A draper’s maid conceals her secret in the chimney



When Mary Ann Shinn took up a position as a ‘general servant’ with the family of Charles Debenham, a draper in Upper Clapton she attracted some attention because of her appearance. What was so special about her appearance is not spelled out but a few weeks later Mr. Debenham drew his wife’s attention to the 20 year-old maid. A doctor was summoned and he ‘quickly ascertained that a birth had occurred in her bedroom’.

Mary Ann had been pregnant when she arrived from ‘the country’ to take up work in London. One wonders at her mental state and whether she knew she was carrying an illegitimate child.

When challenged with the allegation she admitted giving birth and the dead body of an infant was later found in the chimney of her room. When examined it was found to have a wound in the throat ‘whereby the jugular had ben divided’.

At the coroner’s inquest the jury returned a verdict that the child had died from the injury caused by the wound to the neck, ’inflicted by the mother accidently in attempting to deliver it herself’.

It was a human tragedy that must have been played out hundreds of times across the nineteenth century as young women who found themselves pregnant and unmarried attempted to hide the shame and gave birth in private at terrible risk to themselves and their babies.

Until 1803 the law had insisted that unmarried women who gave birth in private had to prove that their babies had been born dead or face conviction for infanticide. Lord Ellenborough’s Act of 1803 changed that and placed the onus of proof on the prosecution (as it was for all other offences). Thereafter juries had the option to find women guilty of ‘concealment of birth’ (which carried a 2 year prison sentence) rather than infanticide which, like murder, attracted the death penalty.

In the Worship Street Police court Mary’s case was heard before the magistrate. She was, unusually as the paper recorded, allowed to sit through the evidence. Having heard the case against her the justice, Mr. Ellison asked if her parents were present. The police inspector was in the process of explaining that he did not believe she had any living relatives when ‘her stepfather and a friend’ appeared. They did not say anything however and Mary ‘after taking some stimulants’ (presumably because she had fainted under the pressure and humiliation) was taken away to the prison infirmary in a cab.

Mary was later tried for infanticide at the Old Bailey where she pleaded guilty to concealment and was given a good character by her employers. She went to prison for six months.

p.s I wondered if Charles Debenham was one of the Debenham family of drapers that established their business in the early 1800s. He was a draper but whether he was related to William Debenham (who joined forces with Thomas Clark in 1813 to establish Clark & Debenham – the forerunner of the modern department store) I cannot discover. If you know, please share.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, January 12, 1867]

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