Asked to name one thing about the Forest of Dean village of Ruardean and you would probably cite the famous case of two Russian dancing bears slaughtered in 1889.
But what is less known is that decades earlier ‘The Child Murders in the Forest of Dean’ were as infamous as the stories of Fred and Rose West are today.
Surprisingly few people know the name of Frances (Fanny) Bennett who in 1842 confessed to drowning five of her babies and poisoning a sixth.
But back then her reputation went far beyond this poverty-stricken tight-knit, hilltop village of 127 families.
Fanny, nee Walding, was not one of the 160 people claiming poor relief because in August 1825 she had married Charles Bennett, a young man from a landowning family, and they lived in a “neat and comfortable” cottage with Brewhouse and barn at Newman’s Bottom.
Frances was probably pregnant with their son William when they married at Abenhall Church but the baby died within weeks of being born in January 1826.
The couple went on to have sons Edwin (1826) and William (1829) but daughter Lydia died aged five months in November 1829 and is thought to have been buried with her older brother in the village church where there is a Bennett family plaque.
But all that changed in August 1832 when Charles died suddenly and the 28-year-old widow feared being sent to the Ross-on-Wye Union Workhouse because she had no means of making a living for herself and her sons.
When she met Thomas Yapp, 24, “a sullen, illiterate and unskilled” collier it was a lifeline but a clause in her husband’s will said if she remarried the cottage would go to their sons.
To the outside world he was her lodger until around 12 years later when Frances, who had been ill for about a year, coughed up blood and knew it was a death sentence because TB was common and doctors expensive.
On October 29, 1842 she told her sister, believed to be Hannah Marfell who lived next door, to send for the local curate from St John the Baptist Church in Ruardean because her conscience was troubling her.
She then told a shocked Reverend Henry Formby that Yapp was her lover and they had killed and buried six babies. She wanted them moved from the house to a consecrated burial ground.
Although she later started to recover and denied the story, the police were not convinced and found six tiny skeletons buried in various parts of the property.
Yapp was remanded in custody but Frances was too ill to move and stayed at the house guarded by a young police officer who later said he heard her confess again.
Coroner John Cooke called a jury inquest November 1 1842 and The Spectator reported: ‘A guilty conscience has discovered a series of crimes.
“Frances Bennett, a woman living at Ruardean Hill, in the Forest of Dean, being ill, sent for the Reverend Henry Formby, the Curate of the place, and told him that she had successively killed six children which she had had by a man named Yapp.
“As the first five were born, they were drowned, and buried beneath the floor of a brewhouse; the last lived for two days; but being sickly, she poisoned it. ”
The Catholic newspaper The Tablet reported “HORRIBLE AND SYSTEMATIC INFANTICIDE and described Fanny as a “wretched woman”
It said she “confessed because she did not want to die with with the murders upon her conscience” and added: “On searching the place the skeletons have been found to confirm the confession of the deranged mother.”
Frances continued to deny she was responsible and the Rev Formby, 26, caused a sensation when he refused to divulge the contents of her confession to the inquest, even when threatened with contempt of court.
He claimed their conversations were spiritual and shortly after the case the Anglican went on to become a Roman Catholic priest.
Frances’ sister gave evidence to say nobody had noticed her being “in the family way” but that she had confessed to her about giving birth over a pail of water and then drowning five babies.
She said the sixth baby had lived for two days so Frances had given it arsenic and Yapp, who helped her bury the infants, was distraught by this.
On November 16 1842 a friend of Yapp, a Mr Watkins, gave evidence to say he had stayed in a bed at the cottage with Yapp one night over Christmas and had been kept awake by somebody moaning in pain from midnight until 3am in Fanny’s bedroom.
He alleges that Fanny later told him the noise was her giving birth to her last child.
Jurors decided Fanny was guilty of willful murder and Yapp, who was in custody, her accessory and the following day a surgeon pronounced her fit enough to be taken to Gloucester Gaol and put in the hospital wing.
False rumours abounded that she was pregnant again but nurses denied it and claimed that as she was laid on her deathbed she said “now I can die happy ” and was glad to be away from the house with it’s troubling memories.
Had the matter gone to court she would probably have been hanged but she died of natural causes and was buried at St Nicholas Church, Westgate Street, Gloucester which has now been built over.
A report in the Tablet says she died happy after confessing her guilt and added: “The unnatural mother was only in her 38th year. The inducement to commit the murder was no other than a desire to retain property which would have been forfeited had her second marriage been known.”
Apparently Yapp wept bitterly when he learned of her death but when the 34-year-old appeared at Gloucester Crown Court to plead not guilty to aiding and abetting murder, no evidence was offered by he prosecution.
He was discharged and some local historians believe he carried on working and died at Lydbrook in 1862 without ever remarrying.
“The inquest verdicts created an absolute sensation, not only in the local press but across the nation as whole, ” wrote Dave Tuffley who uncovered the story from newspaper reports and in 2015 wrote an article in the Forest of Dean History Society’s annual magazine The New Regard.
“One can an only equate the shock of the children’s deaths to that of Rose and Fred West murders in Gloucester in 1994.,” he wrote.
Dave was surprised that a case that caused such a sensation at that time has now faded from local memory and one can only find records in local history and family groups. There is also a listing on the internet under “Serial Baby Killer Moms”
After his article appeared a former Bishop in the Church of England came to discuss his findings about the Ruardean curate who argued that he had to keep Fanny’s statement confidential like the Roman Catholics confession and said he would try to make sure it did not happen again.
Although he believes it was the condition in the will that turned Fanny into a baby killer, Dave does not think Charles is to blame.
“He was only protecting the inheritance of the house for his own two boys knowing full well that any subsequent children born to Frances Bennett fathered by another man might dilute his boys share of the property.”
But he concludes: “One can only hope that Frances Bennett has received the forgiveness that she so craved before she died of tuberculosis. Or maybe her illness was a just punishment. We shall never find out.”