Silence in court – John McSweeney


As the young man slowly climbed the steps of the court house his left hand repeatedly clenched into a fist and then relaxed again. He held himself erect and  walked rather stiffly, as if he was much older than he looked. His long dark frockcoat, embroidered waistcoat and silk scarf tied as a cravatte displayed his wealth and good fashion sense.

As he stood in the marbled grand hall his eyes searched the space as if looking for signs to help him find his way. Anyone watching him carefully would correctly assume he’d never been in the Old Bailey before, but knew that real power was exercised there; reputations made or destroyed, lives spared or taken.  He paused and looked up at the paintings above him in the domes and took a deep breath. Turning, he read the words written high up on the wall “The Law Of The Wise Is A Fountain Of LIfe” and swallowed hard.  His gaze drifted across the grand hall to a man seated on a wooden bench reading that day’s edition of The Times. The heading of the article caught his eye. “Sebastopol – news from the Seige”. The date on the paper was the 29th January 1855.

Hannah Pipkins was also at the Bailey for the first time that day, confined and waiting alone deep below the forbidding oak panelled courtrooms. She was full of fear and regret. In the dimly lit cell area the gas lights cast  looming shadows on the walls. When she was brought in the noise frightened her. Prisoners shouted foul and ungodly things at the warders and each other and banged on the walls. The heavy metal  doors slammed shut like thunder every few moments as prisoners were brought in and out and the cells were locked and unlocked.  The noises shattered her thoughts so that as soon as one started to assemble it  fell apart like broken china. Her cell was dingy, cramped and stank of urine. Her chest was tight and now and then she gasped for air.  Above the din she thought she heard her name.  Hadn’t someone shouted ” Counsel for Pipkins?”. A few moments later her cell door opened and her barrister squeezed past the burly warder who was holding it ajar. The dreadful noises flooded in.

“He looks no older than me” was her first thought as he sat down on the crude wooden bench opposite her and placed his gleaming white wig beside him along with a thin bundle of papers. Her father in law, George, had told her that defence barristers were often young and just starting out. But the prospect of her trial terrified her and she felt it a blessing to have someone to guide her and speak for her in court. He smiled and introduced himself speaking slowly and deliberately, as if he was taking care to ensure each word was well chosen and understood. Occasionally he would put his head on one side slightly and open his eyes a little more, which gave him the look of someone who was frequently surprised. Hannah relaxed a little, relieved that he seemed kind.

“You know that you’re charged with infanticide don’t you Hannah?” he said gently.

“I do Sir” she replied.

“And you say you didn’t do it?”

“That’s right Sir, I didn’t”.

“Tell me what happened in your own words Hannah”, he said.

She looked at the floor. After a little while she lifted her head and straightened her body as if she was about to speak,  but then she pressed her lips tightly together again and resumed her downward gaze.

“How old are you Hannah?”

“Nineteen Sir” she replied.

“And was this your first child?”

“Yes, Sir”.

“And you’re married aren’t you?” .

“Yes, I am Sir” she replied,  adding, “but my husband is a sailor Sir, and joined his ship, The Agamemnon, over a year ago.  I haven’t seen or heard from him since.

“I see”, he said. Then after a short pause added ” So who was the father of the child Hannah?”

She didn’t reply. The barrister waited. After a few seconds Hannah lifted her eyes and looking him full in the face said “I don’t know what you’ll think of me, but I’m afraid I couldn’t say Sir.”

He nodded, gave her a small smile and said “Do you mean that you don’t know who the father was”?

Hannah kept looking at the floor, blinked and said” Yes, that’s what I mean Sir.”

“And were you alone when you delivered the child?

“I was Sir,”

“Why didn’t you arrange for a midwife to attend you Hannah?” he asked.

” I didn’t want to be a  bother Sir, and I thought I could manage it myself”

Hannah’s barrister looked down and pulled his left earlobe between the thumb and bent forefinger of his right hand, his right arm across his chest.  She thought he looked worried.

“You must understand Hannah that the court may think that a woman who wanted her child might arrange for someone, like a midwife, to be with her when she gave birth” he said.

Hannah said nothing.

“Did you tell anyone about the pregnancy Hannah?”

“No Sir, with my husband away I just strapped myself up so no one would notice”

“And did anyone notice?”

“I don’t think they did Sir, least no one said anything to me about it” Hannah replied.

“And you say that when the child was born it didn’t breathe? Is that right Hannah? Think carefully now”

“I swear it was so Sir”  He didn’t breathe.

