‘Child murder’ in Victorian Preston

I recently came across two articles by Eliza Cook, a Victorian writer, that call into question the reliability of the enormous volume of evidence collected and published by the Rev John Clay, chaplain at Preston Prison in the first half of the 19th century. His evidence, relating primarily to prison reform and public health, was frequently cited in contemporary government reports, and in a great deal of later academic work.

Eliza Cook (1812-1889) was a poet and a journalist. She never married and, according to her DNB biographer, was in the habit of dressing in male clothing and wore her hair short (an image not reflected in the above portrait).These choices and her passionate friendship with an American actress led to the conclusion that she was probably a lesbian. [1]

She was similarly unconventional in her campaigning for women’s rights. From 1849 she began publishing her weekly Eliza Cook’s Journal, which ran for five years and included mostly articles penned by herself, but also the work of other writers, including Samuel Smiles. Much of the content was concerned with improving the lot of the working classes, especially women. It was John Clay’s attack on the working-class women of Preston in a long letter he published as a pamphlet in 1853 that she set about rebutting in two articles in her journal. [2]

When I read the articles, while gathering material on Clay, I wondered if the extracts from his letter that Eliza Cook included in her articles had been chosen selectively and misrepresented his views, so went in search of the published letter. [3] This proved to be no easy task. The Lancashire Library catalogue has three entries for the publication: two at Lancashire Archives, which have been mislaid and can no longer be located, and another that was at the Harris Library, Preston, but has now been transferred to Lancashire Archives, and as of June 2019 had not yet been recatalogued.

Jstor has a facsimile of the letter on line but it is only available to institutions, not to individuals. I contacted them and they kindly made an exception and sent me a copy for my own use.

Below are fuller extracts from John Clay’s letter than are contained in Eliza Cook’s articles: they clearly demonstrate an attitude to the poor and a faith in suspect statistics that call into question just how unbiased and accurate his pronouncements are in those other fields in which he is seen as an expert. I have inserted Eliza Cook’s comments from her first article in the appropriate places. Full transcriptions of John Clay’s letter and Eliza Cook’s articles that make it clear that Clay is not misrepresented here, and nor was he by Eliza Cook, can be found at:
John Clay’s ‘Burial Clubs and Infanticide’ letter
Eliza Cook’s response to John Clay’s ‘infanticide’ letter

Related article: Victorian Preston’s Men from the Pru

Do not be fooled by the quotation from The Times on John Clay’s front page above. The quotation claims a spurious authority: it is from Clay’s own letter to The Times of that date, not from the pen of the Thunderer’s editor.

John Clay begins his new letter by quoting from a presentment made by a grand jury at Liverpool Assizes, of which William Brown MP was chairman:

The Grand Jury cannot separate without recording their unanimous opinion, that the interference of the Legislature is imperatively called for to put a stop to the present system of money payments by Burial Societies. From the cases brought before them at the present Assizes, as well as from past experience, the Grand Jury have no doubt that the present system operates as a direct incentive to murder; and that many of their fellow-beings are, year after year, hurried into eternity by those most closely united to them by the ties of nature and blood—if not of affection—for the sake of a few pounds, to which, by the rules of the Societies, as at present constituted, the survivors are entitled. The continuance of such a state of things it is fearful to contemplate.

Clay then writes:

Public attention being thus emphatically called to the effects of this horrible gambling in infant life, no apology is needed for endeavouring to keep attention alive to the subject by presenting some details connected with “death lists.” Though such details may startle and appal persons who have not watched the working of Burial Clubs, it is necessary that the subject should be seen in its true and hideous aspect. The humane public must be prevailed upon to look at this foul blot on our specious civilization, and to remember that in hundreds of thousands of instances, the prospect of “burial money” is creating direct and powerful inducements to parental neglect and cruelty.

