Death of Maria Colwell

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The Tragedy of Maria Colwell
Born (1965-03-26)26 March 1965
Hove, Sussex, England
Died 6 January 1973(1973-01-06) (aged 7)
Brighton, Sussex, England
Cause of death
Child abuse Head Injury Brain Damage
Resting place
Portslade, East Sussex, England

Raymond Colwell (Father)

Pauline Colwell (Mother)

Maria Colwell (26 March 1965 – 6 January 1973) was an English child who was killed by her stepfather in January 1973.[1] The case was widely reported at the time and resulted in the first ever public enquiry - Committee of Inquiry into the Care and Supervision Provided in Relation to Maria Colwell (1974) Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Care and Supervision provided by local authorities and other agencies in Relation to Maria Colwell and the co-ordination between them (Chairman: T.G. Field-Fisher)

40 years after her death Maria has remained in the public and has often been referred to when similar cases have come to light, such as the death of Victoria Climbié in 2000,Peter Connelly in 2007, Daniel Pelka in 2012.[2][3]

Maria was one of 6 siblings and leaves behind 3 brothers and two sisters who live to protect her memory. She is remembered for the loving, happy, care-free girl who had 6 very happy years, 6 happy birthday's and 6 happy christmas's with Bob & Doris Cooper - her foster parents.

Life and death[edit]

Maria was born on 26 March 1965. A few months old Maria's father Raymond Colwell died and as a result Maria and her siblings were all placed in care. Maria was put into foster care at 3 months old with her auntie and uncle - Doris and Bob Cooper who loved and doted on her. She was a very happy girl and was very well looked after.[4]

Her situation changed drastically[5] when she returned to live with her biological mother Pauline[6] on the Whitehawk council estate in Brighton, England.

Pauline had a new partner, William Kepple. They had children of their own and had no compunction in favouring them,[7] as for example when he bought them ice cream and required Maria to watch as they ate. Many neighbours and teachers communicated concerns to various agencies.[8] Nevertheless, even though she appeared to be "almost a walking skeleton", she was allowed to remain with the Kepples and her step-siblings.[9]

On the night of 6 January 1973, Kepple arrived home at 11.30pm to find little Maria up watching TV. Maria's mother had kept Maria up fearing her drunk violent husband. Maria refused to acknowledge him upon his return home and he beat Maria. He went off to bed and the following morning he wheeled Maria in a pram to the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton with severe internal injuries including brain damage, and she died shortly after arrival.[10]


The tragedy captured the public’s attention and the press called for action.[11] Despite the publication of a book urging the tragedy not to be forgotten[12] it took over 30 years before agencies were required by law to guarantee the free-flow of information.[13]

The Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Care and Supervision Provided in Relation to Maria Colwell chaired by Thomas Gilbert Field Fisher, a Recorder of the Crown Court, identified three main contributory factors: the lack of communication between the agencies who were aware of her vulnerable situation; inadequate training for social workers assigned to at-risk children; and changes in the make-up of society.

"It is not enough for the State as representing society to assume responsibility for those such as Maria" Fisher[14]

Kepple was later found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years in prison, though his sentence was halved on appeal.[15]

Despite the local council commissioning its own response to Fisher’s findings, Children at risk : a study by the East Sussex County Council into the problems revealed by the Report of the Inquiry into the case of Maria Colwell[16] and repeated "it must never happen again" press articles][17] there were several high-profile cases after the Colwell case (for example Heidi Koseda,[18] Jasmine Beckford[19] and Toni-Ann Byfield) before the Victoria Climbié findings[20] finally generated the government legislation known as Every Child Matters.

One other established fact following several high profile child abuse cases is that the mother in most cases escaped punishment. For example Maria's mother Pauline Kepple witnessed and took part in the abuse of her daughter. It brings comfort to Maria's family to know that today Pauline would have been punished and sentenced for the role she played in the abuse and suffering of her child.


  1. ^ The Tragedy of Maria Colwell Scott,P.D: British Journal of J Criminology.1975; 15: 88-90
  2. ^ "'Baby P effect' causing rise in care applications says Douglas". Family Law Week. Retrieved 22 August 2009. 
  3. ^ Professor Nigel Parton (July 2003). "From Maria Colwell to Victoria Climbie: Reflections on a generation of public inquiries into child abuse" (PDF). Child Abuse Review. Retrieved 22 August 2009. 
  4. ^ The Times, Tuesday, 23 October 1973; pg. 3; Issue 58920; col A Foster-parents not told of decision to move girl
  5. ^ Wave Trust A tale of 10 children
  6. ^ The Times, Wednesday, 17 October 1973; pg. 2; Issue 58915; col F Criticism of girl's return to her mother
  7. ^ The Times, Thursday, 31 May 1973; pg. 2; Issue 58796; col F Stepfather's preferential treatment
  8. ^ The Times, Wednesday, 10 October 1973; pg. 4; Issue 58909; col A Thirty complaints of ill-treatment were made before Maria died-QC
  9. ^ The Times, Thursday, 11 October 1973; pg. 3; Issue 58910; col A Girl was like a living skeleton, neighbour tells inquiry
  10. ^ Batty, David (27 January 2003). "Catalogue of cruelty". London: Guardian. Retrieved 22 August 2009. 
  11. ^ "Social work, child abuse and the press" Wroe,A: Norwich, Social Work Monographs, 1988 ISBN 0-946751-49-8
  12. ^ "Remember Maria”Howells,JG: London, Butterworth 1974 ISBN 0-407-38541-X
  13. ^ "Scandal, Social Policy and Social Welfare" Butler,I;Drakefore,M: Bristol Policy, 2005 ISBN 1-86134-746-4
  14. ^ Great Britain. Committee of Inquiry into the Care and Supervision Provided in Relation to Maria Colwell London HMSO 1974 ISBN 0-11-320596-1
  15. ^ "The Argus - News, Sport, Brighton and Hove Albion and Entertainment for Brighton, Hove and Sussex - It's horrible to think it's happening over again - by Maria Colwell's brother". Retrieved 22 August 2009. 
  16. ^ Lewes, East Sussex District Council, 1975 ISBN 0-900348-21-6
  17. ^ Guardian article by Chris Hanvey
  18. ^ "Journal of Family Therapy" Volume 15 Issue 1 Page 57-64, February 1993 Duncan,S; Gray,M;Reder,P Child protection dilemmas in a 'not-existing' pattern of abuse
  19. ^ Beckford case
  20. ^ Climbie Colwell link