I found…

Toad Rock at Rusthall Image Rachael Hale
Toad Rock at Rusthall Image Rachael Hale

Can you see him?  Mr Toad sitting up there in all his glory?  He’s actually made from sandstone rock originally formed during the Cretaceous period.  Layer upon layer of rock was built up and our toad was sculpted by the wind as the lower, softer layers of sandstone and mudstone, were eroded.

He’s quite an imposing sight but to the Victorian, and Georgian visitors who visited before them, he must have seemed incredible.

King Stephen of England's Tomb Image Rachael Hale

Is this the final resting place of King Stephen of England?

King Stephen of England's Tomb Image Rachael Hale
King Stephen of England’s Tomb Image Rachael Hale

The exact whereabouts of the remains of King Stephen, the grandson of William the Conqueror – also known as Stephen of Blois – will never be verified but a small brass plaque that reads ‘In memory of Stephen, King of England’ inside St Mary of Charity’s Church in Faversham could provide a clue.

When King Stephen died on 25 October 1154, he was placed inside a family sarcophagus with his wife and son at Faversham Abbey, which had been founded by the Royal couple. Queen Matilda (aka Countess of Bolougne)  had quietly succumbed to a fever at Hedingham Castle in Essex in May 1152 but Prince Eustace is said to have been suddenly ‘struck down by the wrath of God while plundering church lands near Bury St Edmunds’ in August 1153.

For the next four hundred years they were able to rest in peace, that is until King Henry VIII decided that the Abbey was far too powerful, and rich to lie so close to London and had it dismantled during the dissolution of the monasteries.  What exactly happened to the tomb of King Stephen and his family is unknown but one tale is that they were all thrown into the river and that some of the locals risked their necks to recover their bones while King Henry’s men melted down their casket and made into 1000 musket balls. The other, and I personally think a little more likely, is that the monks at the Abbey asked those at the parish church to look after the royal remains until things had settled down a bit and they were eventually re-buried within a corner of the parish church.

One thing that is for certain is that the truth will never be known.  The brass plaque could have been erected, exactly as it says, as a memorial to the King who had lived in the town. Or King Stephens remains, and that of Queen Matilda and Prince Eustace, could actually have been saved and safely interred beneath the plaque. As all three of them died from natural causes, they will never be disinterred, and therefore the mystery will never be solved.  And in many ways I think that’s better.  What do you think?

Rachael

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Mysterious Museum Objects –  Minature Bazaar at The Guildhall Museum, Rochester

The Booth Bazaar at The Guildhall Museum Image Rachael Hale
The Booth Bazaar at The Guildhall Museum Image Rachael Hale

I love writing about museum objects but it can be so frustrating.  Imagine walking into your favourite museum where there are thousands of objects just waiting to be seen, admired and talked about.  You know that every single artefact is important in its own right and they all have a story to tell. The only problem is, the one thing that’s caught you eye isn’t ready to reveal its secrets.  The brief display text sitting next to it may be all that is known about it and despite phone calls, archive and internet searches, its history remains a mystery.

The Booth Bazaar at The Guildhall Museum Image 2 Rachael Hale
The Booth Bazaar at The Guildhall Museum Image 2 Rachael Hale

Take this gorgeous 19th Century miniature bazaar for instance. The museum text states that it was made by the Booth family, who lived in Cobham, circa 1860. A phone call to Stephen Nye, the Collections Officer at the Guildhall Museum in Rochester, reveals that the bazaar was made by the donors’ mother but apart from that no further information is known.  After a brief feeling of disappointment, my imagination kicks in and I imagine an entire family bent over the delicate and impossibly small pieces within a candlelit parlour while their father spoke about his day or sat puffing on his pipe in the corner.

The Booth Bazaar at The Guildhall Museum Image 3 Rachael Hale
The Booth Bazaar at The Guildhall Museum Image 3 Rachael Hale

The truth will never be known but, with a little bit of research, it was possible to find out that during the early 19th century adults would frequently work together to create miniature scenes and this one may well have been inspired by the hugely popular ‘baby houses’ and miniature shops created by a German factory called Nuremburg. The factory operated between 1835-1927 and one of its most popular models was its ‘Baby’s First Butcher Shop’ displaying grisly animal carcasses and a floor covered in bloody sawdust.  As you can imagine, these scenes weren’t for playing with but American, French and British manufacturers soon caught on to the ‘miniature’ craze and tiny domestic objects were soon widely available.

