Wednesday 13 February 2013

'You be hanged by the neck until you are dead' - The Tragic Story of My Ancestor Mary Prout

My family research has taken on a life of its own since I finally made the long-delayed leap into researching my own history a few weeks ago.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I made a start on the 'Cole' side of my family - my father's paternal and maternal side (my grandparents were both unrelated Cole's on marriage!) from south Pembrokeshire before making a start in the past week on my maternal family in the north of the county around Nevern and Eglwyswrw. Both of course are on-going but firm foundations have now been set on both sides.

But as a cousin of mine rightfully forewarned me as I began my journey:
"Anyone willing to undertake genealogical research into their own family, must be prepared to uncover some uncomfortable skeletons lying in the cupboard" .
How true he was.

Because whilst I have found the research to date to be incredibly stimulating (my combined trees have now already got over 900 names between them) in painting a vivid portrait of my origins in a way and to a degree I could not have comprehended only weeks ago, so too has the prophecy come true.

I have already unearthed a number of unsavory stories that will remain untouched and left unspoken out of respect for those still living, but I can recall one story from another age and which has received publicity which gives a harrowing account of a young ancestor of mine.

The Prouts of Amroth
A big breakthrough in my research was to solve the conundrum that I mentioned in my last blog post - that being the heritage of my great-grandmother Margaret Cole who married William Cole from Landshipping in 1901.

It turns out that her father Thomas was an Allen from Jeffreyston/Lawrenny whilst her mother Elizabeth was a Prout from Saundersfoot. Her father (my ggg-grandfather) was John Prout from Amroth, the son of Thomas Prout (born 1784) of the Fox and Hounds there.

John's elder brother Thomas fathered at least 10 children with his wife Mary Llewellyn. The 5th of which was Mary Prout born in around 1842/1843.

Mary was my 1st cousin 4 times removed and her harrowing story has been re-told by Bethan Phillips in her 2007 Gomer Press released paperback book 'The Lovers Graves: 6 True Stories that Shocked Wales' which I purchased online on being told of the sad story that is to follow by one of the many distant family links that I have made over recent weeks. I thank Bethan for her research and quote below sections from her chapter on what was an awful story borne from an unrelentingly harsh era for those who fell off the beaten track.

The Sin of Mary Prout
The story as told by the book itself throws up some potential inaccuracies when compared to the census returns but what is known is that in 1863, Mary fell pregnant out of wedlock when working as a maid in a large house in Saundersfoot. Her mother Mary had died a few years earlier in 1861 aged only around 48 and her religiously strict father Thomas disowned her for bringing shame on the family and for being unwilling to divulge the name of the father. Her maternal grandmother looked after her briefly but she soon had to take up residence in the harsh environs of Narberth Workhouse.

She gave birth to a baby girl she named Rhoda, in the middle of April the following year, 1864 but because she had a relative who was able to take care of her, the Guardians passed on the responsibility and requested that Mary leave by the middle of May.

Reports from those who knew her inside and outside of the workplace spoke of a gentle, quiet character who had a fondness for her child but a melancholy for her state of affairs. For all the grim realities of living in the work house, it did at least give Mary a sense of place, a routine and a sanctuary from an unforgiving outside world for a young mother with a fatherless child. Leaving this 'haven', must've come as quite a shock for her.

On 20th May, she left the workhouse and made her way on the 8 mile trip back home with her a crying infant in her shawl and the few meager belongings which she could call her own. We can only imagine what was going through her mind at this difficult time as she went back to an uncertain world.

Later that evening after 8pm she was seen by a mother and daughter who knew Mary. They spoke to Mary as she held her baby. Not long later at 8.30pm, Mary returned home but without her month old child. She told her grandmother that baby Rhoda had died in Narberth Worhouse a few days earlier but the protestations to the contrary by the Guardians led to a search for the missing infant.

Two days later on 22nd May, the gruesome truth was found. William Davies, the husband of the same woman who had spoken to Mary on her way home a few days earlier, descended into the nearby 'Little Pit' with his son where they found the body of the infant.

As he said at the time:
"I found the body of the child - it was lying on its right side at the bottom of the pit: I brought the baby up, it had a cap on, but the skull was smashed. The baby was placed in a bucket and hauled up".
A day later, Mary was arrested for the murder of her child. She confessed to the crime but claimed that she had been driven to her action by anxiety and despair.

At Rhoda's inquest, she was confirmed to have died from a fractured skull and the verdict against Mary was of 'willful murder'.

