Thursday, 8 December 2016

All Washed Up….

Bring out your dead and welcome Suzie Lennox, with a tale of bodysnatching!


All Washed Up….

The last thing that you’d want to happen if you were in the habit of providing anatomy schools with fresh cadavers was to be caught in the act of exhumation. Clever concealment of both your tools and the cadaver when you were leaving the churchyard was key. You did not want to upset the parishioners and ruin your chances of visiting a graveyard again, not when there could be money to be made. Bodies however can sometimes be difficult to hide in a hurry and history has left us with a few macabre stories of the unfortunate events to befall just some of the bodysnatchers that I have found during my research.  

Imagine if you will, you've been digging and pulling and folding and stuffing a cadaver out of its coffin into a sack when you hear a noise not too far behind you. Grabbing your quarry you take flight, frantically looking for somewhere to stash your loot until the coast is clear and it's safe to retrieve it. Yes, there were safe houses. Houses where you stashed cadavers and distributed them in a more orderly fashion the following morning, but not all bodysnatchers were fortunate enough to have access to such luxuries.

  As a general rule you improvised. Bodies were found stuffed in sacks tucked under hedges, stored under staircases or in unused outbuildings and even on occasion dung heaps. In Peterborough in 1830, the body of a young woman was found in a garden shed, the house being conveniently situated behind the cemetery. Upon further investigation, it was found that a doctor lived at the address. No doubt a handy location! There is also the case of Dr Lowry, ‘a notorious lifter’ who used his house as a site to store cadavers before they were shipped to Edinburgh. Lowry’s house ‘Homefield’ was based in Coldingham in the Scottish Borders, and it is said that a small window acted as means of getting the bodies in and out of the premises. This ‘Resurrection Window’ was just the right size to allow bodies to be passed through and subsequently stored away in a vault found under the floor of the room beyond.  

But what about the more gruesome cases? 

 In 1793, long before the rise of the professional bodysnatcher, while students would still stalk graveyards at night acquiring their own subjects, a strange occurrence happened in a field near Battle Bridge, London. It happened on a Thursday. Limbs of all shapes and sizes were found strewn over the grass. Legs and arms of men, women and children, tossed into the field without a care in the world and for all to see. It is thought that it was the night-soil man’s fault. His round took in the cesspit of a number of ‘dissecting surgeons’ and after diligently going about his duty, he had emptied the contents of his cart in the said field without giving it a second thought. 
     In 1821, ‘several human bodies with limbs lopped off’ were found mangled under some palisades on the Dover Road. Three females and one child’s body were found intact while a number of ‘hand, feet &c.’ had also been dumped. All were in a high state of decay. It was later concluded that the resurrection men had dumped the bodies and extremities to avoid detection, although they must have gone undetected for a number of weeks judging by the state of decay. No bodysnatcher would risk his freedom for a rotting body. 
       Several months later Islington was ‘very much alarmed’ when the extremities of both men and women were found floating along the Regent’s Canal. As if this ghastly discovery was not enough, as the limbs were being collected by some local constables, out of the shadows appeared two well-dressed individuals brandishing a knife.  Walking calmly over to the various off cuts, one of the men proceeded to hack at one of the limbs, cutting off one of the legs just below the knee. The obvious remonstrations ensued. It is thought that the bodies had been thrown in to the canal by the resurrection men, again hoping to avoid detection. 

Floating bodies were not just found in London. Janet Sparks, a onetime parishioner of the parish of Torry, Aberdeenshire, died in 1808 and after being committed to the ground, was hastily removed  that same night. Fearing detection, the bodysnatchers had quickly reburied Janet in the sandbanks of the Nigg Bay hoping to collect her body when things had died down. Unfortunately a violent storm blew up and the waves thrashed the sandbank where Janet was stored. Unable to return to get Janet’s body, she was left there to slowly decompose, finally washing up on the river bank opposite the church two months later.  

As bodysnatching intensified, stealing a cadaver from a churchyard without being detected became more and more difficult. These are just a few of the methods that Britain’s resurrection men thought of to store cadavers, there are probably many more that we will never know about. Talk about having a skeleton in your cupboard! 

If you are interested in finding  out more about Britain’s bodysnatchers, ‘Digging up the Untold Stories’  is now available to purchase to from Pen and Sword Books, AmazonUk , AmazonUS and all good bookshops. 

If you’re on twitter, you can follow Suzie at @Diggingup1800 or via Facebook or Suzie’s blog Britain’s Forgotten Bodysnatchers.  

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Secrets of the Parish Register

It's my pleasure to welcome Helen Barrell to the salon, to delve into some eye-opening tales form the parish register!


