Guest Blogger: Jane Smith on Coroner’s Inquest Reports

I’m delighted to announce that my good friend Jane Smith  – who regular readers of this blog will know though her excellent website  – has kindly agreed to be an occasional Guest Blogger on this site.

Jane writes knowledgeably and wittily on a variety of topics and says of herself I am an Autolycus, going through life picking up those things which others find mundane or simply can’t be bothered to get excited about. I am interested in everything and everybody, particularly the life of the ordinary man or woman. 

Here are Jane’s thoughts on her research into Coroner’s Inquest reports:

Coroner’s Inquest Reports

I have been working on Wolverhampton Inquest Reports of the nineteenth for about four months and they are fascinating. The trouble is because they are overlooked most of them have not been indexed properly and while you may not have had a relative whose sudden death prompted an inquiry, you may well have had a relative who was a witness. Even if neither is the case, the reports contain a great deal of information. Each sudden death reveals a little of what life was like at the time.  As I say  I have been studying the nineteenth century but Coroner’s Inquest reports go back much further than this. Examples survive from the fourteenth century, in Latin. After 1733 the reports, thankfully are in English.

Take as an example, Mrs Mary Ann Morton a widow who arrived in Wolverhampton from America. The year is 1887. All the journey she had been ill with bronchitis and gastro enteritis. She arrives at her destination in Steelhouse Lane assuming that she will meet her friend/relative, John Fieldhouse, who she believes still lives there. She speaks to one resident who has a grocer’s shop, Jane Shipley, who knows John Fieldhouse but says that the man hasn’t lived in the street for several years.

‘What am I to do’ says Mrs Morton, ‘I have no money for lodgings.’

‘You are welcome to stay here’  says Jane Shipley.

And that is exactly what happened, but Mrs Morton’s stay was short-lived, as she died the next day. The verdict was that she died of natural causes, but suddenly one has other questions. What was Mrs Morton doing coming back to her (I assume) home town when she had no money? What was her relationship with John Fieldhouse and what was the purpose of her visit?  We could have picked up the basic information from the death registration but the inquest report brings the situation to life.

Or consider this accident case.

Elizabeth Willmore, aged 17, Piper’s Meadow, Bilston. Inquest at Newmarket Inn 1st Dec 1884.
At first the mother gives the surname Willmott and then she has to make a statement saying that she did this because she was very distressed. As a result  of this mistake, the mother cannot get the Club money for the deceased.
Ann Wilmore said the deceased worked at Scott and Harris’s in Bilston. She worked (I think) in the stores. She said she was carrying some spirit and she spilt some on her clothes and set herself on fire.
Mary  Jones worked at the same place and considers that Elizabeth Willmore fell over some cart shafts. The ostler came and put the fire out.
John Pritchard was  the ostler and saw her carrying  white spirit.  It was her job to take it to the shop.

Here we have another lot of questions – What was the nature of the company, Scott and Harris, what was the Club money which the mother was due and why wasn’t she allowed it, how was she carrying the spirit and did it spontaneously combust? We get the impression of a workplace which was like a farm building with the cart shafts lying around.

The reason I can’t be certain of the detail is because the writing is so poor. Without exaggeration it is like this // //// // /. /. ////////. It is so infuriating – if only one could read the writing but  W. H. Phillips, the Coroner, has the worst writing in the world. The reason may have been because he had not only to listen to the statements but to write  down what was said at the same time.

I am a convert to Coroner’s Inquest Reports as a source of information. Don’t be fobbed off with the index, you need to read the full statements, see the names of jurors (each case had a jury) and the signatures of the witnesses, in order to get a real feel of things. You will see the usual ding-dongs which went on, the stroppy letters sent to the coroner as to why a certain witness says he will not attend. Usually this was because the man was  a factory owner/ manager and the deceased was a child. You will get an impression of the working conditions and home life of people (how often was the fire in the grate noted as being small?), what people did to enjoy themselves and how  they travelled around. You just never know what you are going to find, workhouse papers, prescriptions and a cheque being recent finds. Could the latter have been to bribe someone? Certainly the coroner writes that on no account is the cheque to be cashed.  If you can’t get the Report then the newspaper will have to do, second best but better than nothing.


About kate

Experienced genealogist but virgin blogger...
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