A terrible discovery in Bunhill Row reveals a domestic tragedy.

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Elizabeth Collinson was employed as a servant in the household of Mr Morris, a cabinetmaker in Curtain Road, Shoreditch. When his wife discovered that her unmarried serving girl was pregnant she ‘turned her out of doors’ so she wouldn’t bring disgrace on the family.

It was a heartless thing to do but typical of the way that ‘bastard bearers’ were treated in the nineteenth century. Very many unmarried servants fell pregnant as a result of relationships with other servants, sometime consensual, often not, and it was invariably the woman that was held responsible. A servant with a child, especially a baby, who no longer an asset but a liability; her work would be restricted and there was another mouth to feed. So Mrs Morris’ decision – callous as it was – is also understandable. However, in this case she may have had another reason for expelling Elizabeth and her unborn child.

Elizabeth left the house and took a box with her. Several weeks later the box was discovered in a house in Bunhill Row belonging to a surgeon. Inside was the body of a baby, ‘partly eaten by rats’. The girl was eventually arrested and in April 1839 she appeared before the magistrates at Worship Street charged with ‘making away with her illegitimate child’.

In court Elizabeth stood her ground. She told the justices that the cabinetmaker Morris was the father of her child and that he had ‘given her something to procure a premature birth’. She was suggesting that Morris had told her to get an abortion and supplied her with the abortifacient. That was illegal but it was hard to prove and Mrs Morris was quick to dismiss the girl’s testimony as lies, she said she didn’t believe her at all.

I wonder however if there was some truth in what Elizabeth had said. Mr Morris wouldn’t be the first employer to have an affair with a younger woman working in his house. Moreover, he held all the cards and could have easily told Elizabeth she would be dismissed if she didn’t do as he said. As for Mrs Morris, we might imagine why she’d want the girl gone and, while being angry and upset at what her husband had done, may also have been desperate to save her marriage in a society where divorce was all but impossible for a woman of her class.

The magistrates turned their ire on her however, reprimanding her for her ‘inhumanity in turning the poor girl into the streets under such circumstances’. The court then heard medical evidence concerning the state of the child when discovered. It was impossible to tell, the witness stated, whether the baby had been born dead or had been killed shortly afterwards. That mattered as if the latter could be proved then Elizabeth would face a trial for infanticide. Since it could not the justices committed her to be tried for concealing the birth of her child, which carried a maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment.

Only three trials of women accused of concealing a birth are recorded in the Old Bailey Proceedings after April 1839 and Elizabeth is not one of them. Perhaps the prosecution was dropped or insufficient evidence secured to bring it to court. Maybe Morris recognised that for this story to be heard again in open court might expose him to criticism, humiliation or worse, a charge of aiding an abortion. Given all of this it seems it was in no one’s interest to drag Elizabeth through the courts and into a prison, her life was already ruined by the disgrace and the best she might hope for was that someone else would give her a position and that she might leave this tragedy behind her.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 22, 1839]

A sad end for an unwanted baby: clubbed to death in a Southwark toilet

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In May 1848 a young woman presented herself at the door of Sarah Potter’s house in Jane Street, Southwark asking if she might take a room. She told her she was a ‘servant out of place’, temporarily she hoped, and that her name was Ann Brightwell.

Ann seemed like a ‘decent young woman’ so the mechanic’s wife took her in. About a month later however, Sarah began to have some suspicions about her new tenant and confronted her. Mrs Potter clearly thought that there was more to Ann’s story than she had revealed at first, and she ‘charged her with being enciente‘ (or in other words, pregnant).

For a servant to get pregnant in the 1800s was common but still unacceptable in the eyes of a disproving society. Ann’s plan was to hide herself away from the shame but despite her denials, Mrs Potter had found her out. Whether this changed her plans or not it is impossible to say. Ann might have intended to have the baby in her room in Southwark and then leave it at the workhouse door or try and raise it alone.

Perhaps then this discovery precipitated a terrible chain of events, or maybe the shock of being found out brought added stress which quickened her pregnancy. Either way things soon became much worse for the young servant.

On the 2 July Mrs Potter saw Ann leaving the ‘water-closet’ carrying an umbrella, ‘in a hurried state’. When Sarah investigated she was in no doubt that a new born baby had been  disposed of inside.

The police and a surgeon were summoned and Ann arrested. In the Southwark Police Court Dr Robert Tebbett deposed that in his opinion there was no doubt the child had been born alive. Mrs Potter told the magistrate that she had heard Ann admit that she ‘had destroyed her child by casting it into the water-closet, and striking it with the end of the umbrella’.

Ann denied all of the evidence brought against her, as well she might. She was being accused of infanticide, a crime that carried a capital charge until 1938. While women continued to sentenced to death throughout the later 1800s none were executed in London but Ann could not rely on that. The magistrate committed her for trial and at that point she disappears from the records.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, July 31, 1848]

A young woman’s desperation pushes her to infanticide

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]

A sad example of Victorian poverty

Police Constable Williams of N Division, Metropolitan Police, was patrolling his beat late in the evening of November 28th 1863 when he saw a man he found suspicious. As the PC retreated into a doorway he saw the man stop outside a building on Kingsland Road near to a yard for the King’s Head pub.

The man unfastened his coat and trousers and withdrew a parcel which he flung into a nearby  empty building. The PC showed his lamp and demanded to know what the man was doing and what was in the package.

“A dead kid” came the reply. The officer now asked him to show him but the man, Charles Law, at first refused. PC Williams insisted and the two retrieved the parcel. It contained the tiny dead body of a female child.

When asked how he came by it Law replied: “It was a premature birth from a poor woman, and I, being a medical man, undertook to get rid of it to save the burial fees, which would have been 7s and 6d”. He then added that he wished he’d buried it in the garden and avoided being caught with it. The policeman took him into custody.

Back at the station house another body was found in his pocket, both were ‘rather small’, both premature and about six months old according to the divisional surgeon who appeared to give evidence at Law’s hearing at the Worship Street Police Court. He was unable to say whether the children had breathed at all or had been still born.

The building into which the body had been thrown was a house in the process of being built or renovated and the court was informed that in daylight anyone could have seen and found the remains of the children Law was disposing of. The clerk told the justice that under law exposing bodies in this way was an offence at common law. As Charles Law stated himself to be a ‘medical man’ he was saved the inconvenience of being remanded in custody and was bailed at his own surety of £80 and two from his friends at £40 each.

Was Law an abortionist? He told the court one of the women lived in Nottingham and that he was merely clearing up on their behalf. There is no Charles Law prosecuted at the Old Bailey for abortion (which was illegal) so perhaps he was telling the truth. It may be however, that there was simply not enough evidence against him. It does however, tell us something about the desperation of women who either wished to lose unwanted children or who miscarried and could not afford the fees to bury their offspring.

 

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, November 29, 1863]