Elizabeth Brownrigg.


There was usually at least, an ambivalent attitude amongst the public towards criminals on their way to execution at Tyburn.  Yes, they had committed crimes but everyone wanted to watch the “Hanging Match,” especially if the condemned participated in it and behaved bravely. The crowds along the way and around the gallows would tend to be sympathetic to them. However, there was absolutely no public sympathy for the lone woman in the cart on the morning of Monday, September the 14th, 1767.  She had systematically tortured and abused her apprentice girls, eventually killing one of them.  Attitudes to child abuse and murder have not changed over the centuries and people expressed their abhorrence of her crime, praying for her damnation rather than her salvation and saying, “the devil would fetch her” and hoping that she would go to hell.


The object of this hatred was 47 year old Elizabeth Brownrigg.  Click here for woodcut picture. She had been born in 1720 to a working class family and as a teenager, had married James Brownrigg, an apprentice plumber. The couple had 16 children, of whom just three survived to adulthood, such was the rate of child mortality in those days. The marriage was a success and over the years James’ business did well, and Elizabeth also ran a successful business as a midwife from her home at Flower-de-luce Court, in London’s Fetter Lane. She was appointed by the overseers St. Dunstan's-in-the-West  parish to take care of the poor women in the workhouse which she did very well, apparently showing much kindness and consideration to these women. She decided to take on an apprentice girl to assist her, such was the demand for her services. 
Mary Mitchell from Whitefriars was to be the first unfortunate girl to join the family in 1765. She was quickly followed by Mary Jones.  Both girls endured frequent physical and verbal abuse, with regular beatings for the smallest mistakes. At this time, a young person could join a tradesman or woman for a month “on liking” and if at the end of the month both parties still “liked” each other, the youngster would agree to become bound as an apprentice for a period of years.  Initially Mary Jones was treated very well but after her trial period ended, she became increasingly abused.  She made plans to escape, having noted that the key was left in the front door over night, and managed to find her way to the
Foundling Hospital where she was examined by a doctor who discovered that she was covered in bruises and sores. The governors of the hospital had their solicitor send James Brownrigg a letter threatening a prosecution if he could not explain the girl’s injuries.  Brownrigg, however, ignored the letter and it was decided by the hospital to take no further action.  (Does this sound familiar in present day child abuse cases?) Mary Mitchell stayed with the Brownriggs for around 12 months before resolving to leave. She too managed to escape from the house, but was spotted in the street by one of the Brownrigg’s sons who forced her to return home where she was treated with even greater cruelty for having tried to leave.

In the meantime, another poor girl was to be apprenticed to the Brownrigg’s by the overseers of the precinct of Whitefriars.  Fourteen year old Mary Clifford joined the household in early 1766.  Initially she too was treated well but as soon as she was legally bound to the Brownriggs, the serious abuse began.

Mary’s stepmother, also Mary Clifford, went to visit her on July 12th, 1767 but was refused entry by one of the servants, who had been instructed to do this and to deny that the girl was there. Mrs. Clifford was not satisfied with this and having consulted with her husband, persuaded Mr. Deacon, the Brownrigg’s next door neighbour to post one of his servants, William Clipson, to watch the Brownrigg’s house and yard.  On Monday, the 3rd of August, William saw a badly beaten and half starved girl in the yard so the matter was reported to Mr. William Grundy, the overseer of St. Dunstan’s, who went to the house with Mr. Elsdale, the overseer of White-Friars precinct, who knew Mary and demanded that the Brownrigg’s produce Mary which after an altercation they did. William Clipson, however, did not identify the girl he had seen in the yard as Mary Clifford (she was Mary Mitchell), so Mr. Grundy ordered a proper search of the house despite threats of litigation from the Brownrigg’s.  Mary Clifford was eventually found locked in a cupboard. Her stepmother described her as being in “a sad condition indeed, her face was swelled as big as two, her mouth was so swelled she could not shut it, and she was cut all under her throat, as if it had been with a cane, she could not speak; all her shoulders had sores all in one, she had two bits of rags upon them.”
She was taken straight to hospital while Mr. Brownrigg was arrested but
Elizabeth and her son managed to escape. Mary Clifford died in hospital on the 9th of August 1767. The inquest into her death returned a verdict of wilful murder against James and Elizabeth Brownrigg and their son John. An arrest warrant was issued against Elizabeth and John and adverts placed in the newspapers.

