In my recent book – In Bed with the Victorians – I discussed the various beds inhabited by working-class husbands and wives after the event of marital breakdown. Having expanded my search beyond the borders of Suffolk and Essex for my forthcoming publication on bedsteads in the Victorian working-class home, I have uncovered a case that details not only long-term economic and domestic consequences of marital breakdown but also the material consequences upon the household.
In Thetford, September 1869, Maria Spinks, supposed to be around the age of sixty, died in her home on Church Row, where she appears to have lived for a significant portion of her life and at the time of her death resided with her 16-year-old daughter, Emma. Determining that Maria’s death required investigation, the coroner, E.R. Clarke, opened an inquest. The first duty of the jury was to view the body. Proceeding to Maria’s home—which was described as not so much a home as a ‘hovel’—to view her body lying in situ, they found, as described in the Norfolk Chronicle:
‘a most wretched place, there being no furniture or other effects beyond rickety chair [and] the remains of an old stump bedstead, on which the body now laid, and two spare litters of dirty straw which constituted the only beds in the house, and on which the mother and daughter nightly slept, and which was on the damp brick floor….they has never seen [such a place] used as a human habitation’.
Reflecting here on the description of the bedstead–‘the remains of an old stump bedstead’ – it suggests that not only was the bedstead in a decrepit state, but that it was also not intact. It is entirely possible, that in the winter, some of it may have ended up as firewood, as accounts on the living conditions of the poor in late 1880s Norwich suggests.
The inquest reports further details of their desperation for money and food. A juror, known to the family, said Spinks ‘was to sell the shawl off her back for two pence’, in order, he believed, to buy drink—asserting that she was ‘a great drunkard’; although, the post mortem undertaken by Dr Brown ‘found no appearance of alcohol in the stomach’. Indeed, the post-mortem revealed that the stomach was ‘quite empty’. Dr Browne further stated that Maria’s poor health had come to his attention recently, as both Maria and her daughter had been inmates in the workhouse until the Saturday prior to her death. Her daughter informed the coroner that since leaving the house and returning to their home on Church Row, ‘they had only had one penny loaf, of which [her mother] had only eaten “the thin bottom crust.”’
So how had Maria come to live and die in such miserable circumstances? Certainly, if the juror’s comments were correct, drink would have played a notable role in her demise. However, what is notably absent from the picture is a husband. Her daughter Emma revealed to the coroner’s court, as noted by the Norwich Mercury, that her mother ‘was the wife of Isaac Spinks, whose whereabouts was not known’. Strangely, this revelation is omitted in the Norfolk Chronicle report. Yet, it seems so crucial in understanding Maria’s circumstances.
Tracing Maria back through the records, the 1861 Census Enumerators Books reveal that Maria was recorded as the head of the household, supporting her family through ‘Work At Factory’ and assisted by the wages of her two adult children. This was probably Burrell’s agricultural engineering works, one of the largest employers in the town. It appears she had been supporting her family since at least 1853, as revealed in a newspaper advertisement requesting her husband’s address be passed onto a solicitor – I suspect Maria had applied for poor relief and the Poor Law Guardians were trying to reclaim the money back.
I have thus far failed in my attempts to Isaac Spinks, it is likely that he assumed a new identity after leaving his family behind in Thetford. One suspects that when he departed the family were already borderline impoverished, as his work as a warrener—as noted in the 1851 Census Enumerators Books—would have been low paid and simply not enough to feed a growing family. Thus, when he departed, and having no legal obligation to support Maria unless she applied for Poor relief, she soon spiralled into poverty and material dearth, that did eventually lead to her death from apoplexy (unconsciousness or incapacity resulting from a cerebral haemorrhage or stroke)—as determined by the coroner’s jury.
Yet, the consequences of marital breakdown did not end with Maria’s death. Following her mother’s death, it appears that Emma went to reside with her married sister, Ann. However, in June 1876, Emma once again appears in the pages of Norfolk’s local newspapers, this time regarding her own death. Not a coroner’s inquest in this case, but rather a dispute over her burial costs between the incumbent of St. Mary’s parish, Rev A.F. Smith, and the local Board of Guardians. Emma, the report states, had given birth to an illegitimate child in the Union House, but soon thereafter both mother and child died. Rather than bury them separately, they ‘were placed in a coffin’ together. It was this action that resulted in the dispute, as Smith made a claim for double fees, which ‘The Board seemed to consider the claim an outrage on common sense, and altogether unjustifiable’.
 Norfolk Chronicle, Sept 11, 1869; Norwich Mercury, Sept 8, 1869.
 ‘…contained nothing but a small quantity of dirty straw in one corner, and the frame of stump bedstead, without any middle, and portions of which have been used for firewood’. Norwich Mercury, Dec 17, 1862.
 Norfolk Chronicle, Sept 11, 1869.
 Norwich Mercury, Sept 8, 1869.
 TNA RG09/1267/47/21
 For more information see Pat Thane, “Women and the Poor Law in Victorian and Edwardian England.” History Workshop, no. 6 (1978): 29-51.
 TNA RG10/1873/33/10.
 Norfolk News, June 10, 1876, p. 8.