It was summer time, 1895, and East London was hot.
Two boys, aged 12 and 13, spent their days roaming the streets, sipping ginger beer, watching cricket games, visiting the sea side, and buying ice cream for their friends.
They lived down by the docks, and their dad was working at sea. The eldest boy, Robert Coombes, had just quit his job at an iron yard. He was brighter that that, he wanted adventure. His brother, Nathanial ‘Nattie’, was along for the ride.
Everything was seemingly normal. The two boys were typically cheeky, naive, innocent. They were scheming to pawn the family’s watches and their mother’s jewels for cash, and excited to see legendary cricketer W.G. Grace score a century at Lord’s Cricket Ground nearby.
When neighbours asked, they said their mother Emily had been called away after the death of an uncle. They convinced an old sailor, John Fox, to come and stay with them – making it seem as if they were being supervised, when really they needed Fox because he was old enough to pawn their household items for money. Children weren’t allowed into pawnshops.
Everything was seemingly normal for the two boys enjoying a hot summer in East London, except for the fact their mother hadn’t been called away and there was no dead uncle.
Emily’s last letter to her husband complained that the boys were eating too much – money was tight. She was anxious, no doubt counting the days until Robert Senior arrived home with the paycheck. She’d given Nattie a beating because she’d caught him stealing food, and she was likely frustrated Robert had quit his job at the iron yard. There were signs she was emotionally volatile, but friends labelled her a kind and affectionate wife and mother.
A day after she wrote that letter, Robert slept the night next to her. He was kicking and flailing about, waiting for Nattie’s signal. Early in the morning, Nattie – in the next bedroom – coughed twice. Taking his cue, Robert got out of bed and stabbed his mother repeatedly, deep in the chest, until she died. She didn’t cry out, Robert said later, when police found her maggot-ridden body next to a knife on the bed and a truncheon on the floor.
Immediately after he killed her, Robert showed Nattie their mother’s body and they covered it with a sheet, locking the bedroom door behind them.
Ten days of summer bliss followed. The boys used the pawn money to enjoy the cricket and the ice creams and the trips to the seaside.
They had 10 joy-filled days before the smell of their mother’s decomposing body became noticeable to neighbours.
“It was the moment when the boys’ private, fantasy world was ruptured. The crime was discovered and suddenly they were criminals and their mother really was dead and they had killed her,” said Kate Summerscale author of The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer – a book that follows the journey of Robert Coombes through his life.
It was also the moment Summerscale stumbled upon their story – months before she discovered Robert would eventually become an Australian war hero.