Eliza Cook is outraged by these:

… wholesale charges preferred against the working population of this country, which, if true, must necessitate the conclusion that a large proportion of the English operatives, and especially the females, are no better than deliberate assassins of the most odious and contemptible stamp; that, in its most repulsive form, murder has been secretly riding rough-shod over the land, and laughing to scorn the puny efforts of human law or maternal love, to arrest his progress; that cholera or typhus, together with all other forms of pestiferous antagonism to human vitality, when contrasted with this remorseless monster, are comparatively humane and terrorless!

She argues that Clay is right to raise concern about the excessive infant mortality amongst the working classes, but is adamant that he is grossly exaggerating the prevalence of infanticide and ignoring other reasons for the morbidity among the young:

… we think we can show that he is greatly in error when he concludes that this excessive mortality is mainly, if not entirely, caused by the inability of the bulk of the English people to resist an inducement to murder their offspring, engendered by the prospect of clutching the few pounds insured by burial clubs for funeral expenses.

And she lists the likeliest causes for the infant deaths, ‘Amongst these may be mentioned, unhealthy employment, sanitary neglect at home, want of education, intemperate habits, improvidence, and poverty itself.’ Cook, however, believes the cause that needs to be faced ‘is the gradually increasing practice of working the women in factories, instead of allowing them to remain at home to attend to their important duties there!’

Clay then alludes to an earlier scandalous case, ‘In the autumn of 1848 appeared the horrible disclosures relating to “the Essex poisonings,” and, in consequence, numerous letters were inserted in the public prints, demanding, or proposing, remedies for such monstrous evils.’ This case had prompted Clay to write to The Times in the following year to call attention to ‘the atrocity of the crimes which Burial Clubs were yet permitted to encourage’.

To support his case he cites five newspaper reports of murder by poisoning, although only two of them can be classed as infanticide. Clay apologises for the paucity of his evidence, stating that ‘not having much leisure for reading the public prints, I can only advert to those of which I may have happened to see the accounts’. This does not, however, restrain him from extrapolating widely:

No one can guess how many more victims—infants especially—have been poisoned or otherwise destroyed for the sake of the coveted burial money, though neither inquiry nor suspicion may have been excited; nor how many children, entered by their parents in Burial Clubs, are, when attacked by sickness, suffered to die, without any effort being made to save their lives. That the predominant feeling in the mind of a parent whose sick child is in a Club is too often fixed on the money which can only be obtained by that child’s death, no one can doubt who has seen the working of these Societies.

Eliza Cook is withering in her dismissal of this pinning of blame on working-class mothers:

Amongst the hundreds of thousands of persons insured in burial clubs, the relatively very few proved cases cannot legitimately affix the stigma of murderous disposition on such an immense mass.

Clay then inserts a number of anonymous anecdotal accounts of infant lives endangered by enrolment in burial societies, drawn from his report to the Health of Towns Commission in 1843. [4] These accounts include one from an informant who is much exercised by the fact that ‘There is no restriction in any of the Societies as to the admission of illegitimate children’. This sentiment meets with Clay’s approval, ‘Now, what solicitude can either of the ignorant and profligate parents of a bastard child have for the preservation of that child’s life?—a child which is a burden and a reproach to them…’

Defenders of the societies who point to them as evidence of prudent forethought among the working classes are quickly dealt with by Clay, ‘A prudent artisan enrols himself in a Sick Club from obviously proper motives; but for one adult who enters a Sick Club 20 infants are put into “death lists.” … The only contingency connected with the child which the poor parent makes preparation for is—its death.’ A totally unsupported and emotive charge.

He struggles to supply evidence because ‘deadly tendencies of Burial Clubs can never be accurately measured’. This does not prevent him from imagining ‘their direct and indirect influence for mischief and demoralization.’ He searches for support in Preston, his adopted home, where:

I possess some evidence of the amount of Burial Club membership and of infant mortality, based on documents of undeniable authority; the evidence relating to the membership being supplied by the printed “reports” of numerous Clubs relating chiefly to the year 1846, when the population of the town I refer to amounted to about 61,000.