Fortunately, the Booth family chose to recreate a far more tempting scene and whenever I look at it, I’m drawn back to the days when I spent hours re-arranging my own dolls’ house. Sadly, I don’t have it any longer but, like you, I can always go and have a look at this wonderful minature bazaar at the Guildhall Museum on Rochester High Street. The museum is free to enter and further visitor information can be found here.

Until next time.

Rachael

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The Booth Bazaar at The Guildhall Museum Image 4 Rachael Hale
The Booth Bazaar at The Guildhall Museum Image 4 Rachael Hale

What’s your favourite building in Kent? Estate Agent Matthew Ryde chooses Scotney Castle

Visitors at Scotney Castle, Kent. Scotney Castle is a country house, romantic garden and 14th century moated castle - all set in a beautiful wooded estate ©National Trust Images.
Scotney Castle is a country house, romantic garden and 14th century moated castle – all set in a beautiful wooded estate.©National Trust Images

Kent is filled with historical buildings and every time I go on a car journey, my nose is firmly pressed up against the passenger window. Twisted chimneys, arched windows, secret doorways, they all draw me in and I would be hard pressed to choose a favourite.  But it doesn’t stop me asking other people to choose though and fellow fan and local estate agent, Matthew Ryde ,has kindly agreed to write a guest post about his favourite building in Kent- Scotney Castle 

Over to you Matt…

A ripple nudges at stonework beside your feet, the wake from a duck that has hurriedly left just seconds before, a gentle rustling brings blossom scent on the breeze and as you look out across the lake, you could be in the midst of a Tennyson poem. Is the lady of Shallott somewhere near?

Moments later, a child’s laughter catches your ear and brings you from your reverie, a smile crosses your face and the moment when this was your own private castle has passed, leaving a wondrous memory that would comfort the heart of he who built this place, in a different time, and for a very different purpose.

When I was asked which was my favourite house in Kent it really wasn’t too hard to pick one. Kent is blessed with glorious buildings, the product of a rich history and money from wool, farming and trade and I could easily pick several for a point of historical importance or architectural interest. I do find one place always leaves a lasting image in my heart though, it has a romance that endows a lingering pleasure long after I have left and that place is Scotney Castle.

In the 1830’s, the Hussey family began a project to build a new home at Scotney. The striking manor house is a lovely building and well worth visiting. It sits overlooking gardens that can be enjoyed through the seasons. For me the joy comes from glimpses of the fourteenth century castle that sits on the lake below.

I wish I could step back in time and meet that family who chose to build new Scotney and get a sense of how they felt about the landscape they were shaping. The old castle has seen many changes through the centuries and was, I believe, still partly used until the first few years of the twentieth century as a bailiffs residence. What romance did the last occupier attach to this place?

Scotney Castle features a 14th century moated castle, a Victorian mansion and a romantic garden.©National Trust Images/John Miller
Scotney Castle features a 14th century moated castle, a Victorian mansion and a romantic garden.©National Trust Images/John Miller

It was a masterful stroke this re working of the old castle. Much has gone, carefully taken down to retain this memorable ‘ruin’.

If you get the chance, take yourself along to visit with your current favourite book or even a copy of Tennyson or Longfellow and find somewhere to sit with this wondrous image in the corner of your eye. Sit perhaps for a moment within the stone walls and gaze out through a green clad arch, spend a little time to soak up the feel of somewhere that has been a home for many centuries and now is a place of joy and inspiration for so many. Wander the grounds and enjoy the gardens and see if your heart is stolen by this place.

Scotney holds a magic unlike anywhere else I know in Kent, visit when mist glides across the lake top and it will feel wholly different to when the evening light glances from the stonework. It somehow manages to encapsulate all that Kent means to me, beautiful scenery, history and romance. I could easily imagine Lord Tennyson strolling the grounds gaining inspiration as he went and I’ll borrow a few of his words to finish.

‘Love thou thy land, with love far-brought

From out the storied Past, and used

Within the present, but transfused

Thro’ future time by power of thought’

There is a taste of ‘my Scotney’ I hope you find yours as wonderful when you visit.

Thanks so much for sharing your favourite spot Matt, Scotney Castle is certainly special and I hope you have many more special moments when it’s ‘all yours’.

