A Child at the Bottom of a Well
Rescue and recriminations in Oxfordshire; PLUS Atomic Power and Auschwitz Escape.
The following report was published in several English newspapers in late April and early May of 1860:
“A singular occurrence has taken place within the last week in the neighbourhood of Nettlebed, Oxfordshire. Mr. Hensman, a farmer, was walking homewards, when he came up with two respectable persons, who remarked that they were going into the wood, near Ipsden, to see an old Roman well there. Mr. Hensman said he would accompany them. The well, which has been dry for years, was reached, and the party began examining the material of the top part. By general repute, the well is considered to be of the depth of 100 feet, and a stone was thrown down. As soon as it reached the bottom, a noise was heard, which one of them asserted was the cry of a child. The others ridiculed the notion of a living creature being there; but further listening convinced them of the truth of their friend's statement.
Mr. Hensman then went to Parrott's Farm, a short distance off, and stated that he wanted a person to go down the well, as there was evidently a child there. A boy was sent down. When he reached the bottom, he called out to those at the top that there was a child there, and alive. He was asked if he could manage to hold it, and he called out, "Yes." Having secured the child in his arms, the party at the top began pulling him up gradually, and in a few minutes he arrived at the opening of the well with a fine female infant of about fourteen months old. It was alive but in a state of exhaustion from having been without food for two or three days.
There was a considerable crowd collected by the time of the child being brought up out of the well, and on some of the cottagers looking at it, they recognised it as belonging to a young woman who was seen going in the direction of the wood two days previously, and had since been missing from the neighbourhood. Mr. Hensman took the child to Parrott's Farm, where the mistress of the house took charge of it, and gave it milk and other nourishment. It was very ravenous for food, but it was given with caution. On being examined, no injury appeared on the body, but there was a little bruise and scratch on the upper part of the left cheek.
As it was but little injured, it is supposed that the inhuman mother contrived, by means of a long rope, to lower it to the bottom of the well, and then left it to die of starvation. The police have been active in their inquiries to trace the mother, and it is expected that she will be soon in custody. On careful inquiry, it was ascertained beyond all doubt that the child had been in the well part of two days and one night. Under careful treatment, the child is doing well.”
The child's rescue occurred on Thursday 19th April, 1860, near Ipsden, a village in the Chiltern Hills, between Oxford and Reading. Mr Hensman was likely the farmer Thomas Hensman. One of the men he went with to the well was named James Grace. The Roman Well (also known as St Berin’s Well and subsequently considered more likely to be Medieval) was 134 feet deep and three feet three inches in diameter. It was, thankfully, empty of water. Parrott’s Farm, also known as Well Place as it was just yards from the old well, was owned by retired farmer John Parrott.
Parrott offered a young boy named James Tuck ten shillings to go down into the well. The rescuers lowered a lantern, then made a cradle and lowered Tuck. It took ten minutes to inch him to the bottom and pull him back up with the child.
The rescuers carried the child to Parrott’s Farm and gave it wine and water, and then warm milk and bread. Although the initial report said the child was a “fine female infant”, it was actually a boy. And, although the report said it was “little injured”, it was actually badly bruised and cut, with a “serious wound” to the head, and “benumbed with cold”. Jane Grace, wife of James Grace, took the child to her home to nurse him back to health.
On the following day, police constable Joseph Rogers of the Oxfordshire constabulary, from information he had received, arrested a 22-year-old woman named Ann Barkus. Rogers charged Barkus with throwing her child down the well with the intent to kill. This was attempted murder, a crime that was punishable by death.
Barkus admitted that the child belonged to her. But she stated she had been walking through the woods with the child in her arms when she tripped against a tree or a stone and accidentally dropped him into the well. She told Constable Rogers that she remained at the well for about two hours, listening to the child crying. Then she left.
Ann Barkus was held in remand over the weekend and then taken to appear before a magistrate. Witnesses said Barkus had been staying with her stepfather, James Barkus, at an Ipsden residence known as Berins Hill. She had been there for more than three weeks. On one occasion, a witness met Ann coming out of the wood with her son. She told the witness she had been visiting the old well, adding, “What a dangerous place it is.”
James Tuck, the ploughboy who retrieved the child from the well, gave his account of the rescue. “I offered to go down the well,” he said. “They let me down with a rope, and when I got to the bottom, I found a child and a dead fowl. I brought the child up in my arms. There were some wood and some leaves at the bottom of the well, which was soft.”
