Eliza Cook’s response to John Clay’s ‘infanticide’ letter

Below is a transcript of two articles [1] written by Eliza Cook in response to a letter published by the Rev John Clay, of Preston, on the subject of burial clubs and infanticide. They are discussed here: ‘Child murder’ in Victorian Preston

[1] 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.


Eliza Cook

THE public mind has lately been somewhat astounded by announcements in newspapers, pamphlets, &c. intimating that a fearful amount of hitherto hidden crime is consuming the infant population of the labouring classes of this country, depraving humanity at its very source, and rapidly resolving the boasted civilization of “enlightened England” into something more despicable and atrocious than the lowest exhibition of untutored savageism! Appalling as this may appear, there is something still more painfully revolting in the assigned cause and the media through which it is said to operate. It has often been asserted that “out of evil comes good,” but the converse of this axiom must now, it appears, become entitled to all the consideration and deferential respect due to scraps of proverbial wisdom. A large portion of the provident institutions of the people themselves,—the “Friendly Burial Societies,” stands directly charged with being the principal cause of the excessive infant mortality prevalent amongst the operative portion of our manufacturing population; that, in fact, the children of the poor are being savagely butchered to an unknown extent, and principally by their OWN MOTHERS, for the sake of the “funeral money” insured by these societies. The presentment of the grand jury a short time ago at Liverpool, contains the following startling expressions:—

“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 Rev. John Clay, chaplain to the Preston House of Correction, a gentleman of the highest respectability, who has devoted much time and labour to the investigation of questions affecting the moral and social well-being of the masses, and whose remarks are therefore entitled to most respectful consideration, says, in a pamphlet just issued (“Burial Clubs and Infanticide in England.” A Letter to William Brown, Esq. M.P. for South Lancashire, by the Rev. Jno. Clay, B.D. Preston: Dobson and Son.):—

“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.”

Mr. Clay quotes a few instances in which the guilty persons have been convicted of murder, and afterwards says,—“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.”

In order to substantiate his statements, Mr. Clay appeals to various statistical returns from which he arrives at the conclusion, that the amount of human life sacrificed through the direct influence of these societies is so enormous, as to justify the following observations :— “It may be said, as indeed it has been, that the horrors I have spoken of are after all, only extreme instances of the abuse to which any well-intentional institution may be liable; and that it would only be fair to place against the few (?) examples of abuse the advantages which, in many thousands of cases, burial clubs have conferred upon the industrious and the provident poor. To this plea I answer, that whatever may have been the number of instances in which burial money for a child has been received by parents who had cherished their offspring with the utmost affection, and spared no efforts to preserve it in life and health, that number is exceeded by instances in which the money received at a child’s death, has been quite as welcome as the child’s restoration to health would have been.”

We have long been of opinion that much evil must have resulted from the practice of insuring infant life, so prevalent amongst the operative classes in many districts, and deem it imperative upon the Legislature to adopt efficient means to prevent institutions originally established for truly provident purposes being permitted incidentally even to foster habits and feelings of a diametrically opposite character and tendency. We were not, however, prepared to hear 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!

The reverend gentleman further observes, “That whoever shall be able to devise measures by which burial societies can be deprived of their demoralizing tendencies, will entitle himself to the respect and gratitude of all who, as true friends of the labouring classes, would desire the removal of every hindrance to the growth of their social and family affections.”

In this we fully accord, and honestly recommend the subject to philanthropists, as one well worthy of their immediate attention. The debates on Mr. Sotheron’s Bill for the Consolidation of the Law relative to Friendly Societies, will afford a favourable opportunity for the introduction of such clauses as may, upon a fair and impartial investigation, be deemed necessary to meet the real evil.

It frequently happens that, whenever an important fact or principle becomes strongly impressed upon the human understanding, it acquires a kind of dominant influence over all others, nay, sometimes, ignores the very existence of laws and conditions as potent as itself. It appears, Mr. Clay has arrived at the knowledge that the value of life generally, and especially infant life, is extremely low amongst the working population in the manufacturing districts; that instances have occasionally occurred, in which it has transpired, that the resolve to murder has originated in the prospect of obtaining the funeral money assured in some of the burial clubs, which exist in these districts to an immense extent. So far Mr. Clay is perfectly correct; but 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. We think it was Lord Brougham who once, in a forensic debate, asserted that “he could prove anything from figures.” Thank heaven! for the honour of our common humanity, it is not, we think, a very difficult task to show that a considerable portion of the paraded burial-club horrors have no other than a figurative existence!

