‘Adrift’ – a short story inspired by a tragic tale

This is a short story I wrote called Adrift. It’s inspired by the tragic tale of Christina Collins, who was murdered in 1839.

I’ve become increasingly interested in ‘place’ in writing. Within a short distance of my home is the fascinating post-industrial landscape of the Potteries and the Black Country – bottle kilns, warehouses, canals and chapels – and then there is the wonderful heathland of Cannock Chase and hills of the Moorlands, and the windmills, almshouses, pubs and halls of ancient market towns and villages. But beyond the physical there is another sense of place. We often take history for granted in this country but it is the lives and stories of those who went before us that add another dimension, an atmosphere or a mood, perhaps, to the landscape. Within a few minutes of where I write Izaak Walton fished and Norman cavalry brutally suppressed a Saxon rebellion. A doctor who poisoned those in his care was hanged in front of a crowd of tens of thousands and a wall was built around a town hemmed in by marsh where the bodies of executed men were thrown in a ditch.

These stories add to our landscape and our understanding and experience of it. Areas of towns and cities can be demolished and rebuilt but they may still retain a sense of what went on before. It was with this in mind that I wrote the short story ‘Adrift.’ Christina Collins (previous blog here) was murdered on a stretch of the Trent and Mersey canal in 1839. Christina’s tragic tale has become part of our landscape and the stories we tell each other. I hope Christina rests in peace, that I’ve been respectful to her memory, and that her spirit no longer wanders the towpath in search of help.

Yesterday was the facts, this piece is merely a work of fiction inspired by that story……

The wooden sculpture beside Workhouse Bridge, Stone

She kept walking alongside us, but she made no effort to talk. I coughed a couple of times and said ‘lovely day’ but she didn’t look up. When she kicked a stone into the water I put my book down, sensing an opening.

            ‘Are you OK?’ I said. ‘I mean do you need a lift or something?’

I don’t know why I said that. I mean who gives someone a lift at barely three-miles-per-hour? As we chugged ahead she straightened up, rubbing her spine. I hadn’t thought much of her clothes – perhaps that she was a bit dirty and dishevelled – as we trailed behind her. Now I had to make a conscious effort not to stare. Bedraggled. Dragged through a hedge backwards, Bill muttered. She wore a long black dress with a tatty overcoat, grubby grey shawl and scuffed boots. She brought to my mind a Victorian flower seller. She kept her head down as if she was looking for something – an earring or a coin – in the gravel of the towpath. I told Bill to pull in. He tutted and gave me that look he gives me when I buy coffee for homeless people or pet stray dogs. ‘Just for a minute,’ I snapped.

He steered into the side and I jumped off as Bill tied up. ‘What’s your name, luv?’ She sat down on a bench one of the boaters had put by his mooring. ‘Castaway’ was painted with daisies on the slats. Not original, but better than ‘Water Bored’ which we’d passed at the locks yesterday. She waved a grubby hand, muttered that she didn’t want to be a burden.

            ‘Can I get you a drink?’

Her throat was dry and hoarse. It had been a baking hot afternoon, close as we were to midsummer. Bill chucked me a bottle of mineral water. She looked at it curiously but didn’t drink. I unscrewed the cap, poured a little onto the parched grass and she snatched at it, guzzling it. She handed it back, half empty, apologising.

            ‘It’s no matter, luv. Where are you headed?’

She caught me glancing at her scuffed, broken boots and pulled them away under her dress. ‘London.’

            ‘Bloody hell,’ Bill spluttered.

She sipped at the rest of the water and dabbed at her lips with a handkerchief. ‘I’m going to see my husband. He works there.’

            ‘Has she not heard of the train?’ Bill whispered.

I glared at him as I took her hand. Her skin was pale as marble. Her fingers trembled, so I stroked her hand and asked her what had upset her.

‘I was travelling with men.’ She gave an involuntary shudder. ‘They were uncouth and they-’ I saw her eyes flick to Bill.

