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Mary Ann Cotton

Victorian multi-murderer

Moorsley : Early Life

Low Moorsley on the south western outskirts of Hetton-le-Hole was the birthplace on October 31, 1832 of Mary Ann Robson (later Mary Ann Cotton) one of the most notorious figures in the history of North East England.

Mary Ann Cotton

Mary Ann Cotton

During her 40 year life span she was responsible for the deaths, by poisoning of around 21 people, perhaps even more. Many of her victims were members of her own family including her own children. Most were poisoned by arsenic with the victims at first displaying signs of gastric fever. Her motives, if she really had any, are unknown but she often collected insurance money following the deaths.

Mary Ann's childhood started out ordinarily enough in Low Moorsley. Her parents were staunch Methodists and her father, Michael Robson was a sinker involved in the horrible, itinerant and often dangerous, water-logged job of sinking shafts for new collieries.

Mary Ann at Murton

Around 1839 when Mary Ann was six years old her family moved to the nearby mining village of Murton. With a population of 98 in 1831 that would rise rapidly into the thousands as the century progressed. Murton was one of the many emerging colliery villages that came into being following the establishment of Hetton Colliery in 1822. A couple of years after the move her father fell to his death in a colliery shaft at the age of 30.

Mary Ann's mother, Margaret, stayed in Murton where she kept lodgers that helped her to support her daughter. At the age of 16 Mary Ann left home as it is thought that she did not get along with her mother's new husband, a miner called George Scott. She went to work as a nurse for a local man at South Hetton and then returned after three years to her mother's house in Murton to train as a dressmaker.


When Mary Ann was 20 years old she fell pregnant and married a colliery labourer called William Mowbray in Newcastle. The couple then moved to Cornwall residing just across the River Tamar from Plymouth in Devon. They resided with Irish navies working on the railway for whom William worked as shop steward and the work involved constant uprooting as the railway was constructed across Cornwall. Why they had chosen to move to Cornwall was not certain though a signifcant number of Cornish miners are known to have settled in Murton where they were unwittingly brought in as strike breakers.

During their time in Cornwall, Mary Ann had given birth to either "four or five" (Mary Ann was not certain) children of which only one, a girl named Margaret seems to have survived beyond the first few days. Mary Ann and William were persuaded to return from Cornwall by Mary Ann's mother where sadly their baby girl died from a form of Scarlet Fever in 1860.


William found work as a foreman at South Hetton Colliery and worked as a stoker on a steam vessel. This work took William and Mary Ann to Hendon in Sunderland's dockland. They would have two further children, both girls. The children were named Isabella and Margaret and both survived, for the time being at least. In the meantime Mary Ann formed a relationship with a red-headed miner called Joseph Nattress at Seaham Harbour.

She fell pregnant and the infant, named John Mowbray, born at Hendon and baptised at South Hetton died a couple of days after his baptism from 'gastric fever' in September, 1864. A year later, William, Mary Ann's husband died - of Typhus - and Mary Ann received insurance of 35, equivalent to half a year's wage.

Mary Ann moved to Seaham Harbour with her two daughters, one of whom, Margaret died soon after. The remaining daughter, Isabella, went to live with Mary Ann's mother. Mary Ann's relationship with Nattress may have continued for a while but he was engaged to someone else and following his marriage she left Seaham and found work as a nurse in Sunderland.

Here, Mary Ann formed a relationship with a patient called George Ward who, like Mowbray was a stoker. They married in August 1865 in Monkwearmouth. Ward subsequently became ill and died in 1866. Mary Ann collected the insurance money. A certificate gave cholera and typhoid as the cause of death although doctors had been confused by some of the symptoms he had displayed.


Next, in December 1866, Mary Ann found work as a housekeeper after replying to a job advertisement posted by a recently widowed shipyard worker in the Pallion area of Sunderland called James Robinson. He was the father of five children and needed female assistance. Only a day after Mary Ann started working for him his recent baby, by his late wife, died of gastric fever.

During 1867 Mary Ann heard news that her 54 year old mother, who was still the guardian of Mary Ann's daughter, Isabella, was feeling unwell. Mary Ann went to visit her mother in Seaham. Her mother started to make a recovery but the recovery was soon accompanied by stomach pains and then she lost her life only nine days after Mary Ann had come to visit. When Mary Ann left Seaham, her step-father, George Scott told her to take Isabella with her.

At this time, around February 1867, Mary Ann, was already pregnant by James Robinson when she returned to the Robinson household in Sunderland with Isabella. Within the space of four days in April 1867, another two children of James Robinson died, the six-year old James and eight year old Elizabeth. Another six days would pass and then on April 30, 1867 Mary Ann's own daughter, Isabella Mowbray, aged around seven, would also die.

This must have been an exceptionally difficult time for Robinson but in August to avoid illegitimacy of their forthcoming child Mary Ann and James were married at Bishopwearmouth. Their child was born in November 1867 and named Mary Isabella. Sadly little Mary Isabella became ill and died in the March of the following year. In June1869, a second child was born to the couple, called George.

