THE toddler was a lovely looking lad attired in fine clothes with a red tam-o-shanter atop his fair head. But within a few months he was to become unrecognisable. NIGEL HEINS relates the dreadful story of Walter Steers and how fate led him to the clutches of a wicked man...

DESPITE being desperately ill, the broken-hearted young mother was determined her little boy would look his very best when she handed him into the care of strangers - and a new life.

With his small round features, blue eyes and fair hair, Walter Steers was as bonny a boy as you could wish to see in 1890s' England when scrawny little ragamuffins abounded.

But his mother Alice had been told by the doctor that she could be dying. Caring for a toddler would be impossible and so a foster mother was found.

Tearful Alice dressed Walter in a white flannel petticoat worked in pink wool, a blue and white top, red marino frock with white floss silk, a white pinafore, a red plush tam-o-shanter and a scarlet cape.

What a contrast to Charles Saunders, the evil man who was to change him from a thriving child to a sore-riddled wreck - and then kill him in a deserted cottage at Little Hereford.

Saunders was a short man with high overhanging forehead, sunken eyes, small nose and hollow cheeks. He had a downcast, starving look, his beard and whiskers were sandy-coloured and he wore a black mourning coat with plaid handkerchief and dirty cord trousers.

The story of Saunders and woeful Walter could have come from a Charles Dickens novel except that the great writer's tales usually saw the forces for good triumph in the end. In this dreadful episode there were few redeeming moments.

The awful deeds of 1891 were outlined in court by a solicitor who had a name Dickens could well have created - Mr Cook Kettle.

After leaving his sick mother, little Walter was fostered by a Mrs Smith in Walsall but things soon went awry when her partner left town to seek work and she became destined for the workhouse.

Mrs Smith had left Walter with a woman in a lodging house in Kidderminster, but she was anxious to be rid of him and soon saw her wish granted.

Staying at the house was Saunders and his lover Elizabeth Caldwell. She fancied the idea of a 'ready-made' child and one day snatched the boy - "such a nice pretty one" - and disappeared.

Saunders and 20-year-old Caldwell had met at Bromyard after hop-picking and then tramped around the country as man and wife, eventually ending up in the Little Hereford area.

He had seemingly been aghast at their twosome becoming a family but soon saw Walter as a money-maker - by using him to prey upon people's charitable instincts. People parted with cash or goods when they saw the child, who had become a pitiful shadow of his former robust self.

The court, including Walter's distressed mother, heard harrowing accounts of the way Saunders treated the lad with inhuman brutality.

He took sadistic pleasure in harming the lad, boasting how his tiny charge was "very hardy", never letting out a cry.

On one occasion he took his clay pipe - hot and fully alight - and thrust it into Walter's mouth, holding it there for a considerable time. Witnesses recounted how the boy uttered not a sound, but tears of pain poured down his cheeks.

Walter was covered with running sores and Saunders took the expression 'cruel to be kind' to the extreme. He rammed a stick into the

toddler's mouth, covered his face with a medical concoction and turned him 'spit fashion' in front of the fire to soak the grease into bruises and wounds.

One night, Walter forgot his so-called claim to fame and cried. This infuriated Saunders who shook the child violently, his head crashing against either a wall or the floorboards.

The short, miserable life of Walter Frederick Steers was over. His last word was "mamma".

Saunders claimed he had shaken the child in a bid to stop "it" crying and to make "it" sleep. He, too, was doomed and was sentenced to death by Mr Justice Day.

On Christmas Eve, 1891, large crowds defied the frost and fog to gather outside Hereford Jail to look for the black flag that would mark the hanging of sadist Saunders. They had a long wait because hangman Billington was late, having badly planned his rail journey from an execution in Durham.

Eventually the deed was carried out. The body of the man who had barbecued a boy swayed once or twice.

There followed a few twitchings of the arms and then stillness and silence.