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The story of Frances Kidder from Hythe hanged for murdering her step-daughter Louisa

The third and final installment of stories about the people put to death by William Calcraft, is about the last woman to be hanged in public.

Previously, we've had the story of Dedea Redanies who killed two sisters in Capel-le-Ferne and the three rioters who met their end at the hangman's noose after being accused of setting fire to a barn.

William Calcraft
William Calcraft

The stories are taken from a series of books written by former feature writer at the Essex Chronicle Ivan Sage. They look at Calcraft's life and the 400 people he is thought to have executed...

Since her widowed father had remarried, young Louisa Kidder-Staples had endured the most unkind treatment at the hands of her cruel step-mother Frances Kidder. The poor child was shabbily-dressed, was frequently covered in cuts and bruises, and told that she was hated by the woman she should have been able to trust to care for her.

William Kidder, Louisa’s father, was a well-known potato and vegetable dealer who had two children with his common-law wife – a woman by the name of Staples. Following her death, William had married Frances Turner. William’s youngest child was then sent to live with relatives, while Louisa remained with her father and new stepmother at Hythe, Kent.

But, right from the outset, Frances made it clear she had no time for Louisa and she rarely missed an opportunity to make life as uncomfortable as possible for the little girl. Prior to living with her stepmother, Louisa had been a happy-go-lucky child but, within months of living under the same roof as Frances, Louisa had become a sullen, unhappy child who had been forced to wear rags and often went without food.

William Henniker lived next door and was appalled by the treatment the child was enduring. Henninker contacted the police to report Louisa’s ill-treatment and, as a result, Frances was charged with cruelty and Louisa was sent away to be cared for by a guardian. This could have been a lifeline for Louisa but, unfortunately, her father failed to maintain the payments for her upkeep. Because of this, Louisa was returned to live with her father and Frances and, almost immediately, the abuse resumed.

There is little doubt that William Kidder was a failure as a father but, even he eventually became upset about the way his new wife had been treating his daughter. This resulted in violent disagreements between the pair. Perhaps William was concerned that Frances’s treatment of Louisa could be replicated on the child they had together, little Emma Kidder.

Time and again, Frances would tell anyone who would listen of her desire to rid herself of Louisa – claims that caused considerable consternation among those who had concerns for the child. Then, in July 1867, Frances sustained serious injuries when she was thrown from the couple’s horse and cart after the horse had bolted. The injuries she sustained that day had damaged her brain and, from that point on, Frances often suffered from fits and her treatment of Louisa became significantly harsher.

On August 25, 1867 Frances took her daughter Emma and 11-year-old Louisa with her to stay at her parents’ home in New Romney, Kent – but the evil Frances had no intention of bringing Louisa home with her afterwards.

This intention became clear when, on arrival at New Romney, Frances spoke with her parents’ neighbour, Eliza Evans, telling her: “I mean to get rid of that bitch Kidder’s child. I hate the sight of her because she is always making mischief,” adding that she would be more than happy to rid herself of Louisa before returning to Hythe. Mrs Evans, however, could have had no idea how seriously this intention had been.

The following Sunday morning Frances’s parents invited her to join them on a walk but Frances declined the offer saying she would prefer to remain at her parents’ home with the children. No sooner had her parents disappeared, Frances told Louisa to change into her old clothes as she intended to take her to a nearby fair. Louisa did as she had been instructed and, a short while later, she and Frances set off across the fields, leaving two-year-old Emma back at the house.

Eventually, Frances and Louisa reached a spot known locally as Cobb’s Bridge, under which flowed a shallow stream. At this point Frances grabbed hold of Louisa and, after a struggle, managed to pull the girl down the muddy bank and then forced Louisa’s face beneath the surface of the water, drowning the poor girl in less than 12 inches of water.

