Ann Little – driven to a terrible act

On July 11, 1881, Ann Little, 45, who couldn’t read or write, was charged with attempting to drown herself and her two youngest children, Annie and Joseph, in the River Caldew, near Hutton Roof.

It sounds an unspeakable act, yet it in the courtroom, she met more with pity than anger or disgust.

So, who was Ann Little? And what drove her to drag the infants into the Caldew around 11pm that summer’s night, about a mile from her home?

A terrible act

The short version of events is that a man called Jonathan Oldman was walking home when he heard children screaming. He found the trio in the river (Ann Little was face down), which at that spot was around 15 feet wide and four feet deep.

Jonathan plunged into the water and dragged them back to the bank. At first he feared little Joseph, aged three, was dead. He got all three to the home of Ann’s aunt, Mary Ann Oldcorn, at Stuart Hill, where they were taken care of and recovered.

Along the way, Ann had told Jonathan her husband was a very bad man, and asked him to let her go back to the river, but he wouldn’t.

Fearing starvation

Before the main hearing, further information became public. Widowed Mary Ann Oldcorn, ‘of Stuart Hill, Greystoke’ (Stewart Hill), said Ann Little was her niece and the wife of George Little, of Heggle Head (or Hegglehead). She thought they had ‘about six children’. 

The Littles lived about quarter of a mile from her and were very poor and badly off. Ann had complained at times of want of food. 

Ann had lived with her till she went into service.

John Little, aged 11, and brother Robert Little, 7, were the other children living with George and Ann Little. The others did not live at home. 

They had 24 acres of land, two cows, three stirks and a pony.  

Supt Fowler said the farm buildings were a complete wreck.

Ann’s age was given as either 40 or 45. Her husband George was said to be 80.

Ann Little’s case was heard in full in November 1881, before His Lordship Mr Justice Kay.

Mr Mattinson for the defence said Ann was 40 and had been married for 16 years to a man who was now 80 and with whom she’d had a great deal of trouble, and quarrels. 

George Little was said to be a farmer, but his circumstances approached abjectness. This had got to the point where she feared they faced starvation.

She had been kind to her children and had acted under some delusion that it was the best and happiest thing to drown them.

Her aunt Mrs Oldcorn would take charge of her if released at an early date. She was a good character, but they were in extremely destitute circumstances.

Mr Elliot, for the prosecution, said they did not wish to press the case beyond that which was necessary in the public interest.

The Rev E A Askew, vicar of Greystoke, said Ann Little was a perfectly respectable, industrious and honest woman. She and her husband had been in great difficulties and he understood there was a positive want of food.

Mr Justice Kay called Jonathan Oldman and praised his courage, saying he wished he had the power to reward him. This unhappy woman and her children owned him their lives. (applause in court).

His Lordship deferred sentence to the next day, when he told Ann Little her case had given pain to all who heard it. He had the power to jail her for life, but believed she had been driven to this fearful act by misery – partly caused by ill-treatment. 

He believed she had done it in a moment of temporary insanity. She’d been in prison a few months now. He’d pass the lightest sentence possible, out of pity for her and her poor children: nine months with hard labour.

As she was removed, he said he didn’t know if any benevolent people could assist the children: it was a case where benevolence would be very well employed.

No stranger to want

Let’s rewind, to try to find out more about Ann Little

Ann was born Ann Brownrigg, circa 1840. In 1841, she (with siblings) was living with her parents John and Barbara Brownrigg, in Haltcliff, Caldbeck.

In 1851, Ann was indeed with uncle and aunt Isaac and Mary Ann Oldcorn, at Low Higgle Head (sic), Hutton Roof. As was her sister, Mary Brownrigg.

Their parents hadn’t died – they show up together in 1861. But, John Brownrigg (in 1851) was working as a farm servant, away from his family. I couldn’t find Barbara.

It looks like the family had hit hard times, and that aged 11, Ann was already no stranger to poverty and fear for the future.

Short-lived security (if it was)

Ann did indeed go into service. 1861 shows her as a farm servant, in Crosthwaite district. 

But even if this was a period of security, it likely came to end just a couple of years later. I can’t find a birth record, but around 1863, Ann had an illigitimate daughter, who she named Barbara Brownrigg, after her own mother.

Once again, Ann faced hardship and fears for the future. Becoming a single mother looks to have forced Ann to return to the Hutton Roof area. Where she met and married confirmed bachelor George Little – quite likely in the forlorn hope of security for herself and her daughter.

Ann married George in 1865.

The 1861 census shows George Little, 56, single, was farming 14 acres at Hutton Roof, with a (female) general servant. Perhaps intially he took Ann on as a housekeeper. 

