Sometimes, an event as horrific as a murder, particularly when it involves a child, can have lifelong repercussions. In the case of Mary Jane Sewell, her parents could not live with knowing that their child had died, that her murderer had not been caught - and that they had been suspected of the murder themselves.


Mary Jane Sewell was six when she died yards from her family home in 1928. She lived in the mining village of Sunnybrow, County Durham, at 12 Hill Street, which was in a row of miners’ cottages. Mary Jane’s father, Anthony, had fought in World War I, but was now an out-of-work miner; her mother, Isabella, was at home.

The couple had had four children - a boy, followed by three girls. The eldest daughter, Irene, died of bronchitis shortly after Anthony returned from the war; the youngest, Dora, had died of convulsions at the age of 18 months, just two months before Mary Jane’s death.

On the evening of 29 February, Mary Jane left her home to run some errands. As the night wore on, her parents believed that she must have gone to play with some friends, but then it got later, and they became worried and called the police. At around 11.30pm, Mary Jane’s body was found in a nearby field. She had been sexually assaulted and suffocated.

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At Mary Jane’s inquest, her parents faced aggressive questioning. It emerged that Isabella had been seeking work as a domestic cook, and in a job interview lied about her family, not admitting to having a daughter. When questioned, Isabella cried and admitted that she and Anthony were “down and out” - she thought that by pretending to have no family commitments, she might be able to earn some money.

Poison and poverty

Miners depicted outside a County Durham colliery.
Miners depicted outside a County Durham colliery – not unlike the one in which Mary Jane Sewell’s father, Anthony, had worked. (Image by De Agostini/Getty)

The coroner then questioned Anthony, raising suspicions about the fact that all three Sewell daughters had died, and asking, in relation to Mary Jane, whether “the child might not be wanted, and it was inconvenient to have her”.

He thought poverty might have encouraged Isabella and Anthony to simply get rid of their daughter, and even though the inquest found that Mary Jane had been murdered by persons unknown, the coroner believed this was “not a very satisfactory conclusion”. The suspicion remained, then, that Mary Jane's parents may have murdered her.

Isabella Sewell refused to stay in Sunnybrow, and moved in with her brother. In July 1928, five months after her daughter’s death and suffering from depression, she tried to poison herself. Suicide was still a criminal offence, but Isabella escaped prison, instead being put on probation for a year. Anthony Sewell, meanwhile, moved to London to work as a railway labourer, but in 1937, suffering from depression, he was hit by a train near Cricklewood Station. At his inquest, a verdict of suicide was recorded.

The coroner at Mary Jane’s inquest was quick to ascribe blame to her parents, and had little understanding of poverty and its impact on families. The real perpetrator of Mary Jane’s murder was never caught, and instead, her parents were left to deal with the trauma of their daughters’ deaths.


This article was first published in the February 2023 issue of BBC History Revealed


Dr Nell DarbyCrime historian and author

Dr Nell Darby is a crime historian and writer, and the presenter of the CBS Reality series Murder by the Sea. Her latest book is Sister Sleuths: Female Detectives in Britain (Pen & Sword History, 2021)