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.

“Accidental death from suffocation through eating a piece of carrot” – the lodger in the adjoining bedroom

My recent article and JVC post explored the presence of the lodger in the bedroom in the dwellings of the Victorian urban working-class. In these I reveal how the lodger could be found sleeping all around the home, including the family’s bedroom and even, on occasion, the marital bed. However, the design of many a nineteenth-century working-class home meant that the lodger did not have to be sleeping in the bedroom in order to ‘intrude’ on this space. Hallways and landings, taking up valuable space, were uncommon in cramped urban and rural homes for much of the period. Instead, the staircase or, in some cases, merely a ladder, was positioned in the backroom or single lower room (see image), leading directly into one of the bedrooms above.[1] Therefore, the occupants of an adjoining bedroom would have to pass through this room in order to reach their bed, disturbing those already sleeping.

Penny Illustrated News, 12 January 1850.
Penny Illustrated News, 12 January 1850.

At the 1890 inquest of a 50 year old bachelor and waterman, William Halls, who died as a result of having ‘eaten a piece of raw carrot before going to bed [which] had got into the windpipe and settled on the lungs, causing suffocation’, his landlady revealed how her lodger encroached on her sleep and sleeping space through the night in the Brandon (Suffolk) home they shared:

It appears from the evidence of Mrs. Tilney, the person with whom he lodged, that he went home on Wednesday evening about half-past seven, that he went out again for a short time, came home again, and went to bed [in the room adjoining hers]. During the night she heard him retching as if being sick. She did not pay much attention to this, because she had often heard him like that before [he was a “habitual drinker”], but about 3.30am he got up and rushed into her bedroom, through which he would have to pass to get downstairs, apparently choking, and quite black in the face.[2]

He died before medical help could be summoned. The coroner’s court recorded a verdict of “Accidental death from suffocation through eating a piece of carrot.”

[1] Mary M. Griffiths, ‘The housing of Ipswich, 1840-1973’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Essex, 1984, p. 18; Muthesius, The English Terraced House, pp. 10, 88, 123-126.

[2] The Bury and Norwich Post, and Suffolk Standard, 28 October 1890, p. 8

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“He Lived Alone for Six Long and Weary Years”

Employed as a research assistant for the summer, much of my time was spent in the Salvation Army Heritage Centre in Denmark Hill searching through late Victorian and Edwardian copies of The War Cry. For those of you who follow me on twitter, you will have seen the range of items reported upon in this rather abundant resource – from cookery tips to illustrations of slum life. One regular feature that caught my attention was “Cellar, Gutter, and Garrett,” reporting on the work done by the Salvation Army in London’s poorest districts. The particular article I want to discuss in today’s post, is one reported in April 1885 which tells the tale of a ‘widower, seventy-six years of age, feeble and sick’ who ‘lived alone for six long and weary years…in a barely furnished and dirty room in Seven Dials’.

To reach him we had to climb some winding, creaking stairs, then, opening the door, we found him in his usual position before the fire–a scanty one its true. He had sat there for six years–cannot go to bed or lie down, because of his breathing; he was very thin, and as the clothes were still thinner, and in some places worn away, we could see how the bones stood prominently out, he had no shoes or stockings on, his feet rested on the cold hearth–he had on his head a hat, or rather the rim of one, the crown having been burnt out, by it accidentally falling onto the fire as he slept.

His health further declining, however, he was ‘induced’ to lie down on the bed, soon thereafter passing away peacefully.

Yet, despite the inference of a lonely death in the article’s subheading, as we go further into the story it reveals that in his final days he was tended to by the Salvation Army “lasses.”

On Saturday morning the lasses visited and washed him, tidied his room, talked and prayed with him…

Moreover, his daughter, ‘who occupied the floor beneath’ and was ‘equally poor, with a large family’, would bring him ‘a little food’. When her father’s health rapidly declined, it was she who called for the doctor.

We knelt and prayed in the darkened room beside the corpse and his daughter (the mother of three little children) promised God and us to meet him in Heaven.

This particular article resonated with me because of its similarity to a number of coroners’ inquests I came across during my PhD research relating to elderly widowers residing alone, who were–from the evidence given–far from alone. Despite living alone, these elderly widowed men frequently had around them support networks that they could rely upon both day-to-day and in times of crisis. The most predominant of these were female family members—daughters, sisters, and even mother-in-laws. Such networks, often untraceable in the census due to differing surnames, are opened up by the Victorian coroner’s courts. At one Ipswich inquest held in 1896 on the body of widower, Henry Peck, who had died as a result of a fall, the court recorded that it was his sister, ‘Tamar Balaam’, residing on a neighbouring street, who had noticed that her brother’s ‘shutters…were closed beyond the usual hour’ and, being concerned, had her husband break down the door. The Ipswich Journal reporting on the inquest peculiarly decided on the tagline of ‘A Lonely Man’s End’, but like the case reported in The War Cry, it is evident that while these widowed men were living alone they were not necessarily ‘lonely’ men.


The War Cry, 1 April 1885, 4.

The War Cry, 18 April 1885, 4.

Ipswich Journal, 6 June 1896.

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