Hannah’s barrister folded his arms and stroked his earlobe several times more as he looked at the wall, in thought. He said nothing.

Hannah spoke again “I wouldn’t have killed him Sir.

“No” said her barrister. “And where were you living when you gave birth?”

“In Woolwich Sir, near the river”

“On your own?”

“No sir,  with my father in law, in his house. He’s taken care of me since my husband left.”

“And it was his lodger who went for the police,…. is that right?”

“Yes Sir, Elsie Winters got them”.

“How had she known you’d given birth?”

Hannah hung her head and tears dripped from her chin onto her long black cotton skirt.

“She heard me crying out and came into my room a bit afterwards, once she was sure I was alone.  She asked me if I’d killed him. Hannah paused. “The policeman and doctor came shortly after”.

‘`Why do you think she fetched them Hannah? Why didn’t she try to help you?”

Hannah started sobbing, then composed herself  and said,  “She’s never liked me living there.”

Tears rolled down Hannah’s cheeks as the cell door opened and a warder said to her barrister “You’re wanted upstairs Sir”

Hannah’s barrister stood up and picked up his wig and papers. He held the edge of the cell door in one hand but turned back towards Hannah before he left. Above the noise he said “Are you sure that no one tried to help the child to breathe?

“No Sir,……. I didn’t”

As he left the cell her barrister said “I’ve just got to go up and see the judge and  prosecuting counsel Hannah. I’ll try to come and see you again before your trial starts”.

After about half an hour he returned and said that her trial would start soon. He told her what would happen in court and Hannah tried to listen.

An hour later she was handcuffed to a warder and led up the narrow. stone spiral staircase and into a brick corridor, past notices saying “Silence”. Hannah repeated the word over and over in her head.

The warder leading her opened one of the numbered doors and she walked through into what she thought at first was a high wooden veranda. When she looked over the top of it she realised she was in the dock of a court room. Below her were rows of wooden benches with several gentlemen sitting on them wearing wigs and gowns. The smell of old polish and cigar smoke filled her nostrils. She felt as if she’d passed from one world into another, as if she’d walked onto a stage. She looked up at the huge windows and the carved gold emblem hung high on the wall with words carved in it that she assumed were latin. Underneath it sat a thin stern faced man wearing a long grey wig, half moon spectacles and a red robe; the judge she rightly guessed. She hooked a finger under the thin chain around her neck and pulled out the silver cross that she wore out of sight under her high necked bodice and lifted it to her lips. Then she dropped it back into it’s hiding place.

As she looked at the backs of the men sitting in the benches facing the judge one of them turned round and smiled. She wasn’t sure who it was at first. He was wearing his wig now and it made him look somehow different..  The sound of blood pumping in her ears quietened as she recognised her barrister.

Another man wearing a wig and long black gown stood up and started speaking, but she couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying.  She scanned the room and the faces of the people she could see. There were so many of them.  Hannah heard a familiar cough above and behind her then and  turned round to see three rows of people looking down on her.  She saw George, her father in law, in the middle of the front row, his face drawn and worried. When he saw her looking at him he smiled warmly.  She felt her cheeks burn. At the end of the second row she saw the slight figure of her mother and alongside, her father, hunched over. As their eyes met her mother put her head to one side, and she saw her shoulders drop slightly as she breathed out and gave her a smile that  Hannah knew conveyed her pity and love.

Hannah hung her head and looked at her feet as meaningless isolated words registered; ” no provision made, …….  no midwife,…………crepitus,………

Then, no one was speaking, and in the silence the warder she was handcuffed to lead her out of  the dock, across the court and into another box where she faced the judge sitting high above her.  Her barrister stood up and asked her questions, the same ones he’d asked in the cell. After the answer to each question he paused and read the next from the paper he held in his hand. She heard herself telling her story again as she answered.  After a while the pitch of his voice lowered and he spoke even more slowly, as if signaling that he was coming to the end.  “Was anyone with you when you gave birth?

She heard herself say “No, I was alone.”

Did the child cry.?

“No, he did not”

“Did he draw breath?”

“No Sir, he did not.

Then,  louder and more slowly still “Did you kill your child Mrs Pipkins?”

Hannah’s head rocked back and her eyes widened as if the question had hit her like a slap. She heard herself say clearly and firmly, “No, he was dead when he was born. If he’d have been alive I would have left him on the steps of the Woolwich orphanage Sir. like I told you.  I would not have killed him.”

