‘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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The Elderly Lodger – Abandoned or Without Kin?

The image of the elderly lodger is often one of having been abandoned by or lacking kin. However, one finding that surprised me in the Ipswich coroners’ inquests reports was that some of these elderly lodgers had kin residing in the same neighbourhood or were, in the case of 72 year old Curtis George Senior, neighbours.

In the inquest report into the death of Curtis George Senior, where a verdict of natural death was recorded, it was reported that “[Curtis] had long since ceased to work, and was maintained entirely by his children, who were very kind and attentive to him.” However, he did not reside with any of his adult children, instead “[he] lodged with Mrs. Mary Stock, in St. Helen’s.” Nevertheless, he was not far from kin, as the census reveals that his son, a wood turner at the iron foundry, resided in the neighbouring house with his large and young family (six children aged between one and fourteen years are recorded in the 1871 census). One can speculate that Curtis George Junior’s household was perhaps too overcrowded to accommodate his elderly parent, yet wanting to be nearby to his father – whose “health had not been good” – brought him to lodge next door [1].

These elderly lodgers would, it seems, be in regular, sometimes daily, contact with their kin.

In 1893, when 79 year old Mary Ann Rodwell died suddenly in her Ipswich lodgings – Oak Villa, Portman Road – where she had lodged “for the past five years,” her daughter, Mrs Adelaide Bullen of 5, Berners Street, Ipswich, stated at the inquest into her mother’s death “that her mother came to see her during the morning” prior to her death [2].

Some inquest reports also reveal that while there may not have been an extra bed for an elderly relative to be permanently incorporated into the household, an extra space could, nonetheless, be found round the family table.

When 65 year old John Hignell’s body was found in the River Gipping in May 1878, his son, Arthur Hignell of Turrett Lane, stated at the coroner’s inquest into his father’s death: “[his father] was a widower, and lodged at the Duke of York, Woodbridge Road…formerly a grocer, [he had] several months previous to his death been out of employ. [He] saw him last alive on Tuesday morning.” It was further reported that as John “had no money… he frequently had money given to him by his son, who also gave him breakfast and sometimes his dinner” [3].

Like the son of Curtis George Senior, Arthur Hignell, a fishmonger with a large family, probably did not have the space to accommodate an extra sleeping body at night, but did nevertheless evidentially provide his father with both financial and almost daily domestic support.

So in conclusion, when we come across an elderly person living in lodgings recorded in the census, it does not necessarily entail that these are the ones who lacked kin and their support. Instead, it can perhaps be seen, in some cases at least, that placing an elderly relative in (and even paying for their) lodgings provided kin (unable or unwilling to accommodate them into their already overcrowded home) the ability to care for their ageing relatives from a short distance. Or perhaps, for the elderly relative, living in lodgings offered them a level of independence (and peace and quiet from young children) in their old age?

[1] Ipswich Journal, 8 Feb 1873.

[2] Ipswich Journal, 1 July 1893.

[3] Ipswich Journal, 14 May 1878.

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