An Attack On Mary Ann Nunn

Seething Lane is a nondescript thoroughfare that is opposite the Tower of London. It is best known for having been the residence of the diarist Samuel Pepys, who is buried in the church of St Olave, which stands at the north end of the Lane.

However, in 1868, it hit the headlines when, on Friday the 1st of May, a vicious attack took place on a 65-year old woman, by the name of Mary Ann Nunn, in one of the properties that then lined the Lane.

When it transpired that, the attackers were two boys aged just 12 and 14, people were genuinely shocked.

The Wiltshire Times and Trowbridge Advertiser  gave the following account of the attack in its edition of Saturday, 9th May, 1868


A fearful act was, on Friday, discovered to have been perpetrated at No. 2, Catherine Court, Seething Lane, Great Tower Street, London, which had been entered for the purpose of plunder, and the housekeeper, a female sixty-five years of age, was so murderously attacked by the ruffians that she cannot survive the terrible injuries inflicted on her.

The house in question is let out in offices. At night time they have been left in charge of the housekeeper, Mary Ann Nunn, who lives in the attics, along with her son and daughter-in-law, and appears to have acted in that capacity for nearly nine years.

Early on Friday evening, Mrs. Nunn was left alone in the house by her daughter, who had gone on a visit to some relations for a few hours, and nothing was seen of her afterwards till about half-past nine o’clock, when the son, returning home, discovered her sitting in a peculiar squatting position outside the street-door, with her head buried in her lap. The darkness of the place prevented him seeing her fearful condition for some moments, and finding she did not answer him when he spoke, he laid hold of her to lift her up, when he found her insensible and completely deluged with blood.

A policeman happening to pass the end of the court at the moment was at once called, and, on a closer examination of the unfortunate creature, it was discovered that the blood was flowing from several terrible wounds in the head and face, which appeared to have been actually beaten in by some blunt instrument.


In the course of Saturday, the injured woman was so far recovered to be able to say that her assailants were two boys, named Smith, one 15 and the other 13 years of age, who on being arrested, confessed to having committed the robbery, and said that they should not have hurt the woman if she had not screamed on finding them in her bedroom.

Later on Saturday, they were confronted with Mrs. Nunn, who identified them.

An illustration showing the attack on Mrs. Nunn.
The Attack On Mrs. Nunn. From The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, 9th May, 1868. Copyright, The British Library Board.


While they were being formally charged with attempted murder and robbery, Mr. Smith, their father, a tradesman at Old Ford, entered the Seething station to inquire whether the police had heard about his sons.

The lads were then in the dock, and when they saw their father they ran out of it, and rushing towards him threw their arms round his neck and kissed him passionately. The father cried bitterly and the lads screamed.

When the father had overcome the first outburst of his grief, he said – “I often told you what this would come to. I can do nothing for you, for it is too late. Good-bye, good-bye.” Mr. Smith then left the station, and his sons were removed to the cell.


On Monday Mrs. Nunn was progressing favourably.

Mr. Elliot, the house-surgeon at Guy’s Hospital, stated that the scalp has in some places been torn off her skull, and her head is swollen and disfigured by the twenty or thirty mallet blows which she received upon it. The cartilage of her nose is completely smashed, and the bones of her left hand are broken.

The prisoners were remanded.”


The Nottingham Journal, on Tuesday, 19th May 1868, gave the following update on the shocking case:-

“Yesterday at the Justice-room of the Mansion House, the two brothers, Arthur Forrester Smith, aged 14, and Hector Augustus Smith, aged 12, charged with murderous assault upon Mrs. Mary Ann Nunn, the housekeeper, at 2, Catherine Court, were again brought before the Lord Mayor.

Inspector Tilcock and Detective Sergeant Moss reported that the injured woman was going on favourably, and that now there was every hope of her recovery.

There being no fresh evidence, the Lord Mayor remanded the prisoners for a week.”