Arrest and trial.
Elizabeth and John moved around London disguising themselves as best they could, finally taking lodgings in Wandsworth at the house of a Mr Dunbar who kept a chandler's shop.
On the 15th of August, Mr. Dunbar read one of the advertisements in his newspaper, from which he identified his lodgers as the Brownriggs. He summoned a constable and mother and son were arrested and remanded to Newgate.

They came to trial at the September Sessions of the Old Bailey on the 7th of that month before Sir Robert Kite. Their case took 11 hours to hear with Mary Mitchell appearing as the star witness for the prosecution. 

Sixteen year old Mary Mitchell had been with the Brownriggs for just under 2-1/2 years and told the court that she had been mistreated as soon as her probationary period as an apprentice had ended, and that Mary Clifford had began to be abused after the completion of her month trial period when she became legally bound.  Mary Mitchell described how Mary Clifford had been beaten over the head and shoulders with a walking cane and an earth brush by their mistress and also hit by John Brownrigg.  She also stated that Mary Clifford was made to sleep “on boards in the parlour, sometimes in the passage, and very often down in the cellar.”  Apparently the girls were often locked in the cellar at night.  Somewhere around a year before her death, the then 15 year old Mary Clifford was starving and desperate for food so she broke open a cupboard and was caught.  For this she was made to strip naked and was severely beaten.  She was now kept locked up in the unlit cellar at nights with no bedding.

Mary Clifford, it seems, was also occasionally beaten by other members of the family.  Mary Mitchell described how John had whipped her with a leather belt about the head and shoulders for not making up a bed to his satisfaction.  This whipping re-opened wounds from previous beatings.  Mary Mitchell also recounted that James had beaten Mary Clifford with an old hearth brush, but this was the only time she had seen him abuse her.

The evidence against Elizabeth was more damning.  Mary Mitchell said that Elizabeth “used to tie her (Mary Clifford) up in the kitchen when first she began to be at her, she used to tie her up to the water-pipe, with her two hands drawed up above her head.” For these beatings, Mary Clifford was stripped naked.  Elizabeth beat her most commonly with a horse-whip and “seldom left off till she had fetched blood.”  It would seem that this phase of beatings had begun in the Spring of 1767 and that it was succeeded by tying the poor girl up to a hook which was put up in the kitchen specially for the purpose.  Mary Clifford suffered weekly whippings tied up to this hook.  Click here for a woodcut picture of the scene.  Mary Mitchell told the court that no one else in the family normally whipped Mary Clifford, although on one occasion John had taken over from his mother.  She also testified that Mary Clifford was chained to a door by her neck having attempted to obtain food and drink one night and broken down some boarding.  Elizabeth was away for about a week during which time Mary Clifford made something of a recovery although her back and shoulders were covered in scabs and bruises.  Elizabeth accused Mary of not doing any work while she had been away and on the Friday morning, once more tied her up to the hook in the kitchen and beat her.  She suffered several more whipping sessions during that day and was left naked through the day and the night.  Mary Mitchell told the court that she and Mary Clifford were effectively kept prisoners in the house.  Mary Mitchell was cross examined on her evidence by both Brownriggs but held up well.
Testimony was also heard from James Brownrigg’s apprentice, George Benham, who confirmed much of what Mary Mitchell had said.  He also told the court that he visited James Brownrigg in the Compter (small lock-up prison), after his arrest, who had told him to go and take down the hook from the beam in the kitchen and to burn all the sticks in the house.  He testified that
Elizabeth had told him and Mary Mitchell that if Mary Clifford’s stepmother visited the house asking for Mary, she was not to be admitted as Elizabeth had told them that “the girl's mother was a bad woman, and might teach bad things to her daughter.”

Evidence was heard from the Overseers and from the doctor at the workhouse hospital where Mary Clifford was taken after her removal from the Brownrigg’s house.  William Denbeigh described Mary’s injuries thus : “The top of her head and shoulders and back, appeared very bloody; I turned down the sheet, and found from the bottom of her feet to the top of her head almost one continued sore, scars that seemed as if cut with an instrument upon the body, legs, and thighs; upon one hip was a very large wound; it spread about half the palm of my hand.”  On the 5th of August, Mary was transferred to St. Bartholomew's hospital where she was seen by Mr. Young, the surgeon, the following day who confirmed the medical evidence.

In her defence Elizabeth stated that, “I did give her several lashes, but with no design of killing her; the fall of the saucepan with the handle against her neck, occasioned her face and neck to swell; I poulticed her neck three times, and bathed the place, and put three plaisters to her shoulders.” Mr. Young, the surgeon disputed that Mary’s neck injury could have been caused by a saucepan handle.
The Brownrigg’s produced several character witnesses but they were not believed by the jury. 
At the end of the trial, James and John were acquitted of Mary’s murder but were ordered to be detained on an indictment of assaulting and abusing Mary Mitchell, for which they were subsequently sentenced to 6 month's imprisonment and fined one shilling each.

