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Causes of Death in Nineteenth Century England

To illustrate the nature of child death and community response in the nineteenth century, Sambrook investigated a sample of constabulary letters, reports written by police officers on the day of the child’s death and given to the coroner, in Staffordshire, England from 1851 to 1860. These letters described the sudden deaths of 6,000 children ranging in age from newborn to twelve years of age. Twelve percent of the deaths were related to work (for the older children), while the remainder occurred in or around the home. The most common causes of death were accidental burns and drowning. Most of the children who died from scalding or burning were between two and three years of age. Half of all of these cases occurred when the parents were either at work or, more frequently, while the mother was on an errand.36

Often the community could be counted on to come to the assistance of a child in a crisis, or to support a grieving parent. While “the public voice”, as it was referred to, could be called upon to inform authorities about poor treatment of a child, it did not protest the practice of leaving young children alone while their parents were at work. Frequently, children as young as six years of age could be found caring for infants. Many times multiple families of children would be left together to care for each other; establishing a dangerous, yet widely accepted, “child care” practice. Even though these child care arrangements were accepted by families and their neighbors, the authorities were also aware of the extent of the neglect. Police officers admonished mothers for putting their children’s lives at risk for the price of their income. It was not until 1899 when the Poor Law Guardians were empowered to take children from unsuitable parents.37

As mentioned in Chapter 1, the practice of insuring one’s child against death, injury, or illness raised suspicion of foul play, especially when one family experienced repeated tragedies. In the Black Country, England, death clubs paid fifty shillings to a parent upon the death of a child. In the cases where death clubs were employed, suspicious police officers took note of a possible motive for child murder, such as whether the dead child was illegitimate. Of the 594 cases where parents received a death benefit, eight percent of the children were illegitimate; the illegitimacy rate of the entire population averaged about six percent during this time.

Sambrook notes that it is difficult to ascertain the collective emotions of the grieving parents of Staffordshire, as the police who took the reports did not record that type of information in their reports. She postulates that it is entirely reasonable that while by today’s standards parents may have been neglectful or careless, they still could have been anguished at the time of their child’s death. This granular detail would have provided more insight into the grief patterns during this time period, and whether death was intentional (e.g., in order to collect death club payouts) if they had been included in constabulary reports—even if the information is subjectively observed. What was been noted in the reports, however, is that police officers would ascertain from neighbors comments whether or not a child had been treated kindly during his or her life. This information is helpful in determining the extent of concern for children, whether dead or alive.38

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