Over the past 20 years or so I have been involved in researching my own family tree as well as leading many one-off and malti-session courses on family history research. A recent conversation with one of my past ‘customers’ has prompted me to post this very British story to the wider world:-
Unfortunately, most of our ancestors were law-abiding – or were never caught – and therefore we know very little about their day to day life and death. However, details of the lives – and deaths – of our less savoury or unlucky ancestors can be found in Coroner’s Court records. Accidents will happen to almost anybody and the records of the inquests often go into very substantial detail about the circumstances which led up to a death.
The post of Coroner was first established in 1194 to keep a formal eye on, and record of, things that related to the King and his justices. These duties included the investigation of sudden deaths by accident, violence or in prison. The Coroner had to view the body before it was buried – and make decisions about the cause of death. He also had the responsibility of arresting any persons indicted, recording the value of their property, taking their goods into custody, locating witnesses and relatives to appear at the proceeding and to report on jurors who failed to attend the inquest. By the time of Queen Elizabeth I, these duties were reduced to the holding of inquests and proclaiming outlaws – naming people who had failed on a number of occasions to attend court.
Abstracts of the Coroners’ Inquests for Sussex 1558-1603 provided details of some 580 inquests of which 53 were murder, 53 manslaughter, 19 accidental homicide and 12 self-defence. There were also 121 suicides, 202 accidental and 109 natural deaths.
The cases of suicide show that double the number of men killed themselves in comparison to the number of women who ended their life in that way. However – the men limited them-selves to hanging, drowning or cutting their throats, where as women tended to prefer poisoned themselves or throwing themselves off things. The non-natural deaths range from the purely accidental, through brawls and hot temper to cold-blooded calculation. One case, for instance, tells us that Richard Gye and Peter Harding got into a quarrel in the house of Elizabeth Belgrave. Gye beat Harding with a staff; Harding tried to fend him off from behind a table and eventually stabbed Gye in self-defence with a dagger “worth 12 pence”!
Another case involved William Harman who had ‘lived in adultery’ (ie had an affair) for a long time with Alice Thomas. She, however, was still living with her husband Robert, whose death they had often plotted. It would appear, though, that the actual murder came about almost by accident. Harman came to Alice’s house and asked her to make a poultice for his ulcers. They went upstairs and he took his clothes off so that she could put the poultice on. When Robert came home he locked William in the room. He then struck Alice on the jaw as she went to break the door down with an axe to let her lover out. William struck Robert with his fist, then went for him with a scythe and threw him down the stairs. Robert recovered and got outside but William went after him with a mallet and beat him “giving him several wounds which broke his scalp so that his brains flowed out and stuck to the walls of the entrance of the house”. William was sentenced to death. However, Alice was pregnant at the time. She gave birth in due time and was brought to court. There had obviously been a delay because she pleaded pregnancy again. However – the jury established that this was not so and she, too, was sentenced to death.
The Coroner’s records often include words and phrases which seem to have been invented to cover the classic case of “an Act of God under very suspicious circumstances”. For instance: John Cade of was indicted at the assizes for feloniously killing Joan Gower. He pleaded not guilty and was acquitted as the Coroner decided that Joan was killed by “John Death”. The Coroner also decided that a “John at Death” was responsible for the death of a baby who was clearly murdered by Thomas Cranley. Roger Transckmer killed William Smyth with a “pitchfork staff” but was acquitted, Smyth being said to have been killed by “John in the Wynd.”
Apart from the names of the dead, Coroner’s records are full of references to other people – every hearing begins with the names of a dozen or more jurors. In addition there are the names of parents, husbands and wives, masters and mistresses, the occupiers of the houses in which the events occurred. But we don’t have to rely on Coroner’s records alone.Newspapers can give us the ‘taster’ which can then point us to the ‘main course’ – the Coroner’s inquest and decision.
On 17 August 1896 Mrs Bridget Driscoll became the first motoring fatality, when she was run over by Arthur Edsell who was driving at 4mph when he hit Mrs Driscoll, fracturing her skull. The reports name Bridget’s daughter, her friend, witnesses and the people in the car. However, there were conflicting reports about the speed and manner of Mr Edsall’s driving and the Coroner’s jury returned an accidental death verdict.
Isaac Bradley, the Birmingham City Coroner, held an inquest in February 1914, on the death of Ernest Charles Bottle, a dentist from Bournemouth, who was killed in a motor collision. That report names venue, location of the accident, the jurors, some 15 or more people involved in or witnessing the event – each with their address and where they were at the time.
Inquests had to be held promptly following a death so Christmas Day inquests were not unusual. Usually they were held in a local pub or Inn as they were often the only places where the body and people could fit in. But sometimes there were delays. In one instance, for instance, a body was kept in the church belfry. Perhaps there was good reason for this though as the body had been disinterred for a second inquest and would probably not been popular laying in pub!. Another inquest provides a gruesome description of a man found dead in a river who was thought to have drowned several weeks before. It states that his body was decomposing and “his flesh came off him as his body was lifted”.
Inquests involved costs of course. A typical one showed the Innkeeper being paid 10 shillings for the use of his room while the constable received six shillings for summoning the jury plus two shillings & six pence for attending the inquest. He also received another 2 shillings & 6 pence for mileage! Two doctors were called and were paid two guineas each for carrying out the post mortem and 2 shillings & 6 pence each for being witnesses. Three other witnesses were paid one shilling each. Each juryman was paid 1/- for each day he was in attendance. Let’s say around £6 in total – a lot of money in 1600.
Coroners and their juries also had the power to make recommendations following an inquest. In 1872 for instance, following an inquest on the death of Mary Ann Smith who had been killed as a result of an accident with a steam thrashing machine, the matter was referred to the Secretary of State for the Home Department on the jury’s recommendation that there should be some legislative restrictions set upon the employment of females working on thrashing machines.
What becomes apparent when looking at Coroner’s Records is their close links with Newspapers. It could be said that one paints the picture while the other presents us with the facts!
Want to take this subject a bit further? Jeremy Gibson & Colin Rogers’ ‘Coroners’ Records in England & Wales’, published in 2009, ISBN: 9781906280130 it aims to itemise all extant coroner’s records in England and Wales which are now in public repositories and is a ‘must have’ on the subject.
My notes above have used details from ‘Abstracts of the Coroners’ Inquests for Sussex 1558-1603′; edited by R F Hunnisett, 1996; ISBN 1 873162. There is a subsequent volume covering the years 1603-1688 (ISBN 1 873162 537)