Shocking Tragedy — The Story of Sarah Chappell (52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks #2)

8 January 2015, Chriss Coleman

Researching siblings can further your research about your ancestors, and sometimes researching your ancestors can teach you more about their siblings. Whilst doing a simple search for Edwin Chappell, my husband’s 3rd great-grandfather, I was astonished at what I found.

Bath, Somerset
1860 map of England and Wales, this section depicting the region around Bath, Somerset.1

Sarah Chappell was Edwin’s second eldest sister. She born in Bath, Somerset in 18322 to John Chappell and his wife Sarah. When Sarah married James Cole, a gilder by trade, on October 16th 18513 she likely thought she was marrying well and would be able to lead a relatively comfortable life, especially as James' father, John Cole, left James the majority of his estate when he died in 1855.4

Sarah and James Cole had seven children, four of whom are shown residing with the family in Bath in the 1861 census,5 one born after the 1861 census, and two of whom I have been unable to positively identify, but both likely died very young as I have been unable to source baptism records for them.

  1. Sophia Eugenia Cole — born 18536,7
  2. Rose Lavinia Cole — born 18558,9
  3. Matilda Cole — born 185610,11
  4. John James Augustus Cole — born 186112,13
  5. Alfred Cole — born 1863


The family had fallen on hard times. James Cole was not following his trade or earning a wage, and they had squandered their inheritance. The family had pawned nearly everything they owned in order to put a meagre bit of food on the table, and they were facing eviction. Added to this, most of her family had abandoned her due to her husband’s temper and intolerable disposition. On July 6th 1863, something inside Sarah (Chappell) Cole snapped. Tragedy ensued.

Claiming to be heading out to buy the children a bun or two, she left the house, taking her 3 youngest children with her. Upon reaching the canal near Bathampton, she strangled and/or drowned each of her children in the waters before she herself plunged to her watery death.

The newspaper article in the Bath Chronicle tells in depth the family situation, both from the view of the surviving husband, James Cole, and the view of Sarah’s brother, Edwin Chappell, as it was presented in court, together with the coroner and surgeon’s reports, and the final verdict of temporary insanity as a result of her desperate situation.

An easier to read transcription of this article can be found here.

Shocking Tragedy of Sarah Cole and her children, news article from Bath Chronicle
“Shocking Tragedy”, article of the demise of Sarah (Chappell) Cole and her 3 youngest children, from The Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, published July 9th 1863.14

Sarah (Chappell) Cole was 31 years of age when she took her own life and the life of her three youngest children. All four were buried on July 10th 1863 at St Nicholas church, Bathampton, Somerset,15,16,17,18 leaving James Cole and his two remaining daughters to mourn their loss whilst facing eviction and destitution.

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks is a blogging prompt started by Amy Johnson Crow at No Story Too Small. My stories will include both sides of our family, including collateral lines.


  1. Photo credit to http://www.geographicus.com/mm5/cartographers/philip.txt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Original image cropped, resized, and edited to mark location. 

  2. “FreeREG”, indexed database, FreeREG (http://www.freereg.org.uk : accessed 11 Dec 2014), baptism entry for Sarah Chappell, 22 Jul 1832, St Thomas a Becket, Widcombe, Bath, Somerset, England; citing file number 19073. 

  3. “FreeREG”, indexed database, FreeREG (http://www.freereg.org.uk : accessed 3 Dec 2014), register 72, marriage entry for James Cole and Sarah Chappell, 16 Oct 1851, Walcot-St Swithin, Bath, Somerset England; citing file number 14532. 

  4. “England & Wales, Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills, 1384-1858”, James John Cole, Somerset, Walcot, 20 Apr 1855; digital image, Ancestry, (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 5 Dec 2014); citing The National Archives, London, “Prerogative Court of Canterbury and Related Probate Jurisdictions: Will Registers”, class PROB, Piece 2210. 

  5. “1861 England Census”, Somerset, Bath, enumeration district (ED) 15, parish of Walcot St-Saviour, p. 14, household 88, family of James Cole; index and digital image, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 7 Jul 2014); citing The National Archives, London, “Census Returns of England and Wales, 1861”, Class RG 9, Piece 1692, Folio 51, GSU roll 542852. 

  6. “Births”, entry for Sophia Eugenia Cole, 1853, Lansdown, Bath, Somsert, reference LNS/11/421; index, BathBMD (http://www.bathbmd.org.uk : accessed 6 Dec 2014); citing Register Offices, Bath, Somerset. 

  7. “FreeREG”, indexed database, FreeREG (http://www.freereg.org.uk : accessed 4 Dec 2014), register 2293, baptism entry for Sophia Eugenia Cole, 1 Jun 1853, Walcot - St Swithin, Bath, Somerset, England; citing file number 147321. 

  8. “Births”, entry for Rose Levena Cole, 1855, Lansdown, Bath, Somsert, reference LNS/12/448; index, BathBMD (http://www.bathbmd.org.uk : accessed 9 Dec 2014); citing Register Offices, Bath, Somerset. 

  9. “FreeREG”, indexed database, FreeREG (http://www.freereg.org.uk : accessed 4 Dec 2014), register 356, baptism entry for Rose Lavinia Cole, 25 Mar 1855, Walcot - St Swithin, Bath, Somerset, England; citing file number 14732. 

  10. “Births”, entry for Matilda Cole, 1856, Walcot, Bath, Somsert, reference WL1/14/033; index, BathBMD (http://www.bathbmd.org.uk : accessed 3 Jan 2015); citing Register Offices, Bath, Somerset. 

  11. “England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975”, index, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 7 Jun 2014), Matilda Cole, 28 Sep 1856, Bath, Somerset; citing FHL film 1526166, Item 2 p129. 

  12. “Births”, entry for John James Augustus Cole, 1861, Walcot, Bath, Somsert, reference WL1/16/282; index, BathBMD, (http://www.bathbmd.org.uk : accessed 3 Jan 2015); citing Register Offices, Bath, Somerset. 

  13. “England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975”, index, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 7 Jun 2014), John James Augustus Cole, 8 Feb 1861, St Saviour, Bath, Somerset; citing FHL film 1526166, Item 2.  

  14. “Shocking Tragedy”, news article, Bath [Somerset] Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 9 Jul 1863, page 5, column 5; online index and digital image, British Newspaper Archive (http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk : accessed 11 Jul 2014); image copyright the British Library Board.  

  15. “FreeREG”, indexed database, FreeREG (http://www.freereg.org.uk : accessed 4 Dec 2014), burial entry for Sarah Cole, 10 Jul 1863, St Nicholas, Bathampton, Somerset, England; citing file number 14661. 

  16. “FreeREG”, indexed database, FreeREG (http://www.freereg.org.uk : accessed 4 Dec 2014), burial entry for Matilda Cole, 10 Jul 1863, St Nicholas, Bathampton, Somerset, England; citing file number 14661. 

  17. “FreeREG”, indexed database, FreeREG (http://www.freereg.org.uk : accessed 4 Dec 2014), burial entry for John James Cole, 10 Jul 1863, St Nicholas, Bathampton, Somerset, England; citing file number 14661. 

  18. “FreeREG”, indexed database, FreeREG (http://www.freereg.org.uk : accessed 4 Dec 2014), burial entry for Alfred Cole, 10 Jul 1863, St Nicholas, Bathampton, Somerset, England; citing file number 14661.