The Drowning of 2-year-old Thomas Hunnisett
- Accident or Murder?

The following is based on an article I wrote for the Sussex Family Historian, the journal of the Sussex Family History Group, and which was published in the March 2004 issue.

When I discovered a reference at The National Archives, Kew to a murder involving a Hunnisett I just had to investigate. The bundle of documents turned out to be the complete set of witness depositions from the inquest of 2-year-old Thomas Edward Pennington Hunnisett, which were used at the trial when his mother, Elizabeth, was accused of his murder in 1862. Thomas was from a branch of the family which by the mid 19th century was generally using the spelling Honeysett, although it was recorded as Hunnisett at the inquest and trial.

Most of what follows is a narrative of the events in the few days immediately before and after the incident, compiled directly from the witness depositions, supplemented by information from an account of the trial, which appeared in the Sussex Express. I have also added some background information on the family, much of it from workhouse sources as well as the usual church and census records.


Walter & Sarah Honeysett lived in the parish of Herstmonceux where Walter was a farm labourer and they are believed to have had 14 children. The eldest, Mary, had 2 illegitimate sons; James in 1829, and Thomas David who was probably born in late 1830.

By 1841 young Thomas, usually known just as David, was being cared for by his grandparents, Walter and Sarah, who by then had their own farm at Darwell Hole, near Brightling. On 8 October 1843 Thomas David and 2 of Walter's own children were given late baptisms at Dallington parish church. In 1851 Thomas David was an agricultural labourer and still living with his grandparents at Darwell Hole.

Also at the 1851 census 15-year-old Elizabeth Skinner was at home with her parents, Stephen and Ann, and her siblings Ann, James, Sophia and Harriett at Miller's Cottage, Brightling. Elizabeth Sarah Skinner had been baptised in Brightling on 30 August 1835.

On 29 June 1855 Thomas David Honeysett (25 year old labourer) and Elizabeth Sarah Skinner (21 year old servant) both of Brightling, married at the registry office in Battle. It is not clear why they were not married in church nor why she seems to have added a year or so to her age, however her first child does appear to have been born before the marriage so perhaps that was the reason.

The first of their children was Alfred Thomas who seems to have been born in early 1855, a little before the marriage. Their second, Mary, was born on 5 January 1857 according to the 1866 Hailsham Union House records. Sophia was baptised on 25 July 1858 at Herstmonceux, at which time Thomas was recorded as David, a labourer at Cowbeech.

Hailsham Workhouse

On Thursday 17 November 1859, Elizabeth, nearly seven months pregnant, and her three children were admitted to the Hailsham Union Workhouse, the reason given being that her husband had deserted her. A week later she removed herself and her children but they were all re-admitted on 1 December.

View of Hailsham Union Workhouse
Hailsham Union Workhouse

Thomas Edward Pennington Honeysett was born in the workhouse on 30 January 1860 and was baptised on 4 March at Hellingly parish church. Where the name Pennington came from I have no idea as, being a Lancashire name, it was rarely found in Sussex at that time. The workhouse birth register states that he was legitimate, and his birth certificate and his baptismal record both name Thomas David Honeysett as his father. Elizabeth and her children remained in the workhouse until 20 July.

On 15 December the three elder children were 'left at the union house door' and Elizabeth and young Thomas were also admitted on 28 December. The three elder children; Alfred, Mary and Sophia, were to spend virtually the rest of their childhood in the workhouse as although Elizabeth discharged herself and all her children on 27 May 1861, these three were again abandoned outside the House later that same day. Where Elizabeth and young Thomas were for the next ten months is not known but it is known that Elizabeth had another son, James William, at the beginning of 1862, probably mid-February.

The drowning of Thomas

On 6 April 1862 Elizabeth and the two boys were admitted to the Ticehurst Union House where she stayed for a month under the name of Huggett. She was discharged and left there on Monday 5 May, apparently not intending to return.

Lydia Lulham, a nurse at the Ticehurst Union, dressed the elder boy, Thomas, on the Monday morning and stated later that he was wearing three petticoats and a frock, two pairs of woollen socks, a small pair of strapped shoes and a hat. Henry Gray, the porter, saw them at a quarter to twelve and seeing that they were leaving the Union House he called them back and took down their names and ages, before letting them continue on their way.

According to her later evidence Elizabeth and her two children stayed that night at Hammonds, who kept a public house and butcher's shop in Wadhurst, about five miles west of the Union House. The 1861 census shows that Edward Hammond, Innkeeper and Butcher, was the publican of the White Hart at Wadhurst.

