Monday 2 August 2021

A mysterious death in East Quay Lane

On the evening of 17 March 1859, Mrs Hannah Armour of 13 East Quay Lane in Greenock opened her door to a young woman seeking a place to stay overnight.  With her was a young fair haired girl aged about 4 years old.  The young woman was described as "apparently well educated and wearing a black silk dress cloak and straw bonnet and a profusion of rings".  She gave her name as Mrs Janet Loudon and said that she had come from visiting family in Dumfries where her father was a farmer in Upper Nithsdale.  Her daughter, Jessie Ann, had become unwell and she was breaking her journey because of this. East Quay Lane led from the railway station in Greenock down to the harbour and was home to many lodging houses.  Mrs Armour had a room that she let out to travellers.

Janet Loudon and the girl were given accommodation for the night.  Mrs Armour noticed that the young girl seemed very unwell and was vomiting severely.  Having children herself, she suggested that a doctor be sent for.  The woman said that this often happened with the child and that she was liable to convulsions.  She refused any medical help for the child.  The next morning, the young woman, who appeared to be pregnant, announced to her landlady that, tired after her long day travelling, she had fallen asleep but when she awoke she became aware that the little girl had died - sometime between four and five in the morning.

Mrs Armour advised her that she would need to register the death with Mr Robert Campbell the registrar for the Middle Parish of Greenock.  This she did, giving the child's name as Jessie Ann Loudon aged four and a half, and that William Loudon, draper was the father.  Janet Loudon gave her maiden name as Young.  The cause of death was "Died suddenly.  Disease unknown." and it was noted that no medical attendant had been present.  The place of burial was to be the church yard of Dumfries.  Janet Loudon told Mrs Armour that she would continue her journey to Dumfries as soon as possible. 

A coffin was procured from Andrew Crawford who was a joiner, Westburn Street, Greenock and the body of the child was placed in it.
  In order to disguise the fact that she was travelling with a coffin (Janet Loudon informed Hannah Armour that the fare would cost more), the woman also acquired a wooden box and the coffin was placed in this.  She wrote a label giving an address in Dumfries  and this was placed on the lid of the box.  The young man who made the box offered to carry it the short distance to the railway station, but the woman refused.   A porter was called who, along with Mrs Armour accompanied the woman to the railway station.  When he asked what was in the box, Janet Loudon told him that it contained china.  At the railway station Mrs Armour saw Loudon remove the label from the lid and replace it with another.  Mrs Armour took a quick glance at the new label and noticed that it gave address in Carlisle.  The label read – “Mrs Loudon, Bush Hotel, Carlisle."  Hannah Armour saw Loudon take her seat in the train and that was the last she ever saw of her. 

Being a kindly woman and a mother herself, I'm sure that Hannah Armour was slightly perplexed at the woman's behaviour.  Indeed she was probably very surprised that a mother could sleep while her child was so seriously ill.  I imagine she thought of her strange visitor and her poor little child often.

A day or two later the box arrived by rail at Carlisle station.  A porter employed by the Caledonian Railway named William Morrison took the box to the Bush Hotel in as per the address on the lid.  Miss Bishop, barmaid at the Hotel, took the box in and paid 2 shillings to the porter, assuming that the owner would pay on arrival.  The box remained unclaimed and was put in a storage room.  Some time later it was moved to a shed in the yard (possibly because of the stench coming from it?).


Eventually it was decided to try and find the owner of the box.  Someone knew a Miss Loudon who lived near Carlisle, so word was sent to a relative of hers in the who was asked to determine whether or not the box was her aunts.  She told the hotel management that her aunt was not expecting anything to be delivered and that the box was not for her.  It was then decided that the best option would be to open the box to try and find more information about the owner.


A newspaper reported what happened next - "Inside the box was a coffin painted black.  It was ornamented round the lid, and bore a breastplate, the figure of an angel, and the representation of a flower vase - all made of tin or zinc.  The plate had no initials or marks of any description which might lead to a discovery of the parties who had sent the box.  The coffin had also attached to it handles of cotton cord - which is not a customary appendage to the coffins of persons in the poorer classes of society."

On discovering the coffin the Chief Constable George E Bent was called.  He decided to open the coffin.  The remains of little Jessie Ann were inside.  The newspaper report continues - "The face of the child was slightly inclined to the right and the body had a resemblance to a mummy. "  The lid was put back on the coffin and it, with the box, removed to the police office.  Dr Elliot and Mr Temperly, surgeons were immediately called in and examined the body.  Because of the state of decomposition of the body, all that could be determined from an initial examination was that the child was female.  There being no other clues to help the authorities identify the child, the body was given a proper burial.


Mr Bent, determined to get some facts about this poor child, had photographs taken of the coffin and box and these were sent to police offices in Scotland in the hope that they could be identified.  The incident, known as the "Carlisle Coffin Mystery" was widely reported in the national press and soon the police were being sent bits and pieces of information about who the little girl could be.


