‘Unexampled kindness’: Material loss and benevolence in Victorian society

Mr. James Rogers, Hon. Sec. on the Relief Committee, has received £75..7 on behalf of the sufferers. A portion of this amount was obtained by means of collecting boxes, which were placed in various parts of the town.—A meeting of the Relief Committee was held at the Town Hall on Tuesday morning. It was decided that £5 should be voted to the Hitchen family for their immediate wants, and the £2..10 to be given to the Rayners … A house has been obtained and furnished for one of the families, and the same will be done for the other.—The Maldon Amateurs have given two excellent entertainments for the purpose of benefitting the sufferers.’

The Relief Committee – Essex Standard, March 31, 1888.

In my recent investigations into the beds inhabited by the Victorian working class, an overarching theme has been that of material loss; a loss that was felt most acutely in cases of household fires. With fire having consumed all that they possessed, as well as their loved ones, families were faced rebuilding their lives and their home from scratch. Yet, for those with minimal financial means, this was not possible without the benevolence of the local community. One striking example of this is revealed in the newspaper reports pertaining to a fatal conflagration in the Essex town of Maldon in March 1888.

With snow still on the ground, a fatal fire ripped through the ‘brick and old-tarred weather-boarded’ double tenement of head horseman, Charles Hitchen, and gardener, Jonathan Rayner, in which three of Hitchen’s children perished as they slept in their beds. Homeless, and with no belongings to their name other than the clothes on their back, the Hitchens consented to be temporarily admitted into the workhouse, while the Rayners found temporary shelter with relatives. The reports were explicit to state that the Hitchen’s short stay at the workhouse was not at the rate-payers expense, and that the family entered ‘not as paupers’. Yet, with Charles Hitchen temporarily incapacitated on account of the injuries he sustained in the desperate attempt to save his children, the grieving family risked a rapid spiral into destitution. Certainly they had no possession to sell or pawn, a strategy that was vital in maintaining household income upon the temporary loss of a breadwinner’s wage at times of sickness (Horrell and Humphries, 1997). However, the local community’s rapid response to their plight ensured that both families would not suffer any pecuniary loss after such a tragic loss.

‘The subscriptions have continued to fall in [and now] exceed £80 … No single individual subscription exceeded a guinea, and there were many as low as threepence, the large number of very small subscribers indeed being significant of the kindly feeling towards the distressed of their own class … As Mr. Jas. Rogers, who has been indefatigable as hon. Sec. and treasurer of the fund, was about to put a box outside his own office he was accosted by a little 10 year old boy who meekly inquired “whether threepence was too little to put in—it was all he had.” Another little chap named Last cried nearly all night after he heard of the fire, and in the morning heroically devoted the whole contents of his money box—6½d.—to the fund. Happily against such and many other noble instances of true charity there were only two cases of refusal to subscribe—one man, a fire insurance agent, replying “They ought to have insured their property,” and another being indisposed to depart from his rule never to give anything away. Among the noteworthy subscriptions were the voluntary offertory by the “scholars and friends” of the National School, Maldon–£2 3s. 1d.,” donations of two guineas from the local Co-operative Society, and a spontaneous offering from the mistress (Miss Pounds) and children of the Langford National School of 12s. 10d’.

Subscriptions and Donations – Essex Herald, April 3, 1888.

Firstly, Hitchen’s employer consented to pay his usual wages while he had recovered from his injuries, allowing Charles to continue to provide his surviving family’s most basic needs. Meanwhile, the Mayor began a subscription intended to replace both families ‘clothing and bedding’. The response was overwhelming. With the exception of a couple of misers, there was a vast outpouring of compassion from the local community which resulted in over £80 (over £6,000 in today’s money) raised within a matter of days from collection boxes, donations, and entertainments. This sum allowed for much more than the simple replacement of clothes and bedding. Indeed, it meant that both families were provided with fully furnished homes, which, as the Essex Newsman commented, saw them ‘better supplied with home comforts than before’. Having settled into their new home, the following month Charles Hitchen published a notice of thanks ‘to the inhabitants of Maldon and neighbourhood for their unexampled kindness in furnishing them with everything that was needed to restore as far as possible their home’.

‘CHARITABLE ENTERTAINMENT. —The Maldon Amateur Entertainment Society lost no time in arranging an entertainment in aid of the sufferers by the late fire, and it came off most successfully on Tuesday evening at the Temperance Hall. Part one consisted of the following pleasure items, viz. :—Pianoforte solo, Mrs. H. Hurrell; song, “Far away,” Mr. Martin; recitation, “Saved by a kiss,” Mr. Peacocke song, “Ev’ry man for his brother;” reading, “Three shies a penny,” Mr. T. Isaac; comic song, “I couldn’t,” Mr. T. Woollard (encored, “Waiting”); recitation, “Not in the programme,” Mr. Quilter; song, “The lost song,” Mr. F. Paul. Mr. Harry Bate followed with a clever experiments in sleight of hand, or, as he was pleased to mysteriously designate it “finger-feritigkert.” Part two, prefaced by a pianoforte solo by Miss Jessie Sadd, included a comic sketch entitled “Caught in his own trap,” inn which the parts were admirably sustained as follows :—Stephen Sly (a toffish young fellow), Mr. J. P. Sayer; Old Flyaway (a crabbed old gent), Mr. H. Sadd; Flora Flyaway (his daughter), Mr. F.C. Abbot; Kimbo (Old Flyway’s servant), Mr. T. Woollard; Bluff (a policeman), Mr. John Sadd; Professor Dabb (an artist), Mr. F. Paul; Jane (professor’s servant), Mr. W. Biles. The little hall was crowded and a profit of nearly £5 accrues to the fund. The pianoforte was lent by Mr. J.G. Sadd, the printing was done gratuitously by Mr. Poole, and nothing was charged by the Coffee House Company for the use of the hall’.

