|The North Devon Journal|
The death of an illegitimate child in Victorian England often led to an inquest. This was a reflection of how births of out wedlock were viewed, and the belief that unwed mothers were not capable of properly caring for their children.
Once a death had been reported to the coroner, he would summon a jury, and investigate how the child died by interviewing the mother, the attending doctor, and any witnesses, as well as viewing the child's body. In rural areas these inquests were often held in public houses. Not surprisingly the jurors were often familiar with the situation of the child's mother.
Consider this article on the inquest that was held when three year old Eliza Pethebridge, the illegitimate daughter of Maria Pethebridge, died of the measles.
North Devon Journal, Thursday, November 28, 1878Maria Pethebridge was baptised at Yarnscombe on 1 Oct 1837. She was the youngest daughter of Isaac Pethebridge (1782-1853) and Ann Pett (1792-1862). Maria's older brother, Emanuel, was baptised at Yarnscombe on 13 May 1827. Maria had been living with her brother in Yarnscombe since the death of their mother, and had borne at least three illegitimate children.
DEATH OF AN ILLEGITIMATE CHILD.—NEGLECT OF THE MOTHER AND HORRIBLE WICKEDNESS.—An inquest was held at the Hunter's Inn, in this parish, on Wednesday (yesterday), before John Henry Toller, Esq., on of the coroners for the county, and a respectable jury, on view of the body of Eliza Pethebridge, aged three years and ten months, daughter of Maria Pethebridge, single woman, who lives in the house of her brother, Emanuel Pethebridge, labourer.—The first witness was Elizabeth Ballment, wife of the county policeman stationed in the village, who deposed that she knew the deceased very well, who was a healthy and well-nourished child, and did not appear to want for anything. On the evening of Friday last the child's mother came to her and told her the child was ill, and asked her to call and see her, which she did about five o'clock the same evening, and found the deceased in the arms of the mother's brother, Emanuel Pethebridge, who was nursing her by the fire. The child was dressed, but appeared very ill, and witness persuaded the mother to send for the doctor. She did not remember whether Emanuel Pethebridge made any reply, but the mother said she did not know how she would get the doctor, as she had no one to send for him. Witness saw that the child had the measles, and thought they were "going back." Had been in the habit of seeing the child daily, but not since she had had the measles, and had never heard that the mother ill-treated her in any way.—Dr. John Day Jones, physician and surgeon, of Torrington, who is the parish doctor of Yarnscombe, deposed that about half-past eight o'clock on the morning of last Saturday, the 23rd, Emanuel Pethebridge came to his house with an order from Mr. Thorne, the overseer, to give attendance to the children of Maria Pethebridge, sick with measles. He asked the man how long the children had been ill, and why he had not been sent for before; and he replied that they had been ill for a week, but the mother did not think it necessary to have the doctor. He went as soon as he could, and arrived at Yarnscombe between nine and ten o'clock. When he came to the house he found the child was dead. He saw on the body a few faint marks which resembled measles. Asked the mother why she had not sent for him earlier as he was the parish doctor, and she answered that "she knew nothing about the parish doctor," and that it was a long way to send. He told her is was a case of great neglect, and that he should not give a certificate to bury the corpse. Death had resulted from inflammation arising from partially suppressed measles. The child was well nourished, and appear to have been properly taken care of. Of course he could not say the child would have lived if he had been called in earlier, but she would have had a great chance of living.—The mother, Maria Pethebridge gave evidence that the deceased was her base child. She was taken ill on Saturday the 16th, but witness thought that she was sickening for the measles, and that a doctor was not necessary. Her neighbours told her that other children in the village had recovered from measles without the doctor, and they did not see why hers should not. The child went on from day to day, sometimes better and sometimes worse, until Friday evening, when she seemed to get worse, and witness went to the first witness (Mrs. Ballment) and asked her to come and see her, which she did. Mrs. Ballment said the child was very ill, when the witness rose up and said she would go for a doctor, but Mrs. Ballment said she would leave it until the morning. The child seemed afterwards to get a little better, but at about four o'clock next morning she became much worse, and at witness's request her brother, Emanuel Pethebridge, got up at five o'clock and went for the doctor, but at nine o'clock, before the doctor arrived, the child died.—Having heard the evidence, the jury returned a verdict that deceased had died from measles, and that the mother was neglectful in not having medical assistance earlier.—In announcing the verdict to her, the Coroner severely rebuked her for her neglect of her child; and said also that, although it was not within his province officially, he considered it a duty he owed to the public to censure her for living in the disreputable way she was known to be.—The only reply of the woman was that she did not care what people said of her.—The allusion made in the latter remark of the coroner was to the horrible fact that the woman and her brother are, and for many years have been, living together as man and wife, and that several children, some dead and some living, have been born of this incestuous intercourse!
There appears to have been considerable friction between Maria and her neighbours. In 1868, William Cooke (no relation), had been charged with assaulting Emanuel Pethebridge. Emanuel had intervened when Maria was being "served rather roughly" by Cooke and members of his family. Ten years later another neighbour, Betsy Waldron, had been charged with assaulting Maria. The incident began with an exchange of "rough and abusive language" initiated by Waldron, and ended with Maria receiving a black eye.
It is interesting to note that incest was not a criminal offence England until 1908.
Emanuel died in 1880. Maria was still living in Yarnscombe with her eleven-year-old daughter Elizabeth in 1881. In 1884 Maria married Robert Slooman, a widower from the neighbouring parish of Atherington, and perhaps at last found a measure of respectability. She died in 1925.