Suicide of a Workhouse Midwife

hubert von herkomer eventide
This 1878 painting, Eventide, by Hubert von Herkomer, depicts elderly women residents of the Westminster Union Workhouse.

Much of The Cowkeeper’s Wish takes place in Red Cross Street, now Redcross Way, in what was then a poor neighbourhood in London, England, just south of the Thames. Our family lived in the street from the 1840s to the early 1900s, and was well acquainted with the workhouse nearby. Our great-great grandmother, Mary Jones Evans, moved in after her husband died, ostensibly because she was too lazy to take care of herself now that he was gone.

That’s the story that has filtered down over the years, but surely the true reason was more complicated. The anecdote nonetheless reveals the disdain people often felt — feel! — for those in need of a helping hand. Many so-called “inmates” of the workhouse were women much like Mary: poor, aging, and widowed, with few options for bettering their lives.

St George the Martyr workhouse is visible in the lower left corner of Charles Booth’s map, which coloured areas according their poverty levels. Black was the lowest class — “vicious and semi-criminal” — and dark blue indicated the very poor, “in chronic want.”

She was there in March of 1897 when Elizabeth Legge, a Scottish woman in her mid-forties, committed suicide. Elizabeth was employed as a workhouse midwife, and was also a widow, though of better means than our Mary, it would seem. Her husband had been a doctor, according to inquest testimony, and since his death she’d worked at a number of Scottish hospitals, and come to the workhouse late in 1896. She’d paid to have a uniform made, and had been engaged for some four months as a midwifery nurse, but didn’t enjoy the job and complained to her friend, a clerk named Arthur French, that not only was she herself treated shoddily, she abhorred the way her co-workers treated the inmates.

“She said she did not like the conversation … which was always about sending inmates to prison who did not behave themselves. She did not like to hear that sort of thing and she very often left the table in consequence of such conversation going on.”

The workhouse master wasn’t happy with her either, and in March she was given her notice, and asked to return her uniform. This she thought grossly unfair, according to French, since she had paid to have the uniform made.

Another witness — an inmate named Mary Ann Prater, who like the midwife and our great-great grandmother was a mid-forties widow — testified that she brought a cup of tea to Elizabeth’s room at about 7:25 one morning, and when she turned to fetch a spoon and some sugar, Elizabeth called out “Goodbye, Prater!” and began to swig from a bottle of carbolic acid she’d had hidden in her bed.

The workhouse porter was called, and tried to administer mustard water. He could hear “a gurgling noise” in her throat, and “sent messengers in all directions for doctors.” Two came immediately that morning, and pumped her stomach. But it was not until 5 o’clock that evening that she was sent to nearby Guy’s Hospital, and the article doesn’t specify how she fared during the day, or why there was such a delay in admitting her.

The use of carbolic acid for suicide was prevalent in the 1890s, especially among women, since the substance was easily obtainable “from any huscksterer, oilman or druggist,” according to the Lancet medical journal. It had been used as an antiseptic since the 1860s, and the role it played in “self murders” had steadily risen. By now, doctors had seen so many of these types of “painful and cruel” deaths that there were calls to label carbolic acid a poison “put aside from general use and only employed by skilled hands or under professional direction.” Of course, with those stipulations, midwife Elizabeth Legge would still have had access.

calvert's
An ad for Calvert’s Carbolic Fluid Powder, showing various uses for carbolic acid. Courtesy the Wellcome Library.

“I am house physician at Guy’s Hospital,” Dr. Wilson Tyson testified. “I saw deceased directly after her admission. … She was conscious, but in a state of collapse. The limbs were curled, the pulse was rapid and feeble, and she was breathing rapidly. She said she had taken carbolic acid. An antidote was given her, but it had no visible effect. Deceased died at 7:15 in the evening” — no doubt a distressing 12 hours from the time she first swallowed the acid. “I asked her why she took the poison, and she said she did not know.”

