Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Body in the Well

By Karen Charlton

'Dreadful Murder'

'For a week past, the water in the well of the Duke of York public-house at Brompton, Kent, had been affected with so nauseous a taste and smell that it became unfit for use. The servant, when drawing, found something hindered the bucket from filling…and thought that she perceived something like a body, and on moving the rope backwards and forwards to fill the bucket, she found pieces of skin and animal substance adhering to it when it was drawn up. Within the last few days, the smell at the mouth of the well had become so exceedingly offensive that no one would go near it.’
Morning Chronicle, 23rd October 1818

The murder of the heavily pregnant Bridget Donallen and the callous disposal of her naked body caused a public outcry in 1818. The wife of William Donallen, a soldier in the 98th regiment, Bridget had been murdered and ignominiously dumped down a tavern well in Westcourt Road, Old Brompton. Her water-logged and rotting corpse wasn’t discovered until a month later. 

The newspapers of the time reported every grisly detail surrounding the difficulty experienced by a group of volunteers when they tried to retrieve her remains. The Morning Chronicle, in particular, was in its element: 

On Saturday morning, some soldiers who were drinking at the Duke of York, offered, for a trifling reward, to go down the well and clear it of its impurity. A young man was accordingly lowered down, but before he arrived at the bottom, he was almost overpowered by the fetid effluvia, and called out to the men who were lowering him to stop. Having waited a few seconds and recovered himself, he proceeded. He, with infinite horror and dismay, discovered a naked human body floating on its back. To be certain, he took hold of the hair, when the body rolled over, and the hair and scalp became detached from the skull and remained in his hand. Terrified in the extreme, and almost reduced to insensibility at the horrid sight, he called to the men on the brink of the well to draw him up…
Morning Chronicle, 23rd October 1818

The article went on to describe how one of the other soldiers later braved this hellhole and brought up the decomposing body wrapped in a sheet. But this chap was so affected by the foul air, he fainted when he reached the top and nearly fell down the well himself. 

Bow Street

An inquest was held, and Bridget’s husband was deemed to be the main suspect for the murder. A warrant was issued for Donallen’s arrest but during the weeks that had elapsed, he’d left the army and disappeared. Bow Street Police Office was contacted. Principal Officer Stephen Lavender was employed to find the suspect and solve the case.  Lavender finally tracked Donallen down in County Mayo, Ireland and brought him back to Kent to face trial. Donallen was hanged for the murder of his wife in August 1823. 

I first came across this gruesome case, while browsing through the yellowing and musty pages of an 1818 edition of the Morning Chronicle during a visit to The National Archives in Kew. I needed a strong stomach as well as the standard-issue white gloves for my research that day. 

The Morning Chronicle wasn’t alone in this period in its use of sickening and repugnant detail.  The Times, that highly respected and most illustrious of newspapers, also pandered to the public’s taste for blood and gore. Describing another of Lavender’s cases, a particularly nasty attack on an eighty-six-year-old man in Northamptonshire, The Times took great pleasure in telling its readership about the ‘large quantity of clotted blood that had settled in his [the victims’] mouth.’ 

The second thing I noted in the Morning Chronicle’s report about the Donallen murder was the reporter’s indifference to the danger posed to the staff and customers of The Duke of York by the contaminated water. But when we put this in historical context, it’s not surprising really. It would be several more decades before doctors and scientists linked the drinking of poisonous water to lethal outbreaks of cholera and typhoid fever.

Example of The Morning Chronicle's pages

In fact, if we are ever to really understand our Georgian ancestors, we also need to put their morbid and blood-thirsty curiosity into context. Like a lot of people, I formed a romantic impression of Regency Britain when I was a young woman. Thanks to Wordsworth and Coleridge, Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer and Thackery’s Vanity Fair I thought it was a delightful period in history.  But tea parties in a Hampshire vicarage and balls in the assembly rooms of Bath, with giggling ladies in high-waisted, white dresses escorted by dashing soldiers in scarlet uniforms, were only one small part of their complex world. 

This was still an era when whole families took picnics to watch public hangings. The brutal treatment of male and female prisoners – and their children – in our over-crowded jails and prison hulks barely elicited a shrug of concern (although prison reformers like Elizabeth Fry were starting to make their voices heard).  Sometimes crowds of ten thousand people lined the streets and encircled the gallows to watch the suffering and terror of the condemned. They cheered when the dying criminals twitched and defecated themselves at the end of the rope. And with over two hundred and twenty crimes on the statute books which were punishable by the death penalty, there were plenty of hangings to watch. 

Further evidence of the blood-lust of this generation can be found when we examine the most popular culture of the time. Yes, the novels of Jane Austen were popular, but the Regency publishing industry made a fortune from cheap novels full of spine-chilling gothic horror laced with a generous splattering of blood. This genre dominated the industry for more than sixty years after the novel format was first invented by Samuel Richardson. In addition to this, most London theatres were kept afloat by producing a string of gory melodramas. 

But don’t just take my word for it. Go online, read some old newspapers and discover for yourself the true extent of our ancestors’ revolting fascination with decomposing bodies and oozing body fluids.  

The Times has its own online archives and a small monthly fee paid to The British Newspaper Archive will give you online access to another 35 million pages of other British and Irish newspapers dating back to early 1800s. These websites can be accessed for free at most libraries.

You might be surprised at what you learn – just don’t eat before you browse.


Karen Charlton is the author of the best-selling Detective Lavender Mysteries, published by Thomas & Mercer and featuring Bow Street’s real-life Principal Officer, Stephen Lavender. The series starts with The Heiress of Linn Hagh.

Her latest novel in the series, The Willow Marsh Murder, is available on Amazon from 1st February 2020 and starts with the murder of a tavern barmaid whose body is dumped down a well. It can be read as a standalone book.

Through her research, Karen has come across dozens of reports of Lavender’s cases in the newspapers of the time. She frequently uses them as the basis for the plots of her fiction.

Catching the Eagle, her debut novel, is the true story of her notorious ancestor, Jamie Charlton, who was convicted back in 1810 of Northumberland’s biggest robbery. 

A former-teacher, Karen now writes full-time and lives in a tiny, Yorkshire fishing village.

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