Charitable Entertainment – Essex Newsman, March 31, 1888.

Other newspaper references: Chelmsford Chronicle, March 23, 1888; Chelmsford Chronicle, March 30, 1888, Chelmsford Chronicle, April 20, 1888; Essex Herald, March 18, 1888.

Evicting the Troublesome Lodger in Victorian England

At the recent Social History Society online conference, a question was posed to me as to how easy it was to evict a lodger from one’s home in Victorian England. The answer this appears to be variable. Certainly, those vulnerable could find themselves rapidly dislodged upon the whim of their landlord or landlady, with little, if any, notice given. Yet, the process of evicting a lodger was not always straightforward, with landladies/landlords facing resistance and even retaliation in their attempts to remove a lodger from their home. And, if a lodger refused to leave despite being given written notice, there was little legal recourse they could take to have the lodger forcibly removed. Therefore, it is not unsurprising to find tragic outcomes to such cases.

In August 1894, shoemaker Thomas Walker and his wife took up lodgings in the Hackney home of James and Mary Whitton.[1] It rapidly transpired that the Walkers were going to be troublesome lodgers. ‘Contempt’ grew between Mrs Walker and her landlady after they ‘had some words’. These words, however, soon became coupled with violent actions. Three weeks into their lodgings with the Whittons, ‘On [a] Saturday morning Mrs Walker came into the kitchen, and insulted [her landlady] by throwing a pail of water over her head’. After a further exchange of words, Mary Whitton ‘struck’ her lodger. Unable to tolerate the conduct of Mrs Walker in their home any longer, Mr Walker was informed by his landlady that evening that, ‘You must find another place for your wife, for she is a dangerous one’. Responding, Mrs Walker ‘spat’ in her landlady’s face and stated, ‘I’ll leave when I like’. James Whitton then handed Thomas Walker ‘a written notice to quit’. However, this merely served to fuel the fire that was already getting out of control.

After an evening of drinking, the Walker’s returned to their lodgings at around one o’clock on the Sunday morning. Having disturbed their landlord  at this late hour, most likely having risen from bed to let the lodgers into the house, Mr Walker then directed ‘beastly language’ at James Whitton before retiring to bed. The following day, after causing a disturbance and quarrelling with the Whitton’s other lodgers, James Whitton entered the Walker’s room and remonstrated Thomas Walker for his behaviour. Retorting his landlord, Walker, ‘like a wild animal’, challenged the 33-year-old Whitton to a fight. Brushing off this request, James Whitton returned downstairs. Antagonising his landlord/landlady further, Thomas Walker ‘took two pails of water and threw them on the floor of his room’, aware that the water would come down ‘in a perfect pour’ into the Whitton’s room below. Increasingly fearful of the behaviour of their lodgers, they called in two policemen. Unfortunately for the Whittons, while the policemen expressed the opinion that Walker was ‘a rascal that ought to be punished’, they did not have the power to remove the Walkers from their home. No more than an hour after the policemen’s visit, James Whitton would be dead.

After the Police departed, the situation rapidly escalated. Thomas Walker pushed his landlady out of the back passage and into the yard, ‘[striking] her on the nose with his fist’. Screaming for her husband, who ran to her aide, he was seized by Walker who ‘struck him unmercifully about the head with a salt box’. Believing their lodger intended to kill her husband, Mary Whitton ‘seized a tin can and struck Walker about the head’. Domestic objects thus being used to commit and resist domestic violence in this instance.

Victorian Salt
“LEEDM.E.1962.0150.0017” by Leeds Museums and Galleries is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The Whittons and at least one other lodger then fled to the parlour, locking the door behind them. In homes accommodating lodgers, such a lock was intended to prevent the ‘light-fingered’ lodger from stealing the household’s most valuable objects.[2] Nonetheless, this lock did little to prevent the access of the most determined lodger. Walker ‘kicked at the door until he broke the panel in’. Convinced that his lodger meant to murder him, James Whitton jumped out of the window to get help. However, crossing a low fence, Whitton ‘overbalanced and fell’—’He was picked up dead’. At the ensuing coroner’s inquest, steering the jury, the coroner, Mr Richards, stated ‘that the case was clearly one of manslaughter. The deceased, while trying to escape from the illegal violence of the accused, and while labouring under the fear of being murdered, had lost his life’. Such a steer from the coroner was not entirely unusual and following his recommendations, ‘after a short consultation’, the jury returned a verdict of manslaughter. A warrant for Thomas Walker’s arrest was issued, whereby he was charged with ‘feloniously killing and slaying his landlord’ and sent to Newgate to await trial.[3]

Whitton’s case was far from unique. When Mrs Mary Allen, of 17 Lomas Street, Burnley, Lancashire, informed one of her lodgers (with whom a sexual relationship had also taken place) that he was to find new lodgings on account of his behaviour making her other lodgers uneasy—“I am not going to have my house emptied for the sake of you, and this is the last meal you will have here”, he reacted by beating her to death in full view of her lodgers sat round the table eating the midday dinner Allen had prepared for them. Convicted, William Crossley was executed by hanging at Strangeways.[4] The same fate, however, was not shared by the Whitton’s lodger. On Thursday 22nd September 1870, in the Fourth Court of the Central Criminal Court, before Robert Malcolm Kerr, Esq., 36-year-old Thomas Walker was found ‘Not Guilty’. The defence, conducted by Mr Montagu Williams, argued that the fall and not the blows received at the hands of Walker was ultimately the cause of death.[5] Running at the same time in another court was the infamous Waters baby farming trial and, clearly deeming Walker’s case not worth the copy, the various London newspapers reporting daily on the proceedings of the Central Criminal Court omitted any summary of Thomas Walker’s hearing



[1] Several other newspaper reports spell their surname is Whitting and, at the Old Bailey trail is referred to as Walter Whitting. However, for the sake of consistency, the name used is that given in the most detailed account of the coroner’s inquest.