In fact, Clay does not name the town, although it is clearly Preston, ‘because as no actual Burial Club murders are known to have been committed in it, and as such Clubs are not more patronized there than in other places it is perhaps not fair to hold it up to particular animadversion’. [emphasis added].

This provokes a scathing rebuke from Eliza Cook:

If child-murder amongst the poor had been the cause of a tithe of the discrepancy between the rates of mortality exhibited amongst the children of the gentry and the lower classes of Preston, surely an odd case or two might have been detected, especially as it is the pecuniary interest of the society, and every member thereof, to refuse payment under suspicious circumstances, and thus rather to facilitate than obstruct discovery.

Clay states that the town:

… maintains at least 11 Burial Clubs, the members of which amount, in the aggregate, to nearly 52,000! Nor are these all. Sick Clubs, it must be remembered, act as Burial Clubs. Of these there are 12 or 14 in the town, mustering altogether probably 2,000 members. Here, then, we have good data for comparing population with death lists…

He then deducts from the total population of the town:

… all infants under two months old, and all persons of unsound health—(both classes excluded by the Club rules) —all those of the working classes whose sound intelligence and feeling lead them to abhor Burial Club temptations, and all the better classes, to whom £5 or £20 offer no consolation for the death of a child.

And concludes:

On the hypothesis that these deductions will amount to one-sixth of the entire population, it results that the death lists contain greater numbers by far than the entire mass—old, young, and infant—which supports them …

And goes on:

according to the written statement now lying before me of a leading death list officer, “three-fourths” of the names on these catalogues of the doomed are the names of children. Now, if this be the truth, and I believe it is, hundreds, if not thousands, of children must be entered, each, into four, five, or even twelve Clubs, their chances of life diminishing, of course, in proportion to the frequency with which they are entered. [emphasis added]

A wholesale slaughter of the innocents.

Eliza Cook is not impressed by Clay’s skills as a statistician, maintaining that unless he can provide more convincing evidence for the above figures, ‘his comparison and conclusions in this case are … valueless’.

Clay contrasts the life expectancy of the infants of the gentry with that of the offspring of the working classes in Preston:

… where the average age reached by the gentry is 47 years, a term of life exceeded by few places in England. In this town, while the “gentry” lose only 18 per cent. of infant life, the working class lose 56 per cent. However repugnant to our feelings it may be to do so, we cannot avoid considering this frightful excess of infant death in connexion with the 51,000 enrolments in death lists, “of which three-fourths are children.”

Cook sees this as a gross libel on the working class mothers in Clay’s adopted town. Her comments suggest she was familiar with the town and was aware of the segregation that had developed there by the middle of the 19th century, noting the social and distinct geographical separation between the homes of the employers in the Winckley Square district and those of the employed in the less salubrious districts (this separation is carefully mapped in Nigel Morgan’s study of middle-class housing in 19th-century Preston) :

We protest against these inferences entirely. The difference between the rate of mortality amongst the rich and the poor does not necessitate the existence of wholesale murder, for either burial-club money or anything else; nay, the proof even that a crime has been committed is not necessarily proof that any given individual is the criminal. The town of Preston is certainly healthy, so far as its general locality is concerned; but it varies considerably in detail. “Winckley Square” and “Ribblesdale’s Place” are rather more savoury than “Pottery Hill” and “Holding’s Square.” Besides, the “gentry” do not send their wives and daughters to the cotton-mills; and the impure parts of the town are less intermixed with the “genteel” localities than is usually the case in manufacturing districts.

Clay adds extracts from letters written to him by doctors in the town:

“The above numbers (247 patients above five years of age, and 26 under five years) very strikingly illustrate what I have frequently remarked otherwise—the great indifference displayed by parents and others in the lower ranks with regard to infant life.”

