Why The Wicked Boy is a Powerful Cycle Breaker, Not a Gruesome Child Killer.

Books and stories about child killers or children who have lived through grieving abuse and found the courage to share the strength in their stories of survival wrench and knot my soul. After reading such books, I am often brimming with not only anger and outrage, but also with hope and the lessons shared by the writers of these tales.

As a writer, I seek to pass on lessons and stories I am passionate about. Writing also allows me to settle my anger at humanity’s horrifying and cruel capabilities into words and find peace within myself. I write what I feel while I feel so you may feel.

The story of a Victorian child killer more widely known as the Wicked Boy, as told by Kate Summerscale in her award-winning book The Wicked Boy, has been on my mind for a while now. I smiled sadly with it, clenched my hands with it, and ultimately learned from it that anyone can overcome his past if he wants to.

In the summer of 1895 in England, thirteen-year-old Robert Coombes murdered his mother and left her to rot. By the time his aunt became suspicious of Mrs. Coombes absence and forced Robert and his twelve-year-old brother, Nathaniel George Coombes, to open the house door, the woman was being consumed by maggots in her bed.

Robert confessed to having killed his mother. Earlier in the week, preceding her death, Mrs. Coombes had thrashed Nathaniel for stealing food and threatened to whip Robert if he intervened. In hurt anger, Nathaniel threatened to kill his mother but, lacking the courage, he said he would help Robert do it.

Mrs. Coombes friends and neighbors declared her a good woman. Some claimed she was too free with her boys while others claimed Robert and Nathaniel were well-behaved children. However, school officials complained the brothers were often late and misbehaved in class.

After the murder was discovered, the boys were brought to trial. While Nathaniel stuck to his story of his mother being a kind woman, Robert explained he decided to kill his mother because he was afraid she would kill Nathaniel. She had thrown knives at both boys and threatened to split their heads open with a hatchet.

Parents often used physical force to punish their children and it was common to see a strap above a household fireplace for this purpose, but Robert was describing actions even the court of 1895 deemed as abusive.

Though the Children’s Act passed in 1889 made it possible to prosecute a parent for neglect or cruelty, or remove a child from their home, most magistrates were reluctant to do so. Corporal punishment was a common and accepted practice, and most people felt a parent’s authority over a child was unswayable and unquestionable.

Related Read: Discipline: The Relationship Between Writing and Parenting

Many schools also used a cane to enforce rules. Given the strict rulesets found in both the home and school environment, pupils had little chance or incentive to learn empathy or creativity in the classroom or at home.

No one cared or considered it had any standing to the murder that Mrs. Coombes had beat her children.

While Nathaniel was acquitted and sent to live with relatives after giving evidence against his brother, Robert’s motivation for the crime was not fully understood, though his home life was difficult. His father, being a steward, was away at sea, and his mother was emotionally unstable. People said that Robert’s addiction to the dreary and sensational, ‘penny dreadful’ novels of the age was also a factor.

Being too young for the gallows and deciding he was insane, the judge sentenced Robert to incarceration in Broadmoor, the most infamous lunatic asylum created.

Robert lived at Broadmoor for seventeen years before being discharged in 1912. When the first World War broke out, he served in the Australian army. Army life was similar to the security and comradeship he experienced at Broadmoor. It also gave him an outlet for the musical talent evident in him from his youth and fostered at Broadmoor. Robert became a bandsman and stretcher bearer until Armistice was declared on November 11th, 1918.

Could Robert Coombes’ reality have been different?

Could this murder have been avoided?

This a gruesome murder that has its roots in a tragic example of what home life looked like for many children during the 1800’s. Taken that Robert killed his mother to protect his brother, one could say Robert was a child desperate to change his hurtful reality and, with no one who would listen or act on his behalf, did the only other thing his young mind said he could.

