The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer by Kate Summerscale

The Wicked Boy Kate Summerscale

Rating: 3 Stars ★★★☆☆

In June 1930 an eleven-year-old boy walked four miles along a dirt track in New South Wales, south-eastern Australia, to report a crime.


Early in the morning of Monday 8 July 1895, thirteen-year-old Robert Coombes and his twelve-year-old brother Nattie set out from their small, yellow-brick terraced house in East London to watch a cricket match at Lord’s. Their father had gone to sea the previous Friday, the boys told their neighbours, and their mother was visiting her family in Liverpool. Over the next ten days Robert and Nattie spent extravagantly, pawning their parents’ valuables to fund trips to the theatre and the seaside. But as the sun beat down on the Coombes house, a strange smell began to emanate from the building.

When the police were finally called to investigate, the discovery they made sent the press into a frenzy of horror and alarm, and Robert and Nattie were swept up in a criminal trial that echoed the outrageous plots of the ‘penny dreadful’ novels that Robert loved to read.


Robert Coombes’ father was often away at sea, leaving him and his younger brother Nathaniel with his wife in London. He is away when Robert murders his mother. He and his brother call on John Fox to come live with them and tell everyone their mother is away. It is the hottest summer in a long time and it is only ten years later that the body of Robert’s mother is found.

It is a terrible murder and makes an interesting story for a book. However, the main question I had was never answered. Why did Robert murder his mother? It is insinuated that she was less than stable. The boys ran away twice before, but it is not really looked into.

There was probably little evidence of what exactly happened behind the walls when Robert and Nattie were alone with her mother, but still, I felt this part was glossed over.

I also didn’t get to know much about Robert himself. It is odd because this book is about him but after reading it, I still don’t feel like I know much about him. We are told he spent 17 years in Blackmoore asylum, later left for Australia and served in World War I as stretcher-bearer in Gallipoli before becoming a farmer and caring for a young neighbour boy who was abused by his step-father.

That was my biggest problem with this book, that the person it is all about remains as unreal as he was before. The writing style does not help either, which, particularly at the beginning feels a lot like just a sequence of sentences. A bit disjointed.

“Ma gave Nattie a hiding on Saturday for stealing some food,” said Robert “and she said, “I will give you one too” Nattie said: “I will stab her. No, I can’t do it, Bob, but will you do it? When I cough twice, you do it.” I did do it.”

It gets better towards the end, after the court case.


An interesting story, but Robert Coombes and his motivations remain unclear.


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