“With respect to the attendance which the poorer classes give to their children in sickness, I am sorry to say it is generally anything but what it ought to be. . . . . . If they seek medical aid at all, it is when there is too often not the slightest chance of recovery.”

“My impression is, that very few of the children of the operative class, in sickness fall under the notice of the medical men of the town. But, latterly, there had been a disposition to call us in in the last stage of disease, for the purpose of obtaining a certificate of death for the registrar.”

“My general impression, derived from three years’ experience at this institution—[an admirably-conducted Dispensary, where very superior medical aid is gratuitously given to the poor]—compels me to admit—what is very painful to acknowledge—that there is amongst the poorer classes a manifest and cold indifference to the health of infants, and especially so when suffering from disease.”

These letters lead Clay to put the question:

Can any one guess now “how many children, entered by parents in Burial Clubs, are, when attacked by sickness, suffered to die without an effort being made to save them lives?” [And to answer:] In the place where this lavish sacrifice of infant life takes place it can be shown that more than 500 children die annually, who, with due care would reach five years of age.

He believes that such callous disregard shown by working class mothers for the care of their infants is symptomatic of ‘a mental and moral condition which ought not to be found at all among a civilized and Christian people’. The more responsible members of that class, he believes:

… see clearly that religious instruction, sound and useful knowledge, sanitary improvement, wider and kinder intercourse between the wealthy and the poor, between the intelligent and the ignorant, must be perseveringly and affectionately cultivated, in order that such shocking thoughts as are suggested by Burial Clubs may be rejected and spurned as universally as they are now, alas! encouraged.

He ends by urging that this ‘sacrifice of the innocents must be stopped at once and for ever’; but fears that the scandal is growing:

Since 1849 our dark records of crime have exhibited the usual – or rather an – increasing proportion of murders encouraged by Burial Club bounties. I am unable to give a complete catalogue of these atrocities; and perhaps the inability is not to be regretted, for such a “DEATH LIST” would be too full and foul for belief.

Reading through Clay’s writings, as witness the above, one could imagine him an anthropologist visiting a strange tribe, whose customs shock and disgust. (A similar feeling is engendered when reading Anthony Hewitson’s account of Preston’s poor Irish worshipers at St Mary’s Chapel: Friargate’s Catholic ‘chapels’ 1605-1990). Clay was of that breed of evangelical Anglicans that would not allow a shadow of doubt to disturb their fixed certainties. And he was a fully committed Benthamite, sifting his utilitarian facts selectively to conform to his picture of the world.

What his emotive diatribe against burial clubs does most forcibly is call into question the reliability of his voluminous reports on prisons and public health. Given the obvious bias and cavalier treatment of facts witnessed above, how is he to be trusted elsewhere, without the most careful scrutiny of his evidence?

I remember reading, some years ago, in one of his reports the words of a woman living in one of the houses in the Queen Street district, a district that was regarded as containing many of the town’s mid-Victorian slums. She was very happy in her accommodation, which still overlooked fields, and she had chosen to move there. It struck me that many of those people moving into town from the rural hovels to be found in the surrounding countryside would also have been just as happy with the exchange.

A contemporary of Clay and Cook, William Gilly, the vicar of Norham in Northumberland, left a detailed description of the living accommodation of the agricultural labourers in his parish, and there is no reason to believe accommodation was any better in the villages surrounding Preston at this time. It is a fascinating document, which I think excuses the inclusion of the extended extract below and the illustration from his book. The Rev Gilly displays none of that Gradgrind lack of empathy that pervades much of Clay’s writings.

The Rev Gilly writes:

Now for a more detailed description of that species of hut, or hovel, for it is no better, which prevails in this district. I have a group of five such now before my mind’s eye …

They are built of rubble, or of unhewn stone, loosely cemented; and from age, or from the badness of the materials, the walls look as if they would scarcely hold together. The chinks gape open in so many places, and so widely, that they freely admit not only the breath of the gentle Zephyr, but the fierce blasts of the rude Boreas … The chimneys have lost half their original height, and lean on the roof with fearful gravitation. The rafters are evidently rotten and displaced; and the thatch, yawning to admit the wind and wet in some parts, and in all parts utterly unfit for its original purpose of giving protection from the weather, looks more like the top of a dunghill than of a cottage.

