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Monday, October 5, 2020

The Characters Behind the Characters - Maud Davis, Sociologist

 The Characters Behind the Characters - Maud Davis - Sociologist and Social Reformer

C. A. Asbrey

Maud Davis' work caused more controversy than it should. In turn, her violent death attracted none of the attention it deserved. She was a divisive figure in her life, a dichotomy of contradictions; highly-educated but rarefied, subjective but judgemental, level-headed but injudicious, scholarly but unworldly. She was the inspiration, with many changes, for the murder victim in the fourth book in The Innocents Mysteries series, In all Innocence, and the plot which unfolded from there.       

She was a woman of independent means, a sociologist, and intellectual, who worked hard to improve the lives of others. She was a member of the Anti-Sweating League (working to break up sweat-shops), a member of The Fabian's Women's Group, and The Women's Industrial Council. Maud was a well-intentioned campaigner, but she lacked a fundamental grasp on the hardships of life, and the dangers in the dark corners into which she ventured. That lack of understanding may have extended to failing to grasp to the perils of stepping on toes as she investigated, but we'll look at that later.  

Maud compiled reports and studies on working conditions for the poor, and reported back to political activists who sought to bring improvements. There are many indications that while her intentions were pure, her own background was far too distant and rarefied to fully grasp the depths of the poverty on which she reported. An example of this can be found in the Black Report, on the tailoresses of Rowhedge. Maud was sent to study the women of Rowhedge, a poor fishing village in Essex. The men were often absent, away fishing for long periods of time. Their work could take the fishermen to France, Scotland, or even Norway,  It was a perilous life, and men died, especially in the roaring winter seas which provided the best harvests. 

While the men were away the women did piece work for the London tailors who paid rock-bottom rates. The development of the sewing machine did little to improve women's standing in the tailoring profession. Even experienced women rarely become foremen, and those working remotely never advanced at all. A female foreman in 1901 earned 19 shillings a week, while men doing the same job brought home more than double that amount The development of the railways meant that work could be farmed out to remote areas where there was little competition to drive up wages. Rowhedge was one such town. Compare the previous earnings  to a statement by a Mrs. Green who said, "wages paid to the seamstresses were abominable and the way in which they were obliged to live was fearful… They had to finish off a pair of men’s trousers for 1¾d and they had not only to fetch the work from the factory… but sometimes had it returned for being badly done. They were able to turn out about 12 pairs a day but had to find their own thread… they earned about 1/-2d a day or 5s a week assuming they worked an 8 hour day and 5 day week’.   

Maud reported that, "The Rowhedge women are all that women should be. Full of vigorous health and spirits, they are equally ready for work and for play… These self sufficient women are apparently excellent wives and mothers.' However her naivety of the harsher realities of life were apparent in this statement. "‘The independent income of the women brings them a degree of consideration both from others and from themselves that educes and develops their personality, and causes each woman to become an individual interesting to herself and to others, even as her husband or her son is. In the house the woman is mistress, the man, when at home, adapting himself to her and doing the housework that she may not be interrupted in her industry. With her own earnings she is able to buy what she wants, pretty clothes for the children or for herself, a bicycle, a piano, or whatsoever else may appeal to her as affording the recreation which she takes for granted as her due, and as part of the normal routine of her life.’  

Maud was simply unable to conceive of a life lived hand-to-mouth, and thought that these women were working for pocket-money. Other women working on the same report noted women working late into the night, whilst in labour, and being asked to take a little rest by their families, so it's hard to see how Maud saw these earnings as pin money. Another woman working on the Black report posed this point to another resident of Rowhedge and got a strong response. "Pocket money! That was pocket money! To fill the kids tummies. No-one worked on the tailoring at home unless it was to fulfil a need….. they had to! If the husband lost his job – no dole – no money coming in.’ ‘Yes, my mother did tailoring, ’Cos she had to keep us going. Dad didn’t earn very much…Mum used to do coats at home for the factories…. She used to work very hard for the little she got…. To make ends meet you see’ ‘My mother did that bit of tailoring to feed us kids. She didn’t do it for a bit of pocket money, she did that to keep us."   

On top of all that, any understanding on pricing would have told Maud that a piano or bicycle was beyond the reach of a woman on piece work.

