Murder Mystery and My Family


If you have found yourself here reading my blog, I hope you have arrived from a position of having watched Emily's story on Murder Mystery and My Family, and enjoyed it. You may perhaps be thinking that my choice of words are strange. How can anyone enjoy such a dark story which ended in the hanging of my great-gran. Well for me, the final judgement made in the programme yesterday is secondary to the judgement that so many people are now sharing with me. Emily Swann was a victim of her times. A woman who fought hard to survive against all odds. A courageous lady who faced a patriarchal world that had no time for a lower class lady who had fallen on hard times. Yes she did lose her fight, but now so many of you will see the battle that she fought so hard to keep her family clothed, fed and cared for. There are lessons to learn from Emily. Lessons which I too have had to take on board. But ultimately as I leave Emily in History, I really do walk away believing that I have done the best that I could possibly do for her. I told her story.

Thank you for dropping by - I do hope I see you again.

Emily Swann at 42

Me at 17

Emily's daughter Elsie at 18

On Film

Here we are at last! 

The penultimate evening before the morning of the showing of the reopening of Emily's case and the subsequent re-enactment of the final judgement of her trial. 

I find that I feel quite emotional and I can't pinpoint the reason why. I feel a real sense of change in the air. But I don't know why. As I drove to school this morning, my car became my church as I gave thanks for the whole process that I have lived through this last 6 months, and somehow through that rambling, musing prayer - I found the answer. I wanted the world to have sight of the misjustice and injustice that I feel not only Emily faced, but those who went before her along with those who came after her. Many have read her story but many have not, and I am so pleased that they too will now have the chance to meet this brave but perhaps misguided little lady who I am quite proud to say was my great-grandmother and the great-great grandmother of my three sons.

Recently I gave a talk whereby I read out one of Emily's final letters from jail. In that letter, my great-gran told us that she knew she had sinned, but then went on to challenge the hypocritical who 'hide their sins under their very large salvation bonnets.' To err is human, to forgive is divine and this is what Emily does. In those final moments before she is brought to the gallows, Emily forgives all. 

After being sat in Armley Jail myself and trying so very hard to walk in her shoes and imagine Emily writing that last letter, I can only say how difficult I believe putting pen to paper must have been. To forgive all (including her accusers) must have taken every last ounce of strength - but she does, and she does it with grace and a touch of humour and humility. This I believe shows great courage.

This little lady who in the statement as recorded by the most sexist police sergeant Quest states that she only had an affair with her lover John Gallagher because her husband was 'cruel' and he was 'kind' - tried to find love in a world that had seen her lose 11 children, beaten by her abusive husband and prosecuted for prostitution as she had tried to find the money to feed her children. Emily wanted to feel loved. Don't we all? But Emily lived in a time when women were not treated equally; especially women of a lower class, and where a woman who tried to take control of her own destiny was considered to be immoral. Not only an immoral wife but also an immoral mother.

So as you all watch Series 2: Episode 7 of Murder Mystery and My Family - I hope that you see the Emily Swann that I first met 14 years ago - a woman who chose 'kindness' over 'cruelty' and battled against all odds to live her life as she chose. A modern woman who wanted to find love on her own terms. Who essentially fought as a single mother to feed and clothe her children; a woman who would do whatever was needed to make sure that they were loved and cared for. And a woman who was not willing to take the daily beatings without fighting back. A fight she was to lose when she faced a Victorian patriarchal penal system as a battle-scarred, illiterate woman.

Now it is your turn to form your own opinion.

Emily Swann - guilty or not?

Won't be long now.

5th March

The window for the programme on BBC1 has been scheduled between 24th March and 7th April. I will post the exact date as soon as I know. Thank you for your continued interest. It has been a fabulous experience which I hope you will enjoy.
Meanwhile should you want to read about the story before the programme goes out - click on the link: Sins of the Family
Signed copies are available for £10 including post and packaging. Either inbox me on Facebook or email me at
18th January
All the way to the gallows
Whilst I am very much looking forward to meeting  Barristers Jeremy Dein QC and Sasha Wass QC in London on Friday for the filming of the next stage of my journey - I can't help but think back to how Emily must have felt when meeting these people that she would have perceived as very 'scary' people. I feel that she would have trusted their judgement entirely. That is of course, until that final judgement took her all the way to the gallows. 

