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The Caragh Orphanage --- A Scandal without Precedent

Written by Andrew Rynne

March 2008

Just before crossing the Grand Canal at the Cock Bridge, a mile from Prosperous as the crow flies, heading eastwards towards Mondello and Caragh, you will see on your left hand side, hidden behind briars and bushes, an old ruin locally referred to as Tommy Everett’s house. This is the site of an earlier alehouse called The Cock and the establishment that gave the bridge its name. But tucked in immediately behind this ruin are the flattened remnants of a place with a darker and far more sinister past. For here is the site of the infamous Caragh Orphanage where babies, infants and children were much abused, starved and neglected during most of the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

The Caragh Orphanage was founded by the Rev Samuel George Cotton and his wife Eliza in 1865. What motivated the pair to engage in an enterprise for which they were so hopelessly ill-equipped is not clear. Possibly the prospect of saving destitute children for the Protestant faith came closest to an explanation. For certainly Cotton was a zealous evangelist and an Episcopalian for whom proselytising came naturally. Opening an orphanage gave him an almost endless supply of infant souls to save from popery.

I'm a paragraph. Click once to begin enteriWe get a good idea of Cotton’s general appearance and demeanour from Edward Marjoribanks biography of Edward Carson (1932.) Here he describes Cotton in 1892 as he approached his biblical life expectancy of three score and ten during his trial in Belfast before Chief Baron Palles with Edward Carson defending. The trial had been moved to this venue following the collapse of an earlier trial on much the same indictments held before the Leinster Assize in Carlow where the jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict as required by law:ng your own content. You can change my font, size, line height, colour and more by highlighting part of me and selecting the options from the toolbar.

First, the said reverend client’s saint-like appearance and demeanour. Here was a venerable clergyman, approaching the Psalmist’s limit of human life, garbed in becoming clerical, and yet not offensively sacerdotal, cloth; his neck-cloth was of the old voluminous, innocent sort, tied in front in a rather awkward bow. No wonder the soft-hearted Kildare (sic) jury had disagreed! How should a shepherd in his quest for money on behalf of the stray, orphaned lambs occupy himself with the tying of a neckcloth? His bearing was that of a primitive Christian in the presence of a Pro-praetor. Nor did he have the disadvantage of faculties unimpaired. He suffered from not only the ordinary infirmities of old age and from the malice of his enemies, but he was pathetically deaf, so deaf that he was compelled to wear, attached to each ear, a little metal plate in the form of concave shell, that apparently served the purpose of an ear trumpet.

When, in the course of the trial, a strong point was made against him, of course he never heard: but one of his friends, a sort of interpreter of calumny, speaking into his ear, explained or quoted: then followed an extra-clerical look of the resigned and forgiving Christian martyr on his pained but benign countenance.

In a word, he seemed just the person to be father to the fatherless, and to desire nothing more in this world than to receive into his loving old arms those who the mysterious providence of heaven had deprived of their natural protectors. A veritable Dr. Primrose this, a Vicar of Wakefield, yet he found himself treated as if he acted like the Jenkins of the same story.

But if Cotton’s appearance was that of an eccentric, saintly, innocent father-like figure then his actions seriously belied such an image. Again and again in the press of the day we are reminded of just how appalling his orphanage in Caragh really was. Even allowing for the standards of the day it is difficult to see how any human being, never mind a clergyman, could oversee such cruel and humiliating treatment being meted out to defenceless children on a daily bases. They slept upstairs on stinking mattresses of straw or on the bare floorboards often with no more than a sack to cover them at night. Their clothes and underclothes were in a filthy state their feet unshod and their legs bare. The windows of their sleeping quarters and their schoolroom downstairs contained mostly broken panes of glass.

Their staple diet was Indian meal stirabout served mornings and evenings with boiled sheep’s head on Sundays. The babies were given fresh cow’s milk while the other inmates were occasionally given buttermilk. Meat was in very short supply and took the form of American bacon from Naas. Nowhere was evidence ever given of the children been served any bread, eggs or vegetables. Potatoes made rare appearances. Thus all the children would have been seriously malnourished and hungry most of the time. In appearance they were stunted, retched and anaemic looking. They were each made to have a cold bath every Saturday evening before retiring to their straw mattresses or bare floorboards. They dried themselves off with sackcloth. The bath water was not changed between each child washing. Fires were seldom lit and broken panes of glass never replaced.

Just as an example, a very poignant description of how bad things really were at Cotton’s orphanage was given in evidence by a Dr. John Francis McVeagh at the Petty Sessions held in Robertstown on Tuesday October 27th 1891. The reporter for the next Saturday’s Kildare Observer reports:

Dr. McVeagh said he visited the Orphanage on October 18th.1891. He found the rooms in a most filthy condition. In the kitchen he saw a little baby named Thomas Collins, aged about eight weeks in a painful state of dirt, its little body all excoriated, clad in filthy rags and apparently dying from inattention and cold. He saw Mary Hurley, aged three months, in a similar filthy condition; with insufficient clothing; Minnie Burnett dirty, nine months, and insufficiently clad and fed. He next saw a batch of children among whom were Ellen Carson aged two years, Charlie Quillett, aged two, Patience Walker, aged four, Thomas Whitney, aged five, Thomas Warren, aged five; Benjamin Wallace, aged six, Henry Norton, aged four; and Elizabeth Winter aged four. He found these children in a most wretched state from improper food and clothing and from uncleanliness. Some of their underclothing, little that it was, was most filthy; their little limbs attenuated and the colour of their bodies mostly anaemic for want of red blood; their growth stunted, and no appearance of muscular activity. Several had blotches on their skin that appeared like burned holes from want of proper food. The sanitary conditions in the house and surroundings were the most appalling he had ever witnessed. The sleeping apartments were most wretched and filthy, several broken panes of glass, no fire, the beds dirty and two cots were dirty with stale and very filthy hay in them for beds. The air was foul throughout the house, all the little children shivering with the cold, and in a state of terrorism, afraid to speak. The wretched hole called the bathroom was most filthy. The kitchen was in a wretched state, with a small fire around which a few shivering children were trying to warm themselves. The force pump, which supplied the inmates with water, was bedded in a mass of gutter and ordure. 