The deadly deed done, Frances hurried back to her parents’ house then ran upstairs to change out of her wet, muddy clothes. While she was doing so, her husband William arrived with the intention of taking Louisa home. At the same time, Frances’s parents also arrived home. William called out for Louisa but, when there was no answer, he immediately became concerned. As were Frances’s parents. They knew how badly their daughter had been treating Louisa and were rightly suspicious because Louisa was nowhere to be seen.

Frances’s mother rushed upstairs to find Frances getting changed. As soon as she saw her daughter’s muddy clothes on the floor she immediately suspected the worst. But Frances was in no mood to explain where Louisa was or what may have happened to her.

William tried in vain to elicit some information but, as Frances was obviously not prepared to co-operate, William decided to alert the police. He went off and returned a short while later with Pc Aspinall who took Frances into custody on suspicion of having harmed Louisa.

Eventually, Frances began to give her version of what had happened. Louisa, she claimed, had fallen into a ditch after being scared by some horses that had passed by them at Cobb’s Bridge. She had tried in vain to rescue the child from the water – hence her own wet and muddy clothes. A hastily-arranged search was initiated in the hope of finding Louisa alive. Her lifeless body, however, was found in the stream.

Pc Aspinall recalled: “It was a clear starlit night and we were furnished with lamps. There was a very heavy dew on the grass. Someone noticed something white in the ditch. I threw my light in that direction. It was the body. She was lying on her back and her head was under the water.” The body was removed to the nearby Ship Inn to await an inquest. Meanwhile, 25-year-old Frances was charged with Louisa’s murder.

The following Tuesday, at the Town Hall in New Romney, the inquest heard of a catalogue of abuse endured by Louisa at the hands of her stepmother. Eliza Evans told the inquest that Frances had told her: ‘I want to kill the child. Those whom you did not want to live never would die.’

Several of the Kidder’s neighbours testified of the ill-treatment meted out to Louisa at Frances’s hands and told how, in all weathers, Louisa was often shut outside to punish her. There were several witnesses who had seen Frances and Louisa heading towards Cobb’s Bridge each of whom testified that Frances had returned to her parents’ home alone and in muddy, wet clothes.

An 18th Century hanging
An 18th Century hanging

Police officers described the scene where Louisa’s body had been discovered, saying they had found signs of a significant struggle in the muddy banks of the stream. Hardly surprisingly, the inquest jury returned a verdict of guilty of wilful murder against Frances Kidder.

The next day Frances’s father told magistrates that he had never seen Frances badly treat Louisa. He claimed that, when he had returned from his walk, William Kidder had told him: ‘Fanny is upstairs.’ He had heard William asking Frances: ‘What have you done with my child?’ but Frances had not answered. William had then said: ‘If you have done anything wrong you had better speak the truth about it. I shall go for a policeman.’

The court heard that when William had returned with the police officer, Frances had changed her dress. ‘I give you in charge of murdering my child,’ said William, to which Frances retorted: ‘I did not! I have not done so!’

Next up was Dr Francis Henry Wood. He had examined Louisa’s body. He had found some scratches on her neck and a mark under her ear but, he added: ‘There were no bruises on the body.’ However, the following witnesses removed any doubt that Louisa had, indeed, been murdered by her stepmother.

Eliza Evans’ and 15-year-old Jane Smith’s evidence was most compelling. Eliza Evans was the first to speak: ‘On Saturday afternoon I saw Mrs Kidder and she began talking about the deceased. She said ‘I hate her, and would get rid of her, but I don’t know in what way. I hate the sight of the bitch. There will be no peace while she is living. Those you want to get rid of live the longest’.

‘I said ‘What does Mr Kidder say?’ and she replied: ‘He hates her too’. She said the girl was always making mischief. On Sunday evening about eight o’clock I heard a noise, as of child screaming. I was then coming out of my own house.’

Teenager Jane Smith was next to testify: ‘On Thursday I saw her (Louisa). We spoke together. She said ‘Look here Jane; mother was trying to strangle me last night’. She showed me two marks on her neck. There was one mark under the ear and another a little lower down. She told me her mother did it.

