Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Tag: coroner

Unnatural conduct: the murder of Elizabeth Peers

Elizabeth Peers was not missed.

She had been gone all night, and most of the following day, but still she was not missed.

This is not to say that her parents had not noticed she had gone; more that they knew, but didn’t care. They didn’t miss her.

William Peers was a Liverpudlian labourer, a brick-setter, with a drink problem. His wife Elizabeth wasn’t much better. On the evening of Saturday. 28 October 1905, the couple had been arguing.

They paused for long enough to send their youngest daughter Elizabeth, then aged 10, out from their house in Wendell Street, Toxteth, to buy ‘some pork’. Either they had a strange urge for meat at 12.30am on a Saturday night, or they simply wanted a pretext to get their daughter away from them.

Even though it was absurdly late to send a 10-year-old out on errands – she should have been safely in bed – they sent her anyway. And then they failed to notice when she didn’t come back.

Instead, they went to bed. The next day, they failed to notice Elizabeth’s absence for some time – or at least, they failed to tell the police that their young daughter was missing. Eventually, Mr Peers asked some local relatives if Elizabeth was with them, and found out that she wasn’t.

The 1901 census for Toxteth, Liverpool, showing the Peers family (from Ancestry)

Elizabeth wasn’t with them, because she had been found that day in Back Cullen Street, an alleyway off Smithdown Road, and just two roads away from her home, dead. She had been sexually assaulted before being killed, and had probably been killed shortly after leaving her home on that Saturday night. Her father, obviously, didn’t find her, as he hadn’t looked. Instead, someone – presumably police – had to go to him to tell him his neglected daughter had been found dead in an alley, and removed to the mortuary.

Her cause of death was uncertain – some papers said she was throttled, others that she had been suffocated. All agreed that she had been ‘violated’ – raped. One paper went further and said that she died as a ‘result of the shock and violence to which she was subjected’ during the sexual assault; another that she had been gagged during her ordeal. This was a girl who was still little, who should have been tucked up in bed at home – but who was sent out by drunken parents who failed to protect her or ensure that she was safe.

The inquest shed light on the nature of Elizabeth’s family and associates. One man, a dock labourer named George Amos Wolstenholme, gave evidence that he had seen a man running from the alley at around 1.30 that morning, sweating, with his clothes ‘disarranged’ – but his evidence was dismissed as ‘unreliable’.

Elizabeth’s movements could not be traced – unsurprising given the antisocial hour that she had been out on her errands – and her assailant couldn’t be identified. The press criticised the police as having ‘no clue’, but there being a verdict of wilful murder against persons unknown was returned, the coroner and the jury knew who should really be blamed for this poor girl’s murder.

The jury approached the coroner, and asked him to say something to the public. He willingly agreed, and, as clear as he could, ‘severely censured the parents for the child for their unnatural conduct.’

Elizabeth may not have been noticed in life, but she was in death. When she was buried, it was said that more than 30,000 people came to stand on the Liverpool streets to see her hearse and three mourning carriages make their way to the Smithdown Cemetery. Streets were crowded; the blinds were drawn in the houses on the route; and women cried out for justice as the hearse went past them. The funeral procession was headed by three mounted police and a large number of policemen; perhaps out of respect for the child, but more likely to prevent the crowds turning nasty on the chief mourners, the parents.

There was some form of divine retribution for Elizabeth’s negligent parents. On Hallowe’en, 31 October, Mrs Peers – said to have been suffering greatly from shock, to the extent that the ‘poor creature can scarcely be held responsible for her acts’, spilt a paraffin lamp in the Peers home, setting the furniture on fire. Dazed, she was dragged out of the house by neighbours, and once in the street, fell, and hurt her face quite badly. This was the same woman who on being told a child had been found dead, commented, “God help some poor mother” before going to get some more drink.

