The Hall Green Tragedy Part 2: Scandal at the Undertaker’s

This is part two of my retelling of the Hall Green Tragedy of 1895. For part one, see here.

It was not until the day after the deaths that the bodies were identified, after police found an address in Edward’s pocket.

His wife was brought to formally identify the bodies as those of her husband and her eldest daughter by her first husband. It was noted that ‘the distress and horror of the poor woman were most painful to witness’.

The Mermaid Inn in Sparkhill. Photo by Oosoom.

The Mermaid Inn in Sparkhill. Photo by Oosoom.

Carrie’s body was initially taken to the local pub, the Mermaid Inn, on Stratford Road, but later, both her body and that of Edward Birch were removed to the undertakers. Here, scandal ensued.

The undertaker unscrupulously allowed spectators to view the bodies on payment of a penny each admission fee.

The result was that his premises were ‘crowded with morbid sightseers’ all weekend, with women seen shaking their fists in Edward Birch’s dead face and shouting ‘May you go straight to hell!’.

The negative publicity this resulted in led to the undertaker promising to donate all money paid to Mrs Birch, but this did not lessen the views of other locals that this had been an ‘unedifying’, ‘repulsive’, spectacle.

Carrie’s inquest was held first, at the Mermaid Inn, with AH Hebbert, deputy coroner for North Worcestershire, presiding. Here, the verdict of wilful murder against Edward Birch was recorded, despite the couple appearing to have made a pact together to die.

The deputy coroner summed up by saying, ‘the extraordinary part of the case was that the girl consented to die’ but that if two persons agreed to kill themselves, but one of them survived, the survivor would be guilty of murder.

The jury expressed ‘strong dissatisfaction’ with how the bodies had been ‘housed’ – and the subsequent scandal – and ‘hoped it would not be long before a proper police-station, mortuary and ambulance’ was provided in Sparkhill.

Meanwhile, a search had been carried out in the family home, and police found several letters written by Birch. One read:

“E Birch, 59 Upper Highgate Street, Highgate, Birmingham. Nov 8th 1894. This is to shew that I will not be bested I worned her 12 mounths ago she dou in May 5th 1894 what she ourt not to… she as deceived me agin & when I get in drink it plays on my mind and I make the best of myself Ive taken her out & to places of amusement and then she will be after the men & in September last I give hir lef to go Sunday school and church if she be in by 9 and then she goes of with to fellers in the Ram till after 10 at night round the Mosley fields coaved with muck and paint… She is not my own child and this is the reason when I tell hir about it the mouther takes hir part and incurges hir in it. So this is the end of it.”

The next letter, sent to his parents in Wolverhampton on 5 January, stated:

“Dont put yourself about me of what you see and hear, I care for nothing as they ave brought it all on themselves. Emmer knows what I sed about genney when I was out of work being with that grieves till 1 o’clock in the morning as I keept from starving so long in 1893. So this makes to I have to keep of other mens kids and Calley is as bad…and have soon put her in trouble and this is the way out of it the Job is worse for me than hir as I shall go throw the same and no it tell the fokes to have mutch to say of this afair on either sides to envest into ther own life and they will no dout find soom black spots that will take a robbing out.”

The Victoria Law Courts, by Tony Hisgett

The Victoria Law Courts, by Tony Hisgett

An inquest on Edward Birch was held on 15 January at the Victoria Courts in Birmingham, before city coroner Oliver Pemberton. Here, Mrs Birch repeated the evidence that she had given at her daughter’s inquest, detailing the ‘painful relationship’ between her relatives.

At a small china teacup, which had the words ‘A present from Birmingham’ inscribed in gold round it, being produced, she burst into sobs – ‘it was given to me by my daughter on my 32nd birthday.’

Carrie’s younger sister Lilly, then aged around eight, then had to give evidence, followed by two of Birch’s colleagues at Messrs Lowe’s iron foundry in Upper Trinity Street. They noted that although quiet and intelligent as a worker, he was something of a drinker, and had been summoned before the courts recently for not sending one of his children to school.

The coroner stated that the dead man had ‘turned from the conduct of the parent and behaved in a manner almost impossible to describe.’ He went further; Birch was a ‘profoundly wicked man’, and he encouraged the jury to return a verdict of felo de se – that Birch had ‘feloniously, wilfully, and of malice aforethought did kill and murder himself’. The jury duly did so.

