I did a great webinar in the week organised by the British Newspaper Archive, on how to get the best from the BNA. I tried out some of the tips on searches of my home village (Ufford, nr Woodbridge, Suffolk) and found some great stories and several that are very sad and affecting. Those Victorians certainly reveled in tales of death and misfortune, reporting incidents with an extraordinary level of detail that we might find unnecessarily melodramatic today. Nevertheless, they provide a fantastic insight into the lives and deaths of everyday people in the past.
Here are some stories that particularly captured my attention:
Mr Charles Stephenson of Willow Farm, aged 72, died of a cardiac incident while driving his horse and cart between Ufford and Melton Old Church in 1886. The Framlingham Weekly News reported (Saturday 27 November, p. 1) that:
Mr. A. W. Skoulding, grocer, &c., Melton, said he had known the deceased for many years. He called at the witness’s place of Friday, on his way to Woodbridge, about two o’clock. He was then apparently in good health and spirits, and made no complaint of feeling ill. He left with a parcel of butter, according to his weekly custom and drove on. About a quarter-past seven in the evening he called again and took some groceries, on his return home. He was sitting leaning a little to one side. Deceased was partially paralysed on one side, which might account for his position.
The man who found poor Mr Stephenson, Isaac Good, described the scene of the incident:
About half-past-seven or a quarter-to-eight his mother told him she heard someone call out “Whoa,” and thought she heard a horse plunge into the hedge. Witness went to the spot from whence the sound came, and saw the horse’s head on the edge of the road about 70 to 80 yards from the stile learning across a corner field near Melton old church. The cart was in the ditch, and the horse’s body was hanging on the bank. The deceased was sitting on the brow of the ditch, with his legs straight out. The card was not resting on him, nor had it capsized. He was quite dead when witness got there.
The doctor who made an examination of the body, Dr. A. A. Henley:
… said he had made an external examination of the body and the only marks were a scratch on the cheek with a bramble thorn, and slight bruises just about the right ear, and on the ear. There was nothing to account for death. In his opinion death resulted from failure of the heart’s action from shock to the system, occasioned by the fall. He had attended deceased for some time for a bad form of heart disease.
Another witness, Mr. Edward Garner, landlord of the Lion Hotel [I’m assuming this is the Red Lion in Woodbridge and not the White Lion in Ufford]:
… deposed that deceased had two half-pints of gin and beer and a large plate of bread and butter for his tea. Deceased left directly after tea. He was perfectly sober.
Gin and beer – I suspect he would be considered over the limit today! And after all that butter I’m not surprised he had a heart condition, poor man.
Here’s a very sad story as reported in the Bury and Norwich Post in 1865 (Tuesday 3 January, p. 8):
DEATH FROM STARVATION ON CHRISTMAS-EVE. — An inquest was held in this parish on Monday last … on the body of a man, name unknown, aged about 50 years.
Charles Ward, a labourer, described the scene as he discovered the deceased on the afternoon of Christmas Eve:
… [I] saw an old hat lying by the side of [straw] stack. I moved some straw and under it saw the deceased lying, quite stiff and dead. The straw was about five or six inches overhead, and he had nothing beyond rags on … There was a sharp wind frost on Friday night.
A Woodbridge surgeon, Mr. Richard Jones, who examined the body, is reported to have said:
… there are no marks of violence on it. His left arm and hand are frozen half-way up to the elbow; both heels are frozen slightly [frost-bite?]. His mouth was full of straw; a portion of it partly masticated. His body was very much collapsed, clearly showing his stomach and bowels must be nearly empty. I believe he died from the effects of cold acting on a system badly nourished.
The inquest jury returned a verdict of:
“Death from want and the inclemency of the weather.
The detail about the ‘partly masticated’ straw is heart-breaking.
What is particularly wonderful about these accounts is that knowing the village like the back of my hand, I can really picture the scene – in my mind’s eye I can see the locations where many of these events took place. And more than that, occasionally a name pops up which resonates today. For example, the reference to the Skoulding the Grocer in the first story: until relatively recently Skouldings was still the name of the village shop and newsagents in Melton – the next village on from Ufford (it’s now a McColl’s convenience store).
More to come in my next post.