The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale — a Victorian crime célèbre
In The Wicked Boy, Kate Summerscale delves behind the headlines that gripped readers of British newspapers In the summer of 1895. That year saw two teenagers — Robert Coombes and his younger brother Nathaniel (known as Nattie) — in the dock accused of killing their mother in her London home.
The book is a forensic examination of the events before and after the day in July when Robert stabbed his mother with a knife he had bought specifically for that purpose.
The decomposing body of Emily Coombes had lain in bed for ten days while her sons, aged 12 and 13 had a jolly time. They played cards, went to cricket matches and to the seaside and ate their favourites foods. They fobbed off relatives’ inquiries about their mother with a variety of reasons for her absence.
Only when neighbours noticed a sickening smell coming from the terraced house was the crime revealed. One local newspaper described the murder as ‘the most horrible, the most awful and revolting crime that we have ever been called upon to record.”
Robert admitted immediately that he had killed his mother, explaining that it was because Nattie had been beaten for stealing food and he thought he would be next. Nattie was let off the murder charge so he could testify against his brother,
Mad or Bad?
When Robert appeared for trial at the Old Bailey, the key question for the jurors was whether he was mad or just bad.
Contemporary opinion was that criminals and lunatics had certain physical characteristics that distinguished them from normal people. Robert’s demeanour contradicted that theory however. While his brother sobbed and shook with fear, Robert was cool and calm, a picture of a young gentleman dressed smartly and neatly in a boater and blazer.
Some of the Coombes’ neighbours testified that he was a clever and musically talented child, well-spoken and well-dressed. His teachers described him as obedient and unusually bright.
If he wasn’t mad or bad had he killed his mother in the interests of self preservation? Was it true, as both children claimed, that Mrs Coombes was prone to sudden outbreaks of violence against her children, particularly when her husband was away at sea?
Life in Broadmoor
Summerscale posits another idea: that Robert was influenced by the Penny Dreadfuls —sensational comics which chronicled the adventures of pirates and highwaymen — a collection of which were found in his bedroom.
In the end the jury brought in a verdict of guilty but insane and he was sent to the Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital for an indefinite period.
At this point in the narrative other authors may have brought the book to an end with a short summary of what happened to Robert subsequent to his conviction. But Summerscale is nothing if not a completist and also a meticulous researcher. The Wicked Boy is packed with social, historical and political details but Summerscale never allows the factual content to detract from the story itself.
She visited Broadmoor, discovering the lad was a model prisoner who learned to sew and to grow veg and became a skilled chess player. By chance she found a picture of his gravestone in Australia. She also discovered he had emigrated after 17 years incarceration, had won a medal while serving in World War 1 and was a well respected leader of a military band. The very model of an upright citizen about whose previous troubles no-one in Australia was aware.
If the details about Robert’s childhood are interesting, it was the sections about his time at Broadmoor and then his military service that fascinated me the most.
I had imagined Broadmoor at the end of the 19th century to operate an austere regime but it was actually rather enlightened. Robert was allowed access to books, could walk in flower gardens and encouraged to take part in activities like chess and billiards. He was taught to play the violin and the cornet to almost a professional standard.
A Chance For Redemption
At the start of World War 1 when the Australian government pledged its full support for the allied cause, Robert enlisted for the army. He was despatched to Egypt for training and then to Gallipoli where he served with great distinction, being mentioned for his bravery under sustained attacks. He also led the troops to and from the trenches in France, playing stirring tunes on his cornet.
In due course he returned to Australia, living in a quiet shack in a remote valley where he grew and sold vegetables. When one of his neighbours was arrested for a vicious assault on his son, Robert stepped in and became the boy’s ward. Kate Summerscale tracked the boy — now a man in his nineties — to his home in Australia and learned how Robert had been a force for good in his life. That man, Harry Mulville, gave thanks to his de facto father by arranging a headstone for Robert.
Whatever wrong Robert had done in his early life, by the end of book you feel that his rescue of another unhappy child, had been his redemption.
The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale: Footnotes
Kate Summerscale published her first book, The Queen of Whale Cay in 1997 as a result of an obituary she wrote for the Daily Telegraph — it won the Somerset Maugham award and was shortlisted for the Whitbread (later Costa) biography prize.
She left her job as Literary Editor of the Daily Telegraph in 2005 to write The Suspicions of Mr Whicher which won the Samuel Johnson prize as well as the British Book Awards for both Popular Non-Fiction and Book of the Year.
The Wicked Boy was published by Bloomsbury in 2016. It was shortlisted in the non fiction category of the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award in 2017. It went on to win the 2017 Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime. There’s an interesting interview with The Telegraph newspaper in which Summerscale explains what drew her to the story of the Coombes family.
She has judged several literary prizes, including the Booker Prize, and in 2010 was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She lives in London.