The funeral of Carrie Jones took place at Yardley Cemetery on the Monday morning. The funeral procession left her mother’s house at 59 Upper Highgate Street at 9.30am with the service taking place at 11am.

How did Mrs Birch cope with this double betrayal by her husband and daughter, followed by the double deaths and the publicity the events received?

Understandably, the press reported that she was ‘utterly prostrated, both mentally and physically’, to the extent of being unable to maintain either herself or her six other children, the youngest being only a few months old. In her lowest moments, but the community did not stigmatise her, instead rallying around her.

The jury had stated at Birch’s inquest that they expressed ‘deep sympathy’ for Mrs Birch, and collected money for her from each of the jurors at the end of the inquest. The coroner encouraged all the onlookers at the court to do the same.

Joseph Lock was appointed by the community to collect money on behalf of the Birch family, writing in the press that ‘any sums, however small’ would be welcome to help maintain the family as it would be ‘weeks, probably months’ before Mrs Birch was able to resume family life.

Another man, William L Sheffield, responded in the press that ‘the unfortunate woman Mrs Birch deserves some little help, and I shall be happy to contribute’, and others sent postal orders directly to the newspapers, asking for them to be forwarded on.

Selina Birch survived the ordeal, although life continued to be tough for her. She stayed in the Upper Highgate Street area for the next decade.

She worked as a laundress to maintain her children, and seems to have had at least two illegitimate children following Edward’s death – Jessie was born in 1898 and Lizzie in 1906.

In 1911, living at 6 Beales Buildings, Frank Street, in Balsall Heath, she stated that she was a widow with nine children, of whom two had died.

Significantly, though, despite being a widow, she wrote that her ‘present marriage’ had so far lasted 30 years, suggesting that she still saw Edward Birch very much as her husband.

Selina J Birch died in Birmingham in 1939, shortly before the start of the Second World War, aged 79 – having long outlived her unfaithful husband and naïve daughter.

Sources: 

The Standard, 9 January 1895, p.3; Nottinghamshire Guardian, 12 January 1895, p.8; Birmingham Daily Post, 12 January 1895; The Derby Mercury, 16 Jan 1895; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 20 January 1895; Ancestry, The Genealogist.

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12 Days of Criminal Christmas: Drinking and Dying in 19th Century Liverpool

TheUsualIrishWayofDoingThingsThis series has already stated that Victorians liked to drink at Christmas. This was noted by elements of the 19th century press, and never made more clear than in a piece in the Yorkshire Herald in 1892.

The paper noted the ‘extraordinarily large number’ of violent and sudden deaths that had been reported to the Liverpool coroner that Christmas.

24 people had been reported to have died on Christmas Day alone, including one alleged murder, six children suffocated to death, and six elderly people found dead.

It was also reported that there had been several more deaths in the city on Boxing Day.

The Yorkshire Herald stated,

“The investigation of the coroner’s office show that drink is directly or indirectly responsible for the majority of the cases.”

Source: The Yorkshire Herald, 28 December 1892

 

“Poverty is not the only crime”: death and the inhumane overseer of Brentford

In my 18th century research, I’ve found the odd case of pregnant women being ferried across parishes in an attempt by overseers to shift financial responsibility for the women and their soon-to-be-born children to others… and these cases were in Old Poor Law days, before the divide between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor became as sharp as it did post-1834.

So perhaps this following case shouldn’t shock me – but it does. In a case that took place not long after the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act came into effect, the case of Bridget Neville and her daughter Margaret remains horrifying nearly 200 years after it took place.

 

"Infant's Repast" by Ford Madox Brown (1848). This item is from the Pre-Raphaelite Online Resource www.preraphaelites.org, © Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery.

“Infant’s Repast” by Ford Madox Brown (1848). This item is from the Pre-Raphaelite Online Resource http://www.preraphaelites.org, © Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery.

On Monday 6 February 1837, just four months before Victoria became Queen, an inquest took place into the death of a little girl named Margaret Neville, who was just short of two years old.

The inquest, heard before coroner Thomas Stirling at the Windmill Inn in Turnham Green, now west London, caused considerable interest both amongst residents and the press, and raised the issue of the responsibilities of the overseers, and the need for compassion when carrying out their duties.