The judge looked at her impassively, but Hannah knew he would believe her because what she’d said was true.

Her barrister sat down and Hannah thought her ordeal was over. She readied herself for her journey back to the dock and looked at the warder beside her but he didn’t move. The barrister who’d spoken first then stood up and Hannah remembered that her own barrister had told her she would have to answer more questions after she’d answered his.  Hannah looked at the man carefully as he slowly laid out sheets of paper on the bench before him.  She noticed that his wig seemed discoloured and bits of loose hair stuck out of the sides like bits of straw. His face was round, red, and partially covered by a fringe beard. She was struck by how fat his fingers looked. As he spread his papers out on the bench in front of him she could hear him breathing.  Once his papers were organised to his satisfaction he looked up at her and asked his first question.

“Who was the father of the child?”.  There was no warmth in his voice.

Hannah looked down and said nothing.

“Who was the father of the child?” he repeated more loudly.

Hannah felt the eyes of everyone in the courtroom staring at her. Her breath came faster and shallower and she felt like a small animal in a trap. Her throat closed up. She couldn’t speak.

” Very well, let’s try a different tack” he said. ” You gave birth in November didn’t you Mrs Pipkins?

” I did Sir”, Hannah replied, hoping that he had abandoned his line of enquiry.

“So……” he looked down and Hannah watched his podgy finger move from right to left as it tapped it’s way over a document on the bench before him.

” You must have conceived the child in February of last year then…..Agreed?

” Yes, Sir. I think that would be right”

“Good……Mrs Pipkins, now be good enough to tell the Court how many men you laid with in February last year”

Hannah felt herself redden and she looked at him with a startled look which she felt  turn slowly to indignation. She said nothing.

” Come along now Mrs Pipkins,…… answer me. How many? Twenty? Thirty? Forty?

Hannah felt stunned and looked at him unblinking.

He repeated impatiently,  “How many?”

Hannah could feel a sense of panic rising within her. She knew what he was suggesting. How could she defend herself without revealing the truth.  The word “Silence”  repeated in her head, spoken in her own voice.  Her thoughts began to overlay it.  She gripped the rail of the witness box in front of her and felt her palms sweating and a tingling sensation all over. She felt herself sway slightly and she turned her head sideways as she frantically thought of the possible answers she could give.  She hadn’t considered a suggestion such as this being made. Rapid thoughts crashed through her mind. “I’m no stranger to betrayal” she thought, “but who should I betray now?” If she continued to be silent it would be thought she was a common prostitute. The image of her mother and father sitting in the public gallery looking down on her flashed across her mind. She couldn’t allow them to think that.

She turned her head the other way. If she named the man responsible her poor husband, who had not wronged  nor harmed her in any way,  only loved her, would be tortured for the rest of his days.

She turned her head back again. And what of him, the true father. Why should she protect him at the cost of her reputation…….the only thing she could keep now?” Why should he go unpunished when I could lose all, my reputation as a Christian woman,  maybe my life even”. The anger mixed with sorrow,  that had passed through her many times for what he’d done rose in her again. It was an emotion that she did not like and was not used to. The thought flashed through her mind “Anger is not a good decision maker” . She asked for God’s help. He told her she should tell. She’d sworn on the bible to tell the truth hadn’t she? Her husband and parents may think her foolish, corrupt even, but she could not allow them to think that of her.

All these thoughts went through her mind in less than fifteen seconds but the tension inside her, and in the court room mounted as they did so.

The eyes  watching her shamed her in a way she had never experienced and the silence became deafening to her. She released the rail of the witness box as her decision was made.

As she was about to speak her barrister stood. The prosecuting barrister looked across at him and sat down quickly, swirling his gown around him as he did so.  Hannah’s body sagged.

“How is this helping us M’Lord?” her barrister said.

Hannah wondered if she might be saved.

The Judge looked at the prosecution barrister.  He stood up again and spoke.

” My purpose is to assist the jury M’Lord. If this woman laid with so many men that it was impossible for her to know who the father was, they may regard that as shedding some light on her motive for disposing of the child. If the identity of the father were known however, that may provide the brightest illumination in helping them when they consider what might have driven her”

The judge thought for a second and replied with one word “Proceed”.

Hannah’s barrister sat down slowly.

“So, Mrs Pipkins”  said the prosecuting barrister.  You must tell us how many men you laid with in February of last year. How many? Remember you are on oath”

Hannah took a deep breath, lifted her head and placing some wayward strands of her dark brown hair behind her left ear, said quietly “One man, Sir’.