In the first place, there are many well-known powerful influences, quite independent of burial or any clubs whatever, whose operation must of necessity deteriorate to a most alarming extent, not only the value of human life, but likewise the tone of the “moral and social feeling” of a large portion of the operative classes in our manufacturing towns, and even villages. Amongst these may be mentioned, unhealthy employment, sanitary neglect at home, want of education, intemperate habits, improvidence, and poverty itself. But there is another evil which, in our opinion, has more to do with this question than all the burial clubs in existence, typhus and cholera included, and that 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! The monster evil, both physically and morally, must be sought here, whatever “commercial difficulty” or “law of political economy” may frown upon the inquirer. It is notorious that the bulk of the “turn-outs” and “lock-outs” at Preston are lads, lasses, and married women! What kind of a training for womanhood, and its duties and responsibilities, is the life of a girl labouring in a factory? She may perhaps be enabled thereby to purchase cotton cloth with judgment, but it is doubtful whether she will be competent to stitch it into a garment! What sort of attention can a wife bestow upon her home and children, whose daily time and labour is devoted to a cotton-mill? Women labour sometimes till the very day previous to the birth of their offspring, and are often back to the loom by the end of the week. The children are left to the care of hired nurses, and “Godfrey’s cordial,” soothing syrups, and other preparations, are ignorantly administered, with the view of relieving supposed trifling ailments, or for the purpose of temporarily reducing a screaming child to something like quietness! Woman’s true place, in all really civilized society is HOME; and whatever labour she is called on to perform should be done there, so that her children may be under her own eye. Wherever the contrary becomes the rule, and not the exception, parental neglect and indifference must result, and only very trifling assistance be required from burial clubs to decimate the infant population! But this condition, unfortunately, is not simply the result of working men’s efforts at self-aggrandisement, or institution founding, provident or otherwise. It appears to answer equally well the temporary purpose of capital, also; and it is but too true, that capital is not only often powerful enough to dictate the human laws for its own government, but to a great extent to fashion and modify conventional morality!

Let us examine two or three of Mr. Clay’s statistical arguments. He lays great stress upon the difference between the rate of infant mortality amongst the rich and the poor. He quotes Dr. Lyon Playfair’s report on the “Sanitary Condition of large Towns in Lancashire,” from which it appears that amongst the poor in Manchester, out of 100 deaths, sixty to sixty-five are infants under five years of age. He then observes: “But it may be said, ‘Manchester is an unhealthy place; the average age of all the gentry who die there is only thirty-eight years, and therefore mortality amongst infants might be expected to be great.’ Then I will recur to the town of 61,000 inhabitants (Preston), where the average age reached by the gentry is forty-seven 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 deaths in connection with the 51,000 enrolments in death lists, of which three-fourths are children!

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. May not local influences, in conjunction with those we have previously mentioned, lay a little claim to the sanguinary wreaths sought to be placed upon the brows of the mothers of the working men of England?

Again, Mr. Clay puts the 64 per cent. of infant deaths among burial club members against the 36 per cent. amongst those above five years of age; and this he considers unquestionable proof of his position! But before this can be worth a rush, even for the purpose of simply testing the relative rates of mortality, the expectation or “the value of life” in each class should have been ascertained; and, as the figures give the percentage of deaths on the total, we ought to have been informed of the relative numbers in each class over which the observations extended. But stay; Mr. Clay does state, on some authority or other, that “three-fourths are children.” Indeed, then, even supposing the average expectation of the “children” to have been exactly the same as that of the elder section (a highly improbable matter), we might reasonably have anticipated three-fourths of the whole to have been infant deaths, or 75 per cent!

Again, Mr. Clay says, “The infant mortality of Preston amongst the working classes, as shown in the report, (Health of Towns Commission), is about 56 per cent. of all the deaths in that class. How does it happen, then, that in burial clubs, which by their rules exclude the entrance of infants under eight weeks old, and then require sixteen weekly payments before anything would be payable on death, the clubs show an excess of infant deaths of 6 or 8 per cent. over the rate of infant deaths among the entire of the labouring population?”