Parish registers aren’t only useful for genealogists. Often, you’ll find surprising notes in the margins. A baby born in a barn, a certificate for the King’s Evil, someone killed when the bell fell out of the steeple and crushed them. It was a note in the margin of a burial register about a victim of arsenic poisoning, which sparked my book Poison Panic. But maybe it’s thanks to Sharpe, or perhaps Mr Wickham, that one of my favourite parish register discoveries has to be the hundreds of soldiers, their wives and babies, who appear in the small Essex village of Weeley during the Napoleonic War. What on earth were they doing there?
In 1803, when Napoleon’s sabre-rattling grew ever louder, it was felt that the north-east Essex coastline was dangerously undefended. Harwich, which had a Royal Navy presence, is just to the north of Weeley, and going west, there were docks and shipyards along the River Colne, and the garrison town of Colchester about 12 miles away. Martello towers were built along the coast, and several hundred soldiers were stationed in Weeley, ready in case the French ships appeared over the horizon.

The first soldiers’ babies appear in the register in July 1803, the vicar carefully recording the father’s regiment or militia beside each entry. That same month, Mary Ann Grant, wife of Captain James Grant of the 42nd Regiment (better known as the Black Watch) wrote a letter to a friend from Weeley Camp. She described Weeley as ‘an insignificant village; but the encampment is large.’ She and James had married only a couple of months earlier, in Scotland. ‘I frequently accompany my dear G. to visit it; we have lodgings in the close vicinity,’ she explained.
Life was genteel to start with - at least for officers’ wives like Mary Ann. The other wives would have been living at the Camp, but at least they could be with their husbands, unlike the wives who missed out on the ballots and couldn’t accompany their husbands when they were posted abroad. Mary Ann paid social calls, visiting the eccentric ‘Mr C’ (apparently Clarkson Cardinall in Tendring), and there was an entertainment at St Osyth Priory, then the home of the Nassaus. 
Mary Ann and her husband were posted to Scotland, but a few months later they were back in Weeley. The transformation was astonishing: ‘we found so complete a metamorphosis, that I doubted whether some enchantress had not been exerting her magical powers; it appeared hardly possible that in so short a space of time, as seven or eight weeks, barracks to contain five thousand men, could have sprung up by the hands of men; yet so it is.’ The field had disappeared, churned to mud under the feet of men and horses, and huts had been built to accommodate the soldiers and their families. 
The Grants arrived in November. Water ran down the walls of their hut, and the mud was so bad that Mary had to be carried. ‘There is no way for a woman to venture out, but upon men’s shoulders, no very pleasant conveyance you must allow’: no mean feat when she was pregnant. Her husband urged her to find lodgings elsewhere, but ‘there are no lodgings to be had within two miles, and owing to the strict orders now issued for no officer to be absent from the barracks, in consequence of the prevailing idea of an invasion’ her husband had to stay in the Barracks. And Mary Ann was determined to remain with him; she ‘really cannot account for my feelings, when I say, that I am unable to persuade myself to leave G.’ 
It is hardly surprising that tragedy would not be far away in such poor conditions. The Grants’ baby died: whether it was stillborn or not, Mary Ann didn’t say, but their daughter doesn’t appear in Weeley’s parish register, or that of any nearby village. Mary Ann nearly died in childbirth. Her isolation is painful; on writing to a friend in February 1804, she said ‘many a time, amid all my sufferings did we wish for the skilful attendance of my dear aunt, and the soothing attention of my amiable young friend, who I am certain would have made a very tender nurse; but situated as we were, it was impossible we could request either of you to come.’ Trying to recover her health was difficult, stressed with the fear of invasion: ‘it is thought this coast will be the point, where the effort of landing will be made; what a scene of destruction would such an event occasion.’ 
The Grants were still living in a barrack hut at Weeley in June, but conditions had improved – or at least, Mary Ann put a brave face on it. ‘You would smile to see the ways and means we fall upon, to make the unpolished furniture allotted us, look neat; the roads are nicely made, and we have the comfort of walking dry, and enjoying a little society; our agreeable parties have again commenced; you would be amused were you to hear our invitations to each other; they are always accompanied by a desire, that each person will bring their camp-stool, knife, glass, &c.; such is the order among those who occupy barracks.’ Her next letter was written from Lexden Camp, on the other side of Colchester, but she made no more mention of huts, so it seems that she had at last found lodgings.
The Grants were a married couple when they arrived at Weeley, but there were plenty of single men among the thousands of soldiers who arrived in the village. It’s clear from the many Scottish names in the marriage register that soldiers and possibly soldiers’ widows were marrying in Weeley’s church. Some of the soldiers married local girls – for instance, Patrick McCrummen married Mary Simpson Baker from St Osyth, and William MacAmman married Susan Bradbrook from Thorp. One can hear Lydia Bennett’s shriek of ‘The militia!’ 
The burial register is similarly busy with late residents of the barracks, including victims of an outbreak of disease, and also Alexander McDonald, who was murdered by locals at a fair in Little Clacton.
Once the threat of invasion had passed, the soldiers were moved on from Weeley. The barracks were dismantled, and all that’s left today is an empty field. It’s been said that if you pass through the field with a metal detector, you’ll find uniform buttons from obscure regiments of fencibles, which men joined before transferring to established army regiments. They just didn’t get around to changing their buttons, and at some point, the thread unravelled, and the button fell off their red jacket into the quagmire, lost for 200 years. 
And aside from the buttons that are periodically thrown up from the earth, there are all those names in the parish registers, to remind us of the thousands of people who once called the huts in Barrack Field home. 
The Story of Jaywick Martello Tower, by Essex County Council
Weeley parish registers at the Essex Record Office
Grant, Mary Ann. Sketches of Life and Manners with Delineations of Scenery in England, Scotland, and Ireland: interspersed with Moral Tales and Anecdotes, in original Letters: in two volumes. Vol. II. Second Edition, 1811. Printed by Cox, Son, and Baylis, London.
Helen Barrell’s Victorian true crime book Poison Panic: Arsenic Deaths in 1840s Essex is published by Pen & Sword [] and is available from Waterstones [], Amazon [], etc, in paperback and ebook. Fatal Evidence: Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor and the Dawn of Forensic Science will be published in July 2017. Helen has appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Punt PI, and has written for Fortean Times and Family Tree magazines. She guestblogs for Findmypast