Mary Ann Prater said that Elizabeth had been “very strange in her manner for the last five or six weeks. I and the other women noticed it. We thought she was not altogether in a sound state of mind the last week. She seemed to ‘give way’ and to be overexcited.” In answer to Arthur French’s suggestion that Elizabeth had been upset about the way she and others were treated at the workhouse, Prater said she’d never heard her complain, and that she hadn’t cared at all about giving up the uniform.

So what was true? Why would French say she had cared if she hadn’t? Would Prater have been instructed, or even just urged, by the workhouse master to downplay the reason for Elizabeth’s unhappiness? There’s no way to know the real story now, but all of the articles about Elizabeth’s death mention the uniform, and the fact that she was out of work. Did she fear what would become of her now that she’d lost her job and had no uniform to bring to the next potential place of employment? Did she have so little money that the cost of having a new uniform made was beyond her reach? Far from Scotland, with no relatives, no husband, and few friends, did she fear the workhouse would be home from now on, into her old age, as it was for Mary Jones Evans and Mary Ann Prater? The South London Chronicle hints that there was more to the story, but it is long gone now.

1895-Dictionary-Phrenolog
From Webster’s Academic Dictionary, 1895

“The Coroner said he would like to mention publicly that there were witnesses present who could show that the deceased was in difficulties, which was one additional reason why she committed the act; but no purpose would be served by going into that.” A strange decision — though technically a coroner’s inquest was held to determine the cause of death, and the reason (if infinitely more interesting) was perhaps less important.

At least one of the jurymen, however, was curious about reason, and offered up his own theory. He was familiar with phrenology, which linked specific areas of the brain with character and mental ability. It had been a popular concept in Britain in the early Victorian years, and though it had long been discredited as a scientific theory, it still had pockets of followers in the 1890s. The “phrenological juror” had seen Elizabeth’s body in the mortuary, and noticed that the “organ of sensitiveness” was well developed; such people, he believed, would be sensitive to things ordinary people would not observe. “People ought to be very careful what they say to such persons.” In his opinion, Elizabeth Legge’s “vitativeness” was entirely absent, which meant she had no “want of life.” His comments evoked nothing more than laughter, and a mocking “Oh! Ah! Yes!” from the coroner, an educated man who likely had no time for pseudomedicine.

The jury returned the vague but all too common verdict of “Suicide whilst temporarily insane,” and Elizabeth Legge, compassionate widowed midwife, was heard of no more.

Sources

  • “Southwark Nurse’s Sad Suicide.” South London Chronicle,  27 March, 1897.
  • “The Fatal Record of Carbolic Acid.” Alfred Edwin Harris, The Lancet, 28 November, 1896.
  • “Suicide of a Dundee Doctor’s Widow.” Dundee Courier, 25 March, 1897.

The Fur-Puller’s Child

aesop's fables
A Victorian edition of Aesop’s Fables.

While researching The Cowkeeper’s Wish, we first came upon the term “fur-puller” as we combed through the notebooks of Charles Booth, who sent his social investigators out to document London poverty in the late 1800s. Booth and his workers inevitably visited Red Cross Street in the Borough, where our family lived, and where the people had jobs like bottle washer, rag sorter, seed packer and collar stitcher. There was “fur-puller” too — when Booth’s man spotted such a  woman engaged in her work, he jotted in his notebook: “one middle-aged woman pulling fur at her open window, air full of fluff and herself covered with it. Spoke in shaky husky voice, ‘Must do it to live you know!’”

She must have gone to the window for a much-needed breath of air, for according to the 1889 publication Toilers in London, fur-pulling was horrible, hazardous work. Many girls and women earned a living this way, working at home, where they could also look after little ones. They sat on low stools and held hare and rabbit skins between their knees, rubbing the down off with a knife, and then collecting it and returning it to the furrier for use in beds, sofas and pillows; the skins became cloaks and jackets. “The work is very unpleasant. … The down gets into [the fur-puller’s] nose and mouth. Her hair and clothes are white with it. She generally suffers from what she calls ‘breathlessness,’ for her lungs are filled with the fine down, and she is always more or less choked.”