Scotney Castle can be found in Lamberhust Near Tunbridge Wells in Kent (TN3 8JN) and is now under the ownership of The National Trust.  Further visitor information can be found at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/scotney-castle Or you can call 01892 893820

And if any of you are looking for a new home in Kent please do take a look at Matthew Ryde’s estate agency – Graham John – Matt doesn’t sell houses, he finds homes.

Matthew Ryde - Owner of Graham John Estate Agency
Matthew Ryde – Owner of Graham John Estate Agency
Dr Jonathan Foyle talking about the discovery of the tudor Bed of Roses ©Rachael Hale web

Tudor ‘Bed of Roses’ on display at Hever Castle

Dr Jonathan Foyle talking about the discovery of the tudor Bed of Roses ©Rachael Hale web
Dr Jonathan Foyle talking about the discovery of the tudor Bed of Roses ©Rachael Hale web

If my bed was as beautiful as this Tudor ‘Bed of Roses’ I don’t think I would ever get out of it. Ornately carved from dark wood, this four poster bed stands 9ft tall and is currently on display at Hever Castle.   Its story is remarkable and when Dr Jonathan Foyle, an architectural historian and broadcaster, made a long train journey to inspect a ‘Royal Tudor bed’ he assumed it would be a fake. What he actually discovered was astonishing.

Jonathan says he initially thought it was ‘a great piece of Victorian replica work’ and his primary challenge was to prove it bogus.  ‘I thought well, you need to find one problem with this bed to disprove it and we can say hats off to the Victorian who achieved such a thing.’ But it wasn’t that simple. For the past two years the bed has undergone rigorous testing to assess its authenticity and now Jonathan is convinced that not only is it genuine but it’s the bed made for the marriage of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York in 1486.  The carvings depict biblical tales of redemption and portray Henry and Elizabeth as saviours rescuing mankind from evil. Symbolising the fact the marriage forged a connection between the two great houses of Lancaster and York and brought an end to the ‘War of the Roses’.

Middle panel depicting the Royal couple as Adam and Eve ©Rachael Hale
Middle panel depicting the Royal couple as Adam and Eve
©Rachael Hale

Installed in the ‘Painted Chamber’ at Westminster Palace, the bed was originally decorated with a red-brown, grained paint effect and marbling.  Some parts of the frame still retain traces of lapis lazuli, the most expensive of all medieval paint materials and, measuring 6ft 6” long and 5ft 6” wide, the contours of the bed frame perfectly match the shaping of the mural which served as its backdrop.

What happened to the bed after the death of the royal couple has led to a tale of travel and fraudulent dealings and it can all be discovered, alongside the Tudor ‘Bed of Roses’, at Hever Castle until 22 November 2015.

The Tudor 'Bed of Roses' © Rachael Hale web
The Tudor ‘Bed of Roses’ © Rachael Hale web

With thanks to Vivien Oldfield for inviting me to the exhibition launch at Hever Castle and allowing me to publish images. Many thanks are also due to Dr Jonathan Foyle for allowing me to use quotes from his speech.

*This article was previously published in the May issue of Bygone Kent magazine

Snake & Bird of Paradise Image Rachael Hale

Exhibition News: A Walk on the Wild Side at Tunbridge Wells Museum

Boxing Squirrels at the Tunbridge Wells Museum Image Rachael Hale
Boxing Squirrels at the Tunbridge Wells Museum Image Rachael Hale

The sound of running feet, a gasp and a shriek of laughter heralded the arrival of a youngster at the Walk on the Wild Side exhibition in Tunbridge Wells and I knew exactly how he felt.  Four glass fronted cabinets displaying a taxidermied squirrels boxing match is not something I’ve seen before either and to be perfectly honest it raised a rush of very conflicting emotions ranging from  ‘what the hell is that?’ to ‘that’s actually quite clever’.

Just one shelf lower is another incredible sight, a bespectacled rook reading a sermon. The sign states that it was found in a Cotswold graveyard and what strikes me is that it was created as recently as 1960.

Rook reading a sermon at Tunbridge Wells Museum Image Rachael Hale
Rook reading a sermon at Tunbridge Wells Museum Image Rachael Hale

Another case features the fragile skeleton of a snake, so carefully coiled it seems to have merely paused for a moment while a brightly coloured bird of paradise perches alongside it.  Above them, a figurine featuring a family of happy cats seems slightly incongruous and, initially, it’s hard to find the thread linking all the objects together but, if you take a moment to step back and look at room as a whole, the theme soon becomes clearer.

