‘He would have been alive only for my giving him what I did’: an 11 year-old admits to murder

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In April 1883 a lad of 11 named Arthur Harris Syres was brought before the Lambeth Police court magistrate where he confessed to causing the death of his little brother in early February. Arthur admitted that he had given his infant brother – who was just 12 months old – rat poison and gave the address of the shop that he bought it from. The magistrate decided that the full details of the case needed more careful investigation and remanded Arthur to the care of the local workhouse so they could be carried out.

A week later Arthur was back in court and more details emerged. His home address was given as Park Row, Peckham and his dead brother was named as Alexander Syres. A police sergeant (26P) deposed that Arthur had been brought to the station house by his stepmother. She explained that he child had been taken ill and had been vomiting. The poor thing had died soon afterwards but the doctor she consulted initially thought it might have been a complication of teething. It was only after this that Arthur admitted that he had given Alexander some rat poison that he’d purchased specifically for that purpose.

The magistrate, Mr Ellison, thought it all sounded very strange and once again remanded Arthur in custody. One of the first reforms of juvenile justice in the nineteenth century had been to stop sending children to adult prisons whilst they were on remand, which was why he was secured at a workhouse.

Another week passed before the case returned to Lambeth. More details emerged: the police now believed that it was ‘vermin poison’ that was used and that Arthur had bought ‘a pennyworth’ at a doctor’s shop. The doctor appeared and said the boy’s confession didn’t hold up because he’d said he’d purchased it from another boy working there. He denied that any lad dispensed poisons on his counter but of course he might have been trying to distance himself from the tragedy.

The discussion returned to the initial hypothesis that Alexander had died as a result of complications in teething. Mr Ellison wanted to know if the symptoms of this might be similar to those caused by poison. Dr Hemmings, who treated the child, agreed that they might.  Since little Alex had already been buried the only way to establish the truth for certain was to have his body examined and for that the justice would have to apply to the Home Secretary for a legal exhumation.

On May 4 Arthur learnt that while no decision had yet been made as to digging up his brother’s body it had been decided that he had a case to answer. It was now likely that the 11 year-old would face trial for causing the death of his brother and he was remanded in custody once more. This meant that he had now been in custody and separated from his family for three weeks, not knowing the outcome of the case against him and most likely not having any meaningful legal support. It is hard to imagine the torments he was going through.

On Friday 25 May Arthur was again set in the dock at Lambeth and again asked whether he had given his brother poison.  The lad continued to admit his guilt and so although no independent verification of his story could confirm this to be true the justice, this time Mr Chance, had little choice but to formally commit him to take his trial at the Old Bailey.

The trial took place on the 28 May and was quite short. Sergeant Ledger gave evidence as did Arthur’s stepmother, Margaret Syres. She told the court how while they had all believed that baby Alex had died as a result of his teething Arthur had admitted his role in the baby’s death to his sister Ada.

‘He would have been alive only for my giving him what I did’, he reportedly said and, when questioned by his parents, said he’d taken rat poison himself before.

However, doubts remained as to whether Arthur had administered rat poison or red precipitate poison (mercurite oxide) and Dr Butters (where Arthur claimed to have bought a twist of powder from an errand boy) was adamant that his servant would not have been able to have sold the boy the former.

It then emerged that on New Year’s Eve 1882  Arthur had been charged with attempting to take his own life. Inspector Thomas Worth told the Old Bailey court that on that occasion Arthur had ingested phosphorous paste (which was sometimes used as a rat poison). When asked why he replied that he’d run away from home because his parents ‘ill used him’.

Arthur’s confession was again given in court but when asked the defendant had nothing to say for himself. The jury acquitted him of manslaughter and he was free to go after several weeks of trauma. Whether he was able to return home however, or wanted to, is quite another matter. While the court was unable (and perhaps unwilling) to prove that an 11 year-old boy was a killer it is clear that Arthur Syres was a very troubled youth. His mother had died and his father had remarried and started a new family. It seems as if he was struggling to cope with the adjustment and acted up in the most extreme of ways.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 14, 1883; The Hull Packet and East Riding Times, Friday, April 20, 1883; The Standard (London, England), Friday, April 27, 1883;The Standard, Saturday, May 05, 1883; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 27, 1883]

NB: If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

Dead bodies dumped in a rubbish tip and a pair of Yankee fraudsters escape justice: all in a day’s business for London’s magistracy

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A pair of interesting cases for you this morning both brought before magistrates in London but neither of which ended in a conviction for any crime. Once again this is useful reminder that histories of crime that concentrate on the higher, jury courts of England will inevitably miss those cases which were dismissed much earlier in the criminal justice process.