‘The marks were red and looked as if they had been caused by the pressure of fingernails. She also told me that her mother said she meant to make-off with her in some way before she went home. She would drown her in the dyke going along. She didn’t mean to take her home with her to Hythe.’

Frances listened silently as the witnesses gave their evidence but, when one lady took the stand, she could hold her tongue no longer. Mary Fagge, who lived with her husband near Cobb’s Bridge, claimed that, at around eight o’clock on the Sunday evening, she had heard a noise as of a child crying or screaming.

‘It was an alarming sound,’ she said, adding that she had heard the sound twice and that it came from the direction of where Louisa’s body had been found later that evening. Frances, from the dock, called out: ‘If you had any sense at all, why did you not come down and see, and you would know, if you heard the noise?’ Mary replied: ‘I was not alarmed enough about it.’

By this point Frances was becoming more and more agitated and, when Isaac Sage took the stand, she found it more than she could cope with. Isaac testified: ‘I married a sister of the woman Staples, the mother of the deceased. I know the prisoner and I knew the girl. I have seen the deceased and frequently with black eyes and bruises on her arms. She stated that her mother had beaten her.

‘The prisoner has been summoned before the magistrates for ill-using the deceased. She was punished, but I don’t know what her sentence was. Last Thursday week the little girl was at my house. She told me her mother was going to put her in the union. I said it was a good job.

‘She was a very small child. When she was younger she was a nice, spirited little thing, but for the last two or three years she has grown quite dull, as if losing her senses. I attributed this to the ill-usage she has received.’

Cross-examined, Isaac was asked: ‘When you heard what had occurred, did it surprise you?’ Isaac replied: ‘No, not at all. I had been expecting it for a long time. I thought it would end like this.’

At this point Frances’s legs gave way and she fainted in the dock. All efforts to revive her were ineffectual so the proceedings were adjourned for more than half an hour. Once Frances had recovered she called out to Isaac: ‘You have always been against me, and would state anything to injure me. Did I ever ill-treat the child?’ Isaac, surprised by her interjection, replied: ‘Yes, from her statements to me.’

Moments later, the Mayor addressed Frances: ‘After giving the case every possible consideration we have arrived at the conclusion that we have no alternative but to send you for trial at the Maidstone Assizes . . . whatever you may say will be taken down and may be used against you.’

Well, as it happened, Frances had plenty to say. She unleashed a tirade and stuck to her version of events: ‘I had no thoughts of doing such a thing as you have said I have done. I went down to meet my father and mother halfway down to the seaside, and I came back again the same way.

‘I went across the fields. I got as far as Mr Cobb’s bridge and was just coming across it when two horses came running as hard as they could. The child ran along the bank and fell in. I could not see but heard her fall in and I went in after her. I jumped in to save her, but she was farther along than where I went in.

‘I screamed for help but no-one came. It was some time before I could get out of the water myself. When I did I ran as fast as I could home and told my mother what had happened.’ Frances then turned to face her husband: ‘I took his child thinking it would be a change for her and for me. I have always done my best for them.

‘He never liked it I should come down here at all. I have always done my best for them. He (William) always said if he could get half a chance he would serve me out and tell any lie he could against me. He once ill-treated me very much by knocking me about and turning me out of doors.

‘This child had been with me for two years and I did my best for her, keeping her clean and sending her to school every day. I could not do for her as I would because I had not the means to do it with. He would not let me have a farthing of money. I never did anyone any harm or wished to them any harm. I have endeavoured to do my best for everyone.’

Frances then put her mark to this statement and was then removed to Maidstone Prison where she was to await her trial which was held at the Kent Assizes before Mr Justice Byles. Once again, all the above evidence was repeated, with Frances steadfastly sticking to her version of events and insisting that she had never harmed Louisa and had always done her best to ensure her well-being.

