Dorothea Nancy Waddingham - “Nurse Waddingham”.


Dorothea was born at Hucknall near Nottingham in 1900 and after leaving school worked in a factory for a while before taking up a post at the Burton on Trent Workhouse infirmary in Staffordshire.  Here she picked up quite a lot of medical knowledge whilst working on the wards and afterwards passed herself off a nurse.  She married Thomas Leech in 1925 and they had three children, Edwin, Alan and Mary over their eight year marriage.  Thomas developed cancer of the throat and died in 1930.  A Home Office file states that "she had five previous convictions for obtaining money by fraud", but gives no further details.  During her first marriage she served at least one prison term for these offences.  In the Nottinghamshire Murder Casebook by David Bell the author states that Dorothea was given probation for theft in 1925 for stealing some toothbrushes; then (year not stated) she was given probation for fraud (ordering goods on credit with no intention of paying); and says thirdly she got three months in prison for theft (taking an employee's watch to a pawn-shop without her consent).

Click here for a picture of her in her nurse’s uniform.


After Thomas Leech’s death Dorothea reverted to her maiden name and formed a relationship with their erstwhile lodger, Ronald Sullivan, who was six years her senior. Together they decided to open a nursing home at 32 Devon Drive, Nottingham.  This was recognised by the county authorities who considered Dorothea a competent nurse.  On the 12th of January of 1935 a Miss Blagg of the County Nursing Association asked them to take a couple of new patients for thirty shillings (£1.50) a week.  The newcomers were Louisa Baguley, a widow of eighty nine and her daughter Ada who was fifty.  Ada was disabled by a progressive disease that left her unable to walk and her elderly mother could no longer look after her.  At the time there was one other resident, Mrs. Kemp, who died in February leaving Dorothea with a wholly inadequate income of just the thirty shillings a week. Ronald helped Dorothea run the nursing home and the couple were to have two children of their own.


On the 4th of May, Ada summoned her solicitor, Mr. Lane and told him she wished to change her will.  She was to leave all of her savings, some £1,600, to Dorothea and Ronald on the condition that they would look after both Louisa and herself for the rest of their lives.  It is unclear whether Ada was persuaded/pressurised by Dorothea to take this step or whether she had decided on this course herself.  It had been suggested that Dorothea had threatened to send the two women to the workhouse as she couldn’t afford to keep them.  The workhouse would have been a dreadful threat in Ada’s mind.


Just eight days later on Sunday the 12th of May, Louisa died of what was determined to be cardio-vascular problems.  In a woman of nearly ninety this did not arouse any suspicion and a death certificate allowing her burial was issued.


Ada continued to live happily at Devon Drive through the summer of 1935 and was visited by a friend of hers, Mrs. Briggs, on Tuesday the 10th of September who found her in good spirits.  The following morning Dorothea called Dr. Mansfield, Ada’s doctor, and told him that Ada had gone into a coma.  When he arrived Ada had died and he thought that she had suffered a cerebral haemorrhage.  Dorothea showed him a letter that she had written on the 29th of August, expressing her wish to be cremated.  Dr. Mansfield issued a death certificate and also certificate permitting cremation.  The two certificates together with Ada’s letter were sent to the crematorium where they were read by Nottingham’s Medical Officer for Health, Dr. Cyril Banks.  He noted that the words “my last wish is that my relatives shall not know of my death” appeared to have been inserted after the original letter had been written as they were in a cramped style.  Ronald Sullivan had written the letter for Ada but she had signed it.  Dr. Banks was unhappy with the letter and reported his suspicions to the Coroner Wilfred Rothera who ordered a post mortem.  This was carried out at Leenside Mortuary by Dr. Leonard Taylor and Dr. O’Donovan.  Some of Ada’s organs were sent away for toxicological examinations and revealed that Ada had actually been poisoned with morphine, over 3 grains being found.  Further samples were tested by the Home Office’s Senior Analyst, Dr. Gerald Roche Lynch who confirmed the levels of morphine.  Louisa’s remains were therefore also exhumed on Monday the 30th of September and Dr. Roche Lynch found morphine in her too.  A formal inquest was held on the two victims, concluding on the 30th of January 1936, which returned a verdict of murder against both Dorothea and Ronald who were immediately arrested and charged with the murders. Dorothea had recently given birth to her fifth child and nursed it while on remand.


