For Father's Day, I'm posting this article about William Edmunds, the father of the notorious Chocolate Cream Killer, Christiana Edmunds. This is based partly on a recent article for Bygone Kent magazine which will be available in the Summer Issue...
While Christiana is associated with Brighton, her Kentish roots are an important part of her life and these begin in the seaside town of Margate. She was born at 16 Hawley Square in 1828, almost exactly nine months after the marriage of her parents. Her mother was Ann Burn, the daughter of a Maidstone-born officer in Royal Marines and her father was William Edmunds, one of the county's most celebrated architects. Unlike his wife, William was a native of Margate: his father, Thomas, had been landlord of the highly-popular, White Hart Hotel, and occasionally worked on the town's major building projects. When Thomas died in 1823, the 22-year-old William took over the running of the hotel but soon felt pulled in a different direction. In 1825, he won a competition to design a new church in Margate and work began immediately on his creation, Holy Trinity Church.
The success of this project propelled William into the local spotlight. A number of exciting projects followed, including the Margate Lighthouse in 1828 and Levey's Bazaar shortly after. Soon, he was in demand across the county: he designed the Trinity Church in Dover in 1833, the Blean Union Workhouse in 1835, he remodelled the Kent and Canterbury Hospital in 1838 and, one year later, constructed a pavilion in Dover in honour of the Duke of Wellington.
While William's career blossomed, his home life was equally blessed. Ann gave birth to another six children after Christiana: William, in 1829; Mary, in 1832; Louisa, in 1833; Frederick, also In 1833 and Ellen, in 1835. The youngest, Arthur, followed in 1841. The couple also had three servants to help care for the children and tend to their luxurious home.
But William's life was about to take a turn for the worse. Beginning after his work on the Dover Pavilion, he began to experience some strange symptoms. He stopped working, started drinking and began to rave about owning "millions of money." Life in the Edmunds household continued, for the most part, as normal: Christiana went off to boarding school in Ramsgate and her brother was enrolled at the prestigious King's School in Canterbury, while William steadily deteriorated. By 1842, he had developed paralysis of the tongue and mouth, his suffered an unsteady gait and was increasingly incoherent and confused. The following year, William entered Southall Park, a lunatic asylum in London. His diagnosis was General Paralysis of the Insane and his prognosis was bleak.
General Paralysis of the Insane, or GPI, is the Victorian name for the final (tertiary) stage of syphilis. The Victorians had no idea that GPI was linked to syphilis - that link was only made in the 20th century - and William may never have realised that syphilis was to blame for his sudden illness. Whatever the truth, William was treated like any other incurable lunatic and there would be no more talk of his former glories in Kent.
When William died in the asylum in March 1847, the newspapers noted his passing but made no mention of the circumstances of his final years. To escape any potential scandal, the family sold all of their possessions, sacked the servants and moved to Canterbury to start afresh. Within a few years, the family had shrunk considerably: the eldest son, William, had gone to London to train as a surgeon, Mary had married a Sussex clergymen, Louisa was working as a governess and Frederick and Ellen had both passed away. The youngest child, Arthur, was diagnosed with epilepsy and placed into the Royal Earlswood Asylum for Idiots in Reigate, Surrey. Christiana and her mother were now alone, living off the generous inheritance bequeathed to them by the late William Edmunds.
Christiana and her mother's near-disappearance from public record in Canterbury is arguably strong evidence of their successful integration into local society. They appear only in the censuses of 1851 and 1861, though in far less luxurious circumstances than Margate. In fact, they rented the upstairs rooms of 21 St George's Street, a house owned by James Nash, a brush-maker from Hampshire. Beyond this, we know virtually nothing of their life in Canterbury.
But history was about to repeat itself for the Edmunds. In January 1866, young Arthur died in Reigate Asylum, followed in 1867 by his sister, Louisa, who collapsed outside of her home in Margate and died soon after. Louisa had suffered from repeated bouts of hysteria and had unsuccessful attempted suicide on at least one occasion. Her cause of death is rather curiously cited as menorrhagia - heavy menstruation - though Victorian death attributions are notoriously misleading. Whatever the case, the surviving Edmunds once again paced their bags and prepared to start a new life . This time, they chose the town of Brighton in East Sussex, presumably to get further away from the taint of death in the asylum.
But the move to Brighton would set Christiana on a path of destruction which would dramatically alter the course of her life. Her Kentish roots and her father's tragic demise would resurface at trial, used by her defence as sad evidence of the prevalence of insanity in her family. Following a guilty verdict, the story of the Edmunds family came full circle: like her father, Christiana spent the remaining years of her life in an asylum, dying there of 'senile debility' in 1907.
Image courtesy of the wonderful site, Margate Local History.