“Ah, now we are getting somewhere” said the barrister. “And his name Mrs Pipkins?”

Hannah paused, turned her face upwards as a tear fell from her chin and said, “George Pipkins Sir, my father in law”. She looked down again and some hair  loosed from her bun helped to cover her face.

Loud murmurs came from the gallery and jury box. Hannah turned and looked up at the public benches. She looked at George, who stood up. “Sorry, I had no choice” she said as he pushed  past the other occupants of the bench and hurried from the court. Hannah then looked at the sad impassive faces of her mother and father and whispered the word again…….. “Sorry”

Her mind emptied and her legs began to wobble as Hannah was led back to the dock. She felt strangely numb as she watched a man she vaguely recognised walk confidently into the witness box. She’d seen him before but couldn’t think where at first.  He said his name was Dr William Herring and Hannah then remembered that he was the doctor who had come into her room shortly after the policeman.

It was some time before she could concentrate on what was being said.  Eventually she heard the question.  “Did you examine the child?”.

” I  briefly examined the child on entering the room and satisfied myself  that he  was indeed dead.  I made a complete examination the next day.”

“And found?”

A mature, full grown, healthy male child. It’s lungs were fully inflated, pale pink”.

“What is the significance of the condition of the lungs?”

“They would not have been like this if the child had not breathed.”

There were other questions but Hannah couldn’t concentrate on them, or on his answers as she imagined the impact on those she loved of what she had just revealed. She wished none of it had happened. She thought of her poor husband and her parents . Her mind stopped working as if cloaked in fog. She felt suddenly cold and faint and she shivered. The warder beside her grabbed her arm to steady her and she recovered somewhat.

The doctor was saying “I placed the lungs in water and they were perfectly crepitant and crackling under the fingers when pressed, showing the presence of air”

“Is that a test recognised by the medical profession as diagnostic of life in these circumstances doctor?”

“Indeed it is. It’s the standard test accepted by all doctors as the way to establish if air has been drawn into the lungs before the death of a new born infant. . It is called the hydrostatic test “. Hannah felt herself shaking her head.

“And the most likely cause of death?”

“Suffocation, in my view” the doctor replied.

“You’ve seen the mother at her home and now in court today doctor. In your opinion would she have the physical strength to suffocate a newborn infant”

“Undoubtedly” replied the doctor. “It would take very little strength to do so”

Hannah heard someone screaming “No, No, No”. Then she realised it was her.

The warder grabbed her arm again, shook her and told her to be quiet. He said the judge would tell him to remove her if she wasn’t silent.   Hannah hung her head and her mind wandered. She thought of the night she gave birth and what had happened. Disembodied voices were background noise to her. She began to sob loudly and felt the warder stand up beside her and lift her by her arm.  He held her up as she slumped against him.

She heard the judge say “Hannah Pipkin, you are sentenced to  be taken hence to the prison in which you were last confined and from there to a place of execution where you will be hanged by the neck until dead and thereafter your body buried within the precincts of the prison and may the Lord have mercy on your soul”.

Hannah’s barrister went down to the cells to see her to fulfill his professional duty, but when he reached the door of Hannah’s cell he could hear her screaming inside. He looked at the warder who was with him who said “Not much point in my opening up Sir, is there? “No”, he’d replied as he turned on his heel.

In the robing room he met the prosecuting barrister who smiled broadly at him as he shook him by the hand. “Well done” he said. “You did well. It’s always good to start with a no hoper. If you’ve no chance to start with there’s no shame in losing old chap. No one could have won that for her”.

He went straight to the entrance hall and his heels clicked as they smartly crossed the marbled black and white floor towards a well dressed middle aged couple sat on a wooden bench. They smiled broadly at him as he approached.  His father said “Well done my boy. You kept your wits about you well enough and were as cool as a cucumber”. As he pumped his right arm up and down he added ” But you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear now, can you?” His mother beamed and said “You looked the part perfectly darling”.

“How is she now?” his father asked. The young man shook his head and said, “Oh, I tried to see her but she was too distressed to talk.” He leant into his father so his mother wouldn’t hear ” Off her head, alone in her cell screaming two words over and over “don’t” and  “stop.”

“Come on you boys” his mother said. “Let’s go and have that celebratory drink”.

John McSweeney.  April 2013

Read the original trial of Hannah Pipkins here:

Copyright John McSweeney April 2013


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