It was heard that Margaret was one of two children of Bridget Neville and her unnamed husband (possibly Michael). The Nevilles, who may have been Irish, were desperately poor, unemployed, and were having to travel around the country in search of work.

They had been in Croydon before, where, on their daughter Margaret being poorly, they had taken her to a surgeon, who had diagnosed an inflammation of the chest, and had given Margaret a blister, and her mother some powders to give to her.

They had then had to leave Croydon, as a policeman had turned up at their lodging house at midnight and given them a couple of hours’ notice to leave. They had then walked to Wandsworth, where they spent their last pennies on a night’s lodging.

They had then decided to get to Bristol on foot, in the hope of finding work there. However, on reaching Brentford in Middlesex around 3pm on the previous Friday morning, they realised that little Margaret, who had been poorly for the past month, had taken a turn for the worse.

They decided to stay in Brentford for the night, and booked a bed in a “common lodging-house” – all that they could afford.

But when the landlady saw how ill Margaret was, she refused to allow them to stay, saying:

“since the Poor Law Commissioners had come down there, the Overseers had given orders to the lodging-house keepers not to shelter any persons who were likely to become a burden to the [Poor Law] Union.”

So the Nevilles then went to another lodging house, where they were again met with a refusal. At a third house, the landlady said they could stay if they got the permission of the overseer, telling them where he could be found.

The overseer, Mr Burness, worked as a leather-cutter or shoemaker. The Nevilles – Margaret being carried in her mother’s apron as the latter walked – duly arrived at his workshop and asked leave to stay. He looked at Margaret, and told her to get back to Wandsworth:

“Do you think I’d give leave for this woman to lodge you, and your baby so bad as it is? No, indeed, go away with you.”

Bridget cried, “I am afraid my child will die in my apron – what am I to do in that case?”

“I don’t care where you go, so long as you don’t stop here.” retorted Burness. (As this was relayed to the coroner, the people present cried, “Shame, shame.”)

Bridget tried to remonstrate with the overseer, but she shouted, “Do you want to insult me in my own house? I won’t give you leave, so be off with you.”

The Nevilles were then made to leave, but, having been given the local magistrate’s name – Mr Crighton, a former poor law guardian – by the last lodging house landlady, there proceeded a tragic tour of houses in search of him.

They then went to another lodging house, where the lady who opened the door told them that the “gentleman upstairs” had warned her if she took them in, and “the child should die during the night, she would have to bury it at her own expense.”

Punch_Poor_LawThe lady gave the Nevilles a shilling, and told them the magistrate’s correct address. But the footman there refused to let them in, saying the magistrate only let him take messages to him once a day, and that time had already gone.

They then traipsed back to the last lodging house owner. She said, “I am very sorry, but I cannot let you remain, as if the child dies the parish officers will call me to an account for doing so.”

The Nevilles were in despair. They had spent all day going back and forth, trying to find anyone who would help them, or give them accommodation where they could look after their sick toddler. What were they to do?

In a final, desperate, move, they went into the Prince of Wales public house in Turnham Green. Once under the gaslight, Bridget peeked into her apron to see how Margaret was, only to see her child’s dead face reflected in the gloomy light.

Margaret had died whilst her parents had been desperately seeking help, and for the past half an hour, Bridget had been unknowingly carrying her corpse around in her apron.

The pub landlord, a Mr Battersbee, soon realised what had happened, and did what nobody else had done – he helped. He called the Chiswick overseer, a builder named Mr Adamson, who immediately admitted the family into the Chiswick workhouse, and put them before a warm fire, giving them food and drink.

The coroner’s jury was clear on what the problem was.

They said the failure to help the Nevilles was an effect of the “boasted New Poor Law system”, where “poor things were now turned out of even the common lodging-house, by order of the overseers, who would let them die in the street.

“The poor now could get no relief, but that was not the worst of the matter; they must not even ask for relief under pain of being sent to prison.”

They added that,

“Poverty was not the only crime to which the poor were subject, as sickness appeared now to be one also.”

Both coroner’s jury and the press found that although Margaret had died from the inflammation of her chest, if she had had sufficient care and attention earlier, she could have survived. Therefore, the ‘inhumanity’ of the overseer had contributed.

