Infanticide in Victorian Preston – a rebuttal

The Rev John Clay’s assertion that Preston’s working-class mothers were insuring the lives of their children with burial clubs and then murdering them wholesale to claim the benefit was firmly rebutted in an address to one of the town’s burial clubs. The address was reported on page four of the Preston Chronicle of 2 February 1856 (its author, Mr C. Hardwick, would be the town’s historian Charles Hardwick [1]):

Burial Clubs and Infanticide

On Thursday evening last, the annual supper of the members of the Preston Original Legal Friendly Burial Society was held at the Shelley’s Arms Inn. An excellent repast was served on the occasion, to which about sixty persons sat down. Mr. Councillor Carr presided, and Mr. Councillor H. Armstrong was vice.

After the reception, in a loyal and hearty manner, of the ordinary toasts, Mr. C. Hardwick proposed “Prosperity to the society whose anniversary they were celebrating,” in doing which he alluded to, the benefits which such institutions conferred on the members and on the community by inculcating providence and forethought, and by preserving the self-respect of the poor and their independence of parochial aid during seasons of affliction.

He combated, at some length the views which had been put forth by Mr. W. Brown, M.P., and by the Rev. J. Clay, to the effect that these clubs encouraged infanticide. He acknowledged the great obligations of the community to the last-named gentleman for his long and laborious exertions in his duties as a prison chaplain, and his contributions to the national stock of information on subjects with which his position enabled him to become acquainted; but he considered that, on this question, Mr. Clay’s well-meant labours showed an imperfect acquaintance with the subject on which he had written, and that he had consequently dealt unfairly towards the working people, who were the principal supporters of such institutions.

It had been assumed by Mr. Clay that, because the number of members in burial clubs were so very much more numerous than the members of sick societies, there was an indifference towards providing for support in sickness as compared with a desire to receive money on death. Now, this fallacy, he was surprised to find, had been taken up last week by the Rev. T. Davies, in a lecture which he had delivered. In contradiction to Mr. Davies, he would state that the number of assurances for sickness in Preston was very large indeed, be (Mr. Hardwick) being himself a member of a society in which there were above two thousand members, and there were many such societies in the town.

Heads of families entered themselves in benefit societies because their sickness entailed a positive pecuniary loss on their families; but who would dream of entering children in such, for their sickness brought no money loss, so how could they insure against it. Why, if they were entered, they would at once be told that they drugged them with cordial to get the weekly payment, as they now told them that parents murdered their children to get the burial allowance.

A single case of infanticide for burial fees no more proved that these clubs encouraged murder among the working classes, for the sake of getting the payment of £10, than the presumed poisonings at Rugeley proved that among the higher classes the insurances for £100 or £1,000 encouraged men generally to murder their nearest relations to obtain money secured on their lives.

Much has been said about the act of parliament which limited the amount to be paid on children, and rendered it illegal to have more than one assurance on the lives of infants. Why, these provisions were supported by the officers of burial clubs, and from this town a petition in favour of these clauses was sent up by the members and officers of that very club.

After some further eloquent observations eulogistic of the objects of such institutions, Mr. H. concluded by proposing “Prosperity to the society,” which was drunk with loud applause. The toast having been honoured, a number of healths were proposed, and being interspersed with various songs, the evening was spent most agreeably.

[1] Charles Hardwick, History of the Borough of Preston and Its Environs, in the County of Lancashire (Preston: Worthing, 1857).

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