In an age when adequate and reliable birth control was virtually nonexistent, unwanted pregnancies for working class women, especially those already suffering grinding poverty, could have enormous consequences both for the mother and her child.
The social stigma attached towards women who found themselves pregnant outside marriage was especially cruel and unforgiving . For many such women in those circumstances, including those in Preston , the despair they experienced often ended in tragedy.
Birth of a child Concealed
On April 14th 1849 the police authorities received information that a woman of the name of Hartley residing at Daisy Field near Blackburn had delivered herself of a child. A search was initiated and it was found the women had got the labour over with. She immediately left the service of her master and took a lodging with an old woman living in the same neighbourhood.
Here she was found by the police constables. She made a voluntary statement to the effect that she had delivered herself of a child and had herself conveyed it very nearly to the bridge at Willow, which spans the river Darwen and thrown it into a curve in the river. The distance intervening between Daisy Field and Willow Bridge cannot be less than a mile and a half.
As directed by the wretched mother, the police went to the identical spot described by her and found the body of a child. It was afterwards examined by a surgeon who declared it to be of such extreme premature birth, as to make it very difficult to ascertain whether it had ever breathed or not. The woman Hartley told how the father of the child had abandoned her and gone to America. She was taken into custody and placed in the workhouse. (PC April 21st 1849)
Birth in a Bakehouse
During a dark wintry night in late November 1861, a police officer patrolling his beat along Marsh Lane around midnight thought he heard what he believed were moaning noises. On further investigation the constable ascertained the noise appeared to be originating from a nearby bakehouse. After forcing open the door to establish the cause he discovered a young woman in the latter stages of labour.
The policeman hurriedly sent for medical assistance but before DrMoore arrived, the woman gave birth to a baby boy. It transpired that the unmarried mother, after falling pregnant, had been outcast from her family. She had been allowed to stay in the bakehouse for the night as her labour drew near. Doctor Moore later gave orders that the unfortunate young woman be removed to her father’s house in nearby Markland St along with her newly born baby. (PG November 30th 1861)
Apart from the hostile reaction towards unmarried mothers by society in general, an illegitimate birth brought other serious implications. Fear of unemployment or being evicted from rented accommodation, or even the added burden of another mouth to feed often led to tragic outcomes,
Newly Born Infant Found Dead in Privy
In October 1842 a number of men engaged in emptying privies in houses in Park St, Avenham, made a shocking discovery after finding the decomposing body of a newly born infant. The child, a little girl, was discovered under the hole of the privy seat with its head downwards between two to three feet from the top soil. After the police had been informed and the body removed for further investigation, enquiries began to centre on a young woman named Alice Blake. Miss Blake had taken up lodgings about 16 weeks previous at the house of a Mrs. Caton in Park St where the infant was later found.
At the inquest into the dead child Mrs. Caton revealed that Blake ceased
lodging at her home some three weeks since and stated she suspected her to be expecting a child, which Blake denied. Under further examination Ann Caton agreed that she never saw anything that led her to believe the girl had been delivered of a child while she was living with her, though she did think at one time that Blake appeared to be thinner. Mr. Holden, a surgeon, stated that a post mortem examination revealed the child was full grown and appeared to have been born healthy, although he could not tell if it ever breathed or not. The umbilical cord, said Mr. Holden, had been cut close to the naval and his opinion was that no ligature had been used. That being all the evidence the inquest recorded a verdict of “Found Dead”. Two days later Alice Blake, a dandy loom weaver, appeared before the Magistrates on a charge of concealing a birth, but the case could not be proved and she was dismissed. (PC October 22nd 1842)
A similarly distressing case was brought before the County Sessions Court in Preston in 1883.
Child Found Dead at Ashton
In 1883 Jane Worthington, a good looking but dejected young woman employed as a domestic servant at the Fox and Grapes public house, was charged with concealing the birth of her child. Thomas Greenbank a farm servant of Ashton told the court how he came across a parcel by the banks of the River Ribble. He untied it and found it to contain the body of a child, which was later removed by a police constable. Jane Sharples of Wellington Rd Ashton, the next witness, said she knew the prisoner who came to lodge with her four months previous. She recalled how Jane Worthington was in service and she would nurse her child for her. After remaining as a lodger for about a month, Worthington found employment at the Fox and Grapes and came to visit every week. Jane Sharples then described how prisoner had recently looked very ill, pale and haggard. She asked her if she had become recently confined to which Jane Worthington replied, “No.”
Police constable Burke was then examined and told how the dead child was wrapped in an apron and bodice. Both items belonged to the prisoner. He later visited the Fox and Grapes and there entered a bedroom recently occupied by Jane Worthington. There were blood stains on the floor. He then went to Bolton St and apprehended her. Having then cautioned her, he then formally charged her with concealing the birth of a child, to which she replied, “Yes I have.”
