MANY are the tales that came out of Worcester’s notorious County Jail in Castle Street, now the site of the local university’s colourful and uplifting Art House.

In its 108-year life between 1814 and closure by the Home Office in 1922, the formidable fortress-style complex saw 300,000 convicts come and go, while 38 men were hanged within its walls, the remains of at least a dozen being left behind long after the prison gates slammed shut for the last time.

It’s well recorded the last to face the drop was Chinaman Djang Djin Sung a hundred years ago this year.

But though Sung had the unenviable distinction of being the last man executed at the prison, he was not the last to die there at the hands of another. That belongs to an unnamed baby girl found in a dustbin on Friday, March 28, 1924, allegedly murdered by her 17-years-old mother Beatrice Stevens, within hours of being born.

After two years of lying empty, cells in the former female wing had been converted into tenements for needy families. The official address was “The Castle, Worcester,” which must have sounded very grand to unsuspecting ears, but was in effect quite the opposite.

Some of the units being five of the former women prisoners’ 10ft x 7ft cells, which were rented-out by Worcester City Corporation. Unit 8 had been let at the minimum 4s 6d (22½ p) a week, inclusive of gas and water, to porter Fred Bowkett, his wife Rosannah and their daughter Esther, who shared her bedroom with her cousin Beatrice. 

On the fateful day, council workman Harry Wheeler of Tybridge Street had been charged with removing ashes from the prison’s old laundry and on his third trip from emptying a skip, he was approached by Beatrice carrying a bucket and shovel asking if she could have some of the ashes to use on a little garden plot outside the Bowketts’ window. 

According to a report in the Worcester Herald, Harry nodded his approval, but as Beatrice went through the motions of filling her bucket she suddenly exclaimed: “Oh, there’s a baby in here!”  Harry saw something and caught hold of it by the legs and found it was a baby. 

Someone nearby said: “You had better stop here”, so Harry went and fetched one of his friends, who minded the body while he went to tell the police. Harry didn’t have to go far, as the County Police HQ was just across the road, the red-brick building still standing, now occupied by Sanctuary Housing. Meanwhile Beatrice had left the scene, hopping on a Birmingham-bound train to hide at her grandparents’ from the inevitable fall-out.

The coroner’s court met the following week, but was left with little choice but to proceed without the presence of Beatrice. She had been described as “too ill to attend” by her mother Elizabeth, who bravely stood-in on the teenager’s behalf.

However, only days earlier, Beatrice had been persuaded by her grandmother to confess all to Birmingham police, who duly called in their Worcestershire colleagues – known widely as “The Five-Bar Gaters” on account of so many of them being recruited from the countryside – to take over.

In an emotion-charged Worcester Assize trial, downgraded from wilful murder to concealment of birth, Beatrice claimed her baby had been born dead. “It never cried”, she said in her defence. However, the medical experts disagreed. Tests proved the baby girl had led a separate, if short, existence and that there was clear evidence of suffocation: in fact, they disagreed with virtually every statement put forward by Beatrice. But huge sympathy had been shown to the sorrowful girl who, according to the Herald, sobbed throughout the entire proceedings. 

The tragic teenage mother was thus treated with extreme leniency. She was found guilty not of murder but of inattention to her baby and accidental suffocation. The ensuing sentence was incredibly light. Beatrice was placed under two years’ care by rescue worker Sister Edith May Bales of Field House Refuge Home in Wylds Lane and a veil was drawn over the last death at Worcester Jail.

*Based on best selling author Bob Blandford’s 516-page book ‘Worcestershire Bird – the inside tales of Worcester City and County Gaols, their inmates and their lives and crimes’, which us due for  publication in November.