[This document comes from Helena Wojtczak's English Social History: Women of Nineteenth-Century Hastings and St.Leonards. An Illustrated Historical Miscellany, which the author has graciously shared with readers of the Victorian Web. Click on the title to obtain the original site, which has additional information.]
An inquest was held at the Lion Inn, Hastings to enquire into the death of an illegitimate child, aged 9 weeks.
Mary Akehurst of Marine parade, the mother: "The child was not baptised, but was registered as Mary Jane Tester Akehurst. I put the child out to nurse with my brother's wife, residing at Wellington mews. Either on Wednesday or Thursday last (I forget which) I saw the child and nursed it. It appeared quite well. Yesterday I saw it again and it was then dead. I did not see any marks of violence about it."
David Gabb, surgeon: "I believe the child died from convulsions."
Sarah Akehurst: "Deceased was put under my care to nurse for my sister in law. It is nine weeks old and I have had it eight weeks. On Saturday the child was undressed and dressed for bed. Some food and the breast were given to it, and it was then put in its basket by the fire, with a shawl partly over it. As my own child was ill, I had a fire in the bed room. Before I went to bed I looked at deceased and thought it was asleep. In the morning I found the child dead. I took it out and laid it on the bed."The jury immediately returned a verdict of "Death from convulsions."
The report above reveals much about the acceptable behaviours and standards surrounding child-bearing and -rearing in working class Hastings in the 1850s. The jury came to its conclusion with almost indecent haste. Of course many children died in infancy, but perhaps juries even more readily swept an infant death under the carpet when the child was illegitimate. It was a social embarrassment and might well end up being kept by the parish.
Other points of interest are as follows: the child is referrred to as "it", indicating a certain coldness towards her; the child was being nursed at the breast by two different women; the child was given to Sarah at the age of just one week. Sarah had a fire in the bedroom because her child was ill, not because it was February and, presumably, freezing cold. Mary last saw her baby on Wednesday or Thursday (she was unsure which), and then not until Saturday. She lived just minutes from her brother's house, and yet no reason is proferred or requested for her failure to see her baby daily. That the authorities did not comment on these actions indicates that they were acceptable, if not commonplace.
Last modified 2000