Monty Dart

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The Alleged Murder of Infants at Newport

Monty Dart has written this account using information from local newspapers and ....

In August 1898 a sad case hit the local and national newspapers. The charge was against Margaret Cantwell for ‘feloniously killing and slaying her infant child on or about 1st August 1889.’

The magistrates on the bench that day were the Mayor H. Faulkner, Alderman Huzzey, and T.J. Beynon, Mr A.A. Newman, Town Clerk appeared for the prosecution, Mr W. Lyndon Moore, for the defence. A large crowd had gathered outside the Court to see the prisoner, who is reported as being ‘dressed in the usual way, wearing a dark hat and light coloured striped shawl. Her demeanour was quiet and reserved throughout.’

Mr Newman stated that the facts of the case would be sufficiently disclosed in the evidence – the only question was whether Margaret Cantwell should face a capital charge.

Detective Inspector Thomas Henry Jones was called to give evidence. He had been called to 3, Thomas Court, Cross Street on 26th August 1889, it was believed that the birth of a child had been concealed. He found the prisoner ‘much distressed and crying’ and when being asked where the child was she said, ‘It’s upstairs, I will fetch it down’.

The Inspector, noting that no other woman was in the house looked out into the street, where he saw a woman called Mary Connor, he asked her to be present. Margaret Cantwell’s brother, Thomas Cantwell was also in the house. He and Mary Connor went upstairs with Margaret to her bedroom. There was no bedstead, the bed rested on an orange box at the foot and the box in which the body was found was at the head. There were pieces of board under the bed. The box was 3 ft long and 2 ft wide and 1 ft deep.

The prisoner opened the box and took out the body of a child, it was evident that the child’s skull was fractured.

Mayor H. Faulkner said, ‘It was dented in, was it? ’

DI Jones replied, ‘Oh yes. I got the accused Margaret Cantwell and the woman Mary Connor into a cab and conveyed them to the police station. I charged her with concealing the birth of a child.’

In further evidence DI Jones said that in the afternoon, accompanied by Inspector William Brooks, he went to the house again and found two other bodies in the box, both infants. The bodies were tightly wrapped up in canvas. The head of one child was exposed and he noticed that the skull was fractured. The policemen confronted Margaret’s brother and told him of the discovery.

The box and its contents were taken to the police station and given to Dr Robert Cooke. DI Jones was present when the doctor examined all three bodies, in each case the skull had been fractured.

On the following day he showed the box to Margaret and told her where he had found it.

‘Yes, I done it,’ she replied.

He advised her that she was facing a serious charge and cautioned her, ‘…you did feloniously kill and slay your infant child ’.

Her bedroom was described to the court as 8ft by 7ft 3ins and 6ft 3 in high. There was no fireplace. The window had two panes of glass out ‘providing ventilation’…. ‘The box in which the infants were found was not airtight, you could put a penny between the boards’.

Asked about Margaret he stated that she was distressed when first charged. He also thought that she was not well and had not been so since being taken into custody. Dr Cooke was asked to examine Margaret and seeking a female chaperone he called for the wife of the Town Hall keeper. He told Margaret that he wished to examine her in the presence of another woman, she objected, however she consented to ‘showing the doctor her chest and from this he deduced that she had recently had a child’.

In court The Mayor asked Margaret to take a seat in the dock, she was faint and required a drink of water, she was allowed to sit during the proceedings.

Inspector Brookes said that the head of one child had been ‘cracked right across the forehead’. Under questioning, Margaret became distressed but said, ‘Yes, I done it’ and wept.

Helen Cantwell aged 19 - Margaret’s sister - was called to the witness box, she was tearful. In evidence she said that she lived at 3 Thomas Court with her sister and two brothers (Thomas and James) they were the only tenants. She had arrived there a year and 11 months ago from a Convent in Hereford (where she had been for the previous 2 years) and since then she had slept in the same bed as her sister. She hadn’t noticed that Margaret was in the family way. However, one morning she found the body of a child under the bed in which her sister was asleep. Crying bitterly and with her eyes on Margaret, Helen further said, ‘The body was stiff and cold and there was no smell to it.’ She said that Mary Kiley, who had called for her to walk to work, was downstairs, Helen called her and showed her the face of the baby and then returned the body to where she found it. Helen stated that her sister had bourn a child six years ago, which died after about 15 months.

