Mary Ball - Key Dates

Info about the novel


Key dates in and around the life of Mary Ball 1818-1849

compiled and copyright by Robert Muscutt

27th January 1817

Thomas Ball and Hannah Leedham married in Nuneaton

13th October 1817

Isaac Wright and Alice Ward married in Nuneaton

28th June1818

Mary Wright (later Ball), daughter of Isaac and Alice Wright, christened in Nuneaton

15th May 1821

Thomas Ball born in Nuneaton to parents
Thomas and Hannah Ball

22 November 1819

Birth of Mary Anne Evans, later George Eliot,
in Griff, Nuneaton

18th February 1832

Mary Green (aka Polly Button) brutally murdered
by John Danks in Nuneaton.
Danks was arrested by Nuneaton’s first policeman, Constable Haddon

09th April 1832

Danks publicly hanged in Warwick

21st December 1832

First General Election after passing of Great Reform Bill
Many people wounded and some killed in disorder during the voting.
Events said to have been witnessed by George Eliot and featured in her novel “Felix Holt the Radical.”


Mary Wright marries Thomas Ball
In the next 12 years Mary gave birth to 6 children, one of whom survived
(Birth and death dates of children)

09th June 1846

William Farnell born in Nuneaton
William was later to marry Mary Ann Ball (see below)
In 1851 they were already living next door to each other in Back Lane. 

20th January 1847

Mary Ann Ball born in Back Lane Nuneaton
The only child of parents Mary and Thomas to survive its first year
After her parents’ deaths in 1849 (see below) Mary was brought up by her aunt Jane Bacon, sister of Mary’s deceased father Thomas Ball, and her uncle John Bacon

12th April 1848

The great Chartist Demonstration takes place on Kennington Common, London. It is a failure and marks the end of the Chartist movement, the biggest mass movement for parliamentary reform England had ever seen.

18th May 1849

Thomas Ball, now a labourer on the Trent Valley Railway, goes swimming with friends Joseph Petty and Thomas Watts.
Later the same evening, after returning home and his supper of gruel and bread, Thomas is seized with terrible stomach pains. The doctor, Dr Prouse, diagnoses inflammation of the bowels. Thomas remains in great pain throughout the following day.

20th May 1849

At 2 a. m. Mary send for doctor again “For Tom’s dead!”
Mr Prouse, issues her with the death certificate. Cause of death: Natural causes brought on by stomach disorder. No foul play suspected at this point.

21st May 1849

Constables Haddon, who had arrested Polly Button’s murderer John Danks in 1832, and Vernon become suspicious about the death due to gossip by neighbours about Mary’s and Thomas’ unhappy marriage and about an alleged affair between Mary and William Bacon, brother of Thomas Bacon. So Mary’s alleged lover was her husband’s sister’s brother-in-law and was lodging next door in Back Lane. They question Mary, who maintains that she had laid out a mixture of arsenic and salt to kill bugs, at that time a quite normal thing to do. Thomas mistook the arsenic for salts and laced his gruel with it himself, she says.

21st Mary 1849

After finding contradictions in Mary’s story, Constable Vernon informs Mary that he suspects her of murdering Thomas, that she deliberately put the poison in his gruel. Mary is taken into custody to await results of post-mortem

22nd May

Post-mortem is carried out by the surgeon Prouse and Mr George Shaw, Professor of Chemistry at Queen’s College Birmingham. Traces of arsenic are found in Thomas’ stomach.
Mary is charged with murder and taken to Coventry Prison to await trial.

28th July 1849

Mary is tried for murder at the Count Hall Summer Assizes in Coventry. The judge is Justice Coleridge, nephew of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Mary pleads Not Guilty but after a trial lasting more than 6 hours the jury return a verdict of guilty with a recommendation for mercy.
Justice Coleridge instructs them to reconsider the plea for mercy and the jury obediently deliver the verdict of “Guilty of wilful murder.” Justice Coleridge has no hesitation in sentencing Mary to death by hanging.

04th August 1849

Mary is tortured by Chaplain Rev. Chapman who holds a lighted candle to her naked arm in order to extract a confession of guilt. Her arm and hand are badly blistered but she refused to confess.
On the initiative of the Prison Governor, Mr Stanley, the case is investigated by the visiting magistrate: Rev. Bellairs of Bedworth. As a result of this, Chapman is dismissed from his post as prison chaplain

05th August

Mary makes her famous and alleged confession to Governor Stanley. A close reading of this “confession” leaves open the question of whether Mary really was guilt of wilful murder according to the laws of those times and as explained by Judge Coleridge in his summing up.

09th 1849

Mary is hanged in front of Coventry Gaol in Pepper Lane Coventry. A crowd of between 15,000 and 20,000 people were said to have witnessed Coventry’s last public hanging.

28th June 1865

Mary’s daughter, Mary Ann Ball, married William Farnell in Nuneaton. One of their sons,. Thomas, married Mary Ann Barber in about 1903. Their oldest daughter was Grace Edith Muscutt who was my mother.


Mary Farnell (Mary’s daughter) widowed when William Farnell dies


Mary Farnell remarries and becomes Mrs Tonks. Amazingly, the wedding takes place in St Michael’s, Coventry, a hundred yards from where Mary Ball was executed and where Mary was supposed to have prayed before the execution.

Before we judge Mary as evil, as Justice Coleridge did, we should bear in mind that in 1849 there was no real possibility for a woman to obtain divorce; in law, both she and all her possessions, including their children, belonged to the husband. She had no right to custody of her daughter, the only survivor amongst the six children she had borne. Had she simply run away from her husband she would have had to desert her daughter. Her only choice was to submit to a life she hated, fettered to a violent husband in an unhappy marriage, or to make a desperate bid for freedom.

The case and the trial are well-documented. Please ask us for help if you would like to know more.

Before Mary was buried in the grounds of the prison a death mask of her face was made. The death mask can be viewed by appointment at the Coventry Police Museum.
The dramatised story of Mary’s life is the subject of my novel: A Life for A Life - The Real Story of Mary Ball (Ordering)

Guide for Reading Groups


Mary Ball


 The Novel

  Key Dates

  Guide for Reading Groups