Let’s pop over to the other side of Swansea this week, for a change, and think about what the local press called the ‘Blackpill Sensation’ in November 1907, which began when William Griffin was rushed to the Swansea Hospital after being poisoned.
He was a young married man of 22 who worked the nights at Clyne Colliery. He had returned from work after the Wednesday night shift and complained to his wife, Mary Ann, that he was not well. Just before he went to work on Thursday afternoon, Mary Ann prepared a drink for him, after which he collapsed, and became unconsciousness.
The Griffin’s had met in London two years earlier, where Mary Ann was in service, and William was working on the buses. They married in 1906, and returned to Blackpill, where her family lived near Clyne Wood.
The Griffin’s lived at Clyne Cottage, a short distance from Blackpill. There were two isolated cottages here on the site of old chemical works, the other occupied by Mrs. Isaac and her son. This was a place of some industrial dereliction and one of the many interesting things about the story is the picture that it gives you of what Clyne was like in the early twentieth century.
At the rear big mounds of coal slag form a strange contrast to the sylvan scenery with its trees shedding their tinted autumn leaves, and a pleasant brook running twenty yards below the cottages.
The Griffins’ home was poorly furnished.
The downstairs room possesses two small tables and a couple of chairs, with several small photographs hanging round. On one of the tables could be seen on Friday morning the remains of a meal. Upstairs, but for two small bedsteads, a chair, and a picture, the place is bare. The fireplace, though, is draped with muslin. It was on one of these beds that William Charles Griffin, the young collier labourer, lay down to sleep after leaving the night shift on Thursday morning.
William’s issues began on Wednesday night when he went to work, taking with him some bread and treacle and a jugful of tea for his 11 pm snack. As soon as he had finished, he became violently sick. He was still unwell when he went home at the end of his shift, in great pain and with serious diarrhoea, and so Mary Ann gave him some tea and toast.
Whilst he was sleeping Mary Ann went out to buy some port, and then in the afternoon, when William woke, she arrived upstairs with a cup containing some dark fluid, and a glass. She held up the cup. ‘This is for you,’ she said, and then held up the glass. ‘This is for me.’
William noticed that the cup was full, while there was little in the glass, so he chivalrously suggested that Mary Ann should have some out of his cup. She shook her head. Not at all suspicious, obviously. She explained that she had added some ginger to it, ‘It will do you good.’ So he drank some of it.
He immediately experienced considerable pain and lost consciousness. When he woke, he found that he had been tied to the bed. There was a muffler around his throat, which was tied to the top of the bed and was strangling him. His hands were tied together with another muffler. I believe that this still happens in Blackpill, at some of their more sophisticated parties.
When Mary Ann came upstairs, she untied William, claiming she had restrained him because he was ‘jumping about all over the place.’ As far as William was concerned, if he had been having convulsions, it was because she had given him carbolic acid to drink. He screamed out that he was being poisoned.
‘No. why should I do that ?’ She started crying, and left the cottage.
However, one of the Isaac family heard the commotion and came into the house and gave him an emetic of salt water and milk, which William believed had saved his life. After he had vomited, there was a strong smell of carbolic, acid and so Dr Perkins was sent for, who immediately ordered that a policeman be found to take William to the hospital.
When Sergeant Evans from the Mumbles Police Station took him there in a cab, he saw Mary Ann in the company of a soldier named Lee, near the Swansea Recreation Ground. Evans immediately arrested Mary Ann and took her with him to the hospital, and then subsequently charged her. All that she would say was , ‘He may say that I have given it to him. He is bad enough to say anything.’
Now, what had been going on here? Something? Or nothing?
When she appeared before the magistrates, accused of trying to murder her husband, she was very distressed and it became very clear that there was no chance of her establishing any credible defence. William sobbed whilst Mary Ann cried her way through the hearing and asked her husband to forgive her, but it was a little too late for that.
