A dead baby found by a nurse in Woolwich: A mother is accused

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There are few crimes that generate so much emotion as the killing of a child. Every year at least one of my students is likely to come forward to suggest doing a dissertation or small research project on infanticide. It is an act so awful that we struggle to understand which makes it, seemingly at least, all the more fascinating.

Very many women, most of them young, the vast majority unmarried, were accused of killing their babies or children in the Victorian era. For most I believe, killing was never their intention; the infant died because of problems at birth or poverty and neglect soon afterwards.  The image of the ‘evil’ mother is almost certainly a myth.

Jane Ward was just such a mother. In November 1860 Jane appeared before Mr Maude at Woolwich Police court accused of causing the death of newborn baby girl. She was remanded for a week after which she was sent for trial at the Old Bailey.

Matilda Wyatt was a nurse working at the Royal Military Academy by Woolwich Common. As she walked in the garden of the army medical school she saw something on the ground, close by the road. As she bent down she realized that it was the body of a baby wrapped in calico, and horrified, she took it to the police.

The police made some enquiries and this led them to the home of Jane Ward’s father, a dairyman in Shooter’s Hill. PC Turner (61R) made a search of the house and found one of Jane’s dresses with a square of fabric cut from it, a square that matched the piece of calico exactly.

A Blackheath surgeon, Mr Tyler, performed a post mortem on the dead child. He checked the lungs (an increasingly outdated method of determining whether a baby had been stillborn or not) and judged it had been born alive. This suggested that Jane must have killed it, deliberately or otherwise. A second doctor examined Jane and confirmed that she had recently given birth. The evidence against her seemed conclusive.

Jane admitted that the baby was hers but denied its murder.

At the Old Bailey later that year Jane was charged, not with infanticide but the less serious charge of concealing a birth. This carried a maximum two-year prison sentence. In the event Jane was acquitted but no details are given beyond establishing that she had a defense barrister arguing her case in court. Sadly then we have no idea of the circumstances that explain what happened to Jane’s baby or why she left it in the academy grounds. All we can say is that it must have been as traumatic for her as it was for the poor nurse who discovered it.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, November 23, 1860]

The ‘Peculiar People’ and the tragic death of little Alice

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After yesterday’s bank holiday violence and drunken disorder the reports from the London police courts returned to more criminal topics. At Bow Street a fugitive from Cape Town in British South Africa was refused bail on a charge of stealing diamonds and £1300 in cash. while at Mansion House John Thompson was committed to face trial at Old Bailey for several thefts in and around the Inner Temple law chambers. In the end he was convicted of stealing a hat brush and a coat, while seven similar charges were taken into consideration. He was gaoled for nine months.

Over at Lambeth an unusual case unfolded. It had come before the magistrates before but was now to be resolved the paper reported. It concerned the death of a child and the suggestion of negligence on behalf of the parents.

Robert Cousins, a 27 year-old man living in Orient Street, West Square, Lambeth was presented before Mr Chance and charged with the manslaughter of Alice Maria Cousins, his 11 month old daughter. Dr Price from Guy’s Hospital said that his post mortem examination revealed that baby Alice had died from tuberculosis and pneumonia. The magistrate quizzed him as to whether the child might have lived had the father summoned a doctor, which he clearly hadn’t. She may have, the doctor confirmed, but it was far from certain.

Why hadn’t Cousins sought medical help? Was he too poor or was there another reason?

This became apparent when the next witness took the stand. She was Matilda Taylor and she said she belonged to a Christian sect called the ‘Peculiar People’. A branch of Wesleyanism, the Peculiar People (sometimes conflated with Quakers) did not believe in medicine. Instead Matilda insisted, they chose instead to pray for Alice’s recovery and leave her fate to God.

‘Supposing your leg is broken’ Mr Chance demanded, what would she do then? ‘The Lord has not told us what to do in that case, but he does tell us in sickness what to do’.

So we must presume that the Cousins were also members of this branch of Christianity.

Mr Chance was not impressed:

‘It is really wonderful how persons can have such narrow-minded fanaticism’ he quipped, before adding that ‘it is a most guilty and unfeeling conduct to adopt. You take just one passage or so from the Bible, instead of taking it as a whole’.

Nevertheless he dismissed the charge of manslaughter on legal grounds, suggesting instead that the Public Prosecutor might wish to bring a case of endangering life by neglect, which brought a sentence of six months upon conviction. The ‘peculiar people’ then upped and left his court, presumably followed by dark looks and murmurings of righteous indignation from the public gallery.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 29, 1883]

This isn’t the only reference to the Peculiar People and clashes with the legal system in Victorian London as this blog suggests

A distressed mother hits out at Great Ormond Street Hospital

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Great Ormond Street Hospital, c.1858 from The Illustrated Times 

Most if us are familiar with the amazing work that Great Ormond Street hospital does today. Great Ormond Street (or GOSH) opened in 1852 with a mission to treat  sick children. At the start it only had 10 beds and treated the sick poor from the local area. It was founded by Dr Charles West, who had written and lectured extensively on the particular diseases of children and how to treat them.

GOSH was a charity, and so relied on donations to survive. Within a few years it was in trouble, unable to treat the number of patients that applied to it. In 1858 Dickens gave a performance at a charity dinner, raising enough money to buy the property next door and extend provision to 75 beds. In 1871 readers of a popular children’s magazine, Aunt Judy’s Magazine, donated £1,000 to sponsor a cot; this set a trend for future sponsorships.

So by 1872 the hospital had survived an early crisis and was now well established. it treated the children of the poor, providing a much needed service not available before. In the Victorian age children were increasingly valued and legislation was passed to protect them. The idea of ‘childhood’ (something limited largely tot the children of the wealthy) was extended to all children in the later 1800s.

