How a mum faced justice over the death of her two sons

·6-min read
Heritage. Northam Bridge Road
Heritage. Northam Bridge Road

His voice faltered in the midst of his emotional turmoil.

The police officer was close to tears as he recounted the horrific sight of a mother holding a hideously burnt baby in her arms.

“I thought it had been taken from an oven,” PC Kearl recalled. “It was burnt from top to bottom. I thought it was dead.”

Momentarily he had to break off from giving evidence about the tragedy.

A few yards away sat the child’s mother crying piteously and often in a state of collapse.

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Janet Traill had been charged with causing the death of her elder son John, aged five years, and her younger son, William, just two, by throwing a burning oil lamp into their bed.

The constable had found three seats of fire in the underground kitchen at the house in Northam, Southampton, where Traill lived with her carpenter husband, also called William.

Heritage. Northam Bridge Road
Heritage. Northam Bridge Road

Northam - where the incident took place


A bed, window curtains and sheets that had been ablaze lay on the floor.

The young mother was sitting in a chair with a naked child on her lap. Her husband was only dressed in a shirt and their second son, also naked, remained motionless on the ground.

“I assisted the woman [to take] the children from the room. The latter were both then alive but the younger was very much discoloured from burning. The elder child was very burnt on both sides of his face, the flesh being raw, and he was also burned raw on the shoulders.”

Pc Kearl rolled up the children, one in bedding and the other in a blanket, and with their mother rushed them to the hospital. He then returned to the house and with the aid of their long-standing lodger put out the small fires. Searching the bed clothing, he discovered remnants of a blue glass paraffin lamp. The bedding had been almost destroyed.

The officer then returned to the hospital where he met a surgeon who told him the condition of the younger child was a hopeless case. He approached Traill and told her he would have to take her to the police station for questioning.

She then confessed, admitting she had lost her temper when her husband had sworn at her.

“I took the lamp from the table and threw it at him. He was in bed at the time with the two children.”

Pc Kearl had been giving evidence at Traill’s first remand hearing before the town’s magistrates.

The following day, the Borough Coroner William Coxwell, opened an inquest into the boys’ death, and as part of their painful tradition, jurors were required to be taken to the infirmary to inspect the bodies, both of whom – readers of the Hampshire Advertiser were told – presented “a deplorable appearance from the fearful character of their injuries.”

The defendant’s husband then revealed what led up to the drama, how he had demanded to know why she had been late returning home.

“I told her she should be ashamed of herself,” he testified. “I turned on my side and she gave me bad language. I said I did not want to talk any more with her but no sooner had I said these words than the bed was on fire. I did not see my wife throw anything or see anything fall on to the bed.”

He grabbed the elder child lying next to him and took him to the back door before running back to get his other son.

vintage kerosene oil lantern lamp burning with a soft glow light in an antique rustic country barn with aged wood floor
vintage kerosene oil lantern lamp burning with a soft glow light in an antique rustic country barn with aged wood floor

A paraffin lamp


“This is as much as I can recollect because I was quite stupefied at the time. I was fetching the younger child out and my wife was crying out, ‘Murder, my poor children’.

“When I got the younger child to the door, the bed was in flames.

“Then a policeman came into the room.”

The coroner, addressing the jury, admitted the case was one of the most painful inquiries he had ever had to undertake.

“Indeed, of the number of inquests which have taken place from time to time in this place, none has given me greater pain to investigate than this,” he said.

“Here was a case of a husband and wife quarrelling and she in a fit of passion took up a lamp that was burning at the table, filled with paraffin, and threw it at her husband as he lay in bed.

“It seemed her husband had given her great provocation, calling her an offensive name, and she naturally, however wrong she might have been in her conduct, resented the epithet, and in her rage picked up the lamp and threw it at him.

“Whether this person intended to kill her husband or not, does not appear, but if a person picks up an instrument of this description and throws it at another person, whether it hits that person or someone else, in law it is manslaughter.”

Following that directive, jurors were bound to return such a verdict against the mother, though in a rider they contended she had been seriously provoked.

Some two months later in July, 1883, Traill appeared at Hampshire Assizes, charged with manslaughter, which she did not contest on legal advice.

Lord Justice Fry.
Lord Justice Fry.

Lord Justice Fry


In mitigation, Mr Bullen produced a series of letters, including one from a Presbyterian minister, which told of her dedication as a nurse and revealed she had married her husband against advice.

For his part, Traill confessed how alcohol had caused his “dissolute and vile behaviour” and that fateful night he had called her “foul and unjust names”.

He had since become teetotal and promised to reform his life if the judge passed a lenient sentence, speaking of her in high and affectionate terms.

His apology, however, cut no ice with his wife who said she wanted a separation. The judge said that was none of his concern but taking into account the sad circumstances and the immense provocation, he would reduce the sentence to three weeks and without hard labour.

The prosecutor, Mr Vigor, then revealed the minister and her friends would look after her once she was freed. She then left the dock with the sympathy of the court accompanying her.

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