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The Drowning of Christina Collins

Ralph Barker

Christina was fished out of the canal at one o’clock on the morning of Monday June 17. By Tuesday afternoon an Inquest had been called.

At this Inquest, and at the trial that followed three weeks later, prejudice against the three accused boatmen seemed likely to overwhelm them. But the evidence was circumstantial, and the trial judge was about to dismiss the charges, ruling that so far as rape and murder were concerned there was no case to answer - when the prosecution produced a surprise witness.

Their witness was a convicted bigamist, sent down for eighteen months at the same Assizes, and thus temporarily incompetent to testify. But application might be made for a Queen’s Pardon. Yet his evidence was hearsay. Although the application was bitterly contested by the defence, it was granted. Thus the Queen - and her ministers - would be involved.

This resulted in a delay of eight months. Meanwhile the three boatmen, now facing a murder charge, languished in gaol.

As early as the 1840s, capital punishment, even for murder, had come under enlightened scrutiny, and the boatmen’s attorney, a 45-year-old Staffordshire man named Chas B.Passman, himself a campaigning abolitionist, believed in the innocence of murder of two at least of the men, and resolved to fight.

At the second trial the convicted bigamist (and thus a proven liar), repeated a so-called confession from the boat captain, related when the two were cell-mates. This ‘confession’, purporting to describe in horrific detail the captain’s version of how Christina died, led to all three boatmen being sentenced to hang.

Passman now embarked on a last-ditch campaign to demonstrate the perversity of the verdict, stressing numerous inconsistencies. His appeal was rejected at first by the Home Secretary, but he persisted, and his submissions achieved a one-week Respite. Then, 48 hours before the time fixed for the delayed execution, the Home Secretary, on the advice of the Judge who presided at the second trial, warned that the law must take its course.

This so galvanised the Governor and Chaplain of the Prison that, together with two of the prosecuting counsel, they asked themselves, on behalf of one in particular of the accused, what might yet be done to save him.

An under-sheriff found that he had authority to delay the execution by a few hours, giving time to send an emissary to London to plead with the Home Secretary for this man’s life.

At one o’clock on the morning fixed for the execution, a messenger arrived by post chaise via Birmingham at Stafford Gaol with a Respite for one prisoner. But which one? Is it the captain, the only one of the three who treated Christina with anything approaching decency, and who appears totally innocent of her death? Or is it the one who admits he attempted to rape her, but now seems penitent?

The Prison authorities, fearing a violent reaction from the other two prisoners, resolve to suppress the news of the Respite until the last moment. Not until the condemned men have been given the Sacrament, and have left the Chapel to accompany the Execution Party to the Lodge Gates (outside which ten thousand sightseers have gathered) is the lucky man called back by the Governor to be told of his further Respite.

Choking with emotion, he asks permission to say a last good-bye to his mates. The scene that follows, for the few people present, is unforgettable.

In the shadow of the gallows, they show humility and comradeship. Are they, after all, such evil, guilty men?

As they mount the steps, facing the multitude, they seem resigned to their fate. Dominating the final scene is the robust figure of the Queen’s Executioner, William Calcraft, determined as always not to be funereal. ‘I am not a parson, still less an undertaker.’ Dressed in a shooting jacket, he sports a flower in his buttonhole.

After hanging for an hour, the bodies are cut down - but not before the Respited man is shown the convulsions of his colleagues from a distance, as a reminder of the fate he has so narrowly escaped.

It is not the captain.