IT began shortly after dark when Joseph Wren, a labourer engaged on building the Southampton-Dorchester railway, was walking across Southampton Common.

As he jumped a dry ditch, he was startled to see the body of a girl partially covered in leaves. From all appearances, it did not appear to have been there long.

He ran down the road to alert Ann Biggs passing by and Pc Leigh was summoned to the scene, noting the corpse had at one point been moved further along the ditch. Where it had previously lay, there was a clear indentation in the earth with a print of the left arm and face which was very dirty.

The body was removed to the police station where, from his post-mortem examination, local surgeon Patrick Mackey attributed death to a diseased stomach.

Referring to the circumstances of the find, he commented: "Immediately after its death it was put into that situation and pressed down with some violence which would account for the marks on the body. The disease of the stomach had been going on for some time."

Significantly he concluded: "If pressure was used to a child whose stomach was diseased, it would cause death."

Other than that, there was no clue as to who had placed the body there and the inquest jury consequently returned a verdict of 'Found dead.'

That left the police the onerous task of trying to identify the mother. They hoped through publicity someone would recognise the night gown in which the infant had been wrapped.

Remarkably a fellow occupant of the Poor House did and within hours the police chief, Inspector Enright, had ascertained she was 27-year-old Ann English, who came from Bramshaw on the fringe of the New Forest but had been working in service in the town.

Then came a dramatic development.

Ten days after the child's discovery on June 6, 1847, English was arrested. Dressed in a dark blue figured stuff gown, a white Paisley shawl, a fancy dressed bonnet with artificial flowers, her mood did not match the demeanour of her mother who greatly distressed had accompanied her to the police station.

It was the last part of Mackey's statement that convinced police the child, christened Matilda, had met an unnatural death and it was there English, described as "a comely looking woman," was formally accused of murder.

The following morning she appeared before magistrates where Enright disclosed the reasons for the charge, revealing she had left home with the child who appeared fit and well.

But when she returned, she was alone, claiming her daughter had been detained in hospital. She had also refused to identify the father.

After he had applied for a remand in custody, English asked to make a statement, which was granted.

She told the court how they had travelled from Bishopstoke to Southampton and spent two nights on the street - "It was wet and cold - and how in a pub she had bread and cheese with a rum and water, giving portions of the food and drink to the daughter. She said the child began to feel poorly after they had left Bishopstoke and after her money ran out, she wandered about Southampton before going to the Common.

"I did not like to say anything to anybody about, so kept walking on the Common thinking it would get better. I sat down under a tree, the child got worse again. It got strong in the fit and threw some of the beer and bread and cheese off its chest. It was in a strong fit for half an hour and then it died."

English then described how she disposed of the body.

"I then thought I would be accused of something and put it into the ditch near The Cowherds inn. I never used any violence towards it but as my mother was partial to the child, I did not tell her of its death. I thought I had better go home and say nothing about it. I attributed the cause of her death to the strong food - she had been used to delicate food before - and being exposed all night out of doors."

The police's suspicions intensified three days later when at the second remand hearing Biggs recounted how she had seen English drag her child by the foot along the ditch and lay her on her back.

"She said I was a silly girl if I ever said anything about it as I should get into trouble and herself too. I said: 'No. no, I can't get into trouble, the child does not belong to me.' She told me to go home. I was afraid to say anything about it when I got into town in consequence of what she said to me."

English was further remanded for a week for the committal proceedings when the only witness to give testimony was Mackey who amended his deposition about the cause of death, declaring: "Although the appearance of the lungs was such as would have been the result had the child been suffocated, there was no unusual congestion of the face or brain which would have been the case if she had been suffocated."

Following the statement, the magistrates ordered the court to be cleared for them to discuss the strength of the evidence before ruling her case should be heard by a jury.

English was then asked whether she had anything to say, warning her it could be used as evidence against her.

English, who throughout had remained unmoved, replied: "I have nothing further to say that what has been said before."

She was then removed from the court and conveyed in a carriage back to prison, jeered at every vantage spot by crowds who booed and hissed her.

English came before Mr Justice Williams at Hampshire Assizes on July 15 when she pleaded not guilty to murdering her daughter through suffocation.

The Crown's case was however built on shifting sands, with the defence making capital of the medical evidence she had died from natural causes before being pushed down into the ditch.

English was quickly acquitted.