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Pontypool Free Press 1868

SATURDAY, OCT. 3, 1868.


On Sunday, the 20th September, a widow named Sarah Pitt, living at the Glascoed, gave birth to an illegitimate male child. The father is a lime burner named James Williams, who lodged with Mrs Pitt. Williams’s mother was called in, and acted as midwife. The child lived four hours, and then died in a convulsed state. The father made a box, put the body into it, and, accompanied by another person carried it to Glascoed churchyard about five o’clock on Tuesday morning, and there, without leave of the clergyman, sexton, or anyone else, dug a grave and buried it, carefully clearing away the soil that came out of the hole, and throwing it into the hedge, to prevent anyone noticing that the ground had been disturbed. The neighbours began to talk, and serious imputations were made. The rumours reached the ears of the police, and p.s. Young, by direction of Mr McIntosh, the deputy chief constable of the county, exhumed the body, and placed it in the hands of Dr Williams, of Pontypool, for post mortem examination.

An inquest on the body was held by E. Batt, Esq., coroner, at the Three Cranes Hotel, Pontypool, on Saturday, and the investigation lasted a considerable time, and ended with a highly important recommendation by the jury.

The jury, of whom Mr H. Holloway was elected foreman, having viewed the body of the child, which had been brought to the Cranes and deposited in the club-room.

Rachel Williams deposed: I live at Glascoed. I have been formerly in the habit of attending women in their confinement, but not latterly. On Saturday night, the 19th Inst., I was sent for about 12 o’clock to see Sarah Pitt. My son, James Williams, the father of the child, fetched me. He has been lodging with Sarah Pitt for a long time. Mary Morgan was sent for, but did not arrive till after the child was born. I reached the house about a quarter past 12. Mrs Pitt was then very poorly in bed. I stayed with her until she was confined, about a quarter past 9 next morning. It was a weakly child. I thought it was a very small child. I have had five children of my own, and they were finer than this one. [The coroner: Then they must have been very fine children. I call this a fine child.] A drop of weak gin and water was put into the child’s mouth, but I don’t think it swallowed any. It had nothing else after its birth. I sometimes give weak gruel. I did not give gruel in this case because the mother did not desire it. She tried it to suck, but it did not catch.

The Coroner: What do you generally give to newly born children?-I always give weak gruel.

Why did not you do so in this case?---I don’t know sir; she---

“I don’t ask you about she. I ask you about yourself, and expect an answer. Why did you give gin and water in this case? Which do you think would have been best for the child, gin and water or gruel?”---I don’t know, sir (after a pause).

Why did you give gin and water instead of gruel?---She told me to do it.

Then if she had told you to give anything else, you would have done it?---I was going to give it some food when it foamed at the mouth, and died in my arms.

But that was at 1 o’clock. Why did you give it no food between nine and one?---(Witness did not answer.)

Can’t you give me any reason for not giving any weak gruel?---Because she told me to give gin and water.

Then if she had told you to give poison, you would have done it?---No, sir.

Don’t you think gin and water would be poison for a child?---(Witness did not answer.)

Did you ever do it before, give a child gin and water?---No, sir, I did not.

Mr Mabe: Do children always suck directly?---No, sir. She said hers always did. Sometimes they don’t for an hour or two.

The Coroner: You can wait outside for a short time.