Sarah Prior, the sister of James Barkus, said Ann appeared “very fond” of her son, and the family, who all lived under the same roof, helped to support both mother and child. Ann had left the house with the child at quarter to nine on the Wednesday morning, apparently to go to her aunt’s house in Henley.
Jane Shervill, the aunt, said Ann had lived with her in 1859 while pregnant. Shervill said she had cared for the child for several months after Ann went into the Henley Workhouse. On the day of her departure from Ipsden, Ann had arrived at the aunt’s house at about noon on Wednesday without the child. Ann told her aunt that the boy was in the care of a person named Morris. But she told Rhoda Strong, a friend from the Workhouse, that she had lost the child, and he had been dead for two months.
Ann Barkus was committed for trial at the Oxford Assizes. Newspapers said she “appeared little affected by her situation”. The jury trial took place in early July. The prisoner was tried as Ann Barkers rather than Barkus. Census records suggest this was simply an alternative spelling.*
The child, named Charles, was present in the court and “looked well and full of animation”. During the trial, Ann “fell down from her seat in the dock and was unable to cast a look at her infant, who sat smiling in his nurse’s arms, unconscious of its mother’s shame.” Charles had been returned to the Henley Workhouse by Jane Grace. His “nurse” was Ann’s workhouse friend Rhoda Strong.
After deliberating for about ten minutes, the jury found Ann guilty of the capital charge. The Judge, Justice Byles, said he would not “aggravate the feelings” of the prisoner with any remarks. “He would only say that, although her life was forfeited, the extreme sentence of the law would not be carried into execution.” A sentence of death was recorded, with the actual punishment to be considered at a later date. Ann was returned into custody.
Several weeks after the trial, Ann’s sentence was commuted from death to penal servitude for five years. As for Charles, newspapers reported: ”Under careful treatment, the child is doing well, and will no doubt ever be regarded with interest as the wonder of Ipsden Wood.” ◆
Atomic Power (1946 short film)
You cannot have failed to notice that Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is now in cinemas. It’s an intense watch, with Cillian Murphy excellent as the titular J Robert. But you probably aren’t aware of this 1946 curio starring Oppenheimer as himself (and made just a year after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs killed more than 200,000 people). From Time magazine’s March of Time series, Atomic Power is a short film covering the development of the bomb, featuring key scientists and officials playing themselves in recreations of key moments. So we see Oppenheimer in the control bunker for the Trinity test, and Albert Einstein writing his warning letter to President Roosevelt. (Yes, Einstein plays himself — with a demeanour that suggests it is very much beneath him.)
You can watch Atomic Power for free on the BFI Player. There are also a couple of documentaries worth tracking down: Oscar-nominated The Day After Trinity (1981) is on the Internet Archive; and new feature-length doc To End All War (2023) is on Sky / Now TV in the UK. Also, the Oppenheimer (1980) miniseries starring Sam Waterston is currently on BBC iPlayer.
The Escape Artist by Jonathan Freedland (book)
This is the gripping true story of Rudolf Vrba (then known as Walter Rosenberg), who, along with his friend Fred Wetzler, became one of the first Jews to escape from Auschwitz. Driven to warn the Jewish community and tell the world about the Nazi death camps, he committed every horrendous detail to memory, and relied on his fortitude and ingenuity (and some remarkable luck) to first survive and then escape in April 1944 — at the age of just 19. It’s both a thrilling adventure and a warning from history. Vrba’s actions probably saved 200,000 lives, but delays and inertia on behalf of the Allies allowed so many more to continue to their deaths, even after the horrors of the Holocaust had become known. You can find the book on the Singular Discoveries Amazon bookshelf.^
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*Ann’s stepfather James Barkus of the Berins Hill residence is variously listed on census records as James Bakust and James Barkas. Ann Barkus seems to be named on the census as Ann Bakust, who lived at the nearby Hailey residence and was born in 1838. (Records show James Barkus lived with daughters named Mary Ann and Annah, but both were younger than the stepdaughter Ann.)
Main sources: Manchester Times and others, 28 April 1860; Oxford Journal, 28 April 1860; Oxford Journal 14 July 1860; Oxford University Herald, 8 September 1860.
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