The Tragic Servant Girl

Elizabeth Ann Wright was just 16 years of age when she began working for Mr and Mrs Ebenezer Stacey, whose house was on Western Bank, Sheffield on 3 January 1894. However it was not long before she found out that she was working for a very demanding mistress. When Elizabeth started work, Mrs Stacey had had promised to pay her 4s a week. But her mistress kept a very wary eye on her servants and would fine them for any breakages. Not unnaturally this made the poor servant girl very nervous particularly when, the same week she started work, Elizabeth somehow managed to drop a coffee jug. Mrs Stacey told her that she would have to take 4s out of her first weeks wages in order to replace it.

In the second week of her employment, her mother Mrs Alice Ann Wright received another letter from her daughter outlining her disappointments in the new post. Elizabeth told her mother that even though she had not been working for the family for long, Mrs Stacey had already given her a months warning on the Tuesday of the second week. Her employers wife had told the girl that she was very disappointed in her and she would have to reduce her wages if she continued to do her work as badly as she had done previously. Elizabeth also complained that she was not allowed a light in her bedroom at night, so she had to grope her way into bed at the end of a very long day.

The very next day, Mrs Stacey gave Elizabeth two ugly print dresses to wear, because she did not like the clothes that her servant had brought with her from home. Matters continued to deteriorate and just three weeks into her service, Alice Wright received yet another complaining letter from her daughter, which outlined even more terrible treatment from her mistress. Elizabeth said that her employers were ‘always out’ leaving her to deal with their unruly children. She complained that they ‘tell tales about me and they do peek and pry.’ and ended the letter stating ‘I cannot say much as I have a lot of work to do before she comes back.’

On the night of Saturday 27 January 1894, it seems that Mr and Mrs Stacey had been invited to a supper party, consequently they did not arrive back at the house on Western Bank until around midnight. However they found that their servant Elizabeth was missing, although thankfully all the children were all still sleeping in their beds. Mrs Stacey was furious at her servants deception and decided to dismiss her in the morning, but her servant never returned that night. The next day, finding that the girl was still missing, she went to her parents house at High Green, Sheffield to complain about her leaving them without a word.

However she found that Elizabeth was not at home with her parents. Needless to say Mr and Mrs Wright were most worried at this news and had no option but to report her missing to the Sheffield police. A search was instigated and concerns deepened when some of Elizabeth’s clothing was found lying beside Howbrook Reservoir near to where they lived on Sunday 28 January. The reservoir was dragged by some police officers, but nothing was found until it had been completely drained altogether. There, on Tuesday 30 January at the very bottom, the body of Elizabeth Wright was found.

Needless to say, an inquest on the body of Elizabeth Ann Wright was convened by the Sheffield Coroner, Mr D Wightman. It was held at the Salutation Inn at High Green, Sheffield two days later. Also in attendance was Mr A S Fawcett, a solicitor for Mr and Mrs Stacey as well as Sergeant Burton of Chapeltown, who represented the West Riding Police. The deceased girls mother Eliza was the first witness, and she told the inquest that she was the wife of James Wright, who lived just a few doors away from the Salutation Inn. She told the coroner that her daughter had been a strong and healthy girl who had been looking forward to her first position as a domestic servant with the Stacey’s.

The witness described how her daughter had left home just over three weeks previously, and that she had not seen her daughter since. The coroner asked her if there had been any insanity in the family, but Mrs Wright quickly denied it. A member of the jury asked Mrs Wright if her daughter had been a timid girl, to which her mother replied that she was. Then the same juror her asked why her daughter should have gone to the reservoir to kill herself, instead of going home to her parents instead. He pointed out that the water was less than a quarter of a mile away from her own home. Sadly Mrs Wright had no answer to that vital question.

Another witness was a farmer of High Green called Charles Scholey, who told Mr Wightman that he knew the deceased and that on the Saturday night she disappeared, the girl had travelled in the same train compartment as himself. They had both travelled from Sheffield to Westwood Station, where they arrived around midnight. Given the late hour, the farmer had kindly offered to accompany her as far as his own house, which was on the way. The witness admitted however that they had little conversation as Elizabeth seemed to be reluctant to converse and the night itself was very windy. As they had walked however she did tell him that she had left her employment at the house in Western Bank.

Then she left him and she was heading in the direction of her own home, so he naturally assumed that was where she was going. The coroner at this point asked if the girl had seemed depressed at all, but the farmer said that she just appeared as she normally would. The next witness was another person who knew the family and he introduced himself as a miner called George Laycock of Mortemley. He described find a woman’s hat, jacket and umbrella in a field near the reservoir on Sunday 28 January 1894. He immediately sent for a police officer and within a short time Police Constable Brooke arrived.