Elizabeth was found guilty, and on Friday, the 11th of September the judge told her, “It is my duty to pronounce sentence in accordance with the law, that you are to be taken from hence to the prison from whence you came; that you be removed on Monday next, the 14th of this instant September, to the usual place of execution, and there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead; your body afterwards, to be dissected and anatomised, according to the statute - and God have mercy on your soul."  In accordance with the Murder Act of 1752, it was mandatory that the body of a murderer should be dissected after execution. It was normal for those being condemned for murder to be sentenced on a Friday to allow them an extra day of life, i.e. the Sunday.

The complete transcript of their trial can be read here.

Elizabeth was taken back to Newgate and fettered (handcuffs and leg irons) in the condemned hold. She was allowed only bread and water.  It is reported that she confessed to and acknowledged the enormity of her crimes to the Reverend Joseph Moore, the Ordinary of Newgate, over the weekend.  There was a moving scene in the Press Yard on the Monday morning when James and John were allowed to see her for the last time.  She embraced John and the three of them prayed together.  She is quoted as saying : “Dear James, I beg that God, for Christ's sake, will be reconciled, and that he will not leave me, nor forsake me, in the hour of death, and in the day of judgment.”

Her irons were removed by the blacksmith and her hands and arms tied with cord. The rope was placed around her neck and she was put into the cart accompanied by Thomas Turlis, the hangman, to make the journey to Tyburn.  When she finally got there, she prayed with the Ordinary and asked him to tell the crowd that she confessed her guilt and acknowledged the justice of her sentence.  She was turned off and after hanging for half an hour her body was put into a hackney-coach and taken to Surgeons' Hall for dissection.  Her skeleton was later hung up in the Hall as a permanent exhibit.  Her execution drew a huge and hostile crowd, such was the feeling against her.  Reverend Moore later wrote, “This unchristian behaviour greatly shocked me and I could not help exclaiming : Are these people called Christians?”

As far as I can tell, it was neither illegal nor unusual for employers to beat their servants and apprentices in the mid-18th century.  However, the Brownriggs as a family and in particular, Elizabeth, took this “right” to extreme lengths.  The three girls were systematically stripped of their humanity and treated as worthless sub-humans upon whom any form of sadistic pleasure could be taken.  Note, however, that there are no allegations of sexual abuse as such.  This is redolent of the way that people were treated in concentration camps by the Nazi guards (see the case of Irma Grese, who saw her charges as “dreck” or rubbish ).

I quote here from the Newgate Calendar which neatly sums up Elizabeth’s criminality : “That Mrs Brownrigg, a midwife by profession, and herself the mother of many children, should wantonly murder the children of other women, is truly astonishing, and can only be accounted for by that depravity of human nature, which philosophers have always disputed, but which true Christians will be ready to allow.”

One wonders whether Elizabeth was some sort of control freak who wanted and achieved total control over the girls through a constant reign of terror.  She seemed indifferent to their suffering and their injuries and yet went about her daily business of bringing the babies of the poor into the world.  Midwifery is surely a caring profession and she was seen as good midwife, and yet the other side of her character was that of an uncaring sadistic monster.  I somehow doubt that any tears were shed for her at Tyburn on that Monday morning!


Elizabeth Brownrigg’s crime was by no means unique.  Elizabeth Wigenton had been hanged on the 9th of September 1681 for a very similar murder.  Wigenton was a coat maker and had taken 13 year old Elizabeth Houlton on as an apprentice.  One day the girl’s work was unsatisfactory so Wigenton fetched one John Sadler to hold the girl, who was tied up and flogged with “a bundle of rods so unmercifully, that the blood ran down like rain till the girl fainted away and died soon after.”  At their separate trials at the Old Bailey, both she and Sadler were convicted of the murder and condemned.  He was hanged in March and she in September (probably because she had been pregnant at the time of her conviction).

Other murderers of their servant girls were Elizabeth and Mary Branch who beat their 13 year old maidservant, Jane Butterworth, to death in 1740 and were hanged on Saturday, the 3rd of May of that year at Illchester in Somerset and Sarah Metyard with her daughter, Sarah Morgan Metyard, who were hanged at Tyburn on Monday, the 19th of July 1762 for the murder, by starving to death, of 13 year old Ann Nailer.


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