Genealogy and the not-so ordinary lives of ordinary people at, and Helen’s personal writing blog at 

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

A less than charming prospect?

It's a pleasure to welcome David Lassman, author of The Circle of Sappho, to delve into the dark side of regency Bath.


Courtest Terence James
 Although Jane Austen is acknowledged as one of the greatest writers English literature has ever produced, she is not without her critics. 
   One of the main accusations leveled at her though, is not concerned about what she actually wrote, but rather what she left out. The main subject for these detractors being the Napoleonic Wars, which raged throughout Europe during the majority of Jane’s writing life and ended not long before her death. To read her writing though, you would not know they even existed. 
   The same is true of the darker side of Regency Bath; the city she visited in the late 1790s, the place she was resident during the opening years of the nineteenth century and the main location for two of her novels; Northanger Abbey and Persuasion
  For the characters of these two works, and for the author herself, Bath seemed a pleasure ground of immeasurable capacity. A place the rich, famous and elite, followed not far behind by the emerging middle classes, chose to spend a good part of their year; indulging in all kind of social engagements, while at the same time, for the most part, taking the waters in order to improve their health. 
   Bath has been termed the Las Vegas of its day, but even in this American Mecca to gambling, there lay a sinister underbelly to its glitzy fa├žade. The man who ‘founded’ it, Bugsy Siegal, for example, was assassinated in his own home by a gunman; the identity of which remains unknown to this day, although it is strongly suspected the mafia were behind the hiring of the killer.

   And like Las Vegas, Bath had a dark side, full of disreputable elements; an area where the characters of Jane’s novels or acquaintances in her actual life would fear to tread. It was known as the Avon Street district – although the locals merely knew it as ‘The Hate’ – and it was located in the south of the city, near the river which gave it its name.   

   At the beginning of the eighteenth century, royalty, in the shape of Queen Anne, came to Bath to take the waters – the mineral waters were heralded to contain properties that could ward off all kind of ailments – and with a royal seal of approval the city began a period of expansion and popularity it has never really lost. 
   In the years that followed the royal visits, as the elite followed suit, a city that for the most part remained firmly entrenched within its medieval walls and attitude found itself at the centre of an architectural explosion rarely seen in history, resulting in a city the envy of the whole of Europe. 
   In practical terms, this meant development outwards from the medieval city in all directions. The east saw various parades built, the west gained a number of magnificent squares, and to the north were erected the crowning architectural achievements of the King’s Circus and the Royal Crescent. 
   In the south of the city, however, it was a different story. With its close proximity to the river, this southern area was for all intents and purposes situated on a flood plain; ideally suited for pastoral grazing for the months the land was not under water, but totally incongruous for building on.  In a climate of unbridled greed and ever increasing demand for accommodation, however, it did not take long before plans were being made for elegant and fashionable lodging houses on the land, with only the flimsiest attempt at flood prevention. 
   Once built and after the inevitable flooding happened, the houses swiftly ceased to be acceptable as dwelling-places to the upper and middle class visitors they were intended to attract. As the buildings became uninhabitable to all but the poorest of occupants, the whole district, named after the largest street within it, Avon Street, became ever more dilapidated and synonymous with the criminal element. Because along with the poor, destitute and immigrants, came thieves, pick-pockets and brothel-keepers, as well as all kinds of undesirables with nefarious occupations.
   And it was into this setting, the beginning of the nineteenth century, that myself and a co-writer, Terence James, decided to set a fictional detective. Known as The Regency Detective, reflecting the period it is set in, our main character, Jack Swann, finds himself having to frequently enter the Avon Street district’s foreboding warren of passages and alleyways during the investigations he undertakes. 