Such is the exterior; and when the hind comes to take possession, he finds it no better than a shed. The wet, if it happens to rain, is making a puddle on the earth floor. … It is not only cold and wet, but contains the aggregate filth of years from the time of its first being used. The refuse and dropping of meals, decayed animal and vegetable matter of all kinds, which has been cast upon it from the mouth and stomach—these all mix together, and exude from it. Window frame there is none. There is neither oven, nor copper, nor grate, nor shelf, nor fixture of any kind …

This year I saw a family of eight—husband, wife, two sons, and four daughters—who were in utter discomfort, and in despair of putting themselves in a decent condition, three or four weeks after they had come into one of these hovels. In vain did they try to stop up the crannies, and to fill up the holes in the floor, and to arrange their furniture in tolerably decent order, and to keep out the weather. Alas! what will they not suffer in the winter? There will be no fireside enjoyments for them. They may huddle together for warmth, and heap coals on the fire; but they will have chilly beds and a damp hearth-stone; and the cold wind will sweep through their dismal apartment, and the icicles will hang by the wall, and the snow will drift through the roof, and window, and crazy door-place, in spite of all their endeavours to exclude it.

The general character of the best of the old fashioned hinds’ cottages in this neighbourhood is bad at the best. … they are, as l have already called them, mere sheds. They have no byre for their cows, no sties for their pigs, no pumps or wells, nothing to promote cleanliness or comfort. The average size of these sheds is about 24 by 16. They are dark and unwholesome. The windows do not open, and many of them are not larger than 20 inches by 16. And into this space are crowded eight, ten, and even twelve persons. How they lie down to rest, how they sleep, how they can preserve common decency, how unutterable horrors are avoided, is beyond all conception. [5]

The difficulty is that many of those oft-quoted Victorian social reformers, of which Clay is such a good example, lacked the Rev Gilly’s insight and came to their subject wearing middle-class spectacles that rendered them blinkered to the realities of working-class life: the ‘coals in the bath’ syndrome. Also, much of their work was polemical, provoked by righteous indignation and likely to skew the evidence they selected and presented in their reports. And those reports were frequently called forth in times of crisis and did not reflect ‘normal’ life. Thus when Clay was writing his burial clubs letter, Pottery Hill, which Eliza Cook perceptively singles out to contrast with Winckley Square, was part of a district still struggling to cope with a recent influx of hundreds of those economic migrants from Ireland who formed the congregation at St Mary’s Chapel. They would have left accommodation in Ireland every bit as bad as that described by the Rev Gilly.

[1] ‘Cook, Eliza (1812–1889), Poet and Journalist | Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’, accessed 8 June 2019, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/6135; ‘Eliza Cook’, in Wikipedia, 28 February 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Eliza_Cook&oldid=885459570.
[2] E. Cook, Eliza Cook’s Journal, v. 10 (John Owen Clarke, 1853), 289–91 and 344–46, https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=7WAoAQAAMAAJ.
[3] John Clay, Burial Clubs and Infanticide in England: A Letter to William Brown, Esq., M.P. for South Lancashire (Preston: Dobson, 1854).
[4] First Report of the Commissioners for Inquiring Into the State of Large Towns and Populous Districts (W. Clowes & sons, 1844), 187–92, Google-Books-ID: rwMAAAAAQAAJ.
[5] William Stephen Gilly, The Peasantry of the Border: An Appeal in Their Behalf, Etc, 2nd ed. (J. Murray, 1842), 19–23, Google-Books-ID: Ah5eAAAAcAAJ.

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