[2] Charles Dickens, Mrs. Lirriper’s Lodgings, London: Hesperus (1863); Lesley Hoskins (2011) Stories of Work and Home in the Mid-Nineteenth Century, Home Cultures, 8:2, 151-169, DOI: 10.2752/175174211X12961586699720

[3] London Evening Standard, Sept 8, 1870, p, 7; The Day’s Doings, Sept 24, 1870. p.10

[4] Manchester Evening News, Jul 31, 1894, p. 2; Manchester Courier & Lancashire General Advertiser, June 14, 1894, p. 8.

[5] Proceedings of the Central Criminal Court, 19th September 1870, p. 60 http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/images.jsp?doc=187009190060

‘Rip the feather bed open’: Domestic Violence and Working-Class Marriage in Victorian England

Photo by Stefan Powell Attribution-Sharealike

The week’s episode of A House Through Time ventures out of 10 Guinea Street to follow the story of its former maid-of-all-work, Hester, who upon leaving service found herself trapped in a violent marriage. For many such women, in a society that largely tolerated marital violence (to a point), their stories, like Hester’s, only come fully to light after a tragic death—in this case, her sister-in-law’s fatal fall. The coroner’s court, as this episode showed, revealed to the public intimate details of her marriage that would have otherwise remained behind closed doors. Coroners’ records are a great source for understanding Victorian working-class marriage, as the coroner was the one public body at the time who could gain unprecedented access to these homes during their investigations. Their thorough questioning, not always sticking to the matter in hand, bequeaths the researcher rich and detailed documents pertaining to all aspects of working-class marriage.

Like Hester’s experience, the coroner’s inquests I have used in my own research revealed that no room provided a sanctum from domestic violence. The bedroom served as a key arena for such abuse. As Shani D’Cruze found, working-class wives were sometimes ‘dragged’ to the bedroom for a beating after an argument broke out in the kitchen.[1] When grievances that had begun in the day overflowed into the night, as married couples came together in bed, their quarrels even deprived them of sleep.[2] Sleeping wives, having retired to bed before their husband’s return from an evening’s drinking, perhaps in an attempt to avoid strife, could find themselves hauled from their slumber by an ‘inebriated’ husband.[3] Equally, as Bourke finds, some ‘husbands might find themselves sleeping in bed alone every night if they refused to obey their wives’ or returned home drunk.[4] And, in the following case, I reveal how the marital bed itself could be used as a tool of abuse and control, its violation symbolising a complete breakdown of marital relations.

When 17 year old Rudd Wilson was found drowned in the River Gipping in December 1861, the ensuing inquest held by the Ipswich Coroner demonstrates the extent to which the bed as an object could be used by a working-class husband to assert dominance over both his wife and children. Called before the coroner’s court to provide testimony as to the events that led up to her son’s suicide, Sarah Wilson detailed the family’s tumultuous Christmas. It emerges from Sarah’s testimony that her husband, milkman Henry Wilson, had been depriving her of sleep for some time. Sarah stated, ‘He would frequently draw away the bed and the mattrass [sic] so that I should have nothing to lie on’. Sleep deprivation was, and still is, a common tactic used by abusive spouses.[5]

As the abuse escalated, Henry Wilson continued to violate the marital bed through its physical destruction. The various local newspaper reports pertaining to his son’s suicide state that on December 22, Henry Wilson had returned home ‘the worse for drink and began to ill-treat his wife, giving her several blows’.[6] When their son, Rudd, attempted to intervene, his father—having found a knife despite the best efforts of his wife to lock them away in a cupboard[7]—turned on him before proceeding upstairs to ‘rip the feather bed open’.[8] Sarah then told the coroner’s court, ‘While he was cutting open the bed my son did not hit him, but he pushed him down onto the bed, and my husband got up and swore he would kill my son’. At this point, Rudd escaped the family home and Henry Wilson turned his attention to his children’s bed, with Sarah informing the coroner’s court, ‘He even tore the children’s bed-clothes up to prevent them from sleeping’. Turning on children, as Elizabeth Foyster states, was ‘an additional tool of cruelty that husbands used against their wives’.[9] Thus, having violated both the marital bed and his children’s bed, Henry Wilson’s actions were not one of symbolised sexual violence upon his wife but an assertion of his total dominance over the domestic space and his entire family.

In such extreme cases of violence, wives and their children in working-class communities would flee to neighbours who were frequently all too willing to provide temporary shelter.[10] The coroner’s court discovered that Rudd Wilson, having fled the family home, had been taken in by friends in nearby Globe Lane that Christmas week. Another of Ipswich’s frequently abused wives, Mary Chapman of Cooper Street, stated at the coroner’s inquest held after her husband’s suicide in 1873 that he was ‘much addicted to drink [and] was very violent. [I] had often to flee for protection. [I] often ran away to escape [his] violence, and had sometimes hidden under the hedge’. However, Mary Chapman usually found a bed for the night in the nearby home of her brother-in-law, while her husband slept off ‘his drunken fit.’[11] Yet, Sarah Wilson and her other children, despite having no bed in which to sleep, remained in the house—‘I and my husband occupied the same bed until this week … I have not been undressed since Monday night last week. I have not been in the bed-room’. Where and on what she slept during this time is not noted. Nonetheless, her absence from the marital bed revealed to all those present in the coroner’s court the Wilson’s complete breakdown of marital relations.