   Swann’s back story is such that he is able to move easily between the two worlds which existed in nineteenth century Bath – the Austenesque ‘world’, which we probably know best through the television adaptations of her two ‘Bath’ novels (as well as the books themselves) and this darker, more notorious side that perhaps not unsurprisingly was never mentioned in city guide books. 
    Whether Jane Austen ever visited Avon Street district is not known, although it would seem unlikely given its reputation, while the nearest readers ever get to it through her writing is within Persuasion. It is in this book that she placed Mrs. Smith, a former tutor of Anne Elliot, in lodgings in Westgate Street; and although the address is outside the district’s boundaries, it is still only a stone’s throw from the northern end of Avon Street. 
   The Avon Street district retained its salubrious and dangerous reputation throughout the Victorian age – the suitably titled Avon Street, by Paul Emmanuelle, is set in the city during this time – and well into the twentieth century, when it was known as the city’s main red light district in the post-war years. 
   The majority of the area, however, was eventually demolished during the infamous Sack of Bath of the 1960s and 1970s and for many residents the phrase ‘good riddance’ was no doubt uttered. 
   Yet although it may now be gone, it should not be forgotten, for whenever one thinks of Jane Austen’s Bath, one should always remember that there are two sides to every story, even if one of those sides (outside the confines of fiction) now resides in the dark shadowy recesses of history.

    The Regency Detective series was created and written by David Lassman and Terence James and is published by The History Press. The latest book in the series, The Circle of Sappho, was published in earlier this year.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

The Lost Story of the William & Mary

Today we gad out to sea with the marvellous Gill Hoffs, for a tale of shipwreck.


The lost story of the William & Mary happened after the long 18th century, the usual focus for this blog, but stories from the sea have something timeless about them so it is fitting that this tale of wretched rogues and angelic wreckers has found a home here.  There are sharks and whales swimming out there as you read this piece which were alive while two hundred would-be emigrants fought for their lives in the Bahamas in 1853, and sadly the sea is just as deadly as it’s ever been for the unlucky and unwise.

The English, Irish, Scottish and Dutch emigrants were so hopeful as they boarded the ship in Liverpool, England, looking forward to new lives in America where some planned to settle a town in Wisconsin and others were meeting family members already established in the comparatively enormous country.  They were the first passengers to travel on this ship and, it turned out, the last.  After a horrendous journey with no ship surgeon, precious few provisions doled out by a violent crew, and a prescription of bacon from the captain for passengers dying of fever, the emigrants were relieved to reach the Bahamas as they knew the American port of New Orleans would soon be in sight.  Unfortunately, the arrogant and inexperienced captain would take them no further.
map of route through Bahamas - Lotgevallen van den heer O.H.Bonnema, 1853, used with kind permission of Collectie Tresoar.
Map of route through Bahamas - Lotgevallen van den heer O.H.Bonnema, 1853, used with kind permission of Collectie Tresoar.
One evening, having already narrowly missed a collision with an island, the ship was holed twice and began to sink.  Captain Stinson threatened the passengers with his own desertion, told them the water in the hold was twice as deep as it really was, hid the distress flag, and eventually managed to sneak off with many of his crew (and the remaining provisions) in a lifeboat.  Several of the passengers swam after them only to be murdered with a hatchet when they reached the fleeing sailors, and the cowardly captain stood with his hat held high and called over to the screaming families, “Friends, may you fare well”.
William and Mary - Lotgevallen van den heer O.H.Bonnema, 1853, used with kind permission of Collectie Tresoar.
William and Mary - Lotgevallen van den heer O.H.Bonnema, 1853, used with kind permission of Collectie Tresoar.
He reported the ship as lost before his eyes and everyone aboard was presumed drowned.  Journalists suspected something was up and pressed for answers only to find the captain had disappeared, as had his crew.  Some weeks later the truth emerged and his disappearance made more sense.  The people he left to drown had instead kept the pumps going for two days and nights until an exceptionally brave local wrecker and his crew came to the rescue.

To find out more, read “The Lost Story of the William & Mary: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson” (Pen & Sword, 2016).

