John Clay’s ‘Burial Clubs and Infanticide’ letter

Below is a transcript of a letter written by the Rev John Clay, of Preston, on the subject of burial clubs and infanticide. [1] It is discussed here: ‘Child murder’ in Victorian Preston

The Rev John Clay

My Dear Sir,

The public prints have announced the very important presentment made by the Grand Jury at the recent Liverpool Assizes, through you, their Chairman, relative to Burial Societies. I beg to quote the impressive language of the document itself, by way of introduction to some statements and observations which I respectfully take permission to address to you, in the hope that by so doing I may have a better chance of attracting public consideration to the subject of them. “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.”

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.

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. A “leader” in “The Times” of the 20th September in that year roused public indignation and alarm yet more powerfully; but these feelings were much allayed by a letter from Mr. Tidd Pratt, which appeared in the same paper the next day, stating—”By the late Friendly Society Act, 9th and 10th Victoria, chap. 27, sect. 1, it is expressly provided, ‘that no person under the age of six shall be allowed to become a member of a Friendly Society for money payable on death, and that no insurance shall be effected on the life of any child under six years of age.’ ” The remedy thus held out by Mr. Pratt was, however—as it appeared to me—quite fallacious. Being desirous, therefore, of showing that there existed no real check or restraint whatever on the entry of children into “death lists,” and, at the same time, thinking it might be useful to bring the weight of facts to bear on the public mind, I addressed to “The Times” a letter, which appeared on the 18th of January, 1849, and in which I endeavoured to point out the inutility of the Act referred to, and the atrocity of the crimes which Burial Clubs were yet permitted to encourage. The facts adverted to in my letter serve to illustrate the working of Burial Clubs now, at the close of 1853, as fully as they did five years ago. During the interval, indeed, the fatal “lists” have furnished their usual quota of victims —the last of whom were the two boys, of 8 and 4 years old—whose miserable fate induced the Grand Jury, at Liverpool, to make the presentment already noticed.

Such being the case, I now take leave to submit to you the substance of the letter printed in “The Times.” After pointing out that the Act referred to by Mr. Pratt is prospective—i.e., that it only forbids infant insurance in Clubs which may be established after the passing of the Act,—I add that—Clubs already flourishing before the passing of it are still legally privileged to foster a spirit of gambling in children’s lives. At all events, the old Clubs do take in: their helpless victims without the slightest respect for the 9th and 10th Victoria. Some of them, indeed, are fortified in their contempt of the Act by counsel’s opinion on it. I have now before me the rules of a Burial Society, containing 1,500 members, established last May, and taking in infant lives as boldly and openly as if the recent Act of Victoria were already a dead letter.

More stringent measures, then, are demanded to rescue infants from the innumerable ” death lists” scattered throughout the kingdom.

Before entering on certain local details, let me recall to recollection some of the murders for “burial money” perpetrated since the publication of Mr. Chadwick’s admirable report on interment in towns. I say “some of the murders,” for, 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.

  1. A Liverpool paper of April, 1846, gives the details of an inquiry before” the coroner in a case of “Infanticide at Runcorn to obtain funeral money.” It appeared in evidence that James Pimlet, aged 10 months, died on the 6th of March; and that on the 21st of the same month died Richard Pimlet, aged four years and a half. On the 27th of the same month a third child was taken ill. The medical man’s suspicions were roused. The authorities caused the bodies of the two dead infants to be exhumed. It was proved that the mother had purchased arsenic before the children’s illness. Dr. Brett, Lecturer on Chymistry at the Liverpool School of Medicine, showed the presence of arsenic in the bodies, “in quantities more than sufficient to cause death.” The collector of the Liverpool Victoria Legal Burial Society proved that the three children were all enrolled members; that he had paid £1 5s. on the death of one child, and £5 on the death of the other. The steward of another Society proved the payment of £1 5s. and £1 15s. on the two deaths. Verdict, “Wilful murder” against the mother.
  2. At York assizes, in July, 1846, John Rodda was convicted of the wilful murder of his own child, aged one year. The evidence proved that the wretch poured a spoonful of sulphuric acid down his hapless infant’s throat. It was proved that he had said, “He did not care how soon the child died, for whenever it died he should have £2 10s., as it was in a ‘dead ‘list.’ He said he had another that would have the same “when it died, and two others that would have £5 a-piece when they died.” What a rich prospect the Clubs had, displayed to this monster!
  3. It was in July, 1847, that Mary Ann Milner was charged in three separate indictments with the wilful murder—by arsenic—of her mother-in-law, ‘her sister-in-law, and her niece; her father-in-law had also well nigh become her victim, and “is reduced to imbecility from the effects of the poison. “The only imaginable motive for the conduct of the prisoner, as suggested by the counsel for the prosecution, and as supported by the evidence, was “the obtaining moneys from a Burial, Society.”
  4. In July, 1848, Mary May took her trial for the murder of Spratty Watts by the favourite means—arsenic. This “horrible case will be still in public recollection. The woman had put her victim into a “death list,” which lured her to her crime by promising £9 or £10 on its perpetration. “The private confession of Mrs. May (I quote from The Times of September 21) afforded a clue to a system which it is feared is capable of most extensive proof, and will result in the conviction of a large number of women who have adopted the practice of poisoning their husbands and children for the purpose of obtaining the fees which are granted by what are in this part of the country termed ‘ death’ lists.’ “
  5. I must add to this imperfect, but too full, catalogue, the name of Ann Mather, against whom, in August, 1847, a coroner’s jury, at Warrington, returned a verdict of “Wilful murder.” Her husband’s name being in three separate “death lists,” the usual means—arsenic—were resorted to, and the desperate gamestress won £20!