The jury stated that the Brentford overseer should have had the humanity to admit the family to the workhouse, and that in failing to do so, he had shown ‘great neglect’ in refusing shelter or help to them.

But that did not help the Nevilles, who had lost a daughter in their desperate search for charity and compassion.

Source: The Champion and Weekly Herald, 12 February 1837

 

The Crime of Suicide

A woman diagnosed as suffering from melancholia with fear, or fear of everything, and with a propensity to attempt suicide (Wellcome Library, London)

A woman diagnosed as suffering from melancholia with fear, or fear of everything, and with a propensity to attempt suicide (Wellcome Library, London)

Suicide was a crime in England and Wales until 1961 (when the Suicide Act was passed). Originally, it was a sin in religious terms, but from the 13th century, it became a common law offence – one of ‘self-murder’ or felo de se.

A person could only be deemed to have committed this offence if they were sane; as time went on, inquests frequently determined that someone who had killed him or herself had done so while the balance of their mind was disturbed – thus suggesting that they were not to blame for their act.

Prior to 1822, a suicide victim’s possessions could be confiscated, a forfeit to the Crown, and thus his family could suffer financially as well as socially for an act not committed by themselves. Someone who killed themselves might also be denied a decent burial, being traditionally buried at a crossroads with a stake through their body.

In 1800, for example, Thomas Flynn, from Hammersmith, was found to have cut his throat, dividing his oesophagus and making it impossible for him to eat or drink. He survived for four days before succumbing to his injury.

An inquest was held the day after his death, where it was decided that he had ‘feloniously, wickedly, and of his malice aforethought, killed and murdered himself’ and the coroner ordered that he be buried ‘in some public highway’. [1]

But already, by this stage, attitudes were starting to change; and the perceptions of Flynn may have been influenced by knowledge – presented by witnesses at the inquest – that he was widely known to be a wife-beater and a generally violent man, who had tried to kill his wife before harming himself. Flynn’s ‘self-murder’ came at a time when public attitudes towards wife-beating were also hardening.

And in the late 18th century, people had started to publicly question whether suicide should be treated so harshly. As this website has detailed, David Hume wrote essays on suicide in the 1770s, and there was also a debate on whether suicide was an act of courage. Legal handbooks, however, still stressed that suicide was an act of the devil (see illustration below).

In Victorian England, attitudes varied. In 1871, Maria Norman, aged 50, was charged with attempting to commit suicide by taking a large amount of carbolic acid. She badly burned her mouth, lips and throat.

From Richard Burn's The Justice of the Peace, and Parish Officer (1773)

From Richard Burn’s The Justice of the Peace, and Parish Officer (1773)

She could have died – a doctor called to help her after she was discovered by her landlord refused to help, presumably because she did not have the money to pay him. But a local hospital physician gave her olive oil and glycerine to soothe her and she survived – only to be charged with a crime. [2] 

Yet five months later, a 45 year old labourer named William Atkins was charged with attempting to commit suicide by cutting his throat, at his home in Little Milton, Oxfordshire. He was taken to the county gaol, but when the magistrates were told they had to decide if he was sane, and that if he were, they would have to ‘send him for trial and he would be liable to severe punishment’, they decided they were ‘inclined to take a lenient view of the case’ – deciding he was not sane at the time, and therefore could be discharged. [3]

There was also sympathy for those impacted by suicide. In Oxfordshire, in 1873, an inquest jury clubbed together to give money to a woman, Leah Nicholls, whose husband Joseph had suffered from depression and had cut his throat, leaving her to look after their large family; this was not an isolated occurrence. [4]

What is evident from the many newspaper reports of suicides is that economic reasons and a history of depression were commonly given motives for individuals to kill themselves. Worry over how to feed one’s family, job insecurity during times of economic depression, and a fear of being forced to seek poor relief were all given as possible motives, although other motives could be complex and highly individual.

But they show that life in the past could also be stressful and traumatic, and lead to desperate acts. Some, like Flynn’s, may have been criminal acts, in a way; but many others deserved sympathy and understanding.

FOOTNOTES
1. Derby Mercury, 14 August 1800
2: Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper, 19 March 1871
3: Jackson's Oxford Journal, 26 August 1871
4: My personal research into Leah and Joseph Nicholls of Chipping Norton