About the Author

Gill Hoffs is the author of “Wild: a collection” (Pure Slush, 2012) and two shipwreck books, “The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’” (Pen & Sword, 2014, 2015) and the recently released “The Lost Story of the William & Mary: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson” (Pen & Sword, 2016).  She lives in Warrington, England, with Coraline Cat.  If anyone has any information regarding these shipwrecks and the people involved, they can email her at or find her on twitter @GillHoffs.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

‘Bringing down the Flowers’: Abortion in Eighteenth-Century Britain

It's my pleasure to welcome the marvellous Kate Lister to the salon with an investigation into abortion in 18th century England.
‘Bringing down the Flowers’: Abortion in Eighteenth-Century Britain
Kate Lister
‘But, th’aged Neurse calling her to her bower                                                                                      
had gathered Rew and Savine and the flower                                                                                             
of Camphora, and Callamint, and Dill’.
William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine (1769) was a hugely popular work; it sold over 80,000 copies, was translated into several European languages and was republished to receptive audiences until the nineteenth century. In it, Buchan endeavours to ‘assist the well-meant endeavours in reliving distress; to eradicate dangerous and hurtful prejudices; to guard the credulous and ignorance against frauds and the impositions and quacks and imposters’. In his chapters on pregnancy, Buchan outlines the causes and dangers of abortion. In the eighteenth century ‘abortion’ was used interchangeably with ‘miscarriage’, and did not necessarily mean the deliberate termination of a pregnancy. However, in a footnote to his opening paragraph on miscarriage, Buchan makes a short, pointed acknowledgement that some women did seek a termination to their pregnancy. 
Every mother who procures an abortion does it at the hazard of her life; yet there are not a few who run this risk merely to prevent the trouble of bearing and bringing up children. It is surely a most unnatural crime, and cannot, even in the most abandoned, be viewed without horror; but in the decent matron, it is still more unpardonable. Those wretches who daily advertise their assistance to women, in this business, deserve in any opinion, the most severe of all human punishments.
Abortion was not made illegal in Britain until 1803, when the passing of the Lord Ellenborough's Act made abortion after ‘the quickening’ (first movement of the of the foetus) punishable by death or transportation. Abortion before the quickening was not regarding as a criminal act as most theologians and physicians agreed this was when ensoulment of the child occurred. Until this occurred, the woman was not regarded as carrying child. But abortion post-quickening was regarded as deeply immoral. John Astruc called ‘miserable women’ seeking an abortion an ‘utter shame to human nature and religion’; Martin Madan called the women who died through botched abortions ‘doubly guilty of suicide and child murder, and a spouse procuring pills to induce an abortion is cited as suitable grounds for divorce in a number of eighteenth-century divorce trials.
By the eighteen hundreds, rudimentary contraceptives were available, ranging from folklore and quackery to methods that would have offered limited protection. The withdrawal method is a time honoured (if completely unreliable) option. Animal-gut condoms, that were rinsed out and reused, had been available from the sixteenth century. In his memoirs Casanova records using a linen condom and a lemon slice as a cervical cap. Post-coital vaginal douching has been used as a method to wash away semen in the hopes of preventing pregnancy since the middle ages. Owing to widespread disease, malnutrition and poor health, fertility rates would have been reduced, but unwanted pregnancies were still widespread. When a girl found herself with a ‘bellyful’, pressures of shame, circumstance, poverty and myriad other reasons could lead her to seek a termination.
It may not have been illegal, but abortion (post quickening) was certainly considered a deeply shameful act; consequently, the practice is shrouded in obscurity. Owing to the paucity of primary evidence, researching the history of abortion is notoriously difficult; the bulk of evidence left comes to us in court records when a woman has died from a botched abortion, and passing references in medical texts that acknowledge and swiftly condemn the practice. There are no texts that categorically state how to perform an abortion, or what herbs and tonics should be taken to induce one. However, euphemistic language is employed in herbal texts to allude to a plant’s abortive properties. A text may list plants that will induce miscarriage, but embed them within a warning of ‘not to be taken by pregnant women’. In much the same way as modern day ‘legal highs’ would advertise themselves as ‘research chemicals’ and ‘not for human consumption’ to get around the law. Advertisements for ‘women’s monthly pills’ and ‘cures’ for ‘menstrual blockage’ can be read as coded contraceptives and abortifacients. In English Sexualities (1990) Tim Hitchcock argued that 
Throughout the early-modern period recipes for medicines to ‘bring down the flowers’, or to regulate menstruation, were a common component of any herbal or recipe book, and could certainly be obtained from the local apothecary.
Women seeking to ‘bring down the flowers’ would naturally progress from the least to the most dangerous methods of abortion. Certain known herbs were ingested; the most commonly known being savin, pennyroyal, rue and ergot. Savin, a species of juniper used to flavour gin (‘mother’s ruin’), is referenced in numerous court records regarding abortion once the practice was made illegal in 1803. In 1829, for example, Martha Barrett was accused of taking a ‘quantity of savin for the purpose of causing abortion’. In 1834, William Childs were charged with illegal abortion, having given Mary Jane Woolf ‘a large quantity of a certain drug, call savin…with intent thereby to cause and procure her miscarriage’. In 1855, William Longman was charged with ‘feloniously administering to Elizabeth Eldred Astins, 10 grains of a noxious thing called savin, with intent to pro cure miscarriage’. The list goes on. Abortifacient such as savin and pennyroyal are indeed toxic, and consumed at a high enough quantity could induce miscarriage; at too high a dose, they could, and did, kill the mother as well. 
