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

banana box

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.

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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?

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Sleeping in “his chair” – Spaces of Nocturnal Sleep

As I begin scrutinising some recently gathered 19th century coroners’ inquest reports for a study of sleeping arrangements in the homes of the working classes, one of the areas I am particularly interested in is the use of dayrooms and non-bedroom furniture for the purpose of night time sleeping.

In my recent work on lodgers, I have revealed how private dwelling lodgers could find themselves accommodated on a sofa in dayrooms when there was a shortage of beds.[1] In an inquest I recently uncovered in the late 19th century provincial press, I found that in a small household short on bedsteads “the child slept in a bed on a sofa in the lower room.”[2]

Though, what I want to explore in this particular post is the use of chairs for nocturnal sleeping. Throughout my research in past years I have frequently come across references in the inquests to the elderly napping in chairs by the fireside during the daytime – an inquest often having been brought about after they fell from the chair and into the unguarded fire. However, I am now also beginning to uncover cases which refer to chairs in lower rooms being used for the purpose of sleeping during the night, as demonstrated in the following inquest report.

Aaron Cansdale, a 63 year old agricultural labourer of Bures St Mary (Suffolk) slept in “his chair” in a downstairs room on the nights he had been out drinking and returned home “worse for drink.”

[On] the Friday evening [Aaron Cansdale] went to a beer-house and had two pints of beer, returning home at ten o’clock, apparently a little worse for drink. When this was the case his usual plan was to sit and sleep in his chair, and not go to bed. He did this on the present occasion. His wife went downstairs and found him asleep at twelve o’clock [returning to her bed thereafter]’.

Why the Cansdale’s had this arrangement is not explicitly stated in the inquest report, it is likely, however, given that the other inhabitants of the household appear to have retired to bed before his return from the beer-house, that the intention was not to disturb those already asleep by sleeping downstairs. Or perhaps, given the treacherous design of staircases in these homes, he was simply too intoxicated to climb the stairs to bed on these occasions?

Sadly, for Aaron Cansdale, “his chair” was to be his death-bed. ‘When his son-in-law went down at five the next morning he found him lying on the floor, as if he had slipped off the chair. He called the wife, who almost immediately went downstairs, who found her husband in his chair, to which his son had assisted him, but he did not speak, and it subsequently appeared he was quite dead’.[3]

[1] Vicky Holmes, ‘Accommodating the Lodger: The Domestic Arrangements of Lodgers in Working-Class Dwellings in a Victorian Provincial Town’, Journal of Victorian Culture,Vol. 19, Iss. 3, 2014.

[2] Ipswich Journal, 15 Jan 1870.

[3] Ipswich Journal, 3 June 1882.

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