15.17 – Minnie, Ralph and Charlie Rowland (unmarked)

We stand here by the unmarked grave of Minnie Rowland, Ralph Rowland and Charlie Rowland. Please be warned that this story contains graphic details about the death of two children.

Their story touched us deeply, and left us with many questions. Maybe, after hearing this, you’ll want to talk about what we’d like to do for these almost-forgotten residents of Christ Church graveyard.

Minnie was only 26 when she took her own life on 17th of April 1903. She was recovering from the birth of her son Charles, called Charlie by the family, on the 26th of March. That is how she ended. But she began with so much more. She was born Minnie Jones in 1877 in Crewe, and moved to the area with her sister Maud Jones. She was in service first at the Royal George, and later worked with her sister at the Red Lion in Littleborough.

When she met James Rowland, he was 14 years older and must have cut a bit of a dashing figure. He was a widower of some two or three years, having been previously married to Betsy Firth who died in 1896 only a few months into the marriage. He was a worker at the ironworks of Messrs Jackson and Sons in Tod, and was also a firefighter. He was known to be a steady, hard- working man, and Minnie was a bubbly young lady, well respected, with many friends in both Tod and Littleborough. A match made in heaven? Perhaps.

They were married in Heptonstall on the 4th of March, 1899, and right about 9 months later, little Ralph came along, named for his granddad. They moved to 2 Rose Street, not far from James’ family who resided on Halifax Road. Their house faced the Sobriety Hall which of course, no longer stands. It must have been a lively place to live, with all the entertainment at the Hall and many close friends as neighbours, including Emma Williams, also on Halifax Road.

Minnie seems to have fallen pregnant again less than a year later, and had another child around August 1901. This was James William Rowland, named for his daddy, but he died in March of 1902, aged 7 months. He is buried up at Cross Stone. His death must have been devastating for Minnie and James both, and I think we can all imagine the pain they experienced as a family, even in a time when infant mortality was about 15%. She was pregnant again by the summer, and then gave birth to baby Charlie. From the brief testimony of the family doctor, Dr. Currie, she recovered well from all these births, although she had a bit of a fever about 2 weeks after Charlie’s birth; but she recovered from this too after about 3 days.

Having 3 babies in a relatively short period… losing one of them, not in childbirth but after 7 months of loving care and attachment… I cannot help but wonder what the state of Minnie’s mental health really was by the time of her confinement with Charlie. Although the inquest went into great detail about the fateful day, a Friday, so many questions still remain.

Testimony was given that James had gone to work as usual. Minnie’s mother in law, Ellen Rowland, testified that she came and did the housework for her that morning, and that they had had breakfast together. Minnie was said to have eaten bread and butter and a poached egg, with some tea. Ellen left around 11. Emma Williams, Minnie’s dear friend, also came to help that morning, arriving around 9:30. According to Emma, Minnie would not eat, and would do nothing but wash herself. She stated she had never seen Minnie so quiet, and that she told Emma that she felt it was almost more than she could bear. Emma asked if she was in pain, but Minnie replied no, that she was just very wearied. Emma made her a cup of Bovril and wanted to make her some toast as well, but Minnie said she could not eat. Emma left a little after 12 to go back to her own home and do some housework, and Minnie begged her to come back in the afternoon. Emma said that she could not, but that she would return after tea and bring her sewing. Emma did not see Minnie preparing dinner when she left.

Minnie appeared to have been getting plenty of help—both from her mother in law and her good friend Emma Williams. When I [researcher Kara speaking here] had my son, my mother came to stay for about a week. This, in contrast, was after 3 weeks. Minnie begging Emma to stay sends chills up my spine. I wonder if Emma blamed herself for not staying longer, not promising to return. I hope she realized that she was not at fault.

James came home for his lunch around 1, and stayed for half an hour. He said Minnie seemed cheerful, and ate well. When he left to return to work, Minnie was sitting by the fire with the baby on her knee, and little Ralph had gone out to play, as he was known to do, with his little wheelbarrow. When the Coroner asked him if Minnie had been at all depressed, he said that she “had got on first class, up to the mark,” and that they had “never had a wrong word” between them. That afternoon, James left work and apparently went on an errand, passing the end of Rose Street. He saw little Ralph playing with his little barrow between quarter past and half past two. We wonder if he waved, if he paused to watch his son playing at hauling things from the top to the bottom of the street.