As well as berating Henry Wilson over his ‘unfatherly manner’—which the jury concluded had played a significant role in his son’s suicide—the court, though not there to investigate the marital relations of the Wilsons, also verbally reprimanded Henry Wilson as to his conduct towards his wife. Pushing notions of the domestic ideal and reframed manliness, the middle-class coroners and their ‘respectable’ juries, like those of the magistrate courts, implored working-class men to refrain from unreasonable levels of violence against their wives. Thus, directed by the jury, the coroner addressed Henry Wilson, ‘You have shown great brutality towards your wife when you were in drink … We think you have acted a most unkind part to your wife’. Violence, they stated, was not the means by which the working-class male asserted control over his household: ‘If it were possible that I could say anything that would make an impression on you it would be to never indulge in drink to excess, and never lift your hand against your wife or against your children. You can only exercise influence over them by kind and considerate conduct and by good example … Let it be the means of making for a future of a comfortable home’. In his reply to the coroner, Henry Wilson excused himself, as did many other working-class men in defence of the violent conduct towards their wives, by stating that ‘there [was] fault on both sides’ and that his wife had provoked his actions. Provocation was a common and often successful defence of violent husbands called before the criminal courts.[12]

On hearing this, Mrs. Wilson was called again before the coroner who stated to her, ‘I hope you will take a word of advice. He is impatient: do you be conciliatory. Don’t return evil for evil. Endeavour not to check or reproach him’. Such a remark from the coroner is fairly typical, as Anna Clark asserts, ‘Women often found themselves blamed for the violence they endured’ to some measure, at least.[13] Nonetheless, in light of the ‘great brutality’ that had been heard and acknowledging Mrs. Wilson as mostly the victim in this case, the coroner did advise her to seek the readdress of the magistrates if her husband continued his violent ways. This she duly did the following month, after her husband once again assaulted her and, in consequence, Henry Wilson found himself imprisoned for six weeks.[14] Henry returned to Sarah after his imprisonment, as revealed in the coroner’s inquest held into his daughter’s suicide just four years after her brother’s suicide and by the same means. Rumours were abound regarding her father mistreating her and while he admitted to slapping her, the coroner’s court concluded that she was mostly ‘kindly treated’ by her father and that, unlike the case of her brother, he was not accountable for her suicide.[15] However, in a prior newspaper report regarding an assault upon his wife, Henry was recorded as saying he ‘told his daughter she might go and drown herself as the other b—- (meaning his son) had done’. Despite all this violence and tragic loss, Sarah, like Hester, remained with her husband. But where else could these women and their children go?

More accounts of Victorian working-class marriage can be found in my book – In Bed with the Victorians. Google preview. Publishers website.


[1] Shani D’Cruze, Crimes of Outrage: Sex, Violence and Victorian Working Women (UCL Press, 1998), 75-76.

[2] Amanda Vickery, “The Bed,” A History of Private Life. BBC Radio 4, Sept 28, 2009. Also see Joanne Bailey (Begiato), Unquiet Lives: Marriage and Marriage Breakdown in England, 1660-1800 (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 121.

[3] D’Cruze, Crimes of Outrage, 75-76.

[4] Joanna Bourke, Working-Class Cultures in Britain, 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity (Routledge, 1994), 74, 77.

[5] D’Cruze, Crimes of Outrage, 68. Similarly, Joanne Begiato’s work on the marital power balance in the long eighteenth century provides an example of a violent husband ‘forc[ing] his wife to sit up at night when she was heavily pregnant’, Bailey, Unquiet Lives, 116. In D.H. Lawrence’s Son and Lovers (1913), Walter Morel in a drunken stupor throws his pregnant wife out of the house into the cold night, bolting the door. Only when he woke from his slumber did he unbolt the door. Also see, Caroline McGee, Childhood Experiences of Domestic Violence (London: Jessica Kingsley, 2000), 81.

[6] Judith Rowbotham, “‘Only when drunk’: The Stereotyping of Violence in England, c. 1850-1900,” in Everyday Violence in Britain, 1850-1950: Gender and Class, ed. Shani D’Cruze (Longman, 2000), 164-65. Also see Tomes, “Torrent of Abuse,” 332-33.

[7] The action of locking away knives in the presence of a drunk and abusive husband was a common strategy employed by working-class wives at this time. Tomes, “Torrent of Abuse,” 333.

[8] Such abuse centring on the marital bed is also evident in other periods. For example, in early modern England, Laura Gowing found cases of wives being ‘dragged’ out of their beds and their bedsheets cut up by their husbands. Laura Gowing, “The Twinkling of a Bedstaff: Recovering the Social Life of English Beds 1500–1700,” Home Cultures, 11, no. 3 (2014): 283-84, doi: 10.2752/175174214X14035295691355. Meanwhile, Begiato describes a 1799 case where one husband was sewn up in the bed-clothes while he slept, in order that his wife could beat him. Bailey, Unquiet Lives, 132.

[9] Elizabeth Foyster, Marital Violence: An English Family History, 1660-1857 (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 137.

[10] Foyster, Marital Violence, 190; Tomes, “Torrent of Abuse,” 336.

[11] Framlingham Weekly News, Oct 18, 1873, 4; Ipswich Journal, Oct 14, 1873, 2.

