Did you watch ITV’s two-part drama Dark Angel? We were glued to our television screens for three hours, fascinated by the story of Mary Ann Cotton, the County Durham serial killer, but ‘Beamish spotting’ too.
You may not know that we have objects in our collection which reputedly belonged to the infamous Cotton.
Cotton was convicted and hanged in 1873 for the murder of her stepson, Charles Edward Cotton, though she may have had as many as 21 victims, including three of her four husbands and 11 of her 13 children. She used arsenic to poison her victims, administered in a comforting cup of tea, made in a small teapot reserved for the purpose.
And what is believed to be this unassuming little piece of pottery has ended up in our collections.
The small, black Wedgewood teapot was donated to Beamish in 1972, though at the time its provenance was unknown. Then, in 1989, we received a letter from the daughter of the donor explaining just where the teapot had come from.
The local GP who donated it had inherited it, via his step-mother, from his step-grandmother – the wife of a GP in West Auckland, County Durham where Cotton was living in 1872 at the time of her arrest. His grandmother had been given the teapot by an old lady in West Auckland who had become very fond of her – a very strange gift as a token of affection!
The donor had never felt comfortable with ownership of the macabre relic and was persuaded by his family to send it to Beamish, though he neglected to tell us of its origins at the time!
A small, worn three-legged wooden stool was also donated to the museum in the early 1970s by a local lady. This was given to us with the story that it had belonged to Mary Ann whilst she awaited trial and eventual hanging in Durham Jail.
More recently, we were sent a number of photocopies of letters, which appear to have been written by Mary Ann, on County Gaol Durham embossed notepaper, while she awaited trial. The copies were sent anonymously by their current owner who felt that the museum should have them for the archive.
They had been bought from EBay, but it’s believed that these letters were sold to a dealer by a North Yorkshire auction house in 2013, though we have no idea where they were in the intervening years or how they ended up on EBay.
Though the handwriting is difficult to decipher, the letters make reference to solicitors and financial problems. One, addressed to Mr Lowrey (Cotton’s lodger at the time of her arrest) contains a plea for money to buy clothes for ‘the child… to come out with’ – presumably for her daughter who was born in the jail, and was adopted before the sentence was carried out.
Last, but not least, is Cotton’s connection to The Sun Inn in our 1910s Town, which once stood in Bondgate in Bishop Auckland. By 1871, Mrs Cotton had moved to nearby West Auckland where she lived until her arrest the following year and it’s believed that she was a regular customer at the Sun Inn. After her arrest in July 1872, she was remanded in custody to the police station on Bondgate, near to the Sun Inn, and her committal proceedings were held in the Bondgate court before she was committed to trial at the Durham Spring Assizes.
Not the most celebrated or attractive artefacts in our collections by any means but, nevertheless, another aspect of our region’s history.