THE WICKED BOY
BY KATE SUMMERSCALE, ALLEN & UNWIN.
This real-life story runs deeper than a grim retelling of the 1895 East London murder in which the maggot-ridden corpse of Emily Coombes was discovered, and her sons, Robert, 13, and Nattie, 12, charged with her murder. With their father away at sea, the boys’ pawning of his watches to enjoy a day at the seaside and meals at a respectable coffee shop – before the 10-day-old stench of Emily’s corpse alerted neighbours – sent Victorian newspapers into a frenzy. Robert’s composure during the trial (“quite the Cockney dandy, a worldly
Artful Dodger to Nattie’s wide-eyed Oliver Twist”) seemed to stack the evidence. He was the “embodiment of the ‘New Boy’: He is bossy, cheeky, smokes and drinks.” It’s here the book becomes a powerhouse description of changing social times. Add to that the author’s brilliant dissection of witness statements and we have the reason he was spared the gallows, and “accomplice” Nattie let off. In later life, both brothers settled in Australia. Robert received a Blue Ribbon from the Prince of Wales on the first anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, for his service as a stretcher-bearer. Robert died at 67, Nattie at 63. KE