Rural Essex in Victorian and Edwardian times as seen in the press
by Peter Layzell
FOR our first meeting of the 2017/18 season last Friday, Peter Layzell entertained us with images of newspapers of an earlier time, reflecting views of the past. They covered health, crime, education and more. He emphasised that attitudes were different over 100 years ago and so we cannot judge the behaviour of people by today’s standards. Temperance and political meetings were advertised, also concerts and songs from the music hall.
In April 1895 a headline in the Chelmsford Chronicle read The Bradwell Horror. James Instance and his family lived at Mill End and it was discovered that his daughter Harriet, aged only 15, had given birth to a child. The police had been alerted by suspicious neighbours and confronted the family. At first Harriet denied the accusation, but later admitted giving birth in the closet. This was searched, but on finding nothing they examined the house. Blood-stained sheets in the bedroom were found and Harriet admitted that she had hidden the child up the chimney. It was duly found, wrapped in a sheet. She made a statement to the police that her brother George (known as Bob, aged 25) was the father of her child and he was duly arrested. In May the Chelmsford Chronicle reported the Inquest, a lawful requirement from 1887 for an unnatural death. This was held at the Queens Head, the local pub being the usual place for such an event, the host laying on food for everyone, with customers probably in another room.
As Doctor Edward Pettifer was of the opinion that the child had lived, the case was now murder, which Harriet denied. However, she was not charged with murder, but for manslaughter and concealing a birth. The jury consisted of middle class men and found her guilty of concealment but not guilty of manslaughter, death being through lack of proper care. Crowded housing was blamed, the family having had 13 children and only two bedrooms. Harriet was sentenced to three months imprisonment. She later married and had at least seven more children, dying aged 77. Her brother George pleaded guilty of criminal assault and was sent to prison for 18 months.
Newspapers around 1900, as today, printed a variety of subjects. In 1896 the Tilbury Cottage Hospital opened, built by Passmore Edwards; before that patients had to go to Southend or Gravesend. There were various reports of accidents and in 1893 a small boy died falling into the fire – many children died from burns from open fires and accidents with candles. Crime was duly reported, the Petty Sessions holding two courts each Friday. Such crimes included keeping a dog without a licence, driving without lights, drunk and refusing to leave a pub, bad language, etc. The Quarter Sessions dealt with more serious crimes – theft, indecent assault, house breaking and even refusing to work in a workhouse. Papers reported on education, the Grays National School being found unsatisfactory in 1905. Parents were fined 4 shillings for non attendance of their children, further absenteeism resulting in them being sent to Industrial Schools. The weather, sport and leisure were covered, including the model yacht club, swimming at the bathing pond, outings to Southend and advertisements for agricultural shows. Fox hunting and even otter hunting fixtures were shown. Jobs, medications, such as Beechams pills, were advertised and of course pubs and their beer.
In 1900 £1 was worth £112 in today’s money, an agricultural labourer earning 15 shillings per week. It is difficult to imagine how hard life was at the beginning of the 20th century, and the two musical renderings played by Peter Layzell gave us a taste of life then.
Our next meeting is at 8.00pm at the Adult Community College, Richmond Road, Grays on Friday 20th October when our speaker will be Martyn Lockwood, his talk entitled “Poor Law: How we treated our poor”.
Visitors are welcome.