Sadly we continue to hear stores of new-born babies left in A&E departments with message from the police appealing for the mother to come forward as she made require hospital care. This is in 21st century Britain where there is little or no stigma now about having a child outside of wedlock, and (hopefully) plenty of material support available for young mothers and their babies.
Neither of these situations pertained to the mid-nineteenth century however.
Isabella Kirk was a ‘delicate-looking young woman’ who found herself pregnant and unmarried and without means. If she employment she was likely to lose it and it is very unlikely that the father of her child would be able to step up to his responsibilities, even if he knew he had them.
Abortion was illegal and dangerous and so Isabella’s options were limited. Unfortunately she picked the worst of these.
On the 23rd November 1847 Mrs Cook was walking along East Street in Walworth at around 8 or 9 o’clock in the evening when she saw something lying in the mud of a passageway. To her horror when she investigated she found it to be a small baby, lying face down in a puddle. When she moved it ‘it cried out bitterly’, so she lifted it up and took to the workhouse infirmary.
Efforts were made to revive the child but ‘such were its injuries..it being so inhumanely placed in such a place, on a cold, bleak and rainy night, that it would not suck when taken to one of the nurses, and [it] died at six o’clock the next morning’.
It is a heartbreaking story and made worse perhaps by Isabella being dragged into the Lambeth Police Court on a charge of murder. At first no one had been able to identify the mother and it was only after the inquest that sat on the dead child ordered an investigation that she was tracked down. A can driver that lodged in the same house at Isabella had noticed a change in her and when police made enquiries he gave them a description. The police picked her up in Walworth Road a few days before her hearing at Lambeth.
The cabbie, a surgeon and the poor girl’s sister all testified that Isabella was the mother of the deceased child and the magistrate committed her for trial at the Old Bailey.
Isabella’s trial took place on 13th December 1847. She was convicted of infanticide and sent to prison for a year. She was 20.
[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, December 01, 1847]