Mary Kiley was called, she said she was the wife of James Kiley but didn’t live with him, she stayed with her mother in Mellon’s Square. She agreed with the evidence thus far, that she had called for Helen on her way to work and that she had been shown the face of a baby. Helen had cried and asked her to say nothing about it.

Hannah Martin, wife of William Martin of 2, Thomas Court lived next door to the prisoner. She said that she knew the prisoner was pregnant – about 5 weeks ago Margaret went to her house and when she sat down Hannah Martin noticed that she was in the family way.

The Mayor ‘She did not tell you she was?’

Witness ‘Oh, no Sir.’

Mary Connell, wife of William Connell, haulier of 3 Mellon Square said that she had gone upstairs with DI Jones and the prisoner had brought out a parcel containing the dead child from the box. She did not see the child but went with them to the police station. Dr Cooke repeated his evidence on the examination of the bodies, he was asked about the most recent body ‘What is your opinion to the cause of death?’

‘I should say a fracture to the skull’

‘Was it death by violence?’ at this Mr Lyndon Moore interposed that it was not for the witness to give an opinion.

The Town Clerk said, ‘The very object of calling a medical man is to ascertain his opinion.’

‘No – it is for him to give a description of the injuries’.

Dr Cooke also gave evidence to the condition to the other two bodies. Both had fractured skulls which were consistent with causing death. ‘They were mummies,’ he said. As to the condition of the prisoner, ‘she had been confined and agreed that she had’.

Cross examined he said, ‘With regard to the first child (the most recent death) I examined, I have delivered some 2,000 to 3,000 babies and I have never seen a fracture from delivery.’

He was asked exactly how many children he had delivered and Mr Moore said, ‘we are not particular about a thousand or two’, the reporter added that this provoked laughter in court. Margaret Cantwell had insisted that the fractured skull happened in childbirth, Dr Cooke said that a woman in self-delivery might be so distracted with pain as to be ‘not quite conscious’.

The Major then told Margaret that she was to be charged with wilful murder, to which she replied, ‘I am innocent’ and burst into tears. It is reported that the Mayor said sympathetically, ‘You will be tried by a jury, you are not condemned now, you will be tried by a good jury.’ Margaret Cantwell was taken to Usk Gaol.

The Monmouthshire Merlin commented ‘Some surprise is expressed that there was no smell detected from the dead bodies, but in a district such as that in which the house is situated is, if there were such a smell, little notice would be taken of it. The house is now shut up. Already a number of houses in the street have been removed, and as the leases of those remaining fall in they will follow those already taken down, and decent dwellings will be erected on the spot. The most extraordinary part of the affair appears to be how it was that the neighbours should have kept matters so close…they must have noticed the condition of the woman at various times, yet none appear to have suggested anything so that it reached the authorities’.

It says something for the times that it was assumed that it was ‘only one of the ordinary concealments of birth and little notice taken of it, until the evidence of the other bodies came to light’. ‘Newport people were horrified to discover that in the centre of the most thickly-populated portions of Newport, three children, or their dead bodies had been found in a box, one of them having been placed in there almost two years ago’.

Margaret Cantwell was said to be industrious and keep her home – such as it was – in order, but it was a home in a squalid court. Her brother was also described as industrious and had been married, until his wife had died. His wife’s maiden name was Sexton and she was described as ‘a better class woman than ordinary’.

The parents of the Cantwell family had died some years previously, the mother 5 years ago and the father before that – Hannah, Margaret’s sister had been sent to a convent. When she returned to Newport she worked in the potato and corn stores. Margaret had apparently been frequenting a certain public house but had not been drinking ‘any more than those of her class’. Miss Gertrude Jenner wrote ‘ As a volunteer worker of over 30 years standing on behalf of the ‘friendless and fallen’ in Wales, allow me to ask how it is that no one appeared yesterday on behalf of the young woman in the police court in Newport Mon. I trust that in wealthy Newport someone will appear on behalf of this young woman’.

The next time the court convened Mr Martin Edwards, Coroner resumed the examination of the witnesses, including Hannah – sister of the prisoner. ‘The Inspector who went to the room said the stench was something unbearable. Now, do you ask the jury to believe that you did not smell anything wrong there?’

‘Yes Sir, I did not take notice of any smell.’

Asked if Margaret had a job, Hannah replied, ‘She worked first at Mr Smith’s the corn stores, then she went to Mr Flook’s stores and afterwards to Mr Kerslake’s mill, where I work. She left there about last May and has not worked since.’