Rupert Clarkson, a neighbour, said he saw little Ralph wheeling his barrow at just after 3 o’clock. Ellen, the mother in law, returned to check in on Minnie, also around 3. The little wheelbarrow was standing outside the door, but the door was locked and there was no response when she knocked. Minnie was in the habit of locking the door when she went to lie down, so instead Ellen went to a neighbour’s house for 45 minutes or so, then knocked again. No answer. She looked around the market for about 20 minutes and came back and tried again. No answer. She noticed the key was in the lock. It was getting close to 5 at this point, so she hurried home, put the kettle on the fire and “made haste with her baking”. She, too, upon questioning, had not noticed that Minnie had been at all depressed. Did Minnie hide her mental state from everyone but her close friend? Or were James and Ellen both in denial about what was happening?

James left work at about half past 5. He called in at his mother’s briefly, reporting to her about Minnie having eaten a good dinner. He then walked on home, and when he arrived, he also found the door locked, and the key in the hole. He pushed it out with his finger, and with a poker lent by a neighbour, managed to hook it out and open the door. He went straight inside and straight upstairs. On the floor, all three of them were laid out: Minnie, Ralph and baby Charlie. The floor was saturated with blood. He sent for the police immediately. The two children were laid on the floor on their backs, at their mother’s feet, their throats cut. The baby’s was cut so deeply it almost severed his spine. Minnie was also on her back in the opposite direction, also with a cut to her throat. Her hands and chest were covered with blood, and a carving knife was close by her right hand. Minnie was hanging on to life still at this point, but passed away at 7:25.

Todmorden Advertiser, 24th April 1903

Dr. Currie, who had attended Minnie’s confinements, was asked at some length about what they referred to at the time as puerperal mania or melancholia….what we might call post natal depression, or perhaps even post natal psychosis. He did express some surprise that she had not seemed to exhibit any symptoms other than what Emma Williams had noticed, and stated that it does not usually come on so suddenly. What touched me almost as much as the story itself was the way the verdict of the jury was given at the inquest. When asked their verdict in the case of the children’s cause of death, the foreman said “he supposed” it would be murder. When the Coroner went to register the verdict of “wilful murder”, the jury asked if they could record it as “wilful murder in view of the mental condition of the mother”. The Coroner did not allow this, as he said that was not for the jury to decide the question of sane or insane. When they were then asked about their verdict in Minnie’s cause of death, there was some discussion about it.

Foreman to the jury: What do you think, gentlemen?
Juryman: According to what the doctor says she could scarcely have been responsible for what she
was doing at the time.
Juryman: The evidence of Mrs Williams was that she was tired and could not stand it.

The Coroner had to prompt them a few times, but in the end, the jury found that Minnie Rowland committed suicide by cutting her own throat whilst in an unsound state of mind from puerperal mania.

There is little more to this sad story, except that the funeral was attended by two or three thousand. Baby Charlie was laid to rest in the coffin with his mummy, in her arms. Little Ralph’s tiny coffin was laid on top. It was by all accounts a simple service, and a very distressing scene at the graveside. Members of the fire brigade, with which James served for the remainder of his life, were the pallbearers.

Sometime between 2:30 and 3pm, Minnie called little Ralph inside, locked the door, and committed against her children and herself the most violent act imaginable. In a situation where she was surrounded by help, the desperation that still seems to have gripped her is almost beyond understanding. This was no tentative cry for help—this was a determined act. It was only by chance that Minnie missed her own carotid and lingered for so long. Generally, in the UK there are only (only?) around ten children a year who are deliberately killed by a parent; it is a very rare crime. A mother killing her child who is more than 24 hours old, let alone two of her children, let alone also herself, is statistically an improbable crime…and yet, here we have this very crime. It shows the desperation that none of us, maybe, would be able to communicate if we felt it ourselves.

James Rowland does not appear to have remarried. The 1911 census shows him living on Halifax Road with his mother and father. He died on the 14 th of March 1919 at the age of 55, of influenza and bronchitis, and was attended by Dr Currie. He is buried here at Christ Church as well. Having been so close to so much tragedy, we don’t doubt that he was never the same. God rest your soul Minnie, and watch over your children. We know you loved them.

This story was part of our September 2023 Suicide Awareness Month tour.

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