Arsenic Poisoning in Kensal New Town:
The Hickman Family Tragedy



Peeling potatoes. Frank Holl c.1880. Yale Center for British Art.

30 May 1847. A Sunday morning. In Middle Row in Kensal New Town the Hickmans, an ordinary working-class London family, were going about their ordinary Sunday business. The father of the family, Thomas Hickman, was in the back garden putting up his wife’s washing poles.

His wife, Harriet, and her younger sister, Caroline Bonamey, were indoors preparing Sunday dinner. They were also looking after the six Hickman children, whose names were Thomas, James, Harriet, Mary Ann, John and Henry. By Monday morning — twenty-four hours later — only three members of this family of nine would still be alive.

On Soap Sud Island

At the end of the eighteenth century this area was largely open countryside dotted with a few farmhouses. Things began to change in 1801 with the opening of the Paddington Arm — a branch of the Grand Union Canal — followed in 1833 by the consecration just north of the canal of the first of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries at Kensal Green. Then in the 1840s Kensal New Town was developed on what was almost an island, bound to the south by the 1838 Great Western Railway line out of Paddington and to the north by the canal, with only a footbridge for crossing.

Industrialisation developed when in 1845 the Western Gas Company opened at the western end of the island, providing much needed employment for the impoverished local inhabitants and for the immigrants, who in most cases had come to England from Ireland at the time of the Great Famine. While the menfolk worked on the canal wharfs or at the gas works, the women were laundresses, as indeed was Harriet Hickman.

As a result of the endless laundering the area came to be known as ‘Soap Sud Island’. But it was also called Chelsea-in-the-Wilderness, because although not contiguous with Chelsea, being at the northernmost tip of Kensington, it was under the local government of the vestry of St Luke Chelsea.

The Grand Union Canal at Kensal Green Cemetery. © Karen Ellis-Rees 2020

The Hickman home

The Hickmans lived in Penton Villas, a rather aspirational Pooteresque name attached to a single storey accommodation comprising two rooms and a washroom. The front room contained a stump bedstead — a basic construction without the means to hang curtains — a deal table made of pine or fir and a cupboard.

The back room was probably where the children slept and played. As the Elementary Education Act, which made schooling compulsory, would not come into force until 1870, and as the local ragged school only opened in the 1850s, it may well be that the young Hickmans spent their days at home.

Thomas had married Harriet in St Pancras in 1833, aged about twenty, and he was said to have worked in the glass trade or as a glass blower. But he would appear to have been dogged by bad luck, some of it no doubt of his own devising, and quite possibly he was the Thomas Hickman who in 1838 was sent to prison for a year for stealing from his employer. This Thomas was employed as a bookkeeper by Apsley Pellat, a glass manufacturer with premises in Holland Street in Blackfriars.

Houses in Kensal Road. 1962. London Metropolitan Archives.

The trouble begins

In 1840 things began to look up for Thomas when he joined Metropolitan Police Force as a constable in Marylebone’s D Division, which means, incidentally, that he was over five feet seven inches tall and could read and write. Policing was hard work, entailing twelve-hour shifts six days a week, but it was a regular income, and for Thomas, with a growing family and growing debts, this was important.

However, in February 1847 some dereliction of duty saw Thomas resign his post, possibly going before he was pushed. It was at this time that the Hickmans moved to Middle Row and that Thomas took up delivering laundry. His coming down in the world in this way was noticed by his creditors, who began to pursue him for payment. In an attempt to persuade them that he no longer lived in Kensal New Town, he started spending time away from the family home, returning late at night or at weekends only.

Harriet and Caroline

With an absent husband and six children, and with a seventh on the way, Harriet would have welcomed her younger sister’s company. The sisters had both been born in Highgate, daughters of a coachman, Thomas Bonamey, whose name might have been spelled Bonamy, or Bonamaie, or Boname, or Bonmee — or almost any other variation that you can imagine. At twenty-five Caroline was unmarried and usually worked as a domestic servant. But in late May 1847 she was unemployed and came to stay with the Hickmans while searching for a new position.

Caroline got up at about six-thirty on the Sunday morning in question. Knowing that her sister was feeling unwell, she set about lighting the fire. She searched the meagre household resources to find something with which to start the fire. In a cupboard she found two flour bags, one full, having been purchased only the day before, the other almost empty. Transferring the little that it contained into the new bag, she used the old bag to start the fire.

Happy children playing happily. Songs for the Little Ones at Home 1868.

