Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The Wicked Boy – Kate Summerscale

Non-Fiction 5*s

I do love Victorian true crime and Kate Summerscale managed to stumble across a fairly obscure one in 1895 West Ham, that of a young boy, thirteen year old Robert Coombes who was accused of murder and stood trial at the Old Bailey on just that charge.

The beauty of Kate Summerscale’s books are the minutiae of detail that surround the actual substance of the book, and this one is no different. The crime in this instance isn’t the puzzle that we met in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, rather this is a book about the attitudes of the day both in the media and those in the legal profession. It also looks at the contemporary view of the medical profession on inherent wickedness including a fairly popular one that considered children little more than wild animals to be tamed.

Robert and his younger brother Nattie Coombes had gone to watch the cricket at Lords in the aftermath of the murder as well as going to the seaside and playing in the vicinity of their home. However as the accused they could not defend themselves in court:

The law barred defendants from testifying, but since Fox, Robert and Nattie had no legal representation they were entitled to question the witnesses that Baggallay called.

Can you imagine boys of thirteen and twelve who had never been in court before having the wherewithal to question witnesses that accused them of murder? I can’t!

The media was less concerned with this fundamental flaw in the proceedings and were instead highly concerned in the ‘penny bloods’ that Robert devoured. When one journalist at St James’s Gazette was tasked with reading the publications he stated the following:

The task was ‘repulsive and depressing’, he said; the writing ‘brutalised my whole consciousness’, reviving ‘the fundamental instinct of savagery inherent in us all It disgusts, but it attracts; as one reads on the disgust lessens and the attraction increases. ‘The Coombes boys, he concluded, ‘with their intelligence scientifically developed at the expense of the ratepayers, had been wound up to regard murder as a highly superior kind of ‘lark’ by a sedulous study of the worst kind of gory fiction and cut-throat newspaper’.

This of course was one of the first generations of children who had been educated at the Board Schools set up in each district. It seems from this piece that there was a general feeling that this money was wasted on the poorer members of society. The biggest concern however was around the number of the publications of penny bloods that were found in Robert and Nattie’s home, their influence was considered by some as the chief catalyst in the murder – not so very different to our own newspapers in recent years lamenting various films and games that were also a big attraction to teenage boys. In fact there were a number of media reports in this book that could quite easily be transported to today’s press with only minor alterations needed to update them!

This book isn’t just about the murder and the trial though it goes on to follow Robert through his life to see what life for a child murderer looked like in Victorian England. The answer may not be quite what you expect! All through this time Kate Summerscale draws comparisons to other happenings of the day, other crimes that filled the courts, the life of those who lived in the same area as the Coombes boys. Nuggets of priceless information abound the pages with subjects quite wide-ranging while always linked the central story but give lovers of historical facts like me a treasure chest of facts to wonder upon.

Each male patient was allocated an ounce of tobacco a week, drawn from the government stock of contraband seized by Customs & Exercise officer.

With so much to absorb, particularly as my maternal ancestors moved to West Ham around the turn of the Twentieth century and in particular one of the newspaper reports featured in this look at crimes at this time involved distant relatives of mine, there was much to keep me entertained and engaged from beginning to end. The End notes are a delight all of their own:

The sun rose at 3:53 a.m. that morning according to the London Standard of 8 July 1895 and set at 8:15 p.m. The Standard of 9 July reported that the temperature on Monday rose to 81 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade.

leaving me in no doubt at all regarding the quality of the research undertaken by Kate Summerscale.

I am very grateful for the publishers Penguin Press for allowing me to read a copy of The Wicked Boy ahead of publication on 5 May 2016 although I’m equally excited to receive my own copy which is on pre-order so I can cross reference the end notes side by side with the main chapters for ease. This review is my own, unbiased opinion.

Other Books by Kate Summerscale

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher
Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace


A book lover who clearly has issues as obsessed with crime despite leading a respectable life

27 thoughts on “The Wicked Boy – Kate Summerscale

  1. This probably isn’t for me as I tend to find these accounts of true crimes too unsettling, but one of my friends would like it – she finds these stories fascinating. It sounds as though Summerscale has been meticulous in her research, all important for something like this.