If three-fourths of the lives observed upon in burial clubs are children, it is incumbent on Mr. Clay to show that a similar condition exists in the whole population, otherwise his comparison and conclusions in this case are as valueless as in the preceding instance.

Mr. Clay gives five distinctly proved cases of murder, in addition to the “Essex poisonings” and those commented upon by the Liverpool grand jury; and he calls this an “imperfect but too full catalogue.” And yet three of these cases have nought to do with infanticide, for the victims were adults! Mr. Clay, however, seems to deprecate all life assurance, at least amongst the poorer classes; for his arguments equally criminate the succession to property of all and every description. If a woman cannot resist the killing of her husband because his life is assured for £10 in a friendly society, how would she be less tempted by the prospect of £20 or £100 deposited in the savings-bank or invested in any way whatever? What sort of a temptation does an estate of £50,000 per annum offer to an outward eldest son, or to a reckless younger brother, backed by the law of primogeniture?

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. Mr. Clay himself confesses, when speaking of Preston with its “51,000 enrolments in death lists,” “no actual burial club murders are known to have been committed in it.” Yet we know these societies flourished there years previous to their introduction to Liverpool and other large towns. Surely this fact alone is worth all Mr. Clay’s figures. 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.

It must not be forgotten, however, that we do not deny the existence of evils in connection with these clubs that loudly call for prompt legislative interference; we merely object to the making them responsible for results which can plainly be traced to other causes; and we protest against the wholesale condemnation of the bulk of our operative population upon such miserably insufficient evidence, no matter how amiable may be the motives of parties, who, terrified by a phantom of their own creation, seek to spread the infection, and “fright the isle from its propriety.”

The length of this article prevents us at present entering upon what we consider to be the real defects of these popular societies, and the most effectual and legitimate remedies; but as the question is becoming one of great national importance, we purpose devoting, at an early opportunity, another paper to its consideration.


Although, in a previous paper, we felt it our duty to invalidate the charges of wholesale atrocity and deliberate assassination preferred by Mr. Clay against a large section of the working classes, in his pamphlet on “Burial Clubs and Infanticide,” we confessed that great abuses exist in connection with these popular institutions, which imperatively demand immediate reformation. The most important of these can, however, only be remedied by prompt legislative interference.

Though we utterly repudiate the assertion, that the “coveted possession” of the burial money insured by these clubs, engenders the determination to murder their offspring amongst anything more than a comparatively infinitesimal proportion of the mothers of the working men of England, yet we are well aware every grade of society, nay, humanity itself, possesses a certain leaven of disposition to evil, and that temptation or opportunity for the indulgence of selfish or destructive propensity fosters, aggravates, and develops the latent tendency. We believe the evil complained of will be found mainly to arise from the enrolment of the same infant in two or more distinct societies. This practice exists to a great extent in some localities, and is decidedly objectionable on several grounds.

In the first place, all legitimate insurance, whether of life or against fire, implies compensation for some bona fide loss sustained, and loss of a character, which admits of remedy in the shape of the current coin of the realm. It directly interferes not with human sympathies or affections, whose wounds are healed but by the application of a balsam compounded of very different elements. If a. man were to insure a building worth £1,000 for the full amount, in two distinct offices, he could only hope to recover the value of his extra annual premiums by the destruction of his property; or in other words, he who insures for a higher sum than the pecuniary value risked, stands self-convicted of folly or knavish purpose. Now, the death of an infant under five or six years of age, is not a pecuniary loss to the parent, but the reverse, and can therefore not be compensated by pecuniary means. Again, it may be truly affirmed that a large proportion of the chances of every infant’s life are intimately connected with, and dependent upon, the care and attention of the mother. It is her moral, human duty to labour for its life, but her worldly profit that it should die. Therefore, she cannot legitimately effect a pecuniary insurance on its life. As the child grows older, it acquires a comparative independence of the motherly attentions, and becomes of value to the parents themselves, especially amongst the poorer classes. Then the case becomes reversed, and a bona fide insurance to a limited amount may be pronounced legitimate. Notwithstanding, a mother may still honestly effect an insurance for funeral expenses, in case of her infant’s death, because its demise might find her unprepared otherwise with the necessary means to meet the cost of decent interment, and such insurance would not grant to her any positive pecuniary benefit. So far we can see no objection to infant burial societies, provided efficient steps be taken to prevent any further insurance being effected, which might superadd to this simple act of providence, any bonus to the parent on the death of dependent offspring.