The orphanage was built within the grounds of Cotton’s Glebe House that still stands there today. Initially the two-story slated building was sufficiently substantial to accommodate up to forty inmates and staff. Most of the building remained standing up until recent times. Those cared for within these walls were babies, infants and children up to the age of fourteen years. These children were held by law under an Indenture of Apprenticeship and orphaned either by virtue of the fact that both their parents were dead but more usually by virtue of their being born out of wedlock. All were instructed in the Protestant faith irrespective of their religion on entering this institution. This salvage from Popery was a very strong motivating factor in Cotton’s establishing his institution in the first place.

The Caragh Orphanage and its proprietor were never far from controversy or out of the news for very long. From reading the voluminous newspaper reports of the time the Rev. Cotton comes across as a cantankerous and litigious individual who easily made enemies.

The first time the Caragh Orphanage made it into the newspapers in an adverse fashion was in 1874 in what was then referred to as The Bennett Case. When Catherine Bennett’s husband died in 1873 she was left destitute with four children the three eldest of which she sought to place in the Caragh Orphanage. Eventually Cotton agreed to this and had Catherine Bennett sign an indenture of apprenticeship giving him charge of the children and allowing them to be raised in the Protestant faith.

Some time later Catherine Bennett appears to have had a change of heart and sought to take her children back. There followed an altercation in the Glebe House between Bennett, Rev Cotton and Eliza Cotton during which the Reverend claimed that Ms Bennett bit his hand twice while he attempted to forcibly eject her from his house. This kafuffle later led to a writ of habeas corpus being served against the Cottons which in turn produced a flurry of sworn statements of claims and counterclaims. Anyway, the net result was that on August 21st 1874 Mr Justice Fitzgerald ruled that the indenture of apprenticeship binding the children to the Rev Cotton’s care was not valid and that the children must be released.

But the case was damaging to the Cottons. In her affidavit sworn on August 6th 1874 Catherine Bennett states that:

In March last I visited the children and found them covered with vermin, and my boy, John, covered with sores. I want to take my children away because of the wretched way in which they are being kept and because I now want to bring them up Roman Catholics which was their father’s religion as it is my own.   

This was not strictly true. Their father was buried a Protestant and perhaps Catherine was a bit of a trouble maker. But the Rev Samuel Cotton could have saved himself an awful lot of trouble and very bad press had he simply allowed her take back her children without fuss. Then, as if to make a bad situation even worse Cotton, through the letters page of the Examiner, allows himself become embroiled in a very public, ill-tempered and pointless correspondence with a clergyman of opposite persuasion the Rev. Thomas O’Farrell Roman Catholic Administrator of the Diocese of Cloyne. Here the two men slog it out with Cotton as ever threatening to sue all round him and O’Farrell accusing Cotton of being a proselytizer and kidnapper. This open correspondence dragged on over two months and eleven acrimonious exchanges starting September 16th 1874. There were no winners of course but the Rev. Cotton, being the more vulnerable, had the most to lose.  

Things were quiet enough though for the next nine years with Cotton managing to keep his orphanage out of the limelight, Then in September 1883 reports of cruelty to some children at the orphanage came to the attention of the then fledgling Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children based in Liverpool. The Society asks that the local Constabulary in Robertstown make inquiries into these allegations.

Cotton initially appeared before the Kilmeague Petty Sessions on Tuesday August 28th 1883. He was unable to be represented on this occasion because his solicitor was on holidays. He also objected that he had not been given a copy of the details of the charges to him. He was given a copy and the court adjourned for a while giving him an opportunity to consider them. On resuming the Rev Cotton then objects to one of the magistrates on the bench; Mr Charles Bury, whom he accused of bearing enmity against him for the past twenty years. He also pointed out there was litigation pending between himself and Mr Bury over the matter of the sale of potatoes!

At the end of the day and after much ill-tempered bickering the case was adjourned and Mr Bury steadfastly refused the leave the bench.

The case was resumed two weeks later and on September the 11th 1883 the Rev. Samuel Cotton was again prosecuted before a petty session of the magistrate’s court held in Kilmeague. This time he was represented and was prosecuted for committing an aggravated assault on four of the orphan children under his care. On the bench were: Major Hutchinson R.M. (in the chair); Captain Waring R.M.; Robert Mackay Wilson R.M.; A.J. Owen, Captain Rainsford and Dr. Hayes. Charles Bury was conspicuous by his absence on the bench although he was in court. Mr. Edward Lord appeared on behalf of the Crown and Dr. W G Toomey solicitor defended the Rev. Cotton.

Giving evidence before the court was Head Constable O’Sullivan from the Robertstown constabulary. He said that on August 2nd last that he visited The Caragh Orphanage and saw in an adjoining field a boy of between the age of eight and eleven years who seemed to be dragging something after his leg. On closer inspection O’Sullivan discovered that this child had a chain fastened around his ankle and that to this was attached a large wooden log. This boy’s name was William Nolan.

The child was not wearing any shoes or stockings and the padlocked chain seemed to eat into his flesh. Later O’Sullivan was to learn that the Rev Cotton held the key to this padlock.

When questioned about this at the orphanage Cotton seemed surprised at the fuss. He said that he had no choice but to so tether the boy to prevent his escaping again as he had done some days previously. He saw no reason to discontinue the practise nor had he any intention of discontinuing it. He was defiant but fully cooperative with the constable and sought to hide nothing.

