Towards the latter end of the Victorian era, most people were beginning to benefit from cheaper – imported foods, cleaner water, better sanitization, more diversity when it came to entertainment – such as music halls, libraries, museums and art galleries.

Working conditions had become much better with shorter working hours for women and children in most of the mills and factories.

And as for children, better education became a universal need and a right that was recognised as an important phase in a young person’s life.

Times where changing, you could say, for the better – and yet amongst the rapidly changing landscape that was engulfing the whole of the United Kingdom, there would be many people who would be left behind, unable to make the most of what life had to offer.

In one such case, our next story revolves around a little girl by the name of Ellen O’ Toole, aged 11 years old and who lived with her stepmother – Bridget, father – Michael as well as five brothers and sisters at number 32 James Street, Padiham.

Ellen had lived in Padiham for twelve months, moving with her family from “The Green”, a small suburb of Burnley commonly known as Keighley Green.

And in that twelve months, it seems Ellen and her stepmother, Bridget, hadn’t ever got on well together.

On Thursday, 23rd August, 1900, Bridget had asked Ellen to wash two blankets to which Ellen objected too due to their weight, telling her step-mother they were too heavy for her to lift.

Obviously we will never know how, but Bridget somehow managed to kick Ellen in the face causing a black eye and a cut to her cheek.  She then followed this up by hitting Ellen with brush-stick, causing another wound, roughly 1½ inch long on the top of her head.

At around 5.30am the following morning and still furious for not helping with the washing the previous day, Bridget dragged Ellen out into the back garden who was completely naked.  She would then began to douse Ellen in freezing cold water in the middle of the yard.

After emptying the bucket, Bridget would storm back into the house, leaving the young girl alone and in a vulnerable state.

Ellen had two choices.   She could either go back into the coal cellar in which she had been living in since moving into the area or try and seek help in the form of a neighbour.

After struggling to pin a tattered looking skirt around her waist, Ellen decided on the latter and sought protection from Mrs. Rachel Mellor who resided at number 30, who herself had witnessed the event taking place.

Mrs. Mellor helped Ellen into her house and tried to tend to her wounds as well as give her some breakfast before sending off upstairs and out of the way.  She was almost naked, wearing nothing but the tattered skirt she had managed to pin together, along with an old looking jacket that was clearly made for a man.  She had no stockings nor any boots or other footwear.

At around 2.15pm that afternoon, and after noticing Ellen was nowhere to be found, Bridget visited the local police station where she told Police Sergeant Lee of her being missing.  Bridget would tell Lee, that she thought Ellen had “drowned herself or something.”

Later that day, at around 3.40pm, Police Sergeant Lee went around to number 30 to speak with Mrs. Mellor who would tell him that Ellen was with her.  After seeing Ellen for himself and the pitiful state she was in,  Lee reported the case to the N.S.P.C.C. and it didn’t take too long for Mr. R. Thompson, Inspector to arrive at the police station.

Meanwhile, and strangely as it sounds, Ellen returned home and was seen scrubbing the door step leading out into the back yard when Police Sergeant Lee and Thompson visited the home of the O’ Toole’s later that afternoon.

She was in an extremely filthy condition, with a pale complexion and looked in a dejected state.  Her right eye was contused with a cut slightly below it.  On the left side of her face, there was a faded bruise which indicated she had been beaten a short time ago.  On her head, she had sustained a cut, roughly 1½ inch long, matted with blood and hair.  Her head was also swarming with lice, as was her body and the clothes she was wearing.  Her clothes were so dirty that they had a greasy feel to the touch and they filled the area with a putrid smell.

Upon closer inspection, both her arms were badly bruised, again indicating to the police that she had been badly mistreated.

Disgusted by what he saw, Thompson would visit her father, Michael who was working over in nearby Hapton  at a chemical works just to ask for consent to take the child away and into a shelter over in Burnley, where should would also be examined by Dr. Robinson.

On the 28th August, Thompson went back to 30 James Street to speak with Bridget and Michael and during his time there he wandered around not just inside their home but he also went out into the backyard.  Outside, he searched inside the coal-cellar where he found a red rug as well as a pillow made of a coat and rags, which were laid out on the cold flags.

It quickly became obvious to him that this is where Ellen had been sleeping.

On Monday, 10th September, both Bridget and Michael would be summoned into court on the charge of cruelty and neglect of their child, Ellen.

Prosecuting on behalf of the N.S.P.C.C. was Mr. A. L Garnett and it was he that had instigated the case against the O’ Toole’s.

Defending was Mr. J. C. Waddington.

The case would be heard within Keighly Green Courthouse with the magistrates being Sir John Thursby, W. P. Robinson, J. S. Collinge and J. Whittaker.