But how is this to effected? We answer, let the law declare all such further insurance of the lives of children, under a given age, to be a criminal offence. Let a heavy penalty be imposed upon every secretary, or other officer, who may enter upon the books of his society any infant, without first obtaining the signature of the party assuring, to a declaration affirming no previous enrolment in any other club. Let the party making a false declaration be subjected to a similar penalty; and leave the privilege of laying an information open to any person. Name a date before which all existing duplicate or other extra insurances must be cancelled, or the parties become liable to similar penalties. An energetic enforcement of these reforms would soon effect the desired object, for we know many intelligent members would strenuously aid the efforts of the law in this particular.

It has been suggested by the Earl of Shaftesbury, that the officers of the society should pay the expenses of interment direct to the undertaker, and give no money whatever to the parents or guardians. There are, however, many practical objections to this. Mr. Clay says, “I believe, however, that the enactment suggested, would if enforced now, almost entirely break up the clubs; a contingency which no true friend to our social progress would lament.”

With all due respect for Mr. Clay, we unhesitatingly aver that we know scores of persons equally “true friends to our social progress” as himself, who would deeply lament indeed the breaking up of these clubs; and we deny the justice of his conclusion, that such a catastrophe “would go far to prove that in most cases the real motives for the entrance on a ‘list,’ were such as has been so generally imputed!” The plan would be troublesome to the officers, and expensive to the society, if efficiently carried out; and we feel confident the best portion of the members would resist any such compulsory interference with the details of their private business and domestic affairs, as an undeserved stigma upon their integrity. We are, moreover, thoroughly persuaded that the breaking up of these clubs would be productive of an incalculable amount of mischief both to the working population and to society at large. The total subscriptions to sick and burial societies in this kingdom, has been computed to be nearly five millions of pounds per annum, a very large proportion of which is yearly distributed amongst the members. We can from personal knowledge confirm the statements made to us by officers of burial clubs, that but for these societies a large number of members would be compelled to resort to “the parish for coffin, dues,” &c. When a previously poor, but independent working man has once passed the threshold of the poor’s office, the path there, and from thence to the jail, becomes in future considerably modified in repugnancy of aspect; a fact which no one will more fully appreciate than Mr. Clay himself.

There are, doubtless, as the reverend gentleman observes, “low and demoralised natures,” seemingly possessed with “a demoniacal mania,” to be found in every condition of society; but, thank Heaven! such extreme cases are seldom to be met with. Still such people will occasionally startle mankind by the perpetration of frightful crimes, and every human effort ought to be made to still further lessen their frequency. We would suggest, as a better and more effective protection to infant life, than the plan of the Earl of Shaftesbury, one which would, whilst remedying an evil, introduce amongst the working population, in a most practical form, another species of provident insurance, which, if extensively adopted, could not fail to be productive of an immense amount of improvement, both in the physical and moral condition of the working classes. Let an unvarying condition be attached to all life assurance for infants under ten years of age, by which a policy shall become legally invalid, unless accompanied by a subscription for an endowment for the same child on arriving at a given age, at least equal in amount to the sum insured upon its life: this sum should, in no case, exceed £5. This would neutralise any temptation to destroy the child for the funeral money, as the endowment would bid equally hard for its life, if calculated upon the condition that no portion of the subscription be returned in case the child should not reach the specified age. By this means apprentice fees might be insured for a trifling weekly subscription, or a still larger sum on the child’s arrival at manhood, which would purchase the necessary and often expensive tools required in various trades, or otherwise give a young man or woman valuable help “to begin the world with!”

This will, doubtless, meet Mr. Clay’s views, for he appears to regret that insurances of such a character are never made by the poor, their object being, in his opinion, on joining a friendly society simply to get money even at the cost of the child’s life. In this, however, he is mistaken. We understand, the “Equitable Provident Institution,” established expressly for such purposes, has opened branches in many parts of the kingdom, and met with considerable success.