Thirteen days later head constable O’Sullivan made a second visit to Cotton’s institution. This time he discovered two boys named Ross and Cleary aged about eight padlocked and chained together by their ankles with one of them further chained to a log. When questioned about this Cotton again seemed unperturbed stating that this chaining was necessary to prevent the children running away as they had done some time previously.

Then a little girl named Ellen Kelly aged twelve years approached O’Sullivan and said: “I had that log on me night and day from the 2nd to the 11th of August and had to assist in the work of the house during all of that time.”

The constable asked that the log be given to him. This the Rev Cotton refused to do but did allow it to be weighed. A scales was produced and the log and chain were found to weigh exactly 4lbs and 12 ozs.

Later this log was produced in court and solicitor of the prosecution Mr Lord asked the bench to look on “that instrument of torture” and then to imagine the feelings of the poor little child who had to drag it after her night and day for nine days.

Sometime around the 1stof August 1883 four children had escaped from the Caragh Orphanage and were later recaptured in Allenwood some five miles away. It is probable that they travelled via the canal towpath through Robertstown and Lowtown to better escape detection. Ellen Kelly was accused of being the ring leader and of encouraging the boys to steal potatoes along the way from a neighbour’s field called Scully.

The Rev. Cotton’s attitude to this ‘logging’ as it was called was that it was a just punishment for the escapees and would prevent and discourage them from running away again. He asked the constable if he could suggest a better punishment or course of action.

But if he tried to make light of it the magistrates were not impressed. After all, at this time the Infant Life Protection Act 1872 provided some protection for children placed in private fosterage and Cotton’s actions in spancelling children together and to heavy logs must have violated that Act. His dismissive attitude was either a reflection of his ignorance of the laws of the land or of his arrogance or perhaps both. In any case the charges were not contested as to fact but the defence, through his lawyer Dr W G Toomey, attempted to characterise logging as a legitimate form of corporal punishment. He further contended that flogging, then legal, was far more injurious than logging since the latter was at least quantifiable while the former clearly was not.

The hearing in Kilmeague dragged on for two days after which the magistrates retired to consider their verdict. Within a short time they returned and fined the Rev Cotton £10.00. that is £2.00. each in the case of the three boys Nolan, Ross and Cleary and £4.00. in the case of the girl Ellen Kelly chained for nine days. Based on the average wages of the time £10.00 in 1883 would be about €6,000.00. in today’s money --- a hefty fine indeed.

For any man in his situation at this time it would be normal for him to consider appealing against this high fine but to otherwise keep his head down until at least after his appeal. But that was not how the Rev Cotton operated because three days after being fined we find him rushing into print in the letters page of next Saturdays Irish Times:

Sir, I ask permission to remark that in your leading article of yesterday you are not accurate in assuming that the boy who was logged was working in a field.

He went into the field of his own choice but his work was in the printing office, where the log would not injure him.

The letter continues in this self-serving manner where Cotton again tries to justify chaining children to logs and even going so far as to blaming one of his victims - Ellen Kelly, for her own misfortune:

The girl, a very bad and vicious character, was chiefly employed at her desk in school sewing or washing, when a log was of no inconvenience to her.

Because this letter to the press is utterly pointless in terms of redeeming its author, one is tempted to view it more as the squawking of a self-publicist rather than the pleadings of an innocent man. For, as we have already seen, Cotton loved to see his name in print.  

Looking back on it now also it would have been far better for Samuel Cotton had he just paid the fine, learned his lesson and henceforth treated the children in his care properly and with respect. But that alas was not within the man’s nature. Instead, he appealed against the fine and on October 12th 1883 appeared in Naas Quarter Sessions before Dr. Darley QC and the following bench of magistrates: Earl of Milltown, Baron de Robeck, Messrs Williams, Tyrell, Nicholson, Dr Joly, T. Cook Trench, Hugh Henry and W A Graig.

The problem with this appeal from Cotton’s point of view is that it drew a very large audience of people who were by now interested in this clergyman and his orphanage and the allegations of cruelty to children. It also drew much press attention and received a great deal of coverage on both sides of the Irish Sea. And while he did succeed in reducing his fine by a half this came at a considerable price in terms of further blackening his character and alerting interested parties to other possible cases of child abuse not then before the court.

The hearing was substantially a rehash of the earlier one. But in addition to the witness called in Kilmeague this time the children who had been logged were also given a hearing. Having heard all the evidence the magistrates were divided as to appropriate fine, some thinking that the earlier hearing in Kilmeague handed down the proper penalty, while others felt that it was perhaps excessive. However they were unanimous on one point and that was as to the illegality of Cotton’s actions in spancelling children for any reason. Mr Cooke Trench characterised Cotton’s offences as being “of a most revolting nature contrary to all the feelings of humanity” and so revealed himself as being one that would have let the original fine stand.

Perhaps the editorial of the Leinster Leader the following Saturday October 20th 1883 captures some aspect of the feelings of the times:

The Rev. Mr. Cotton has small reason to feel satisfied with the results of his appeal and friends of humanity have cause to rejoice that the barbarous ill-treatment inflected upon helpless children in the notorious institution which the Rev. Evangelizer manages has been further exposed and more decisively condemned. True, the penalty was reduced somewhat, but the moral effect of the whole proceeding is to emphasise the verdict of the Magistrates who sentenced Mr Cotton to a fine of £10.00. at Kilmeague Petty Sessions. Of the manner in which the reduction of the penalty was accomplished we can hardly trust ourselves to speak. It is not calculated to inspire people with a high sense of the judicial qualities of the “great unpaid” to witness Justices of the Peace whipped in from the most distance parts of the county to sit on a Bench, where they were never seen before, for the purpose of whitewashing an institution which has been proved in open court to have been managed on the principles that immortalised Do-the-Boys Hall, and with the further object of licensing this latter day Squeers to still pursue his humane methods of spancelling and logging We should have thought that even bigots would not mingle inhumanity with their bigotry; it might have been expected that a sense of shame would have deterred gentlemen from combining to bolster up the system of evangelising which consists of buying into utter slavery infants at so much a head, and of instilling into their souls a knowledge of Him who loves little children by a course of savage punishment.  

