Cressida Connolly

The mother of all crimes

Kate Summerscale rediscovers a sensational case of juvenile matricide in Victorian London — and an adult life spent making atonement

During the heatwave in the summer of 1895, the Gentlemen v. Players match at Lords Cricket Ground on 8 July attracted more than 12,000 spectators. Among the crowd that sunny day were two little boys from the East End of London, brothers Robert and Nattie Coombes, aged 13 and 12. That morning they had got themselves up and prepared their own breakfast. Their mother was in the house, but she wasn’t able to see to her boys, because during the night Robert had killed her. He had stabbed her with a knife bought expressly for this purpose and then, just to be sure she’d perished, put a pillow over her face.

In the days that followed, Robert and Nattie had a fine old time. They went again to watch the cricket, where they saw W.G. Grace score his seventh century of the season. They roamed the sweltering streets and played cards in their house. They may have spent time reading, during the heat of the afternoons: Robert was especially fond of the penny dreadfuls, sensational story-books which chronicled the adventures of pirates and highwaymen, as well as tales of true crime. If the neighbours noticed a funny smell in the cramped little Plaistow terrace, no one troubled themselves to investigate. Perhaps the long drought had brought many unsavoury odours. It was only when the boys’ aunt Emily turned up that the police were summoned. Mrs Coombes had been lying dead upstairs for ten days by then.

Kate Summerscale’s brilliant account of an earlier Victorian murder, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, also featured a teenaged perpetrator. With her meticulous research, spry prose and eye for the telling detail, no other writer could have made the Coombes case so fascinating and so vivid.

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