SO FAR – It is February 1896, and Mary Jane Farnham has moved back to Wimblington following the death of her husband, Henry, a former Stationmaster in Essex. She has five children, but is comfortably provided for, thanks to savings, insurance and a pension from the Railway Benevolent Fund. She and the children have rented a roomy cottage, not far from Wimblington railway station. The children are universally liked, and she is regarded as a quiet and respectable woman. She and the four younger children – Lucilla, aged 12, is in service with a family in nearby March – are regular church-goers. But something is very wrong. She has mentioned to her parents that the strain of being alone troubles her. Her words were later quoted in the press:
It can have been no comfort to Mary Jane Farnham to be living within sight and sound of Wimblington railway station, and it must have been a daily reminder of better days, when she and her husband lived in a similar building, were pillars of the community, and with their whole lives ahead of them.
I have been researching and writing these true crime stories for many years, and I can truthfully say that none of the human tragedies I have investigated comes close to this one in terms of loss and despair. The Farnhams were last seen alive at some time on Saturday 15th February. It needs to be remembered that communities were much smaller and ‘in-each-other’s-pockets’ in those days, and the comings and goings of villagers in a place like Wimblington were very public. Bit by bit, villagers suspected that something was wrong.
What the Peacock brothers and the village policeman found in the upstairs bedrooms would probably haunt them for the rest of their lives. Marjorie May, 11, Sidney Harold, 8, Henrietta Mary, 6, and Dorothy Esther, 4, were dead in their beds, killed while they slept, and their throats cut so deeply that their heads were nearly severed. Beside them was the body of their mother, a white handled knife, savagely sharp, in her dead hand. The bedsheets around the bodies were saturated with blood. It was.literally, a bloodbath.
This was no spur of the moment act of desperation by Mary Jane Farnham. On a table in the house was an envelope containing the outstanding rent on the cottage. Even more chilling, It was later revealed that she had sent a letter to the Railway Benevolent Fund requesting that her widow’s pension be terminated. This mixture of propriety and savagery is hard to comprehend, even though a century and more has passed.
The inquest verdict on the five dead was a formality – murder and suicide while temporarily insane. To the eternal credit of the community, Mary Jane Farnham was not separated from her children even in death, and their joint funeral, just seven days after their deaths, attracted widespread attention.
This remarkable photograph of the funeral is used with permission of its owners, the Fisher Parkinson Trust, a local heritage archive.
These accounts of man’s inhumanity to man are not intended as judgments, or condemnations, but it is difficult to balance out sympathy for Mary Jane Farnham’s grief and the sheer inhumanity she showed when she cut the throats of her four younger children. They all had lives to lead, as we can see by following the progress of Lucilla, the daughter who was lucky enough to be elsewhere on that fateful Saturday night in February 1896. By 1901, she was living in Leeds with her aunt, working as a draper’s assistant, by 1911 she had moved to Bournemouth, and in 1917 the records tell us that she married Daniel Meaney in Exeter. She died in 1968 at the age 0f 86.
Judgement is for God alone, so I conclude this sad tale with a picture taken in the churchyard at Wimblington. (NB – the ages of the two younger children are incorrectly inscribed)