Her case came up in front of the Assizes in Haverfordwest the following month and whilst she pleaded guilty to the charge, her defence stated that as no-one was there as a witness at the time, it could not be proved beyond doubt that the sickly child had not died of convulsions and was therefore already dead when Mary threw her down the shaft.

The jury returned and found Mary guilty but asked for leniency from the judge in the circumstances on the punishment. However, the Judge, Justice Crompton delivered this verdict:
"The sentence of the court is that you Mary Prout, be taken back to the Prison from whence you came, and thence on a date to be determined, to a place of execution, and that you be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that your body be buried within the precincts of the gaol".
In the intervening period between her sentence and her public execution in Haverfordwest however and probably unbeknowns to Mary, a campaign was launched to petition the Home Secretary in London, Sir George Grey, to give her a pardon by commuting her death sentence. It was signed by many pillars of society and one of the greatest proponents for the petition was the editor of the Haverfordwest and Milford Haven Chronicle who argued strongly against the death penalty in his own newspaper. At a time when public hangings were still accepted though in increasingly lesser numbers (Mary's was to be the first in Haverfordwest in 40 years), this was quite a courageous quest on which to campaign.

But he was not alone as within a week, 1,120 names had been collected and given to the High Sheriff to pass on to the Home Secretary.

On 18th July 1864, the Under Sheriff J. Rogers Powell received this response from the Home Secretary:
I am to signify to you the Queen's commands that the execution of the sentence of death passed upon Mary Prout now in Pembroke County Gaol, be respited until further signification of Her Majesty's pleasure.
Your obedient servant, 
The campaign was won and Mary Prout was saved her day with the hangman. Instead, she was sent to serve 20 years in prison in London for her crime but was in fact released after only 10 years.

Mary returned to Pembrokeshire where she married a local man and had two children. My research into her whereabouts on her return show that her husband was indeed over 20 years older than Mary and lived in Saundersfoot at the time of her incarceration. By the time of her release, his older first wife had passed away and a year before they married in 1883, Mary's father Thomas died.

The question must be asked - why would Mary return to her homeland after her 10 years in jail where she would likely face very difficult questions on her actions when she could've lived with sisters who had moved away or made a fresh start on her own?

Is it possible that her older, future husband and father to her two later children, was indeed the same father to Rhoda? It is unlikely of course, but not at all inconceivable. Would that not be the most incredulous of twists as I write this, on the eve of St Valentine's Day? That love can truly conquer all?

Either way, after his death, Mary and her children moved and in the recently released 1911 census could be found living in London. This is where Mary died in 1921, aged 78. She returned home and her gravestone back in Pembrokeshire, as pictured in Amroth Churchyard, shows that her elder children clearly thought much of their controversial mother.

Mary Prout's gravestone at Amroth
Churchyard (Source: Ruth Roberts)
The inscription reads (with grateful thanks to Ruth Roberts):
"Mary Rees, late of Saundersfoot, who passed away in London. 
Dear mother, thy work is o'er. Thy loving hands shall toil no more. No more thy gentle eyes shall weep. Rest, dear Mother, gently sleep. Erected by her sorrowing children".
We can only speculate as to what went through the young Mary's mind when she made that shocking decision back in 1864. We are now, here in the 21st century, well versed in terms such as post-natal depression, but they were not de-rigueur back in Victorian Britain.

This was a human tragedy. A tragedy for young Rhoda, but also for her mother who rightly was allowed to live but who then had to live with her actions for the remainder of her life.

Little Rhoda it is said is buried in St Issels Churchyard near Saundersfoot, the same location as her mother's late husband - but in an unmarked grave.

Next year, 2014, marks the 150th anniversary of her untimely death in tragic circumstances. May she, and her mother, rest in peace.


  1. Most interesting and well constructed blog.

  2. Wow an amazing story. Surely a perfect anecdote against the Death Penalty! Glad to have found your blog

  3. There is another book written exclusively about Mary Prout by a gentleman from Milford Haven. Shall try and find details if you don't have it.


  5. Thank you very much for this information Sparkle. Do you know whether any of the Limited Editions are available for sale? When was the book published?

  6. This is interesting. My mother-in-law' s great aunt was Mary Prout. She died at the age of 90 and had been utterly mortified when the story of poor Mary was revealed by Trevor Fishlock in the early 1990s, I believe. From then on, we made almost annual pilgrimages to visit her grave in Amroth. We were told that she did not return to Wales but stayed in London and became a skilled tailor. She eventually returned years later. Her children did indeed think very highly of her.

  7. Thank you for your comment, it's great to hear from you. I would very much be interested to hear from you again as I do not know what became of her children. It was be lovely to make contact with living relatives down from Mary.

    Please contact me on or on 07817 865 712.