In May 1847 two well-dressed young men were placed in the dock at Marlborough Street and accused of stealing. Their victim was a young woman named Eliza Williams who claimed to have lost a gold watch and chain and her purse. The crime was pretty standard – pocket picking – but the circumstances made it a little more unusual and, therefore, newsworthy.

Eliza claimed that she had met Robert Brownrigg Tolfrey at a ‘dancing room’ in Great Windmill Street. He’d approached her and asked her to dance. He spoke with a soft American accent and she accepted. Despite being distracted by the music and his attentions she was still aware enough to feel a tug on her watch chain. The chain broke but she quickly rescued it and the watch and place dit safely (she thought) in her pocket.

The couple parted for the next dance and Eliza instinctively checked for her watch – it was gone, as was her purse! Looking around another dancer caught her attention and pointed out Tolfrey and said they’d seen the watch chain hanging out of his pocket as he strode away. Eliza confronted him and although he vigorously denied stealing her property she had him arrested.

In court at Marlborough Street Tolfrey and his friend Robert Berkely Reynolds protested their innocence. A witness for Eliza said he’d seen Tolfrey pass the watch and purse to another man, perhaps named Nicholls, but he couldn’t be sure. There was no real evidence against either man and in this sort of case it was unlikely that the justice would be able to do anything unless previous convictions against them could be shown that would sow doubt in the mid of a jury.

That is why the men’s landlady was called I think.

Mrs Green said the men rented rooms form her at Golden Square off James Street giving their name as Berkley and passing themselves off as brothers recently arrived from America. While they were staying with her tradesmen would arrive and leave goods which soon vanished, suggesting a scam of some sort was being orchestrated there. When Mrs Green asked them to pay their rent they simply walked off leaving ‘nothing behind them except a false spring beard and mustachios’. The pair were clearly up to no good but, on this charge of ‘privately stealing from the person’, Mr Bingham could see no evidence that would stick in court, so he released them.

At Westminster a more disturbing case was heard before Mr Broderip. One of B Division’s police inspectors (named Donegan) was in court to report that ‘considerable excitement’ had been caused amongst the public in Lillington Street when human remains were discovered in a rubbish heap. He’d been called to investigate and had found bones that appeared to belong to a ‘human foot and arm’.

‘There were other bones’, he said, ‘smaller and larger, more advancing to decay, and evidently belonging to other bodies’. He had them collected for examination he explained.

In answer to a question from the magistrate Donegan said he didn’t believe the bones were recent but agreed that they might well come from a nearby medical school. A number of admission cards  from King’s College Hospital had been found amongst the rubbish and this strongly suggested a connected. The bones were probably the remains of persons whose bodies had been used in the teaching of anatomy, as the cadavers of the poor had been used for that purpose since the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832. The act was supposed to stop the practice of grave robbing which itself had been caused by the shortage of fresh specimens taken from the gallows.

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It was a grisly business and not one the authorities wanted to be given too much publicity. Once dissected the bodies of the poor were supposed to have been buried properly even if no headstone was set to commemorate them. The idea that they might end up in a communal rubbish tip was appalling and, as the magistrate termed it, ‘indecorous’. He instructed Donegan to call upon the board at King’s to make it clear to them that any future occurrences of this sort would not be tolerated.

According to the leading historian of the Anatomy Act of 1832 in the course of the Victorian period some 125,000 corpses were sold in the ‘anatomy trade’.1 Many of those leaving the bodies of their loved ones did so by placing them outside the doors of London’s main teaching hospitals (like King’s or St. Bart’s) knowing that they had no funds to bury them. I regularly visit the local cemetery close to my home, to pay my respects to my wife’s parents, and we usually pass by a solitary stone that commemorates the thousands of people who are buried within the grounds in unmarked graves, because their families could not afford to meet the costs of a funeral.

