Advert for rat poison, in Royal Society of Health Journal, 1814 (Uploaded from Flickr Commons)
In my last post, “A Tarring and Turfing in the Forest of Dean, 1877“, I related the tale of a grocer in Lydbrook who had tar poured over him by three women, who were all fined and ordered to pay costs and damages. One of the women, Sabrina Cole, was sent to Gloucester Prison, because her husband, George Cole, did not pay up. She did not spend long in the gaol because her sister paid her fine, but two weeks later she was back in court, accused of trying to murder her husband by poisoning him.
On 29 August, The Citizen reported that Sabrina Cole had appeared at Coleford Police Station, having been arrested in Woolwich, on a charge of attempting to murder her husband, George Cole, by administering poison. The case was heard in full at Littledean Police Court on Monday, 10 September. The Citizen reminded readers that Sabrina Cole was one of the three “nymphs of the Forest” who had tarred the grocer. Her husband had refused to pay her fine and she had been “marched off to prison at Gloucester.” It was alleged that in retaliation she mixed vermin powder with pepper and put it in his sandwiches.
George Cole was supposed to have given evidence against Sabrina a week earlier, but he had failed to turn up in court, so the hearing was postponed while he was issued with a warrant to attend. Cole still did not arrive at the start of the proceedings, so two policemen were sent to find him and eventually he was escorted to the courtroom. On his arrival, Cole said he no longer wanted to give evidence against his wife, but when he was threatened with being charged with perjury, he went ahead.
Cole stated that a week after the tarring incident, he had got up to go to work at the Trafalgar Colliery, and watched Sabrina make him a beef sandwich for his lunch. He saw her sprinkle some seasoning from the pepper box onto the meat. Shortly after eating his lunch at work, he started to feel numbness in his hands and shoulders, and he felt sleepy. On going home, he found his wife had gone and the house was locked up. He had to climb in through a window. After realising that Sabrina had apparently gone away, he took a train to Gloucester, where he asked at the ticket office about her and discovered that she had bought a ticket for Paddington, London. He then went to Gloucester Police Station and spoke to Deputy Chief Constable Chipp. He informed Chipp that Mrs Cole had taken some of his property with her, and also said something about her ordering their little boy to steal something from a shop stall. He was still feeling unwell, but he didn’t say anything about it to Mr Chipp.
After leaving the police station, Cole said he went to a public house and had a pint of beer. Soon afterwards, he started to feel very ill indeed, with pain in his stomach and bowels. He went to another bar and ordered a gin and peppermint, but this failed to ease his discomfort. He wondered whether he might have been poisoned. Two girls in the bar (one called Annie, who he knew, the other a “short, fat, ugly one”, who was a stranger to him) took him to a doctor’s surgery. The doctor gave him a draught, which helped temporarily, but by the time he got the train home, he was feeling terrible. He got off the train at Newnham, and spent the night at the King’s Arms, but couldn’t lie down to sleep.
When he returned to his house in Lydbrook, he looked in the pepper box, because some money had been kept in it, which he found was gone. He noticed some blue grains in amongst the pepper and showed it to a neighbour, who said, “Oh God! That is poison in there.” He then took the pepper box to the police station and asked P.C. French to issue a warrant for his wife’s arrest.
When George Cole was cross-examined by the counsel for the defence, it transpired that once Sabrina had been apprehended at Woolwich and brought back to the Forest of Dean, he had applied for his wife to be released on bail, saying the poisoning may have been an accident. He had also written to Sabrina, asking that they might make it up and live together again.
At this point, the hearing was postponed for another week.
At the next hearing, the County Analyst gave evidence of examining the contents of the pepper box. He found that a small quantity of strychnine, in the form of a few grains of rodent poison, was mixed amongst the pepper.
Mr Albert Pleydell Carter, the doctor who had seen George Cole at his Gloucester surgery, said he was sure Cole was tipsy when he was brought in by a prostitute. The doctor believed Cole had drunk some bad beer, and this had caused his discomfort. Cole’s symptoms did not match those of strychnine poisoning, because he had been doubled up in pain, whereas someone who had taken strychnine would have muscle spasms and his back would be arching. Also, numbness of limbs and drowsiness were not signs of strychnine poisoning.