The murder reinforced what many newspapers saw as the criminality of Liverpool’s residents, and in particular, of its slum areas. They eagerly covered the case, noting the poor area in which Elizabeth lived, and how children were neglected there. One article was headlined ‘Child life in a Liverpool slum’ and noted how one witness had said that it was not unusual for children to be out playing at midnight in the neighbourhood, and so it would not have been thought strange for Elizabeth to be out at that time.

Elizabeth was a ‘slum child’, given independence far beyond what we give our children today. She was sent on errands, forced to be older than her years as her parents dealt with their lives by numbing their feelings with alcohol.

It is not surprising that the press blamed her death on these parents, and on her location, as it enabled them to highlight concerns about the slums, and to argue for their destruction. It’s a shame they didn’t argue as forcibly for Elizabeth’s murderer to be caught, and for anyone with suspicions to report them. As it is, Elizabeth’s killer remained at large, and probably within the community the press criticised so harshly.

 

 

Sources: Dundee Courier, 23 November 1905, Lancashire Evening Post, 22 November 1905, Portsmouth Evening News, 1 November 1905, Derby Daily Telegraph, 4 November 1905, Gloucester Citizen, 22 November 1905, Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 23 November 1905, Dundee Evening Telegraph, 31 October 1905, Manchester Courier, 1 November 1905, Yorkshire Post, 16 November 1905

 

The old lady who was killed with an axe

This tale of murder from the East End of London, only a couple of years after the Whitechapel murders, inevitably grabbed my attention, as the victim shared her surname with me (although, I hasten to add, it wasn’t a relation of mine)!

It was a Wednesday morning in February in Poplar, and Mrs Ann Charlotte Darby, aged 81*, was getting ready to visit her daughter, named later in the press as Mrs Cummings. Ann lived in lodgings at 14 Sophia Street, her ‘home’ being one back room on the ground floor of the building; she had only lived there for three months, but had been in Poplar itself for at least two decades.

This elderly lady had been born Ann Charlotte Osborne at Welch’s Buildings, Shoreditch, on 30 July 1812, the daughter of William and Ann. She was baptised at St Leonard’s Church on 12 October that year. At the age of 17, on Christmas Day 1829, she married William Darby, a rigger from Bethnal Green and at least a decade her senior, in his home parish.

The marriage of William and Ann Darby in 1829

The couple had several children, including Anne, Thomas, Eliza, Martha, Sarah, Elizabeth, and Charlotte, all born in Limehouse. In 1851, the family were living at 31 Eastfield Street, Limehouse; they were a labouring class family, and both Anne and her eldest daughter, 18-year-old Anne, worked as comb makers.

Ten years later, Anne, Eliza, Martha and Sarah were all working as chair caners, living at the family home at 30 Star Street. This was part of a notorious slum area off Commercial Road – Paul Daniel has stated that this was known as Planet Street at the time, but a check of neighbouring streets in the 1861 census suggests that the Darbys definitely lived at this location, in one of the many two-up, two-down houses on the street, which were regarded as being both small in size and with low ceilings

After her husband’s death in 1866, Anne continued to work as a chair caner for a while, and lived in various locations in the wider Tower Hamlets area, remaining close to her surviving family. In 1893, her one daughter Mrs Cummings was only minutes away, as she lived in Sherbutt Street, off Sophia Street; back in 1871, Ann had been living at 3 Duff Street, with another daughter, Eliza, and Eliza’s three young children, George, William and Elizabeth, visiting her.

Her financial status, never great, reduced over the years, until in 1881, she was living at 76 Kerby Street in Poplar, which was a rag shop. There, still eking out a living caning chairs, she was sharing the building with another family, although at the time of the 1881 census, she was being visited by her married daughter Charlotte, now Charlotte Jones.

Although Ann was over 80, she was in good health and regarded as being a high-spirited woman. On 22 February 1893, she had stayed with her daughter a while, but then, it being about midday, she went to the Poplar Poor Law Union to receive her outdoor relief money – she was poor and relied on this money for her food and rent. She received three shillings a week, and went to Hodgson Craig, the Relieving Officer for the west district of Poplar, every Wednesday to get her money.