The London Evening Standard, on Tuesday, 2nd June 1868, published the following account of the perpetrators’ court appearance before the Lord Mayor of the City of London:-

“Yesterday the brothers Arthur Forrester Smith, 14 years of age, and Hector Augustus Smith, 12, who stand charged with feloniously assaulting Mrs. Mary Ann Nunn, 65 years of age, housekeeper at No. 2, Catherine-court, Seething-lane, on the evening of the 1st of May, by striking her several blows on the head with a wooden mallet, with intent to kill and murder her, were again brought before the Lord Mayor, at the justice-room of the Mansion House, for final examination.

The prisoners were much improved in condition since their apprehension, and their manner was altogether changed.

During their previous examinations they were much abashed, the younger one especially, and scarcely held up their heads; but yesterday the elder boy assumed quite a confident, and at times almost a defiant air. He occasionally held a conversation in a low tone with his brother, and smiled at portions of the evidence and some of the witnesses.

Once, he turned a look of contempt upon Walter Ellis, a wine porter, the son-in-law of Mrs. Nunn, as he appeared in the witness-box, and smiled at times at portions of the evidence of Police Inspector Tillcock, who described the state in which the house was found shortly after the attempt to murder the housekeeper.


The evidence taken on the first occasion was read over by Mr. Oke, chief clerk to the Lord Mayor, and excited great interest among the audience, as well it might, for the circumstances, as will be seen, were most extraordinary, and some of them romantic.

The prisoners are intelligent-looking boys, small for their years and slender in appearance.

But for the evidence of Mrs. Nunn herself, taken at the hospital after she first recovered her consciousness, it would have seemed almost incredible that two mere children of sickly appearance could have inflicted such serious injuries as those described yesterday by the house surgeon at Guy’s Hospital.


The evidence of Robert Alexander Tilcock, inspector of police, Seething-lane station, wan first read.

He said, about twenty minutes to ten on Friday evening, the 1st of May, he was called to the house, 2 Catherine-court, Seething-lane, and in the passage saw Mrs. Mary Ann Nunn, the housekeeper. He had known her before.

Her head and face, clothing, and hands were covered with blood. She was sitting in the passage on the ground floor, supported by a constable, at the foot of the first-floor stairs. Witness saw she had several cuts about her head and face. Her nose was apparently broken, both eyes were blackened, and the flesh on the back of her hands was cut.

A surgeon was present, and as soon as possible witness sent for a cab and had her taken to Guy’s Hospital.

Although he knew her well he could not recognise her.

She was able to speak distinctly some words in reply to questions he put to her.


With Detective-Serjeant Moss he afterwards examined the house, and on every stair, up to the first-floor landing, there were large quantities of blood traceable from where she had been sitting. There was also a large quantity of blood on the first step of the second flight of stairs, and an impression as if a person’s head had rested there. Drippings of candle wax were found on the stairs leading into a back bedroom on the fourth or top floor of the house. There the witness found a box broken open, and, near it, a reticule bag lay on the floor.

The window of that back room was open, and there were two footprints in the mud of the gutter outside the window. There was also an impression in blood of a small hand on the stair where the witness said that a person’s head had lain against the wainscot. The fingers and the palm of the hand could be seen distinctly.

About 14 feet from the backroom window on the top floor the top of an air shaft running down the outhouse to a cistern in the yard of an adjoining house is visible. That shaft is 31 feet high, and there were marks down its whole length as if someone had slid down it from the roof, and had rubbed off the corroded rust. It is twelve inches by nine inches, and is about two inches from the wall of the house, which would enable anyone to take a good hold of it. If any person had slid down the shaft it must have been on the outside. There were footmarks on the cistern in the yard with which the air shaft is connected. Nearly the whole of the rust was rubbed off.

Witness produced a wooden mallet with a considerable quantity of blood upon it, and a number of apparently human hairs (grey); also a pistol, which was found on a landing of the stairs loaded with powder and small shot, and capped. It was charged to the muzzle, and found on the first-floor landing near the large splash of blood.

A boy’s cloth cap was also on the stairs, and a knife and a piece of candle.