GOSH was a pioneer from the start, and the hospital has seen many advances in paediatric medicine. In 1872 surgeons began to experiment with the use of electricity to treat paralysis and other ailments.  There years later GOSH’s first purpose built 100 bed hospital opened to the public and in 1878 a dedicated paediatric nursing college started training future nurses.

The extent of medical knowledge in the 1800s had improved considerably from the previous century but it was still very limited by today’s standards. In June 1872 a ‘respectable’ mechanic’s wife came to the Clerkenwell Police court to complain about the hospital to Mr Barker, the sitting magistrate.

Mrs Sarah Hornblower lived at 52 Johnson Street, Somers Town, and when one of her children fell ill she took it to the hospital. The child was an out patient at GOSH from April 1872 but on June 7th it fell dangerously ill and she took it in again.

While she waited to be seen to the poor child died in her arms, and she left it with the hospital while she went to make arrangements for its burial. When she returned later she discovered, to her horror, that a post mortem had been performed.

While this was, it was later established, standard procedure, it came as a terrible shock to Susan. When she complained to the justice she told him that:

‘the surgeons, without her authority or sanction, had cut open her child from the throat downwards’, and no one it seems had apologised or explained it to her.

Later that day Mr Barker was able to discuss the complaint with the hospital’s house surgeon, Mr Beach. He explained that Mrs Hornblower’s child had been suffering from croup or diphtheria and it was important to establish which had proved fatal. Croup (or laryngotracheobronchitis) is caused by a virus and affects the lungs. It causes a ‘barking’ cough and today it very rarely proves fatal.

Croup was not contagious but diphtheria is. Today diphtheria is rare in the UK because children are vaccinated against it, but in the 1870s it was a disease that could and did kill children in London.

So Dr Beach was being sensible he said, in checking for the cause of the child’s death so he ‘better attend to the applicant’s other children’. He was asked if there was any other way to ascertain what had killed the child, short of performing a partial autopsy. There was not he replied, and he had only done what was absolutely necessary.

Dr Beach added that Mrs Hornblower should not seen her child in that state. When she had entered the room where the body lay she had ‘in the most hasty manner pulled the sheet off the body, and thus it became exposed’. Mr Hornblower had been consulted and had agreed to the post mortem so the hospital was covered.

We can only feel sympathy for Susan Hornblower, the loss of a child is always a tragedy however it happens and she was probably shocked to see her son or daughter like that, and understandably in  distress she hit out. The magistrate told her that no one had done anything wrong and while she was upset there was nothing to support a summons.

He added that there ‘was a great deal of difference  between anatomy and making a post-mortem examination’, a possible reference to popular fears of the anatomisation of pauper bodies in the nineteenth century following the passage of Anatomy Act (1832), which allowed hospitals access to the cadavers of the dead poor.

We aren’t told in this report whether the child died of croup or diphtheria. Hopefully the Hornblowers’ other children survived and none were affected as badly as their sibling. We do know that GOSH remains at the forefront of paediatric care nearly 150 years later.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, June 22, 1872]

Death at Archway goes unpunished

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On the 11 February 1866 John Loveman was standing with his omnibus at the Archway Tavern on Highgate Hill. Loveman was a driver for John Wilson, whose ‘Favourite’ ‘buses were some of the earliest on the capital’s streets.

As he waited a drunken man tried to barge his way onto the omnibus, but Loveman prevented him from doing so. Witnesses watched as the man, Thomas Brown, tried and failed three more times to get onto the vehicle. Frustrated he lashed out at the driver, grabbing him and, ‘with great force throwing him to the ground’.

The attack caused Loveman to break his leg and at his own request he was immediately taken to the King’s College Hospital, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The house surgeon, Mr Thomas Howell, treated him on arrival and he was held there until the 7 March, when he passed away. He had died, it was recorded, ‘from exhaustion caused by a succession of fits of an epileptic character, and inflammation of the right leg’.

Brown was summoned for assault and later presented at Clerkenwell Police court on a charge of manslaughter.

The key to this turned on whether the injury to Loveman inflicted by the drunken Brown had led directly to his death. Before his death the court was told that the omnibus driver was a ‘strong, healthy man, and there did not seem to be anything the matter with’. At the coroner’s inquest (which were, it must be said, often hasty and somewhat casual affairs with little medical examination beyond the cursory), Brown was named as the cause of the driver’s death.

However, a later post mortem failed to find any link between the injury Loveman had sustained and his death just under a month later. The prosecutor, Mr Beard, felt sure proof would emerge if only the original house surgeon at King’s (Howell) could be asked to appear and testify. The magistrate, Mr Barker, was less convinced. He said there was very little evidence to charge Brown with at the moment and he was minded to let him go.

However, he asked Inspector Westlake (Y Division, Metropolitan Police) if a warrant had been issued for Brown’s arrest by the coroner. It had, he was told and the prisoner would have been arrested earlier if he had turned up at the inquest.

Mr Barker agreed to release Brown on bail (the figure was not reported) but he was immediately rearrested by Inspector Westlake, and conveyed to Newgate gaol. Given that a man had died and Brown had committed an assault (albeit under the influence of alcohol) I would have expected there to be a trial at the Old Bailey and for Brown, if convicted, to face  short spell in prison. But no such trial is recorded so I am left to presume that at a subsequent hearing before the magistracy the prosecution offered insufficient evidence to persuade the bench to formally indict Thomas Brown for manslaughter.

[from The Morning Post (London, England), Wednesday, March 21, 1866]

NB I have a framed black and white print of the image of the Highgate Archway that once belonged to my maternal grandfather, Percy. It belongs to my mother but graces my office and reminds me my roots everyday (I was born in the Whittington Hospital, not far from the old pub or the former omnibus stop.