1871 Heggle Head. George Little and Ann have with them children Isabella 5, Margaret 3, John 1. And (George’s) stepdaughter Barbara Brownrigg, aged 8, born Uldale. as was Ann. The othere were all born Greystoke. 

An unfit husband

The 1881 census was taken just a few months before Ann’s terrible act. 1881. It is a reminder that George Little was then 76 (Ann 42).

George may have been able to father children in his mid-seventies, but his age may have meant he was no longer up to running even a small farm. He was in no position to hire anyone to help, and his oldest son was only 11.

Various witnesses said Ann had been in low spirits, and had quarrelled with her husband, who couldn’t work. George was also said to be hard of hearing.

The words to the court imply there was more to it than that, though: that Ann Little had suffered more than just a husband who was no longer fit.

For sure, it was her circumstances in 1881, not her past, that evinced pity in the courtroom.

And after?

However much one may pity Ann Little, the fact remains that little Joseph and Annie endured a terrible experience. And it was only down to luck (Jonathan Oldman hearing screams) and his swift and brave response that they weren’t murdered that night by their mother.

With the near-tragedy occurring so soon after the 1881 census, we have to wait ten years to find out more about the children.

In 1891, Robert Little, now 17, is a farm servant in Bolton (Cumberland).

What is more significant is:

1891 Westward. Rosley

Ann, 15, Joseph 13, and Isabella Little, 25, are living with uncle and aunt William (farmer) and Isabella Barwise, both in their 60s. (also there is brother-in-law Joseph Carr, so Mrs Barwise has to née Carr, which doesn’t explain the aunt/uncle thing).

Isabella Little had been with them ten years earlier. As she’d stayed there a decade (at least), it seems a reasonable guess that Annie and Joseph were taken in by William and Isabella Barwise some time around the court case. Maybe John and Robert, too?

In 1901 Ann and Joseph are still with Mr and Mrs Barwise, said now to be cousins of Mr Barwise, working on his farm.

So, what about George Little? And Ann Little?

I couldn’t see either in 1891. It’s possible George died in 1887 (Wigton district). It would be interesting if anyone has a certificate to confirm that, and with the place and cause of death. Did he struggle on at Heggle Head in his final years?

In July 1882, George Little was fined 1 shilling and 6d for allowing two cows and a pony to stray at Sowerby Row. It’s the same George, as he was said to be ‘very deaf’. He told the court the cattle ‘would get out and he could not help it’. And sighed audibly with relief when shown the extent of the fine. Sowerby Row is three/four miles from Hegglehead. His capacities as a farmer clearly hadn’t improved in 12 months.

And what of Ann Little? After her nine months with hard labour in prison – and with the thought of what she had nearly done surely affecting her for the rest of her life – what future did she have? Was she desperate enough to go back to George, even for a short time? Could she face going back to somewhere where people knew what she had done? 

Did she go to family elsewhere? Or, try a new start where no one would connect her with the news stories?

And did she ever have any contact with her children again? And could they, especially Annie and Joseph, ever face her, after she had come so close to killing them both?

Ann Little in later life

Most of those answers are lost to us. All we can see is where she was ten years later, and beyond.

There is a widowed Ann Little, right age, and born Uldale, on the 1891 census – in Bearpark, Elvetham, Durham. ‘Uldale’ matches Ann’s entry on the 1861 and 1871 census. 

‘Widow’ may mean she knew George was dead; or maybe it just sounded better than being a married woman with no husband in sight.

She is housekeeper to a stationary engineman called Lancelot Barnes, 47, born Westward, Cumberland.

Their neighbours are all coal miners and labourers, and it seems unlikely an engineman could afford to employ a servant, so maybe ‘housekeeper’ was just to make things respectable. 

By 1901, Ann (now 60) was in Borrowdale. She was a domestic servant to widowed John Richardson, 72, and his children (aged 35 down to six). This Ann is ‘born Ireby’ – matching her entry as Ann Brownrigg in 1851.

I couldn’t find her in 1911.

 The hero

It would be nice to end on a happier note, with a word on the man who averted tragedy. Sadly, it doesn’t help that the stories refer to the man who waded into the river as Jonathan Oldman in initial reports and Jonathan Oldcorn later. This may simply be confusion with Ann’s aunt, as there is no suggestion he was a relation. There is no Jonathan Oldcorn on the census.

However, there is a Jonathan Oldman on the 1881 census. He is a shepherd, aged 34, living with his widowed father and sister in Bannest Hill – just the other side of the Caldew from Stewart Hill.

Ten years later, he is still there, but now a farmer with a wife and three young children. His wife Catherine (née Mallionson) died in 1908, aged 55; leaving him and the now-grown-up children there in 1911. 

Fast-forward to 1928, when Jonathan Oldman died, still of Bannest Hill. He was 82 and left effects of £2,875.

It is nice to see he had prospered.