Every parent’s worst fear hit the front pages of the Salford papers 100 years ago this week with the case of a 21-day-old infant carried off at a busy local marketplace.
This was the horrible dilemma faced by mum Mary Firth when she went out shopping at the Cross Lane Cattle Market in June 1916.
Mary, who lived at Belfort Street in Ordsall, was going through her normal food shopping routine at the busy market.
Salford Magistrates Court heard the whole shocking tale unfold.
Read more 100 years ago: Murder scandal at Salford’s Cross Lane Barracks
Mary, a regular visitor to the many stalls at the market, bought some food at 3.45pm on 3 June 1916 and returned to check on her baby which was asleep in a bassinette – an old word for a pram which has mostly fallen out of use.
She was taken aback to see a woman – named Sarah Ann Green – leaning over the lip of the bassinette and touching the infant.
When she made ‘strong enquiries’ as to what the woman was doing, she was reassured that the baby had been crying and Ms Green had helpfully put the tot’s dummy back in its mouth.
Satisfied with this explanation Mary went back onto the market to purchase some fabric from a fent stall close by.
To her horror when she returned several minutes later both the baby and the bassinette had gone.
She raced to the nearby Cross Lane Police Station and tearfully explained what had happened, one can only image her fear at this moment.
Detective Constable Needham was put on the case and amazingly he soon traced down Sarah Green to a house at nearby Albion Street.
This was either some incredible Sherlock Holmes-style detective work on his part, or with the assistance of tip-offs from an outraged member of the public.
It’s not recorded how he came about the information but by 8pm the same day he was questioning Mrs Green about the infant kidnapping.
She told a tale of amazing sadness.
She had had five children but none survived childbirth and to compound her misery she had miscarried a baby three months before her arrest and still hadn’t told her husband.
She admitted stealing the child, adding that she did intend keeping it as her own and had even bought some baby food to feed the child with.
She was taken into custody and appeared at the courts several days later charged with kidnapping a child.
I was then amazed to read that before the trial began, the Stipendary Magistrate asked Mary Firth whether she wished to go ahead with the prosecution.
She replied that she was quite satisfied not to proceed with charges now that she had got her baby back, and that it was quite safe and none the worse for what had taken place.
He then asked DC Needham if the defendant had any family or friends who could speak for her.
A sorry story emerged when the officer told the court that Mrs Green wasn’t married and that the man whom she had been living with for the past 18 years had left her on the night she was taken into custody and disappeared from Salford without a trace.
Using the judgement of Solomon the magistrate told the court that in his opinion that Sarah Green’s actions were not those of a sane person and that the mother of the child didn’t want to prosecute.
He suggested that she had acted on a ‘sudden impulse’ and that it would serve no purpose by locking her away in prison and therefore decided that she be set free.
To be honest this would never happen in a court of law today, the prisoner would have been given a lengthy custodial sentence and likely remanded to the care of social or mental health services.
In my opinion the poor woman had suffered enough tragedies in her life and would now face the world without a partner to help her through; both the Stipendary and Mary Firth deserve some credit for using common sense and seeing that this woman was to be pitied, not crucified.