Garnett would open the case by telling the magistrates that both Bridget and Michael had been previously married and that Ellen was the step-daughter of Bridget.  He would go into detail the living arrangements within number 32 James Street and how the house had four rooms, split between eleven occupants – those being Bridget, Michael, six brothers and sisters and two lodgers.

Garnett would then describe the events that took place on the 23rd August as well as those of the 24th August and how Ellen had to be taken into care by both Mrs. Mellor as well as the N.S.P.C.C.

His damning condemnation of both Bridget and Michael would come next as he would tell the magistrates of how Ellen had to endure countless beatings as well as being made to sleep in the coal-cellar with nothing but a thin rug to keep her warm and he would ask that Bridget be punished as she deserved.

Ellen would be asked to take a seat and to answer questions relating to her time whilst living with her step-mother.

Mr. Garnett asked her, “Have you ever been to school since you came to England?” to which she said, “No, Sir.”

“How long have you lived in England?” asked Garnett.  “Three years.” she replied.


Mr. Garnett would then ask Ellen where she had been sleeping, to which she told the magistrates, “in the coal-cellar.”

He then asked Ellen if her step-mother had done anything “like that before.”

Quickly, Mr. Waddington, defending, objected to the question, saying that it was more of a prosecution of the parents than it was for the prevention of cruelty to children and he therefore objected to leading questions. 

However, the magistrates would allow the question to be answered, and Ellen would reply with a short, “No.”

When asked about what took place on Thursday, 23rd August, Ellen would tell of how she was beaten by her step-mother as well as go on to say that her father, Michael, had in the evening asked how she received the black eye.  Bridget wasn’t around at this time and it seems Ellen then told her father of the beating.

From this, we can assume this is what possibly caused Bridget to drag Ellen out into the yard the following morning, dousing her in freezing cold water in the process.

The case then seemed to take a disturbing twist as defending Bridget, Mr. Waddington would accuse Ellen of stealing some money to buy some plums.

“Where you not eating plums when your mother caught you?” he asked.

Ellen’s reply was a very simple, “No.”

He then asked her what she had bought to which Ellen replied, “I hadn’t bought nowt!”

“You know some money was taken?” he then asked, and again, Ellen replied with a, “No!”

Mr. Garnett objected to the manner in which the questions where being asked, but Mr. Waddington argued, saying he was trying to prove that Ellen had taken some money.

Several witnesses would be questioned and along with Mrs. Rachel Mellor as well as Inspector Thompson and Police Sergeant Lee, – Alice Calvert of 31 James Street would testify that she also saw Ellen with Mrs. Mellor on the morning of the attack, corroborating what other witnesses had said in describing how she had looked that morning. 

Dr. Robinson, who had attended to Ellen on the 28th August whilst she was in care told the magistrates that she had several bruises on her back along with those already mentioned on her arms.  He would also tell them that by appearance, she hadn’t had a wash for six to eight weeks.

Mr. Waddington asked Dr. Robinson if he had been sent to look at the girl just to make the case “look as bad as possible?”

Dr. Robinson replied, “No, simply to report, and I tell nothing but the truth!”

This infuriated Mr. Garnett, who strongly disagreed with Waddington’s accusation.

Whilst in care, a photograph of Ellen was taken, which showed her all dressed up.  And whilst she may have been dressed to look much cleaner and smarter than how she had looked upon her arrival at the shelter, the photograph would show her to be seriously emaciated and that she had clearly been abused.

Once the photograph had been shown, the Court was adjourned for a short period.

On resumption of the case, Bridget O’ Toole would be next to be questioned and she would tell the magistrates of how she came to live in England between two and three years ago and had recently moved from “The Green” and into 32 James Street, Padiham here she lived with her husband Michael, along with six children and as we have already mentioned, two lodgers.

She would tell them that Ellen lived like the rest of the family and that she never stopped her from going out to play, something of which goes against what several witnesses had earlier said in that they never saw the child mixing with other children!

When questioned about the events that took place on the 23rd August, she would say that Ellen had taken sixpence and had thrashed her for doing so.  And with the money she had gone out and bought two pennyworth of plums, leaving fourpence in her pocket.

Bridget would admit to beating Ellen but she swore she never left her with a black eye and it was her son, “little Anthony” who had hit her by accident, with a bat he was playing with.

As for the wound on Ellen’s head, Bridget argued the case saying that the cut had been made by accident when Michael was cutting her hair using some sharp scissors a short time ago.  She also spoke of visiting a druggist to purchase some cream to rub on Ellen’s head, hoping this would help with the scabs that had formed on her scalp due to amount of lice in her hair.

When asked by Mr. Garnett as to why she doused little Ellen with cold water in the back garden, Bridget answered it by saying she had asked the girl to go outside so she could be washed.  When outside, she took a bucket of water and some soap and had used the water to wash the soap off from Ellen’s head.