He searched the clothing and found a note and a letter in the jacket pocket. The note simply said ‘Goodbye to all dear friends. Goodbye to the missus who made me do this.’ The letter was just a folded sheet of paper and was addressed to Elizabeths family. Inside she had written:

‘Dear mother and father, sisters and brothers,
I say good-bye to you. Missus has been a bad one to me, and I ran away tonight. I came home by the last train to drown myself, for I dare not come home. My dinner on Tuesday was nasty and I am sure they are trying to poison me. I am writing this sat on the grass. Never let Lucy go to such a place mother.’

There was silence in the room as the letter was read out. One of the jury cleared his throat before adding that it was evident from the letter that the deceased had fully intended to drown herself, even though no one had actually witnessed her going into the water. PC Brooks told the court that he knew the girls father James Wright and he had always been a straight man and a good father.

Mr Wright who was also present was then asked to give evidence. The coroner, Mr Wightman asked him if his daughter would take exception to being rebuked about her work, but he explained that this was not the first position his daughter had held. However he said that she had always got on well with her mistresses in the past. However he did admit that if he or his wife chastised Elizabeth for anything, that she would be very ‘cut up’ about it. The next witness was a keeper of the reservoir, a man called George Rogers. He stated that at first the police had dragged the reservoir with hooks on the same day that the clothing had been found. They found nothing and so he had to open the valves and drain the water out completely. Subsequently it had been two days later on the Tuesday before the body was discovered.

The keeper said that at the place where the body had finally been found, the water was about seventeen feet deep. The body had been found in a corner of the reservoir, so that accounted for the reason why it had not discovered earlier when the police were dragging the water. The coroner cross examined Mr Rogers as to whether the reservoir had been safely fenced off and the witness replied that it was his job to repair and replace any damage to the fencing around the water. He stated that the girl would have to be very determined, as she would have had to climb over a four foot high fence to get into the water. However it was the next witness which most of the people at the inquest wanted to hear from.

Consequently there was a distinct murmur in the room as the woman at the centre of the case introduced herself. Mrs Stacey told the inquest that the girl had proved to be completely incompetent, to the point where she had been forced to give her notice to leave the following Tuesday. Ironically, that was the very day in which Elizabeth’s dead body had been found. Mrs Stacey however didn’t hold back and she told the inquest that the girl was incapable of cleaning rooms properly or doing any task that was required of her. The witness then described how she and her husbands had return home on Saturday 27 January only to find the girl gone.

Mr Wightman asked her if she had told the girl that she would not pay her the promised wages of 4s a week, but the witness corrected him. She said that she had told Elizabeth that ‘she was not worth the 4s a week.’ To no ones surprise her employer also complained that her servant always looked sad and appeared to be quite depressed in spirits. Then, when asked by her own solicitor if Mrs Stacey had decided to take the servant back after giving her notice, the witness agreed that she had agreed to give her servant a second chance. Mrs Stacey maintained that she had always treated the deceased with consideration and kindness. She pointed out that the girl had never complained to her about being badly treated.

At this point the solicitor intervened again and asked the coroner if he could give evidence as to Mrs Stacey’s relations with a previous servant who had been with her for four years. However the coroner told him that it would serve no purpose as she had not been employed whilst the deceased girl had been working for the Stacey’s. Curiously, one of the jury asked Mr Wightman if he could judge what might be the cause for the girl’s depression, and the coroner answered that there could be many reasons. He said that a lot of people were suffering from depression and melancholy without ever knowing the reason for it. He stated that it was something which baffled even the best medical minds.

In his summing up, Mr Wightman told the jury that it was very clear that the girl had drowned herself. Therefore the jury had to decide on her state of mind at the time she did it. He stated that he would point them in the direction of the last letter to her parents, and suggested that anyone who felt that they were being poisoned suggests that she might not in her right mind. The coroner also noted the deceased comments regarding her ‘daring not to go home’ which he found to be equally mystifying to understand. Mr Wightman said that he had spoken to both parents and they were equally baffled.

Finally he directed the jury to remember that the deceased had not simply walked into the water by accident, as was proved by her clothes being found. The jury retired for a short while to deliberate, and a few moments later filed back into the room. The foreman gave the verdict which was that ‘the deceased had committed suicide whilst in a state of temporary insanity.’ Mr Wightman told the jury that he entirely concurred with their decision. He then told the inquest that Mrs Stacey had kindly offered to pay the girls funeral expenses, which had been gratefully accepted by the family. The inquest was then formally closed.

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