 Dr Cooke was called to the dock. He described the box as ‘being red, with a shutting down lid, well made but not airtight. It had no lock.’

Questioned how long he thought the bodies had been in the box he said the two were ‘what you would call mummies. The clothing was adhering to the remains of the flesh.’ He also commented, ‘I drew my own inference that if the children were stillborn there would be no occasion to fracture their skulls.’

The Coroner said, ‘If the children were the children of one woman and the first two not twins, the first must have been there up to two years.’

The jury suggested that the brothers John and Thomas be called to give evidence, the Corroner replied, ‘Yes, we must have them here. Someone must have noticed a smell there. I am told though, that one of the brothers is so drunk today that he is not in a fit state to appear here. (to Hannah) How old are your brothers?’

‘One is about 30 and the other about 20.’

‘We must have these brothers here and if the police cannot get them here sober I will issue a warrant for them, and the police can keep them in custody for 24 hours.’

The proceedings were adjourned.

The following day, Hannah Cantwell, sister of the prisoner was then brought into court, she was weeping copiously and swaying from side to side. The Coroner said, ‘Now pay attention to what I’m going to ask you’. He questioned that she had shared a bedroom with her sister, lived in the same house for 8 years and not noticed that she had been in the family way and she had not noticed the box under the bed.

At this the young girl said, ‘I took a false oath’ and said ‘about a month ago I got up to go to work a little after 6 o’clock. I came downstairs without a bodice and went back to fetch it. I could not see it. I saw a parcel on the floor in the sheets, Margaret was asleep in the bed. I saw a parcel, it contained the body of a child, I saw the little eyes – they were shut. Mary Kiley was waiting for me, I showed her the baby and asked her to say nothing. I was frightened that my sister might do something to me. I was afraid she would tell our brother and he might beat me’.

‘Were you disturbed in the night?’

‘No Sir, I sleep very heavy.’

What did you do with the body?’

‘I put it where I found it Gentlemen’

‘Was there blood about?’

‘No Gentlemen, there was not’.

‘Did you sleep with your sister on the Wednesday night?’


‘Were you disturbed at all?’


Hannah said she did not tell her sister that she had seen the body. She had been frightened to tell her brothers as they would beat her and Margaret. She thought that the box had appeared whilst she was living away at the convent. Her sister was left at home whilst she (Hannah) and her brothers were in work.

Mary Kiley agreed that she had seen the body but had not notified anyone. The Coroner remarked, ‘If this sort of thing goes on, it is not surprising that there are dead bodies found about’.

Thomas Cantwell was called. He said he had lived at Thomas Court for 8 years. he said that his sister Margaret had given birth 6 years ago and he had ‘turned her out’. On 28th August before Messrs A.J. Stevens, G. Hoskins and W. Graham, Margaret was again called to court. She was described as wearing a shawl held over her head and shoulders, with only a portion of her face visible.

She was sent to Usk goal until the next Assizes.

On March 1st 1890 Margaret appeared at the Monmouth Assizes. The charge of murder had been withdrawn as despite Dr Cooke’s evidence it was considered that ’it could not be stated that the children had had a separate existence.’ Margaret now agreed to plead ‘guilty to concealment of a birth’. Justice Hawkin presided. Mr Ram and Mr Phillips were for the prosecution and Mr Bailhache defended. The case had been postponed previously because of the absence of a material witness. This was revealed to be Hannah – who had recently been delivered of a child prematurely. His Lordship decreed that the trial should now proceed without her.

The evidence was heard again with all the witnesses, but with the new plea. Mr Bailhache said that when Margaret stated, ‘Yes, I done it’ to DI Jones, she was ‘dazed and not herself…she was weak and ill.’ He asked for mitigation of sentence and Mr Hawkin, having taken into consideration that Margaret had already been in gaol six months, sentenced her to only another three months.

On March 11th 1890 James Cantwell, iron ore labourer at the Ebbw Vale Wharf, was found guilty of violently assaulting his wife Margaret with a poker. In his defence of his conduct he explained that his sister (also named Margaret) was in prison in connection with the concealment of birth of her children and that this had been the cause of his ‘giving way to drinking’. It was noted in court that his brother was a very respectable young man. James was fined 21 shillings or 21 days imprisonment.

Monty Dart