Words and photo by Dave Barry
A Scarborough woman is hoping to clear her great grandmother’s name in the BBC TV series Murder Mystery and my Family.
In 1903, Emily Swann and her lover John Gallagher were hanged for the murder of her violent husband William.
For most of her married life, Emily was brutally beaten by her husband, a glass blower who drank heavily and squandered the family’s money while Emily was left to bring up the children.
“Understandably, she was a volatile woman, but in this day and age she would have been protected”, says her great granddaughter, Felicity Newbold.
The murder brought tragedy, scandal and shame in its wake. Emily was executed and her family torn apart.
The pain passed through three generations to Felicity, who was subjected to physical and psychological abuse by her gran. Emily’s daughter Elsie beat Felicity every day.
Her granddad excused the appalling behaviour by saying his wife had had a hard life and that she had hardly known her mother because she had been hanged.
The abuse culminated in Elsie pouring a pan of boiling water over Felicity when she was 15, as she prepared to go out to a dance with her friends.
“I think my gran must have looked at me and looked back at her own desperate childhood and realised what she had lost”, Felicity says.
She left home and “went wild for a few years”, craving the love she never had. “My life started to spiral. Then I woke up one day and realised that I was single, 36 years old, with three children, two failed marriages and 20p in my purse. I needed to break the cycle of poverty. I needed to get an education”.
Through drive and determination, she achieved a 2:1 degree, a masters and a teaching qualification. She became assistant head at Pindar School in Eastfield before gaining a qualification in headship.
But Felicity, who is now an English teacher at Driffield School, continued to struggle with her past and knew she had to find answers.
“It wasn’t until I was 50 and had finally made something of myself that I recognised that I hadn’t ever escaped Elsie completely”, she says. “The scars caused by my fractured childhood had never totally healed, which meant that at a time when I should have been feeling proud of myself and my achievements, I felt hollow and incomplete. I realised to be totally free, I needed to understand why gran behaved the way she did”.
So, in 2007, she set out to discover the history of her family, trying to separate fact from family myth, in the hope it would heal her childhood scars. Through internet research and trawling through church, library and newspaper archives, she pieced together a fascinating piece of family tragedy and social history.
As Felicity discovered more about her ancestors, she came to see how they had been caught in a damaging cycle, endlessly repeating the mistakes of the past. And she knew that she, at last, had the power to break free.
Newspaper cuttings revealed that 286 men, including many members of Emily’s family, were killed in an underground explosion which became known as the Oaks mining tragedy, in 1866.
When Emily and Bill married, domestic violence was commonplace. The couple took a lodger, who Emily fell in love with and who killed her husband Bill after a violent attack on her in Wombwell, near Barnsley, in 1902. Emily, who denied complicity, and her lover were convicted of his murder.
A jury convicted this illiterate woman, who had no real representation, after a 30-minute trial.
She was visited at Armley jail in Leeds by her sisters and children. But Elsie, aged four, wasn’t allowed in. She was left with a prison warden who asked her to guard his silver sixpence as a way of distracting her - hence the book title.
After Emily was hanged, Elsie was shunted from relative to relative. She was taunted about the circumstances of her parents’ death and became a sullen, unhappy child. She became pregnant aged 18.
Felicity was filled with huge sadness and a burning sense of injustice while reading letters from Emily to Felicity’s mother Hannah. She was determined to fight for justice for her great-gran and began her long journey to bring Emily’s story back into the public arena. “It was so important to give Emily another hearing with an opportunity to look again at the evidence of what I believe was an unfair and biased trial”, she says.
Discovering the poverty and hardship of Emily’s life and the traumas her grandmother suffered as a girl has helped Felicity see the destructive patterns that had been repeated in her family for nearly 100 years.
She says: “Once I started to piece the jigsaw of my life together, I knew I had to get it down on paper”.
The result was a book, Guard a Silver Sixpence, which explores self-identity through historical exploration over five generations.
It has sold 300,000 copies. In Canada, where the title was changed to Sins of the Family, it topped the non-fiction softback sales for six weeks.
Now the story is to be re-examined by two leading criminal barristers in the second series of Murder Mystery and my Family.
Sasha Wass and Jeremy Dein specialise in re-investigating historical cases, re-examining key evidence given by eye-witnesses and presented at Emily’s trial.
The programme will be broadcast in January.
“The past will always be part of me,” Felicity says. “But, for the first time, I feel really positive about the future. It has been very hard at times and I have felt very lost, but I am back on track now. There are still some unanswered questions. But I feel more at peace than I ever have”.
The questions are:
* What was the evidence to prove that Emily murdered her husband?
* Why would the judge not allow her two children to testify, especially one who was in the room at the time of the murder?
* Did Emily receive a fair trial as an illiterate woman from the lower classes in a male-dominated mining community?
Felicity isn’t hoping for a posthumous retrial, only for the case to be recognised as a miscarriage of justice.