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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“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

 

Gleaning, poor women, and the law

"Gleaning" by Arthur Hughes

“Gleaning” by Arthur Hughes

Gleaning was a right of the poor up to the late 18th century, under common law. After a farmer had harvested his crops, local people could gather any leftovers, providing a useful supplement to a family’s income or providing additional food.

As the local poor had the right to glean, it being a long established practice, Richard Burn made no mention of it in his legal handbook The Justice of the Peace, and Parish Officer.

It was so accepted that in villages, a church bell might be rung each day to signal the time period in which the gleaners could operate.

In a society where common pasture and fields were being steadily enclosed, restricting the land that labouring people could use to keep animals or grow their own small crops, gleaning was a much needed source of income.

This much needed right was substantially eroded in 1788, when the case of Steel versus Houghton was determined in the House of Lords. The case centred around a Suffolk woman, Mary Houghton, who was sued for trespass by a local landowner, James Steel, after she gleaned on his farmland. However, the case had followed increasing tension between landowners and farmers and the local labouring population in East Anglia.

The case’s verdict stated that gleaning was not a right of the poor, but a privilege – and so to glean was to trespass on another’s land. Lord Loughborough, who gave the judgement, argued that charitable acts by individual landowners should not be seen as legal obligations, and that the creation of any such obligation would make the poor more ‘insolent’.

In such a way did the gleaning case mark the gradual change in attitude toward the poor that occurred in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, prior to the creation of the 1834 New Poor Law.

Yet gleaning did not die out altogether as a result of the 1788 case. The following year, in Northamptonshire, Mary Tebbutt, a married woman, appeared before local magistrate George Spencer – the 2nd Earl Spencer – to complain that another woman, Elizabeth Loucke, had taken some gleanings off her. Mary had been gleaning in a field belonging to local farmer George Buttons, when Elizabeth – believing she was entitled to glean in the field but Mary wasn’t – assaulted her and grabbed the gleanings.

Spencer was obviously aware of the 1788 precedent, and did not regard either woman as having the right to glean. Instead, he argued that George Buttons had the right to decide who – if anyone – could glean on his land, and that therefore, both women were wrong. He made them acknowledge this, and after they promised to behave better in the future, he dismissed them [1. The papers of the second Earl Spencer, British Library, Add MSS 76337-76340].

But even into the nineteenth century, in rural England, gleaning continued to be debated over in justicing rooms. Samuel Whitbread, dealing with cases in Bedfordshire, dealt with three cases – two in 1811 and one in 1813.

The first two cases again suggested some conflict between local people when it came to the individual’s rights to glean. In the first case, a local farmer came to Whitbread to get his advice on whether the local poor had the right to ‘glean on a farmer’s land without his leave’. Whitbread made clear that they did not. [2. Alan F Cirket (ed), Samuel Whitbread’s Notebooks (Bedford, 1971), 36]

In the second case, this time, a gleaner approached the magistrate. Elizabeth Kilby ‘complained of abuse in the field’ whilst she was gleaning, and Whitbread quickly dismissed the case. [3. Alan F Cirket, Samuel Whitbread’s Notebooks (Bedford, 1971), 44]. The final case, heard two years later, involved a Biggleswade woman, Ann Thomas, who complained that a local shoemaker, James Pope had not paid for her gleaning, owing her over three shillings. [4. Alan F Cirket, Samuel Whitbread’s Notebooks (Bedford, 1971), 89] This shows the value that gleaning had for poor people – often women.

Ann was reliant on selling her gleanings to improve her income, and the fact that she had visited Samuel Whitbread at Southill –  a four mile walk away – suggests that the owed money was an important part of this income. She got little satisfaction from the magistrate, though, with Whitbread simply referring her to the local constable for help.

These cases show the continued tension between landowners and the labouring poor after Steel v Houghton had been determined. The poorer members of rural societies clearly continued to glean, and to see gleaning as a valuable source of income and as their right. Conversely, landowners, encouraged by the 1788 case, believed that the poor no longer had such a right – but to ensure that they were within their right to stop them from gleaning, they would seek legal advice if necessary.

Long-established habits died hard, and gleaning took a while to die.

For more on gleaning and the Steel v Houghton case, see Peter King’s article, ‘Legal change, customary rights and social conflict in the late eighteenth century: the origins of the Great Gleaning Case of 1788’ (Law and History Review, 10:1, Spring 1992)