[12] Martin Wiener, Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness and Criminal justice in Victorian England (Cambridge University Press, 2004),, 34, 171-91; Annmarie Hughes, “The ‘Non-Criminal’ Class: Wife-beating in Scotland (c.1800-1949),” Crime, History & Societies 14, no. 2 (2010): 31-54. Also see Tomes, “Torrent of Abuse,” 338-39; and, Bailey, Unquiet Lives, 117-20.

[13] Clarke, Struggle for the Breeches, 262.

[14] Suffolk Chronicle, Dec 21, 1861, 6; Suffolk Chronicle, Feb 27, 1864, 8-9.

[15] Ipswich Journal, Oct 3, 1868, 10.

The rights of the de facto husband: domestic violence in the landlady-lodger relationship in Victorian society

The bottle, by George Cruikshank

Much has been stated about the ambiguities existing in the landlady-lodger relationship, with the Victorian landlady acting, in part, as de facto wife. Yet, while the sexual aspect of such a relationship has been widely discussed, other “rights” of the lodger in terms of his status as de facto husband have been overlooked. Addressing this, today’s blog post looks at the place of domestic violence in this complicated relationship. In working-class communities throughout this period, a husband had the right to beat his wife. However, what was not permissible was to ‘beat…the wife of another man’.[1] So where does the lodger sit in this social code? Using coroners’ inquests to examine the experience of lodging in someone else’s home in Victorian England I have come across numerous cases of domestic violence existing between a lodger and landlady where their relationship would be better defined as living as man and wife.[2] In such cases, it is unsurprising to see such behaviour going unchallenged by the community. Yet, I have also come across acts of violence enacted by a lodger on his landlady where there is no evidence of a sexual relationship and even, as in the case discussed below, where a lawful husband is present in the household.

In 1894, lodger and labourer, 40-year-old John Last, died from pneumonia in his landlady’s home, 17 Stoke Street, Ipswich. Called to provide evidence at the inquest, his landlady, Maria Vincent, wife of Robert Vincent, stated that Last had lodged in their home for the past 14 years. In recent times, she revealed, Last had become ‘a heavy drinker’, so much so that he went without food to afford his habit.[3] During these drinking bouts, Maria Vincent found herself to be the target of Last’s violent outbursts: ‘On Friday week he was intoxicated and ill-treated her, as was his custom … A week or two back he gave her a black eye’. Such was the violence on some occasions that ‘she had to fetch her husband’.[4]

Given the routine physical abuse that Maria Vincent was suffering at the hands of her lodger, I am forced to ask the question why had Last been permitted to remain in the Vincent’s home? It could be argued that his presence was an economic necessity, a necessary evil so to speak. However, given the relatively high demand for lodgings in the town, it would not have been difficult for the Vincent’s to have found a more amenable lodger. It seems more likely that the answer lies in the length of time that Last had been lodging with them. As noted above, Last had been living with the Vincent’s for 14 years and this long-term status, his continual financial contribution to the household purse, would have elevated his status in the household as more like family than a lodger. This is affirmed in the questioning of the coroner’s court when the matter of Maria Vincent’s care (or lack thereof) of her sick lodger was raised. The jury ‘thought that after [Last] had lived at the house so many years he should have been looked after’. This, they believed, had not been adequately done by Maria Vincent and thus she was apportioned some blame for her lodger’s death. Notably, the coroner’s court make no remark as to the violence Last dispensed upon his landlady. Indeed, one newspaper covering the case omitted this part of Maria Vincent’s statement entirely.

The case of John Last suggests, therefore, that there was a grey area between violence enacted out on a wife by a husband and that enacted out upon the wife of another man. Within that grey area was the male long-term lodger, whose growth in status in the household appears to have sanctified beating his landlady.

[1] For details on this, see Nancy Tomes, A “Torrent of Abuse”: Crimes of Violence Between Working-Class Men and Women in London, 1840–1875, Journal of Social History, Volume 11, Issue 3, Spring 1978, Pages 328–345, https://doi.org/10.1353/jsh/11.3.328.

[2][2] For an example of this, see the case of Ipswich lodger, John Miller, in V. Holmes, In Bed with the Victorians (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), pp. 68-69.

[3] John Last ‘boarded himself’ and thus Maria Vincent was not financially obligated to provide her lodger with regular meals.

[4] Ipswich Journal, Jan 6, 1894; East Anglian Daily Times, Jan 4, 1894, p. 5.

The Remains of an Old Stump Bedstead

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’.[1]

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.[2]

Screenshot 2020-02-12 07.04.03
The Workwoman’s Guide (1840)

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.”’[3]

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’.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

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.[7] 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’.[8]

[1] Norfolk Chronicle, Sept 11, 1869; Norwich Mercury, Sept 8, 1869.

[2] ‘…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.

[3] Norfolk Chronicle, Sept 11, 1869.

[4] Norwich Mercury, Sept 8, 1869.

[5] TNA RG09/1267/47/21

[6] For more information see Pat Thane, “Women and the Poor Law in Victorian and Edwardian England.” History Workshop, no. 6 (1978): 29-51.

[7] TNA RG10/1873/33/10.

[8] Norfolk News, June 10, 1876, p. 8.

The ‘”Healthy” Metal Bedstead?

It has been while since I last wrote a blog post. Indeed, since my last post I have had a baby who is now a toddler. After exploring the life cycle of working-class marriage in the Victorian era through the beds they inhabited in my Palgrave Pivot In Bed with the Victorians, I am now turning my attention to the bed itself. I have, in my continued use of the coroners’ inquests, uncovered a wide range of wooden bedsteads in the Victorian working-class home – four post, tent, french, and stump – in varying conditions. However, one surprise has been the discovery of metal bedsteads from as early as 1878 being present in some of the dwellings inhabited by the poorest of the working-class.

