Clearing a fallen tree from a tributary of the River Test a group of workmen came across a small bundle floating in the water, though a large stone had been attached to weigh it down.

"Wonder what this is all about?" one pondered.

Opening it, he was shocked to find the corpse of a newly-born baby in an advanced stage of decomposition.

The surgeon who carried out the post-mortem was convinced he had not died from natural causes and had been "destroyed by violent means."

By who was the mother?

Andover-based Superintendent Charles Hodge, who was called to the scene a few hundred yards outside Hurstbourne Tarrant, believed a local woman was implicated and arrested seamstress Elizabeth Ware who had come to live with her brother, John, in the hamlet on St Valentines Day, 1859, to avoid her reputation being tarnished as an unmarried mother because a few weeks later on May 1 she gave birth.

Her brother then called their cousin Ann Lambden, who worked as a kitchen maid in the service of the Earl of Portsmouth, to join them because she was ill.

Hodge interviewed another maid Mary Hill and as a result of their conversation Ware, 24, and Lambden, 26, were charged with murder.

Following a statement to the local magistrates, the women were sent for trial at Hampshire Assizes - and that provoked a protest from inquest jurors who sat a day after the committal proceedings, damning their procedure as "useless" and closing the case, returned the only verdict open to them - that of wilful murder.

The foreman, the Rev. Watkin Temple, handed to the county coroner J H Todd a note which concluded: "The jury beg to express their opinion that the magistrates should have postponed the committal until after the inquest of which they had knowledge and their not having done so tends to weaken the constitutional and useful institution of the coroner's inquest."

Ware and Lambden came before Mr Justice Bramwell on July 18 when the prosecution relied heavily on the testimony of Hill to whom Lambden had confessed she had never wished to see her cousin after being told she was unwell.

"When she went down about four o'clock, she found she had been delivered of a baby and she told her to get a pan of water to put it in and leave it there until it was dead, and after it was dead to take it out and lock it in a box. She said she did it and when she first went in, Ware was in bed with the baby and had her hands to its throat to suffocate it.

"I asked her how she could do it and she said she did. I asked her if John knew anything about it and she said 'no.'

Hill said she had accused Ware of being pregnant when she left her home in Devon to live with her brother. "She said she was and intended to do away with it."

Surgeon Mr Hempstead, who had carried out the autopsy, confirmed it was too decomposed to determine any external marks of violence but on cutting the lungs he found them "gorged" with blood.

"I believe the child was born alive and died from strangulation or suffocation. The child had been in the water ten or fourteen days."

The prosecution's case against the pair seemed to grow tighter when Pc Joyant related a conversation between the two women in which Ware told her cousin that if she had ten children "I would never do the like again. I hope God can forgive me."

Jurors were told Ware had remained silent when the magistrates asked her if she had anything to say in terms of her defence, but Lambden had stated: "I have nothing to say but ask for pardon if you will forgive me."

Inexplicably, however, the Crown could not muster sufficient proof Ware had given birth to the baby found in the water, an issue exploited by her counsel Mr Cole who commented: "I have never heard looser evidence to support a charge of murder. There was nothing seen at her residence to indicate she had been confined. It is a sea of speculation."

Mr Karslake, defending her co-accused, said Lambden was renowned for her kindness, humanity and good conduct.

"Is it likely without motive she would be a volunteer to put out of this world a helpless and defenceless baby? The only evidence against her is her so-called confession but that confession is not supported by the evidence. It is a well known fact that men have implicated themselves in crimes of which they were entirely guiltless from motives which can never be fathomed or explained."

The seed of doubt was further planted by the judge who underlined the fact there was no proof the baby had been born to Ware.

Following a short deliberation, jurors acquitted both women.