In the evening, one of her granddaughters, Martha Cummings, aged 16, went to visit her grandmother and found her in a jolly mood; she stayed until around 8pm. It is testimony to Ann’s personality that she was seen as good company – after Martha had left, one of Ann’s other daughters, Eliza Mitchell, then called round and stayed with her mother until 9.45pm, making up her elderly mother’s bed for her as she was now getting tired.

Later, before the coroner, Eliza said that she was ‘under the impression’ that a niece, Martha Johnson, came to sleep with Ann at night, as she had done so in her previous lodgings at Grundy Street; if so, however, there would have been no reason to prepare Ann’s bed for her that night.

There was apparent quiet now at Sophia Street until the next morning, on 23 February. One of the other lodgers at number 14 had gone to visit Mrs Cummings, but realised that she hadn’t repaid Ann for sixpence she had lent her neighbour the day before. Martha was duly despatched to her grandmother’s lodgings to give her the sixpence, the women knowing the old lady would need money that day.

Martha, on reaching number 14, found her grandmother’s door open. She went in and found her grandmother apparently asleep in bed. But on getting nearer, she saw that there was something not right – Ann’s face was an ashen colour, and, frightened, Martha ran back to her mother, and cried,

“I believe there is something wrong with grandmother. She is still in bed, and her face is quite white!”

Her mother and the other woman ran back to the house, and on pulling back the neatly drawn bedclothes from Ann’s body, found that she had been gruesomely murdered – a bloodstained butcher’s cleaver still lying on her pillow. She had been struck behind the right ear, a blow that caused the sheets underneath her to become saturated with blood. The only relief to her family was that Ann had been killed while asleep.

Burglary did not appear to be the motive: Ann’s purse was found under her pillow, still containing her money (one shilling in silver and fourpence and three-farthings, all in bronze), and she was known to be on poor relief. Although one of her daughters had taken out a life insurance policy on her mother, it was only for a small amount. One mistake appeared to have been made by the killer – a clue lay in the thumbprint found on the inside of the door to Ann’s room, but the print was unfortunately rather faint.

An inquest was held on Ann’s body at the Poplar Town Hall the day after her death, presided over by Mr Wynne Baxter. At this inquest, it was heard that although Ann had been friendly with her neighbours, her friends did not regard it as a terribly salubrious place to live, and the day prior to her death, had been discussing moving her to a ‘more respectable’ house.

Honora’s entry in the Colney Hatch admission registers

Then a suspect was named – or rather, this person was seen as dodgy enough to be fingered by the police, without much evidence. The coroner mentioned that another lodger of 14 Sophia Street was Honorah or Honora Driscoll, known as Norah. She was known to have previously been an inmate of Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, ‘suffering form mental affliction’.

‘The facts given in evidence showed that the crime must have been committed by someone in the house,’ said the coroner; and Eliza Mitchell stated that Norah Driscoll had been home when she had gone to visit Ann, and had still been at number 14 when Eliza left. The next morning, Norah had apparently come to stand at Ann’s bedside with the other women, and she was the one who put her hands on the body to check if it was cold.

Others living at number 14 – Mrs Sweeney, presumably the woman who had borrowed sixpence from Ann, and the Goss family – had alibis for the time of Ann’s death. The coroner stated that:

“no-one in the house could have done the deed except Norah Driscoll. She had been in an asylum, and when insanity was fixed in a person it was possible for them to commit acts and be oblivious of them.”

Her period of insanity was presented as though it was recent, but the Colney Hatch Asylum records show that Honora Driscoll was actually admitted some three decades earlier, on 16 October 1867, although she was not released until 1 November 1875. **

Norah was also deemed to be guilty because she was so calm afterwards; the coroner added that she might have been “insane on Wednesday night but sane on Thursday morning”.

She was also seen as the black to Ann’s white – Norah was also reported in the newspapers as being an elderly woman (referred to as “Old Mrs Driscoll”), and also in receipt of poor relief, but whereas Ann was perceived as a jolly old lady, doing her best in straitened circumstances, Norah was seen as a mad old woman, akin to the perception of certain women as witches throughout history.

