Sarah Ann Binstead: 1849 – 1919

‘Broadmoor Inmates: True Crime Tales of Life and Death in the Asylum’

The house of the time covered in the article.
Annotated file copy

{Ed:   Some terms used may be upsetting, but the terminology used in historic elements of this report reflects attitudes at the time of these events and should be read with that perspective.}

      Between 1914 and 1919, Sarah Ann Binstead ran a home for ‘imbeciles and epileptics’ at Wittering Court in Daw’s Heath. Although she had no formal qualifications, Sarah, who was described as ‘a strong, capable and energetic woman’, had worked as a mental nurse for more than 20 years but on 28 August 1915, she suffered a debilitating stroke, which left her paralysed down one side and barely able to speak.

      Her niece, Florence Newman, who had previously acted as housekeeper, took on the day-to-day running of the home but it proved too much for her and she left in 1916, when Sarah’s nineteen-year-old adopted daughter Freda took her place. A nurse was engaged to help but left after only two weeks, not liking the way the home was run and, shortly afterwards, Freda also handed in her notice.

      Conditions at Wittering Court deteriorated rapidly and by 1918, the only person working there was a patient in the advanced stages of tuberculosis. In spite of reports made to the Medical and Sanitary Inspectors at the Rural District Council by local GP Dr W.F. Adams, nothing was done to rectify matters until January 1919, when one of the seven patients died suddenly.  Adams found forty-five-year-old Jessie Charlotte Spurling filthy and emaciated and a post mortem examination showed that she had died from wastage of the heart muscles, exacerbated by neglect and starvation.

      Only now was Wittering Court inspected by the authorities, who found it in a disgusting state, ‘an abode of dirt and disorder’, with putrefying food and faeces creating an appalling stench. The remaining patients were immediately moved to hospital and all of their soiled bedlinen was burned.

      An inquest into Jessie’s death found a verdict of manslaughter against both Sarah Binstead and her agent, Harry Hall, who were committed for trial at the next Essex Assizes in June 1919, where Hall was additionally charged with ‘…aiding, abetting, procuring and counselling Sarah Ann Binstead to commit said offence.’

      Having suffered a recent epileptic fit, Sarah was carried into court on a chair and was judged to be incapable of understanding her trial. Although he claimed to have nothing to do with Wittering Court beyond arranging a mortgage for its purchase, the jury believed that Hall had more of a managerial role and he was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment with hard labour. (He went on to appeal his conviction, which was duly quashed.) Meanwhile, Sarah Binstead was taken to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, where she died on 26 December 1919. At the time of her death, arrangements were being made for her release and, had she survived just one more week, she would have been freed.

Note: Some contemporary newspapers use Wittring rather than Wittering Court.

Adapted by Nicola Sly from a chapter in her book ‘Broadmoor Inmates: True Crime Tales of Life and Death in the Asylum’  (published August 2023)

A related article is available here.

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