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WesternSFA


Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane
by Paul Thomas Murphy
Pegasus Books, $28.95, 400pp
Published: April 2015

You may not know it, but I'm an amateur genealogist. I love figuring out where my family came from and what it's become. I love extending lines further and further back. And I love connecting with folk to whom I'm related but have never previously heard of, let alone met. Enter Lianne Clements, a Kiwi who messaged me on My Heritage because I'd connected my family into that of the Pooks, one of her key genealogical focuses. And she introduced me to this book, because it's about our family.

Let me explain. My mother's father was my favourite family member when I was a kid. We called him Bobo and he taught me chess and a lot of other things that I only later came to realise. His grandma was Caroline Burch and she married a Bloore, connecting us back to the Huguenots, my only heritage to be sourced from outside the British Isles, at least in the past millennium. Caroline's eldest sibling was Mary Burch, who married a gentleman with the truly glorious name of Ebenezer Whitcher Pook, a gentleman from Deptford, Kent who became a printer and stationer in London. Ebenezer's second son was Edmund Walter Pook, my first cousin three times removed, and this book is about him.

That doesn't make him a hero. In fact, the argument of the author, Paul Thomas Murphy, is that he's a villain and, while I don't think I can safely jump to all the conclusions that he does here, I also can't argue with the end result. As the book's subtitle, 'A Victorian Murder Mystery Solved,' suggests, my cousin is very probably a murderer who didn't just kill the Pook family maid, Jane Clouson, because he knocked her up and had no intention of making an honest woman out of her; he also got away with it. I guess that makes him the black sheep of my family.

Before we get into the nitty gritty of this, which is exactly what this book does, let's cheer the mood momentarily by asking a question. If your name was Thomas Day and your wife Mary gave birth to a son on 25th December, 1762, what would you name him? Yes indeed, one of my direct ancestors seven generations back was named Christmas Day. I dearly hope they called him Chris. And with that aside done and dusted, let's return to the pen in which we've enclosed that black sheep.

We're in Kidbrooke Lane outside the parish of Eltham in the southeast of London, not far away from Charing Cross. It's 4:15am on 26th April, 1871 and a policeman stumbles upon a young lady, battered around the head with a hammer and only a heartbeat away from falling into a coma that leaves her unidentified for quite some time. She's not identified until May Day, by which time she's dead. She's Jane Clouson, the maid-of-all-work for Ebenezer Pook and his family in Greenwich.

My first shock reading this came on page one, because the policeman who found Jane in Kidbrooke Lane was named Donald Gunn, a transplant to the Metropolitan Police from Caithness, Scotland, so he's clearly a member of Clan Gunn. Guess which clan's tartan I ordered for my kilt when I was last in Edinburgh and which I wear on a daily basis? Yes indeed, the Robinsons (and, if you remember Bobo, my granddad, from earlier, I should point out that he was a Robinson) sept into Clan Gunn. In fact, it has to be said that the original Robinson was a son of the chief of that clan, thus meaning that I am descended from a son of a Gunn and, incidentally, probably related to this policeman as well as the man arrested for committing the crime he discovered. And you didn't think geneaology was fun?

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Ebenezer's son Edmund is the first and, quite frankly, only suspect in this case. He is arrested and charged and he goes through a series of trials, culminating in a sensational one that took place at the Old Bailey in London. It was heavily reported on, both before and during, and it didn't go away even after it was over. The conduct of the police in the case, which was a principal reason why Edmund was found not guilty by the jury after only twenty minutes of deliberation, became the subject of an editorial in 'The Times' and a parliamentary question. There are only two verdicts in an English case—guilty or not guilty—and that question asked whether this particular case warranted the introduction of a third, as is valid in Scotland, of "not proven".

Murphy covers a lot of ground in this book, beyond merely reconstructing the events as they seem to have happened and introducing the evidence to back that up as he goes. We discover things as those paying attention at the time discovered them, from the identity of the victim to the discovery of the various pieces of evidence and the various witnesses, both for and against Edmund. When we get to trial, we learn more as the barristers involved learn more. That way, we're able to gradually make up our own minds as to whether Edmund is guilty or not guilty and whether the case, as presented, was merely "not proven".

He also provides valuable context to the time, especially with regards to the factions who saw things very differently. The business people of the district felt that Edmund had to be innocent and, in fact, he was the real victim in the case, because the police had arrested him unduly without just cause and the respected name of the Pooks was being dragged through the dirt by the media, who assumed his guilt from moment one. However, the working class denizens of London took the side of Jane Clouson and almost elevated her to sainthood, a tragic representative of the abuse of their class by the well to do. Kidbrooke Lane became a site of pilgrimage and Ebenezer Pook's printer’s shop was besieged.

And, of course, after a couple of hundred pages of carefully presenting the facts and the evidence, as discovered and put forward by the police, he sifts it afresh with the hindsight of a hundred and fifty years and puts forward his opinions. He absolutely sees the case as "not proven" and firmly believes that Edmund Walter Pook got away with murder. Even if he makes a few leaps that were unprovable at the time and are still unprovable today, I'm inclined to believe him. One logical reason for that is that there simply isn't another explanation that makes sense. It's not proof but it's hard to argue against.

And, as much as I'm reading this because I'm related to the alleged (and perhaps unfairly acquitted) murderer, one of my favourite sections is a set of asides as his Old Bailey trial is about to begin. The Pook case wasn't the only one taking place at that time and Murphy briefly introduces us to the stories of a couple of other defendants resident in Newgate Prison, alongside Edmund Pook, who would stand trial simultaneously with him at the Old Bailey. One in particular, of Agnes Norman, a sort of Victorian Bad Seed or fifteen-year-old serial killer, hinged on just how much non-proof can be argued against.

She was a babysitter whose brief tenure in a number of different households encompassed multiple deaths—of children, of animals, of anything alive in the buildings. The death toll is so large that we're unable to dismiss it as coincidence but, of course, most of it was completely inadmissable as evidence. The prosecution has to do more than provide a killer; it has to prove the case against them. Agnes Norman was found not guilty of murdering the baby she was charged with killing but guilty of a separate charge of attempted murder, possibly because of all that circumstantial evidence. Asides rock. Here's my justification.

The point, of course, is that Murphy suggests that the circumstantial evidence that was inadmissable in Edmund Pook's case might have led to justice being done, but it's a slippery and dangerous slope to follow. A verdict of "not proven", should it have been available to the jury, would have been a better solution. As it was, Edmund Pook, after Edmund's vindication at the Old Bailey and a series of lawsuits to make the police pay, left London, at least for a while. The businessmen may have supported the family, but the hoi polloi were not going to let them forget what they thought about them.

I have to wonder if that's why the majority of the Pook family in my tree are in New Zealand. It has to be said that, if you drilled a hole directly through the globe in a straight line from London, you would find yourself emerging in the Pacific Ocean just south of New Zealand. It was as far as the Pook family could get away from being associated with the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane. And that's why Lianne Clements could reach out to me from a hemisphere away to let me know about this book and our shared black sheep of the family. Thanks, Lianne! ~~ Hal C F Astell

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