The slightest draft caused the down to fly everywhere, and so windows and doors were usually kept closed, even in the stifling summer months. But the fluff nevertheless found its way into eyes, mouths, and noses, and clung to surfaces in the dank rooms where the work was done. The greasy skins, piled on beds and tables, reeked as they decayed. If the work was tucked away at the end of the day, evidence of it surely remained. In her 1906 work The Soul Market, Olive Christian Malvery called fur-pulling “a wretched, ill-paid, unhealthy trade,” but admitted the fur-pullers themselves didn’t seem bothered. “‘Dust? lor, we don’t mind that! We eats it, drinks it, and sleeps on it!'”

From the popular Victorian manual Chavasse’s Advice to a Wife by Pye Henry Chavasse, who also penned Advice to a Mother

In March of 1888, a coroner’s inquest was held into the death of a baby boy named Frederick Spinks Phillips, just nine months old. His mother was a fur-puller, and worked at home. “The fluffs from the skins being considered as detrimental to the child’s health,” she sent the boy out to be cared for each day by the widowed Elizabeth Nash, who had also worked in fur-pulling but had recently given up the job due to health problems. Nash had been caring for Frederick for about five weeks by the time he died, but she’d found him “troublesome,” according to an account in the London Daily News, and didn’t want to take him anymore. But day after day, Frederick’s mother continued to bring her baby boy so that she could carry on with her trade at home.

Nash testified that on the day of his death, Frederick had seemed ill. She’d put him to bed and gone out to the pub for some rum, though not enough to make her drunk. “On returning home, she saw the child was in a fit. She dashed some cold water in his face, but as that did not bring him to, she put him into a pail of cold water with his clothes on to see if that would revive him.” If she had done wrong she was sorry, she told the jury; she did not intend to drown the child, though she admitted, upon further questioning, that the baby had been “dipped in head-first.”

The constable called to the scene deduced she had been drinking. Two other witnesses said yes, she had drunk, but she was not intoxicated until much later that day, hours after the death had occurred. A doctor testified that little Frederick had died from “dentition convulsion” — yes, teething — rather than drowning, but that “the plunging of the child into cold water” had certainly accelerated his death. In the end, the jury returned a verdict of “death by misadventure,” and the coroner severely censured Elizabeth Nash.

Did she go on to care for other children? And did Frederick’s mother continue with her work? The article doesn’t say. But it does tell us that the coroner found this “one of the most extraordinary cases he ever remembered.”

Sources

Two Flower Sellers, Poison, and a Mean Old Man

London flower sellers, courtesy New York Public Library

Having been a flower seller of sorts myself in years past, I was curious about Victorian-era flower sellers. A rough world, really, despite the beautiful and fragrant wares. In his 1851 work London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew wrote that many of the flower girls on the streets of London were of “an immoral character,” and worked as prostitutes as well; but others were young children, “very persevering, … who will run along, barefooted, with their ‘Please, gentleman, do buy my flowers. Poor little girl!’ — ‘Please, kind lady, buy my violets. O, do!'” He estimated there were between 400 and 800 flower sellers on the streets, but said it was impossible to be certain of a number, because when oranges were cheap and tasty, the flower girls sold those instead — or they sold watercress, or onions.

By 1889, the publication Toilers in London put the number of city flower sellers at 2,000. They had not been a fixture on London streets for long, but had become plentiful so quickly that it was hard to imagine the metropolis without them. They stood in the main thoroughfares, and at the entrances to hospitals and cemeteries, and they sold to people of all classes, even “the poorest and the lowest. … The love of flowers is one of the most hopeful symptoms in the condition of the very poor in London.”

Flower sellers in Covent Garden, from the 1877 book Street Life in London, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith. Courtesy LSE Digital Library.

With so many sellers on the streets, competition was fierce. Newspapers through the late 1800s carry mentions of flower sellers getting in drunken brawls with their rivals, blocking roadways with their laden baskets, and pushing flowers into people’s faces to urge them to buy. It would seem there were too many sellers and not enough buyers, which perhaps had something to do with the bizarre story that unfolded in Hackney in June of 1891.

One Friday, late in the afternoon, a man approached a young girl named Ethel Roundtree. He was carrying a small paper bag and asked, “Will you give these two buns to that woman standing on the corner selling flowers?” Presumably Ethel thought nothing of the request, and brought the bag to flower seller Jane Bass, who was standing outside the Railway Tavern. The treats inside looked like Bath buns — normally sweet, sticky and delicious — but when Bass broke one open to have a taste, “some yellow stuff come out of it. … It smelt nasty.” She asked the girl to tell her who had given her the bag, but the man was gone now, and Ethel could only describe him.

Bass brought the buns to the Hackney police station, and an inspector had them analyzed by Dr. Henry Gould, who confirmed they contained phosphorus paste. The police sought out Ethel Roundtree, and she accompanied two constables to the local pub where she pointed out the man who’d given her the bag. She had no trouble finding him, for he was what the papers called “a repulsive-looking elderly man” named Patrick Costello (elsewhere Costella), whose wife sold flowers in the same area as Bass.

“We are police officers,” one of the men told Costello, “and are going to take you into custody for attempting to kill a woman named Jane Bass by administering to her a quantity of phosphorus paste in two bath buns.” In response, Costello claimed, “I never bought no buns.” But on his person police discovered “a box of zinc ointment, some blue stone, and [a] little box containing phosphorus paste marked ‘poison.'”

At the trial, Dr. Gould stated the buns contained enough phosphorus to “destroy life,” and said he could see that a hole had been made in the bottom of each bun and the paste pushed into it.  Though Costello denied the act, and claimed the phosphorus found on him was something he used for his bad leg, the doctor retorted that phosphorus was used to kill vermin — “it is not recommended for bad legs.” Had Bass eaten the buns, she would have experienced a burning sensation in her throat and abdomen, severe abdominal pain, luminescent vomit and diarrhea, shock, jaundice, hemorrhage, renal damage — the list goes on — and if not death then serious, irreversible health problems.

If the case against him wasn’t bad enough, a police officer testified that just days before the buns incident, Costello had approached him and complained about Bass, who was standing outside the Railway Tavern. “He came to me and asked me to remove Bass, as she was stopping his customers, and taking his trade away—I refused to do it, and told him she had the same privilege as he had to stand here—he said he and his wife had stood there for a number of years, and the other had only just come, occasionally on a Saturday—next evening, Sunday, he came to me about seven, there were several on the opposite side selling flowers, and he asked me to remove them, and keep them further from him, and if I did so he would make it all right—I refused.”

The Flower Sellers of London by Gustave Dore, 1875.

Once again, poverty is at the core of this story. Costello was no doubt desperate for the money his wife could earn in the vicinity Bass shared. He did indeed have a bad leg — workhouse records show him entering with such a condition years before the poisoning took place, so perhaps there was little work available to him; he was in pain; he was in dire straits. But he was nasty too, whatever had made him so. Newspapers reporting on the case claimed he’d attempted the same poisoning trick before, and that he’d often been in trouble with the law for drunk and disorderly conduct. In fact, just one year before the buns incident, he was convicted for beating his wife:

“Patrick Costello, … a flower seller, of Compton street, Soho, was charged with a brutal assault on his wife, an aged woman. The prosecutrix, who sells flowers at the Hackney Railway Station, spoke of a lengthened experience of brutality at the hands of her husband, adding that he had kicked and stabbed her and already suffered imprisonment in consequence. On the present occasion he struck her a violent blow in the face, and threatened to murder her. The Magistrate said it was an aggravated assault, and sent the prisoner to gaol for six months’ hard labour.”

One wonders about “Mrs. Costello,” who never gets mentioned by name. It is so often difficult to trace women’s stories because their identity disappears in the shadows of their husbands. What did she make of her husband’s crimes, against others but also herself? Patrick Costello was sentenced to nine months for this latest act, so she would be free of him for a time, if that was how it felt to her. Did she quarrel with Jane Bass for the best spot near the railway station? Or did they sell in peaceful proximity, baskets brimming with lavender and roses, enjoying the respite until he returned?

Sources

Inspector of Nuisances

Chapter 1 - Cowkeeper Benjamin Jones
Our cowkeeper, Benjamin Jones, likely taken in the 1860s, some time after his first run-in with the Inspector of Nuisances.

Some Victorian occupations have such colourful names you just can’t resist finding out more. That was the case when we came upon the term “Inspector of Nuisances.” John Errington was the first such inspector for Southwark, and from the 1850s  on he prowled the streets south of the Thames sniffing out foul smells and unsanitary conditions, and bringing them to the attention of the Medical Officer of Health. We first discovered him in 1855, when he accused our great-great-great grandfather, Benjamin Jones, of keeping his stables in a deplorable condition and allowing dung and filth to accumulate in his yard.

Twenty years later Errington was still a thorn in Benjamin’s side; he’d had complaints from a local business to which Benjamin supplied milk, so he hid in the office of that establishment one day, and when Benjamin arrived with his delivery, Errington popped out and declared himself, and took the sample away for testing. It was discovered to be more than half water, and deemed an egregious case.

St Saviour's Board of Works copy
Courtesy the Wellcome Library

Scanning through newspapers, and through health reports available at the Wellcome Library, it seems this was a typical part of Errington’s work. If you sold bad fish or rotten cherries, he’d be after you if he found out about it, for his mission was “the discovery and abatement of nuisances” and the protection of the public’s health. And in an area so steeped in poverty, there was plenty to put that health in danger.

In June of 1866, he received a complaint about an “intolerable effluvium” coming from a house in Gravel Lane. Upon inspecting, he discovered the premises belonged to an undertaker named Mr. Hodges, who was in possession of a female body dead some three weeks. The corpse was rapidly decomposing, and Errington found the stench unbearable. Neighbours were decidedly anxious.

But Hodges claimed he was in a difficult position. A fortnight earlier, two sisters had come to him and asked him to remove their mother’s body from the workhouse, where she had died a week before; he took their word that they would pay the transport and burial expenses, and fetched the body and put it in his shed. Later the sisters denied having promised to pay him, and he was a poor man, he told Errington, and could not afford to pay the expenses himself. So the body sat there, decomposing further each day.

When the sanitary committee met to discuss the issue, Mr. Hodges was ordered to bury the woman at once, or face charges. He could “make the relatives pay the necessary expenses afterwards,” though there was no suggestion as to how he might do that, given it seems he’d already tried. And with their mother finally interred, what motivation would there be for the sisters to pay?

So many questions arise from this one little story. Under the Anatomy Act, unclaimed bodies of workhouse inmates, prisoners and so on could be used for medical research. Was this why the dead woman’s daughters wanted their mother removed from the workhouse? And did they wish to avoid the stigma of a so-called pauper burial? Was Hodges telling the whole truth as he knew it? Were the sisters as heartless as Hodges suggests? Or so poor that they couldn’t afford to bury their mother, despite best intentions? And if so, why didn’t the parish cover the costs in the end? Presumably they would have if she’d been left unclaimed at the workhouse.

Sadly the topic of bodies unburied wasn’t new to Errington and the Medical Officer of Health for whom he worked. Dr. Robert Bianchi, in hearing Hodges’ tale, reflected on another Southwark death two years earlier: a family had vacated their lodgings and left a body behind. Bianchi himself paid for the burial, “as no one else would do it.”

Sources

  • “A Dead Body Unburied for Three Weeks.” South London Press, 16 June, 1866
  • Medical Officer of Health Reports, Southwark. Wellcome Library