Through my research these past few months, I’ve uncovered several tragic stories surrounding the lives and deaths of my ancestors; John Stevens, my great-great-great-uncle, spent 17 years incarcerated in Moulsford Asylum, Berkshire until his death in 1888 at the age of 51; Jonah Rogers my great-great-uncle, was killed in the second battle of Ypres on May 8th 1915 at just 22 years of age; and Henry Jones, my great-great-grandfather took his own life in Cefn-y-Crib, Wales in June 1889, whilst, as his death certificate records, ‘temporary insane’. Death certificates can, as I discovered with that of Henry Jones tell one a great deal about a person’s life as well as their death, and knowing that my great-great-great-grandmother, Charlotte Noon, had died in Oxford at the age of just 33, I was intrigued to see how she’d met her end, assuming that it was as a consequence of disease.
Having received the certificate in the post however, I was stunned to see the cause of death given as follows:
“Wilful murder bythe said Elijah Noon, the husband of the deceased.” Place of death, “Portland Place, Cardigan Street, St. Thomas’, Oxford.”
I must admit it took a while for the fact to sink in and questions such as how he had killed her began to demand answers. But there were other questions too arising from my research which didn’t seem to fit with the facts as presented by the certificate. If Elijah Noon had, as the certificate stated, wilfully murdered his wife in May 1852, how was it he married Sophia Kinch in December 1854? Surely in those days, if you were guilty of murder, you were hanged?
I decided the next phase of my research would be to look at local papers for the time – namely, Jackson’s Oxford Journal in which I assumed I would find some mention of the case. The next issue following the date of the murder was that published on Saturday 8th May 1852 in which I found a very lengthy report on the murder, the inquest and the subsequent hearing at which Elijan Noon was committed for trial at the next Assizes.
As with the stories I’ve previously mentioned, my ancestors in this case were, in reading the report, certainly brought my to life, even in the retelling of what was a terrible death. Reading their words; “Oh, good God Almighty what shall I do?” “Pray let some one come for I shall die,” I found myself hearing them speak. “Oh my dear boy,” some of the last words of Elizabeth (Charlotte) Noon to her eldest son Elijah. Of course the account is tinged in places with a degree of Victorian melodrama, and at times that which to the modern reader, might seem absurd understatement (“oh dear, what shall I do?”) but the sincerity of the writing is evident and indeed compelling enough to get a sense of the whole tragic affair, the drama not only of the murder itself, but the impact it had in Oxford as a whole.
In the final paragraph of the piece, under the heading “Examination of the Prisoner by the City Magistrates” the words of Elijah Noon, a man “undone” by his actions, say it all.
“The prisoner was then asked by the Mayor if he had anything to say? when he replied ‘I have nothing to say, gentlemen.'”
One can almost hear his tone of voice, see him standing with his head bowed, his whole world and that of his family turned completely upside down. Committed to trial for the wilful murder of his wife, he must have supposed he would hang.
In stories such as this, names become people. Parents and children become more than just past facts in a family tree and the last line of the report illustrates this clearly:
“The announcement [commital for trial at the next Assizes] increased the distress of the prisoner which had manifested throughout the investigation and the parting with his son and daughter was of the most painful nature.”
I have made as best I can from the two prints of the report in Jackson’s Oxford Journal, a PDF copy which is available to download.
So given the dire position in which my great-great-great-grandfather found himself in May 1852, how was it that he lived to marry Sophia Kinch and father seven more children before his death in 1889? Returning to the library I turned again to Jackson’s Oxford Journal. I had thought at first to try and look at the Assizes records but these are held at Kew. I also tried to find the dates of the Assizes held in 1852 but to no avail. However, knowing that there were three Assizes in the year including one in summer, I assumed that Elijah’s trial would take place soon after his appearance before the magistrates at which he was committed for trial.
In the same newspaper I eventually found notice of the Oxfordshire Summer Assizes and the trial of Elijah Noon. It was to take place at 9 o’clock on the morning of Thursday 15th July and in the edition for the 17th July, a full report was given. Again I have created a PDF of the report, but have transcribed a little of it below.
“The trial of Elijah Noon for the murder of his wife, Elizabeth Noon, was fixed to take place at nine o’clock this morning, and by that time every part of the Court was crowded. The prisoner on being placed at the bar, looked very ill, and appeared to feel his position very acutely. Mr. Cripps and Mr. Sawyer were engaged for the prosecution, and Mr Pigott and Mr. Huddlestone for the defence.
Mr. Cripps opened the case by adverting to its painful character, a husband being charged with the wilful murder of his wife, and that it was rendered the more painful because the principal witness in the case as the daughter of the prisoner. Mr. Cripps then detailed the facts of the case, as given in the evidence, and concluded by saying that he felt assured that after they had heard all the evidence, the defence, and his Lordship’s summing up, they would return such a verdict as would be satisfactory to their own consciences and to the public.
Elizabeth Noon, the daughter of the prisoner, was then examined, and was about detailing the facts, when the prisoner: fainted, and was obliged to be taken out of Court. He looked ghastly pale, and his daughter burst into tears, and a more painful and distressing scene has rarely been witnessed in a Court of Justice. The trial was delayed for nearly half an hour, and as soon as the prisoner had revived, he returned into Court, and the case proceeded.”
It is no wonder Elijah Noon looked so ‘ghastly pale.’ He had killed his wife, spent two months in the city gaol and had been separated from his children. Furthermore he was staring at the gallows. The judge in the case had already directed the jury that “no amount of provocation given with words could have the effect of reducing the crime from murder to that of manslaughter,” and this it seems to me was all he could really rely on. “Great allowances must certainly be made for the infirmities of human nature, and when death ensued by means which did not show actual malice, then, in most cases, the crime would be that of manslaughter; but short of that, and if the provocation given were only in words, and death ensued, then the party must be considered as guilty of murder.”
Yet despite the odds seemingly being stacked against him, Elijah Noon was found guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter and sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labour. Bizarrely, at the same Assizes, two men on trial for stealing a pair of trousers were given 7 years transportation due to it being their second offence.
Further to studying the newspapers, I was interested in discovering the location of Portland Place. I know Cardigan Street which is listed as being part of the address in the newspaper and on the death-certificate, but Portland Place has disappeared since then. On looking at a map of 1850 however, I found that Cardigan Street continued into Portland Place, whereas today it is all Cardigan Street.
Having studied the map, I walked to Cardigan Street, the layout of which has changed a great deal since that time, but the part of the street which was Portland Place still exists, and walking down there, even though the houses have all changed and the views completely different, I still felt a chill run down my spine.
We are, as I’ve often said, a product not only of everyone that went before us, but everything they did. Anything different and we would not be here. It felt strange then to think that I was only able to walk down that street because, in some small part, of the terrible incident which happened there over 150 years before.