Mr. Garnett then questioned Bridget over why Ellen was sleeping in the coal-cellar to which Bridget said was a lie and she had slept in the house like the rest of the family.

Interestingly, when Michael O’ Toole was questioned, he would say that up till around four years ago, Ellen had always been clean and well presented – the complete opposite of what she was now.  He had tried to get her to wash regularly but she wouldn’t.  “She wouldn’t even brush her hair!” he told the magistrates.

Again, Mr. Garnett would ask about the sleeping arrangements and Michael explained that Ellen slept in a bed by herself because of her head and body being covered in lice and of course, of her unkempt appearance!

When asked about her black eye, he corroborated what Bridget had said, saying that Anthony had caught her accidently when playing with a bat, and when then asked the cut on her head, Michael would say he could not remember whether or not it was made by the scissors.

Next to be questioned was 16 year old, Peter O’ Toole, brother of Ellen and he told the magistrates of how all of the children in the house were treated the same.  Whilst he did agree that Ellen never washed, she would often be scolded for her dirty habits but their mother never ill-treated her.

Mary Ferguson and her brother, Thomas, both lodgers staying in the house would both say that Ellen did indeed sleep in the same room as her parents, albeit in her own bed and had to be made to wash and comb her own, which she hardly ever did, despite the many scolding’s she would get!

Mr. Waddington, defending, would certainly seem to have it in for the N.S.P.C.C., saying they had to “occasionally bring a case to keep up its credit, on the one side, and on the other was a poor woman, quite able to keep herself and several children on an income of 35 shillings to whom it was of serious import.”


“The child was taken from her parents on Friday, yet the photo, put in as evidence was not taken till the Monday.  No doubt the photograph would be sent around to increase subscriptions in Burnley, and they would probably see it in the next magazine that come out.  The photograph proved the intention of the society.  They did not take the girl as she came from her home, when they would not allow her to have any other clothes, but waited two days, and dressed her up to have her photograph taken.”

He would also bring into question the evidence given by neighbours, saying, “The girl had been in Padiham over two years, and yet the neighbours had never thought anything was wrong till they were asked to give evidence.  And what was the case?  Had it been one of assault, there would have been something in trying to prove the girl had been hit, but ill-treatment and neglect were of a continuous character.”

Mr. Waddington strongly defended Bridget and would try to pass the blame, if any was to be given, onto Ellen’s father, Michael.

“The case, however was presented as ill-treatment and neglect, and as head of the house, the father ought to have been charged.”

“The case was only brought against the woman because she was a step-mother, and there was a prejudice against step-mothers.  The girl’s own brother, to whom the defendant was also step-mother, did not complain.  As to the coal-hole, that was got up for the purpose of sympathy.”

He would also argue, saying that Bridget would not have “travelled around town to find the child,” if the evidence against her was true.  She would have been “too glad to get rid of her!”

Waddington then would ask the magistrates to brush aside any evidence put against Bridget, telling them to deal with the facts, which he put forward by saying, “Her dirty habits had brought it upon herself.  She would not even comb herself unless stood over, and the woman (Bridget) could not be responsible for that.  The defendant was not even guilty of an assault.”

The case would be heard over four hours, and after a lengthy consultation, Sir John announced that the magistrates considered the case proved.

In their opinion, Ellen had been shamefully neglected and anything of the sort would certainly not have been allowed by any father or mother who had any care in the least for their children.

But the magistrates also placed some blame on the School Attendance Committee of the Padiham Urban District Council, saying they had not done its duty in respecting the child.

They argued, saying that the committee ought to have found out,  instead of neglecting the child and knowing nothing about it. 

Carrying on, the magistrates would say, “it was a great scandal, and could have been prevented.”

In the end, a fine of 40 shillings, as well as costs which ultimately came to £4 and 3 shillings was issued to Bridget.  In default she would have to spend a month in prison, which was stated to be an easy punishment.

Subsequently, Mr. Garnett objected and the magistrates, by a request by Mr. Waddington, would grant Bridget a month’s grace in which to pay the fine as well as costs.

On the 5th November, and after spending some time at the Parker Lane shelter in Burnley, Ellen would be taken into care by the Reverend , James Corrigan, secretary of the Bishop House in Salford, where she would be allowed to stay and be cared for at the Salford Catholic Rescue and Protection Society, until she turned 16 years of age.

However, this application would be revoked just over a year later and on the 1st of December 1902, arrangements would be made for Ellen to travel over to the United States to live with her elder brother who was already settled in East Boston.


Sources used in this story;

Burnley Express – Wednesday, 12th September 1900

Burnley Gazette – Wednesday 12 September 1900

Burnley Express – Wednesday 03 December 1902

Burnley Express – Wednesday 07 November 1900

+ many more courtesy of the British Newspaper Archivewww.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk


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