This is an updated version of a review first published at Bookertalk.com in 2018. The formatting has been changed to improve readability and a new image has been included. It is re-published in support of #throwbackthursday hosted by Davida @ The Chocolate Lady’s Book Review Blog.
30 thoughts on “The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale — a Victorian crime célèbre”
That’s Australia’s story. You have felons you need to get rid of; they come out here, and turn into honest, productive citizens (eg. Ronnie Biggs).
Was Biggs ever “honest, productive”? I know he worked in construction for a time but he was still on the run having escaped prison
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I’ve completely missed this. I really enjoyed The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.
Oddly I didn’t like that one and actually couldn’t finish it but this one has a structure that is more easy to follow
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One has to wonder how ‘Nattie’ made out as I suspect that the opportunities afforded Robert in Broadmoor were not available to him, either farmed out to family or ending up in an orphanage. Tragic all around.
He became a ship’s stoker and got to be the head stoker. He joined up in the war and was sent to Australia but never saw combat. He stayed in Australia and married there, visiting his brother occasionally
He did see action in WWI as a stretcher bearer at Gallipoli. And he wasn’t ‘sent’ to Australia, he emigrated as a young man.
Or are you talking about the younger brother?
Yes, he did serve in WW1 as I indicated when I said “he served with great distinction, being mentioned for his bravery under sustained attacks”. He was both stretcher and bugler. I didn’t say he was sent to Australia, I said he had emigrated.
Karen, this sounds like a fascinating read and as I have previously enjoyed her Suspicions of Mr Whicher I would definitely like to try this too.
I didn’t like Mr Whicher – actually couldnt finish it – but this is far more coherent a story
Well as I really enjoyed Mr Whicher… I am guessing this one is going to blow my mind! 😀
I have this book on my large pile of books to read, having read the Suspicions of Mr Whicher a few years ago and it has just moved up nearer to the top!
I wonder if the brother was responsible for killing the mother and the Robert stepped in to protect him? That clue came from the stepping in of the lad in Australia; it could potentially have been protecting behaviour. Having been to Broadmoor, it was a grim place and I was there briefly 100 years after this incident (in a professional capacity!). Was Robert autistic, as that could account for his unusual talent? Medical advancement and understanding has moved on a great pace in the last 100 years, that said we still do not seem to be able to cure some conditions or be blinkered to their existence.
I share these views without having read the book, yet so I could be barking at the wrong tree!
Good questions but of course I couldn’t possibly comment since that would spoil the fun of you reading the book.
It’s so weird to me that this boy led such a positive life and was such a helpful adult, but somewhere in the middle there’s just like this cut to a different person who killed his mother and had to go to prison. It almost sounds like no one really knew what to make of him. This is definitely a story I’m interested in! The part about the brothers eating all their favorite foods doesn’t sound like neglect to me, it sounds like two boys who didn’t like the rules and regulations put down by a parent. But why would he be such a well-adjusted individual otherwise?
I suspect the jury didn’t really know what to make of him either – there was such a disconnect between his appearance and his act. One modern day theory is that he was subject to fits..
What a fascinating story, I read The Suspicions of Mr Whicher some years ago, which I enjoyed but wasn’t particularly memorable, this sounds better.
I’d say this is better purely on the basis that I couldn’t get into Mr Whicher at all
Well, this *does* sound really interesting. I read and loved Suspicions some time back but I’ve never picked up any of her other books. I may have to remedy that – I like historical true crime if there’s a bit of a mystery to it and a good storyline.
This one definitely has a good yarn. She wrote another one a few years back which I might go and investigate, Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace
I reviewed Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace back in 2012: https://www.notesinthemargin.org/2012/07/17/mrs-robinsons-disgrace-by-kate-summerscale/
Now I very much want to read The Wicked Boy. Thanks for your review.
I didn’t know anything about the story behind The Wicked Boy until I read the book. The chapters describing his experience at Broadmoor were interesting – very different to how I imagined it
Fascinating story and you are so right about how most books like this would close off after he was institutionalized, the post Broadmoor story was fascinating.
The amount of research she did was phenomenal. She met the man who had been “adopted” by Robert Coombes – it was quite touching because this man hadn’t had enough money to erect a gravestone at the time of Coombes death but he did so 25 years later.
I have this one yet to read. It sounds as though I’ll enjoy it when I get to it.
There were a couple of times when I thought she was going to go off on a tangent simply because she had done the research and so thought it too good to waste but she pulled it back just in time 🙂
It was the Broadmoor section that stood out most for me too, although I also loved all the information about the fear of ‘bad boy’ culture. I do enjoy the way she approaches these true crimes – you always get so much more than just the crime.
I’d tried reading Suspicions of Mr Whicher but just couldn’t get on with it. Now though I’m inclined to find something else by her