For every grave carefully tended or left to slowly degrade there are, in small and larger graveyards and cemeteries they length and breadth of the country, hundreds of thousands of burials which are left unmarked. Something to think about when next you visit one perhaps.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, May 4, 1847]

1. Elizabeth Hurren, Dying for Victorian Medicine: English anatomy and its trade in the dead poor, c.1834-1929(Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders, which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

‘The stench was horrible, and seemed as if from burnt bones or flesh’: the Spa Fields scandal of 1845

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Clerkenwell Police court was crowded on the morning of the 25 February 1845 and the magistrate must have quickly realized that local passions were running high. Most of those present either lived or worked in the near vicinity of Exmouth Street, close by the Spa Fields burial ground.

Burials no longer take place in Spa Fields and nowadays the gardens are an inner-city paradise on summer days as visitors eat their lunch, walk their dogs, or sunbathe on the grass. The London Metropolitan Archives is nearby and in Exmouth Market gourmands can enjoy a wide variety of food from the stalls and cafés that trade there.

The crowd in Mr Combe’s courtroom were represented by a pawnbroker and silversmith called Watts. He stepped forward to explain that he and his fellow ratepayers were there to seek an end to ‘practices of an abominable nature’ that had been taken place in the graveyard.

What exactly were these ‘abominable practices’?

The magistrate listened as  Mr Watts told him that while the burial ground was less than two acres in size and was estimated to be able to hold 3,000 bodies. In reality however, in the 50 years of its existence on average some 1,500 internments were taking place annually. In sum then, something like 75,000 people had been buried in a space for 3,000 and more and more burials were taking place, indeed there had recently been 36 in one day the pawnbroker said.

However, while the graveyard was crowded and this would have meant digging into extant graves and disturbing them, ‘not a bone was seen on the surface’. He (Mr Watts) would provide his Worship with evidence that the bodies of interned persons were routinely being dug up and burned to make room for fresh burials. Moreover many of those coffins removed were new, the wood ‘was fresh’ he added, and witnesses had seen human body parts hacked off by diggers.

The desecration of graves was one thing but the root of the complaint was actually the effect that this practice had on local people and their businesses. According to Watts:

‘The stench proceeding from what was called the “bone-house” in the graveyard was so intolerable that many of the residents in Exmouth–street, which abutted on the place, had been obliged to leave it altogether’.

Surely, the magistrate asked him, a prosecution could be brought against the parochial authorities that had responsibility for the place? Mr Watts said that the parish of St James’ was well aware of what was happening but were doing nothing to stop it.

‘The custom is’ he explained, ‘to disinter the bodies after they have been three or four days buried, chop them up, and burn them in this bone-house’.

Then he should certainly bring a charge against them Mr Combe advised. The clerk to the local Board of Poor Law Guardians was less sure however; since the burial ground was not subject to rates he didn’t think the parochial authorities could be held liable for it. The magistrate said that if the Guardians couldn’t interfere the matter should go to the Poor Law Commissioners and, if they didn’t not help, he would apply directly to the Homes Secretary (who, in February 1845, was Sir James Graham – a politician who, by his own admission, is only remembered by history as ‘the man who opened the letters of the Italians’ in the Mazzini case).

Police Inspector Penny (G Division) testified that he had visited the bone house after being presented with a petition signed by 150 locals.

He found ‘a large quantity of coffins, broken up and some of them burning…the smell was shocking, intolerable. There were coffins of every size there, children’s and men’s’.

The court heard from Reuben Room, a former gravedigger who’d left two year’s previously after ‘a dispute’. He said he’d often been asked to disinter bodies after a couple of days to make room for fresh burials. John Walters, who kept the Clerkenwell fire engine, gave evidence that he had twice had to attend fires at the bone house. He had found it hard to gain admission (suggesting that the authorities there were not keen for people to see what was going on inside) but when he had he’d seen ‘as many coffins as three men could convey, and a great deal of pitch was fastened to the chimney’ [i.e. blackening it], resulting from the burning of coffins.

The smell, he agreed, was ‘horrible, and seemed as if from burnt bones or flesh’. A large crowd had gathered that night and were ready to pull the place to the ground.

More witnesses came forward to testify to the horror of the bone house and the ‘abominable practices’ carried out there. Catherine Murphy, who lived in a house which overlooked the graveyard had seen grave diggers chop up a body with their shovels, and had intervened to admonish them when one of the men had lifted the ‘upper part of a corpse by the hair of the head’.

‘Oh, you villain’, she cried, ‘to treat the corpse so!’

Mr Combe  again advised Mr Watts and his fellow petitioners to make a full statement of their complaint to the board of guardians so that they could take action against whomsoever was to blame. Satisfied with this, the crowd emptied out of the courtroom.