When P.C. French was questioned about Sabrina Cole’s arrest, he said that he had found out where she was because she had written a letter to him, giving her address. She had asked a friend to send on some clothes to her, but she hadn’t received them, and her letters had not been answered, so she wanted P.C. French to go and speak to the woman. She also said that she had found a good position in London and would not be returning to Lydbrook. When she was apprehended in Woolwich, Mrs Cole had looked very surprised on reading the warrant, and said she knew nothing about it. The police had been around various chemists in the area, including one at Ross-on-Wye which Sabrina sometimes visited, but there was no record of her buying rodent poison at any of them.
George Cole was cross-examined again. He stated that he had been alone in the house with the pepper box for about ten minutes, before he showed its contents to anyone else. He denied putting the poison into the box himself.
Questioned as to his conduct towards his wife, he said he had gone to Gloucester to fetch Sabrina when she was released from gaol, but denied that he had threatened her during their journey home, although at Ross-on-Wye he had warned her that if he caught her carrying on with other men, he would “warm her noddle.” It was true that he sometimes kept a hatchet under his bed, but this was because it cost 12 shillings and he needed it for his work. He hadn’t threatened her with it, and indeed he could do her more damage with his fists than with that. Asked about a former incident, he said that he had been “in drink” when he “used the poker to her”.
This last exchange led me to do a search further back in the newspapers for any former cases involving George and Sabrina Cole. The poker incident referred to was reported in the Gloucester Journal on 27 December 1873. George Cole had married Sabrina Davies in September 1872. Due to his violence towards her, Sabrina had left George several times, and in September 1873 she went to live with her mother at Longney. George followed her and begged her to come home. When she repeatedly refused, he hit her with a poker, which he had warmed in the fire first. George ran away and the police were called. He was arrested in a brothel in Gloucester. Sabrina was in hospital for weeks. George was tried in December 1873 and sentenced to 18 months hard labour, the judge describing him as a “merciless ruffian”. Other cases of a less serious nature took place in the years following.
After discussing all the evidence, the Littledean Bench dismissed the case. Sabrina Cole’s defence lawyer applied for George Cole to be made to enter into sureties for his good behaviour towards his wife, otherwise there might be “very serious consequences”. Mrs Cole was questioned by the magistrates. She said she was in bodily fear of her husband and she would not return to their home. Cole said he would leave the district to “relieve his wife”. He was called on to enter into sureties, then left the court.
So, what do I think really happened? George Cole was a violent and controlling man, and his wife had left him many times, but he had always persuaded her to go back to him. This time, he found that she had gone to London, so he went to the police in Gloucester and accused her of stealing his property and of forcing their son to commit a crime, in the hope that a warrant would be issued for her arrest. This didn’t happen and while he was in a bar, he drank some bad beer, which gave him a stomach ache. Sometime between then and his return to Lydbrook, he decided to accuse his wife of trying to poison him, in the hope that the police would find her and bring her home. Alone in his house, he found some rodent poison and put some in the pepper box, then showed it to his neighbours and the police. When Sabrina was arrested in London and brought back to the Forest of Dean, he tried to get the case dropped by refusing to give evidence against her, but he was forced to go ahead. Fortunately for Sabrina Cole, George didn’t know exactly what type of poison was in the vermin killer, and his symptoms did not match those of someone who had taken strychnine.
I don’t know whether Sabrina managed to get away from her husband for good, but George was still living in Lydbrook nine months later. In June 1878, he was charged at the Gloucestershire Quarter Sessions with uttering counterfeit coinage. He was sent to Gloucester Prison for twelve months, with hard labour.
All from the British Newspaper Archive:
The Citizen, 29 Aug and 18 Sep 1877; Gloucester Journal, 27 Dec 1873, 6, 15 and 22 Sep 1877; Gloucestershire Chronicle, 22 Sep 1877; Western Mail, 12 Sep 1877