There was a lot of talk about vomit, of which there was plenty in the bedroom, smelling strongly of carbolic acid. The police also reported that they had found a strap and two mufflers under the chair, which would not have been hard ,considering the lack of furniture. Mary Ann denied it all as best she could. She admitted that she had bought carbolic acid from Moses the Chemist on High street who remembered her telling him that she wanted it to wash a wound in her father’s leg. She also said
‘If I had listened to my mother on Friday last I would have got a separation order from him’
which, if the poisoning attempt wasn’t enough for you, might confirm that the marriage was not a happy one. If you are still not convinced consider that the hearing also established that when Griffin drank the tea he took to the colliery for his supper, he shared it with a man named Luton, who also became violently sick, and also suffered from diarrhoea.
William certainly complained about her inattention to him and that she stayed out late at night. In addition, she had recently kept disappearing and not saying where she had been.
And then, of course, we have this soldier, George Lee, a private in the Welsh Regiment, who was home on leave and met Mary Ann at the Star Theatre. It seems that she followed him after the performance, and persuaded him to walk her home, since she had ‘lost’ the last Mumbles train to Blackpill. She invited him to her home the next day. Whether for safety, or whether in anticipation of something more exotic, isn’t clear, (this was Blackpill, after all) but he turned up to see her with a mate called Last whilst William was at work, and they spent a cosy night together ‘in front of the fire.’
William came home and found two strange men in the house who she said were cousins of her stepfather. He was not impressed and said that if he found strangers in the house again he would leave her. Lee later claimed this was the first time he realised that she was married, though it does not appear to have discouraged him. In fact, her suggestion that she had worked as a prostitute in London in order to support her husband might have encouraged him in certain expectations. It was, it seems, just one of her stories.
On the day before William was given the carbolic acid , Mary Ann showed Lee some blue paper packets, whispering that they were ‘Powder,‘ though she would not say what they were for. These had presumably been mixed into his food and his tea before he was taken ill at work. She continually complained to him about er husband’s behaviour and asked if Lee would take her with him to his next posting in South Africa. He refused. You suspect that this was getting much more complicated than he had ever anticipated. Whether he knew this or not isn’t clear, but Mary Ann had already told Mrs Isaac that if her husband died she would marry a soldier.
When her case came before the Cardiff assizes in February 1908, she pleaded guilty and thus her case took no more than ten minutes. She was extremely distressed and her written statement was handed to Justice Lawrence. She apologised, though what she said was almost inaudible.
I have read your statement and I see that you do say you are sorry, and you also say that your husband has forgiven you and I hope that your sorrow is real, as the crime to which you have you have pleaded guilty is a very wicked and an exceptionally serious one. It is very difficult to know how to deal with it, but I trust the sentence I am going to pass on you will be a warning to others in a like position.
He sentenced her to penal servitude for ten years.
But, you see, Mary Ann had previous, that was the thing. She had got herself into difficulties before and remarkably, this was not the first time she had been called ‘the Blackpill Sensation.’ Her first appearance in that unwanted role was in 1903, when she was eighteen and known as Mary Ann Richards and was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment for attempting to commit suicide in October at Lower Sketty Farm, Blackpill where she was working as a servant. She had tried to cut her own throat with a table knife but had only succeeded in causing some superficial scratches.
Why did she do this? Probably because she had unleashed something she could not control, as you will see.
In September 1903 so many people had turned up at the Police Court to hear the story of what was described as a ‘mysterious assault at Port Talbot’ on Mary Ann Richards, that there was not enough room for them all . The three men in their twenties, Thomas, Jenkins, and Davies, were charged with committing grievous bodily harm on Mary Ann on Tuesday 1 September.
It had started on Wind Street in Swansea. Why is it always Wind Street? Anyway, the story Mary Ann outlined was that she met the three men and Davies, who said his name was Jones, suggested that she should go off with him. She agreed and so they went and caught a train to Aberavon.
Now I can confirm that you are not the first person to think that this is strange and rather unwise behaviour on the part of Mary Ann. If her story was correct, then what did she think she was doing?