I have no doubt that as I sit down to talk about the case, I will momentarily feel unsure and perhaps slightly out of my depth - as I discuss the family tragedy. Will I fleetingly feel the nerves that she would have felt as she faced her barristers? I hope so. It is important to me that I help them to understand this case from her perspective. I am only too well aware that they will only be interested in the legalities of the events around that murder in Wombwell, Barnsley at the turn of the twentieth century.
I feel as though the journey from the first meeting with the film crew to this weekend in London, will be a real eye opener for the two million viewers that will tune in to the programme in March (last year's figures). I have learnt so much about the patriarchal Victorian society who judged this little lady but at the same time I must recognise that the law will take no note of the emotions wrapped around her case. However in order to understand what went so wrong for this woman who tried her very best to keep her family together against the odds - I must.
My pledge to her now is to put across the injustice that I believe she faced. As a working class, married woman and mother trying to make ends meet in an unjust, often hypocritical and narrow-minded Victorian society - I have learnt that Emily Swann was just another disposable woman who had found herself on the wrong side of the law and therefore wasn't worth more than the unrepresented, 30 minute hearing she was given, which subsequently sent her and the only man who 'has been kind to me when my husband was nought but cruel' to be hanged at Armley Jail at Christmas time 1902.
Programme for the day -
  • Short interview: Thoughts preparing to meet the barristers
  • Meet the barristers: In a conversation, briefly introduce my case to them, tell them about my connection and my own research, outline any questions about the original case/verdict. The barristers will then tell me about their process when it comes to re-examining the case, and some of the challenges they might face.
  • Short interview: Thoughts on meeting the barristers
Yes, Friday will be a very interesting day.
Wish me luck!
17th November
Judgement Day.
Just one month before we go down to London to meet the barristers at Wimbourne House in London.The Film studios will be the first of two locations where we will meet the legal specialists who will give me the laws' point of view on the case, judgement and decision to hang my great-gran and leave her children orphaned. I have no doubt that this meeting will be both emotional but very, very enlightening.

I hope that I will be able to take the judgement; whatever that be, with grace and dignity. As long as I feel that I have done everything that I could possibly have done, to have Emily Swann's case re-visited for the great miscarriage which I believe it to be - I feel I will not have let her down.

The three questions that I asked Murder Mystery and My Family as I started this journey were -

* What was the evidence to prove that Emily murdered her husband?
* Why would the judge not allow her two children to testify, especially one who was in the room at the time of the murder?
* Did Emily receive a fair trial as an illiterate woman from the lower classes in a male-dominated mining community?

Hopefully I will finally get the answers which I have waited for, for so long.

Filming at Huddersfield University
Final resting place of Emily Swann
Time to reflect

BBC will re-investigate tale of murder and execution.
Words and photo by Dave Barry 

A Scarborough woman is hoping to clear her great grandmother’s name in the BBC TV series Murder Mystery and my Family.

In 1903, Emily Swann and her lover John Gallagher were hanged for the murder of her violent husband William. For most of her married life, Emily was brutally beaten by her husband, a glass blower who drank heavily and squandered the family’s money while Emily was left to bring up the children.

“Understandably, she was a volatile woman, but in this day and age she would have been protected”, says her great granddaughter, Felicity Newbold.

The murder brought tragedy, scandal and shame in its wake. Emily was executed and her family torn apart.

The pain passed through three generations to Felicity, who was subjected to physical and psychological abuse by her gran. Emily’s daughter Elsie beat Felicity every day. Her granddad excused the appalling behaviour by saying his wife had had a hard life and that she had hardly known her mother because she had been hanged. The abuse culminated in Elsie pouring a pan of boiling water over Felicity when she was 15, as she prepared to go out to a dance with her friends.

“I think my gran must have looked at me and looked back at her own desperate childhood and realised what she had lost”, Felicity says.

She left home and “went wild for a few years”, craving the love she never had. “My life started to spiral. Then I woke up one day and realised that I was single, 36 years old, with three children, two failed marriages and 20p in my purse. I needed to break the cycle of poverty. I needed to get an education”.

Through drive and determination, she achieved a 2:1 degree, a masters and a teaching qualification. She became assistant head at Pindar School in Eastfield before gaining a qualification in headship. But Felicity, who is now an English teacher at Driffield School, continued to struggle with her past and knew she had to find answers.

“It wasn’t until I was 50 and had finally made something of myself that I recognised that I hadn’t ever escaped Elsie completely”, she says. “The scars caused by my fractured childhood had never totally healed, which meant that at a time when I should have been feeling proud of myself and my achievements, I felt hollow and incomplete. I realised to be totally free, I needed to understand why gran behaved the way she did”.