How not to cook a pudding

When Harriet was up, the sisters began preparing Sunday dinner, which was no doubt a highlight of the week. Dinner was to be a piece of baked mutton, and to eke out this precious commodity, which had to be shared between nine hungry mouths, the women decided to make a pudding. The pudding was made of rhubarb, bread and flour, and, as there is no mention of sugar, it must have been very tart.

While the sisters cooked, their next door neighbour, Ann Sullivan, came in for a chat. When Harriet cut her finger, Caroline was left to finish the pudding and then take it to the local bakers to be cooked. They are unlikely to have had access to anything as expensive as an oven.

At two in the afternoon the children were called to the table. Thomas came in from his washing pole labours, and they all sat down to eat, the adults in the front room at the deal table and the children in the back. The rhubarb pudding was eaten as a first course — contemporary newspapers noted that it was a common habit of the poor to fill themselves up with claggy food before starting on expensive mutton — and almost immediately the children began to vomit. Then Caroline and Harriet were both violently sick. Thomas suspected that there was something wrong with the rhubarb, which was of course a purgative, and called to the neighbours to fetch a doctor.

Enter Dr Abercrombie

Mr John Abercrombie, a local doctor and a licentiate of the Apothecaries’ Company, was entertaining a medical colleague to lunch in his house on Kensal Road, just around the corner from Middle Row. On hearing of the Hickman family’s ordeal, he rushed to their house with his colleague, to be greeted by the projectile vomiting of nine very ill people.

Later he recounted in gory detail that he rejected a stomach pump on the grounds that it would get blocked with lumps of pudding and rhubarb. Deciding instead that reinforcements were needed, he sent for Dr George Brown of Kensal Green and Dr Robert Barnes of Notting Hill.

Various emetics, among them egg white mixed with milk and flower of sulphur mixed with egg yolk and milk, were administered to the family. The patients were given linseed tea and pyroxenite of iron to keep them hydrated, together with that fail-safe Victorian remedy, the mustard poultice, which was used for warming aches and was thought to draw out general nastinesses.

Stomach pump and other surgical appliances. J.Scott c.1850-60. Wellcome Collection.

She thought it was arrowroot

By this time the doctors suspected arsenic poisoning. While tending the suffering children, they began to quiz the adults to find out if anyone might want to poison them. They also tried to determine where the poison came from.

Hickman said that in his old house he had stored white arsenic in a bottle. When the bottle was accidently broken, he scooped what remained of the fine white powder into a flour bag. After they moved house, Mrs Hickman must have assumed that the powder in the bag was just some arrowroot left over from when the children had measles, which was why the bag had found its way into the food cupboard. From there, of course, it had been emptied into the new bag.

Realising what the family had ingested, Hickman refused to let the doctors treat him until they had done all that they could for the women and children. He told them that he blamed no one but himself for his carelessness.

A chemist selling arsenic to a youthful customer. Punch volume 17 1849.

How it did its work

Supposedly arsenic in its pure form is safe to swallow — but London Overlooked will not be testing this one — and it only becomes a poison when combined with other elements. One such compound, a product of smelting properly called arsenious acid but popularly known as white arsenic, was freely available in the nineteenth century from chemists and grocers and chandlers.

White arsenic had a multitude of uses from the industrial to the domestic — killing vermin and insects, for example. Furthermore, before its sale was regulated, it offered a way of getting rid of inconvenient relatives. If it is ingested, the poison starts its evil work in under fifteen minutes. One of the first symptoms is a grittiness in the mouth, as if you had eaten sand. None of the Hickmans mentioned this sensation, but it could be that it had been disguised by the sourness of the rhubarb.

At the coroner’s inquest one of the survivors described the effects of the poison as a warm and painful prickling in the chest, a burning in the throat, difficulty in swallowing and a great thirst that could not be satisfied. These would be followed by inflammation of the stomach — often described as being like a ball of fire — in addition to relentless projectile vomiting and terrible purging of the bowels.

Night of endless horror

The doctors’ efforts were to no avail, and at six in the evening nine-year-old James Bonamy Hickman, described by the medical men as a fine lad, succumbed to the poison. An hour and a half later three-year-old John died, followed at nine o’clock by Henry, the baby of the family at only eighteen months. Not that the horror ended there, for at ten-thirty the same evening four-year-old Mary Ann left this vale of tears, with six-year-old Harriet Elizabeth close behind.

The three adults and the oldest child, Thomas, were left fighting for their lives. Harriet Hickman was thought at greatest risk. She was about three or four months pregnant, and, as arsenic was a known abortifacient, the doctors feared for her life. If she lost the child, she might die. As for Hickman himself, he seemed to be rallying but suddenly died early on Monday afternoon. We need not be surprised, for as paterfamilias he would have received the largest portion of the poisoned pudding, and, as we have seen, he asked that his family be treated first.