This was strong language. Other newspapers took a more moderate approach to Cotton’s antics but none could be said to be in any way apologist or at all approving or in any way supportive. Cotton had few friends in the newspapers of his day.

There now followed an eight year respite for the Cottons from summons and charges and court appearances. But it must have been a very uneasy respite, the calm before the storm. For dark clouds were gathering over their heads about which they could not have been unaware. These must have been deeply worrying times for the occupants of the Glebe House and proprietors of the Caragh Orphanage.

Several terrible events now occurred concurrently, each generating its own domino effect and all combining to produce a plethora of charges against the Cottons and an army of credible and professional witnesses to support these charges. These events were (1) The cases of the Burnett children, and (2) The manslaughter charges, the enquiry into the deaths of an eight year old William Brown at the orphanage a few years earlier in 1878 and a second contemporary manslaughter charge, that of Thomas Collins who we know about from McVeagh’s evidence.

Indeed so complex had things become that the authorities themselves were becoming confused. In their haste to bring all the charges of cruelty, neglect and manslaughter under one roof before a judge and jury at the Leinster Assize, they inadvertently omitted the manslaughter cases. When these were surreptitiously slipped into the retrial in Belfast some months later this was spotted by Carson with near catastrophic consequences.

The Burnett case first came to trial on October 29th 1891 before magistrates at Robertstown Petty Assize. The charges were that they, the Cottons, on the 14th and 15th of October 1891, and on other days within six months passed, at the Caragh Orphanage, did wilfully mistreat, neglect or expose the following children: Thomas Whitney, Thomas Warren, Benjamin Wallace, Thomas Collins, Henry Norton, Charles Quillett, Ellen Carson, Patience Walker, Alex Burnett, Samuel Burnett, Mary Shirley, Eliza Winter and Eliza Burnett.

The chief witness on the opening day of this trial was the Rev. John Watson rector of Charlemount in County Tyrone. About December 29th of last year (1890) he had arranged for the admission to the Caragh Orphanage of seven children of the Burnett family age between two months and thirteen years who were born out of wedlock and whose mother had recently died. Following this Watson sent Cotton various small sums of money towards the children’s upkeep and in return received glowing reports from Cotton as to the children’s good health and happiness.

In his reassuring communications with Watson, Cotton made one small omission in that he failed to alert Watson to the fact that one of the Burnett children --- Elizabeth or Lizzie, then aged three years and three months had been admitted to the Adelaide Hospital suffering from gangrene of all her toes. The Rev Mr Cotton brought her in himself. The gangrene of course was caused by frost bite and woeful neglect. The hospital matron, Miss Gertrude Knight, give evidence about Lizzie’s condition when she was brought to the hospital on April 29th 1891:

The child was reeking with filth and dirt, so much so that the cloths which were taken off of her had to be burned. The child was swarming with vermin, and it was found necessary to shave her head to get rid of the abominable state of things. Her body was filthy and her feet were draped in dirty rags. She was suffering from gangrene of her feet; three or four of her toes on each foot were completely black and diseased. The doctor would prove that the child had been grossly neglected. She must have been a week at the very least in the same condition. She was also ravenous for food. The child presented all the appearances of having been half starved and devoured any food given to her.

Lizzie, who was still under hospital care at the time, was brought into Court that day in Robertstown. The prosecution wanted the bench to examine her feet and see for themselves that all her toes missing. But the magistrates declined the offer. A reporter in court describes the scene like this:

The child, a chubby little girl, well, warmly and nicely dressed, was lifted up to the view of the bench, who, however, declined to inspect its feet.

And this was only some six months after her original ordeal. She made a great recovery.

The same reporter from the Kildare Observer paints this sad picture:

Around the fire in the courtroom were grouped a number of children from the Caragh Orphanage, all nicely dressed; but one part of the display rather failed of the objective for which it was designed; three little girls, all apparently under the age of twelve years sat, each having in her arms an infant of a few months old fed from a feeding bottle. Those poor little nurses sat in the courtroom from 12 o’clock until close upon 6 0’ clock, when long after the shades of night had fallen, the court was adjourned. The sight was not an edifying one though at intervals Mr and Mrs Cotton devoted themselves to the babies.  

When the Rev. Watson became aware that Elizabeth had been hospitalised in such an appalling condition he immediately became alarmed for the safety of the other Burnett children. He contacted the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and in the company of two their officers, a Mr Dewett and Inspector Francis Murphy, on 19th of October 1891 they made a surprise call on the Caragh Orphanage.

What follows makes for unpleasant reading but in does take us right inside the Caragh Orphanage during an unscheduled inspection. This is the evidence of the Rev Watson as reported in The Kildare Observer October 31st 1891:

He visited the Caragh Orphanage on October the 14th with two inspectors of the society, Mr. Dowsett and Mr. Murphy. He fancied he arrived there about 12 o’clock. They came up to an entrance door which was in a wall, and pulled the bell several times. He then went to a cottage close by and made some enquiries. They then went past the wall and got onto a ditch and saw the matron and some of the children and beckoned to them through the window. But they would not come out. The witness went to an opening in the hedge and got in that way. The first room that they got into was the kitchen which was in a most filthy state. There were several children there. The children that he had sent there meet him at the door and appealed to him (to take them home). They presented the most filthy and neglected appearance; in fact he did not know them at first – they were Mary and James and Samuel Burnett. A little girl with a baby had charge of the children. They next went to the schoolroom which was in a wretched condition, dirt everywhere, no fire and seven or eight children in it; they were miserably dressed and some were crying with the cold. Most of the windows contained only broken glass. The matron Ms Hannen was there. They visited the girls and boys bedrooms and found the beds in a most filthy and dreadful state. There was one iron bed without any coverings and another wooden bench; some beds seemed to have sacks stuffed with hay on them. When looking at the beds they heard a cry and going over to some dirty hay in the corner, they found a child of six months old; it presented a most sickly appearance, the hay was wet around it, and the Inspector, lifting it up in his arms carried it down to the kitchen. Witness was standing at a bed and near him was a bundle of rags. Looking down he saw a movement; he lifted up an old coat and there found a baby six weeks old, and the bundle beneath it was soaked with filth. There was a dreadful sickening smell, and witness was unwell for two hours afterwards.