            ‘And they drank?’ She nodded, staring at the towpath.

‘What did they do to you?’ She shuddered. I’d seen it before. I knew what men were capable of. I rubbed her hand to warm it. I lowered my voice, so Bill could not hear. ‘When you want to tell me, I’m here. I’ll listen,’ I said.

The Trent and Mersey canal at Crown Wharf, Stone

She nodded, stretched, and set off along the towpath. ‘Now, where are you going?’

She frowned. ‘London.’

            ‘Hundred and forty, fifty miles. Got to be,’ Bill said.

            ‘You can’t walk to London, pet. Least of all in those boots.’ She dabbed at her nose and I knew she was stifling tears. ‘Hop aboard. At least take the weight off your feet for a bit.’ She didn’t want to, but she was weighing it up. Finally, sore feet and lack of puff won out and she stepped up. I guided her to the settee, while I filled the kettle.

            ‘Right, shall we crack on?’ Bill said.

            ‘Yes, you may proceed driver.’ I winked at her and she forced a tiny smile. Bill brought me his mug. ‘Shouldn’t you be watching for other boats?’ I said.

            ‘I haven’t cast off yet.’ He spoke in a whisper. ‘Got what you wanted, didn’t you?’ I shot him another warning glare. ‘Got yourself another pet project. Someone to rescue.’

I turned my back on him. ‘I’m sorry. We haven’t even introduced ourselves.’ I held out a hand. ‘I’m Ann Brookes and this is Bill, my husband.’

She took my hand, those trembling fingers still pale and cold as a pint of milk. I filled a hot water bottle and patted it, settling it down on her lap. She seemed grateful, yet embarrassed. She pressed her hands against the bottle. Her sleeve raised a little revealing yellowing bruises marked out like fingerprints on the inside of her wrist. She tugged down her sleeve. ‘I don’t mean to be a burden.’

            ‘You’re not a burden, Mrs-’

 She gave her name. I poured tea for us both, asking if she took. ‘I can’t call you Mrs Collins.’

            ‘Christina,’ she said.

            ‘What does your husband do, Christina?’

            ‘He’s an ostler. He works down there.’

I didn’t know what an ostler was but didn’t ask as I didn’t want to seem impolite. I’d ask Bill later. Bill was the king of trivia. I made sandwiches and, although Christina said she didn’t want to eat, she nibbled at her cheese and pickle.

When nightfall came, Bill fixed us up to a mooring. Christina stepped off onto the towpath. ‘Robert is waiting for me. I cannot tarry. I’m grateful for the refreshment and-’

I raised a hand. ‘Ah, ah, ah. No way are we letting you trudge off into the night. She can stay here, can’t she Bill?’ There was no answer. ‘I said can’t she Bill?’ Bill muttered he’d fetch the sleeping bag. ‘You could get the train to London. We’d be happy to lend you the money.’ Bill dropped a dish in the sink. Christina wasn’t happy but under sufferance she accepted the sleeping bag. She didn’t want to take a stitch off and seemed confused or unhappy at getting inside it. In the end, I unzipped the bag – an old, quilted variety we’d had for donkey’s years – and let her use it like a blanket.

Hoo Mill lock, near Great Haywood – the last confirmed sighting of Christina alive

Screams woke us in the early hours. At first, I thought we were being burgled or there was a fire. Christina was sprawled out on the cushions, wide-eyed. I calmed her before Bill brought sweet tea. She muttered someone had ‘meddled’ but as soon as she regained her senses she said it was just a bad dream. Bill checked all the doors and windows were secure. After sipping more tea, Christina drifted off, but I struggled to sleep, worrying something awful had happened to her and I must call the police. Perhaps she had mental health problems and should see a doctor.

I awoke to the spatter of fat, drift of smoke. Bill was frying bacon. A pot of coffee steamed from the worktop. ‘Where’s Christina?’ Bill shrugged. ‘Did you even try and stop her?’

            ‘She was gone when I woke. OK?’

