Mabel Hughes c.1678-1755

Workhouse Pauper who Killed a Boy in Her Care

Whether Mabel Hughes's cruelty towards Alexander Knipe amounted to murder is doubtful, but for its critics this case epitomised the cruelty and inefficiency of the parochial workhouse.

Early Life and Marriage

Mabel Hughes was born in Greenwich between around 1678 and 1680, and was apprenticed as a spinner and winder of silk in the parish of St Botolph Aldgate. She was married to Dannel [sic] Hughes, by whom she had two children, both of whom had died by the spring of 1739.

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Pauper in Old Age

On the 4th of February 1739, Mabel and Dannel were passed from St Saviour's parish, entering the workhouse belonging to St Botolph Aldgate. In the workhouse register Mabel's age is recorded as being 60, while Dannel's was 57. She would later explain to the Ordinary of Newgate that she entered the workhouse because she was unable to provide for herself during the notoriously hard winter of 1739. Dannel died within a month of entering the house, on 2 March 1739, and Mabel was put to work supervising the boys who wound silk there. Finding it difficult to control the boys and frequently beating them, they often played tricks on her.

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One Sunday afternoon in July 1755, some fifteen years after Mabel became a resident, half a dozen children were playing in the workhouse garret after having eaten their dinner. According to one of them, John Travilian, aged 13, Mabel Hughes "fell a licking" all the children, but particularly an eleven year old called Alexander Knipe. Knipe had been born with a hernia and, according to Travilian, Hughes stamped on him and kicked him in the groin, knowingly rupturing the hernia. Knipe spent an agonising night, groaning and crying with pain. Several workhouse inmates tried to comfort him, but he was dead before morning.

At least seven inmates gave evidence against Hughes at her trial. Eleanor Fitzer said Hughes was "a very hard-hearted and barbarous woman", and another, John Cox, said he had seen Hughes beat the children. Knipe was described as a mild tempered and cheerful child who "would not hurt a worm" by the workhouse mistress, Sarah Cole, who said that there was no reason for Hughes to have beaten him. Hughes claimed that the children were being very noisy, and that Knipe had fallen between two trunks. She also said that the children were apt to take her work and spoil it, even dropping it into the vault or privy. She also brought several character witnesses who testified to her good character. None were from inside the workhouse.

She was found guilty of murder and executed on Monday 15 September, at the age of 77. Following the provisions of the 1752 Murder Act, her body was delivered to Surgeons Hall to be dissected and anatomised. The act also dictated that she should be executed without delay. In the short spell (two days) between conviction and execution, the Ordinary of Newgate did his best to save her soul, but he found her ignorant, illiterate, "scarce escaped from being an ideot", and "unfit to have the management of children".

External Sources

  • Hitchcock, Tim. Down and Out in Eighteenth-Century London. 2004, pp. 136-38.

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About this Biography

Created by

Mary Clayton 

Further contributions by

Robert Shoemaker