Murder of Maria Colwell

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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
Parent(s) Raymond Colwell (father)
Pauline Kepple (mother)
William Kepple (stepfather)

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 a 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 the case of Maria Colwell has remained in collective memory 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 and Daniel Pelka in 2012.[2][3]

Maria was one of six siblings and is survived by her three half-brothers and two half-sisters, as well as her foster parents Bob and Doris Cooper, with whom she spent six years of her life.

Life and death[edit]

Maria was born on 26 March 1965. When she was a few months old her father Raymond Colwell died and as a result Maria and her siblings were all placed in foster care. At three months old she was placed with her aunt and uncle, Doris and Bob Cooper. There she was said to be very happy and well looked after. [4]

Her situation changed drastically[5] when on 22 October 1971 she returned to live with her biological mother Pauline Kepple and her partner William Kepple [6] on the Whitehawk council estate in Brighton, England.

William Kepple had children of his own with Pauline, and the couple favoured those children over Maria without compunction;[7] for example, Kepple bought his biological children ice cream and required Maria to watch as they ate it, having refused to buy any for her. Many neighbours and teachers communicated concerns to various agencies.[8] Nevertheless, even though she appeared "almost a walking skeleton", Maria was allowed to remain with the Kepples and her half-siblings.[9]

On the night of 6 January 1973, Kepple arrived home at 11:30pm to find Maria still awake and watching television. Her mother, fearing her drunk and violent husband, had kept Maria up. Maria refused to acknowledge him upon his return home and he responded violently. He physically assaulted her, leaving her with severe injuries both internal and external; then he went to bed. The following morning he wheeled Maria in a pram to the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton with severe internal injuries including brain damage; she died shortly after arrival. Maria had an empty stomach when she died. Both her eyes were blackened and she had a fractured rib.[10]


The case 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 thirty years before agencies were required by law to guarantee the free-flow of information.[13]

An inquiry was set up and was chaired by Thomas Gilbert Field Fisher, a Recorder of the Crown Court. Other members included Olive Stevenson, a social work academic. The Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Care and Supervision Provided in Relation to Maria Colwell 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; 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, such as the cases of Heidi Koseda,[18] Jasmine Beckford,[19] and Toni-Ann Byfield before the case of Victoria Climbié[20] finally produced the government legislation known as Every Child Matters.


  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. Archived from the original (PDF) on 28 August 2008. 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". Archived from the original on 10 May 2009. 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 Archived 21 February 2005 at the Wayback Machine.
  20. ^ Climbie Colwell link