I shall merely name the “Essex Poisonings” their horrible notoriety has not yet subsided. But let it be remembered that we have here only a portion of the positive murders resulting from the temptations offered by Burial Clubs. 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. My report on the sanitary condition of Preston, given in the “First report of the Health of Towns Commission, 1844,” furnishes startling evidence of the wide prevalence of this feeling. A collector of cottage rents, states, that “Almost all the children in the families where he collects are members of Burial Societies … The children of the poor, when sick, are greatly neglected; the poor seldom seek medical assistance for sick children, except when they are at the point of death.” Another collector states, “The poor people have often told me that they were unable to pay at that time; but when a certain member of the family—generally a child—died, they would be able to pay.” … “A lady states that a young woman whose services she required as wet nurse, having a child ill, she offered to send her own medical friend to attend it; the reply of the nurse was, ‘ Oh, never mind, ma’am, it’s in two Burial Clubs.’ ” It also appears, on the unimpeachable , authority ‘of a Burial Club official, that “hired nurses speculate on the lives of infants committed to their care, by entering them in Burial Clubs;” that “two young women proposed to enter a child into his Club, and to pay the weekly premium alternately. Upon inquiry as to the relation subsisting between the two young women and the child, the Club officer learned that the infant was placed at nurse with the mother of one of these young women.” Such examples—even if there were none of a still worse character—are enough to show the demoralizing tendencies of Burial Clubs. But further, to quote from the same report, “There is no restriction in any of the Societies as to the admission of illegitimate children. If the weekly penny or halfpenny  is paid by either father or mother, he or she is entitled, on the demise of the insured, to all the benefits which the Society promises.” 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; which, living, costs them 3s. or 4s. a week; but whose death, should it be in the “lists,” will profit to the amount of £5 to £20? What, indeed, can be the fate of such a child, when even a lawfully begotten one may have a Rodda for a father or a Milner for a mother? I am now speaking of the inevitable tendencies of Burial Clubs, even when their positive murderous results are put out of the question. The wife of a clergyman told me that, visiting a poor district when a child’s death had occurred, instead of hearing from the neighbours the language of sympathy for the bereaved parent, she was shocked by such grudging observations as—”Ah! it’s a fine thing for her (the mother); the child’s in two Clubs!” And so it is; an infant’s death cannot be as unwelcome as it should I be to a parent who pockets by the event ten or twenty times more than sufficient for the purposes of decent interment. It is self-evident that these Clubs create, at the very best, a base and unnatural counterpoise to the development and exercise of parental affection. The uncultivated minds of poor parents may, in some cases, be unaware of the bad influence acting upon them; but, in the majority of instances, the Clubs, instead of being—regarded—as I dare say was originally intended—as the means of a trifling convenience in the event of a severe affliction, are resorted to as promising great profit from a contingency, which is, therefore, to say the least, scarcely dreaded.

Burial Clubs are not entirely without defenders among people of a certain degree of intelligence, and who have no interest in maintaining them. It is said that they manifest creditable forethought on the part of those who, by supporting them, are enabled to inter a departed child with due propriety, instead of coming to the union for the means of burial. But the extent to which this particular kind of forethought operates would lead one to believe that every prudential feeling of a poor parent is absorbed in it. 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.” .Forethought! Why, the same forethought which has led to the establishment of these multitudinous death lists might be expected to originate other and less questionable associations. To provide, for instance, skilful medical aid in sickness; to ensure the receipt of a small sum to assist in putting a child forward when he attains a certain age. But no! Forethought is never exercised on the promotion of such useful ends. The only contingency connected with the child which the poor parent makes preparation for is—its death.