There was no substantive evidence against Norah, despite the suspicions of the police and the coroner, and the jury – although not in a unanimous decision – erred on the side of caution. Norah Driscoll was at the Town Hall when a verdict of wilful murder against person or persons unknown was returned.

As 2000 people were said to have gathered outside the court and were ‘excitable’, Norah was helped to escape from the Town Hall by the police, who made her climb down a ladder from the building’s back windows, whilst disguised.

Accompanied by the vicar of Poplar, the Hon James Adderley, she was swept through neighbouring schools, the church grounds and East India Dock Road to her lodgings, unnoticed by the crowd at the Town Hall.

 

 

SOURCES: Illustrated Police News, 4 March 1893; Tamworth Herald, 11 March 1893; Reynolds’s Newspaper, 12 March 1893; FreeBMDs – death of Ann Charlotte Darby, March 1893, Poplar vol 1c page 480; death of William Darby, Dec 1866, Stepney, vol 1c page 375; 1851-1881 censuses for Limehouse and Poplar on Ancestry; Lunacy Patients Admission Registers, 1846-1912 on Ancestry.

 

NOTE 1: The majority of press reports into Ann’s murder stated that she was 79, and this is the age given on her death certificate. However, the records show that she was born in 1812, and therefore was around 81 when she died. 81 is also the age given in a few press reports. It’s not unusual for ages to be wrongly given or reported at this time.

NOTE 2: An Honora Driscoll was admitted to Banstead Asylum in Surrey on Christmas Eve 1884, and released on 12 January 1906; she was readmitted on 10 May 1909 and released four years later, on 24 November 1913. Honora Driscoll is also recorded as being admitted to various workhouses in Tower Hamlets in the 1880s and early 1890s; although these asylum and workhouse records would emphasise the depictions of her as a woman with long-term mental health issues, and in receipt of poor relief, her name was shared with many other women of Irish descent in late 19th century London and its environs, and so it is not possible to show that these are the same woman (especially as the entries only occasionally record a year of birth, and few other details).

 

 

Top Five: Resources for the history of autopsies and coroners’ inquests

An view of a coroner's inquest, 1826. (Wellcome Library, London, used under creative commons)

An view of a coroner’s inquest, 1826. (Wellcome Library, London, used under creative commons)

Thanks to a reader of this blog, Sherry, who asked me if I could recommend any books or publications that look at 19th century autopsy procedures, I thought I’d do a short list this week of resources for those wanting to know more about historical autopsies and also the role of the coroner.

The autopsy – also known as the postmortem – is the dissection and examination of a dead body, to establish a cause of death. The role of the coroner is aligned to this in that his or her role is to inquire (with the help of a jury) into any death that appears to be unnatural, through the means of an inquest. In Victorian times, the autopsy might be carried out either in operating theatres or in private homes – and coroner’s inquests might be held in a local pub.

Many stories I have covered on this site originate with a report of a coroner’s inquest, and, in fact, one of my own family history mysteries relates to my great-great-grandfather, who died in the 1890s.

An inquest was held to see whether he had died through neglect or as a result of manslaughter – irritatingly, the inquest records for West Sussex, where he died, have not survived, and the newspapers don’t seem to mention him, so it looks like I’ll never find out what the coroner said about this case (although the death certificate duly recorded a verdict of ‘neglect not amounting to manslaughter’, so I know what the coroner’s jury decided!). But anyway – onto my list.

1 . The Victorian Medico-Legal Autopsy, by Karyo Magellan

number-1

This fascinating article first appeared in Ripperologist magazine, but is now available on the Casebook website. It looks at autopsies and forensic examinations as they existed in 1888, the year that Jack the Ripper was wreaking havoc in east London.