This was not the only time Maud lacked a true scientific distance, but let's not forget that her statistical analysis did help to compile a collection of historical data on wages and prices. It also helped to correct to prevailing views of rural poverty. Her most famous work, Life in an English Village: A Study of the History and Economic Conditions of the Parish of Cosley, in Wiltshire, became notorious for all the wrong reasons. So much so, the villagers lobbied to have the paper pulled from publication.   

The statistical analysis was superb, but the work included too much detail which made it easy to identify the individuals involved, as well as containing a number of pejorative statements. She describes locals as 'rather rough' and a 'dirty lot'. Local children are described as 'rascals', 'slow', or 'lazy'. Of a market gardener and his wife she notes: 'Drank a good deal of their profits, wife got so drunk she could hardly sit in the cart. 'Seen one day in public at Frome having glass of port - more than such people could afford,'  She describes a labourer, his wife and four children: 'Can't say much for them. Wife hard-working woman, but bad manager. 'Not much of it [debt]. A poor lot, drink too much and don't pay. Dirty lot. Inspector has been down on the once or twice - woman keeps house so dirty." 'Dirty children. Noted family. Have been on point of reporting parents to Officer of Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children. 'Yet children wouldn't be so bad with careful training. Attendance [at school] bad, they take turns to come."

Bear in mind that this was her own village. She knew these people intimately, and as a small rural area, they all knew one another too. She also made statements which alluded to sexual misbehaviour between married people - which did not go down well at all. 

The village did not succeed in stopping publication, but the work remained in mostly academic circles. It was republished in 2013, and was met with a more curious reception from the villagers, many of whom are direct descendants of those described. One hundred years later it is more difficult, but not impossible, to identify some of the individuals referred to in the report.


On 2nd February 1913, at 2am, the decapitated body of Maude Francis Davis was found in a railway tunnel between High Street Kensington and Nottinghill Gate, London. She was 37.

She had just returned from a trip to New York, where she had ostensibly been on holiday, but friends said she had actually been looking into human trafficking of poor women and children to the United States and West Indies, to force them into prostitution. Her travels had supposedly taken her all over the world, but we have no further details of her itinerary. We do know that on the last leg of her journey she was extremely nervous and confided in a fellow traveller, Mrs. Margaret Davies (no relation,) who testified that Maud started to act strangely and complained of being ill. Whether or not the illness was to keep her in her cabin, and out of view, can only be left to the readers to suppose. Before arrival at Liverpool Maud asked Mrs. Davies, “What does this mean? The boat is full of spies? Haven’t you seen them?” The ship reached Liverpool on January 31, and a frightened Maud asked the other woman if she could travel with her in the train to Euston. Mrs. Davies agreed, but in retrospect they would have been far wiser to seek help on arrival in the United Kingdom.

On their travels, Mrs. Davies confirmed to the inquest that Maud said, “I hope your having been seen travelling with me and speaking to me won’t bring you any trouble.” She asked for Mrs. Davies’ address, saying, “I may need it. You may be called up as a witness.” Maud commented that, “We are getting very near London now.” She took off her coat and left the compartment. Mrs. Davies never saw her again, and we have no further information on Maud's movements after that. Whether removing her coat was intended as a way to alter her appearance or not will never be known. She left her luggage at Euston. Whilst at Euston she visited a waiting room and took a ticket for High Street, Kensington to visit some friends.

Maud Davies’ movements are a mystery until two a.m. on February 2nd, when a railway worker found her body in a tunnel on the Metropolitan Railway near Kensington. The cause of death was decapitation, presumably when a train ran over her. It is thought she died around 4.30, the time her watch stopped. 

The coroner found that whilst still alive, a small, sharp object, such as a hatpin, had made numerous puncture wounds over her chest. They were all in the same spot, which he thought made it unlikely that they were inflicted during a struggle. All the coroner could surmise was that she had made the wounds herself. A bizarre assumption, and it never seems to have occurred to him that her arms could have been pinioned while the stabbing took place. A broken piece of the hatpin was found embedded in her heart on post mortem examination. None of the wounds was sufficient to kill, and cause of death was decapitation. Maud was also found to be suffering from a lung condition, which he surmised accounted for her 'feverish fears'. All accounts from family and friends which stated that she was not in the least suicidal carried little weight.

