Saved by Her Stays: The 19th Century Barnsley Murders

Portrait of Mademoiselle de Lancey by Carolus-Duran, 1876.
Portrait of Mademoiselle de Lancey by Carolus-Duran, 1876.
(The late 19th century, heavily corseted, silhouette.)

Considering how often corsets, crinolines, and towering headpieces were responsible for some hapless female’s untimely demise, it seems only fair that occasionally fashion should be credited with saving a historical lady’s life instead of putting an end to it.  For an example of this, we need look no further than author and historian Margaret Drinkall’s newly published book The 19th Century Barnsley Murders.  A collection of seventeen carefully detailed and impeccably sourced incidents of true crime that took place in the South Yorkshire town of Barnsley between the years 1829 and 1899, Drinkall’s book details a range of criminal conduct, from everyday instances of brutal and senseless violence to tales of bodysnatching, poisoning, and even a vicious knife attack that was thwarted by a lady’s corset.  It is the latter crime to which I draw your attention today.

19th Century Barnsley Murders by Margaret Drinkall, 2015.
19th Century Barnsley Murders
by Margaret Drinkall, 2015.

As Drinkall relates, Mary Sarah Phillips was a young, working class woman in Barnsley during the latter portion of the 19th century.  Charles Williams was a twenty-two year old army deserter with a history of violence.  He and Mary had lived together as husband and wife for four years, during which she had born him a son.  In December of 1888, they agreed to separate and Mary went to live with her parents.  Williams made several trips to her parents’ home, begging her to come back to him.  Mary repeatedly refused.  One day while out walking with her baby in her arms, Mary encountered Williams.  He abducted the child and threatened to do Mary harm if she told anyone.

More than a week later, Mary received a note from Williams stating that their baby was ill.  He requested that she meet him late at night in the park.  Afraid of what he might do, Mary did not go alone.  She was accompanied by a miner named Thomas Siddons.  Unbeknownst to Mary, as she and Siddons walked together, engaged in casual conversation, Williams was watching them from across the way.  Overcome with jealousy, he set upon them, stabbing Mary in the back.  She fell to the ground and Williams fell on top of her, stabbing her repeatedly.

X-Ray of a Woman in a Corset, 1907.
X-Ray of a Woman in a Corset, 1907.

Corsets and stays of the 19th century were often stiffened with whalebone, steel, or other rigid inserts.  By the 1880s, however, there was a scarcity of whalebone.  Steel, in all its various incarnations, was increasingly popular as well as less expensive.  Even so, a poor or working class young woman like Mary Phillips would likely not have had a brand new, state of the art corset.  Instead, we can surmise that she had a strictly utilitarian undergarment which, while probably not as fashionable as those available at the time, was strong enough to deflect more than eight separate knife strikes to her torso.  Not only that, but Mary’s corset managed to break the blade of Williams’ knife!

Before Williams could do her any more harm – and before Siddons could come to her aid – Mary was saved by a quick thinking female bystander who swiftly approached and struck Williams over the back of the head with her umbrella.  The police surgeon was summoned and, upon examining Mary:

“He found that Mary had been stabbed more than eight times in various parts of her body. She also had many defense wounds on her arms and hands, sustained as she had struggled with her assailant to try to prevent further injury to herself.”

Williams was arrested and brought before the magistrates, charged with “cutting and wounding with intent to do grievous bodily harm.”  He proclaimed his innocence to no avail.  He was sent to stand trial at the West Riding Quarter Sessions at Sheffield Town Hall.  At his trial, held in January of 1889, he was found guilty and sentenced to five years imprisonment.  Upon hearing his sentence, Williams fainted.

You can read more details of this crime, as well as stories of other unique 19th century crimes, in Margaret Drinkall’s excellent new book, The 19th Century Barnsley Murders.

*FTC 16 CFR § 255.5 – Disclosure of Material Connections: I received one review copy of The 19th Century Barnsley Murders from Pen & Sword Books.

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 


Drinkall, Margaret.  19th Century Barnsley Murders.  South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Books, 2015.

Steele, Valerie.  The Corset: A Cultural History.  Vol. 5.  London: Yale University Press, 2001.

Waugh, Norah.  Corsets and Crinolines.  New York: Routledge, 1954.

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Maggi Andersen

How satisfying! I expected him to get a worse sentence than that. But I imagine a Victorian goal would be pretty awful. He may not have even survived it.

Mimi Matthews

I thought he would get a longer sentence too! Nowadays, five years for attempted murder would be practically nothing.


Army deserter and attempted murderer, I’m amazed he didn’t hang! He must have had a very sympathetic judge. I once read about a little boy being transported to Australia for stealing 16 walnuts.
I hope the baby was okay, and hurrah for ladies with umbrellas!

Mimi Matthews

I know, right? I’ve read similar stories with pre-teens being hung for stealing chickens. I don’t know why this man was let off so lightly except that in that particular era women were very much viewed as their husband’s legal property. And perhaps his mistreatment of his own property was considered less egregious than stealing someone else’s walnuts or chickens. :(


Sadly I think you’re onto something there, she was probably just a woman in the judge’s eyes, and a working class one at that. If she had been a well-to-do lady he’d have probably swung.

Sarah Waldock

Seems a very light sentence. What about the baby?

Mimi Matthews

I assume the baby was returned to the mother. There is a great deal more detail in the book, but I don’t recall anything that would lead one to believe that the baby had been hurt.


If it wasn’t so sad and serious, something like this could have been a splended slapstick scene: a male perpetrator, another apparently powerless male bystander, and the victim saved by two “silly” accessories (corset and umbrella).
And I have to agree with the others. Considering the time period, that is a curiously light sentence.

Nice work!

Mimi Matthews

Exactly! In a way, it’s a snapshot of women of that era – self-sufficient and able to turn their weaknesses (i.e. constrictive fashion) into a strength. Of course, I imagine the lady with the umbrella to be a starchy, old, no nonsense spinster who marched right up and cracked the perpetrator on the head. Who knows how close that image is to reality!


What a thoroughly enjoyable post! I’ve been thinking of Miss Marple all along – though perhaps she wasn’t born yet :)

Mimi Matthews

So glad you liked it, Monica! Hmm, if Miss Marple was in her 70s in the 1920s & 1930s, she may well have been around in Victorian England. And I could easily see her striking someone with an umbrella :)