 

2. Short History of the Autopsy, by Jack Gulczyński, Ewa Izycka-Świeszewska and Marek Grzybiak

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For an academic discussion of the history of the autopsy, try this (English language) article in the Polish Journal of Pathology. This is actually the second of two articles, and focuses on the period between the 16th and 21st centuries. It’s free to download as a pdf, which is a novelty with academic journal articles. 🙂

3. A Bite Into the History of the Autopsy, by Julian L Burton

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This is another academic article, this time from the journal Forensic Science, Medicine and Pathology (1(4), December 2005, pp.277-284). Part of it looks at the development of the autopsy during the 17th to 19th centuries, although its focus is limited to Europe.

 

 

4. The Coroners’ Society

number-4

The website for The Coroners’ Society of England and Wales has a page on its history, and that of the duty of coroners throughout history. It links to the inaugural minutes of the society from 1846, and refers to legislation such as the Coroners Act of 1887 (and if your interest is well and truly piqued, elsewhere on the site, you can learn how to become a C21st coroner…).

5. The National Archives

number-5

Although The National Archives (TNA) does not have any coroners’ records available to view on its own site, it has a useful research guide as to where you can find information about coroners’ inquests. These include records held at TNA (such as CHES 18 and ASSI 66), and those found in local archives as part of Quarter Session records (coroners being required to file their inquests there until 1860).

And also, remember that historic newspapers can also shed a surprising amount of detail on the process of Victorian postmortems, particularly in prominent murder cases. In the UK, you can try the British Newspaper Archive and Welsh Newspapers Online; or in the States, Newspapers.com.

Death by Broomstick: an unusual punishment, for an unusual crime

View over Bala Lake, with woman in Welsh costume; from the National Library of Wales (used under Creative Commons)

View over Bala Lake, with woman in Welsh costume; from the National Library of Wales (used under Creative Commons)

An interesting case from 19th century Wales this week, where it could be debated whether the victim’s family got justice, and whether the defendant got away with her criminal behaviour.

It was 13 March 1888, and in the village of Llanfor, near Bala in north Wales – where the devil was said to visit the village church in the guise of a pig –  neighbours Elizabeth Evans and Ann Jones were fighting. This was not something new. 51-year-old Elizabeth was known for her anger, and she and Ann appear to have frequently rowed.

Both were married women; Elizabeth was the wife of Thomas Evans, an under-gamekeeper, and Ann was married to Evan Jones, a local joiner. Both men worked for the Price family at their Bala estate, Rhiwlas Hall. Ann and Evan had nine children; the eldest, Alice, was only 13.

The families lived next door to each other, in cottages known as Penrhos Isa. They had been in their back gardens, separated by a fence, when they started arguing. This was the result of Elizabeth, that morning, having struck one of the Jones children. Ann had heard her child shout, and rushed into the garden, furiously hurling her broomstick – used for cleaning the floors of her cottage – at her neighbour. They continued shouting at each other, until Elizabeth, infuriated, threw the broomstick back at Ann, striking her hard on the head.

Ann ‘instantly fell down dead in the garden’. A post-mortem showed that she had received a fracture at the base of her skull. The Coroner’s Inquest, held at the County Hall in Bala, under the Merionethshire coroner, heard corroboration that death would have been instantaneous.

Elizabeth was hit – metaphorically, rather than with the broomstick again – with remorse, admitting her offence immediately to the police, and saying she was ‘quite prepared to accept the consequences’. However, whether she was quite as remorseful as she claimed is debatable, seeing as she then added that ‘the deceased and her children had given her frequent annoyance’.

Elizabeth was duly charged with manslaughter. At the Merioneth Assizes in July that year, she was found guilty – of ‘throwing a broomstick with provocation’. She had been on remand for the previous four months, and so the judge determined that she had been in prison long enough. He therefore sentenced her to just one day in prison, warning her ‘of the consequences of violent anger’.

Given that the consequences appeared to be just a day in a cell for killing a woman, it’s not clear that Elizabeth learned as much as the judge intended.

