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Family Tragedies

and rumours of a trial for infanticide

Rosie's Story : Eleanor's Story

In the early days of researching my family history I was told of a child called Rosie or Rose, a daughter of my grandparents, Henry and Rebecca Jane Ellis, who had died as a baby. Later I heard, at second or third hand, that Rebecca Jane had been tried at the Old Bailey for infanticide, with Sir Bernard Spilsbury (a famous pathologist) appearing as an expert witness.

I searched for this child for about 15 years, both in genealogical records and in books about Spilsbury. I got nowhere until the 1911 census became available.

The 1911 census stated that 3 children had been born to the couple, but that only 2 were living at the date of the census (2nd April 1911). Of the children I already knew about, none had died before this date, so this must have been 'Rosie'.

I kept trawling through the GRO indexes, trying different spellings and wildcards. I finally found Kathleen Rose Ellis, whose mother's maiden name had been indexed as Braddle, instead of Brattle.

Kathleen Rose was born at home on 25th October 1910. At the time Rebecca Jane already had a 2 year old (Henry Ernest) and a 1 year old (Eleanor Rebecca) to look after.

Poor Kathleen Rose died when she was just 15 days old, on 9th November 1910. There was a post mortem which reported the cause of death as "Suffocation by being deprived of fresh air while in bed with mother and another child". An inquest was held by the Coroner for Southwark, on 11th November 1910, which ruled the death as "Misadventure".

It is possible that Spilsbury performed the post mortem, but there was no charge of Infanticide and no Old Bailey trial.


A few months later the family had to face another tragedy. Their daughter Eleanor Rebecca Ellis (their second child) died on 28th May 1911 at Guy's Hospital at the age of 21 months. Her cause of death was reported as "Rickets, Pneumonia, Kerato Malacia".

Rickets is disorder caused by lack of vitamin D that results in soft and weak bones in children.

Keratomalacia is an eye condition caused by severe vitamin A deficiency. It leads to the rapid breakdown of the corneas, and may have resulted in blindness. Vitamin A deficiency could have affected her physical and mental development, and might also have made her more vulnerable to infections.

It seems likely that Eleanor Rebecca was already needing a lot of extra care by the time Kathleen Rose was born. Their mother must have been exhausted. This perhaps was the reason she fell asleep so deeply that she didn't realised that she had turned and lay over her baby.