Heritage: A sordid sex scandal in Victorian North Ockendon

Sarah Lister's body was exhumed from North Ockendon churchyard. Photo: Paul Bennett

Sarah Lister's body was exhumed from North Ockendon churchyard. Photo: Paul Bennett - Credit: Paul Bennett

Prof Ged Martin tells a story of near incest, claims of murder and an exhumation

For the Reverend George Fielding, North Ockendon must have seemed a snug billet. The job was well paid, with a comfortable Rectory.

The “scattered village and parish”, as it was called in 1848, contained just 300 people – but supported two grocers, a shoemaker, a baker, a blacksmith and a village inn.

Unlike radical South Ockendon, where barely a dozen people attended the Anglican church, North Ockendon’s peasants deferred to the parson and the local farmers.

Hence James Lister’s private life was a shocking problem.

A farm labourer and good at managing horses, James Lister was born about 1813 at Little Wakering, on the marshes behind Southend.

By 1840, he was living at North Ockendon, with his wife Sarah. Ten years older than James, it was her second marriage: as Mrs Skimpley, she already had seven children.

Most Read

James and Sarah went on to have two more children of their own.

By the time of the 1851 census, only three of the nine offspring lived at home: Ann Skimpley, reported to be 21, and her 13 year-old brother Richard, already working on a farm, plus six-year-old Henry Lister.

Aged 47, Sarah had died during the summer of 1850.

The census, taken on 30 March 1851, revealed the horrifying sequel.

Ann Skimpley had succeeded her mother not just as Lister’s housekeeper. One month earlier, she had given birth to a boy, Alfred Lister. James was the father.

Sarah had barely gone to her grave before James Lister had seduced his own step-daughter.

He’d told the census taker that Ann was 21, and so an adult, but she was probably just sixteen when the relationship started.

But the Reverend Mr Fielding could do nothing about this scandal.

Although the census described Ann as Lister’s adopted daughter, there was almost certainly no legal connection between them. Nor were they blood relations. Prosecution for incest was impossible.

In those barbarous times, the age of consent was just twelve. (It was raised to sixteen after an outcry over child prostitution in 1885.) If Ann agreed that she’d consented to the relationship – as she would have been bullied into saying – nobody could intervene.

Lister was sacked from his farm job and evicted from his tied cottage, but he quickly secured work as an ostler at the village inn. Worse still, Ann had a second child.

But there were strains in the relationship, with some blazing rows.

In one of them, Ann yelled at James: “You are not going to poison me as you did my mother.”

Tipped off by concerned locals, Rector Fielding pounced. Maybe the problem could be solved by getting Lister hanged for murder.

Fielding travelled to Romford and persuaded the district coroner to authorise an inquest on Sarah’s death.

On Friday, October 29, 1852, her body was exhumed from North Ockendon churchyard, and taken to a nearby shed.

A coroner’s jury watched as a local surgeon removed the innards from the badly decomposed corpse for investigation.

“Lister stood close by during the examination, apparently an unconcerned observer.”

The jurors were ordered to return ten days later.

Everything looked set for a sensational murder case, with a sordid sex angle thrown in – just what the Victorians loved!

But – that’s where the story ended. There were no further reports. Obviously, no trace of poison was found. James Lister was not hanged.

But he did leave North Ockendon. The 1861 census found him working at Chadwell St Mary, near Tilbury. His son Henry, now sixteen and an agricultural labourer, was still with his father. He can’t have had much of a childhood.

Mary Warner, a married woman, shared the cottage as a “lodger”. By 1871, she was the third Mrs Lister. How much did she know about her husband’s earlier life?

The abused stepdaughter Ann Skimpley and her children disappear. Perhaps she married. Maybe she emigrated. Perhaps they died.