 

(Sources: South Wales Echo, 15 March 1888; The Cardiff Times, 17 March 1888; Llangollen Advertiser, 27 July 1888)

The Hall Green Tragedy Part 2: Scandal at the Undertaker's

This is part two of my retelling of the Hall Green Tragedy of 1895. For part one, see here.

It was not until the day after the deaths that the bodies were identified, after police found an address in Edward’s pocket.

His wife was brought to formally identify the bodies as those of her husband and her eldest daughter by her first husband. It was noted that ‘the distress and horror of the poor woman were most painful to witness’.

The Mermaid Inn in Sparkhill. Photo by Oosoom.

The Mermaid Inn in Sparkhill. Photo by Oosoom.

Carrie’s body was initially taken to the local pub, the Mermaid Inn, on Stratford Road, but later, both her body and that of Edward Birch were removed to the undertakers. Here, scandal ensued.

The undertaker unscrupulously allowed spectators to view the bodies on payment of a penny each admission fee.

The result was that his premises were ‘crowded with morbid sightseers’ all weekend, with women seen shaking their fists in Edward Birch’s dead face and shouting ‘May you go straight to hell!’.

The negative publicity this resulted in led to the undertaker promising to donate all money paid to Mrs Birch, but this did not lessen the views of other locals that this had been an ‘unedifying’, ‘repulsive’, spectacle.

Carrie’s inquest was held first, at the Mermaid Inn, with AH Hebbert, deputy coroner for North Worcestershire, presiding. Here, the verdict of wilful murder against Edward Birch was recorded, despite the couple appearing to have made a pact together to die.

The deputy coroner summed up by saying, ‘the extraordinary part of the case was that the girl consented to die’ but that if two persons agreed to kill themselves, but one of them survived, the survivor would be guilty of murder.

The jury expressed ‘strong dissatisfaction’ with how the bodies had been ‘housed’ – and the subsequent scandal – and ‘hoped it would not be long before a proper police-station, mortuary and ambulance’ was provided in Sparkhill.

Meanwhile, a search had been carried out in the family home, and police found several letters written by Birch. One read:

“E Birch, 59 Upper Highgate Street, Highgate, Birmingham. Nov 8th 1894. This is to shew that I will not be bested I worned her 12 mounths ago she dou in May 5th 1894 what she ourt not to… she as deceived me agin & when I get in drink it plays on my mind and I make the best of myself Ive taken her out & to places of amusement and then she will be after the men & in September last I give hir lef to go Sunday school and church if she be in by 9 and then she goes of with to fellers in the Ram till after 10 at night round the Mosley fields coaved with muck and paint… She is not my own child and this is the reason when I tell hir about it the mouther takes hir part and incurges hir in it. So this is the end of it.”

The next letter, sent to his parents in Wolverhampton on 5 January, stated:

“Dont put yourself about me of what you see and hear, I care for nothing as they ave brought it all on themselves. Emmer knows what I sed about genney when I was out of work being with that grieves till 1 o’clock in the morning as I keept from starving so long in 1893. So this makes to I have to keep of other mens kids and Calley is as bad…and have soon put her in trouble and this is the way out of it the Job is worse for me than hir as I shall go throw the same and no it tell the fokes to have mutch to say of this afair on either sides to envest into ther own life and they will no dout find soom black spots that will take a robbing out.”

The Victoria Law Courts, by Tony Hisgett

The Victoria Law Courts, by Tony Hisgett

An inquest on Edward Birch was held on 15 January at the Victoria Courts in Birmingham, before city coroner Oliver Pemberton. Here, Mrs Birch repeated the evidence that she had given at her daughter’s inquest, detailing the ‘painful relationship’ between her relatives.

At a small china teacup, which had the words ‘A present from Birmingham’ inscribed in gold round it, being produced, she burst into sobs – ‘it was given to me by my daughter on my 32nd birthday.’

