‘The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer’ – Kate Summerscale

The Wicked Boy


Thank you to NetGalley and the publishers for the advance copy of this novel. Just as with ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’, I was absorbed by this meticulously researched and fascinating story.

Set in 1895, we see 13 year old Robert and his younger brother, Nattie, spending money that it seems they should not have. They tell neighbours that their mother has gone to visit relatives in Liverpool, and they have been left in the care of a family friend. For ten days their behaviour is not seen as out of the ordinary. Our suspicions are raised by comments about a foul smell coming from the home and Robert pawning much-loved possessions to obtain money.

It is not until their aunt becomes suspicious and forces her way into the family home that we learn the source of the smell. The badly decomposed body of their mother is found upstairs in her bedroom, and Robert confesses to matricide.
Summerscale takes us through the trial at the Old Bailey and details of what happened next. This was packed full of information about the case, but it also included a wealth of details about life and attitudes of the time. We are told of the plea that Robert was insane, and I could not help but be shocked by the generally held beliefs about the effects of educating the poor.

When Robert is sentenced to imprisonment in Broadmoor, that could have been the end of it. What follows seems more a work of fiction, but we learn of the chance Robert was given to start a new life and the way he seizes this opportunity. This, for me, was what made the story special.