Metal bedsteads, as Lesley Hoskins has explored in her work on nineteenth-century inventories, only began to increase in popularity in middling homes from the 1860 as a result of mass manufacture and falling prices. The main selling point of a metal bedstead was its ‘hygienic qualities’ – since they did not harbour bedbugs.[1] Thus, they were seen as ideal for those spaces where such infestations might thrive, including the homes of the working-class. Yet, as the coroners’ inquests reveal the presence of a metal bedstead (in the cases I have found so far all comprising of iron) in the working-class home did not necessarily entail a healthy night’s sleep.

In late 1892, Elizabeth Butcher of Lowestoft (Suffolk) found herself before the authorities on two occasions. The first was a charge of neglect brought before the Police Court, and the second was a coroner’s inquest held regarding the death of her seven-year-old son—Charles Henry Butcher. The subsequent newspaper reports reveal much on the material aspects of the family’s home—88 Seago Street—and their sleeping arrangements. Struggling to make ends meet on her husband’s meagre earnings as a smacksman, Elizabeth Butcher had several lodgers occupying the front rooms while the family resided in the backrooms. Several witness at both the neglect proceedings and coroner’s inquest described the house as being in a ‘dirty’ state. The back bedroom – where the children slept —contained two ‘old iron bedstead[s]’, on which there were two straw mattresses ‘rotten with filth’. Furthermore, ‘There was not an atom of bedclothing in the house [instead] old coats and a jacket were used as a covering’. Other signs of ‘the direst poverty’ were also evident around the family’s home, as stated in Police Sergeant Roxby’s testimony in the inquest. Having gained access to the Butcher’s home after the death of Charles – a death granted unprecedented access to such homes – ‘The only food he found was a loaf of bread, a little butter, and a small quantity of port wine’. It was unsurprising then, to find that Charles, who was noted as having ‘been very weak since birth’, had struggled to thrive under such conditions. Becoming unwell and deteriorating quickly, he died suddenly from what the medical witness concluded was ‘syncope…probably accelerated by the want of sufficient nourishment’.[2]

At a similar case in Chelmsford, in 1903, regarding the death of a brassmoulder’s child, it was recorded in the newspaper report of the coroner’s inquest that: ‘The bed in which the father and mother slept was filthy. There was a lot of old coats, but no recognised bed clothing at all. There was a mattress, which was filthy dirty. Everything was filthy dirty…In the children’s room there were two iron bedsteads, with the same sort of bedclothing—old pieces and coats’.[3]

These and other coroners’ inquests which reveal iron bedsteads in working-class homes on the brink of poverty raise several questions that I have yet to answer. How did such families acquire these metal bedsteads? Perhaps, in the case of the Chelmsford brass moulder, this was somehow obtained cheaply through their employment. Certainly, one of the other owners of an iron bedstead (which was the only thing left in a bedroom consumed by a fire) was a whitesmith. As it has been suggested by Angela McShane and Joanne Begiato, the bed frames were potentially already in the property, having been left by previous inhabitants. Had they perhaps, even, been provided by landlords/landlady? Were the cheapest forms of these metal bedsteads—the metal stump bedstead—widely available on the second-hand market and thus in better times the working-class householder had been able to afford them? And, finally, one question aside from the purchase and ownership of these, why is it the household’s children generally sleeping upon the household’s metal bedstead?

[1] Phyllis Bennett Oates, The Story of Western Furniture (Landham, MD: New Amsterdam Books, 1998), p. 169.

[2] Eastern Daily Press, Oct 11, 1892; East Anglia Daily Times, Nov 21, 1892.

[3] Chelmsford Chronicle, January 13, 1903

Banana Boxes, Chest of Drawers, Eggs Boxes, and Gooseberry Sieves


It has been quite some time since I have written a blog post, as writing ‘the book’ is taking priority at the moment. However, a BBC article today on the popularity of baby boxes has given me a perfect excuse to share an aspect of my book that I am currently working on: babies’ beds in the homes of the Victorian working class.

As with today, Victorian ‘baby boxes’ were inextricably linked to concerns over infant suffocation. Exploring accidental infant death for my PhD thesis on Victorian Domestic Dangers in the English county of Suffolk, I uncovered late nineteenth-century inquests held into supposed infant suffocation. In almost every case urban coroners drew attention to the dangers of infants sharing the parental bed. The following remarks are typical of coroners and medical men at the time.

In 1897, an Ipswich inquest was held upon a male infant named Nunn, believed to have suffocated in the bedclothes while sleeping in his parent’s bed. Opening the inquest the coroner remarked:

on the folly of parents taking their children of a tender age to bed with them, and said the number of deaths from suffocation from that cause was something fabulous’.[1]

Mr Eades, an Ipswich surgeon, at the same 1897 inquest, lamented:

it was a dangerous practice for a child to sleep with its parents, a cot by the side of the bed was advisable, but that course was not often adopted by the poorer classes’.

Eades then claimed:

it was quite a fallacy that a child could only be kept warm by being taken to bed with the parents’.

He argued,

‘If a wicker basket were lined with a blanket and a shawl the child would be found quite warm’.[2]

Likewise, at another inquest reported in the Ipswich Journal in 1900 involving a suffocated infant, the coroner:

admitted that the poorer classes could not provide bassinettes, but it was certainly within their power to make some sort of provision, such as the fitting out of a box, or even a drawer’.[3]

So did the working class heed this middle-class advice?

