At first, the death of Ella Barnes looks like a simple case of drowning – but Mrs Sinkins (Wynne Clark) isn’t convinced. She’s a member of the women’s protective league and had persuaded Ella to give evidence at a House of Lords enquiry into sweated labour. Could the girl have been murdered to prevent her from attending? Cork and Marriott venture into the slums of the East End to find out the truth.
Ella had worked at a sweat shop run by Brandel (Robert Cartland) who tells them that she was the ringleader of a recent strike. All the other girls were fired and replaced with even cheaper (non English) labour but Brandel, for some reason, chose to take Ella back.
Although Brandel’s workshop is a pretty desperate place, Cork doesn’t rush to condemn him. “In a way he’s just as much a victim as the people he employs. Brandel and the thousands like him who run these workshops don’t think they’re doing anything wrong. To turn out a cheap product you’ve got to have cheap labour. If you don’t turn out a cheap product you don’t survive.”
The cheapness of life is made clear after Cork speaks to several of Ella’s former work-mates. One of them, Barbara Ellis (Rosemary Ashford), tells the Sergeant that she’s known several girls who’ve been fished out of the docks, so finds it hard to express sorrow over Ella’s death. Mrs Brandel (Isa Miranda) later sums up the hopelessness of East End life. “Work, work, work, for what? To eat, then more work. Maybe she’s more happy where she is. There is not much happiness here.”
Like many of the episodes we’ve already seen, as the victim is dead at the start of the episode Cork and Marriott (as well as the audience) have to build up a picture of them from the testimony of witnesses. Whether they’re a saint or sinner will be determined from the facts they can uncover. The news that Ella was four months pregnant, and her husband Alfred Barnes (James Kerry) had been absent for six, could be a vital clue (or it could just be a red herring).
The Case of Ella Barnes, like the earlier episode The Case of the Soldier’s Rifle, has a light dusting of social history (poor working conditions) but once again this is subordinate to the whodunnit part of the story and it’s true that Eric Paice’s script never quite succeeds in developing the misery and desperation of the sweat shops as fully as they could have been. The guest cast is decent, although there’s a lack of stand-out performances. But the solution to the mystery is well handled – the identity of the guilty party seems obvious, but things are not always as they seem ……
This is a fairly run of the mill episode then, although it’s enlivened by the usual high-quality production design (designer Anthony Waller creates a series of dock-based workshops in the studio very effectively) and there’s also some nice banter between Cork and Bob.