The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale

In her award-winning book The Wicked Boy: An Infamous Murder in Victorian London (Penguin Books, 2017), Kate Summerscale provides a vivid narrative of the life of Robert Allen Coombes, who at age thirteen murdered his mother in her sleep. Born in 1882, Coombes and his younger brother Nattie spent most of their childhood in the dingy atmosphere of the East London docklands. Their father, Robert Coombes was employed by the National Line and was frequently away from home, travelling back and forth across the Atlantic, while their mother Emily looked after the children at home.

Both boys excelled in school, with Robert in particular being noted by his teachers as having been a model student, but both were known at times to be precocious and rude. It was in the heat of summer in July 1895, when Robert Coombes Sr. was on a voyage to New York, that in the early hours of morning the younger Robert stabbed his mother to death. For the next ten days the brothers traipsed across London, attending cricket games, the theatre, and eating out at coffee shops, all the while leaving their mother’s quickly decomposing body on her bed where she had died. It was not until their aunt grew suspicious of her sister-in-law’s whereabouts and entered the Coombes’s home by force that the crime was discovered. This rare case of a child murdering his mother created a media frenzy in London and around the world.

The murder of Emily Coombes by her son Robert – Illustrated Police News (27 July 1895)

While Nattie Coombes and a family friend John Fox had also been arrested in connection to the murder, it was Robert Coombes alone who eventually stood trial at London’s infamous Old Bailey. The entire first half of the work focuses on the crime and trial proceedings, with much attention paid to the latter as the judiciary mulled over the case. Nattie Coombes, while aware that his brother had planned the crime in advance and had done nothing to stop it or report it afterwards, was deemed to have been under the influence of his older brother. John Fox, who was brought to stay at the house by the boys in the days which followed the crime, was found to be mentally deficient and to have had no knowledge that the murder had been committed, nor that the body remained in the family home throughout the entirety of his stay with the boys. Throughout his murder trial Robert Coombes shocked onlookers with his cold resigned attitude to the whole affair, at times appearing to not fully understand the seriousness and the gravity of his situation and the crime he had committed. In this section Summerscale highlights the debate around Penny Dreadfuls, cheap sensationalist papers that Coombes was obsessed with, which many reformers felt contributed to increased crimes among youth at the end of the century. The trial concluded with Coombes being found guilty but insane. Instead of being hanged or incarcerated in prison, he was sent to Broadmoor, the most prominent criminal lunatic asylum in England, built to house the increasing number of criminals found by the courts since the 1860s to be insane.

Whereas in the first half of her narrative Summerscale focuses on the crime of matricide that Coombes committed and the trial which followed, the remainder of the work traces his life over the next half-century. Coombes was detained at Broadmoor for seventeen years and was not released until 1912. Now aged thirty, Robert Coombes was considered rehabilitated. In 1914, Coombes immigrated to Australia and soon joined the Australian Imperial Force. Coombes served for the duration of the war and received a medal for bravery in October 1916 for his service as a stretcher-bearer at Gallipoli. During these later sections of the book Summerscale tells the story of Coombes’s later life, laying out the evidence for her wider conclusion that although in his youth he had committed a gruesome crime, Robert Coombes went on to live a worthwhile life that saw him become a decorated war veteran and a respected member of his adopted Australian community. Thus, not only does Summerscale provide an assessment of the crime and the events that surround it, but given that it was committed by someone so young, she is able to analyze his actions throughout the remaining decades of his life. By doing this. Summerscale seeks to discern a motive which led to the act, Coombes’ psychological state at the time of the murder, and his character as an adult.

Although in the second half of the work Summerscale provides fascinating contextual information on Coombes’s stay at Broadmoor and his war service during the First World War, it is not always clear why this information is relevant. The reader expects to hear more about the crime committed in the opening pages of the book, but instead is met with information on the wider experiences of those held at Broadmoor and those who served with the Australian forces, the significance of which is not fully clear until the Epilogue of the work. This is hardly the fault of the author, but instead can be attributed to the title and description of the text which do not underscore the large goals of Summerscale in devoting so many pages to Coombes’s life after analyzing the crime committed and the trial proceedings. The reader is drawn in by the promise of a scintillating murder story, but is not fully forewarned in the opening pages of the work to expect a deeper assessment of Robert Coombes.

Grave of Robert A. Coombes (1882-1949) in Coffs Harbour Cemetery, New South Wales, Australia

The story of Robert Coombes is a rare example of matricide by a young child and thus unlike other murder cases, Summerscale is able to highlight the unique nature of the case throughout her work. Highly contextualized, it is evident that the author conducted extensive research to flesh out the life of Coombes and thereby successfully argues that although he was murderer, he was truly reformed and was able to become a productive and trusted member of society.

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About the Author: 

Connor E. R. DeMerchant is an historian from Kingston, New Brunswick, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and History from the University of New Brunswick – Saint John and a Master’s in History from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. In the fall of 2021 he began a PhD in history at the University of New Brunswick – Fredericton in the field of Caribbean history. Connor enjoys researching all aspect of Victorian Britain and its global empire, with his MA thesis focusing on Queen Victoria’s interest and impact on music during her reign. When not being an academic, Connor enjoys doing genealogy, rug-hooking, and thrifting.

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