Adverse effects of arsenic treatment. c.1850. Wellcome Collection.

Tongues begin to wag

As news spread, large crowds gathered in Middle Row. The police were called in to hold the rubbernecks back from the home of their ex-colleague and to refuse entry to those demanding to view the bodies. There were rumours about the cause of the poisoning. Some accused Thomas Hickman of killing his family and committing suicide: his absences from home and his resignation from the police force went into the melting pot.

Nor were Harriet and Caroline safe from gossip, for poison was a woman’s weapon, and they were still alive. The public perception was that other women — many other women — were doling out poison to their husbands, to their children and to anyone else who got in their way. Stories abounded of women using the white powder to benefit from insurance policies and funeral club frauds.

No doubt the blame game included the twelve-year-old Thomas. He had recovered quickly, either because he was young and strong, or because the arsenic was not evenly mixed in the batter. Soon he was out playing in the street before going to stay with his aunt Mary Ann. But there was nothing sinister in this, for who would want to stay in a house where a father and five young children lay dead in the washroom, and where the mother was still fighting for her life?

A properly cool enquiry

Post mortems were conducted promptly. Dr Brown, the Kensal Green surgeon, was assisted by Abercrombie and Barnes, along with Dr William Chowne, a lecturer in medical jurisprudence at Charing Cross hospital. Unbelievably, the examinations took place in the front room of the cottage where Mrs Hickman was convalescing in the back room.

The arrival of the coroner and jury, who had come to view the bodies, only added to the widow’s ordeal. The jury were much affected by the sight — the father on the stump bedstead, James on the deal table under the window, the other children dotted about the room. The inquest itself was held in the Portobello Arms, a public house in Albert Road in Kensal New Town. Owing to the surfeit of rumours the coroner stopped the proceedings, calling for a ‘proper and cool enquiry’ to be made into the deaths.

Accompanied by Harriet and Caroline in deep mourning, young Thomas gave a full account of events. One of the mysteries the coroner wanted to clear up was the source of the poison. It appeared that the father’s career in the glass industry had left him with an interest in home chemistry experiments, and the family said that as well as white arsenic he had some silver nitrate, which he would heat in a crucible in the fireplace.

Happy family on a pharmacist’s complimentary postcard. c.1890-99. Wellcome Collection.

Burying their dead

The inquest finally agreed that the Hickmans had died from the effects of the arsenic that had been unknowingly mixed into the rhubarb pudding by Harriet and her sister. While it was agreed that Thomas Hickman had been careless in having poisons in the house, it was also acknowledged that no one had harboured evil intentions.

Before the inquest concluded, the funeral was held. Mrs Hickman wanted her family to be buried in Paddington Churchyard, which was not far from Kensal New Town. But she was destitute, and, as the funeral would have cost eight guineas, the St Luke’s parochial officers stepped in. They said that they could not justify the fees for burying the family in Paddington when there was a perfectly good Chelsea graveyard in Robert Street — now Sydney Street — next to the parish church.

On Friday 4 June crowds gathered to watch a one-horse hearse set out from Middle Row for Chelsea, bearing the five coffins. Neighbours kindly lent a horse and cart to transport family members to the funeral, which was attended by the wretched widow’s mother, the unfortunate Caroline, another sister and a few friends. Harriet was at least spared the sight of her loved ones disappearing into their grave — they were buried together — for she was too sick to join the other mourners.

St Luke’s Church in Chelsea. John Chessell Buckler 1847. London Metropolitan Archives.

And afterwards

To the surprise of the doctors Harriet did not lose the baby she was carrying, and on 2 November 1847 she gave birth to a boy, Edward, who was baptised in December at St John the Evangelist in Kensal Green. She moved away, and at the time of the 1851 census she was at 5 Lower Cambridge Street — now Camley Street — in St Pancras. Living with her were little Edward and her older son, Thomas, who at fifteen was a traveller in gloves, that is to say a salesman. There was also a lodger at No. 5, who travelled for a linen draper. In 1861 Harriet married a carpenter called Thomas Hull.

Edward became a marble polisher. He married and had children, and in spite of his traumatic start in life he lived to the age of sixty-nine. Meanwhile Thomas became a seaman, although he also worked as a locomotive engine cleaner when not at sea. He lived in Victoria Dwellings in Battersea. He married. So too did Caroline, in 1854 at St Martin in the Fields. Her husband was a butcher by the name of John Higgs, who took her back to Olney in his native Buckinghamshire, there to raise a family.

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