‘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 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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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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