The deadly tendencies of Burial Clubs can never be accurately measured; but the extent of their direct and indirect influence for mischief and demoralization maybe imagined, if we ascertain the-numbers on the death list of a particular neighbourhood, and then ascertain the mortality of that class—infants—which chiefly swells those  numbers. Mr. Chadwick’s report spoke of a man insuring his children in 19 different Clubs in Manchester. How many more Clubs there are in that town, and what is the aggregate of their members, we know not. As regards another town, however, 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. I do not name the town, 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. Indeed, as to its general character, this very town need not, fear comparison with any other. Now, this place, with its-61,000 people of all classes and ages, 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; but it; will be necessary in making the comparison to deduct from the population all that portion of it which has nothing to do with the Clubs; viz., 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. 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, 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. Lest it should be imagined that such excessive addiction to Burial Clubs is only to be found in one place, I can refer to a “report” for 1846, of a single Club which then boasted 34,100 members—the entire population of the town to which it belongs having been, in 1841, little more than 36,000; and though it must be admitted, by way of mitigation, that the increase of population in this town between 1841 and 1846 has been very great, and that the Club admits members who live beyond the limits of the town, the fact of the 34,000 members betokens a most extraordinary fondness for adventure in death list transactions.

I would now bespeak attention to the infantile mortality in places where Burial Clubs flourish. In Dr. Lyon Playfair’s “Report on the Sanitary Condition of Large Towns in Lancashire,” page 53, it is stated, that among the poor of Manchester, out of 100 deaths, 60 to 65 are of infants under 5 years old. How many “Clubs” has Manchester? I cannot answer the question; but-one man, let us remember, put his children into 19 of them. Is it poverty that impels to such means of obtaining money? Is-that to be the apology for such a fearful sacrifice of infant existence? No for Dr. Lyon Playfair again shows, page 54, that children die in Manchester when wages are high, at a rate more than fourfold that at which they die among the poverty-stricken labourers of Dorsetshire. “But,” it may be said, “Manchester is an unhealthy place; the average age attained by all the gentry who die there is only 38 years (see Playfair, page 54) and, therefore, mortality among infants might be expected to be great.” Then, I will recur to the town of 61,000 inhabitants, 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.”

The “collector” of a Burial Club, containing upwards of 5,000 members, furnished me, in 1843, with an account of the ages, at death of 400 members of his Society—being the number removed by death during the three years and three months immediately preceding the date of his return. From the statement thus given by the Burial Club officer, it appeared that 62 per cent. of all the deaths referred to children under 5 years old. In a return supplied by the secretary of another Club, it was shown that the infant mortality was 64 per cent.! (Report on the Sanitary Condition of Preston (Health of Towns’ Commission, vol. I), page 187). Now, without attempting to enter into intricate calculations, in order to show the grounds of my opinion, I may justly conclude that there is some highly objectionable influence operating this result. The infant mortality of Preston, among the working class generally, as shown in the report referred to, 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 8 weeks old, and then require 16 weekly payments before anything would be payable on death,— the “Clubs” show an excess of infant death of 6 or 8 per cent over the rate of infant death among the entire class of the labouring population?

Considering these facts, can any dispassionate and disinterested person hesitate to pronounce on the tendencies of Burial Clubs? (If so, I must bring further proof of those tendencies. I have now before me communications from five medical gentlemen, resident in the town alluded to (four of them surgeons to the union, and the fifth the medical officer of an institution furnishing gratuitous medical aid to the poor), showing their attendance on poor children under five years old, as contrasted with their attendance on the poor above that age. I give the results of the statements of these gentlemen. They show that while the older patients for whom medical aid was sought constituted 87 per cent. of the entire number of applicants; the younger ones (infants under 5 years old) were only 13 per cent.! Poor little creatures! where 56 of them die, only 13 of them have the doctor’s help, though it may be had for asking! I extract the following from the communications alluded to:—

  1. “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.”
  2. “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.”
  3. “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.”
  4. “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.”

The above extracts are from letters written in 1846. Since then, the medical certificate necessary to the registration of death has been more stringently required, and it was hoped would induce better attention to sick children. How far that hope has been realized is shown in the following extract from a letter written by the present medical officer of the charitable institution adverted to, a gentleman of distinguished zeal and ability: —

“The return rather understates the mortality of infantile life; for, in several instances where very gross neglect has been apparent, and when, our aid has only been requested in extremis, I have declined to give certificates; and such cases do not appear in the list. The whole number of patients admitted during the period mentioned (the year 1847) was 3,052. Of these 341 were under five years of age, 2,711 above five years. It would thus appear that, although one half of all the deaths in the town consists of children under five years of age, the proportion of those who become patients of the only charitable medical institution in the place is only one-eighth of that above five years. Of the cases under five years one in six proved fatal: of those above five years, one in 19.25 … The difference between a mortality of one in six and one in 19.25 is too great to be accounted for on any other supposition than that of the existence of great neglect on the part of parents.”