Her sleeping bag was neatly zipped and folded on the settee. She’d washed her mug and left it upturned on the draining board. I got on my boots and jacket and ran down the towpath, but there was no sign of her. I passed ramblers and dog walkers, but no one had seen anyone matching Christina’s description. When I got back Bill had spooned out my porridge. ‘If she’s gone on we’ll catch her up.’

‘What’s an ostler?’

‘Someone who looks after horses at an inn.’

‘You sure?’

‘Yeah, why?’

I said nothing. We never did see her again. No one else spoke of her.

Four years passed and when Bill retired he said a boating holiday would be the perfect wind-down. We stopped at a pub near Stone in Staffordshire for a proper warm beside a roaring fire and were getting all comfy and dozy when a man stood up to speak. Wednesdays were for swapping stories. He had a wispy white beard and wore a waistcoat and red knotted hankie tied round his neck. I glanced at Bill, who was frowning to concentrate as he sipped his pint.

            ‘It was June 1839, and unable to afford the coach fare to meet her husband in London, she had set out along the canal. A pretty widow, she’d soon attracted the unwanted advances of the narrowboat’s drunken crew.’

Bill set down his tankard.

            ‘Witnesses testified to their lewd language. She’d tried to report her fears, but no one had listened.’

The storyteller supped his pint waiting for his audience to ask for more.

            ‘As they passed this very pub a Mrs Brookes, wife of William Brookes, travelled alongside her for a few miles for support. Later, a few miles or so south of here, her screams might have woken the dead. The following morning, she was found floating in the water, drowned.’

The mention of our name, Brookes, made my spine tingle. He held up a pamphlet he’d written. ‘They say she still haunts the towpath. Ladies and gentlemen, the tragic tale of Christina Collins.’

I tell people this and they don’t believe a word of it, but we know the truth. I don’t care what they think. I only hope we provided some comfort for that desperate, frightened woman.

Trent and Mersey canal at Hoo Mill

Death on the Cut – The murder of Christina Collins

Christina Collins was murdered in Staffordshire in the summer of 1839. It was a dreadful crime that still echoes down the years in TV drama, radio plays and news articles. There have been talks, art, and events held by community groups. Christina is definitely not forgotten.

Hoo Mill lock and lockkeeper’s cottage – where Christina was last seen alive

There will always be an appetite amongst some for gory detail in reporting on criminal cases, but there seems to be a growing understanding that victims and their families should be treated with greater dignity and respect. A benchmark, perhaps, was the recent publication of Hallie Rubenhold’s book The Five, which tells the story of the five women murdered by Jack the Ripper. It’s a fantastic read and deals with each of the women’s lives in turn, telling their stories as wives and mothers and workers, rather than ‘just prostitutes’ as they’ve often been branded since the 1880s. Of particular local interest to this blog is the life of Catherine Eddowes, the Ripper’s fourth victim who was born in 1842 and brought up in Wolverhampton (then in Staffordshire) and only a short distance from Rugeley where Christina was to meet her tragic fate three years before. Christina grew up across the Midlands in Nottingham and, when still a young woman, married the magician Thomas Ingleby, billed the ‘Emperor of all the Conjurers’ David Bell writes in his Staffordshire Tales of Mystery and Murder. Christina joined him on his travels and on stage but the older Ingleby died leaving Christina a widow at 30. She met and married Robert Collins and they moved to Liverpool, but Robert struggled to find work and went ahead to London, sending money for Christina to follow him once he had secured a job and lodgings. Unable to afford to travel by rail or stagecoach, she opted for the slower canal network. It’s hard to imagine travelling by canal across England today, except for leisure purposes. But these routes were once super highways critical to the transportation of goods. Fragile pottery from north Staffordshire depended on the canals to reach domestic and overseas markets, for example. By travelling along the canal network poor Christina wasn’t to know she would be at tremendous risk from the crew she would be travelling with and effectively trapped with them for a long time.

