Concealing the Birth and Death of a Child - 1883
A baby in a tin box and an elopement
Concealing the Birth and Death of a Child – 1883
The photograph shows my great-great grandmother Elizabeth Crossley, taken in about 1891/92. She was a mysterious lady, born in 1851 at Hollow Meadows, later living with her family at Spink House Stocksbridge and the Coach House, Hunshelf. She managed to evade every census from 1881 to 1921 and died in 1929. After avoiding being noticed for decades, she manages to appear on the electoral register for several years after her death.
Elizabeth had four illegitimate children, none of whom she brought up herself. She had a younger sister called Martha Louisa, born in 1854, who worked as a domestic servant; in 1871 for the Crawshaws at Coumes, Oughtibridge, and in 1881 for a cotton merchant in Rusholme, Lancashire. In mid-April, she came home to be a witness at her brother’s wedding at Bolsterstone church. Some time after Christmas 1882 and early in 1883, she was employed as a servant to a solicitor called Edmund Knowles Binns and his wife Ada Caroline, who lived at Sharrow, in Sheffield. Edmund was also a member of the Sheffield Town Council and Sheffield Board of Guardians.
Louisa, as she was known, gave birth to a premature baby girl (about 8 months) who died soon after birth. She might have already been pregnant when she went to work for the Knowles Binns. The case was referred to the Coroner, who held the inquest at the Rising Sun Inn at Hunshelf. Her sister Elizabeth gave evidence, as did the doctor who attended Louisa.
For a long time, I thought that Elizabeth had just disappeared completely, leaving her parents to bring up her children, but the Coroner reported that Elizabeth's address was The Coach House, Hunshelf (her parents’ home) and that she was a domestic servant.
Elizabeth had arranged to take her sister’s place at the Binns’ household. When Elizabeth gave evidence, she said: “I arrived there last Thursday forenoon and found her [Louisa] out riding in the carriage with Mrs. Binns. When she came in she got dinner ready and I did not notice her particularly. All she told me was that her leg hurt her. She went to the theatre at night. She slept with Mrs. Binns. Last Friday morning she came downstairs while I was preparing breakfast. She sat in a chair and said she was very poorly.” She did not appear to have known that her sister was pregnant, although there must have been some reason for her arranging to take her place.
The day after Elizabeth’s arrival at the house, Mrs Binns went out in a cab to fetch the doctor to look at Louisa. He found her fully dressed and lying on the bed. He told her that she was getting fat, but she said it was because her face was swollen. He said she was hot, feverish and shivery and thought she had a cold, which he prescribed for. Later that evening, unbeknown to anyone, she gave birth.
Elizabeth continued: “About dinner time she went upstairs and laid in bed with her clothes on. She drank some tea and also some wine. I went to her between 5 and 6 o’clock and again between 8 and 9 o’clock. On the last time I found that she was undressed and that her clothes were on the floor and the body of deceased on the clothes.” Its head was covered with a cloth.
Elizabeth, who had already had three children of her own, had taken charge. She destroyed all traces of the birth, wrapped the child in a petticoat, and placed it in a tin box. She told the Coroner that “the afterbirth was there also but separated from the body. I wrapt the body in a petticoat and placed it in the tin box now produced. I did nothing more.” She said that Louisa was 29 years old and “had never had to do with babies.” Louisa had sobbed, “oh Lizzie, I don't know what I am to do. Where shall I go? I must go home.”
The doctor called to see Louisa again on Saturday morning, and she told him that she felt better. She refused point blank to let him examine her. He realised there was something wrong, and eventually she admitted to being “6 months pregnant,” begging him not to tell the “missus.” She told him she was going home on Monday. The doctor did not know that she had already given birth, because she refused to be touched, and had covered herself up. He informed Mrs. Binns and they went to see her husband, but when they returned Louisa had left the house.
Elizabeth: “Louisa left the house last Saturday morning about noon in consequence of Mrs. Binns having gone with Dr. Spowart to see Mr. Binns. Louisa took the box with her. Mr. Binns resides at no. 3 Montgomery Road, Sharrow, Sheffield. My mother came there last Saturday afternoon and I told her what I knew about deceased. I burnt the afterbirth. Deceased was quite dead and cold when I first saw the body. The body was unwashed. Louisa is unmarried. She went to Sheffield 3 or 4 weeks after Christmas last.”
Louisa headed home to the Coach House at Hunshelf, accompanied by the dead baby in its tin. Her mother Mary Crossley took the child out of the box and applied to the doctor for a death certificate so that they could bury the child. He refused to give one, and the police were informed.
The doctor called on Louisa at the Coach House before the inquest, he reported that he found her in bed “in such a state as she was likely to be in after being confined.” She then confessed to what had happened on Friday, telling him that she had felt ill and gone to the bathroom. She had been “insensible” for about an hour and gave birth to the child. "She was sure she never did anything to it.”