Even by early 1800s the pressure on London’s graveyards was acute. The small parish burial grounds simply were not designed to cope with the huge numbers of burials that a rapidly growing population required. The local authorities recognised that larger cemeteries needed to be laid out so that room could be found for new internments. In 1824 a campaign began to build large municipal cemeteries on the edge of London, away from crowded housing and the danger of disease.

From 1837 to 1841 Parliament agreed to ‘the building of seven commercial cemeteries’ at Kensal Green, West Norwood, Highgate, Nunhead, Abney Park, Brompton and Tower Hamlets. By mid century (not long after the horror of Spa Fields) these were already filling up.* Acts in the 1850s caused most of the old seventeenth century burial grounds to be formally closed, some of these are now public gardens.

So the next time you take a stroll in Spa Fields enjoying your lunch or coffee, and taking in the antics of the local canines, you might try to imagine what this place smelled like when the bone house’s fires were in full operation.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, February 26, 1845]

*Weinrebb & Hibbert, The London Encyclopædia (p.129)

for other posts about the problems of London’s dead see:

Knocked down in the street a week before her wedding.

A grave legal dispute in Essex

‘The Lord is not so unjust as to hold a man responsible for a rash act when he is mad’: a man’s grief drives him to suicide.

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Finsbury Square, c.1828

I am breaking, ever so slightly, with the normal pattern of these blog posts today. This story concerns the police courts but is not a report from one of them. Instead it came under the headings for London’s coroners courts, which detailed the inquests into those that died in suspicious circumstances.

On the 22 January 1838 an inquest jury sat at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital to listen to the evidence in case of a retired police court officer who had died at the age of 60. Thomas Van had worked at the Worship Street Police court ‘for nearly 25 years’ and was ‘an active officer’.

Each of the London police courts were served by half a dozen officers, modelled on the system set up by the Fieldings at Bow Street in the mid 1700s. Officers ran messages, brought up prisoners from the cells, kept order in the court and may well have played a role as active investigators in some instances. This was how the Bow Street officers (dubbed ‘Runners’ of course) operated.

Van’s wife had died in last year and he missed her very much. He lived with his son in rented rooms at 13 Queen Street, Finsbury Square and his landlord, Benjamin Watkins, gave evidence to the inquest. At about 9 o’clock a week earlier Watkins had heard a loud thud from Van’s room above and rushed upstairs to see what had happened. There he found the man stretched out on the floor with blood flowing from a gash in his throat.

There was ‘a large table knife on the floor besides him’ and while Van was not quite dead, he could not speak. Watkins called a carriage and took his lodger to St Bart’s where he died soon afterwards.

It was a tragic tale. Van had only recently been given a pension by the Worship Street office in recognition of his service, and because his grief made it impossible for him to carry on. He seems to have fallen into a deep despair and was quite unable to cope without his wife. His son testified to his father’s grief and told the coroner that Thomas Van ‘had been lately deranged’.

A suicide note was produced which read:

‘The Lord is not so unjust as to hold a man responsible for a rash act when he is mad’.

The inquest jury duly brought in a verdict of ‘temporary mental derangement’. Van probably had little to leave his son but suicides supposedly had their estates forfeited. They were also supposed to be buried at night, and not in consecrated ground. Perhaps the jury’s verdict allowed the family some license here.

Let’s hope so anyway.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, January 23, 1838]

One man’s complaint reveals ‘considerable excitement’ about the trade in pauper bodies at Lambeth

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In December 1857 a poor man appeared at the Lambeth Police court to ask the magistrate’s advice. In November his elderly sister was so sick with consumption (TB as we know know it) she was ordered to be admitted to the sick ward at the Newington workhouse. There, on the 3 December, she died.

Before she died she had begged her friends and family to give her a decent burial because rumours were swirling around the parish about what happened to the bodies of those that died inside the ‘house.

The next day her husband and friends presented themselves at the workhouse to collect her but she was ‘nowhere to be found’. They asked the undertaker there, and all he could tell them was she had been buried by mistake the body mistaken for that of another pauper, a Mr Bazely. Deeply unsatisfied, and understandably upset, they decided to pursue the matter with Mr Norton at Lambeth.

A local parish constable named Cook was called to give evidence of local practice. He told the court that the workhouse master ‘had been in the habit of disposing of the bodies of deceased paupers for anatomical purposes’. This had caused ‘considerable excitement’ amongst the poor of the parish’.

