To mark this year’s International Women’s Day, I’d like to look at one Cotswold woman’s life, and how she fought, unsuccessfully, against her circumstances. Her life shows how difficult Victorian life could be for some women from poor backgrounds, and how lucky we are today.
Mary Hannah Leach was born around 1864 in Westfield, near Guiting Power, the daughter of a carter. She had several siblings, both older and younger. By the time she was seven, her father was working as an agricultural labourer in Notgrove. Both her parents died in 1880, when she was 16.
At around the same time as she was orphaned, Mary Hannah became a live-in servant, working for farmer William Hanks in Guiting Power. The same year, though, she was raped by two of the agricultural labourers on the farm, themselves only teenagers. They were eventually found guilty – the Victorian court system not being terribly sympathetic towards women claiming sexual abuse or rape – and sentenced to 18 months’ hard labour at Gloucester Prison. However, after his release, the main perpetrator returned to live with his parents – only a few doors away from his victim.
Mary Hannah’s employer was sympathetic towards her ordeal, and continued to employ her; but living so close to the man who had raped her must have been horrific, and perhaps skewed her idea of relationships. Without parents to guide her, she drifted, becoming pregnant by one lover in 1883. In early 1884, her son, Henry William Leach, was born.
Soon, Mary Hannah met another man, South Cerney native Thomas Townsend. She started a relationship with him, became pregnant, and in 1885, gave birth to their daughter, Minnie Maria Townsend Leach.
At the time of Minnie’s birth, Thomas Townsend was in his 20s, living at home with his widowed father, brother and younger sister. Mary Hannah managed to get an affiliation order against Thomas, forcing him to pay her for Minnie’s upkeep, but she still struggled financially. Thomas still seems to have occasionally slept with Mary, and promised to marry her – but then changed his mind and became impatient with her.
At the time of Minnie’s birth, Mary Hannah was living in Northleach, and was possibly an inmate of the workhouse there. In January 1886, she had reached rock bottom, and walked from Northleach to Thomas Townsend’s house in South Cerney, with both children – Henry aged one year and 11 months; Minnie aged nine months – to demand help from him.
Initially, the Townsend family let Mary Hannah and her children stay the night, but the following morning, Thomas’s sister Alice told Mary Hannah that the Townsends couldn’t support her, and told her to leave.
The desperate Mary Hannah made her way to the local canal, spurned by the Townsend family. She must have thought, in a disturbed frame of mind, that if she didn’t have Henry, the Townsends would be willing to support her – for after all, Minnie was their family as well; it was Henry who wasn’t.
Mary Hannah was later spotted walking towards Cirencester, with Minnie in her arms. There was no sign of her son. This in itself raised the alarm, and after a short search, the body of little Henry was found floating in the canal.
At the subsequent trial, Mary Hannah was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. However, she was then found to be pregnant again, with another of Thomas Townsend’s children, and her sentence was respited to a prison term.
In the late spring of 1886, Reuben George Leach was born. Mary Hannah was shortly afterwards sent to Knaphill Prison near Woking, where she was still listed in the 1891 census. Minnie disappears from the records, and doesn’t seem to have survived; Reuben is last listed in the 1891 census as a young child, living apart from his parents, in the Northleach Workhouse.
Mary Hannah undoubtedly committed a grave act by murdering her toddler son. But she had had a tough life, being orphaned, raped, and spurned by the fathers of her children, left to deal with the responsibility of life and motherhood on her own, with little guidance from others. She was an example of how perilous a life Victorian women could have.