Snake & Bird of Paradise Image Rachael Hale
Snake & Bird of Paradise Image Rachael Hale

At the heart of exhibition is the relationship between humans and animals and every wall is covered in images. Ranging from an anatomical drawing of a rhinoceros, to richly painted fine art scenes and the more cartoon like depictions of a large family transformed into monkeys, the exhibition also explores the need humans have to make animals appear more ‘human’.  Perhaps, initially, in an attempt to make the unknown more acceptable and less frightening or perhaps in an attempt to civilise the animal worlds less pc tendencies.

Close up of The Trimmed C**k by Charles 1812
Close up of The Trimmed C**k by Charles 1812

The display of preserved animals at the rear of the room raises the question of why the Victorian’s felt the need to stuff every animal they came across while the colourful illustrations of Dorothea Graff explore an alternative side to animal study.  Regardless of the reasoning, artists from all disciplines have been intrigued by animals for centuries and the entire room is filled with a carefully selected collection of fine art, natural history and everyday objects.  Several exhibits are on loan from the British Museum and although fairly small the exhibition is well worth a look.

So go on, be brave and take A Walk on the Wild Side. The exhibition is free to enter and is running until 20 September at the Tunbridge Wells Museum & Art Gallery.

Walk on the Wild Side Exhibition at Tunbridge Wells Museum Image Rachael Hale
Walk on the Wild Side Exhibition at Tunbridge Wells Museum Image Rachael Hale
Christiana Edmunds in the Dock

The Terrible Crimes of the Chocolate Cream Poisoner

Christiana Edmunds in the Dock
Christiana Edmunds in the Dock with Dr and Mrs Beard behind her

I’m absolutely thrilled to introduce you to Kaye Jones. Kaye has been writing about Christiana Edmunds, the 19th Century ‘Chocolate Cream Poisoner’, for Pen and Sword Books and when I learnt the killer had been born in Margate, I had to know more.

Hello Kaye, thanks so much for stopping by. How did you find out about Christiana Edmunds and what made you want to write about her?

I found about her by accident, really. I was reading a newspaper article about another case when I saw the headline ‘The Brighton Lady Poisoner’ on the same page. Intrigued, I read the excerpt from her trial and immediately wanted to know more. I was already in talks with Pen and Sword about a book commission so I pitched her story and, fortunately for me, they were equally fascinated with the case.

In a recent blog post you mention that Christiana was born in Margate and grew up in Canterbury – can you tell us about her family life?

Yes, Christiana was born in Margate in 1828. She was the oldest child of William Edmunds, a locally-renowned and very successful architect, who designed St John’s Church, where she was baptised, and the Margate lighthouse. Because of his successes, the family were able to live very comfortably: they owned a beautiful house in Hawley Square, had three servants and could afford to privately educate their children. But in 1847, when Christiana was 19, the family’s life changed dramatically. Without giving too much away, William Edmunds died in Peckham House Lunatic Asylum, where he had been confined since 1845, and the taint of his madness forced the family to leave Margate and start afresh in Canterbury.

Christiana Edmunds former home at 16 Hawley Square
Christiana Edmunds former home at 16 Hawley Square

Christiana’s poisoning spree actually took place in Brighton, why was her family there and what spurred her into action?

After a fairly uneventful two decades in Canterbury, the Edmunds family suffered two tragedies. The first came in January 1866 when Christiana’s youngest sibling, Arthur, died in the Royal Earlswood Asylum for Idiots in Surrey. Arthur was epileptic and had spent the last six years of his life in confinement. The following year, one of Christiana’s sisters, Louisa, died unexpectedly at the age of 36. She had been plagued by depression and hysteria since her teen years and had once tried to throw herself from an upstairs window. Probably wanting to escape these tragedies, Christiana and her mother, Ann, left Kent and headed to Brighton to start a new life. Within a few months of her arrival, Christiana became a patient of Dr Charles Beard, a highly-respected local physician, with whom she quickly fell in love. The only problem was, Dr Beard already had a wife and Christiana soon began plotting her demise.

Christiana chose strychnine as her weapon – how easy was it to get hold of this in 1871?