We cannot conceive any special interference of the Legislature to be either called for or desirable, except in the cases of dependent infancy; and altogether repudiate Mr. Clay’s insinuation implied by his quotation of the three cases of adult murder, for the sake of the money insured in a friendly society. It is mere idleness, from the mass of pecuniary temptation to rob or murder daily and hourly spread before the vitiated and depraved, to single out the provident working man’s life assurance for especial animadversion. That the adult friendly societies are undeserving of Mr. Clay’s sweeping denunciations, can be demonstrated by evidence of a somewhat stronger character than mere opinion, however reputable the authority, or angry declamation, however eloquent. A reference to Mr. Henry Ratcliffe’s “Observations on the Rate of Mortality and Sickness amongst Friendly Societies,” will show that in the Manchester Unity of Odd Fellows (the most extensive friendly society in existence, numbering a quarter of a million of members), the value of life approximates in a remarkable degree to that of the average of the whole population! Again, Mr. Neison, the eminent actuary, in his “Contributions to Vital Statistics,” shows the value of life amongst the subscribers to the middle and upper class assurance companies to be less than amongst the members of the friendly societies, over which his observations extended, and his data included the experience of about a million and a quarter years of life! Nay, more, he further observes, “viewing the value of life in the highest ranks of society, namely, the peerage and baronetage, as given in the recent and very interesting paper submitted by Dr. Guy, it will be seen that the expectation of life is not only less than in the general community, but also very much below the measure of life among the members of friendly societies in the CITY DISTRICTS!” And, be it remembered, the city districts present the worst features, and exhibit the highest rate of mortality amongst these friendly societies! Mr. Neison’s intelligent commentary upon those statistical results, throws a somewhat different light upon the operations of friendly societies, than the reflections of Mr. Clay.

A very important error in connection with burial clubs, and indeed most friendly societies, and one fraught with almost incalculable future difficulty, is the haphazard character of their financial laws and regulations. The following facts are well worth the serious attention of the intelligent and influential members of these clubs:—

According to Mr. Neison’s observations on the mortality of the whole population, as exhibited in the reports of the Registrar-General, it appears that amongst children under five years of age, between six and seven per cent. annually die off; between five and ten years, the number becomes rather less than one in a hundred; between ten and fifteen, the mortality is but a trifle more than one in two hundred! The percentage of deaths afterwards gradually increases, but does not reach the amount of infant mortality till after the age of seventy! The expectation of life, according to the same authority, is at age ten, nearly forty-eight years; at twenty, about forty-one years; at thirty, near thirty-five; at forty, about twenty- eight; and at fifty, rather more that twenty-one years. Thus the weekly payment for a sum at death, would, on the average, extend over forty-eight years amongst those parties who enter at ten years of age; while when commencing at forty-five, the period is reduced to less than twenty-five years.

To place this prevalent error of burial clubs in a still stronger light, and to exhibit more clearly the injustice of their financial laws to one portion of their subscribers, we give the following comparison between the rates of payment and benefit of a regular insurance company (the Equitable Provident), with graduated tables, certified by Mr. Finlaison, Government act, and those of a large burial society in Lancashire, numbering between twenty and thirty thousand members:—

It will thus be seen that the burial club’s charges are enormously high for the early periods of adult life; that the insurance company more than doubles the benefit for the same premium to parties entering at fifteen years of age; that the monthly contribution for £10 at death, varies from 3d. to 7d. according to the time of entrance between fifteen and fort-five years of age, while the burial club’s terms remain the same! Notwithstanding, the latter has not saved money. The club I note has not a reserve fund of one shilling per member! What can be the cause of this? The answer is obvious. The infant insurance is charged at the same rate as the best periods of life! For a payment of 2d. per month the sum of £2 15s. is assured! In fact, the subscriptions and benefits remain the same from the first to the forty-fifth years, notwithstanding the vast difference in the liability. The infant insurance subscription, therefore, is so much below the true value, that it consumes even more than the additional tax upon those who enter when above five or six years of age! Not only financial security, but common honesty, demands immediate attention to this portion of the subject.

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