Well, the first thing I need to explore here is whether working-class infants did indeed routinely share the parental bed. Infants may have been dying in the parental bed, but a close reading of these inquest reports reveals a more complex and varied situation when it came to sleeping infants. Certainly, there are numerous inquests which do explicitly state that the infant routinely shared the parental bed at night. However, there are also other inquests that state the infant was only a transient visitor to this bed, aptly demonstrated in the following mother’s testimony at an inquest held in Ipswich in 1897:

When asked by the coroner: ‘Is it your habit to take a child so young into bed with you?

The mother replied: ‘I have a bassinette, but the child cried so I took it into bed’.[4]

In my research of East Anglia coroners’ inquests I have come across numerous references to working-class infants (up and down the social scale within this widely socio-economic class) sleeping in cots, bassinettes, and cribs, suggesting that such sleeping arrangements were far more prevalent that the Victorian middle-class coroners and medical men claimed.

Coroners’ inquests too reveal the makeshift baby beds found in poorer homes, even predating the outcry in regards to overlaid infants in the 1890s. In 1869, James Greenwood remarked in his Seven Curses of London that, ‘the strangest receptacles do duty as baby cradles at times’. These, he states, included gooseberry sieves, raisin boxes, and, as revealed in one London inquest, an egg box – ‘a short one […] sixteen inches wide […] with some straw in it’.[5]

I have also come across references to infants sleeping in makeshift beds in a range of other sources. Charitable organisations ‘developed a thriving business in selling cradles made out of banana boxes’ in response to the apparent increase in deaths from overlaying.[6] Oral histories tell us that an open chest of drawers could be used to cradle a sleeping infant, while Maud Pember Reeves reported a closed one could be used to house its dead body.[7]

Whether the presence of these makeshift infants beds was out of a working-class concern over infant suffocation is something I have yet to determine, but it is evident that the baby box was not a twentieth century invention and probably predates the nineteenth century as well.


On another note entirely, in recent discussions on whether blogging counts as academic work (yes, it does), does my blog writing also count towards today’s book writing word count target?

[1] Ipswich Journal, 22 May 1897. There are many issues surrounding the verdict of accidental suffocation and overlaying which brings the number of deaths into question, for more information see my blog post on Victorian Domestic Dangers ‘Bedclothes, Mothers and Infant Suffocation’.

[2] Ipswich Journal, 22 May 1897.

[3] Ipswich Journal, 23 June 1900.

[4] Ipswich Journal, 10 December 1897.

[5] Greenwood, Seven Curses of London.

[6] Carol Dyhouse, ‘Working-Class Mothers and Infant Mortality in England, 1895-1914’, Journal of Social History, 12 (1978), pp. 248-267, p. 250.

[7] National Trust Birmingham Backs to Backs/Pember Reeve, Round About a Pound, p. 5.

Please do not reproduce the content of this blog in print or any other media without permission of the author.

‘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.

The Lodger’s Threshold

door lockAs I work on my latest conference paper, one of the questions I am considering is to what extent lodgers could define their own boundaries in someone else’s home. Lodgers were commonplace in the homes of the 19th-century working class and for the household taking in lodgers, Davidoff states, it ‘was a sign that the family could no longer be kept private’.[1] But, to what extent did taking up lodgings mean a sacrifice of one’s privacy? My investigations of late 19th-century London coroners’ inquests reveals that lodgers, while often being incorporated into the household and daily domestic life, could, nonetheless, physically determine their own thresholds therein.

John Styles study of lodging in 18th-century London (documented in the records of the Old Bailey) reveals that ‘Many tenants had their own room key and kept their own rooms locked’.[2] This, the coroners’ inquests reported in Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper in the late 19th century reveal, was a practice continued in those London homes accommodating lodgers.

Repeatedly, coroners’ inquests held on those who had died while lodging in domestic dwellings refer to the lodger’s room being locked from the inside and doors having to be broken open when a landlady/landlord became concerned. At an inquest held upon an elderly widow lodging in the home of Mrs. Jennings of Wood Street, Woolwich, the landlady called before the coroner’s court to provide testimony stated that on the day in question ‘not hearing her [lodger] about, she went to her room. Getting no answer she tried the door, which was locked, [she then] procured assistance, and an entrance was effected. Deceased was lying on the floor undressed, as if she had fallen out of bed… [She] had been dead for some hours’.[3]

However, it was not just when a lodger had died within the locked room that a landlady/landlord had difficulty gaining access. The inquest reports also reveal that some householders would have little control over the lodger’s space in their home.

In June 1890, Lloyd’s Weekly reported on an inquest held on the body of 75 year old Anthony Cook who had died in his London lodgings from syncope. Called to provide testimony, Sarah Ann King, wife of a tea dealer, stated that Cook lodged in her home – 64 Richard Street, St. George East – ‘he paid 2s. 6d. a week for one room, which he always kept locked… [King] had never been in it till Monday and when she did do she found it in a most filthy state’.[4] This case was far from unique. In December 1896, Lloyd’s Weekly reported on the death of 71 year old James Bird Oliver who had died from starvation in the home of Iliffe Hayes, 36 Clayton Road, Peckham. Hayes told the coroner’s court that Oliver had lodged with her for the past two years and ‘was of somewhat eccentric habits and would allow no one in his room’. Like Cook’s landlady, when Hayes finally gained access, upon her lodger’s death, she also found it in ‘a filthy state’.[5]

Likewise, in May 1885, Lloyd’s Weekly reported on the death of George Morton Hasson, a 73 year old pensioner of the Great Western Railway company, who had died as a result of gangrenous wounds at his Marylebone lodgings – 16 Earl Street – the private domestic dwelling of James Lomer, bootmaker and his wife Phoebe, a dressmaker. Providing testimony to the coroner’s court, James Lomer stated that his lodger ‘objected to the interference of anybody in his household arrangements. He consequently was left very much to himself… Latterly he locked himself in very much, and finally refused to allow anybody to come near him. On the 1st of May, as he was not heard to move about or make a noise of any kind for some time, witness went and knocked at his door, but could not get an answer for some hours’.[6]

It is evident, therefore, that for some of those lodging in someone else’s home they were able to define and control their own space through the use of a locked bedroom door. Yet, the inquests also reveal that not all private dwelling lodgers were able to possess their own thresholds, as for some their bedroom was also the family’s bedroom

[1] Leonore Davidoff, ‘The Separation of Home and Work? Landladies and Lodgers in Nineteenth- and Twentieth Century England, in Fit Work for Women, ed. by Sandra Burman (Croom Helm, 1979), pp. 64-97 (p. 69).

