Sometime during the weekend of 6/7 June 1895 Robert Coombes killed his mother with a hunting knife he had purchased a few days earlier. His mother’s body was not discovered for another 10 days. When it was finally found it was still in the bed where she had died and in an advanced state of decomposition. During that time Robert and his younger brother Nattie had stayed in the same house and amused themselves by, among other things, excursions to the cricket in the Oval.
The case was a sensation of the day and provided an opportunity for all sorts to give vent to the moral decline of society and the delinquency of youth.
There was no doubt about Robert’s guilt, but the jury baulked at sending a child to the gallows, so found him instead guilty but insane. He was sent to Broadmoor for the criminally insane and spent 14 years there, in, perhaps surprisingly, a progressive and rehabilitative environment. Robert was finally released into a Salvation Army community where he worked as a tailor, a skill he had learned in Broadmoor.
Eventually he emigrated to Australia and with the outbreak of the First World War, he joined the Australian Army and served with distinction throughout the war, in particular as a stretcher-bearer in the bloody fighting of Gallipoli.
Kate Summerscale’s book is a remarkable thing: it is part biography of Robert, part social and military history. At its heart though it is a story of redemption, of how a disturbed boy became a quietly extraordinary man. It is a compelling and moving story, elegantly written by a writer with a genuine feeling for her story and her subject.