John Moss, a City Detective-serjeant, said –  From information I received on Sunday, the 3rd of May, about half-past twelve in the day, I went, accompanied by Serjeant Haydon, to Deacon’s Coffeehouse, West Strand.

I went first to a bedroom on the first floor, the door of which was locked. I knocked, and the door was opened by the younger prisoner, Hector Augustus Smith. We went in and I asked him his name. He replied “Smith,” and walked to a bed where his brother, the other prisoner, was lying. I told them they would both be charged with a murderous assault upon Mary Ann Nunn, the housekeeper at No. 2, Catherine-court, Tower-hill. I told them also that we were police-officers.

I asked the elder prisoner, Arthur, if he knew Mrs. Nunn.

He said, “Oh, no.” I asked the younger one if he knew her, and he replied, after some hesitation, “Yes, I did know her.”

On searching Arthur I found a quantity of gunpowder and some percussion caps, both loose, and a portmonie containing some memoranda. I found at the back of a looking-glass a broken pistol, a powder flask, a box of fuses, an opera glass and various other things. We also found under a chest of drawers three fencing foils, and in a drawer two pairs of boxing gloves. They said the boxing-gloves belonged to a son of the proprietor of the house, but that they had been using them.

Arthur’s waistcoat, trousers, and shirt were stained with blood, as was also a pair of socks found in a drawer. There were also spots of blood on the clothes of the other prisoner, but they were fainter.

Before leaving the room I said, “You quite understand the charge against you?”

Arthur replied, “Yes, I did it; I was tempted to do it.” I asked what tempted him. He said, “I don’t know: I was tempted.”

Accompanied by Haydon, I then took them to a police-station, and afterwards, accompanied by Superintendent Forster, to Guy’s Hospital, before the Lord Mayor, where the deposition of Mrs. Nunn was taken in their presence and hearing, and where she identified them both.

An Illustration showing the arrest of the two boys.
The Boys Are Arrested. From The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, 9th May, 1868. Copyright, The British Library Board.


We then took them back to the Bishopsgate police-station, and placed them in separate cells.

The elder prisoner asked to be allowed to be put with his brother, and said he wished to make a statement.

Superintendent Forster was present, and cautioned him that whatever he said would be used against him.


Arthur then said, “We were in the coal-cellar for some time, and heard Mrs. Nunn go out about seven o’clock. We then went upstairs, took two screws from a box, and forced it open with the handle of a mallet.

While we were so engaged we believed Mrs. Nunn had come upstairs, and had gone into the front room, adjoining that in which we were. She came to the door, and on seeing us began to scream. I thought we would stop her. We had not planned to hurt her. I laid hold of her, and she ran downstairs. We had taken the mallet upstairs to break open the box. I stopped her on the first-floor landing and held her.

My brother asked me if I had got the mallet. I said it was in the bed-room. He ran upstairs and fetched it. I held her. She tried to scream. My brother brought the mallet and struck her on the head with it. Both Mrs. Nunn and I fell two or three times. I said to my brother, “Strike her again.”

At that time the bell rang, and she lay senseless, making a moaning noise.

We left her, and went downstairs for our boots which we had left in the cellar.

We then went upstairs to the top of the house, got out of a window, slid down a pipe on to something like a dustbin, got over a wall into a court leading into Seething-lane, and went home.

I took the pistol to frighten her if she should see us, not intending to hurt her. My brother had a pistol as well. He either lost it or threw it away. I walked home to the coffee-house without a cap.

On Saturday morning we wetted a clothes-brush, and brushed our clothes to get the blood off.


Mrs. Nunn’s deposition taken at Guys Hospital on the Sunday following the outrage was here read.

In that she said, “I am a widow, and lived at Catherine-court. I think I shall get better.

Walter (meaning her son-in-law) came home at night. Where is Walter? He is here somewhere I think.

The boy ‘Gus,’ (Augustas) hit me, and the other boy (Arthur), held me so as I should not scream. Arthur, I don’t think, hit me; he stopped my mouth so that I should not holler. It was between six and seven o’clock, but I don’t know. I begged him (Gus) not to kill me, and he struck me another blow on the head. Arthur said, “Give her another good blow with the hammer. Give her another.” I thought he had killed me once. I shrieked so that they went away.