Carrie’s younger sister Lilly, then aged around eight, then had to give evidence, followed by two of Birch’s colleagues at Messrs Lowe’s iron foundry in Upper Trinity Street. They noted that although quiet and intelligent as a worker, he was something of a drinker, and had been summoned before the courts recently for not sending one of his children to school.

The coroner stated that the dead man had ‘turned from the conduct of the parent and behaved in a manner almost impossible to describe.’ He went further; Birch was a ‘profoundly wicked man’, and he encouraged the jury to return a verdict of felo de se – that Birch had ‘feloniously, wilfully, and of malice aforethought did kill and murder himself’. The jury duly did so.

The funeral of Carrie Jones took place at Yardley Cemetery on the Monday morning. The funeral procession left her mother’s house at 59 Upper Highgate Street at 9.30am with the service taking place at 11am.

How did Mrs Birch cope with this double betrayal by her husband and daughter, followed by the double deaths and the publicity the events received?

Understandably, the press reported that she was ‘utterly prostrated, both mentally and physically’, to the extent of being unable to maintain either herself or her six other children, the youngest being only a few months old. In her lowest moments, but the community did not stigmatise her, instead rallying around her.

The jury had stated at Birch’s inquest that they expressed ‘deep sympathy’ for Mrs Birch, and collected money for her from each of the jurors at the end of the inquest. The coroner encouraged all the onlookers at the court to do the same.

Joseph Lock was appointed by the community to collect money on behalf of the Birch family, writing in the press that ‘any sums, however small’ would be welcome to help maintain the family as it would be ‘weeks, probably months’ before Mrs Birch was able to resume family life.

Another man, William L Sheffield, responded in the press that ‘the unfortunate woman Mrs Birch deserves some little help, and I shall be happy to contribute’, and others sent postal orders directly to the newspapers, asking for them to be forwarded on.

Selina Birch survived the ordeal, although life continued to be tough for her. She stayed in the Upper Highgate Street area for the next decade.

She worked as a laundress to maintain her children, and seems to have had at least two illegitimate children following Edward’s death – Jessie was born in 1898 and Lizzie in 1906.

In 1911, living at 6 Beales Buildings, Frank Street, in Balsall Heath, she stated that she was a widow with nine children, of whom two had died.

Significantly, though, despite being a widow, she wrote that her ‘present marriage’ had so far lasted 30 years, suggesting that she still saw Edward Birch very much as her husband.

Selina J Birch died in Birmingham in 1939, shortly before the start of the Second World War, aged 79 – having long outlived her unfaithful husband and naïve daughter.

Sources: 

The Standard, 9 January 1895, p.3; Nottinghamshire Guardian, 12 January 1895, p.8; Birmingham Daily Post, 12 January 1895; The Derby Mercury, 16 Jan 1895; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 20 January 1895; Ancestry, The Genealogist.

12 Days of Criminal Christmas: Drinking and Dying in 19th Century Liverpool

TheUsualIrishWayofDoingThingsThis series has already stated that Victorians liked to drink at Christmas. This was noted by elements of the 19th century press, and never made more clear than in a piece in the Yorkshire Herald in 1892.

The paper noted the ‘extraordinarily large number’ of violent and sudden deaths that had been reported to the Liverpool coroner that Christmas.

24 people had been reported to have died on Christmas Day alone, including one alleged murder, six children suffocated to death, and six elderly people found dead.

It was also reported that there had been several more deaths in the city on Boxing Day.

The Yorkshire Herald stated,

“The investigation of the coroner’s office show that drink is directly or indirectly responsible for the majority of the cases.”

Source: The Yorkshire Herald, 28 December 1892

 

"Poverty is not the only crime": death and the inhumane overseer of Brentford

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.

 

"Infant's Repast" by Ford Madox Brown (1848). This item is from the Pre-Raphaelite Online Resource www.preraphaelites.org, © Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery.

“Infant’s Repast” by Ford Madox Brown (1848). This item is from the Pre-Raphaelite Online Resource www.preraphaelites.org, © Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery.

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.”

