There was a movement in the bushes as she walked down the path that led from her house to the road. Why she stopped to look, she wasn’t sure; perhaps because it was not a breezy day – it was simply cold, and still – or perhaps because the movement seemed unusual.
But stop she did, and stoop down to look more closely. It’s just as well she did, for there, lying amongst the foliage, yet not well hidden – as though somebody wanted it found – was a small bundle of cloths. She picked it up, and it moved; for there, well wrapped up against the cold, was a baby.
The child was just three months old, and had not been there, in the garden in Stapleton, very long. At the Gloucestershire Assizes in February 1888, 21-year-old servant, Elizabeth Pratt, was found guilty of unlawfully abandoning it, but she refused to admit that it was hers, and even the judge in her case stated that he didn’t know whether the child was hers, or belonged to someone else.
Stapleton – now a suburb of Bristol – was only a village at that time, yet it already had a reputation for child related offences. In 1875, for example, a 33-year-old laundress, Charlotte Gingell, had been found guilty of the lesser charge of concealing the birth of her child after a naked baby girl had been found at the bottom of her well in Stapleton.
When questioned about it, she had tried to stab herself. Her case was deemed to be novel; many concealment cases were the result of young single women who had been seduced, and who hid the bodies of their illegitimate children to ‘hide their shame’ – according to the judge at Charlotte’s trial. Her case was seen to be far worse, as she was a married woman with two older children. She had been found guilty and sentenced to 18 months’ hard labour; but she was not found guilty of murder, despite evidence that the child had been born alive, and died due to either asphyxiation or drowning.
Charlotte appears to have been pregnant with a child by a different father to that of her elder children – then aged three and eight – and her brother and sister-in-law, who she lived with, had told her she would have to go and live somewhere else if she was pregnant. She was worried about her situation, and what would happen with regard to her work and her home if she gave birth to another child.
Like Charlotte Gingell’s, Elizabeth Pratt’s was seen to be a ‘very unusual case’. Usually, if a woman like Elizabeth had an illegitimate child and could not or would not take care of it, it might be looked after elsewhere – or she might even kill it, as the numerous infanticide cases in the 19th century show. There was, to some degree, sympathy with mothers in such a plight, and those charged with infanticide were often found guilty of a lesser offence, or reprieved if convicted.
But Elizabeth had not abandoned her child in the hope that the cold might kill it; she had not drowned it; she had not appeared to want it dead. Instead, she had wrapped it up warmly and left it in a woman’s garden, where it would be quickly and easily found. She could not keep her child, but she wanted it to survive and be cared for. This was recognised when her case was heard at the Assizes, the judge stating that ‘she had done nothing but abandon the child, and it was immediately afterwards found and taken care of.’
Elizabeth was from a labouring family, and poverty may have helped to explain her offence. Her father, William, was a labourer in Cromhall, a village in south Gloucestershire, around 11 miles from Stapleton; his wife, Elizabeth, worked as a washerwoman. Neither were well-paid or secure occupations. The 1871 census shows that at that time, William and Elizabeth were maintaining seven children, aged between two and 13. Cromhall was a rural parish, and work was predominantly agricultural labouring.
By the age of 13, Elizabeth was working away from home as a servant, acting as nurse to a family in Berkeley. At the age of 18, she received her first criminal conviction. At the Coleford Petty Sessions on 8 January 1884, she was found guilty of stealing money, and sentenced to a month in prison.
In 1887, she became pregnant, and gave birth in the September of that year. She appears to have been able to look after her child initially – but what happened three months later to make her abandon her child? Could her parents no longer support her, or had she been in a relationship that ended? The records do not record more than the cursory details; we know that Elizabeth was just 4 feet 11 in height, had dark brown hair and could read and write imperfectly; but we do not know the motive for her abandoning her child after three months of looking after it. The records also fail to record whether the child was male or female, or what happened to it after it was discovered.
What is known is that poverty impacted on the lives of those around her. The record of her conviction is on a page full of petty offences – drunken behaviour, begging, hawking without a licence. They are offences committed by those at the bottom of the social ladder, who are trying to either eke out a living or drink when they have nothing else.
Elizabeth was initially sent to Lawford’s Gate, a House of Correction in Bristol. Then, at the Gloucestershire Assizes, Elizabeth was sentenced to 14 days’ hard labour in prison. She was discharged on 1 March 1888. She then returned to service, and in 1891 was working for the Reverend Gerald N Jackson at Tytherington vicarage (Tytherington being a village near Cromhall), acting as the family’s cook. Did the Jackson family offer her a bit of Christian charity? It seems unlikely that in a small community, near her birthplace and where her family lived, that they would have been unaware of her history and convictions.
In Tytherington, Elizabeth seems to have made a life for herself. She met a new partner, a labourer named Thomas Creed, four years her junior, and on 5 August 1893, at the parish church in Tytherington, aged 26, she married him. The wedding ceremony was conducted by her employer, vicar Gerald Jackson. She then had three children – Beatrice, born in 1894, Lucinda Emily Maud, born in 1898, and John, born 1900 – before the family relocated to Caldicot, Monmouthshire, where Thomas found work as a fireman. In 1911, the family was living there, seeing their two younger children through school.
What happened to the poor child who was abandoned in a garden in Stapleton? Absent from the censuses, and not referred to by name in either press reports or prison registers, it is hard to tell. However, a William Stevens Pratt was born in the autumn of 1883 in the Thornbury district of Gloucestershire – which included Cromhall – and died there three years later. William was of course Elizabeth’s father’s name; and it was fairly common for illegitimate children to take their natural father’s surname as their middle name. Perhaps Elizabeth had fallen pregnant to a Mr Stevens’ child, and abandoned the baby, only for him to die aged three.
The abandoning of her first child, and her prior conviction for theft, indicate a troubled spell for Elizabeth as a young woman, living in a community with a limited range of options for a girl from a labouring family. It also shows that living in the Gloucestershire countryside was not a rural idyll, but one fraught with hardship, the struggle to find and maintain work, to get money, and to cope when difficult situations arose. The criminal registers and newspaper reports suggest that Elizabeth’s life was not, in this respect, an unusual one.
Based on records from the British Newspaper Archive and Ancestry. One of the criminal records for Elizabeth states that she was born in Lydbrook, in the Forest of Dean; although this is feasible, as it is not too far away, I suspect that this is an admin error, for there are no other records relating to a woman of this name being born in that area at the right time, and other records give her birthplace as Cromhall.