The Harrowing Death of Maria Colwell

It was early January 1973. I was eleven years old. The 6 o’clock news had begun on the television. I was probably reading, sewing, crocheting or colouring or something when the dark images appeared on the screen that burned into my soul. The next day they were all over the front page of the newspapers that my parents subscribed to. Maria Colwell, a little girl who had been badly beaten by her step-father, had died. She was a couple of months older than my little sister. Her sunken face was showed the bruises and the black eyes. The country was outraged by her death and the events that preceded it. I was horrified and angry. My body seared with pain for this little innocent girl. My soul was harrowed up by these images. (Here is a link to one of the images in the paper: https://goo.gl/images/NkEfca).

Whilst thinking about Maria today, I decided to do a little research as there is only so much a child of eleven takes in especially when processing such horrific images and events. I found out that Maria lived in Brighton, East Sussex, England. She was born on the 26th March, 1965. Her father died shortly after her birth so Maria was placed with her aunt and uncle. Her other four older siblings went to live with their grandmother. Maria was very happy at her aunt and uncle’s house. She was well looked after.

There was no mention of why the mother didn’t continue to look after her children which made me wonder what was happening with the mother. I found out that whilst Maria was with her aunt and uncle, her mother, Pauline, had three more children with a William Kepple.

On the 22nd October, 1971, Maria was ordered by the courts to go and live with her mother and her step-father, William Kepple. There is no mention of her other siblings going to live there which made me wonder ‘Why Maria?’ William and Pauline favored the three children that they had together over Maria. Maria would be made to watch the other three children eating an ice-cream when William would refuse to buy her one.

Maria’s niece wrote on the internet on March 22nd, 2012, that Pauline would slap Maria and lock her in a bedroom and remove the door handle. The neighbors and teachers started to communicate to various agencies such as the NSPCC and the police that something was badly wrong in Maria’s home. They saw Maria walking around looking like a skeleton. Maria had to rummage through bins to get enough to eat. Yet, despite being seen by an NSPCC Inspector, a social worker, a doctor, an Education Welfare Officer and a Housing Officer, Maria continued to live with her mother and step-father.

William Kepple arrived home at 11:30 p.m. on the night of the 6th January, 1973. Maria was still up and watching television. Apparently, her mother had kept her up as she feared her drunk and violent husband. (Really! Okay, this is making me mad!)

Maria refused to acknowledge her step-father when he arrived home so he violently physically assaulted her. When he went to bed, he left Maria with severe injuries both internal and external. The next morning he wheeled her in a pram to the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton. On arrival, Maria had severe internal injuries including brain damage, fractured ribs and black eyes. Shortly after arrival, she died. She had been kicked to death. Upon her death, the coroner reported that she had an empty stomach when she died.

Maria is buried in Portslad Cemetery near Brighton and Hove in East Sussex.

William Kepple was charged with murder and sentenced to eight years in prison. On appeal, his charge was reduced to manslaughter and his sentence halved.

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Maria’s death precipitated changes in legislation and child protection procedures. These changes are still ongoing after forty-five years. On 24th March, 2000, just two days before Maria’s 35th birthday, her brother spoke out when a similar case was tried at Lewes Crown Court. The court ruled that there was insufficient evidence to show which, if either of the ‘parents’, was responsible for the death of their child. Mr. Colwell said that “the law has to be changed. The two people should take the consequences, not just one. If they were both there, then both of them did it.”

At fourteen, I wrote the following poem as my mind continued to linger on Maria’s death:

The Evening

“Can you see me, daddy?”
I hear my baby cry.
An eager expression on her face,
A twinkle in her eye.

Yet not so long ago,
She might have passed away.
We prayed to God that He might forgive,
And give her one more day.

I thought about that evening,
When the baby cried all night,
When my husband came home rather late,
Depressed and moody, extremely tight.

I fell when he pushed me,
And badly hit my head.
I don’t remember what happened next.
My babe was found in bed.

Her face was badly bruised,
Her eye swelled up in pain,
My husband’s task was finished,
And on the floor was lain.

I cried at the ghastly sight,
And trembled for her life.
Oh how I wished upon my soul,
I was not this killer’s wife.

My baby recovered many years before,
The past, I have not told.
And as ‘daddy’ plays with my innocent child.
I shiver, but not with cold.

Maria wasn’t the only child to experience this I learned in the next few years. I was exposed to more as I attended the public gallery of the Magistrate’s Court in Fareham in my first year of studying ‘A’ Level Law at Fareham Park Technical College. As a formality to take the case up to the High Court, photographs were passed around of the severe injuries a child had sustained by their parents. They were horrific. My heart wept and still weeps for these two children and for all children who suffer any type of abuse.

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