Premature death, disease, starvation, poverty. Contrary to the many rosy tales of a better life in the past, not all was good. The lives of many Medway people in the 19th century were tough and dull. In some cases they were heart-wrenchingly appalling.
Take this inquest report, which I found in The Times newspaper of 21 January, 1837. It is a tragic tale of a trader with connections among the highest in the land who fell on times. How, we shall never know, for he took his secret to a pauper’s grave. The narrative style of the report cannot disguise the awful facts. Here was a man who, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, starved to death in Strood.
The inquest, by Rochester coroner Mr Patten, was held in the boardroom of the North Aylesford Union workhouse, Strood. The dead man was Thomas Burton, said to be aged about 65.
First to give evidence was Charles Dean, watchman for the parish of Strood. “On Sunday night last, about half-past 11 o’clock, I was told by a coachman of one of the Dover coaches that a person was lying in the road, and was in danger being run over,” he said.
“I went up Strood Hill and met [Burton] coming down. He staggered in his walk, and I thought he was intoxicated. I led him part of the way down the hill. I asked turn where he was going; he said, to Strood; he had come from Cobham.”
The watchman then left him, but later found Burton lying in the road again, so he and a colleague took him to the stables of the nearby Bull’s Head, where they made him warm in the straw.
Burton’s condition, however, was deteriorating and James Vine, relieving officer of the union workhouse, was called. At first, Vine said, he thought Burton was drunk, but soon changed his mind. This man was terribly ill and he agreed to move him into the workhouse.
A medical man also attended. Robert Rogers — his role is unclear, but he appears to have been a doctor’s assistant — told the inquest: “I gave directions that he was to be put into a warm bed, and to have a pint of strong beef tea, and a tablespoonful of brandy every two hours, and not to be put into a warm bath, or anything done which was likely to exhaust him.”
Vine added: “I rang up … and procured the workhouse chair.” (In these pre-telephone days, Vine must have meant that he rang a bell and issued orders). “He was then removed to the workhouse, where every attention was paid to him.”
A wash – but why on earth didn’t they feed him?
But it was not enough, as an inmate, Susannah Hayler, explained. She said: “Early on Monday morning last the deceased was brought He was in a very filthy state and I was employed to wash him. I used warm water. I had washed his face and neck, and while washing his arms he died. He did not speak at all.”
Joshua Hunt, master of the workhouse, added: “We placed him by the fire in the hall, and I was ordered to get him some brandy-and-water and some gruel; in the meantime he was being washed, and died in about half an hour after his admission. There was no money found on his person.”
A pocket-book, however, was found in his hat. It contained “various memoranda of the addresses of some of the nobility, and other persons of high rank, to whom the deceased had applied for pecuniary assistance”.
Among the papers was a card for Thomas Burton, timber merchant, some pawnbrokers’ tickets, pledged in London, an account of timber cut on an estate in 1787, and a letter from Lord Cornwallis: “For the last time,” it said, “you may call upon Messrs Hoare’s [presumably his lordship’s legal representatives] for a sovereign.”
Another envelope, although found without letter, came from the Earl of Jersey. So this man indeed had connections in high places. But he still starved to death.
The union’s medical officer, William Stephenson, spelt out the dreadful conclusion after conducting a post-mortem examination: “On opening the chest I found the heart, lungs and every other viscera of the chest perfectly healthy — indeed unusually so for a person of the deceased’s age.
“The stomach was distended with air, but perfectly empty, there being no particle of food in it, nor in the intestinal canal. I am of opinion the deceased died from cold and starvation.”
Horrible, isn’t it?