The following day was warm and sunny and she continued walking west as far as Mark Cross where she turned south towards Mayfield. Just after noon James Bennett, Superintendent of Police at Uckfield, travelling between Stilehouse and Mark Cross in his cart, saw Elizabeth sitting at the side of the road with the baby in her arms and Thomas lying next to her on the grass. Stilehouse was little more than half a mile south of Mark Cross, but is not shown on today's OS maps. The 1861 census shows that Stilehouse Farm was farmed by Joseph Flawn and his wife, Elizabeth. Among others in the house was a 22-year-old servant, Thomas Seal.

map of the area south of Mark Cross

Later on, at about four o'clock James Sivyer, a sweep from Rotherfield, was passing along the same stretch of road, but just south of Stilehouse, when he came across Elizabeth and her children sitting by a hedge near a pond. He spoke to her briefly saying "You have got a nice shady place there young woman" to which she answered "Yes I have" and he continued on his way to see Thomas Seal. Returning later and being concerned for Elizabeth and her children as he had earlier noticed that "she appeared to be in a low spirited way" he stopped and spoke to her again. He said "I beg your pardon young woman, I hope you are not going to jump into that pond" to which she replied "I don't think of that but I am much obliged to you for coming back to tell me". Elizabeth was sewing a small hat and he stayed talking to her for some time, during which she asked him if he knew a man by the name of Bourne and where he lived, and also a man named James Cornford. He pointed out the way to each of their houses, and left her at about five o'clock. According to the 1861 census James Siveyer was a 57-year-old chimney sweep living at Black Nest, Rotherfield.

Soon after six o'clock Thomas Seal went to the pond to fetch some water and noticed the body of a small child floating on the water about four yards from the edge. Unable to reach it he went to Mark Cross to fetch William Waghorn, the local Superintendent of Police, reaching there at about a quarter to seven. Superintendent Waghorn sent Thomas Seal on to Rotherfield to fetch Police Constable James Newnham while he went to the pond and retrieved the body. The child was only partly clothed and had a comforter tied loosely around its neck. He left the body in a nearby barn in the charge of Christopher Blackman and Elizabeth Flawn, the wife of the barn's owner Joseph Flawn, a tilehanger and farmer, and went off in pursuit of Elizabeth.

Later on Constable Newnham arrived at the barn and remained there until Superintendent Waghorn returned. During that time Henry Harland, a medical doctor from Mayfield, arrived and confirmed that the child had died of drowning some three or four hours earlier. The two policemen, acting on information received, then went to Thomas Bourne's house at No Mans Hole, Mayfield, but he refused to let them in. Superintendent Waghorn returned to Mark Cross leaving the constable to watch the house until morning. The 1861 census shows that Thomas Bourne and his wife, Jane, both 27 lived at No Man's Hole in the parish of Mayfield. Thomas was born in Hellingly and Jane in Hailsham, so perhaps they were old friends of Elizabeth's

The following morning Constable Newnham questioned Mrs Bourne who said that there was a young woman staying with them but that she was not yet down. Eventually the young woman appeared and it proved to be Elizabeth who was then questioned. She said she had four children, but only one of them with her. She denied being at Mark Cross on the previous day or of having two children with her then, saying that she had left the elder boy with a girl called Mary Ann Colvin in Mayfield. Elizabeth was then taken to Mark Cross. On the way they sat down to rest at a place called Salter's Field where a man passing asked the constable if it was true that a child had drowned near Mark Cross. The constable had not previously mentioned the drowning to Elizabeth, but admitted that this was so, whereupon Elizabeth asked how old the child was and upon being told, said that Mary Ann Colvin had said she was going to Mark Cross and that she wanted to go to Mayfield as soon as she could to see her child. They continued on their way to Mark Cross.

When they reached Mark Cross Superintendent Waghorn told her that she was charged on suspicion of drowning her little two-year-old son. She denied it, repeating that she had left him with Mary Ann Colvin in Mayfield, a young woman she had become acquainted with in the Ticehurst Union House. Constable Newnham was sent to make enquiries but there was no record of anyone of that name having been at the Union House, nor in Mayfield. Interestingly, the 1861 census shows that there was actually a young girl called Mary Ann Colvin living in Mayfield; she was 10 years old at the time of the census, so perhaps she was known to Elizabeth even if she was not actually involved in these events.

Inquest & Trials

The following day, 8 May 1862, an inquest was held at the Mark Cross Inn before Francis Harding Gell, Coroner for East Sussex, and evidence was heard from all the witnesses. Elizabeth then changed her story and admitted being at Mark Cross with both children. She said "I was sitting by the pond and the little boy whose name is Thomas Edward Pennington Hunnisett dirtied himself. I pulled his clothes off and went to the pond to wash it, and while I was there the child rolled down the bank into the pond. I got a stake out of the hedge and tried to pull him to me. I could not reach him. I then took the baby and went on the road"

On Saturday 10 May a death certificate was issued at Rotherfield giving the cause of death as 'Willful murder by the said Elizabeth Sarah Hunnisett'. This seems rather odd nowadays when the cause of death would probably be given as 'drowning' but was quite normal in 1862 even though Elizabeth still had to attend a trial and could have been acquitted, although the statement on the death certificate would still have remained. Thomas was buried that day in Mayfield.