If these methods proved ineffective (as would usually be the case), the mother was left with increasingly desperate and dangerous methods of abortion. Sitting in scalding hot baths, drinking vast quantities of gin, falling down stairs or being forcefully struck in the stomach have all been recorded as efforts to induce an abortion; but, if all these failed, surgical intervention could be sought. Accounts of surgical abortion are extraordinarily rare in the eighteenth century. One of the only detailed accounts of eighteenth-century surgical abortion is the record of the trial of Eleanor Beare of Derby in 1732. Eleanor was indicted on three accounts; one account of encouraging a man to murder his wife and two accounts of ‘destroying the foetus in the womb’, by ‘putting an iron instrument’ into the body; one of these women was ‘unknown to the jury’ and the other was Grace Belfort. Grace Belfort worked briefly for Eleanor, during which time she was raped by a visitor to the house. Grace confessed to Eleanor that she feared she was with child and for 30 shillings (paid by the rapist) Eleanor say she could ‘clear’ her of the child. The account given of what happened next is so rare, it is worth sharing in full; 
Evidence: Some company gave me Cyder and Brandy, my Mistress and I were both full of liquor, and when the company was gone, we could scarse get upstairs, but we did get up; then I laid me on the bed, and my mistress brought a kind of instrument, I took it to be like an iron skewer, and she put it up into my body a great way, and hurt me.
Court: What followed upon that?
Evidence: Some blood came from me.
Court: Did you miscarry after that?
Evidence: The next day… I had a miscarriage. 
Court: What did the prisoner do after this?
Evidence: She told me the job was done.
In 1760, poet Thomas Brown wrote ‘Satire Upon a Quack’, where he attacks an abortionist who ‘murdered’ his friend’s child. The poem is a bitter and sustained attack upon the ‘graveyard pimp’ who ‘unborn infants murder’d in the womb’. Brown curses the abortionist to hear ‘the screams of infants’ and their dying mothers for all eternity; to be the ‘jest of midwives’ and ‘strumpets without noses, and to be stalked by ‘the most solemn horrors of the night’. Brown makes reference to the abortionist’s tools throughout the poem; he does not mention an ‘iron skewer’ but he does allude to ‘baleful potions’, ‘stabbing verse’, ‘pointed darts’ and a ‘murdering quill’. Any thin, sharpened tool, even the sharpened point of a quill pen, would serve as a suitable ‘instrument’ to pierce the cervix and ‘bring down the flowers’. Of course, this procedure could be self-induced, or well-meaning friends or family members could attempt to penetrate the womb. How many women suffered irreparable damage, mutilation, infection and death as a result of this practice is not known; but many were willing to risk the dangers. If this method failed, or if the poor girl simply could not afford the abortionist fee; there were three options left; keep and raise the child, abandon the child, or murder the child and hide the body. 
In Francis Grose’s Lexicon Balatronicum: a Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence (1785), there is a truly disturbing entry; ‘To stifle a squeaker: to murder a bastard, or throw it into the necessary house (privy)’. This phrase also appears over hundred years earlier in A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew (1698), and appears in various collections of slang through the nineteenth century. That infanticide had its own slang suggests that the practice was alarmingly common; that the slang is specifically referring to the disposal of illegitimate infants by burying them in the outhouse is the only remaining legacy of countless infants who shared this sad fate. Christian Russel, of the Parish of St. Pauls Covent Garden, was found guilty of murdering her illegitimate child in 1702 by ‘throwing the same into a House of Office’. In 1703, Mary Tudor was put on trial for her murdering her ‘female bastard child, on the 18th of January last, by throwing the same into a House of Office, whereby it was choked and strangled’. In 1708, Ann Gardner was found guilty of murdering her ‘female bastard…by throwing of it into a House of office, where 'twas suffocated with Filth’. Anne Wheeler was indicted for suffocating her ‘male bastard’ by ‘suffocating it in a house of easement’ in 1711. Elizabeth Arthur ‘drowned’ her ‘male bastard’ in a ‘house of office’ in 1717. Elizabeth Harrard was found guilty of drowning her ‘male bastard’ in 1739, and was one of four women to be hanged for murdering their illegitimate children that year. The list goes on and on. In the court records for the Old Bailey alone, between 1700 and 1800, there are no less than 134 trials for infanticide; the overwhelming majority of which are the killings of illegitimate children. We must remember that this is only one court, in one area and these trials are the ones that were caught. The actual figures of illegitimate infanticide will never be known, but most of the desperate women on trial were poor, unwed, unsupported and alone; they were desperate. 
Not all this trials resulted in a guilty verdict, and the mother’s life depended on being able to ‘prove’ that the child was stillborn. In 1624, parliament passed an act that made it a capital offense for unmarried mothers to conceal the death of an illegitimate child; the presumption being that if the child died, the mother had killed it. In order to prove that the birth was not concealed, the mother has to produce at least one witness statement that the baby was stillborn. The prosecution would also have to prove that the birth was deliberately concealed. Ann Gardner, mentioned above, was proven to have murdered her baby as she had made no provisions for the baby, and told no one she was pregnant.
The Prisoner could say little in her Defence, it did not appear that she made any Provision for the Birth of the Child, nor was she heard to cry out, or us’d any endeavour to discover it, as the Statute of King James I [the 1624 Act] in such Cases requires. The Fact being clear, upon the whole the Jury found her Guilty of the Indictment.
This was enough to condemn Ann to death; she was executed on 15th Jan 1708.
When the London Foundling Hospital opened in 1739 by the philanthropist Thomas Coram, his primary aim was to give shelter to the children of the ‘unhappy female, who fell victim to the seductions and false promises of the designing man’, and had been left to ‘irretrievable disgrace’. When it first opened, the hospital expected to receive 20 infants, but was overwhelmed with demand. Eventually, the hospital had to limit admissions to infants under two months, and admittance was done through a ballot system. So that mothers could reclaim their child from the hospital, mothers were initially encouraged to leave a token with their baby, so they could be recognised later. The thousands of ribbons, thimbles, broken coins, lockets, buttons, pieces of paper and shells left with abandoned children are still housed at the Foundling Hospital today. 