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?”

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. Would it not, then, be worth the while of some of our Parliamentary economists to direct their energies to the saving of infant life? Whoever shall be able to devise measures by which Burial Societies can be deprived of their demoralizing and deadly 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.

But something more is required than the abolition of Burial Club temptations. The universal support given to such associations indicates a mental and moral condition which ought not to be found at all among a civilized and Christian people. The woman who replied to a kind offer of aid for her sick child, “Thank you; it’s in two Burial Clubs,” was perfectly unconscious of the deplorable character of the feeling which her words betrayed. Such unconscious yielding to the demon of covetousness is demoralizing thousands of our poor, though, on the other hand, thank Heaven! there are many humane and enlightened men among them who see the evil in its real aspect, and do their best to counteract it. They 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. But, in the meantime, while we are slowly taking steps to bring the patient to his right mind, his blind inclination to mischief must be effectually restrained. The sacrifice of the innocents must be stopped at once and for ever. If in this Christian land and time we do not allow our children to pass through the fire, in idolatry of Moloch, neither must we suffer them to enter Burial Clubs for love of Mammon.

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. I will, therefore, content myself with the mention of two: or three cases which stand prominently forward as being associated with localities terribly notorious for such deeds. In March, 1851, Sarah Chesham, a chief actor in the tragedy of “The Essex poisonings,” was convicted at Chelmsford of the murder of her husband. In 1847 this inhuman creature escaped the consequences of an indictment for the murder (by poison) of two of her own: children. In 1849 she was again indicted for murder by poison, and again escaped. It may be remembered that another of the Essex poisoners, Mary May, who was executed in 1848, confessed that she perpetrated her crime at the instigation of Chesham.

The two most recent events figuring in the criminal history of Burial Clubs are to be laid to the account of Stockport:- the scene of the first transactions of this kind brought clearly to light, and resulting in the committal of the guilty parties on charges of murder (See Mr. Chadwick’s report on “Interment in Towns,” p.65). The particulars of one of these events are too well known to you, as having given occasion to the presentment of the: Grand Jury at the late Liverpool Assizes; the other case was one in which a young mother – abetted by her mother – destroyed her infant by means of sulphuric acid!

Burial Club slaughters, therefore, so far as they have been revealed, seem to have begun and – up to this time – ended at the same place. I mention this fact not as a mere coincidence, but as confirming the opinion – claiming grave consideration in connexion with this subject – that ‘crimes of deadly character are propagated by the morbid – the almost insane – inclination, to imitate which is so often seen working in low and demoralized natures. The Essex poisonings owed their horrible prevalence, no doubt, to the same cause. With regard to them, a demoniacal mania seemed to have obtained possession of certain: minds which had learned nothing in a civilized age but its worse than barbarous depravities and corruptions.

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-intended 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 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. This may appear a hard saying; but that it is true is manifest by the undeniable facts which I have already submitted to your judgment: viz., the 64 per cent. of infant deaths among Burial Club members against 36 per cent. of deaths among all the older members: the seeking of medical aid for only one infant where the same aid is demanded for eight or nine older patients! I am willing to believe that this culpable indifference to the preservation of infant life may exist in parents’ minds without their being conscious of it; and that there may be a vague and unexamined impression that “it has pleased Providence to take the child,” when the truth is that the child has been lost by the parents’ wilful inattention to its remediable ailments.

It cannot be denied, then, that of all the obstacles to the cultivation, among the working classes, of the best affections of our nature – of domestic love and hopes – of that most endearing of all ties – the one which binds a. mother to her offspring – the most fatal and the most widely spread are the obstacles created by Burial Clubs.

How gratifying it would be were institutions to become popular among the poor, by means of which a parent entering a child at its birth, and paying a weekly penny, would become entitled to £8 or £10 on the child’s attaining 18 or 14 years of age – when such a sum would procure, in many ways, advantages for the child unattainable without such a pecuniary resource. I am not aware that a single institution of this kind is in being; and there is too much reason to fear that, if such a one were proposed, it would have no, encouragement while associations of a diametrically opposite tendency and character are allowed to flourish.