Mr Justice Byles, at the culmination of the evidence, summed up the case and instructed the jury to give Frances the benefit of the doubt should they not be satisfied that the circumstantial evidence produced in court was sufficient to convict her.

However, after just 12 minutes’ deliberation, it seems the jury had been in little doubt as to Frances’s guilt. As Mr Justice Byles read out The Sentence of Death, Frances stood quietly and calmly in the dock before being led away. Her execution date was set for midday on Thursday, April 2, 1868.

While there was little doubt that Frances had been a dreadful stepmother, her husband William had hardly been a saint himself. True, he had knocked Frances about and had not adequately financed the upkeep of his children and wife, but Frances’s killing of Louisa could never be justified for those reasons.

However, no sooner had Frances been imprisoned, William had wasted no time in having an affair with his wife’s married sister Ruth Cuddy and, very soon, had moved her into his home.

With William flaunting his new lover in the public houses in and around Hythe, the locals looked on scornfully as William, despite the tragic manner that his daughter Louisa’s life had been ended, seemed to be enjoying his life to the full.

While there had been a good deal of enmity towards Frances in most quarters for what she had done, William’s behaviour caused some locals to reconsider their feelings about Frances as her claims of ill-treatment by him against her which she raised in court seemed to be not too far off the mark.

Indeed, despite her horrid crime, Frances found she had some sympathisers and, from these ranks, including the Mayor of Hythe, a petition for the commutation of her sentence was raised.

Sitting in the condemned cell, Frances was far from happy to learn of William’s affair with her sister and, when he turned up to visit her for the second time, there was a heated quarrel between the warring couple. William stormed out in a furious temper. The Reverend Fraser, the prison chaplain, to whom Frances had finally admitted her guilt, tried to calm William down and requested that he should not return to the prison.

Cutting from the Kentish Express and Ashford News, March 14, 1868.
Cutting from the Kentish Express and Ashford News, March 14, 1868.

Within moments of William leaving her cell, Frances could be heard wailing loudly in despair. She had burst into tears and was making a dreadful commotion. The following day Frances was visited by her parents – which proved to be a most emotional encounter.

Over the first period of her incarceration, Frances had been prone to frequent outbursts of violence and temper tantrums but, after a while, she calmed down and even confessed her guilt to the prison chaplain. Eventually she accepted the justice of her sentence and became less excitable.

On the eve of her execution Frances retired to rest at about 11 o’clock. Somehow, she slept soundly and, at seven o’clock the next morning she was visited by the chaplain. They engaged in prayer and then Frances had her breakfast before being escorted to the prison chapel.

Throughout the service Frances had remained composed. However, afterwards, as she was being led to meet Calcraft to be pinioned, she burst into an uncontrollable flood of tears. The Reverend Fraser urged her to close her eyes and to hold his hands while Calcraft did what he had to do. Frances obliged and this made Calcraft’s task considerably easier.

Frances’s execution was to be the last of a female to be held in public and, given the abhoration of her deed, there were around 2,000 people, mostly women, outside Maidstone Prison all being keen to witness her paying the ultimate price for ending the life of an innocent little girl.

Leaning on to the Reverend Fraser, Frances was led to the scaffold. She stood, unaided, beneath the beam and was praying fervently as Calcraft made the final adjustments to his ropes.

As Calcraft withdrew the bolt, the final word to be heard from Frances’s lips was ‘Jesu’. She ‘died hard’, struggling at the end of the rope for sometime until all signs of life became extinct. An hour later she was cut down and buried in an unmarked grave inside the prison walls.

Following Frances’s execution, The Times printed a report criticising William Kidder for his behaviour, particularly for the fact that he had been cavorting and co-habiting with the prisoner’s married sister. The newspaper reported that an effigy of William had been burned in Hythe after the execution.

This story features in Volume 6 - Slaughter of the Innocents and can be bought as an eBook on Amazon for £3.99.

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