The start of it all was hopping off the bow onto the aqueduct and following a passing couple through hawthorn and red campion to the steps. They dropped some comment on the way; I told them my name and melted away.
Actually, it was two nights earlier on the tow path. Goldfinches landed in a young ash tree and swifts skimmed above. I thought; it is too lovely an evening to die.
Or perhaps it was at the gravestone. I knelt to leave forget-me-nots in its shadow and found, to my embarrassment, I was snivelling.
No; it started years before that. It was when I first fell in love with narrowboats, and I read everything I could find. It was when my research brought our lives together across a century – when I read about the murder of a woman on the Trent and Mersey canal who just happened to have exactly the same name as me.
What a morbid coincidence. And there were other similarities between the two of us: she was petite, like me. She referred to her husband by his last name, like I do. And she was also 37 – like me, and on a boat in the same place at the same time, when she was raped and murdered by four boatmen and left in the canal at Rugeley in 1839.
But it becomes all a bit less quirky when you put those words together.
Exploring the canals of time
Researching a murder of someone with your own name is unsettling. We’ve all googled ourselves but let me tell you, seeing your name next to the word ‘murder’ over and over gets uncomfortable.
I found a comprehensive internet article with pictures of the aqueduct and bank where her body was found and the Bloody Steps, up which her body was carried to town – which, legend has it, ooze blood. I read a book by John Godwin; a pretty well researched text published in 1999, which details as much of her life as could be known, her journey by a Pickford’s company boat down from Liverpool towards London, and the public response to her murder.
It had pictures too. All taken in winter.
There are the bloody steps, with their un-gothic, municipally painted handrail, sodden with rain and mud. The only green is the bleak dark of ivy and the sky’s greyness adds to the sombre mood. Good for a ghost story, isn’t it? You need a bit of pathetic fallacy to get in the mood.
When Christina was actually murdered, it was June. There was no shivering with evocative atmosphere as I strolled along the towpath because the cow parsley and bluebells were too glorious. But it was still uncanny considering the exact place she may have been strangled.
I am here, it is evening, she was also here on a summer evening. Did these flowers comfort her? Remind her of some fresh world outside the confines of the stuffy boat cabin? Or did the moist fragrance of late spring become warped by the anxiety of darkness and ten hours in that cabin with four drunk men?
I followed the journey in Godwin’s text. Stoke, Stone, Hoo Mill. In each place she reported the behaviour of the boatmen to people who later bore witness to her distress yet did nothing to help her. Then that dark, five hours from midnight when she was last seen alive, yawning to dawn, when the worst thing had happened. And I ended, like her, on the aqueduct at Brindley bank, to stand looking into the water where her body was found floating, face blackened, in her dark gown and faun neckerchief.
It wasn’t spooky and exciting. I was all very sad. What is it about our attitude to history, where the passing of time somehow turns sickening tragedy into gory myth? As children, our class was shown grainy photographs of the Ripper’s mutilated victims. We lapped it up, admiring his precision.
Why do we show children this and make it some kind of ghost story? Why do we sensationalise and make a spectacle of very real violence against women? In a hundred years, will we have a sign on Clapham Common where Sarah Everard was murdered? Will people take selfies with it, and dress up as police officers?
A tainted legacy
Much of what you can read about the murder now, is Colin Dexter’s own take in his novel, The Wench is Dead. From his two days of research after reading Godwin’s text, he concluded the court’s verdict was unsafe and wrote a version in which Morse effortlessly vindicates the boatmen from a hospital bed. The idea was taken up by the BBC’s show Murder, Mystery, and my Family in 2020, where investigators refer to Christina’s murder in quotation marks and bring on a descendent of one of the hanged to get emotional.
Forgive my waspish tone. Like Dexter, I will study the witness statements to better corroborate Godwin’s presentation of the facts. To be sure in myself that there was actually a murder, and not a madwoman who fell in the canal.
But as women, aren’t we so used to being discredited? To being ignored and disbelieved when we challenge the abuse we face at work, on transport, in bars, in our homes. So used to others looking for culpability in our actions when bad things happen to us. Or even challenging that the bad thing happened at all, like Dexter; like the BBC.
The tired narrative of the hysterical woman is preferred to accountability. Is it really so hard to believe four drunk men got handsy in a confined space with one woman over ten hours, and turned to violence when she tried to fend them off? We see this in our own lives every day. It’s simpler than a healthy woman on a journey to her lover suddenly being seized by such a fit of melancholy that she throws herself in the canal.
The wench is dead, after all. Why worry about her?
Unlike that first Christina, I have had wonderful experiences on boats. I was never a passenger, dependent on others to transport me. I owned my boat, I lived with the musical scrape of piling hooks when the locks shifted the water and I steered her myself down the cut. I walked the towpath at night to collect wildflowers for a jug on the gas locker – not for escape. I filled her water tank, lit her fire in winter and was safe in my 57 feet of steel. I chose that life. It was no constrained trap of horror.
So, coming in to Rugeley for this Christina Collins, aged 37, on a canal boat, was very different from the first. And I walked the towpath; thought of her; remembered; wrote tributes and put flowers on her grave. And did not die.
Through all life’s rhythms that cycle through moments and ages – when we try again to do things better; maybe for now, that is the most I can do, for her.