And there are many other evils springing from Burial Clubs besides those adverted to. Even where indifference to life, or purposed neglect of it, cannot be charged, frauds on the Club funds are of very frequent occurrence. The eagerness of the Club officer to enrol new members, (for each of whom he receives a fee) and the temptation to take unfair advantage of this eagerness by the persons applied to, lead to practices, on both sides, betraying an entire absence of honest intention. I will venture to occupy your attention a little longer by adducing an example, which illustrates what I have just stated, and, at the same time, shows the enormous rate at which the spirit of gambling in human life is increasing. The same newspaper which gave, in one column, the earnest and emphatic terms of your presentment to Mr. Baron Alderson, related, in another, the particulars of a trial in the Blackburn County Court, which disclosed the following facts:- The wife of an operative, prevailed upon by repeated importunities, entered on the books of a great Burial Society in London, her four children’s names, her own, and her husband’s all without his knowledge. This Society, as alleged, contains 80,000 members! “For a penny a week she would be entitled, for a child above 9 years of age, to nearly £13!” and the money would be “payable” immediately after the receipt of the first weekly penny! Here was too great an inducement for a mother who had a son in such a weak state of health (though that circumstance was concealed) as promised the speedy possession of the alluring thirteen pounds. The boy was entered on the 12th of July, and on the 5th of September, the day after his death, the amount insured was demanded and refused. Hence the action in the County Court, in deciding which the Judge found it difficult to reach the truth, and to administer justice between parties who had manifested an equal disregard of proper principle, – deception having been resorted to on one side, and forgery on the other.

This example of Burial Club transactions is one of less repulsive features than many others in which life is risked against money. How long are such speculations to be permitted? Betting-houses were put down with a firm hand, because the spirit and passions which they evoked – of gambling, fraud, and profligacy – had become an alarming and dangerous evil; because – a thing yet more intolerable – thoughtless young clerks and misguided shop-boys were tempted to stake money which was not their own,. It may well be asked, then, why Burial Clubs are permitted, when the more openly avowed Betting-office has been put down? On what grounds does the law restrain one reckless gambler, lest he should speculate with another person’s money, while it declines to interfere with a yet more desperate one, though he may stake another person’s life on his game?

But – it may be asked – are the dreadful abuses of Burial Clubs such as to preclude any remedy short of that which would sternly prohibit the entering of infants into their fatal lists? I fear so. Lord Shaftesbury, whose energetic and watchful benevolence has been directed to this subject, suggests “the enactment of a law to provide that, in any case, the office of burying the corpse be discharged by the Burial Society itself, and that not one farthing be paid to the parents or persons having custody of the children, or to the relatives or friends of any members of the club.” (Vide letter in the Times, December 13th.) This remedy might be effectual – if acted upon – and would, perhaps, be in accordance with the object originally contemplated at the first establishment of these societies. 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, and which would go far to prove that, in most cases, the real motives for the entrance on a “list” were such as have been so generally imputed. When I was engaged, ten years ago, on enquiries into this subject, the “collector” to a Burial Club admitted to me, in answer to a suggestion made to him, “that a great improvement would be effected, if, instead of money being paid at the death of a member, the funeral were undertaken by the society, and performed in a solemn and appropriate manner; but, nevertheless, to effect this, it would be necessary that all the Burial Societies should adopt the plan. Were only one or two to act upon it, insurances would soon be withdrawn from them, and transferred to those societies in which the old system of money payments was continued.” (First Report of the Health of Towns Commission, page 187, note).

I will offer to you, my dear sir, no apology for thus publicly addressing you on the momentous subject, which I am aware I have but imperfectly handled; for the part you have so recently taken at the Liverpool Assizes assures me of your special interest in it. And even had you been passive on that occasion, I should still have relied upon obtaining a hearing, in any matter which relates to the welfare of the industrial classes, from one who, in his legislative character, and by his wisely directed munificence, has proved his earnest desire to elevate the thoughts and habits of the population of my native town.

In conclusion, I would venture to urge that the time is come when the legislature should direct its attention to measures which shall remove the many existing temptations to immorality and crime. The law is prompt and decisive when a criminal is to be punished: it is slow, and apparently unwilling to restrain the action of those numerous and widely spread influences which excite ignorant natures to criminal conduct. Yet it would suit better with the character of a Christian State, and serve better to its real advancement, to abolish every “death list” in the land, rather than, by allowing them, to have to hang such wretches as Rodda and Chesham.

I am, my dear sir, your very faithful servant,


William Brown, Esq., M.P., &c., &c., &c.

[1] John Clay, Burial Clubs and Infanticide in England: A Letter to William Brown, Esq., M.P. for South Lancashire (Preston: Dobson, 1854).

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