‘Why Charlotte?’ Unanswered Questions in the Inquests

Coroners’ inquests – both the surviving records and ensuing newspaper reports – are an invaluable source in opening up the homes of the Victorian working-classes. Through coroners’ meticulous investigations and the press fascination of all things death related, I have been able to uncover intimate details of domestic life and pry into the private space of the bedroom, but there are sometimes some inquests which leave me with unanswered questions no matter how much I dig around. As I currently investigate sleeping arrangements in these homes, there is one inquest that particularly frustrates me and leaves me asking: ‘Why Charlotte?’

In November 1867, the Ipswich Journal reported on the death of 57 year old widow, Sarah Emmerson, residing in Ipswich’s aptly named Cold Dunghill. One witness, called to provide testimony in regards to the circumstances surrounding Sarah’s sudden death, was 14 year old Charlotte Pulham. Charlotte stated to the coroner’s court: ‘I have lived 12 years with the deceased Sarah Emmerson, who was my grandmother’.[1]

In my investigation of Victorian coroners’ inquests, it was not uncommon to find children residing in their grandparents’ homes. There are multiple reasons behind such a domestic arrangement uncovered in the inquests. Young children would stay temporarily with their grandparents during the harvest or at times of illness. East Anglia’s illegitimate children, it seems, were frequently born in their grandparent’s home (a discussion I intend to return to in a latter post) and sometimes continued to reside with them after the mother had moved on to find work. Other young children came to live with their grandparents after the death of their mother.

There is, however, another reason why children are found resident with their grandparents. In overcrowded homes, sending a child to sleep in the home of a nearby family member would ease nocturnal domestic arrangements.[2] This appears to be the case for Charlotte Pulham. A further witness called before the coroner’s court investigating the death of Sarah Emmerson was Charlotte’s mother, also named Charlotte. Residing just a short walk away, Charlotte’s mother’s testimony suggests that she was a regular visitor to the home of her mother and daughter. But there is one question that resonates with me that I simply cannot provide a concrete answer to: ‘Why Charlotte’? So I looked to other sources to try and answer this question and simply ended up with more questions.

1861 Census – Occupants of 8 Rose Lane, St Peter, Ipswich.
Name Rel. Condition Age Occupation Birthplace
Samuel Pulham Head Married 30 Labourer / Cement works Ipswich, Suffolk
Charlotte Pulham Wife Married 29 Ipswich, Suffolk
Maria F Pulham Daughter 9 Scholar Ipswich, Suffolk
Matilda Pulham Daughter 4 Ipswich, Suffolk
Samuel Pulham Son 2 Ipswich, Suffolk
1861 Census – Whiteheads Yard, Cold Dunghills, St Margaret, Ipswich.
Name Rel. Condition Age Occupation Birthplace
William Emmerson Head Married 58 Coal Porter Ipswich, Suffolk
Sarah Emmerson Wife Married 50 Coal Porter’s wife Tattingstone, Suffolk
Charlotte Pulham Granddaughter 6 Scholar Ipswich, Suffolk

As one can see from the 1861 census, Charlotte was not the eldest child of the Pulhams – why didn’t the eldest daughter Matilda live with her grandparents? Why had Charlotte been sent to live with her grandparents (her coal porter grandfather still alive at this time) at age two years? Was it due to the birth of the Pulham’s third child? Perhaps, in this case, if the original inquest had not been destroyed, I might have answers. But with such a detailed newspaper report ensuing from the inquest held, it seems likely that such a vital detail in Charlotte Pulham’s domestic arrangements has gone unrecorded. Nonetheless, the 1871 census reveals, 14 years after leaving, Charlotte had returned to her family home upon the death of her grandmother.

[1] Ipswich Journal, 16 Nov 1867.

[2] See also Carl Chinn’s They Worked all their Lives.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. angharadeyre says:

    The idea of loving and treating our children exactly the same may be a very modern one. I know Charlotte Bronte’s friend Mary Taylor often felt that her younger sister received preferential treatment (i.e. more education), and in my grandmother’s household it seemed very much up to the whims of her mother as to which child was allowed to stay in school and which had to leave to get a job. In this Charlotte’s case, one can imagine her mother having formed quite a bond with her first daughter, which could explain ‘why Charlotte?’.

    Like

    1. I like the idea of stronger bonds formed between a mother and first daughter as an explanation, certainly worth exploring.

      Like

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