For 42 years, a couple tended an abandoned baby’s grave. Now, an arrest has been made

The Far Cotton community gather around a new headstone for a murdered baby girl who died on the 18th May 1982
The Far Cotton community gather around a new headstone for an abandoned baby girl who died on the 18 May 1982 - Kirsty Edmonds

There is a tiny grave in an isolated and remote spot of Northampton cemetery that sits separate from the other graves of young children, tragically taken from their parents through illness or accident.

It is on the fringe of the cemetery, all on its own, the grave of a pauper. On its headstone is the message: “In Loving Memory/Of An Unknown Baby Girl/Died 18th May 1982. A Fallen Sparrow Known Only to God And Loved by God.”

The words Fallen Sparrow were taken from a biblical text, found by the local vicar, Canon George Burgon, vicar of St Mary’s Church, Far Cotton in Northampton, who had been called out of the blue by the police back in November 1982 to conduct a funeral.

It was six months after the baby he came to call the fallen sparrow had been found. The police still had no clue who was to blame. They just wanted her to have a Christian burial. Canon George Burgon, eight years into his ministry at the parish, had been profoundly moved by the child’s fate.

Today, Margaret Burgon, his wife, is 78 years old. She talks of the fallen sparrow baby as if she is entwined into the fabric of her life.

She still visits the grave four or five times a year, and always around May 18, to lay flowers.

Back then, when the dead baby was discovered, in a carrier bag near the train station, she was 36, the mother of three small girls herself.

She remembers how she told her husband, “I will come to the service with you.” She could see her husband was moved.

“I went to represent love and motherhood. I was a mother myself, 36 years old, with three small daughters of my own. My husband could give the child a Christian burial but he couldn’t give her a name. That’s why we chose A Fallen Sparrow. She has been loved by me ever since. I have talked to her, I have cleaned her headstone, I have wished her happy birthday. It was a promise I made to her at that service.”

Gave of an unknown baby
The grave of the unknown baby girl has been lovingly tended - Andrew Fox

It was Margaret who led the effort to clean up the girl’s plot, to acknowledge her short life with a physical mark.

It is only today, 42-years on, that Northamptonshire police might finally have some answers as to what happened to the girl. After a cold case review – the reason for which is, as yet, unknown – a 57-year-old woman in Northampton has just been arrested on suspicion of murder relating to the death of a newborn baby in 1982. The woman would have been 15-years-old at the time, a child herself. She has been released on bail. Did she come forward? There are many questions now just as there were four decades ago. The police have not revealed details.

Margaret Burgon feels profound sympathy: “Whatever happened to that little girl, whether the mother did it or not – we know absolutely nothing about that – the mother has had to live with this knowledge for 42 years. It has been a 42-year life sentence for the mother. I want to talk to her, to let her know that her child was given love by me and by my husband and that every year for those 42 years I took her flowers and wished her a happy birthday. But of course, I only know the day she died, not the day she was born.”

Love might have been present in the child’s heartbreakingly short life – who knows? – but it had not been enough to save her. When she was found, it is understood that she was wrapped in a cloth. Her death captured national headlines but as the search for answers got more fruitless, public interest ebbed away. Who was the baby? Who was her mother? Surely somebody knew something? The questions, as is often the way, became less urgent with time. Eleven years later, in 1993, the police closed the case.

The kindness and respect shown to the fallen sparrow – the flowers, the eventual headstone, a brightly coloured windmill that spins in the breeze – over the last four decades has not only been administered by the Burgons: “I often go there with my friends,” Margaret says.

Only last month, on May 16, two days before the anniversary of the girl’s death on May 18 and not long before the police arrested a woman one might reasonably think could be her mother, Margaret Burgon posted on Facebook, revealing just how seriously she has taken her role as the girl’s proxy spiritual carer. It has been a lifelong role:

“We’ll never know who this little one is, or indeed, when her birthday actually is. My friend and I visited her today, pouring with rain, but that didn’t deter us. God bless you sweetheart.”

Canon George Burgon has since explained: “I remember the whole community was very shocked by what happened. But it is a wonderful example of common humanity – the way people responded at the time, and still do. She is our child as a society, as a humanity.”

The baby's tragic story shocked the small Northamptonshire community - Kirsty Edmonds

Margaret Burgon remembers the funeral as if it were yesterday. It was around 9.30am when the small group gathered, comprising Margaret, three police officers, an undertaker and two journalists: “My small children were at school. I just thought ‘I’m going.’” Her daughters are now 46, 50 and 52. The fallen sparrow would be 42, just four years younger than Margaret’s youngest.

As the tiny coffin was lowered into the ground, Margaret says: “I promised her that she wouldn’t be forgotten. And I’ve kept that. It’s really, really sad.”

Canon Burgon remembers finding it the most difficult funeral service in the duration of his ecclesiastical career to date (he was at St Mary’s 23 years before retirement). It was not his first service for the lonely dead – but the loss of an infant, abandoned in a bag, was particularly heartbreaking.

What has changed between 1982 and 2024? Back then, nobody came forward, either to offer information about the parents, or to claim her: “Could it be DNA?” Margaret asks me, mystified. Could it be related to her last social media post, when she said “we shall never know who this little one is,” accompanied by a photograph of the headstone?

While the baby’s remembrance has largely been led by Margaret, she has been helped sometimes by local school children, happy to share the kind of toys a little girl might like to play with. These are left by the children on the stone bottom ledge of the headstone: a pink My Little Pony; a tiny white mouse. Sometimes there is a small pot of lavender, symbolising remembrance.

When the 57-year-old woman was arrested, the police, in turn, honoured the Burgons’ enduring commitment to the memory of the child. Margaret Burgon was speechless when officers rang the bell at home and sat her down to tell her a woman had been arrested: “I almost burst into tears. I was so amazed that after 42 years, they could make an arrest.”

Word spread. Messages began to flood in: “Margaret, is this the baby you take flowers for? Is this your baby”. I’ve been asked on more than one occasion “Why do you still do that?” And I say, “Because I made her a promise. But, oh my word, we just ever expected this.”

The Burgons hope now they might finally find out what happened to the child and to her mother: “If I was ever able to meet her, I’d probably just give the girl a hug,” Margaret says. “In so many respects, I feel compassion for the mother. I want her to know her child was loved by me.”