Photo: The Foundling Museum

Of the 16,282 babies brought to the hospital between 1741 and 1760, only 152 were reclaimed. 
Today, most of us are privileged enough that we will never face a situation woman like Ann Gardner found themselves in over 300 years ago; destitute, ill, alone, stigmatised and pregnant with no maternity rights, medical care, security or means to raise a child. Although we have advanced far in 300 years, in terms of social security, medical care and attitudes to sex in general, the debate surrounding abortion are still rooted in religious moralising that seeks to demonise and punish the women who seek them and doctors who perform them. But, as the history of contraceptives shows, abortion will always be sought, risks will always be taken and no amount of criminalisation, not even the death penalty itself, will change that. In 1967, when the UK abortion act was passed, midwife Jennifer Worth was asked to comment on the morality of abortions; after 14 years of witnessing the reality of illegal abortion, she replied she ‘did not regard it as a moral issue, but as a medical issue. A minority of women will always want an abortion. Therefore, it must be done properly’.

Buchan, William, Domestic Medicine (London: [], 1769)
Casanova, Giacomo, The memoirs of Jacques Casanova de Seingalt: Complete ([n.p.]: Simon and Schuster, 2013)
Cruickshank, Dan, The secret history of Georgian London: How the wages of sin shaped the capital (London: Windmill Books, 2010)
Harris, Karen, The medieval vagina: A historical and hysterical look at all things vaginal during the middle ages (London: Snark, 2014)
Museum, Foundling, Foundling museum (Foundling Museum, 2016), <> [accessed 2 September 2016]
Online, Old Bailey Proceedings, Browse - central criminal court (2003), <> [accessed 30 August 2016]
---, Browse - central criminal court (2003), <> [accessed 30 August 2016]
Riddle, John M., Eve’s herbs: A history of contraception and abortion in the west (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999)
The Tryal of Eleanore Beare of DerbyGentleman’s Magazine 1732, pp. 933–934
Trials for Adultery; Or, the History of Divorces, III vols, Trials for Adultery (London: [], 1779)
Worth, Jennifer, 'A deadly trade', The Guardian, 6 January 2005

About the Author
Dr Kate Lister, post doctoral research associate at Leeds Trinity University. Kate curates the Twitter feed @WhoresofYore and researches the history of sexuality. 

Written content of this post copyright © Kate Lister, 2016.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

The Crown Spire

coverI am thrilled to announce that The Crown Spire, a rip-roaring adventure stuffed full of highwaymen, intrigue and romance, is now available to buy in ebook format across the world.

Co-written by my good self and Willow Winsham, The Crown Spire takes readers back in time to 18th century Edinburgh and a world of bodysnatchers, brutish husbands and longed-for second chances.

Read on for an exclusive look at the first chapter!

Buy The Crown Spire at Amazon UK

Buy The Crown Spire at Amazon US

About The Crown Spire

Edinburgh, 1795

Alice Ingram escapes her brutish husband and leaves a glittering life in London far behind. With her niece, Beth, at her side she flees north, determined to save the girl from the fate she has endured but after an encounter with two mysterious highwaymen, life for the women will never be the same again...