Elizabeth was tried at the Lewes Assize courts on 1 August 1862 and the same evidence was given as at the inquest. After giving her evidence Elizabeth collapsed in hysterics crying "Lord help me, Lord help me" throughout the summing up. The jury returned a verdict of guilty with a recommendation to mercy. His Lordship said he should take care the recommendation should be conveyed to the proper authorities, but that in view of the verdict he was compelled to sentence her to death. Elizabeth collapsed and was carried from the dock by the warders of the prison. She was later reprieved and the sentence commuted to 12 months hard labour. The costs relating to this case were £13 9s 10d.

On 31 July 1863 Elizabeth was released from Lewes County Gaol and she was again admitted to the Hailsham Union House, along with her son James. The following April she discharged herself taking all four children with her. Once again Elizabeth obviously found she could not cope with so many children as on 6 September the two girls were again left at the door of the Union House at 8pm. The following afternoon they ran away, as the porter had left the door open, but were returned, a day later, by the police. Alfred was admitted 'homeless' on 7 December 1864. James, by then three years old, was admitted on 27 March 1865 as his mother had been taken into custody for stealing faggots, for which she served another month in prison with hard labour. None of these four children was to leave the workhouse again until they were old enough to be apprenticed or discharge themselves.

Elizabeth had by this time had another child, Harriett Rosina, born in February 1865. The newspaper report of the trial in Eastbourne mentions that she had a 'child at the breast', that there was a warrant out against her husband who had deserted her, and that 'during his absence she has had two or three children'. She went on to have even more. In August 1868 she had a son, Edwin, in Chiddingly and in May 1870 a daughter, Anne. At the 1871 census she was housekeeper to 60 year old Samuel Ellis at Upper Dicker, and had these last three children with her.

On 12 November 1874 Elizabeth made one last visit to the Hailsham Union House, along with her youngest three children. On 27 December her last known child, William Thomas was born and she discharged herself three weeks later taking the four children with her. Interestingly, two of her elder children, Sophia (16) and James (almost 13) appear to have been still at the workhouse, having been finally abandoned there ten years earlier.

Later life

By 1881 Elizabeth and her later four children were living in Eastbourne, and on 5 January she married a 35 year old Shoemaker, John Henry Thomas. At the marriage she claimed she was only 40, no doubt because he was actually ten years younger than she was. Six weeks later her daughter, 'Rosey', married a 26 year old excavator, William Beck. She also lied about her age, claiming she was 20 although barely 16.

Of her older children, Alfred left the workhouse when he was 13 and married Jane Henty in 1876. They appear to have only had one child, William, two years before the marriage. Mary left the workhouse to work in service when she was 15 and when she was almost 19 she spent a month back in the workhouse because she was pregnant although there is no record of the child being born there. Sophia seems to have lived intermittently at the workhouse until she was almost 20, having known little else since she was a year old. However she obviously had outplacements as a servant as in 1871, at the age of 12, she was working as a servant for John Jackson in Hailsham. At the 1881 census she was recorded as a servant at the house of James Billinger, physician in Terminus Road, Hailsham. On 23 April 1883, then aged 24, she married Frederick John Twort, a brickmaker in Hailsham.

I have not found Elizabeth in 1891 but a Thomas Honeysett, 62-year-old carpenter's labourer, born Dallington and claiming to be a widower, was a patient in St Mary, Islington, Workhouse Infirmary. Where had he been all these years? I have not traced his death.


We will probably never know why Elizabeth came to be abandoned by her husband. Perhaps Thomas Edward Pennington Honeysett was not really his child and he had discovered this; certainly the choice of forenames might suggest that. Then with three young children and the fourth well on the way she was clearly in no position to support them and was either unable or unwilling to turn to her own family for support. Life in the workhouse was very hard and she would have been segregated from her older children. Although she tried to survive outside the workhouse she found that the children were too much for her so the older ones were gradually abandoned. What really happened at the pond near Mark Cross will never be known but the fact that Elizabeth panicked, fled, and when caught denied everything, clearly ruined her chances of being believed even if the child's death was an accident. It is most unlikely that Elizabeth would even be charged with murder today, let alone convicted, and even in 1862 the jury clearly had reservations. I would like to think that, following her marriage to John Thomas, Elizabeth finally gained some stability in her life, but that may be optimistic...

Peter Hunnisett

Main Sources:

Assizes: Depositions [TNA ASSI 36/10]
Assizes: Crown Minute Books [TNA ASSI 31/36 p30]
Home Office: Criminal Registers [TNA HO 27/133]

Sussex Express 5 August 1862 - Lewes Assizes report [ESRO XA 28/33]
The Times 14 August 1862 - Reprieve of death sentence [The Times Digital Archive]
Sussex Express 1 April 1865 - Eastbourne Magistrates [ESRO XA 28/ ]

Hailsham Union Inmates Admission & Discharge Registers [ESRO G5/14/15-21]
Hailsham Union Register of Births [ESRO G5/16/1]