Madness and murder in Edwardian Bristol
George Stephen Perrett (1855-1914) was the oldest child of Thomas Perrett (1834-1904) and Eliza Mozley. They were descendants of the Over Stowey Perrett family who had moved to Bristol, where Thomas’ father, James Perrett, worked as a tanner.
The family lived in Bristol and early in his life – certainly before the age of 6 –George lost his hearing following a fever and was subsequently considered to be deaf and dumb throughout his life, though he may have had some limited ability to use language.
There is no record of George attending school – the education of deaf and dumb children did not become compulsory until 1893 – so while younger siblings Thomas and Ellen were out at school, George would presumably have stayed at home with his mother. Perhaps he found some enjoyment in helping her to cook for the family, as by his mid-teens he had found employment as a baker’s assistant. His brother Thomas later went into the same line of work, so it is possible that the brothers worked together.
Despite his communication difficulties, George met – and apparently married – Jane Herbert in the 1880s, though it has not been possible to locate a marriage record for them and later George would say – via an interpreter – that he couldn’t remember where he’d married Jane. So perhaps they were never legally married at all. Certainly by 1891 they were living together as man and wife and in spring of 1899, Jane gave birth to a daughter, Minnie Ethel Maria Perrett, who sadly died later the same year. A second daughter, Alice Maud Perrett, was born in 1902.
George and Jane’s union was not a particularly happy one. When Jane drank alcohol it caused her to have a violent temper and most of the money George earned – 27 shillings out of 29 shillings per week – was given to Jane.
In November 1905 neighbours heard things being smashed in the Perrett house and later saw Jane running up and down the road, pulling her hair and dancing. Then, on the evening of 1st December 1905, Jane Perrett complained to Frederick Hobbs, her next-door neighbour, that men were hanging around in her backyard, but when he went outside with his dog there was no-one to be seen.
On 2nd December 1905 George left home at one o’clock in the morning to start his work as a baker. He kissed his wife goodbye and said ‘good-bye’ to his daughter Alice Maud who had woken up.
Later that morning, a boy employed by the local greengrocer, Augustus Davies, called at the family home and was startled by what he saw. When Augustus went there for himself, he saw Jane leaning against the passage wall with a piece of bodice, some rag and a piece of silk tied around her neck.
He asked “What’s the matter, Mrs. Perrett, are you ill?”
In reply, Jane said “I’ve killed my child” in a quiet voice.
With George not yet returned from work, the concerned greengrocer called Mary Anne Hobbs from next-door who noticed that Jane appeared close to fainting, so took hold of her and commented that it appeared she was strangling herself. Tearing the cloth from her neck, they realised that Jane had cut her own throat.Together, Augustus Davies and Mrs. Hobbs managed to get Jane into an armchair in the kitchen. By now, other people had come to the house. Augustus went upstairs and found Alice Maud lying dead on the bed, wearing a chemise, white jacket and blue socks. Her forehead was cold and she seemed to have been dead for some time. Dr. O’Brien was called to examine the child’s body and noted that Jane was in a weak but excited state and of unsound mind to the best of his belief.
A coroner’s inquest was held on 5th December 1905 and George Stephen Perrett gave his testimony via an interpreter from the Bristol Christian Mission Deaf and Dumb Institute, which had been founded in 1884.
Augustus Davies the greengrocer, called as a witness, said that Jane had always been peculiar in her character, but she had seemed cheerful when he’d called on her the previous week and he’d never seen her in a drunken state.
Mary Anne Hobbs gave a similar account – Jane was strange in her manner and sometimes looked very wild, but she’d never seen anything to suggest cruelty towards the child. Jane then unexpectedly accused Mary Anne of saying she was going to put her baby on the fire, which Mary Anne denied.
The coroner’s inquest determined that Alice Maud had most likely died from shock following the attempted strangulation and Jane was found guilty of wilful murder.
In February 1906 Jane Perrett was indicted for the wilful murder of Alice Maud Perrett and pleaded guilty “with the utmost composure”. The Judge, however, entered a plea of not guilty and directed the jury to try the case on the basis of the prisoner’s sanity. She was found guilty and certified as a ‘homicidal maniac’, to be detained at His Majesty’s pleasure.
On 20th February 1906 Jane was committed to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, where she would remain until her death on 10th November 1929. George continued to work as a baker in Bristol. On the 1911 census he gives his marital status as single and was living at a lodging house near the city centre. He died in Bristol in 1914.
We will never know exactly why Jane decided to take her daughter’s life that day. Did she have an undiagnosed mental health condition? Was it a consequence of syphilis perhaps or maybe post-natal depression? How had she been affected by the earlier loss of her first baby? Did she struggle to communicate with her husband? Was she afraid her husband would take her daughter away because of her drinking? There are so many possible factors that might have contributed to this sad story.
Although George had no surviving descendants, his brother Thomas ensured that the Perrett name lived on, producing seven sons and one daughter. His third son, born in 1890, was named George Stephen Perrett after his uncle.