THE WICKED BOY

BY KATE SUMMERSCALE, ALLEN & UNWIN.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - BOOKS -

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

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