The doctor, Dr. Spowart, said the child had been born alive and had lived for between fifteen minutes and an hour. It was “poorly nourished” and weighed about 4lbs. There were no signs that an abortion had been procured (which would have been a crime), and the child’s body showed no sign of violence. The umbilical cord had been cut and tied in the “normal way.” There was some discussion as to whether the child’s death was the result of being suffocated in the bed clothes through inattention, or whether death could be brought about without there being any visible marks (it could be). Louisa was thought to have been in her 8th month of pregnancy. Cause of death was found to be suffocation or asphyxia, and that the child died from want of proper assistance at the time of birth.
Concealing a birth and a death was an offence, although in this case, no charges were brought against either Louisa or Elizabeth. Women were not always so lucky. Five years previously, in 1878, the Kendal Mercury (20th July 1878) reported on the concealment of a birth and death. A child died, the cause of death being a haemorrhage from the umbilical cord, the mother having given birth without medical help. She was bailed and appeared in court the following January, when she was sentenced to two month’s imprisonment with hard labour. In her case, there was some doubt about whether the child had been alive when it was born. The charge could have been one of wilful murder or manslaughter, but there was insufficient evidence (Kendal Mercury 18th January 1879).
Elizabeth went on to have one more child, my great-grandfather Thomas Marsh Crossley. He was born in 1886 and brought up by the Marsh family of Haywood Park. I have been unable to find out what happened to Louisa, but she possibly died in 1887. This sad example shows how important it is to find all the records we can when researching; the Coroner’s notebooks, available on Ancestry, contain information that does not occur anywhere else. Without this, I would never know that Elizabeth was known as Lizzy, and that she probably kept in closer contact with her family than I had previously thought. Having her own words recorded as she spoke them was also a bonus.
… And a case of Elopement …
The year before Louisa’s child was born, Mr Binns had responded to an advert in the Matrimonial News placed by a widow, Ada Caroline Milne of Tunbridge Wells. She had a fortune of £18,000. However, her brother, F. Liebert, took great steps to stop the marriage. When Mr. Binns went to meet the lady at her home, her brother gave him a thrashing and turned him out of the house, repeating the beating at the railway station. He said she was not responsible for her actions, having been confined to an asylum at some point.
Ada went to stay at a convent in Folkestone and then left there suddenly, travelling to Sheffield to stay in the Victoria Station Hotel, where she gave a false name. Mr Binns proposed a Catholic wedding followed by an Anglican wedding, his bride being Catholic. However, the canon had been in communication with her relatives, and refused to marry them, and a dispensation to marry was withdrawn. Mr. Binns then went to the vicar to procure a marriage licence, producing three medical certificates all pronouncing her sane. Her brother dashed to Sheffield and hired men and a carriage to forcibly prevent the marriage, taking her away until an injunction could be obtained restraining the marriage on the grounds of her not being of sound mind. Mr Binns had, however, anticipated this, and “a score of constables,” including an Inspector, were present on the day. The brother seized his sister and was then restrained by the constables.
Ada’s father had died, and she arrived at the church on the arm of a Dr. Spowart – undoubtedly the same doctor that would later attend to Louisa. They entered the church and the ceremony proceeded until the words, “if any man can show any just cause why they may not lawfully be joined together let him now speak or else hereafter forever hold his peace,” when Mr. Liebert stepped forward to say that his sister was of unsound mind, and that if time were granted, he could prove the truth of his assertion. However, the ceremony proceeded at the insistence of the bride and groom, and Mr. Liebert “wept bitterly,” his head resting on one of the pews. The story was widely reported, and it even made the New York Times.
Edmund Knowles Binns was born in Sheffield in 1846. Ada Caroline Liebert was born c1838 the daughter of Alexander. In 1851 they were living at Swinton [Hall], Worsley, Barton on Irwell (Lancashire) and had 8 servants. In 1861 Ada was lodging with an uncle, Thomas Cordwell, and his family at Upper Hyde Park Gardens, Paddington, Kensington. He was an East India Merchant and obviously prosperous; there were 9 servants including a governess, butler and footman. Ada was 23 and unmarried. In 1864 she married Edward Chippendale Milne but they were divorced a year later; her husband was found to be guilty of cruelty and she was granted a decree for judicial separation. She had a fortune of £14,000 and “he contributed nothing.” In 1871 she was boarding with a Benjamin Cocks, a surgeon, in Hertfordshire.
In 1881 Edmund was living on Heavy Gate Road, Sheffield with his mother, a widow, whose income came from houses. He married Ada on the 11th October 1882. There must have been some truth in the brother’s assertion that she was of unsound mind, for she died in a mental institution in Paris in 1890. The probate register says she died at Asile Ville Evrard Neuilly sur Marne Seine et Oise but was late of 4 Boulevard St Marcel in the City of Paris. “Aisle” means a place of refuge where one can find security and protection. French Wikipedia says that it was the first asylum for the indigent insane in eastern Paris in 1868, then became (in 1875) a nursing home for rich patients. Edmund was granted probate. He was living at 559 Queen's Road, Sheffield. Her personal estate was £80.
In 1891 Edmund was staying at a boarding house in Sheffield, but he died in 1901 in Nottinghamshire.
Newspaper reports all available at Findmypast or the British Newspaper Archive
Coroner’s Notebooks, available at Ancestry
Census returns, parish registers etc. available to Findmypast and Ancestry
Electoral Registers available at Ancestry