In my 18th century research, I’ve found the odd case of pregnant women being ferried across parishes in an attempt by overseers to shift financial responsibility for the women and their soon-to-be-born children to others… and these cases were in Old Poor Law days, before the divide between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor became as sharp as it did post-1834.
So perhaps this following case shouldn’t shock me – but it does. In a case that took place not long after the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act came into effect, the case of Bridget Neville and her daughter Margaret remains horrifying nearly 200 years after it took place.
On Monday 6 February 1837, just four months before Victoria became Queen, an inquest took place into the death of a little girl named Margaret Neville, who was just short of two years old.
The inquest, heard before coroner Thomas Stirling at the Windmill Inn in Turnham Green, now west London, caused considerable interest both amongst residents and the press, and raised the issue of the responsibilities of the overseers, and the need for compassion when carrying out their duties.
It was heard that Margaret was one of two children of Bridget Neville and her unnamed husband (possibly Michael). The Nevilles, who may have been Irish, were desperately poor, unemployed, and were having to travel around the country in search of work.
They had been in Croydon before, where, on their daughter Margaret being poorly, they had taken her to a surgeon, who had diagnosed an inflammation of the chest, and had given Margaret a blister, and her mother some powders to give to her.
They had then had to leave Croydon, as a policeman had turned up at their lodging house at midnight and given them a couple of hours’ notice to leave. They had then walked to Wandsworth, where they spent their last pennies on a night’s lodging.
They had then decided to get to Bristol on foot, in the hope of finding work there. However, on reaching Brentford in Middlesex around 3pm on the previous Friday morning, they realised that little Margaret, who had been poorly for the past month, had taken a turn for the worse.
They decided to stay in Brentford for the night, and booked a bed in a “common lodging-house” – all that they could afford.
But when the landlady saw how ill Margaret was, she refused to allow them to stay, saying:
“since the Poor Law Commissioners had come down there, the Overseers had given orders to the lodging-house keepers not to shelter any persons who were likely to become a burden to the [Poor Law] Union.”
So the Nevilles then went to another lodging house, where they were again met with a refusal. At a third house, the landlady said they could stay if they got the permission of the overseer, telling them where he could be found.
The overseer, Mr Burness, worked as a leather-cutter or shoemaker. The Nevilles – Margaret being carried in her mother’s apron as the latter walked – duly arrived at his workshop and asked leave to stay. He looked at Margaret, and told her to get back to Wandsworth:
“Do you think I’d give leave for this woman to lodge you, and your baby so bad as it is? No, indeed, go away with you.”
Bridget cried, “I am afraid my child will die in my apron – what am I to do in that case?”
“I don’t care where you go, so long as you don’t stop here.” retorted Burness. (As this was relayed to the coroner, the people present cried, “Shame, shame.”)
Bridget tried to remonstrate with the overseer, but she shouted, “Do you want to insult me in my own house? I won’t give you leave, so be off with you.”
The Nevilles were then made to leave, but, having been given the local magistrate’s name – Mr Crighton, a former poor law guardian – by the last lodging house landlady, there proceeded a tragic tour of houses in search of him.
They then went to another lodging house, where the lady who opened the door told them that the “gentleman upstairs” had warned her if she took them in, and “the child should die during the night, she would have to bury it at her own expense.”
The lady gave the Nevilles a shilling, and told them the magistrate’s correct address. But the footman there refused to let them in, saying the magistrate only let him take messages to him once a day, and that time had already gone.
They then traipsed back to the last lodging house owner. She said, “I am very sorry, but I cannot let you remain, as if the child dies the parish officers will call me to an account for doing so.”
The Nevilles were in despair. They had spent all day going back and forth, trying to find anyone who would help them, or give them accommodation where they could look after their sick toddler. What were they to do?
In a final, desperate, move, they went into the Prince of Wales public house in Turnham Green. Once under the gaslight, Bridget peeked into her apron to see how Margaret was, only to see her child’s dead face reflected in the gloomy light.
Margaret had died whilst her parents had been desperately seeking help, and for the past half an hour, Bridget had been unknowingly carrying her corpse around in her apron.
The pub landlord, a Mr Battersbee, soon realised what had happened, and did what nobody else had done – he helped. He called the Chiswick overseer, a builder named Mr Adamson, who immediately admitted the family into the Chiswick workhouse, and put them before a warm fire, giving them food and drink.
The coroner’s jury was clear on what the problem was.
They said the failure to help the Nevilles was an effect of the “boasted New Poor Law system”, where “poor things were now turned out of even the common lodging-house, by order of the overseers, who would let them die in the street.
“The poor now could get no relief, but that was not the worst of the matter; they must not even ask for relief under pain of being sent to prison.”
They added that,
“Poverty was not the only crime to which the poor were subject, as sickness appeared now to be one also.”
Both coroner’s jury and the press found that although Margaret had died from the inflammation of her chest, if she had had sufficient care and attention earlier, she could have survived. Therefore, the ‘inhumanity’ of the overseer had contributed.
The jury stated that the Brentford overseer should have had the humanity to admit the family to the workhouse, and that in failing to do so, he had shown ‘great neglect’ in refusing shelter or help to them.
But that did not help the Nevilles, who had lost a daughter in their desperate search for charity and compassion.
Source: The Champion and Weekly Herald, 12 February 1837