There were only two, Gus and Arthur. They are the sons of Smith, a Custom-house officer and my daughter’s husband’s brother. I saw them first on my landing and suspect that they got into my coal cupboard. They were coming downstairs, as I thought, from my room. Gus struck me with my wood mallet with which I used to break up coal. They shoved me about first. They did not say what they came for. I rolled downstairs. I had been downstairs and was returning and I met the boys coming down.

I did not know they were there before. I asked them what they wanted, and I cannot tell what they said, or whether they answered or not.

The boy Gus is here; that is him, and the other boy is Arthur, The biggest boy put his hand over my mouth: the eldest boy, Arthur, told Gus to give me another blow.


Walter Ellis deposed that he lives at 2, Catherine-court, and is a wine porter.

He married a daughter of Mrs. Nunn, and his wife and he occupy a back room at the top of the house.

Mrs. Nunn slept in another room on the same floor.

On the Friday evening in question, he went out about six o’clock. His wife was then out, and Mrs. Nunn was on the ground floor speaking to someone as he passed out.

He returned at about a quarter to nine and rang the front door bell three times. No one answering, he went away, thinking she had gone out for something.

He returned about half-past nine, and found the old lady at the door alone, and in a deplorable state. The door was wide open. He asked her what was the matter. She put her hand upon him, inquired what he wanted, and told him to go away. He ran into Seething-lane and brought a policeman. She became senseless, and he brought Dr. Fotherby, of Trinity-square.

The prisoners are sons of a Custom-house officer, and are related to her by marriage. Mrs. Nunn used to call them by the names of “Gus” and Arthur.


Yesterday, Mr. Arthur Bowes Elliott, house surgeon at Guy’s Hospital, was called as a witness to speak to the injuries inflicted on Mrs. Nunn.

He said that she was brought there about ten o’clock on the evening of the 1st of May. She was now recovering slowly, and Mr. Burkitt, one of the surgeons of the hospital under whose care she is, thought that she would not be able to leave for three weeks or a month.

On being received at the hospital on the night of the 1st of May there were several large lacerated and contused wounds on the side and top of the head, and on the forehead, there was a square wound exposing the skull. At the back of the head there was a large irregularly-shaped wound. The skull was bare and also fractured. The left ear was torn, and there was a wound an inch and a quarter long above the right eyebrow, and another about three-quarters of an inch above the left eye. There was a wound on the bridge of the nose, and the bones of the nose were all broken. Both eyes were swollen and blackened, and there was a good deal of bruising about the mouth. The right hand was bruised, but no bones in it were broken, two of the fingers of the left hand were broken, as was also the metacarpal bone. She was nearly insensible when received at the hospital, and unable or unwilling to give any account as to how the wounds had been inflicted until the following Sunday.

She had been in a very dangerous state since, and was not yet out of danger.

At present, she was quite unable to appear and give evidence.


The Lord Mayor inquired if either of the prisoners wished to ask the witness any question.

The elder Prisoner replied,  “No, thank you.”

Inspector Tilcock, replying to the Lord Mayor, said that the father of the prisoners had been at the court on each examination, and had seen them in his presence. Their aunt was now present.


William Jarrett, the foreman to Messrs. Clark and Co., miscellaneous dealers, New-street, Covent-garden, was tho next witness.

He said he knew both prisoners.

On the 24th of April, they and another youth called there and asked to see a pair of foils. The pair, now produced, were shown to them, and they bought them. At the request of the younger prisoner a pistol, the price of which was 7s. 6d., was taken from the window, and he bought it.

Mr. Gough, one of the firm, asked him if he knew the character of fire-arms. He replied that he did, and that he had previously bought a pistol at the Crystal Palace, which was “no good.” They paid in silver for the articles they bought.

Later in the afternoon they called at the shop and wanted to buy another pistol, pointing to one in the window marked 4s. 6d., and for which they tendered a sovereign in payment.