Devoted to his daughter and resigned to a life of loneliness, James Dillingham has built a reputation as the finest physician in the land and a man for whom romance is a notion best avoided. He leaves all that to his best friend, Ed Hogan, who is just the sort of rogue to catch a girl's adventurous eye...

By day Alice finds herself ever more at odds with the straight-laced doctor who becomes her neighbour whilst by night, moonlit escapades with a masked highwayman lead her into a life of excitement in the shadow of the Crown Spire. Yet with her husband in relentless pursuit, are some shackles too strong to break?

Chapter 1


Almost a week on the road, Alice Ingram reflected with a long sigh of exhaustion, leaning back against the squabs of the carriage. Almost a week crammed in together, feeling every bump, every pothole, counting the miles as they made their way northwards, each hour, each passing minute, taking them that one bit closer to freedom.
"It will be time to stop soon," she said simply to break the resentful silence, lifting her head as though to direct her niece’s attention to the window, "The light is fading."
"Thank goodness!" Beth’s voice was full of relief and for once, Alice noted without humour, she and her fellow passenger were in agreement. For a moment Alice considered the wisdom of breaking for the night and peered at the darkening sky. They had covered a great deal of distance so far and now, with the end almost in sight, she found herself loathe to stop, to delay even one more night almost unbearable. 
"No," she shook her head, Beth letting out a huff of annoyance as Alice decided, "No, we shall press on."
The trees on either side of the road, no thicker than two or three deep at the start of their journey that day, seemed too dark and entwined now, shadows in the dusk throwing darkness over the carriage where the bows reached out high above to make a vaulted chapel of the canopy. What was left of the daylight barely penetrated the new spring foliage, even the birdsong muted until the silence was unbroken by so much as the chirrup of a sparrow. Still the carriage rolled on towards its uncertain destination, the man at the reins no doubt looking forward to the next stop when he would hand over this party, trouble that they seemed to be, to another hired hand.
"It has been ages," Beth's pout grew to proportions not yet reached at the refusal, "My legs are so numb I can barely feel them and if I have to look at one more tree Aunt Alice, please—" 
"Grace," Alice reminded her niece, "You must remember to call me aunt Grace now. There will be plenty of opportunity to stretch your legs when we reach Edinburgh. I told you - we carry on."
The silence, seemingly so unbreakable, was shattered by the sound of a single gunshot, and a moment later the carriage veered from the road as the coachman fell from his seat, dead before he hit the ground. The horses surged on with the driverless carriage at their rumps, stopped only by two men who galloped alongside to grab up the reins and halt the progress of the vehicle.
"What -" Alice’s exclamation mingled with Beth's shriek of surprise as she fumbled for the weapon packed for just such an eventuality, heart pounding with fear.
The doors on either side of the waylaid carriage were wrenched violently open before she was able to find the gun. What daylight remained was blocked by two hulking figures, pistols primed and ready. From beneath a beard thick as the tangled boughs outside a voice aged with alcohol and menace asked, "And what have we here?"
"I will shoot you," Alice felt surprisingly calm even as she was sure the appearance of their assailants was no coincidence. "Don't think for a moment I won't."
"There'll be no shooting anybody," the man laughed, a scent of sweat and tobacco filling the stale air. He gestured into the carriage with his gun barrel and asked Beth, "You going to go along with my friend over there?"
"She will not be going anywhere." Uttering the words with a confidence she no longer felt, Alice heard the refusal echoed by the rigidly still young woman. The look of horror in her niece's eyes firmed her resolve as she added, "What do you want from us? If it is money you are after—"
"Money," the bandit laughed as his comrade moved further into the carriage, seizing Beth's wrist in a leather-gloved hand. "Who wants money when there's a fine bounty like you two?" 
With that he made his move, fist locking around Alice's arm and dragging her towards the door.
"No—" An attempt at resistance served only to lose her the weapon, though it was with savage satisfaction that she landed a hard kick to the shin of the man who had grabbed her. Despite his gasp of pain the triumph was short lived, as Alice found herself pulled from the carriage. She would not go, she knew, could not be parted from Beth, could not let the young woman suffer whatever tortures they had intended for her.
Alice twisted and turned, fists and feet flying uselessly until her captor succeeded in pinioning her arms painfully behind her back. Even then she struggled and shouted for help, though where help could possibly come from, Alice did not know.
"Bitch!" The word was a hiss, the bandit wrapping one arm around her waist as he instructed the two men at the head of the carriage, "Empty the bags and bring the horses. Tonight, we’ll all of us have some fun!"
Beth's scream rang in Alice’s ears as she was carried off, the smell and proximity of the man turning her stomach with fear of what was to come.
"And when you've done all that and finished with the lady," the bandit who had taken Beth's arm laughed, "You can have a go on this lass after I’m done!" 
With that, he dragged the screaming Beth out onto his horse, barely keeping hold of her as he galloped deep into the trees.