It was surprisingly easy for two reasons. Firstly, strychnine was a commonly-used substance throughout the nineteenth century and was widely available to buy in the nineteenth century. Despite being so lethal to humans, it was a staple ingredient in many medicines, for example, and was also used as vermin killer. Secondly, the rules which governed the sale of strychnine, and other deadly poisons, were incredibly easy to get around. Under the Pharmacy Act of 1868, for example, strychnine could only be sold if the buyer and seller knew each other, or if the transaction was witnessed by a third party, and if the details of the sale were entered into the chemist’s poison book. In theory, this made all sales of poison traceable but it relied on the buyer being honest. When Christiana purchased strychnine in March 1871, all she had to do was use a false name and address and conceal her true intentions from the chemist and the witness. Nobody suspected that such a respectable-looking lady would lie about her identity and so Christiana was able to buy enough poison to kill dozens of people in just a few minutes.

Having failed to kill her initial victim, Christiana set out to divert attention away from herself using a terrible scheme – can you tell us a little bit about it?

Yes – her scheme really was as ingenious as it was terrible. When Dr Beard discovered that Christiana had tried to poison his wife, she initially blamed it on a bad batch of chocolate creams. But Dr Beard wouldn’t believe her and so she thought up something even more sinister. She decided to frame John Maynard, the manufacturer of the chocolate creams, by poisoning random batches that she bought from his shop and dispersing them around Brighton. It was her belief that as the unsuspecting public fell ill, Dr Beard would have to believe that Maynard was the guilty party and come running back to her with open arms – and an apology.

An appeal in the Times for information about the mysterious ‘Chocolate Cream Poisoner’ offered a £20 reward for information – did anyone ever claim it?

To my knowledge, nobody ever claimed this reward but Dr Beard finally came forward and reported Christiana to the police around the time that it was issued. There were a few other events which alerted the police to her potential involvement but you will have to read the book to find out more!

In your book you reveal that Christiana was suffering from mental health issues, did she receive any help at any time?

Christiana was diagnosed with hysteria a few years after her father’s death and was sent to London to see a physician. We don’t know how she was treated, perhaps with the infamous genital massage, but it continued to plague her throughout her adult life. Christiana never confessed to nor apologised for her crimes and this contributed to her eventual diagnosis of moral insanity. After her trial, she spent the rest of her natural life in Broadmoor Asylum, the country’s first institution for the criminally insane, and the staff were utterly convinced of her insanity, though unable to ever cure it.

What surprised you most about her case?

Her family history probably surprised me the most. When I first started looking into her life in Kent, I had no idea that she had experienced so many tragedies. Again, I don’t want to give too much away, but finding out about her early life and the fates of her family completely changed how I viewed Christiana and the case, more generally. As a result, I changed the structure of the book so that the narrative begins in the 1840s, a time which I believe has great significance for Christiana and strongly influenced the woman she would eventually become.

If you were able to ask Christiana a question what would it be?

There are so many! But if I had to choose, I would ask her how she felt when Sidney Barker died. Sidney was her only (recorded) victim and I would love to know if she any remorse about his death or if she really was as cold-hearted as others have portrayed her.

What did you enjoy most, and least, about writing this book?

This book took two years to complete and there were a lot of ups and downs in this period! I loved researching the treatment of the mentally ill and the development of the asylum system. Reading Christiana’s case notes from Broadmoor was a particular highlight because they offer such a rare glimpse into her character and of her behaviour. Of course, these notes weren’t designed for public viewing or written to entertain but you can’t help but laugh at some of the frank descriptions of Christiana: for example, she arrived at Broadmoor wearing false hair, false teeth and rouged cheeks and used to hide make up and other contraband in cushions in her room to evade detection by the matron. On the flipside, because there are so few traces of Christiana, it was really difficult to find out about her life before the poisoning spree. I hit so many brick walls in my research and have had to (very reluctantly) accept that some questions about her will remain unanswered.

The Case of the Chocolate Cream Poisoner: The Poisonous Passion of Christiana Edmunds will be published later this year by Pen & Sword Books. Do you know when it will be published and do you have any talks or events lined up?

The book is being edited at the moment so no fixed dates as of yet. But there are plenty of events in the pipeline and I will update my Facebook and Twitter with any upcoming dates.

And finally, what are you working on next?

I am about to start another book for Pen & Sword which is due out in 2017. It is called ‘Hidden Dangers of the Victorian Workplace: An A to Z of Victorian Jobs’ and will explore some of the worst occupations of the 19th century.

Author Kaye Jones
Author Kaye Jones

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me Kaye, I really appreciate it and I can’t wait to read more about the ‘Chocolate Cream Poisoner’ very soon. 

And if you are anything like me, and can’t wait for the book, you can find updates on Kaye’s website, her facebook page and on twitter.