Witness spoke, aside to Mr. Gough in an adjoining shop, saying “those fast young gentlemen” had called again, and had tendered a sovereign for another pistol, adding that he believed they had been robbing their parents, and that he wanted him (Mr. Gough) to go and see “what they were made of.”

Mr. Gough went, and on entering the shop one of the boys was presenting the pistol they wished to buy at another. Witness interposed and asked if their parents knew they were spending their money on such articles. The reply was in the affirmative, and the younger prisoner asked the price of a belt hanging up in the shop. He was told 3s. 6d.

Another asked for something else which came to 11s. or 12s., and he said he would have it.

Witness said he must first know something about them, and he asked their names. One of them replied “Smith.” Witness inquired where they lived. The answer was “Deacon’s Hotel, Strand.” Witness gave them the change for the sovereign, and, at Mr. Gough’s suggestion, went to Deacon’s, and found they were staying there. He asked the landlady if she knew them, and she said she did; that one of them was her son, and that the two others, who were sons of an officer in the navy, and had come from an oyster shop near the Adelphi Theatre, were upstairs.

Detective Serjeant Moss, in reply to the Lord Mayor, said the burglars who robbed the house and shop of Mr. Abrahams, a jeweller in the Strand, three or four years ago, went through the roof of the same coffee-house when they committed the burglary. The present landlady, however, who is a widow, was not then the occupant of the house.

Both Prisoners asserted that one of the pistols referred to by the witness Jarrett was bought, not at the shop of his employers, but at the Crystal Palace.


Mr. Elliott, the house surgeon at Guy’s Hospital, replying to the Lord Mayor, said the blows on the head of Mrs. Nunn might have been inflicted by the mallet produced (referring to that found in the house by Inspector Tilcock).

Mr. John Davis, a hatter, 17, King’s-road, Chelsea, recognised the cap produced, and which was found in the house in Catherine- court just after the outrage, as one he had sold to the elder prisoner on the 21st of April last.

He and two other boys, the witness said, called at his shop that day in a cab and bought the cap, for which they paid with a sovereign, and he gave them the change. There was some hesitation among them whether it should be a cap or a hat, but they at length chose a cap. He followed them to the door, and heard them give directions to the cabman to drive them to Hampstead Heath. From their strange appearance, he copied the number on the back of the cab as it was driven away.

Inspector Tilcock said that was the whole of the evidence for the prosecution.


Mr. Oke, the chief clerk, addressing the prisoners, said they were charged with maliciously, feloniously, and unlawfully wounding and causing grievous bodily harm to Mary Ann Nunn, with intent to resist their lawful apprehension and detention on a charge of felony. They would also be charged with stealing 21l odd from her bedroom.

The Lord Mayor gave them the usual caution from the bench as to the use that might be made upon their trial of anything they might say on answer to the charge.

The Prisoners replied that they had nothing to say, and were then committed for trial at the Central Criminal Court.”


On Wednesday, 8th July, 1868, Arthur Forrester Smith, 14, and Hector Augustus Smith, 12, were jointly indicted for feloniously assaulting and wounding Mary Ann Nunn, with intent to do her grievous bodily harm; in other counts of the indictment, the intent of the prisoners was said to be to maim and disable the prosecutrix, and to resist their lawful apprehension.

Mary Ann Nunn had recovered sufficiently from her horrific injuries to be able give evidence against them, although, according to The Morning Chronicle in its next day’s edition “Her face presented a dreadful appearance, and she was still very weak and was allowed to be seated whilst giving her evidence.”

She stated the facts as to the attack upon her that had already been revealed at the earlier hearing before the Lord Mayor.

Faced with an overwhelming case against his clients, their lawyer, Mr. Collins stated that they would plead guilty to the charges against them.


However, he also stated that there were mitigating circumstances in that the boys had been led astray by reading “…trashy and exciting publications such as ” Jack Sheppard” and others of a similar kind giving an account of the exploits of highway robbers and their wonderful escapes and adventures, and in which such persons were held up as heroes.”

