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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The Hall Green Tragedy: Illicit Sex and Murder in a Birmingham Suburb

Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_Paolo_and_Francesca_da_Rimini_-_Google_Art_Project

“News of a shocking domestic tragedy comes from Sparkhill, near Birmingham. On Monday night, groans were heard coming from a field between Hall Green and Sparkhill, and later, when a search was made, the Warwickshire police found the bodies of Edward Birch, 35, an ironplate worker, living at Balsall Heath, and his stepdaughter Carrie Jones, 18.” (Nottinghamshire Guardian, Saturday 12 January 1895, page 8)

The tragedy in south Birmingham on the night of Monday 7 January 1895 had all the markings of a penny dreadful. A teenage girl, having an affair with her stepfather – the two overcome either by guilt or the inability to be together properly to embark on a suicide pact. Both parties had drunk carbolic acid before Edward Birch cut Carrie’s throat, and then his.

*

Selina Jane Birch was Carrie’s mother. She was somewhere between 34 and 38 at the time of the deaths, and Edward Birch, her second husband, was 38 (not 35, as the press reported).

Selina was born in Gloucester around 1860 (although the censuses give her approximate year of birth as anything between 1857 and 1863), but spent much of her life in Birmingham. Nothing is known of her first husband, and little of her marriage to Edward Birch – the records do not enable a definitive name or date (if you know more, do contact me!).

But by 1881, Selina and Edward were married – or stated to be – and living at 23 Aberdeen Street in Birmingham. There were two children at this point – Carrie, listed in the census as “Caroline Birch”, and one-year-old Alfred, who had been born in Edward’s home town of Wolverhampton.

Birmingham city centre at the end of the 19th century.

Birmingham city centre at the end of the 19th century.

Five more children – William, Lilly, Sidney, Herbert and Olive – came along between 1882 and 1894, with the family dependent on Edward’s income as a tin plate worker. Edward took to drinking heavily, and although ‘reasonably affectionate’ towards his wife when sober, was violent when drunk.

He also appears to have resented having to maintain a child that wasn’t his, or tried to convince others that he resented it, but he gradually developed feelings for his stepdaughter that were not the result of a parental love.

He fell for her; his feelings aroused deep jealousy of her relationships with other boys her own age, and he appears to have been a controlling, insecure man who struggled with his emotions and the complexity of his life.

Meanwhile, Selina Birch, although busy with looking after her many children, noticed the closeness between Edward and Carrie, and was uneasy. She tried to convince herself that they simply had a close father-daughter relationship, and that there was nothing improper between them.

But she remained suspicious. In October 1894, a letter arrived for Carrie, asking to make an appointment with her one evening. On that date, she watched the couple closely, and accused Edward of having had the letter written on his behalf, but he denied it.

*

It was late on a Monday evening when people walking down Springfield Road between Hall Green and Sparkhill heard groans coming either from a house or the neighbouring field. It had been snowing, and the night was cold.

Although nobody thought to call the police, one anonymous person did notify the local doctor, who then told the constabulary. Sergeant Wright undertook a search, and soon found the dead body of Carrie Jones, with a two inch wound to her throat, and next to her, Edward Birch, still breathing, but with a cut throat and smelling of carbolic acid.

Part of the former Queen's Hospital in Birmingham. Photo by Oosoom.

Part of the former Queen’s Hospital in Birmingham. Photo by Oosoom.

He was removed in a ‘conveyance’ to the Queen’s Hospital in Birmingham, where he died at around midday the next day.

The carbolic acid had had a corrosive effect on his tongue, gullet, stomach and intestines, and he had died of shock caused by carbolic acid poisoning.

 

 

Part 2 of the Hall Green Tragedy will be posted here tomorrow.

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