    1. I know what you mean, I can stomach those that happened years ago far better than contemporary ones but… If your friend enjoys a well-researched recounting of a crime and its aftermath from this era you won’t go far wrong in recommending this one.


  2. Sounds great – I’m excited to read this! Like you, my family lived in the area at the time, so it does add to the interest, particularly knowing that the author’s research is so meticulous.


  3. I like historical fiction though I can’t say I have read true crime fiction. There is a certain ambiguity about crime fiction that I hide behind. I think “The Wicked Boy” is a tough subject handled with sensitivity by the author.


    1. I find true crime of a historical nature much easier to read than contemporary stuff but I know what you mean. I think there were far more parallels to how we view these types of crimes as there was then which was quite surprising.


  4. Oh, Cleo, I didn’t know your family had a connection with the location and news stories of the day – how fascinating! And the book really does sound great. I was keen to know what you thought of it, as I’ve had it on my own radar. It sounds as though the reader gets not just the story of the crime, but also a good look at the life of the times.


    1. I think you’ll enjoy this Margot – it covers far more than I expected and if you do read it – look out for the mention of The Peculiar People – I came across this account of my distant relatives in newspaper articles from this time period and those in court were distant relatives of mine!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hmm, I’m not sure about this one…but thanks for sharing!

    Wow! I love the look of your blog….and isn’t this theme fun? I had to use it on TWO of my blogs after finding it. It’s like a breath of fresh air. Enjoy!


    1. No worries it isn’t for everyone…
      Aw thank you Laurel I did notice your lovely envelope and wondered where it came from – I didn’t intend changing so radically but I got playing yesterday and I am delighted with my new look!


  6. I’ve just skimmed your review since I’ll be starting this in the next few days, but I’m delighted to see that 5-star rating. Will be back for a more thorough read after I’ve read it… 🙂


  7. I have a review copy of this one coming up in the next few months. I’m really looking forward to it. I was attracted to the subject matter–specifically the age of the murderer.


  8. Love the new look – this isn’t in WordPress is it? Did you do this? It’s rather wonderful. I loved the old look too, but it’s nice to have a change sometimes. I’d love this book, but I’ll have to wait until it’s in paperback to get it – or write a begging e-mail to the publishers! I have her first two, of which I prefer Mr. Whicher, I think. I’m wanting to create some kind of index on my blog, now I’ve reviewed quite a lot of books – I’ll have to see if I can find a WordPress Tutorial on that particular subject. I do like the “favourite posts” of yours you have. God I do wish I was more technologically able! I didn’t realise you’d reviewed this and tweeted you regarding the Guardian’s review (but it isn’t as good as yours!) xx


    1. Thank you – yes it’s WordPress The Scratchpad Theme which gives you a sidebar to put the widgets in – not difficult you just choose from a list. I just set up another page for the index but like you I left it a long time to do the authors and it took a while but I just left it in draft until I’d sorted it out. As it happens I didn’t intend the change but was playing with the appearance and decided to go for it, glad I did SS it was time for a new look! I did love Mr Whicher too. Haha very kind, I read the review in the Guardian too!


      1. Well it looks fantastic – plus totally different from any others I’ve seen, which is great! As soon as I saw this reviewed in The Guardian I knew it was right up your street; little did I know you’d already read and reviewed it! I can’t get over boys of that age being expected to ask questions of the witnesses; it’s quite unbelievable!


          1. Yes – people who’d read a lot of crime fiction, particularly legal thrillers, would be in a much better position! Although I think I’d be too Americanised – all these episodes of Law & Order would have me shouting “Objection your honour” and I’d want to take the Fifth when it was my turn to testify! The odd thing about the boys is they just went out and had a good time, going to the cricket at Lords and the seaside – as though he’d blocked off what he’d done! And like the girl in Mr Whicher, he seems to more than redeem himself later in life – which suggests he wasn’t all bad. It is somewhat odd for him to be sleeping in a bed with his mother – it’s usually siblings who sleep together when accommodation is tight. If he’d had a barrister, doubtless he’d have suggested the boy was the victim of abuse. It’s rather troubling that the most vulnerable received no legal representation at all!


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