Had Mrs. Coombes not used physical punishment as a means of discipline that slowly devolved into abusive actions, the insecurity her presence threatened Robert and Nathaniel with would not have been present. Had she been a supportive and engaging mother who guided Robert through the bloody stories told in the ‘penny dreadful’ books and taught him to appreciate life instead of leaving him to learn from the gruesome stories in the books he was fascinated with, Robert could have been an emotionally stable young child instead of a drowning boy.

With a positive home life, there would have been no incentive or reason for murder. Mrs. Coombes failed to provide a good home for her children largely due to the fact that society had rigid expectations of both parents and children. Respect from a parent to a young child and even kindness was an alien concept. This is not the story of a wicked boy, but of a wicked mother and the ripple effect her thoughtless, harsh actions sent out into the world.

Related Read: Tragedy

Despite his youth and seventeen years spent at Broadmoor, Robert overcame the shaky roots of his childhood and planted his tree in solid ground. Perhaps seventeen years of quietude, musical practice, and fellowship with fellow inmates gave him the time he needed to nurture himself in ways his mother never could.

Related Read: Revolutionary

After his discharge from the army after the first World War, Robert moved to Nana Glen, a village in Australia near the Orara river. He kept a small garden and enjoyed his own company.

Robert’s solitary life changed when an eleven-year-old boy walked four miles to the local police station to display the injuries his stepfather had inflicted by beating him with a brush hook. The boy, Harry, was also suffering from the flu.

Harry was removed from the abusive environment of his home after Robert offered to care for the boy. The two lived together until Harry left to build roads for the forestry department at the age of seventeen. He later served in the Second World War, as did Robert until he was discharged for health conditions.

During his time with Robert, Harry looked up to Robert as a father and Robert looked after the boy as he had once wanted to look after Nathaniel. Robert learned from his past; he never used physical or corporal punishment to teach Harry life’s lessons, remembering the mistakes of his mother.

It is possible Harry knew of Robert’s past, but Robert’s standing as a child killer did not affect his love and respect for the only man he knew as a real father.

People can change if they are willing to learn from past mistakes. Robert’s story shows the importance of providing a safe and nourishing home for children with gentle guidance. Society nowadays is also more willing to advocate for gentle parenting and delve into the unhealthy side effects of spanking as well as abusive treatment.

Parents pass onto their children their traditions and methods of teaching. It takes a great deal of uprooting and consciousness for a grown child to do anything but what their parents did when they become parents themselves. Not everyone grows up with such consciousness, so it is important to teach well and with as much respect as possible at all ages.

Related Read: T is for Teacher

That said, Robert’s story also highlights the powerful ways people can change. Cycle breakers like Robert look to set right the mistakes that hurt and held them back in their pasts, and pass on a new method of more positive and healthy teaching to their descendants.

I write to share such powerful and moving stories as this. Each poem and short story I write seeks to pass on gentleness or journeys to gentleness and kindness, respect and compassion in as many ways as my words can hold. Above all else, I write to tell the truth. The truth stings a little, but it heals more.

If you feel so called, you can learn more about Robert Coombes by buying the book, The Wicked Boy.

How did Robert Coombes’ story connect with you? What questions did it raise? Did the story give you a reason to look at the repeating cycles in your life, or in the lives of others, with open eyes? Tell me below!

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38 thoughts on “Why The Wicked Boy is a Powerful Cycle Breaker, Not a Gruesome Child Killer.

Add yours

  1. Jaya – I really enjoyed your synopsis and take on this book! I admire the optimism you have regarding humanity and agree completely with how a nurturing home could have changed the course of this young man’s life. Despite that – Robert still came around and did for another what his mother could not do for him. Awesome! Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love stories like this that offer room for interpretation and show that humanity is capable of growth. Delighted you loved Robert’s story as much as me! Thank you. 🙂


  2. What a super interesting read. I am always a believer that nobody is a product of their surroundings, however, there is such a big impact that parents / carers have on children – one that can’t really be ignored. I had not heard of the Wicked Boy – thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I wonder if Robert had changed or if he had merely been a good soul who had to wrestle with saving his brother from abuse. However, I also deeply believe in power for anyone to change for the better. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This book sounds powerful. I’ve read and heard of a lot of books about child abuse in our times, but none that go back all the way into the past. Sounds like a great read.