Dr. McVeagh, who visited the orphanage the following day, had, as we saw a similar story to tell. All in all it was to be a bad day in court for the Cottons.

The William Brown manslaughter case against Cotton was heard a week later. It was initially held at the Curragh Petty Sessions Court before Colonel Forbes, RM with Mr William Grove White Crown Solicitor, prosecuting, and Dr. J B Falconer defending. But this case only barely got off the ground when, two days later, on November 18th 1891, we find the Cottons summons to a coroner’s inquest in Dublin inquiring into another death at the orphanage, this time a contemporary one. Thomas Collins, the baby they had discovered in the kitchen, as expected, died.

Things rapidly went from bad to worse. While the authorities were investigating the death of baby Collins at the Caragh Orphanage they did not fail to notice the revolting state of the place and the obvious distress of its helpless little inmates. Less than a week later, on November 24th 1891, the Cottons yet again find themselves before Colonel Forbes RM at the Robertstown Petty Sessions. At this stage the Rev Cotton is a remand prisoner in Kilkenny Jail and has to be taken in chains to make his appearance at Robertstown. The summons charged the defendants, in the first instance, with ill-treating, neglecting and exposing Adelaide Parker, Kathleen Lynch, Anne King and Mary Wills or Willet in a manner likely to be injurious to their health and wellbeing. And in the second instance the summons charged the defendants with ill-treating, neglecting and exposing Bernard Savage, Thomas Brown, Charles Headly and Robert Steel in a manner likely to be injurious to their health and wellbeing.

Some evidence was taken at this short hearing but in the end Colonel Forbes said that this case against the Cottons should be taken as part and parcel of the former cases and all to be returned for trial before a judge and jury at the next Leinster Assizes. It was at his stage that the manslaughter charges appear to have been mislaid.

Dr Falconer applied for bail for his reverent client and his wife so as they could prepare for their defence. This was granted and fixed at £50.00. each plus surety for the same amount. The case was moved to the Carlow Assize to be heard some weeks later commencing on Dec 10th 1891.

The Kildare Observer of November 28th 1891, for reasons best known to itself, seems to think it necessary to caution its readers against jumping to any hasty conclusions. In doing this it also misleads them by presenting the case as if charges were only being preferred against the Reverend, airbrushing Eliza Cotton out of the picture altogether. However, the piece does serve to indicate just how much interest there was in Kildare and far beyond in the Cotton scandal at the time. Tongues were waggling:

The Rev. S. G. Cotton is now committed for trial on two distinct charges of manslaughter, and four of cruelty to children. He will be tried at the Winter Assizes and his guilt or innocence of these grave charges determined. In the meantime it would be decent if people who ought to know better would restrain their expressions of opinion on the matter, and let the prisoner have some semblance of fair play. We have as much repulsion for manslaughter as anybody and we look with horror upon the crime of extracting money from the flesh and blood of innocent children, but we think that no man should be adjudged guilty of these frightful charges until adequate investigation has been made into them by the proper tribunal. We make these remarks because everywhere Mr. Cotton’s guilt is assumed, and people are only divided in opinion as to the amount of punishment he should receive, and we consider the expression of such views highly improper. When he is found guilty, if such be the termination of the trial, will be quite time enough for the bursts of execration that are now a little prematurely indulged in.

On Wednesday December 9th 1891 the trial opened in the Carlow’s Leinster Assizes before Mr Justice Murphy and a jury of twelve men. The following day’s Irish Times will give you some indication of just how much public interest there was by this time in the affairs of the Caragh Orphanage and its proprietors:

Mr Justice Murphy resumed the business of the Leinster Assizes this morning at half past ten o’clock. As it was widely known that the charges in connection with the Carogh Orphanage against the Rev. Mr. Cotton and his wife would proceed with first today, the court was thronged. The benches and gallery were immediately occupied admission to the latter being by ticket issued by the Sheriff. There were a large number of Protestant clergymen in court and also a few Roman Catholic clergymen.

A large number of ladies were present and manifested great interest in the proceedings

Edward Carson, even then a barrister of considerable note, and Dr Falconer defended the Cottons while the Solicitor-General Mr Ryan QC and Mr A. H. Ormsby prosecuted.

The proceedings opened with Edward Carson calling for an adjournment on the grounds that: (a) his client had insufficient time to prepare a defence and (b) witnesses for the defence were not available and (c) there were too many Protestants among the jury. This latter point was based on the fact that the Lord Primate had written a letter to the Evening Telegraph some months previously condemning Cotton in the strongest possible terms and so, it could be argued, Protestant jurors would more likely be influenced by their own Primate than would Catholics. These legal arguments were batted to and fro for quite some time when eventually His Lordship intervened and ruled against the motion for adjournment. The jurors were sworn in and the case proceeded. The evidence taken at this hearing was a repeat of that already heard in Robertstown.