From information received, the following came to light -

A young woman named Janet Young had left home in Upper Nithsdale in 1852 and gone into service in Newcastle.  She was reported to have been a good-looking young woman with dark hair.  While there became involved with a shopman who worked for her employer.  The result of the affair was that she had an illegitimate child, a daughter.  She returned to live with an uncle in Ayrshire until the baby was born.  She then found work in Glasgow leaving her child with her relatives.


In Glasgow "Janet Loudon or Young" met and married a man, described as "a tradesman", but did not tell him about her daughter until after they were married.  The couple were about to start a new life by emigrating to New Zealand and Janet was pregnant.  Her husband refused to have anything to do with her illegitimate daughter.  As a result of her marriage, her family thought that she would take back the child.  They asked her to collect the child as they were no longer able to look after her.  This she did, then it was said that she took the child to Hartlepool where her former lover and father of the child now lived.  He had set up business there after leaving Newcastle about the same time Janet did.  He had paid some money to support the child but when asked if he would take custody of the child he refused. 

Because of the resulting sensational publicity, William Loudon, draper in Hartlepool wrote to several newspapers complaining of the damage to his reputation.  I observe that, connected with the mysterious affair at Carlisle, a person representing herself as Mrs Loudon, wife of a draper in West Hartlepool, was mother of the child.  Now, being the only draper in West Hartlepool of that name, I consider myself as seriously injured from the statements which have gone to the public through your medium and beg most emphatically to deny the accusation on the part of my wife and myself, neither of us having the slightest knowledge of the circumstances.  In fact, I can prove, were it necessary, from the most convincing evidence that she was resident in West Hartlepool at the time the occurrence happened."

In desperation, Janet then went to Dumfries to beg relatives to take and look after the child - they also refused.   They described the child as a healthy, fair-haired four year old.  On 17 March 1859, she had been returning to Glasgow with the child, but stopped off at Greenock when the girl became ill and later sadly died.  She sent the box and coffin to Carlisle and presumably returned to her husband in Glasgow.


In April 1859 her relatives in Dumfries were surprised to receive a letter from her marked "London".  In this letter she stated that she and her husband were about to travel to New Zealand.  Later they received another letter, this time from New Zealand in which she informed them that she had given birth to a son.  She did not mention her daughter in any of these letters.


It also came to light that a Mrs Hoyle of the Union Inn, Citadel Row, Carlisle remembered a woman answering to the description of Janet Loudon, accompanied by a fair-haired child had stayed there sometime in 1859. (Perhaps this is where Janet met with the child's father to ask him if he would take her.  If he was from Hartlepool, I'm sure he would not want to meet with her there where there would be a chance he could be recognised.)


Having gathered all this information, particularly with Mrs Armour of Greenock's evidence of the child being unwell and vomiting, Chief Constable Bent’s suspicions were further aroused.  In February 1860, William Carrick, the Coroner at Carlisle requested that the body be exhumed.  At last, little Jessie Ann was positively identified by a "peculiarity" of her teeth - the relatives who had looked after her said that she had previously had a fall which had chipped her two front teeth.  Mrs Armour also identified the child by looking at a clipping of her hair.  Andrew Crawford of Greenock was able to identify the coffin as the one he had made for a "Janet Loudon" in Greenock in March 1859.


In late March 1860, Robert Blair, the Procurator Fiscal of Greenock, and Robert Hunter, the Chief Constable of Paisley travelled to Carlisle to view the evidence in the case - the death had, of course  occurred in Greenock under their jurisdiction.


In early April the inquest into the circumstances surrounding Jessie Ann's death was held.
  Rumours abounded that evidence of poison had been found in a portion of her stomach and this was widely reported in the press.  (All reports naming The Paisley Herald as their source.)  However, according to the Greenock Telegraph, no cause of death could be ascertained in the case of little Jessie Ann Loudon.  It would be up to the Renfrewshire authorities to take further action if they thought it was needed.


That, infuriatingly, seems to be where the story ends but it seems to me that there are so many unanswered questions!  It was very convenient for "Janet Loudon" that little Jessie Ann (if that was her real name) died after being trailed around the country only to be told she was unwanted anywhere.  Why was a medical help not sought when they arrived in Greenock, as Hannah Armour suggested?  The mother said that her child suffered from convulsions, but the relatives who had looked after the child said that she was a healthy little girl.  Why did “Janet Loudon” change the address on the box containing Jessie Ann’s coffin?  Why send the body off knowing she would never be claimed and why to Carlisle?  Did “Janet Loudon” and her new family have a happy life in New Zealand?  Did she ever give her dead daughter a second thought?  

I’d love to know more!

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1 comment:

  1. That was some superb research you did there, and incredible story about the poor little girl who died and so sad the even in the end no one wanted her.


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