‘Persons who supposed they were following a deceased relative or friend to the grave not infrequently followed  perfect stranger, brought from other parishes, while that over which they supposed they were mourning had been disposed of in a  different way; and the thought of such deception created great dissatisfaction’.

Cook’s evidence was damning and must have been shocking to the reading public. Dr Elizabeth Hurren (at Leicester University) has demonstrated that there was a lively trade in the bodies of the poor in Victorian England after the the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834. Elizabeth has also suggested that the Whitechapel murders of 1888 may well be connected to this dark history in London. The trade was exposed by a series of articles in the popular press leading, as Hurren explains, to the arrest and prosecution of Albert (or Alfred) Feist at the Old Bailey in May 1858. Feist had broken the terms of the Anatomy Act (1832) which had prohibited the sale of dead bodies for profit. That act had been the government’s reaction to the illegal trade in the dead which was exposed by the Burke and Hare murders in Edinburgh and that of the ‘Italian boy’ in London in 1831.

Feist was convicted but sentence was reserved. The case then went for review and he was subsequently acquitted. The use of pauper bodies for the training of surgeons was legal under the Anatomy Act but the practice was effetely concealed from the public and, most importantly, from the poor themselves. As Hurren’s work show:

‘Summaries of the Anatomy Act, just like the New Poor Law, were supposed to be available to the poor, pinned on walls in places they might congregate. However, in such pieces of legislation, the word “dissection” itself was often concealed behind that of “anatomical examination”.’*

The families of paupers were often unaware of what had happened or unable to do anything about it afterwards. The pressure of finding enough body parts to train all the new doctors increased after 1858 when legislation required that all medical students must study anatomy for two years. Whole bodies were now routinely cut up into their composite parts so students could practice, explore and understand.

It must have made grim reading over breakfast and supper and its interesting to see the story unfold within the reportage of the summary courts. At Lambeth Mr Norton told the complainant that the workhouse master (who was of course Mr Feist) had been guilty of a misdemeanour in allowing his sister’s body to be buried so quickly after death. He was required, by law, to keep it for 48 hours so the family could arrange a funeral themselves. He told him he was happy to issue a summons.

As we now know Alfred Feist would face trial for this and a total of 62 other instances of supplying dead pauper bodies for the anatomy trade. In the end of course he, and his accomplice in the trade – the undertaker Robert Hogg – escaped scot free. Hurren estimates that a staggering 125,000 pauper bodies were sold in the Victorian period to benefit the study of medicine.

Poor lives didn’t matter in the 1800s but the reading public didn’t really want to be reminded of that too often. The exposure of the body trade, like the scandals surrounding the treatment of paupers in the Andover workhouse in 1845-6 reminded society of the harsh realities of being poor in Victoria’s Britain in perhaps a similar way that the tragedy at Grenfell Tower has caused a considerable amount of soul searching this year. Ultimately, it seems, even today poor lives don’t matter as much as rich ones.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, December 16, 1857]

*Review by Laurence Talairach-VielmasElizabeth T. Hurren, Dying for Victorian Medicine: English Anatomy and Its Trade in the Dead Poor, c. 1834–1929, in Miranda [http://journals.openedition.org/miranda/4586] accessed 16/12/17

The callous churchwardens who dug up a child’s grave to make a new path

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This is an unusual case, and one that remained unresolved (as many did that came before the London Police courts). In mid November 1867 a solicitor approached the sitting magistrate at Wandsworth for a summons to bring the churchwardens of St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, to court.

The solicitor, Mr Condy, said he was representing the parents of a child who had died six weeks earlier. The child – aged just nine – had been buried in the churchyard but his grave had recently been dug up, and his body exhumed. Naturally this was extremely upsetting for the parents of the child and so they had asked the lawyer to intercede on their behalf. Since they were very poor, time was of the essence, as they could not afford a long drawn out legal action.

In court it was explained that the churchwardens had decided to lay a new path through the churchyard and they needed to move the boy’s grave as a consequence. The churchwardens ordered the newly laid grave to be opened and the child’s coffin to be removed and reburied somewhere else in the graveyard.

At no point, it seems, did they deem it necessary to consult with the bereaved parents, or even inform them so they might attend. Nor, and this was important, had they obtained any legal permission to move the child’s grave. According the the evidence presented they should have applied for a faculty (a legal term for reserving a burial spot) or a license from the secretary of state. The churchwardens had therefore infringed the terms of the Burial Act (1857).