From my personal opinion, there was a great deal of sexist assumption in the useless inquest which followed. Her fears, desire for a witness, talk of spies and dangers, were all dismissed, despite testimony that she was a down-to-earth, level-headed woman, not given to flights of fancy, or hysteria. The coroner concluded that the chest wounds were self-inflicted, and that the decapitation may, or may not, have been an accident.  An open verdict was recorded, and no further evidence has ever been gathered to overturn that verdict. There is no doubt in my mind that this was a case of murder, and that at least one of the assailants was female.  

If I were investigating, the first person I would have interviewed under caution is Mrs. Margaret Davies. I am suspicious as to why the last person to see her alive, made friends with her on the sea voyage, undertook a train journey to a place in London when she wasn't going there, and as an Edwardian female, undoubtedly had access to a hat pin. Also why was she travelling alone? That was unusual for the time. I also wonder why she didn't raise the alarm when a woman who was so frightened of being attacked suddenly disappeared without all her possessions. I may be doing the lady a disservice, and these questions may have been asked, and the answers not available to me. However, you always start with the last person to see them alive, and I don't feel that this lady's death got the scrutiny she deserved. I also do not see that the people in charge of this investigation have performed anything even close to a competent investigation. 

I leave you to ponder on this case for yourself.          


“She hasn’t got the combination to the safe,” said the manager. “You can scare her as much as you want. We all know you’re not gonna use that gun on us.”

Rebecca’s breath halted as she felt a careless arm drape around her shoulder.

“I don’t need a gun to hurt someone. Give us the combination.” The manager remained mute and turned his face away. “Your call, sir.” He pulled Rebecca around to face him as she gasped in alarm. “Just remember who you’ve got to thank for this, ma’am.”

He pointed over at the manager, who refused to meet her eyes. “That man right there.”

“Anything that happens to her is down to you. Not me,” said the manager.

Rebecca felt herself dragged from the room by one arm. She was pulled into the office next door and pushed against the wall. The man walked over and pulled down the blind before returning to her. Her breath came in ragged pants of fear. “Please, no. Don’t.”

He leaned on the wall, a hand on either side of her head, and pressed his face close. “You were gonna hold this place up. Are you some kind of idiot?”

She blinked in confusion. “Huh?”

The man pulled down his mask, revealing the face of the fair man who had walked into her office looking for Fernsby. “Don’t lie to me, honey. You had the same idea as we did— look at Meagher’s bank account to see where he gets his money. We’ve watched you march up and down outside this place all day, like you were on sentry duty, while you built up your courage. You even got in the way of us doin’ it. What the hell is goin’ on in your head? How dumb can a woman get?”

“You? Here?” She couldn’t quite decide whether to stop being scared or not.

“Yeah. Me.” He indicated with his head. “Now, Nat’s in there, and he needs the combination of the safe. It’s too new and sophisticated for him to crack the combination. You and me need to put on a bit of a show to make sure the manager gives it up.”

“You’re not robbing the bank?”

Jake huffed in irritation. “Try to keep up, Becky. I need you to scream for help so the manager gives Nat the combination to the vault. We want Meagher’s records too.”

She shook her head. “Me? I can’t scream.”

“What do you mean you can’t scream? All women can scream.”

“I can’t. I’m just not made that way.”

He frowned. “Look, Becky. If you won’t scream, I’m gonna have to make you. Let’s do this the easy way, huh?”

“Please, help! Noooo.”

Jake frowned. “You call that screamin’? That’s useless.”

“I told you. I can’t.”

Jake flicked up an eyebrow. “Last chance, Becky.”


“Nope.” A gloved hand reached up to her hat as his eyes glittered with mischief. “Don’t say you weren’t warned, sweetheart.” 



  1. As a former prosecutor, I can see the parallels between prepping a witness for a murder trial and investigating the characters of a mystery novel thanks to this piece that gives us an opportunity to delve into the process, including the detailed research (the key). Thanks!

    1. Thanks, our former careers have a lot of parallels. I do think that fiction can be approached with the same mindset to bring some realism to the characters.