The next sitting of this trial was four days later when Dr. Falconer addressed the jury for the defence in a manner most telling of the times and social norms that were in it:

----Mrs Cotton who, of decent birth and accomplishment, had sacrificed her leisure and cared as tenderly as a mother could that miserable mite of diseased humanity, Tommy Collins, the offspring of sin and shame, as well as the other children. Mr Cotton had nothing to gain, but he conceived he was doing the Master’s work in saving temporarily and spiritually these illegitimate children which no other institution would take, and was he to be held responsible if the father of the Burnett children was a diseased dissipated scoundrel and their mother a prostitute!   

And lastly the judge, Mr Justice Murphy, charged the jury in a manner that could only have instilled, in at least some of them, doubts as to the Cottons guilt. It was as if the judge was bending over backwards trying to ensure that no charge of sectarianism could be laid upon a Catholic judge presiding over a court where a Protestant Clergyman was being tried for serious crimes.

He made much of the prejudicial press coverage against the Cottons that had gone before the trial. He questioned why the prosecution had not produced any ex-inmates of Caragh who could have substantiated the findings of Watson, Dowsett, Murphy and McVeagh. And finally he pointed out that since the Rev. Mr Cotton was not actually at the orphanage when the inspectors called that his involvement in the alleged cruelty to children might not have been ‘wilful’.

These arguments were to be trashed out in much greater detail at the subsequent trial in Belfast some months hence but for now they served only to divide the jury who failed to return a unanimous verdict as required by the law of the day. The Cottons were handed down a short reprieve and were free to spend Christmas at home. Carson won a temporary victory.

The trial before the Spring Assize in Belfast commenced on Thursday March 17th 1892 and was carried over four days hearing ending with final sentencing on Saturday July 23rd of the same year. Lord Chief Baron was on the bench with Solicitor General Mr Campbell and Mr W B Ball prosecuting for the Crown and Edward Carson QC and Dr Falconer were once again defending.

Most of the evidence taken was similar to that already heard in Carlow, Robertstown and The Curragh, with the addition of some expert witnesses brought on to support the evidence of the Rev Watson and Mr Dowsett on behalf of the prosecution. This time they were taking no chances that they might again be criticised for lack of supportive evidence as happened in Carlow.

The evidence of Adelaide Parker is interesting in that it throws some light on how things were run in Cotton’s orphanage. Aged just fourteen when giving her evidence Adelaide had spent all of her young life with the Cottons and had recently left for a position in Dublin. During her time, there had been two different matrons in Caragh one a Mrs Allen and the other, latterly, a Miss Hannen. Things were totally different under the reign of each woman – all good when Mrs Allen was in charge and all bad under Ms Hannen. The children were all very fond of Mrs Allen and she was very fond of them.

During the time of Mrs Allen things were so good that the Rev Cotton played cricket with the older boys while his wife knitted stockings for the children. Food and clean clothing were in plentiful supply during Mrs Allen’s time but all reverted to misery when Ms Hannen came along. She was in the habit of locking herself away in her room and not letting the children near the fire.

And while this evidence may not be totally relied upon it does nonetheless suggest that the dedication of the matron in charge at any given time did play a role in the children’s wellbeing and that the Cottons gave their matrons far too much autonomy. But the financial situation at any given time undoubtedly was the predominate factor. Evidence is conflicting as to whether funds were always tight but certainly they were from time to time.

On Tuesday March 29th 1892 the jury, after deliberating for an hour and a half returned a unanimous guilty verdict against the Rev. Mr Cotton -- his wife having been earlier acquitted. Immediately on hearing this Edward Carson was on his feet to drop a bombshell. The indictments against Cotton were invalid since they differed substantially from those of the former trial in Carlow in that they contained the additional charges of manslaughter against infants Brown and Collins. In the end these charges had to be excluded when considering sentencing while the remainder, those of cruelty and neglect stood as indicted. But for a while it looked as though the whole case might have collapsed and Carson may have had the legal triumph of his life.

But Carson then pleaded for mercy on behalf of his aged and sick client. In Marjoribanks biography his moving speech is quoted in full but here some extracts may serve to give its flavour:

I beseech you your lordship to consider the position of this old man. At the time of disestablishment (of the Church of England in Ireland) he, even then advanced in life, sacrificed his own interests in order to promote the interests of the religious body to which he belonged. In all the long period of his ministry, there was never a whisper that he was selfish, or avaricious, or careless of the sufferings of others. ---- He started the orphanage. Who entering upon such a course, could easily look forwards to ease and opulence, and, in heaven’s name, who could think that any personal ends could be served by systematic neglect of the orphans?---- It is abundantly clear that my client is not a man of business, and that he is weak, unpractical, prone to trust where he should suspect, and, for an old man, singularly, absurdly sanguine. Not the man, I admit, to manage an orphanage, but not of necessity a criminal. ---- Meanwhile, to obtain funds, this old man was compelled to be as constantly on the road as if he had been a commercial traveller. The orphanage saw very little of him: and, while he toiled to collect funds, the working of the place devolved very much on others. ---- My client was very foolish, hoping always for some turn of luck: but I find it hard to consider him a mere vulgar criminal. I trust implicitly in your lordship’s sense of fair play, your feelings of human sympathy, and perhaps I might venture to add of equity, when you come to pass sentence on this broken old man.   

This speech was delivered in slow measured tones to a packed and silenced courtroom. It made a huge impact on the listening public and received widespread press coverage. It drew Edward Carson to the attention of prominent Northerners and, according to some, may have contributed not a little to his eventually becoming their leader.  