John Williams, Esq., M.D. deposed: I made an examination of the body of a child on Thursday. The body was in a box, and was that of a child lately born, about four days. There slight decomposition externally. It was of mature growth, and rather small, otherwise healthy in appearance. There was no mark of violence about the body. The countenance appeared like that of a child who had died a natural death. The only thing remarkable was, the navel-string was tied extremely close to the body. The thread was still on, but slipped off easily, but that may have resulted partly from the shrinking consequent after death of a body will (unclear word) when decomposition begins. There was (slight bruising?). The string was tied so close to the body that there was a danger of the gut being (unclear word) the ligature. However, that was (unclear word) internally all the organs were healthy with the exception of a little congestion of the brain. The membranes of the brain were full of (unclear word) and dark coloured. If the child died from convulsions, it would have that appearance. The stomach was perfectly empty with the exertion, that it contained about a teaspoonful of yellow mucus. The lungs were not fully inflated, as if the child had not perfectly breathed. Congestion of the lungs would have been induced by the same cause which (unclear word) to the (unclear word) of the brain. There was nothing in the appearances which led me to form a decided opinion as to the cause of the child’s death. I cannot state positively the cause of the death. I should think it died from convulsions. That is a common cause of death in children and could not in any way depend upon neglect or maltreatment. The child had been carefully washed and was well dressed. The coffin had not been opened before it was brought to me.

The Coroner: Do you think the administration of gin and water would have been judicious?---That would depend on the state of the child. If the child was weakly, I think it would be rather beneficial, by assisting nature and enabling the heart to carry on its functions. I think, from the state of the lungs, that a little weak gin and water, in the absence of other stimulants, would have been proper.

The Coroner: Do you think that the circumstance that the child, which was born about nine o’clock and died about one, received no food would have led to the child’s death?---I don’t think it would. I should have advised a little milk and water being given to the child, but it might have been in too weakly a state to have taken it.

The Coroner: Don’t you think the child’s life depended at all on its having nourishment given it?---Certainly not. Some children have been 12 hours old before they would take nourishment. Children are, when born, generally full of nourishment derived from the mother, and are not in immediate want of food. Many people imagine that a child requires food directly it is born, but that is a mistake. There must be time for the stomach to evacuate before it receives anything else.

Mr Mabe: Some of the jury thought that this was a strong child. It seemed to have a good sized face.

Dr Williams: I go by other things. I carefully examined the child, and it weighed only five pounds. The average weight of a new born child is seven and a half to eight pounds; some run to nine or ten pounds.

Mr Mabe: We judged from the face.

Dr Williams: Well, I may not have pulled the skin tight, and it might have been a little loose: that would have caused it to look full.

The Coroner: Dr Williams’s experience with children is very great; and I must say that in all inquests in which I have received his assistance, his investigations have been most carefully carried out.

Mr Mabe: I hope there is no harm in asking these questions.

Dr Williams: Certainly not. I think it is your duty to do so.

The Coroner: The woman who assisted the mother has stated that it was not customary to give children gin and water.

Dr Williams: No, that is ordinary cases.

Mr Mabe: This was given at desire of the mother.

Dr Williams: I don’t think that could matter. She seems to have done what she thought best for it. In this case the action of the lungs was not complete, and a little stimulant might have been beneficial.

The Coroner: The child appears to have been buried in the churchyard without a certificate, and that appears to be a common custom with illegitimate children. How these children come by their death it is impossible to say. I don’t think it right that anyone should have power to break the ground and bury in a churchyard without consulting the clergyman, or notice being given to the registrar. I don’t know by whose authority this child was buried, but I think it a part of my duty to comment upon it.

Mr Wayman, one of the jury, said that in this part of the country a certificate was required if the child was born alive, and the clergyman and sexton were liable to fines for permitting burial without one. The sexton was under a penalty of £10. When the children are stillborn, they are buried without a certificate.

The Coroner observed that he had spoken to several clergymen on this subject, and they did not agree in their opinions as to what the law required of them. The clergyman was not authorised to use the burial service over an un-baptised child: but still he should require a certificate as to the cause of death.

Mr Wayman: If the child is really still-born, a certificate is not required.

The Coroner: It does not appear to be given.

Dr Williams: It Is the common practice to bury them without.

The Coroner asked who was to know whether they were still-born. A child might be born alive and half an hour afterwards somebody might put it in a box and go and bury it. Such a system left an opening for crime and unfortunately infanticide was too prevalent in this country.

