Ralph Barker Titles

The Drowning of Christina Collins

Christina Collins 2-3.jpg

A true story.

The 38-year old woman who embarked unchaperoned and alone on a voyage from Liverpool to London by canal, in the third year of the reign of Queen Victoria, was facing the unknown. The date was 27th June, 1839. Six days of tedium at three miles an hour lay ahead of her, at the mercy of the elements. Yet she knew what she was doing. Hitherto a strolling player, a minor star in the showbiz firmament of the day, travel and accommodation had always been primitive for her. Now, anxious to rejoin her ardent but unstable new husband in London, she relied for protection on a natural elegance and style.

“If I’m molested,” she announced to the four assembled boatman who would have charge of her, three men and a boy, “I’ll do away with myself.”

She soon had grounds for complaint: the company—Pickfords—had failed to provide straw for her comfort in the hold. This led to an offer from the boat captain, a Pickford’s employee, to share the cabin with him—normally out of bounds—on that first evening, while the crew were busy elsewhere.

They talked about her colourful past, and he—also aged 38—was fascinated. With the boy asleep, and with one man leading the horse and the other steering, his rough and ready sympathy, and the warmth of the cabin, proved soothing. They were alone for several hours. The other two crewmen, jealous and resentful, resolved it would be their turn next.

Several times, at their various stops, she complained to canal staff of the lascivious behaviour of the two crewmen. Often, to avoid them, she took to the canal bank. Some time after midnight on the second night, the boy asked “Where’s the woman?” She was missing. Soon, as they sped on, she was fished out of the water.

An inquest next day returned a verdict of “wilful murder, against all three men and the boy”, and they were committed for trial at the approaching Assizes. At the trial, the Judge ruled “no case to go to the Jury”. But the prosecution, producing a surprise “hearsay” witness, sought a postponement. The Defence objected: the witness, a convicted bigamist, could only give evidence if granted a Queen’s Pardon, but that would be sought. It would also secure his release.

Eight months later, on the hearsay evidence of the convicted bigamist, all three adult boatmen were sentenced to death.

An 11th-hour reprieve was sought, and obtained—but for one man only. The captain, who professed his innocence throughout, was not spared. The lucky man, who admitted raping the woman, reaped the reward for penitence.



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