Cotton, who at this time was wearing a bandage over his left eye, was released on bail pending sentencing. This took place almost four months later on Saturday July 23rd 1892 before Mr Justice Holmes by which time Carson’s fine speech may have lost some of its impact. Be that as it may Justice Homes took the jury’s guilty verdict seriously on the one hand while acknowledging the prisoners frail health, on the other. Cotton was still wearing the bandage across his left eye. Justice Homes said:

I should not have felt myself at liberty to limit the imprisonment of the traverser to the period which I am about to mention, had his age and state of health been such that he could endure such punishment for a more lengthened period without danger to his life or of probable permanent injury to his health. I am, however, satisfied by the affidavits of the several eminent medical gentlemen which have been filed on behalf of the traverser, including those of Sir George Porter and Dr Charles Fitzgerald, that it would be impossible for him to endure imprisonment for any longer than six months.

In addition to this six months prison sentence Cotton was also fined £100.00 each for cruelty towards four children – Patience Walker, Thomas Collins, Charles Quillet and Mary Hurley. He later appealed against these hefty fines on the grounds that he did not have the means to pay them. The appeal fell on deaf ears. Cotton finally asked the judge that he be treated as a first-class misdemeanant. To which His Lordship replied: I cannot make any such order. The prisoner was then removed to Mountjoy Prison where he served his full six months.

On Sunday January 22nd 1893 the Rev Mr Samuel Cotton was released from jail, an event that did not escape the notice of The Irish Times of the day:

The Rev S. Cotton, who was released from Montjoy Prison last Sunday, has arrived at Caragh having completed the full term of his retention of six months. He looks well but has lost the sight of one of his eyes which had been affected for a considerable time. In a conversation with his solicitor, Mr Lamphier, Naas, he stated that he had been well treated and spoke highly of the prison officials, making special mention of the governor and the medical officer.

One might reasonably expect that this would have been an end to the Caragh Orphanage’s long miserable history and that it’s now disgraced proprietors would have been happy to retire into obscurity. But sadly and incredibly that was not to be. People of Cotton’s personality type seem never to learn and are incapable of change.

On Tuesday March 27th 1894, just over a year since his release from Montjoy, the Rev Samuel Cotton and his wife are yet again summoned before the Petty Session Court in Robertstown to answer charges that:

they at Caragh, on the 20th of February, 1894, and at other days and times within six months previous to that date, did wilfully ill-treat, neglect or expose, in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering or injury to their health, Thomas Tenison, alias Denison, a boy under the age of 14 years, and Mary Tenison, alias Denison, a girl under the age of 16 years, both of which defendants had under their custody and control.

The hearing was held before the Hon. Colonel Forbes RM and Dr. Neill. Dr. Falconer was again there to defend the Cottons while District Inspector Supple appeared for the prosecution.

The evidence given was that: armed with a search warrant signed by Colonel Forbes R.M., Inspector Supple, Head Constable McKeon, and Sergt. Nolan, Acting-Sergh Sinnott, Constable Donnelly and Constable Mullany and a medical practitioner Dr McDonagh, seven men in all, arrived at Cotton’s house at 11 am on Feb 20th. They were to search for Thomas and Mary Denison and if they found them in a neglected state they were to bear them away to a place of safety.

On arriving at the house the officers were dispersed around the back of the Vickerage where later they were to give evidence of seeing Mrs Cotton inside busily attempting to lock them out. In the meantime Supple and McDonagh were at the front door ringing the doorbell. After a few minutes they were let in by a servant Lizzie Magrath who asked them to wait in the parlour for a few minutes an invitation they declined, going instead, directly into the kitchen.

Here are some extracts of how it was reported in the Irish Times the next day:

Witness (Supple) said he went into the kitchen and there saw Lizzie Magrath putting on some article of clothing on Mary Denison. He examined Mary Denison. Her face was dirty. Her ears were dirty and evidently had not been washed for a considerable time. He saw her stripped to the waist by Dr. McDonagh. She was very thin. Her shoulder blades and chest bones protruded. Witness noticed hair growing between her neck and shoulder blades. She was covered in vermin. Her arms were very thin. There was a mark of a burn on her right forearm. Acting-Sergeant Sinnott gave her some bread and butter. She ate it voraciously. He would say that the child was about six years of age.

Witness then saw Dr. McDonagh examine Thomas Denison. His body was in fair condition. What attracted witness’s attention most was the boy’s feet. Both were tied up with rags or bits of cloth. Dr McDonagh took the coverings off the feet. Both feet were considerable swollen and soggy looking. Both had a circular mark about the size of a tree-penny bit in a state of eruption. All the toes were inflamed and incrusted with white stuff and dirt. The child appeared to be suffering pain from his feet. He was given a portion of bread which he ate like an animal.

This evidence was largely substantiated by several other witnesses. Dr McDonagh said of Mary Denison that she: was very much neglected, emaciated, half starved or receiving food of very poor quality. And of the little boy Thomas Tenison he said: He formed the opinion that the inflammation of the feet was caused by cold, insufficient covering, general neglect and want of sufficient food. His right heel was ulcerated. It was not proper treatment of the child that he should have been walking about on the kitchen floor. The child should have been in bed.

Immediately following this police raid on Cottons Vicarage both children were removed to the Naas Union Workhouse. A week later the hearings in Robertstown Petty Sessions Court resumed.

On Tuesday April 3rd at Robertstown Petty Sessions, bail was settled on the Cottons at £100.00. each and the case was moved to the next Assize in county Kildare. Before that some evidence was taken from Dr. Joseph Smyth, medical attendant at Naas Union Workhouse. He disposed that he examined Mary Dennison on her admission to the workhouse and found her thin and in poor condition and looking as though she was not well cared for. She ate veraciously, something that Dr. Smyth interpreted as a sigh that she was half-starved. She had no organic disease and the doctor saw no need to hospitalise her. She was admitted straight to the workhouse school.

As for Thomas, he was not so well off. Photographs of his feet were passed around the jury in what must have been an early example of the use of clinical photography as admissible evidence in a courtroom. Thomas was hospitalised and recovered in a few weeks.