After being remanded in custody Jane Worthington was again brought before the court a week later. Doctor Pilkington deposed how he examined the body of a female child which had lived. It was not fully developed and had not properly been attended to at birth. He also examined the prisoner whose condition said the Doctor was consistent with her confinement about that time. Jane Worthington made a statement to the effect that she went into labour unexpectedly a month prematurely and when recovering she realized the child was dead. She also stated it was her full intention to have gone to the Infirmary during her expected time of birth.
The court made the decision to remand Miss Worthington and commit her to the forthcoming Manchester Assizes for trial. On October 29th 1883, Jane Worthington age 21 pleaded guilty to a charge of having endeavoured to conceal the birth of a female child at Preston between August 21st and 27th last. The judge at the Manchester Assizes, Mr. Justice Hawkins said he found and regretted it that the prisoner had been kept incarcerated for five weeks and that being so, came to the conclusion that she had already been imprisoned quite long enough. He therefore sentenced Jane Worthington to be imprisoned for three days, the effect being that she was immediately discharged. (PC Sep’ 22nd, 29th & Nov’ 3rd 1883)
Occasionally during the Victorian age, unmarried mothers and their illegitimate children paid the ultimate and tragic price for society’s indifference towards them. One such shocking case occurred in 1861.
Murder and Suicide at Ashton
In November 1861 two youths discovered the body of a young male child at Ashton near Preston. The boy, said to be about twelve months old, was found by the youths who observed something floating on the surface of the water of a large pit known as the Chain pit. Upon further observations the lads discovered the floating object was in fact a young child which was later retrieved by the police and taken to the Plough Inn where it was washed and laid out. The body was neatly dressed but without a cap or hat on, so in order to see if any more items of clothing could be retrieved, which could help identify the boy, Superintendent Leary ordered the pit to be dragged.
As the police made a thorough search of the pit with grappling hooks a heavy object was encountered at the bottom of the water, which the horrified officers soon realized was the body of a young woman about 21 years of age, who was thought to be the mother of the child. There was no marks or signs of violence on either the mother, who was by this time also laid out at the Plough Inn, or the child. At this stage an eyewitness came forward to say she had seen the young woman sat beside the pit clutching a young child some days previous, who she described as in an “excitable state”. Police investigations further concluded that the layout of the pit and its surrounding embankment, made it unlikely that anyone could fall in the water accidentally and even if such a circumstance occurred, it would be easy to scramble out.
Attempts to identify the mother and child at first proved fruitless until a lady named Mrs. Preston of North Road read one of the posters distributed about the town describing the drowned victims and the clothes they were found in. Mrs. Preston appeared to recognize the description of the pinafore worn by the boy, which she thought she had specially made for the child some time ago. After hurrying down to the Plough Inn accompanied by her husband and son they were invited to inspect the bodies, after which Mr. Preston cried out sorrowfully, “That’s Ann Wright and her little Charlie”. Mr. Preston was able to give further information to the police which revealed that Ann Wright was a single woman, the daughter of John Wright, a boatman who operated a ferry boat across the River Ribble between Freckleton and Lytham. He also claimed Miss Wright had visited his house a little over a week previous.
Ann Wright’s story was tragically similar to many other single mothers in that she had been seduced allegedly by a man named Kenyon, a blacksmith from Wigan, who then deserted her on learning of her pregnant condition. She was 21 years old and had given birth to a baby boy 14 months ago at the house of Mrs. Preston in North Rd, who took pity on her, took her in and attended to her needs. Previously in domestic service at Blackpool and other places Mrs. Preston had provided Ann Wright with a temporary home at a time when she was in a state of utter destitution with just three half pennies to her name. When the child was eight months old Mrs. Preston could no longer carry the financial burden of caring for the mother and child and wrote to the girl’s father and stepmother several times pleading with them to offer Ann Wright and her child a home. She never received a reply. The unfortunate mother eventually found a position at a boarding house in Blackpool but following an argument with the owner was forced to leave and once more arrived penniless at the home of Mrs. Preston. During her time in Blackpool she tried at the Petty Sessions to affiliate the child with the father, but failed when the alleged father informed the court he had seen her with other men shortly before she became pregnant. Learning of her latest plight Mrs. Preston again took Ann Wright in and gave her food and lodgings. She also attempted to find her work as a domestic servant without success . Soon after this Ann Wright disappeared but quickly returned and begged Mrs. Preston to take the boy. Unfortunately Mrs. Preston’s husband would not agree to this and the dejected mother left once more, indicating she was heading to Liverpool to find work. Sadly they would never see Ann Wright or her child alive again. (PC November 6th 1861)