He concluded by stating that the poor old lady was now, happily, out of danger, and in point of fact she did not seem to have sustained any permanent injury, and he trusted that under all the circumstances his lordship would feel himself justified in taking a merciful view of the case.

According to The Morning Chronicle:-

“The learned judge inquired of Mr. Collins what books he referred to as having been read by the prisoners.

Mr. Collins said that he was informed that they were in the habit of reading such works as the “Young Apprentice,” “The Detective,” and the “City Detective,” all of which treated of exploits committed by boys, and the number of highway robberies and other crimes that they were enabled to commit before they were detected.

These works also detailed at great length the luxuries and pleasure that were enjoyed by these parties during their careers of crime.”


At this point, the victim, Mrs. Ann Nunn was recalled and was asked how she thought the court should deal with her attackers.

Showing a remarkably forgiving nature she told the judge that she would rather recommend the prisoners to mercy, adding that she did not like to be “too hard” upon them.


The Morning Chronicle, on Thursday, 9th July, 1868, published the following account of the judge’s summing up and the sentence that was passed on the two boys:-

“The prisoners were then removed, and, after a short delay, they were again placed at the bar to receive judgement.

Lord Chief Justice Bovill, addressing them, said that they had been convicted by their own confession, and with the advice of their very able counsel, of having feloniously assaulted and wounded the prosecutrix with intent to disable her and to prevent their lawful apprehension, and he hoped that the case would be a warning to other boys who, like them, had studied the annals of crime with a view to engage in it themselves.

He believed they were two boys of more than ordinary intelligence, and he could not help coming to the conclusion that they had studied the history of crime with the deliberate intention of following a course of the same description, and that in pursuance of this intention they had gone to the house of the prosecutrix on the night in question.

They had provided themselves with an instrument calculated to break open any receptacle of valuable property that they might have found, and also had in their possession firearms, which, although they were not loaded in such a manner as to be likely to do any mischief, were still calculated to cause great alarm and terror. They not only committed a robbery on this night, but there was too much reason for believing that they had possessed themselves of money in a similar manner on some previous occasion, and there was every reason to believe that they had for some time engaged in a career of crime.

Under these circumstances, he felt that if he were to pass a lenient sentence upon them the only probable result would be that at the expiration of their sentence they would again return to the course of crime that they had commenced.

The learned judge went on to say that it was to be lamented that boys should be enabled to obtain access to such works as had been referred to by the learned counsel; but he hoped the fate of the prisoners would be a warning to other boys who indulged in reading such mischievous publications; and, so far as the prisoners were concerned, he would caution them that if ever they again made their appearance in a court of justice charged with a criminal offence, the sentence that would be passed upon them would undoubtedly be one that would prevent them ever again having an opportunity of committing any offence against the law.


He then said that the least sentence he could pass upon the prisoner Arthur, who was the elder of the two, and who had led his brother into the commission of a crime for which, if death had resulted, both their lives might have been forfeited, was that he be kept in penal servitude for the term of seven years.

If he could, have thought that there was any chance of his being reclaimed after a short imprisonment, he should have willingly refrained from passing so severe a sentence, but his conduct during the transaction, and the recklessness and disregard of danger that he had exhibited, showed that he was hardened in crime, and that a lenient sentence was not likely to be attended. with any good effect.


With regard to the other boy, Hector, he also stood convicted of the same offence, and he had entertained considerable doubt whether he ought not to have passed on him also a long sentence of penal servitude.

Having regard, however, to his youth, and to his having to some extent been under the influence of an elder brother, he should refrain from passing a sentence of that description upon him, and should only sentence him to imprisonment, and he hoped that the discipline to which he would be subjected would have the effect of reclaiming him from his evil ways.

The sentence he should pass upon him was that he be imprisoned and kept to hard labour for 18 months. This he would find a very severe sentence, but if it did not have the effect of reclaiming him, and if he ever again appeared in a court of justice charged with a crime, he might depend that no mercy would be shown him, but that he would receive the most severe punishment of the law.

The prisoners were then removed.”