    Corinne x

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A long post, but well worth the read. Your post does more than just summarize what is clearly a gripping story, you have provided rich analysis and relevant background for the time period. Excellent!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is such a great review. It sounds like a really powerful book. While its not the type of book I’d usually pick, I do like the historic nature. I think it really shows just how far we have come with our thoughts and ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This real story is horrifying, tragic, and yet thought-provoking. Parent’s shouting even can harm a child’s mental health. I can understand your pain as you felt the story.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the book. Sara xx

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I haven’t heard of this story or read The Wicked Boy, but it’s so fascinating! Harry and Robert in particular piqued my interest along with your review. Really sounds like a powerful and insightful journey recorded. Thank you for sharing this!

    Anika | chaptersofmay.com

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Firstly, an absolutely stellar review Jaya. This book speaks of several concerns that plague us to this day. The one I am most familiar with is how one is parented and it’s effect on the child, his/her family and the community. Breaking the cycle of poverty, unrecognized mental health and addiction is key. Thanks for sharing this amazing story.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. It seems the reaction you have with reading about child killers us the same kind of reaction I have when reading or watching stuff in racial abuse.

    A lot of bad stories start with awful parents or primary care givers. Being abused can really mess a child up.

    The book sounds really interesting and I don’t think I’ve ever read such a detailed review of a book, great work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Your detailed and concise handling of touching on books and films to reinforce points helped me with this.

      Everything starts in childhood. I love that Robert was able to give love to another child and overcome some of the difficulties of his past.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. This is such a powerful and thought-provoking story. I agree with what you said about cycle breakers. Just because something has always been done a certain way doesn’t make it right and it’s very important for people to really think about what they do and not blindly follow a practice. Thank you so much for sharing this Jaya!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I take the opportunity of the story, as weel as your suggestion, to reflect on cycles.
    Actually in my life I am not finding cycles, but I may be blind about it.
    I am surely scared and also deceived by cycles in history.
    As well, I am terrified by cruelty and in particular by mothers not loving their kids.
    About Robert I was thinking that peraphs who has been suffering on his skin, knows better the value of helping others, in particular considering the experience from the point of view of a child defenseless. Could it be so, or not?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. History is a turning wheel of cycles that continue to turn over. I do not know how the heal the cycles of passing time, but I do the best I can to do something about cycles that try to repeat themselves in my life.

      In a sad way, suffering does help pave the way to compassion for people like Robert. I believe it could be so.
      Thank you for sharing your musing! Delighted to have given a new view.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. A really unbelievable story that says a lot in defence of human compassion and kindness. In the nature v nurture argument, it feels almost certain that, without his home situation existing as it did, whilst blaming his reading habits feels akin to blaming video games today. It’s wonderful that he eventually found a talent to enjoy – it really shows how deserving of understanding each person is!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Loving your comment on how blaming Robert’s reading habits is similar to today’s blaming of video games for bad habits. It makes me think that it is a different shape but the same cycle.
      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Tom!

      Liked by 1 person

  14. What an amazing story, Jaya. It goes to show that we should never accept things on face value, all too often there are underlying reasons why people behave in the way they do. How much courage must it have taken Robert and then Harry to step forward and tell their stories. That’s a lovely ending to the tale for both of them though. Robert in particular is a very special person. Thank you for sharing this x

    Liked by 1 person

  15. A fascinating story Jaya! I am amazed that Robert managed to come through all of this and have a useful life. I am glad to be living in a time in which child abuse is not deemed acceptable.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. So very well reviewed and assessment of what real parenting should and can be. Thank you Jays. May you continue to shine the light of truth everywhere.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. According to my research, Robert and Nathaniel never did reunite and not much is known about what happened to Nathaniel after he was sent to live with relatives. It is always vaguely sad when families break up . . . even if it turns out more for the best.
      Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 2 people

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