Hoo Mill Lock

The captain of the boat was James Owen. Two other men – George Thomas and William Ellis – and a boy called Isaac Musson, made up the crew. They departed on the evening of 15 June but it wasn’t long before Christina was subjected to lewd behaviour and comments and the men began drinking heavily. She made a complaint at Stoke but continued on her journey. The men’s conduct improved when another woman joined the boat, but when she left Christina must’ve been terrified to be alone again. She was travelling with three men and a boy who were drinking and openly expressing their desire for her. Although it was summer the nights must’ve been particularly terrifying, especially in the open countryside where there would only be the occasional farmhouse or lockkeeper’s cottage. She appealed for help again at Stone, but received no support. There is a noticeboard marking Christina’s story beside the Trent and Mersey canal and a weathered wooden sculpture at Workhouse Bridge in the town (pictured below). Christina chose to walk for stretches along the towpath, undoubtedly so fearful of the men who should’ve been providing her safe passage to join her husband.

Mileage marker – Preston Brook where the journey began

When they reached Hoo Mill, near Great Haywood (pic below and top) the lockkeeper heard screaming and asked who the woman was, only to be told her husband was onboard. This was the last known sighting of Christina. She was found early the following morning in the waters of the cut (as canals are known in these parts) near Rugeley. After enquiries were made all four crew members were arrested on suspicion of murder and rape. The boy, Musson, was not subsequently charged. Witnesses gave evidence the men had spoken of their intentions towards Christina and made lewd comments as they’d passed another crew. As in so many similar cases down the years it’s hard not to conclude Christina’s life may have been spared if they’d intervened.

Hoo Mill lock
Sculpture at the canalside in Stone

As often happens the stories of the men contradicted each other. Owen said that Christina was ‘deranged’ and had drowned herself. The three were found guilty of Christina’s murder (but not rape, due to judge’s directions). Owen and Thomas were hanged in Stafford in April 1840, with thousands turning out to watch. Ellis’s punishment was transportation to the penal colonies of Australia.

Christina’s tragic tale has echoed down the years and there are plaques telling her story and a sculpture beside the canal. There have been plays, radio and TV based on the case and, most famously, an Inspector Morse novel The Wench is Dead. A few years ago a television show re-examined the case with a lawyer concluding the men’s convictions were unsafe and they shouldn’t have hanged.

Stafford’s Shire Hall, where the trial took place

Christina was found in the canal by locals and carried up the steps to a nearby pub. The steps became known thereafter as The Bloody Steps. She’s buried in St Augustine’s churchyard in Rugeley, the final resting place of Doctor Palmer’s victims.

We can never know exactly what happened that night. The men lied and contradicted each other and their witnessed behaviour was dreadful. Whether she was murdered or she accidentally drowned after an assault or confrontation Christina Collins’ feelings must’ve ranged from desperately unhappy and lonely and longing for her husband to fearing for her life.

I’m glad people still talk about the case and care about Christina. When I posted the image at the bottom of this piece on Twitter I received replies from Kate and Tash who’d walked the route and visited these places in tribute to Christina.

I wrote a short ghost story ‘Adrift’ – which I’ll publish tomorrow. It received 3rd place in the 2019 Tamworth short story competition and owes much to this case.

Further reading:

The Wench is Dead notes – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wench_Is_Dead

Travelling in no Direction blog – http://travellinginnodirection.blogspot.com/2012/12/christina-collins-and-bloody-steps.html

Capital Punishment website (links to grave photo and poster advertising hangings – http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/The%20Bloody%20Steps.html

Boat man hanged was innocent – https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/boat-man-hanged-murdering-woman-18749306

Staffordshire Tales of Mystery and Murder – David Bell (Countryside Books)

The Newgate Calendar – https://www.exclassics.com/newgate/ng898.htm

Staffordshire Past Track – News cutting – https://www.search.staffspasttrack.org.uk/Details.aspx?ResourceID=17733&PageIndex=2&SearchType=2&ThemeID=35