  2. I wondered about Mrs. Davis, too, in that she was so willing to go with Maud on such a long journey and away from wherever her original destination was. She also never attempted to get help for Maud who was obviously in distress. Weird. The hatpin jabs to her chest was just bazaar. I thought the assailant may have used Maud's hatpin to do that--but why do it at all. I can't imagine anyone doing such a thing to themselves.

    Maud did a lot of smack talk about her village. Did the police investigate any villages? Obviously she was clueless about the burdens women or their families had to bear. I can understand how readers would be irritated by her lack of knowledge and preposterous assumptions, but would someone murder her for that?
    In any case, I can certainly see why you used Maud as a research character for your story. It was irresistible.
    I have to say you really blew me away with this blog, Christine It was absolutely fascinating.

    1. Thank you. I can't really believe she hasn't attracted more attention and research down the years, or even at the time. It's sadly still not uncommon for wealthy people to have no idea how the other half lives. She did, however, care a great deal, and she produced a lot of statistics (probably a greater strength than her social skills) which helped bring change. Her murder was a tragedy, and it's terrible she never got the justice she deserved.

  3. I have always loved reading murder mysteries from Trixie Beldon, Harvey Boys, Nancy Drew up to Perry Mason and Mickey Spillane, let alone several lawyers-turned-mystery authors. I can see why you were intrigued over the circumstances of Maud's death. So many questions unanswered. I'll have to get your entire series so I can binge read them this winter. I love the humor in your excerpt, Christine, despite the serious situation.

    1. Thank you so much. I feel Maud's death was a terrible act of violence, and undoubtedly connected to her work as she'd been looking into human trafficking. There is another larger than life character, but relatively unknown, I'd love to do a blog piece on. However, it would give away the twist in Innocent Minds. So that's unfortunately to going to happen.

  4. Great excerpt! And what character inspiration. Your take on what you, as a modern woman, would look at reminds me of an assignment we were given in high school. We were each given an unsolved murder from the 19thc and were sent to look up newspaper accounts of the day. What struck me with my case was how the police and reporters viewed the murder through the filter of what norms they held at the time. I don't remember the details, but I remember shouting "ask the maid!" or something of the sort. Meaning who they thought was worth leaving out was astounding by our standards. Now, I'm so intrigued, with Maud's death I have to go look it up. Best of luck!

    1. Thanks, Patti. Oh yes. I've seen gobsmacking assumptions made by men in my time, let alone the 19th century. The decision that she stabbed herself is so strange I wonder if the human trafficking she was investigating reached into the establishment. There is certainly evidence to confirm that it did in the famous Cleveland Street Scandal. Without being able to see the actual injuries I can't say how tentative the wounds were. At least one must have been deep if it the tip of the hatpin was embedded in her heart. It has been known for hatpins to be used in suicide, and for people to stab their own heart, but not usually when an easier method is available. It's also not typical of a female statistically. I don't know the angle or depth of the wounds. Defensive wounds may have been obliterated by the train. There's far too much I don't know. The timescale is unclear as to who was where, and when. Maybe when I have more time, I'll look into this more fully.

  5. Wow, Christine! I never heard of this so it's wonderfully enlightening. How awfully tragic that she died so horribly and at such a young age, though. This is definitely food for thought. I know I will come back to this article and reread it again. I love the detail and research you do for your posts.

    1. Thanks so much, Cheryl. I do work hard to make them authentic. I think when you base characters on people who really existed, and on real crimes, it adds a veracity which people can recognize. But most of all I want them to be entertaining, and not dry history.

  6. I agaree with your verdict about how the investigation of her death. The rest of her story is very interesting to me. I can see how her story would make a writer want to know more. Doris

    1. Thanks so much for commenting. It's shocking how little work went into it. Statements from her friends and family as to her state of mind and character were simply disregarded. It's as though they made their mind up and cherry-picked evidence which supported that.

  7. Very interesting article. I encountered similar attitudes towards the poor when I read the reports of social workers in Toronto, written in around 1905. Immigrants were castigated for their living conditions — one privy for twenty families, communal taps — but they could afford nothing better and local landlords were the ones responsible for the dreadful conditions. The social workers came from middle class families and understood nothing of need. Perhaps they even knew those terrible landlords socially! Thanks.