Then defence council Falconer moved that Mrs Cotton be discharged as she had been the last time out by Justice Murphy in Carlow. This suggestion did not sit well with the bench. Indeed the Hon Colonel Forbes opined that Mrs Cotton was, if anything, more to blame than the Reverend since she was in the house at the time and he was not.

Another factor that militated against Eliza’s release, at least on this occasion, was the fact that Samuel had assigned everything to her on his release from Mountjoy. She was now the sole owner of the Glebe House and lands and she controlled the cheque book. This was done as a ploy so as the Reverend could continue to default on his fine of £400.00.

Finally Lizzy Maguire took the stand and tried to speak up for the Cottons suggesting that it was her who got them “off” in Carlow. But she turned out to be a completely unreliable witness and was asked to step down.

The hearing was then adjourned and the case referred to the next County Assize in Naas.

The case was heard before Lord Chief Justice Sir Peter O’Brien and a jury of twelve good men and true, on Thursday the 19th of July 1894 in Naas Courthouse. Among others giving evidence was Mrs Denison, the children’s mother. She comes across as a woman of fairly low IQ and as somebody unable to give direct answers to council’s questions. It emerged however that she had been wandering the roads, destitute, with her two children, around Sallins when by chance she met up with the Rev Cotton. He invited all three of them back to the vicarage to stay, something that Mrs Denison viewed as an act of the Devine Lord.

Finally and unusually Eliza Cotton was called to give evidence. But she was only in the witness box for a few minutes and said nothing new.  

The Reverend Cotton was examined by prosecuting counsel. He was asked if he was ever in trouble for mistreating children before. Immediately on asking this question and before defence could object, a log with a heavy chain attached was put up on the table before the prosecuting counsel. This caused a big sensation among the onlookers in court requiring the bench to call order and ask that this line of questioning be discontinued immediately. But the point was made.

Then the jury retired for an hour and a half. They acquitted Eliza Cotton but found her husband guilty on all counts. Falconer attempted to introduce the old doctor’s certificate from the previous convictions almost two years earlier, maintaining that Cotton was too ill to serve a long sentence. But the Lord Chief Justice was not impressed saying that he thought the prisoner looked fit enough for his age. He also expressed great satisfaction at the jury’s verdict as being one with which he entirely concurred. He was particularly pleased with Eliza’s dismissal as he thought that that was entirely appropriate and had felt very sorry for her as she gave her evidence.

The Chief Justice remarked that clearly Cotton had learned nothing for his earlier six months imprisonment. That being so he would now double the sentence to twelve months on each count, all to run concurrently. Finally he ordered the guards to: “Remove the reverent gentleman.”

Our last glimpse of Cotton, through the newspapers of the day, is of him standing under heavy guard in chains at Sallins train station. A large crowd have gathered around him and he is loudly heckled and booed.

Samuel Cotton died in 1900 aged 77. Eliza went on to live another fourteen years dying on Sep 19th 1914 with an address on Belmont Avenue, Donnybrook, Dublin. She left an estate valued at £2,642. 19s and 5d. to a Vetitia Myles a married woman.

Perhaps Edward Carson was right when he doubted that Samuel Cotton was a ‘vulgar criminal’ for even vulgar criminals can often learn from their mistakes, acknowledge their wrongdoings for what they are, amend their ways and repent. Cotton clearly could do none of these things. No matter how often or how much he was shamed, fined or punished; it made not the slightest bit of difference to him or to his behaviour. Cotton was beyond cure. An earlier cartoon in the Evening Telegraph depicted the Rev Cotton with a caption underneath saying: He did not cotton on. And while this may not have been very funny it certainly was astute.

He was not a vulgar criminal, he was a recidivist criminal. He was a recidivist criminal with no insight at all into his own wrongdoing. Apart from the logging incidents, Cotton’s crimes were those of omission rather that commission but no less heinous for that. He continually omitted to do what he should have done and that was to ensure that those children within his care were treated properly according to the standards of the day. He repeatedly failed to do this.

He blamed others for what happened in his orphanage. His wife Eliza and that useless matron Ms Hannen were no help to him of course; but at the end of the day the buck stopped with him. He totally lacked realism. This trait was spotted by Carson who called him ’absurdly sanguine’. He lacked emotion. He seemed indifferent to the suffering that he was causing by his omissions. He was constantly in denial.

He told lies. He saw himself as a victim of unreasonable authority. He was always right while everyone else was clearly wrong. There was only one way to worship God and that was Cotton’s way. Popish Catholicism was wrong and children needed to be saved from it. He asked Constable O’Sullivan if he could suggest a better solution, than chaining a log to a child’s leg, in order to stop them from running away.

He fought with everybody; with his next-door neighbour Charles Bury then living in Summerton and with his neighbour across the road in Woodville Mr. Wray. He took legal actions against both of these gentlemen. He tried to sue Ms Hannen and threatened to sue the Rev Thomas O’Farrell. He fought with his fellow churchmen at Hewetson School and Millicent Church. He claimed Hewetson should never have been moved to its present site and that the choirboys in Millicent, in surplice and soutane, were too Catholic in appearance. Anyone who dared criticize him, however mildly, left themselves vulnerable to litigation.

His thinking, if that you could call it, was fixed and rigid and unyielding. He was a sociopath or what today we would characterise as having an ‘antisocial personality disorder’. But it hardly matters. What matters is that Cotton caused horrendous suffering, for over a quarter of a century, to innocent and vulnerable little children who were placed in his care. Many of them died because of this cruelty. We owe it to these children never to forget them and a plaque should be erected in their memory lest we forget.

I wish to thank the following:

Mario Corrigan, Local History Department, Kildare Library.

Rev David Frazier.

Paul Connolly.

Paddy Behan.

Mary Conliff.

Leinster Leader.

Irish Times.

Written by Andrew Rynne

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