Robinson then discovered that Mary Ann was stealing from his bank account and that she was encouraging his surviving children to pawn his belongings to pay off her debts. It is not known what Mary was spending the money on, as there was no sign that she had purchased anything around the house. It still remains a mystery and we can only speculate. Perhaps someone with knowledge of her activities, was bribing her. Robinson threw Mary Ann out of his house which was very fortunate for him. James was the only one of Mary's husbands to outlive her.

Mary took the baby, George with her, keeping him for a short while. She later handed him over to a friend while she went to post a letter but didn't return. George was returned to his father who maintained custody.


For a while Mary Ann was destitute and it is not clear what she did with her life at this stage before making contact with an old friend Margaret Cotton, a spinster in South Hetton.

Margaret told Mary Ann about her brother, Frederick Cotton, a recently widowed miner who lived at Walbottle near Newcastle. Frederick had suffered much tragedy having lost his wife and two of his children. Mary Ann was interested in meeting him and soon struck up a friendship with Cotton and she moved in with him offering him comfort in her usual way. Mary Ann then learned that Frederick would receive the sum of 60 from her friend Margaret upon Margaret's death .

It was only within four weeks of Mary Ann moving in with the Cottons that the spinster Margaret Cotton, who was caring for her brother's children, was dead. A few more weeks passed and Mary Ann fell pregnant with Frederick Cotton's child. In September 1870 the two were married at St. Andrews in Newcastle.


Of course, Cotton did not know that Mary Ann was already married. In 1871 the couple left Walbottle with their new baby boy, Robert and Frederick's two children boys named Frederick (Jnr) and Charles. They moved to West Auckland in south Durham which is said to have been Mary Ann's choice. There they found themselves living in the same street as Mary Ann's old flame, Joseph Nattress, with whom Mary Ann once again started an affair.

Frederick Cotton became ill in September 1871 and died two weeks later. Mary Ann was left to look after the three boys. She received relief payment for two of the boys - Frederick Junior and Charles as they were not her children. Further financial help came in the form of a lodger called Joseph Nattress, who moved in with them. During his stay they seem to have become very close as Nattress was persuaded to alter his will in Mary Ann's favour.

At around this time she began working as a nurse for an excise man called Quick-Manning. There is some dispute about his name but he seems to have worked for a local brewery. He was recovering from small pox and she began nursing him back to health. He was a much wealthier prospect than Nattress.


In the spring of 1872, seven-year old Frederick Cotton, the new baby Robert Cotton and the lodger Joseph Nattress all died within the space of twenty or so days. Of the three children in her care, only the seven year old boy, Charles Cotton, survived.

Mary had an insurance policy on Charles which she could claim if he died but in the meantime a parish official and local assistant coroner called Thomas Riley asked Mary Ann if she could nurse a woman who was suffering from small pox. Strangely Mary Ann complained that she could if Charles could be accommodated in the workhouse so that he was out of the way. It was explained that this would only be possible if she entered the workhouse with Charles. Her response to this was that Charles was sickly and would soon be dead. "I won't be troubled long. He'll go like the rest of the Cottons".

Five days later Charles was dead, it was yet another of the many tragic deaths that followed Mary Ann Cotton like a dark and sinister cloud. This time, however, things would be very different.

Riley was told the news of Charles' death and immediately became suspicious. He alerted the police and persuaded the doctor who was about to carry out a post mortem to delay issuing a 'cause of death' certificate. An inquest was held in the Rose and Crown Inn on West Auckland's Front Street next door to Mary Ann Cotton's home but proved inconclusive. The Doctor had however retained samples of Charles Cotton's stomach after he was buried and upon examination discovered that it contained arsenic.


Mary Ann was arrested on July 18, 1872 for the murder . Mary Ann kept a wall of silence but investigations soon started to unravel some of the events of her life and suspicions grew regarding the scale of her evil activities. The bodies of Nattress, and Charles Cotton, Frederick Cotton Junior and the baby Robert were all exhumed and found to contain arsenic.

Mary Ann's trial was delayed due to her pregnancy and her child was born on January 7, 1873 and named Edith Quick Manning Cotton. This was an embarrassment for Mr Quick-Manning who appears to have changed his name and fled. The baby itself was taken into care and its name changed. It was the only one her children to survive besides George Robinson.

In the meantime the press had covered every sensational aspect of Mary Ann's life with a little help from the police who leaked many details. Mary Ann had no chance whatsoever of a fair trial as the jury had no doubt studied all of these details. She was tried only for the murders that had taken place at West Auckland and was found conclusively guilty on the murder of the boy, Charles Cotton.

On March 24, 1873 she was hanged in the open at Durham Prison in front of an assembled crowd. The executioner, William Calcraft had not left a high enough drop and instead of dying instantly Mary Ann was strangled to death over several minutes.

Mary Ann Cotton's name soon entered the folklore of the region's history and as the decades past she was best remembered in a children's rhyme:

Mary Ann Cotton, she's dead and she's rotten,
Lying in bed with her eyes wide open.
Sing, sing, oh what should I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton, she's tied up with string.

Where, where? Up in the air.
Selling black puddings, a penny a pair.

Mary Ann Cotton, she's dead and forgotten,
Lying in bed with her bones all rotten.
Sing, sing, what can I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton, tied up with string.


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