However, Mr Dayman, the magistrate, thought the summons should be issued against the person that had dug up the child, not those that had instructed him, and that was the sexton. Mr Cindy said he’d approached the sexton but he insisted he was only following instructions, as ‘he was only a servant’.

The magistrate was insistent however; ‘If a man were told to do an unlawful act, he was not bound to do it’.

At this point a suggestion was made to the court that the parents might bring a civil action or take the churchwardens to the ecclesiastical (church) courts. Mr Condy said the first option was no use since the family had ‘no property in the body’. He added that, from his experience, pursuing a case in the ecclesiastical courts was ‘a tedious affair’. And in case they parents were too poor to do either. The police courts were the cheaper option, which explains why they were so frequently used by London’s poor.

Mr Dayman issued a summons to bring in the sexton. There was little hope that the parents would get much more than an apology and perhaps a small amount in compensation.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, November 15, 1867]

Smallpox brings death and difficult decisions to the Westminster Police Court

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Watercolour of a hand with smallpox by Robert Carswell in 1831 (Wellcome Library, London)

Mr Selfe had only just taken his seat at Westminster Police Court on the morning of the 12 April 1863 when the officer of health for the parish of St George’s, Hanover Square approached him. As a magistrate Selfe had to deal with all sorts of problems and issues of everyday life, but few were as sensitive as this.

The health officer, Dr Aldis of Chester Place, explained to the magistrate that a three year-old child had died of smallpox, a disease that remained widespread in poorer communities in the nineteenth century despite Edward Jenner’s best efforts to promote vaccination against it.

The unnamed child was lying in his cot so people could pay their respects, as tradition dictated, at a room in a house in Pimlico and Dr Aldis was worried about the public health consequences of this. The ‘small back room’ was home to the ‘boy’s father and mother and three other children’ and no fewer than 26 other persons lived in the property. Moreover, the doctor insisted, this was a crowded locality ‘in which the smallpox is very prevalent’.

He wanted to have the child buried quickly to avoid contagion but the mother was resistant. She wanted to grieve for her son and to do so in the customary way. The family were part of London’s large immigrant Irish community and they fully supported the bereaved mother.

Mr. Badderly, the overseer of the poor for the parish, had attempted arrange the funeral and had sent a man named Osborne to the house to try and remove the dead boy. He brought a small coffin and with the father’s permission placed the child within it. When the mother found it however, she removed her son and placed him back in his cradle. When Osborn objected a group of local Irish gathered and ‘intimidated him with their threats [so that] he felt compelled to retire’.

Here then was a clash between the parish and its obligations towards the health of the community and the very personal wishes of one grieving mother and her friends and family. Since the child’s father either agreed with the health officer or simply felt much less strongly that his wife, the court was bound to side with the parish. Mr. Selfe agreed that the child needed to be buried immediately, for the sake of public health, and since the father had no objection the mother’s wishes were of no consequence. The magistrate said that in his opinion ‘there could be impropriety in the police accompanying the parish officers to see that there was no breach of the peace from the removal of the child’.

It is a desperately sad story which reveals both the reality of infant mortality in the Victorian period and the poverty and overcrowding that condemned so many to a premature death. It also demonstrates the difficult decisions that some magistrates had to make when faced with evidence that ran counter to the wishes of individuals who had not done anything wrong or in any way ‘criminal’.

The mother’s desire to mourn for dead boy in her own way is completely understandable, but when this was countered by what was (at the time) understood to be a risk to the health of very many others, the justice’s decision is also easily understood. This week we have had the heart-rending story of the struggle of Connie Yates and Chris Gard who have lost the latest stage of their battle to keep their son, Charlie, alive in Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Mr. Justice Francis, who made the decision knew, as everyone in the court did, that when he told doctors ‘at Great Ormond Street that they could withdraw all but palliative care, was to all intents and purposes delivering a death sentence’.* He acted in what he considered to be the best interest of the child and against the interests of the parents. Time alone will tell whether he was right to do so.

At Westminster court in 1863 Mr. Selfe may have done the right thing, and saved many other lives. Given what we now know about smallpox it is unlikely that anyone would have caught it unless they had physical contact with the child whilst his exposed scabs still covered him, but the magistrate was not necessarily aware of that and so his actions were perhaps the best thing he could do in the circumstances.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 13, 1863]

*www.guardian.com [accessed 13/4/17]