by mariocorrigan on June 20, 2008

The Caragh Orphanage — A Scandal without Precedent (Part III)
Andrew Rynne.
June 2008.
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 businessof 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 Frazer.
Paul Connolly.
Paddy Behan.
Mary Conliff.
Leinster Leader.
Irish Times.
The third and final instalment of an investigation into the Caragh Orphanage Case by Andrew Rynne. This case represents the true essence of ceratin aspects of local history in that local people know of it but little of the facts are known or it has never been properly explored and written down. It is one of those subjects that constantly come up and while I do think it has been mentioned in at least one book before it is now properly in the public domain. Andrew Rynne has serialised the story in the Leinster Leader and now on EHistory – we thank him for that.

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