Punch_Poor_LawThe 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

 

The Crime of Suicide

A woman diagnosed as suffering from melancholia with fear, or fear of everything, and with a propensity to attempt suicide (Wellcome Library, London)

A woman diagnosed as suffering from melancholia with fear, or fear of everything, and with a propensity to attempt suicide (Wellcome Library, London)

Suicide was a crime in England and Wales until 1961 (when the Suicide Act was passed). Originally, it was a sin in religious terms, but from the 13th century, it became a common law offence – one of ‘self-murder’ or felo de se.

A person could only be deemed to have committed this offence if they were sane; as time went on, inquests frequently determined that someone who had killed him or herself had done so while the balance of their mind was disturbed – thus suggesting that they were not to blame for their act.

Prior to 1822, a suicide victim’s possessions could be confiscated, a forfeit to the Crown, and thus his family could suffer financially as well as socially for an act not committed by themselves. Someone who killed themselves might also be denied a decent burial, being traditionally buried at a crossroads with a stake through their body.

In 1800, for example, Thomas Flynn, from Hammersmith, was found to have cut his throat, dividing his oesophagus and making it impossible for him to eat or drink. He survived for four days before succumbing to his injury.

An inquest was held the day after his death, where it was decided that he had ‘feloniously, wickedly, and of his malice aforethought, killed and murdered himself’ and the coroner ordered that he be buried ‘in some public highway’. [1]

But already, by this stage, attitudes were starting to change; and the perceptions of Flynn may have been influenced by knowledge – presented by witnesses at the inquest – that he was widely known to be a wife-beater and a generally violent man, who had tried to kill his wife before harming himself. Flynn’s ‘self-murder’ came at a time when public attitudes towards wife-beating were also hardening.

And in the late 18th century, people had started to publicly question whether suicide should be treated so harshly. As this website has detailed, David Hume wrote essays on suicide in the 1770s, and there was also a debate on whether suicide was an act of courage. Legal handbooks, however, still stressed that suicide was an act of the devil (see illustration below).

In Victorian England, attitudes varied. In 1871, Maria Norman, aged 50, was charged with attempting to commit suicide by taking a large amount of carbolic acid. She badly burned her mouth, lips and throat.

From Richard Burn's The Justice of the Peace, and Parish Officer (1773)

From Richard Burn’s The Justice of the Peace, and Parish Officer (1773)

She could have died – a doctor called to help her after she was discovered by her landlord refused to help, presumably because she did not have the money to pay him. But a local hospital physician gave her olive oil and glycerine to soothe her and she survived – only to be charged with a crime. [2] 

Yet five months later, a 45 year old labourer named William Atkins was charged with attempting to commit suicide by cutting his throat, at his home in Little Milton, Oxfordshire. He was taken to the county gaol, but when the magistrates were told they had to decide if he was sane, and that if he were, they would have to ‘send him for trial and he would be liable to severe punishment’, they decided they were ‘inclined to take a lenient view of the case’ – deciding he was not sane at the time, and therefore could be discharged. [3]

There was also sympathy for those impacted by suicide. In Oxfordshire, in 1873, an inquest jury clubbed together to give money to a woman, Leah Nicholls, whose husband Joseph had suffered from depression and had cut his throat, leaving her to look after their large family; this was not an isolated occurrence. [4]

What is evident from the many newspaper reports of suicides is that economic reasons and a history of depression were commonly given motives for individuals to kill themselves. Worry over how to feed one’s family, job insecurity during times of economic depression, and a fear of being forced to seek poor relief were all given as possible motives, although other motives could be complex and highly individual.

But they show that life in the past could also be stressful and traumatic, and lead to desperate acts. Some, like Flynn’s, may have been criminal acts, in a way; but many others deserved sympathy and understanding.

FOOTNOTES
1. Derby Mercury, 14 August 1800
2: Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper, 19 March 1871
3: Jackson's Oxford Journal, 26 August 1871
4: My personal research into Leah and Joseph Nicholls of Chipping Norton

 

 


 

 

 

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