So, in 2007, she set out to discover the history of her family, trying to separate fact from family myth, in the hope it would heal her childhood scars. Through internet research and trawling through church, library and newspaper archives, she pieced together a fascinating piece of family tragedy and social history. As Felicity discovered more about her ancestors, she came to see how they had been caught in a damaging cycle, endlessly repeating the mistakes of the past. And she knew that she, at last, had the power to break free.

Newspaper cuttings revealed that 286 men, including many members of Emily’s family, were killed in an underground explosion which became known as the Oaks mining tragedy, in 1866.

When Emily and Bill married, domestic violence was commonplace. The couple took a lodger, who Emily fell in love with and who killed her husband Bill after a violent attack on her in Wombwell, near Barnsley, in 1902. Emily, who denied complicity, and her lover were convicted of his murder. A jury convicted this illiterate woman, who had no real representation, after a 30-minute trial. She was visited at Armley jail in Leeds by her sisters and children. But Elsie, aged four, wasn’t allowed in. She was left with a prison warden who asked her to guard his silver sixpence as a way of distracting her - hence the book title.

After Emily was hanged, Elsie was shunted from relative to relative. She was taunted about the circumstances of her parents’ death and became a sullen, unhappy child. She became pregnant aged 18.

Felicity was filled with huge sadness and a burning sense of injustice while reading letters from Emily to Felicity’s mother Hannah. She was determined to fight for justice for her great-gran and began her long journey to bring Emily’s story back into the public arena. “It was so important to give Emily another hearing with an opportunity to look again at the evidence of what I believe was an unfair and biased trial”, she says.

Discovering the poverty and hardship of Emily’s life and the traumas her grandmother suffered as a girl has helped Felicity see the destructive patterns that had been repeated in her family for nearly 100 years.

She says: “Once I started to piece the jigsaw of my life together, I knew I had to get it down on paper”.

The result was a book, Guard a Silver Sixpence, which explores self-identity through historical exploration over five generations. It has sold 300,000 copies. In Canada, where the title was changed to Sins of the Family, it topped the non-fiction softback sales for six weeks. Now the story is to be re-examined by two leading criminal barristers in the second series of Murder Mystery and my Family. Sasha Wass and Jeremy Dein specialise in re-investigating historical cases, re-examining key evidence given by eye-witnesses and presented at Emily’s trial.

The programme will be broadcast in January.

“The past will always be part of me,” Felicity says. “But, for the first time, I feel really positive about the future. It has been very hard at times and I have felt very lost, but I am back on track now. There are still some unanswered questions. But I feel more at peace than I ever have”.

The questions are:

* What was the evidence to prove that Emily murdered her husband?
* Why would the judge not allow her two children to testify, especially one who was in the room at the time of the murder?
* Did Emily receive a fair trial as an illiterate woman from the lower classes in a male-dominated mining community?

Felicity isn’t hoping for a posthumous retrial, only for the case to be recognised as a miscarriage of justice.

Note to my reader

Sins of the Family

The whole experience of researching my family history and putting pen to paper has had an enormous impact on who I am as a person, and how I want to live my life. To have answers to those ultimate questions that whirl around in our hearts and minds; especially when moving on from abuse, allows us to develop our sense of worth and also our self-identity. Fortunately for me, Sins of the Family gave me the opportunity to unlock those sinister secrets that had been locked away for so long and also to 'file' them away in my own personal history. I am fortunate, I found the answers that I had been searching for and I know that many of my readers would also like to delve into their family history in order to understand what has happened to them.

From the first telling of my story, I have had letters from readers all around the world, either wanting to share their story or just to ask for advice as to where to start. What I would say to anyone who is looking for answers – go out and find them. My starting point was to gather anecdotal stories from my family and then, as we Yorkshire folk say, hard slog through the many avenues that those clues lead us down. Be prepared for the mixed bag of emotions that you will feel as you meet and greet your long lost ancestors of the past. I have gone through heartbreak, and still do when I think of the pain that has swept across five generations of my family, but I also feel a greater sense of well-being because I have unlocked the secrets of time. There are risks and the journey may be dark and painful but I can tell you here and now; hand on heart, the experience will be life changing.

My final piece of advice comes from the New Testament reading which I had found on the lectern of the church where my Gran and Grandad had got married all of those years ago “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven.” words which seemed to give me the permission I was waiting for, to go and seek the truth. So as I close my note to you my reader, I strongly believe that there is a time for everything and possibly that time for you is now.

I wish you well in your search.

Felicity Davis

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