CHRISTMAS Eve 1851 was a supposedly happy time for the French family.

Sarah French had cooked onion pie, a favourite for husband William.

The couple had been happily married in Chiddingly village near Hailsham for seven years. Mr French a 35-year-old labourer and Mrs French a loyal housewife seven years his junior.

But as Mr French returned to work, he began to get sick. Co-workers saw him vomiting on to the floor.

He kept on working until January 5, when Mrs French stuck her head out the window of their house and told one of her husband’s colleagues he was too ill to work. Two days later, he was dead.

On the same day Mr French’s brother John visited to console Sarah.

“He looked very natural, but was swollen on each side of his throat,” he later said.

“Mrs French appeared to be agitated. She said he had been unaccountably sick.”

The Argus: The small village of Chiddingly. Photo: Simon CareyThe small village of Chiddingly. Photo: Simon Carey

On January 17 at an inquest held in the Gun Inn, a jury confirmed her suspicions, declaring Mr French had died of natural causes.

But to Superintendent James Flannagan, something felt wrong. Rumours had circulated Mr French had actually been poisoned with arsenic.

One of his co-workers, William Funnell, said Mr French claimed the onion pie had “interrupted his inside”.

So on January 28 Supt Flannagan paid Mrs French a visit.

The housewife denied ever buying arsenic and said if her husband had been poisoned, he would have done it himself as he was worried about incoming bills. But the policeman was not convinced and arrested her.

The next day she was hauled in front of a jury at a second inquest, this time in The Six Bells pub, reported on by the Sussex Express.

As witnesses testified, they seemed to support Mrs French’s account of events.

The Argus: The usually-jovial Six Bells pub hosted a grim inquest into William French's death. Photo: Dave SpicerThe usually-jovial Six Bells pub hosted a grim inquest into William French's death. Photo: Dave Spicer

That was until Naomi Crowhurst, a farmer’s wife, took to the witness box. She claimed Mrs French had bought two pence worth of arsenic from her servant.

On the day of Mr French’s death, Mrs French insisted to a police officer she had never seen Mrs Crowhurst before.

But the farmer’s wife testified: “I believe the prisoner is the same woman I sold arsenic to.”

Then Hannah Russell, a friend of Mrs French, testified the housewife said she had been married “once too often”.

On the following Monday, the bombshell hit when 20-year-old James Hickman was called as a witness.

The son of one of Mr French’s co-workers, he had originally been courting Mrs French’s sister Jane Piper.

“I went to see Mrs French; her husband was sometimes at home, but not always,” he said.

“Did she ever make free with you?” the coroner asked.

“She told me she loved me, and asked if I would have to do with her.”

“What did you say to that?”

“I told her I would not while her husband was living.”

“What reply did she make to you?”

“She asked me if I would marry her if her husband was dead, and I said yes.

“She told me he had something the matter with his inside, and could not live long.”

Even better for Mr Hickman, Mrs French mentioned she was likely to receive some wealth in the near future.

The Argus: The bombshell was delivered at the Six Bells when Sarah French's lover testified she wanted her husband dead. Photo: Dave SpicerThe bombshell was delivered at the Six Bells when Sarah French's lover testified she wanted her husband dead. Photo: Dave Spicer

As the Sussex Express described it: “As the evidence proceeded, and the indications of guilt began to accumulate, there was an evident change in her countenance.

“When the inquest adjourned at four o’clock, her physical energy was so far prostrated that she had to be supported out of the room.”

The jury concluded Mrs French had murdered her husband, and she was sent to Lewes Prison to await a criminal trial.

As she was dragged to her cell she suffered hysterical fits.

By the time she was put on trial on March 19, the Sussex Express said she had “lost all her colour”.

But eyebrows were raised when Mrs French’s lawyers read out a statement she had written while imprisoned.

She claimed Mr Hickman admitted he had poisoned Mr French by placing arsenic on his plate during that Christmas Eve dinner and again in some gruel the day before his death.

When a constable came to arrest her later that month, she said, Mr Hickman was with her and hid in a closet until she was taken away.

The young man denied all of these claims except one. He was with Mrs French on the day of her arrest, he said, but she had pushed him into the pantry before the constable arrived.

Naturally judge and jury were sceptical. Mrs French was only 4ft 10in tall.

It seemed the couple had conspired to kill Mr French together. But who had administered the poison?

Distrusting her statement and wondering why she had not accused Mr Hickman before, the jury convicted Mrs French and she was sentenced to death.

But her public hanging outside Lewes Prison on April 10 went down as well as the onion pie she supposedly served.

The Sussex Express reported on it with revulsion.

“Public executions have not the slightest beneficial influence on society,” it wrote.

“We are more inclined, indeed, to believe that they are absolutely injurious.”

Mrs French was the last person to be publicly hanged in the town.