On arrival, as they walked along by the side of the railway, Jones invited her to go into the woods with him. She refused. Then Jenkins offered her the same opportunity. In fact all three men said it would be worth her while. She said no once again and said that she was going back to Swansea. Jenkins put his arm around her shoulders and tried again, saying that she wouldn’t get a train until 10.00 pm and that she would be better off spending her time with them.
When she said she would rather walk back to Swansea, Jenkins tried to drag her into the woods; she pulled herself free and Jenkins hit her in the face with his fist. She fell unconscious between the train lines.
This was witnessed by the well-known Aberavon rugby player, Lewis Thomas, who waded across a river to help her. As he did so, a train passed along the line but Mary Ann seemed to roll away.
The defence argued that everything was exaggerated but it was regarded as sufficiently serious for the case to be passed on to the Assizes where it would be heard in front of a jury. The three men were charged with grievous bodily harm and of attempting to procure a woman who was not of a certain class for improper purposes. Don’t you just love the last part of the sentence?
The local press loved all the details; a rugby player heroically wading to the rescue across a raging torrent, a girl dragged from beneath the wheels of a train in the nick of time. None of it was true, of course, but it put Mary Ann at the very centre of public attention, and perhaps it was a place she did not want to be.
It was at this point that the suicide attempt was made. The whole thing had become very serious, very adult. Whatever it was that she had set in motion, could no longer be controlled. Was hers a genuine attempt at suicide? Or was it a cry for help? In the days prior to the attempt, she had been very peculiar in her manner for a week and she had been using scissors to cut her eyelashes off.
Mary Ann had written a suicide note which was read to the court, written it seems after her stepfather had had a word with her.
Dear Mother and Father,—Just a few lines to wish you all good-bye. Because I could not stop thinking of my father’s row. But one thing I hope, the Lord will help me and provide me. Give my best love my dear brother and never trouble about case. I wish I could keep my heart to face Cardiff. I will die free from guilty of that case. Whenever they die the Lord will pay them. I wish you all a love and hoping to meet each other in heaven. Never wish to meet my father in heaven for I never forgive. I must leave this world. Good-bye.
You might ask yourself, troubled as she certainly was, who was she trying to hurt? Mary Ann was clearly a confused, unhappy and vulnerable young woman.
By the time the case was heard at the Assizes in Cardiff in November 1903, Mary Ann had been released from prison and was in the care of the Salvation Army.
The details of the case were repeated to the jury, though this time she admitted that she already knew Davies as William Jones from when she lived in in Llanelly. She did agree to go with him to Aberavon and confirmed that he promised to pay for her fare and lodgings. He did indeed invite her into the woods with him, but when she said no and that she wanted to go home, he offered to go back with her on the 10.00 pm train.
Jenkins did try to stop her, saying, ‘Don’t be so dull; come on.’ He did attempt to persuade her to go into the wood, adding, ‘Don’t be so silly; we will make it up to a good lot of money for you.’ When she refused again, he struck her twice on the face. She knew nothing more until she re-gained consciousness at the hospital.
Her actions were certainly very peculiar and her admission that she was subject to fits allowed the defence to argue that is what had happened. She hadn’t been hit at all, but in the end, as a result of a deal made during an adjournment, Jenkins changed his plea to guilty of unlawful wounding and the other two men were found not guilty. The judge felt that Mary Ann was not without blame in this incident and so he passed a token sentence on Jenkins of one month’s hard labour.
All this must have had a real impact on Mary Ann. She was clearly a troubled young woman, certainly unhappy and almost certainly in need of the sort of help which was rarely available to ordinary people.
Perhaps she realised that she was developing an unwanted reputation that she could not shake off.
Perhaps that is why she moved to London.
Perhaps that’s why she told Lee that she’d worked on the streets. Who can say?
But once you know all this, and all about that unhappy marriage, the way the anguish and the suffering of those experiences filled the little cottage in Clyne, was inevitable.
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