The couple appeared before Mr. Justice Goddard at Nottinghamshire Assizes on the 24th of February.  Mr. Norman Birkett led the prosecution and Mr. J. F. Eales the defence.  Ronald was discharged by the judge on the second day of the trial due to a lack of any real evidence against him, leaving Dorothea to face trial alone.  The court heard the forensic evidence of morphine poisoning and the testimony of Mrs. Briggs and Dr. Mansfield.  Dorothea’s defence suggested that Dr. Mansfield had given her morphine tablets for Ada for when she was in pain.  Dr. Mansfield strongly denied having given any tablets to Dorothea for Ada, especially morphine.  Dorothea described to the court the last two days of Ada’s life.  According to Dorothea Ada was depressed and in great pain so she had given her up to ten tablets over two days and in the early hours of the Wednesday morning found her in a coma.  This information was contained in a statement made to the police on the 24th of September, after the post mortem result was known.  Previously Dorothea had told the police that Ada had eaten a large lunch on the Tuesday and appeared to be well.  Dorothea’s evidence was less than convincing as was her general performance in the witness box.  She admitted in court to throwing away the bottle and medicine glass that Ada had last used.


On the third day of the trial the jury took two and a quarter hours to reach a guilty verdict and for whatever reason added a recommendation to mercy.  Mr. Justice Rayner Goddard sentenced Dorothea to death and presumably did not concur with the jury’s recommendation in his written report to the Home Office.  There was an unwritten rule in the Home Office that poisoners should not be reprieved and Dorothea was one of four women hanged in the 20th century for this crime.  The Home Secretary, Sir John Simon, announced on the 14th of April that there would be no reprieve.

Nottingham no longer had an execution facility after 1928 so Dorothea was transferred to the condemned suite in C Wing of Birmingham’s Winson Green prison to await her fate, where she was prisoner No. 912.  Her appeal was heard before Lord Justice Hewart, and Justices Humphreys and Du Parcq at the Court of Criminal Appeal in London.  She was not present at this hearing.  It was dismissed on the 30th of March and the execution was set for 8 a.m. on Thursday the 16th of April 1936. Dorothea was the only woman ever to be hanged at Winson Green.


Thomas Pierrepoint, assisted by his nephew Albert, carried out the hanging. It was to be Thomas’ last female execution and Albert’s first.
Dorothea was weighed and measured the day before and was recorded at 4’ 11” tall and 123 1/2 lbs in weight.  She was thus given a drop of 8’ 5”. Large numbers of people had gathered outside the prison on the Wednesday afternoon to protest the execution of a mother of five, even though she had poisoned two vulnerable people for financial gain. The protest was led by the noted anti capital punishment campaigner, Mrs. Violet Van der Elst. By the Thursday morning the crowd outside the prison had grown to an estimated 2,000 and their hymns could be heard within.  Some 500 police were present to keep order.  Mrs. Van der Elst was driven round the prison in her chauffer driven Rolls Royce followed by two lorries carrying loud speakers blaring out hymns and placards reading “Prevent the hanging of a mother” and “Stop the terrible crime of hanging the mother of five children.”


On the stroke of 9.00 a.m. Thomas Pierrepoint entered her cell and pinioned her wrists.  She would then have been led through the double doors into the adjacent execution chamber where Thomas would have put the white hood over her head followed by the noose, whilst Albert strapped her legs.  When the preparations were complete Thomas removed the safety pin from the base of the lever and pushed the lever away from him to release the trap doors.

By 9.01 a.m. Dorothea was hanging limply in the drop room and was examined by the prison doctor using a stethoscope to listen to her heartbeat. The execution chamber was locked up for an hour.  The LPC4 form unusually records both fracture/dislocation of the cervical vertebrae and asphyxia as the causes of death.  It also notes that she had a muscular neck and that there was a “slight splitting of the skin on the right side of the neck.”  The Pierrepoints returned at nine o’clock and undressed her and put a rope around her body under her arms, lifting her up with a block and tackle attached to the chain on the gallows beam, for removal of the noose and hood.  Her body was then lowered onto a stretcher and made ready for the formal inquest held later that morning.  Dorothea was buried in the prison grounds, probably around lunchtime, as was normal practice.


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