[2] John Styles, ‘Lodging at the Old Bailey: Lodgings and their Furnishing in Eighteenth-Century London’, in Gender, Taste and Material Culture in Britain and North America, 1700-1830, ed. by John Styles and Amanda Vickery (Yale University Press, 2006). Also see Amanda Vickery, ‘An Englishman’s Home is his castle? Thresholds, Boundaries and Privacies in the Eighteenth-Century London House’, Past and Present, 199 (2008), 147-173.

[3] Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 17 Apr 1887, n.p.

[4] Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 29 June 1890, n.p.

[5] Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 6 Dec 1896, n.p.

[6] Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 17 May 1885, n.p.

The Unwelcome House Guest

Much of my research has revealed where additional inhabitants – lodgers, visitors, and extended family – slept at night in the homes of the late 19th century urban working class and rural labourers. Yet, one area I had been struggling to uncover is how householders felt about accommodating an extra body at night in what were often already cramped homes. However, I am excitingly beginning to unearth some inquests which do bring to light how some reacted to their nocturnal guests.

In March 1900, the Essex Standard reported on an inquest held pertaining to the death of a forty-one year old spinster, Florence Davison, resident of 69 Church Street, Harwich. This was not her own home, but the ‘two-room’ dwelling of her sister, Emily Salter, where Florence had lived ‘on and off’ for sixteen years. It is evident from the inquest that the Salter’s struggled to accommodate this additional household member, but nevertheless did as it is revealed that on the night preceding her death, Florence ‘retired at her usual time, about half-past ten…sle[eping] in the living room… [while Emily], her husband, and [adult] son sle[pt] in the other’. Feeling unwell, as had been the case for some months, Florence wished to stay in bed after the rest of the household had risen the following morning, but with ‘her bed’ positioned in the family’s only living space, she was awoken when the rest of the household arose and moved into ‘her sister’s bed’ in the other room. (Presumably, though it is not stated in the inquest report, Florence’s bed could be stowed away during waking hours in order to accommodate daily domestic life – such as is the example in George Godwin’s London Shadows (1854)). A few hours later Florence was found to be dead. A post mortem revealed that death ‘was due to failure of the heart’. The story, however, does not end there.

'Interior of House in Court' - George Godwin, London Shadows (1854)  ‘The room is little more than 7 feet long by 6 feet wide; the greatest height 6 feet 9 inches. The narrow bedstead, which is doubled up in the daytime, reaches, when let down, close to the fire-place… Our engraving makes the room appear too large’
‘Interior of House in Court’ – George Godwin, London Shadows (1854)
‘The room is little more than 7 feet long by 6 feet wide; the greatest height 6 feet 9 inches. The narrow bedstead, which is doubled up in the daytime, reaches, when let down, close to the fire-place… Our engraving makes the room appear too large’

More is revealed about Florence’s place in the home when the coroner, Dr John Harrison, questioned witnesses regarding Inspector Amos claim that Florence had been starved to death as result of her brother-in-law’s negligence. Examined by the coroner’s court as to his negligence toward both his family and sister-in-law, Thomas Salter, ‘a checker, but not in regular employment’, stated:

Deceased was his wife’s sister, and she became ill about two months ago. He suggested to his wife that she should have the parish doctor. The statement was quite correct as to the income…[He] never took any of it, and the only money he had ever received from deceased was…to settle a County Court summons against him. His average earnings were 16s. per week, and only on one occasion had they been without food, and that was the fore part of January. It was quite true that he never gave his wife any money, but that was through many reasons’.

Further questioned by the coroner, Thomas remarked:

the deceased had been the torment of his life’.

‘Asked in what way, he replied’:

through upsetting his home. He had never agreed to support her’.

Also called to give evidence was Inspector Amos. Having initially reported the death to the coroner he stated to the court:

In [his] opinion Salter had neglected his home greatly, and it was hearsay that [Florence] had no clothes to wear, and went about the house in nearly a nude condition’.

After the jury ‘brought in their verdict as natural causes’, the coroner then called Thomas back before the court:

the Coroner addressing him, said the Jury were unanimous that he should be severely censured for his neglect of the deceased. He ought to consider himself lucky that he was not committed to take his trial for manslaughter…had it not been for the medical evidence.—He (the Coroner) trusted he would take the warning to hear to treat others better were they placed in his charge in the future’.

It is evident in this inquest that Florence and her brother-in-law had a somewhat tense ‘symbiotic’ relationship, with Florence – of independent means – financially contributing to the household in times of crisis and Thomas (begrudgingly) providing her a bed throughout the sixteen years she had lived with them ‘on and off’.

This inquest leaves me with a significant question to explore in my research going forward – just how often were extra inhabitants in the homes of the working class unwelcome guests?

Please do not reproduce the content of this blog in print or any other media without permission of the author.

%d bloggers like this: