Sudden Deaths in Nineteenth Century Suffolk - A Talk by Geoffrey Robinson

Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome Geoffrey back to the Parish Room, to share with us the knowledge gained following his research for his new book “Misery and Misfortune: Sudden Deaths in Suffolk 1800-1850”.

He began by reminding us just how dangerous life was in the C19th, where to modern eyes it appears that life was cheap, that no one seemed to have much conception of health and safety issues, and that the simplest of circumstances could easily and often did result in significant injury or death.

His prime source of information, mainly via the Ipswich Journal, courtesy of the Suffolk Records Office, were the myriad Coronors’ Reports into sudden deaths, which Amazon in their description of his book describe as follows:

Burnt to death, crushed by cartwheels, drowned in a pond, struck by lightning, savaged by a game cock, struck by a ten pin ball. From the mundane to the bizarre, coroners courts in Suffolk were witness to many unusual inquests into sudden deaths during the first half of the 19th century. Through some prodigious research, the author has brought together many examples of those inquest reports to show how newspapers attracted their middle-class readership with stories of death, misery and misfortune. The proceedings of a rural coroners inquest are outlined as many of the parish inquests took place in a room of the village inn where the coroner, the jurors and members of the public were able to gaze on the body of the deceased.

Coroners, mostly lawyers by training (Geoffrey advised there were no set requirements) were required by law to enquire into the circumstances of a sudden or suspicious death, and to investigate its cause. Inquests were held very quickly after death, with Coroners frequenting more public houses than any man alive, per Charles Dickens in his book Bleak House.

These inquests were not trials but the proceedings resembled them. Coroner’s would issue a warrant to summon 24 local ‘able and sufficient men’ to act as jurors, from which 12 would be selected and empanelled to form a jury. The coroner and jurors were required to ‘view’ the body before they began to hear evidence, so a large room was needed, and members of the jury had a right to question witnesses. If the jury decided on a verdict of murder or manslaughter, the case would be brought to the Assizes or, for cases arising in the City of London and Middlesex, the Old Bailey. Although guided by the Coroner, the verdict of the jury was absolute, and with no appeal.

Proceedings were normally held in an upstairs or back room of a pub, sometimes with their own entrances so the coroner did not need to pass through ‘the beery throng’, though the sounds of conviviality and the smell of alcohol and tobacco smoke would have pervaded. Pub ‘justice’ was a nice little earner for landlords, who benefitted from payment for the room and the increased custom inquests invariably brought, with locals and thirsty witnesses quenching their curiosity and thirst. So, we then moved to the more ghoulish part of the talk with Geoffrey quoting from numerous newspaper articles of the day, mainly from the Ipswich Journal; my somewhat shorter summaries follow:

Death from burning 23rd December 1864

Mrs Susan Levell visited her mother, leaving her two year old and an 8 month baby alone in the house with a lit fire. The inevitable then sadly happened; a local thatcher tried to save the child, whose clothes were completely alight, but to no avail. Two older children (12 and 14) were out at the time, working as farm labourers, so were not involved; happily the baby survived whilst mum went on to have three more children.

Verdict: Accidental death, though the jury did caution the mother about leaving children alone. This was also done publicly, via the newspapers, something almost unheard of at the time, so clearly the jury believed there was a serious issue at stake.

December 1875 Shocking Tragedy

A 9 year old was sat by the fire, which had a guard in place (Geoffrey advised that most fires did not, because the parents couldn’t afford them), but was so close that part of her dress went over it and caught fire. She ran out of the house completely alight and died the next day, with many people witnessing the horrible scene.

Verdict: Accidental death

After several other similar examples, Geoffrey surmised that people of the time were perhaps fatalistic in their approach to life and believed such accidents were the will of god, rather than a result of an almost complete lack of safety awareness, before telling us of the following situation:

January 1826 Woodbridge

A 20 year old went to bed one night and apparently slept in; in reality she had died during the night.

Verdict: Died from a sudden visitation from God.

It is presumed this wording was to encourage people to maintain their Christian ways by literally putting the fear of God into them, which Geoffrey advised was a common occurrence until a Dr William Farr changed the system so that the real causes of death were accurately recorded.

Farr was a leading British epidemiologist and pioneer in the field of medical statistics, able to develop his interest in the generation and use of medical statistics following his 1838 appointment to the General Register Office - the government department responsible for recording births, deaths and marriages. His most important contribution to public health was to set up a system to routinely record the actual cause of death; comprehensive statistics provided raw data that allowed a far more detailed analysis of death within the general population, so that the mortality rates of different professions or of those living in different locations could for the first time be compared.

Geoffrey then advised that misuse of poison was a common death situation: in Stoke by Nayland a farmer incautiously placed his arsenic near some flour, which then found its way into a pudding, following which there were a number of deaths caused by “The deadly mineral”.

Verdict: Accidental death.

And then onto drowning, which was another common occurrence: William Cook, 4 years old, drowned in a pond where he had gone fishing - presumably he either fell into or entered the water to clear his line.

Verdict: Found drowned.

Other common and dangerous situations frequently occurred when very young children were involved in operating unsafe machinery, particularly those on farms (cutting or threshing machines etc), or in the handling of large powerful horses to pull carts, wagons or other machinery.

Sept 1801 Inquest

Six year old Elizabeth Leach had her head crushed by the wheels of a hearse, of all things. It seems that children habitually ran alongside hearses to the parish boundary, in order to open the gates, following which drivers would throw a ha’penny, when all the kids rushed to be the lucky finder. Elizabeth sadly slipped to her death beneath the wagon.

Verdict: Accidental death

Geoffrey then noted the increasing frequency of accidents involving steam engines and/or the wagons they pulled; it seems that young children could be involved in the shunting of heavy wagons downhill, where they were required to apply the individual wagon brakes - one slip and they would be crushed by the wheels.

August 1804

A one year old infant was playing in the road when he was savaged by a Game Cock, with serious wounds to the head and face. The offending game cock was subsequently eaten.

Geoffrey then gave us some idea of the incredible workload placed upon female domestic servants in the 1850s. In addition to the cleaning, cooking and laundry, they also had to brew the masters beer weekly (men were not involved in brewing until the process became much more industrial) and produce beer to his satisfaction - they simply had no time for themselves or their children if they were to avoid the dreaded workhouse. So we were told of three year old Jeremiah Franks who was following his mum around but being ignored, until there was a splash and a scream; he had toppled into a hot brew, was badly scalded and died the next day.

Verdict: Accidental death

Great Bealings 1846

Young William Lewis was employed to fetch the cows in the morning and evening, who one day tied himself to the tail of one of the beasts with disastrous results, being dragged 100 yards, kicked and also pulled through a river, suffering a fractured skull and dying soon after.

Verdict: Accidental death

Then Geoffrey told us of the use of firearms, which was uncontrolled and often resulted in serious injury or death:

Wickham Market 1809

A man accidentally shot his mother, after finding a gun which then suddenly went off.

Verdict: Accidental death

As farm machinery replaced manual labour, deaths from dangerous operating practices soon became commonplace.

1827 Sudden death in a windmill

A worker wearing a frock coat was suddenly caught in the cogs of one of the wheels and drawn up into the machinery where he was instantly killed.

Verdict: Accidental death

Red House Farm Bawdsey

Three very young lads were up on the barn when one slipped and was struck on the head by a threshing machine. Such incidents also caused the loss of many arms and legs, and consequently often death through blood loss.

Verdict: Accidental death

Death by drowning

A fourteen year old was riding with four others in a cart being driven by her mother and drawn by a blind horse; after coming to a river crossing without a bridge, the horse stopped in mid-stream, presumably disoriented. Mum then whipped the horse, which shot forward in surprise, tipping the girl into the river where she was swept downstream. No one could swim, so mum and the others clung onto the cart and were saved by a local farm worker - the girl’s body was found the next day.

Verdict: Death by drowning

Geoffrey covered a tremendous volume of detail he discovered from the Ipswich Journal records, which unfortunately I was unable to find; I could however access other local papers from around the country, so here are a few in all their gory detail:

Shepton Mallett Journal Friday June 16 1899

SUFFOLK. Dreadful tragedy enacted near Eye, Suffolk, the other evening, when, in the absence of his parents, Stanley Roe, aged twelve years, put his brother, aged four years, to bed and told him that if he did not lie quietly he would shoot him. He then took a gun, which he declares he did not know was loaded, and the weapon went off, blowing the younger boy’s head almost completely from the body. The tragedy took place at the village of Horham, about five miles from Eye. The father of the lads is a miller and merchant, and the sad affair happened while Mr. and Mrs. Roe were returning to their home from Eye market.

Verdict: Accidental death.

Dundee Evening Telegraph Tuesday 20 March 1877

SHOCKING DEATH FROM BURNING. On Sunday morning a shocking case of death from burning happened to a widow named Mary Grourke. Saturday being Patrick's Day, both the mother and her son Luke indulged freely in whisky, and when the old woman retired to rest, long after midnight, she was very drunk. About a quarter to four on Sunday morning Luke Grourke was awakened by the crackling of the ceiling of the kitchen in which he was sleeping, and he saw that the house was on fire and full of dense smoke. As well as he was able to, in his muddled condition, he groped his way upstairs to the wretched shake-down of straw which his mother occupied as a bed in the corner of the room, and seizing her by the legs the flesh peeled off the bones into his hands, and he found his mother was dead. The flames by this time were issuing from the bedroom window, but were speedily extinguished, the window frame being burnt out and the whole of the bedroom floor except the corners. It is supposed that the fire was caused by the old woman leaving a candle on the floor, near the bed.

Verdict: Death from burning.

Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail Friday 13 December 1895

DEATHS FROM BURNING. Two deaths from burning were reported to the Police today. A baby girl named Lee, was burned to ashes in her cradle in front of a fire, during the absence of her mother; and an elderly woman named Sarah Wallace sustained fatal injuries by the explosion of a paraffin lamp whilst she was going to bed.

This story was also reported verbatim in the Gloucester Citizen of the same date

Verdict: Deaths from burning.

Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail Friday 22 February 1895

DEATH FROM BURNS. The West Hartlepool police have received information of the death from burns of Sarah Ellen Hogg, aged four, the daughter of Charles Hogg, farm labourer. On Thursday, about 4.15 the little girl was left playing in the kitchen with another girl of two. Five minutes later Mrs Hogg heard a scream, and running in, discovered the child in flames. Its clothes had got ignited by some means, and the poor child severely burned about the head, face and body. A doctor was sent for at once to attend the child, but was unable save its life.

Verdict: Death from burns.

Dundee Evening Telegraph Friday 30 January 1885

SINGULAR DEATH OF A CHILD FROM BURNING. A curious of death from burning was reported to the authorities at Airdrie yesterday morning. A child named Hackerty M’Culloch, two years of age, son of Charles M'Culloch, miner. Hackerty had bean playing about the house and got hold of a bit of paper, which he lighted at the fire and held to his mouth to smoke like a pipe. While doing so the flames had been sucked up his nostrils and his brain was injured. Dr Willis Baillieston attended the child, who however died from the injuries received.

Verdict: Death from burning.

Worcestershire Saturday 14 January 1882

An extraordinary case of death from burns was investigated at Coventry on Monday night by the Coroner. A little girl named Tannicliffe, aged two and a half years, while playing with other children in her parent’s house, took up a piece of iron wire which she heated and thrust several inches into her body. The child’s mother discovered what had happened and took the child to hospital, where it was attended to and subsequently treated as an outpatient. Inflammation afterwards set in and spread, and the child, after suffering greatly, died on Saturday.

Verdict: Death from burns.

At Lincoln on the same day, Dr Lowe, the city Coroner, investigated a terrible case of death through drink. Henry Green, a labourer, and his wife, went home intoxicated, and shortly afterwards smoke was seen issuing from the house. The neighbours broke open the door and found the deceased lying on the floor fearfully burnt, while his wife lay helplessly drunk in bed. He was removed to the hospital, but after a lingering short time died from the effects of the burning and delirium tremens.

Verdict: Accidental death; the wife was also severely reprimanded.

Geoffrey's talk was very well received by our large audience, who all went home a little more sober in thought than when they arrived, and his book of the same name is recommended, though perhaps not for bedtime reading.


Our next events will be at 7.30 in The Parish Room on:

18th September: St Audrey’s Workhouse and Mental Hospital, by David Phelan

It was believed that people were born to be poor or fell on hard times through their own neglect; whole families entered the workhouse or faced starvation. This is their story, which promises to be both fascinating and probably quite shocking to the 21st century listeners.

16th October: Goldingham Hall Archaeology and Manorial Record, by Ashley Cooper

Goldingham Hall is the site of a medieval manor, as documented in the Domesday Book, and the programme of community excavations have revealed a range of features dating from the 10th to the later 14th century relating to a late Anglo-Saxon / early Norman manorial complex.

Both events are going to be great, and we very much look forward to welcoming guests both new and old to the Parish Room in Little Waldingfield.


Andy Sheppard                                                                                                                    24th June 2019