James Williams was then called in and examined. He deposed: I live with Sarah Pitt. I am going to be married to her; the banns are in the church now. She was delivered of a child last Sunday morning. I am father of that child. It lived from a quarter past nine till half past one. After its death I did not do anything till Monday evening, when I made a coffin. I buried it early on Tuesday morning, from half past five to six o’clock in the new churchyard at Glascoed. I did not give notice of its birth or death to the registrar or to any one. I did not ask any one to allow me to bury it in the churchyard. Some of the women told me it was no difference. I buried it early in the morning because some of the women told me it was usual. I took a witness with me, Richard Arnold. Plenty of people know of the birth of the child. There was no secrecy about it. Richard Arnold is son of Mr Arnold of West Mawr Farm. I have been married before, and had one child. I registered that one, about a week after it was born.

Mr Probyn, one of the jury: Would you have registered this one in a week or so?---Yes, if it had lived.

The Coroner: He is not only liable to a fine, but when a child is buried in this way people are apt to cast reflections that it has been made away with. You stood in some measure under that suspicion, and ought to be very glad that the inquiry was made and has shown that you did nothing that led to the child’s death. You may now stay outside the door a short time.

A conversation then ensued as to the system of clandestine burials and the coroner remarked that it was the duty of the clergymen, where such came to his knowledge, to give notice to the police, who would communicate with the coroner.

P.s. Young said that if it was necessary to prove the exhumation of the body he could do so. He took Richard Arnold with him, and Arnold pointed out the place. Information was given by some one of Glascoed, and by direction of Mr McIntosh he exhumed the body and placed it in the hands of Dr Williams.

The coroner did not think it necessary to swear P.s. Young.

James Williams, the father of the child, was recalled, and further questioned as follows:---

Coroner: What did you do with the soil that came out of the grave?---Sent it back in again.

But there was some that you took out to make room for the body of the child; what did you do with that?---I threw it away, some on the back.

You did not leave any on the ground?---No, sir.

Why not?---I threw it in the hedge, because it would not look tidy on the ground.

Because you did not want anyone to know the ground had been disturbed?---Yes, sir.

The Coroner: I put these questions, because there does seem to have been some amount of concealment. If he had not known he was doing wrong he would not have taken the trouble to remove the soil and hide it.

Mrs Williams was recalled, and in answer to the coroner, said that she was in the habit of tying the navel string close to the body, and that Mr Hawkins, of Newport, used to do so.

The Coroner told her that it was not a safe plan. She should always leave a space of three or four fingers’ breadth between the body and the string; and not tie it too close. She must bear this in mind in future.

The Coroner then addressed the jury, saying that it did not appear that in this case there was any attempt at concealment of birth on the part of the mother, or any attempt at concealment of the child’s death on the part of the father (unclear words). He contemplated the evidence (3 unclear words) after that of Dr Williams there was nothing he had (unclear sentence) – that a crime had been committed … not been buried without at …. Given by the clergyman or any … many crimes were never brought to light. The custom was, it seemed, common in this part of the country and the father had only acted according to the custom in what he did, but he ought to have given notice to the registrar, and further had no right to break up the ground without the knowledge of the clergyman or the sexton. The circumstances did, however, seem very suspicious before Dr Williams gave his evidence.

Dr Williams said that they were. He was afraid when he opened the box that he should find something very wrong and was very glad to find that there was not.

The jury returned a verdict of “death by natural causes.”

Mr W.H. Greene one of the jury (unclear word) it should not be left to the clergyman or sexton to accept an (unclear word) of still birth, and pressed that a recommendation should accompany the verdict, that burial should in no case take place unless the certificate of a medical man or a medical certificate of opinion that there really was a still birth, should be produced. He thought that an enactment to that effect would greatly simplify the mode of procedure, and do away with the facilities which the present customs’ afford for the concealment of infanticide.

The following recommendation was eventually agreed to:---

“And the jury are of opinion that burials either of infants still born or otherwise, without proper certificates, are highly irregular and tend to the concealment of crime.”