Emily Jane Popejoy

The Tragic Story of a Bagshot Girl in Victorian Times.

Christmas is expected to be a time of joy and happiness, but for one 17 year old local girl, just before the turn of the century, it was as far from this as one can imagine.

The story commences in 1896 when the mother of the young girl was approached and asked if she would like her daughter to take employment in London as a domestic servant. There was a post available with a Mrs Nicholls in Pitt Street, a fashionable area of Kensington, which would just suit a girl like Janie. She would have a good home and the work she had to do would be light. She would have but to wheel an invalid young lady, about her own age, in a perambulator in Kensington Gardens when the weather was fine. She would get 1s.6d a week to start with.

Janie, 16, was big and strong for her age, and healthy, having had but two days illness in her life and she commenced working for Mrs Nicholls in October 1896. Her life at Pitt Street was unhappy in the extreme and can only compare with certain episodes in a Dickensian novel. She was systematically starved and had to resort to begging bread from neighbours and pleading with them not to inform her mistress. On one occasion she was observed being beaten in the street by Mrs Nicholls with an umbrella. At another time she was seen to be dragged by the hair backwards into the house and belaboured with a stick. On being asked why she put up with this and didn't return home, Jane said that she had no money and must not go.

In her first letter home she said that the work was hard, as she was having to do the washing for all the family and she was given only bread and dripping and tea with no milk and very little sugar. Her mother's reply was intercepted by Mrs Nicholls and she was beaten for writing home without permission. Her next letters were dictated by her mistress and she was compelled to write that she had a kind mistress and she was sorry for mentioning the bread and dripping. It was all a mistake.

On Christmas Eve 1897, accompanied by a nurse from The Travellers' Aid Society, she arrived at Ascot from Waterloo and was conveyed to Bagshot in a horse carriage. She was in a pitiful state, could not stand and had to be carried into the house. On Christmas Day, Dr Osborne was summoned, and carried out his examination. He found that although five foot five inches (1.66 m) tall, Jane weighed only four and a half stones (29 kg). She had a broken nose, a broken finger, bruises all over her body and was suffering from acute starvation. He told her mother that she was dying. With her mother she said a prayer that either she should get better or she would be taken to heaven. Her lips were seen to move following her mothers words.

The Doctor advised that the police should be called in. On 27th December, P.C. Nunn from Peel House came and took a statement which Jane, being barely able to speak, just managed to get out, that her mistress was responsible for her condition. The Magistrate arrived just as she breathed her last.

An inquest was held in Bagshot over five days amidst hostile demonstrations by villagers. Then followed two and a half days at a Magistrates Court in Chertsey and as a result of intervention by the Public Prosecutor, it was transferred to a Metropolitan Magistrates Court at Bow Street.

After hearings lasting a further four days, Mrs Nicholls was committed to the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey, to answer a charge of manslaughter.

This resulted in a sensational five day trial, in which Mrs Nicholls, in spite of being defended by the redoubtable Marshall Hall, was sentenced to seven years penal servitude, and committed to prison at Aylesbury. On each occasion of Mrs Nicholls' appearing for court hearings and on her departure to serve her sentence, she attracted enormous public demonstrations of hostility.

graveA national Sunday newspaper of the time, The Weekly Dispatch, because of the intense interest occasioned by the trial, organised a public subscription to fund a memorial to Emily Jane to be erected in Bagshot's little graveyard. The plot was given by the vicar, Revd Lory, who waived funeral charges and Edwin Spooner, the notable local builder and undertaker, provided the Sicilian marble cross for the cost of the materials.

Although, at one time completely vandalised it can, with its memorial inscription, be seen today, in its repaired state, under a cypress tree near the Chapel Lane entrance to the graveyard.

The above is based on an article by the late John H. Jillings (at the time Hon. Research Officer - Bagshot Society) published in the December 1997 edition of St Anne's Bagshot Parish Magazine.

June reminds us that John Jillings wrote a book about Emily Jane and the subsequent court case and that Bagshot Library may have a copy. Also that a booklet about the case was written in 1977 by Rev Dr Norman Court.  {Apr 11}

Norma contributes: The procedings of this court case can be read in full at the Old Bailey web site (Old Bailey Proceedings Online www.oldbaileyonline.org April 1898, trial of CAMILLA NICHOLLS (t18980425-329).)

Some of the newspaper reports give drawings of Mrs. Nicholls, and some of the Popejoy family, etc. We have access to these newspapers, online, via our local library. One of the newspapers mentions that the Vicar of Bagshot was involved in placing Emily in the position as Servant to Mrs. Nicholls.

There is one odd thing about the Popejoy family, as, on earlier censuses Emily's parents are shown as born in Berkshire, but later censuses show born in Bagshot. {Apr 11}

June Green has added some detail: The cause of Emily Jane's death was most probably bronchial pneumonia, but she was malnourished, had a broken nose and septic foot and a severe burn on her hand. Before expiring she told PC William Nunn "in a voice clear and vibrant" that her injuries were caused by her mistress, Mrs Camilla Nicholls of Pitt Street, Kensington, with whom she was in service. The trial judge was Sir Walter George Frank Phillimore, afterwards 1st Baron Phillimore of Shiplake, Oxon {Apr 11}

Terry wrote: I have been told that Emily Jane Popejoy lived in one of the cottages opposite Nottcutts (formerley Waterers) in Laurel Cottages. Can anyone confirm this ? And do you know what number ?  {Mar11}  To which June Green replied : "Emily Jane Popejoy lived in what is now Nos.165 and 167 London Road, formerly known as Laurel Cottages, Jenkins Hill." {Apr 11}

Pat Burgess adds: Emily Jane Popejoy's father, George Popejoy, was born in the village of Ogbourne St George, Wiltshire. George's family originally came from Burbage, Wiltshire. He seems to have moved his family from Wokingham, Berkshire to Bagshot in or around 1876. [Apr 12]

From Lynn : What a find. George Popejoy is my great great Grandfather. The family has been traced back to a Robert Popejoy born in 1767 in Burbage, Wiltshire. [Oct 13 xx] 

From Bob S: Does anyone have information about Emily’s youger brother Frank Popejoy who I believe is my grandfather from my mom’s side Rosa Wolf Powell. I believe after WW1 Frank changed his name to Frank Powell and had two daughters Rosa and Betty. He fought for the Canadian Expeditionary Forces in 1915 and was shell shocked as a result of an exploding shell in the Somme in 1916 and was in a French, then English and finally a Canadian hospital for about a year. [Mar 19]

Many of my pages have been prompted by, or include questions or information from, my readers. If you can add anything to the above please write to me using the message pad below.

This page is part of the Bagshot village web site.

Copyright John H Jillings and St Anne's PCC 1997 | privacy policy

Data provided only for personal background information. While every effort has been made to provide correct information no assurance as to its accuracy is given or implied. Check any facts you wish to rely upon.