Annie Robinson murder in mind

Here’s to you Annie Robinson..?

Annie Robinson was seemingly deserted by her first husband, married the second in dubious circumstances, then tried to poison him after in order to marry his cousin.

My post on Victorian photographers and cartes de visite ended with a mention of the curiously named Shirtcliffe John Priest. And how looking into his story uncovered his inadvertent role in conviction a local woman of attempted murder. Her name was Annie Robinson, née Smith. Although it’s not even clear if her marriage to poor Rowland Robinson was ever legal.

The photographer

Shirtcliffe John Priest was born around 1858 at Gringley on the Hill in Nottinghamshire.

In 1901 he was living and working from 22 Paxton Terrace, Barrow. By 1881, he was based Barrow. His earlier Barrow photos carry a studio address of William Street. He married Elizabeth Ann Howson on the Isle of Man in 1881. 

And in 1895, Annie Robinson turned up at his studio, with a man she claimed to be her husband, and got Shirtcliffe John Priest to take their photos.

Only if Rowland Robinson was, unwittingly, not her legal husband, the man Annie was with that day  most certainly wasn’t. 

Annie Robinson/Annie Smith/Mary Ann Smith/Annie Thornborrow

Annie Robinson, née Smith, was a native of Ulverston, and the daughter of Henry Smith and his wife Sarah. On the 1861 census, she is listed at Mary Ann Smith, aged 9, and living with her mother in Dalton in Furness. Henry’s name has been crossed out – but he was about somewhere and was with Sarah on the 1871 record.

In November 24,1874, at the Independent Chapel, Ulverston, Mary Ann Smith married Christopher Thornborrow. The 1881 census shows them living at 19 Tower Street, Ulverston. They have three children (William, 5, Mary Agnes, 4, and Harriet, 10 months – a fourth was born a few months after the census was taken). Christopher Thornborrow, 26, is working as a ‘contractor of roads, sewers, etc.’

‘Gone away hurriedly’

However, things weren’t harmonious in the Thornborrow household. For circa 1887, Christopher Thornborrow, went away ‘hurriedly to Buffalo, in America’.

(One can only hope that was true). On the 1891 census, daughter Mary Agnes Thornborrow was a domestic in service. Where were Annie (Mary Ann) and the younger children? All we can be sure is that by 1893, she was working as a domestic servant in Cleckheaton, Yorkshire, first for a Mrs Guy Goldthorpe, of Pyenot Cottage; then for a Mrs L Smith of Pyenot Hall. She was using her maiden name, Annie Smith

Attempted murder

In September 1895, Annie Robinson – described in one news report as

‘a stout woman with a round face of the cook type’

– was accused at a police court hearing in Huddersfield of poisoning her husband Rowland Robinson with metallic mercury, with intent to murder him.

A dubious marriage

‘At Birstall Parish Church, on January 7, 1895, Rowland Robinson of Huddersfield, to Annie Smith of Liversedge’

Rowland was 57; and a batchelor. No one seems to know if Annie was actually free to marry. With Christopher Thornborrow ‘in Buffalo,’ she may have had no idea herself if she was still his wife. But for sure, she chose to use her maiden name rather than put herself down as Christopher’s widow. And the record of their banns reads ‘spinster’.

While her position could maybe excuse that, her behaviour to Rowland Robinson was less easy to be charitable about. For just a few months later, she tried to poison him.

In sickness, till death us do part

Having married Rowland Robinson in January 1895, Annie got him to make a will in her favour; took out life insurance in his name, and; enrolled him in a burial club, which would also pay her money on his death.

She also met his cousin James Robinson.

Around Easter 1895, Annie went away for a few days, telling Rowland she was going to her brother’s wedding. In August, she went away again: to see her father, Henry Smith,who she said was very ill. So ill, that she sent Rowland Robinson a telegramme saying poor Henry had died.

He hadn’t.

Annie came back to Rowland wearing mourning dress, refused to share his bed, and gave some ‘disagreable and heartless’ insults for not doing so

And then Rowland Robinson became very ill indeed.

The short version of his illness is that (the prosecution alleged) Annie was putting mercury in his milk – and was his nurse for a few weeks, till the doctor became suspicious and engaged a nurse called Katherine Campion to look after Rowland. Who slowly began to recover.

The other Mr Robinson

Rowland Robinson’s cousin James Robinson, born about 1854, was said to be ‘a very good-looking young man’. He was the son of Rowland’s uncle David Robinson and his wife Bridget. By 1895, he was a widower (I’ve not found his wife or any children).

Remember the photographer, Shirtcliffe John Priest? His wife, Elizabeth Priest, gave evidence that Annie Robinson and James Robinson had come to the studio on September 14 to have their photos taken, as ‘husband and wife’. 

Other witnesses from Barrow said James Robinson and Annie Robinson had shared a room that night at a temperance hotel. 

Open and shut case?

It took the jury just one minute to find Annie Robinson guilty. She was sentenced to 20 years’ penal servitude.  


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