I first came across newspaper accounts of dead babies being dumped in cemeteries a couple of years ago. That was at Margravine Cemetery in Hammersmith and I assumed that these were incidents specific to the location and not a general phenomenon. But I’ve since come across similar stories in West Ham, Highgate and now at the City of London Cemetery in Ilford. The children are generally newly born and they are usually found in either wooden boxes or tied up in brown paper parcels. On 7th January 1905 the Essex Guardian reported on the inquest “concerning the death of a newly-born child, which was found on Saturday afternoon near the fence of Ilford Cemetery —the City of London cemetery near Ilford and Manor Park.” Frank Hudson of 7 Sheringham Avenue in Manor Park had been walking past the cemetery at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon in the direction of Wanstead Park when he “got on same railings to look at a funeral in the City of London Cemetery, and there saw a brown paper parcel lying on the ground. He was curious to know what it contained, but as he had his little girl with him, he could not get over the fence, and a young fellow passing got over and got it. Then they found it contained the body of a child. A man and woman were passing so he asked them to send along a policeman if they saw one. After waiting about a quarter of an hour, he decided to go to the police station. When he returned for the parcel he found part of the paper had been burnt.” As Mr Hudson had not noticed that the paper had been burnt before he left the parcel to go fetch the police the foreman of the jury was much perplexed and insisted on the jury examining the paper in which the body of the baby had been found. He asked Mr Hudson to clarify; “When you went to the station you left the body and it must have been burnt whilst you were away?” Mr Hudson agreed. The Coroner asked him if he had been smoking? “No,” he replied “I did not feel much like smoking then.” When no further light could be shed on the mystery of the burnt paper PC. Harman and Dr Battersby Jobson, the Divisional Surgeon were called to give evidence. Dr Jobson “deposed that he examined the child. It was the body of what appeared to be a healthy female child and had evidently been dead about twenty-four hours. He made a post mortem and found the organs healthy. There was evidence that the child had been born alive, but that it died from exposure and neglect.” The Superintendent of the Cemetery was called next and said “this was the second similar case in eighteen years. The Coroner however said he had another similar case the next day.”
I was unable to trace the other case mentioned by the cemetery superintendent but I did find another story in Reynold’s Newspaper on 4th June 1865 in which the people who had left a dead baby at the cemetery were actually caught and for once we get some insight into the circumstances which led to the abandonment of the corpse. The dramatic headline was ‘Suspected Child Murder’ but it seems no one was ever arrested or charged with the crime;
An inquest was recently held at the Rabbits Inn, Ilford, before C. C. Lewis, Esq., coroner, touching the death of George Punchard, whose body was found in a coffin, thrown into the City of London Cemetery. The inquest had been adjourned in order that a postmortem examination might be made of the body, and for the production of certain parties who had been accomplices in the affair. The facts of the case are briefly as follows: —On the evening of the 16th of May, about dusk, two men and two women, with a horse and cart, were seen loitering about in a suspicious manner near the railings of the cemetery. Next morning a coffin was found containing the body of the deceased about twelve yards from the palisades. The officers of the ground set a watch, and removed the coffin. The next day (Wednesday 17), two men, answering the description of the two men that had been seen on the previous evening, were again seen loitering about, and on being questioned, and their answers not being satisfactory, they were summoned to appear before the coroner. These men were Robert Hollis, a basket maker, residing at 33, Old-Street, St. Luke's, the reputed father of the child by an illicit intercourse with a married woman, named Rosina Punchard, who had been living apart from her husband, and residing at 9, Free Ellen-court, Redcross street, in the parish of St. Giles, Cripplegate. The other man was Samuel Barker, residing at Finsbury, the owner of a horse and cart, whom the parties had engaged to carry the body away. On the first day of the inquest, both these men positively swore they knew nothing of the affair, and had not been near the cemetery on Tuesday. At the adjourned inquest, the evidence showed that the child had died of convulsions through inanition. The two men, Hollis and Barker, admitted having taken the coffin on Tuesday, and thrown it over the railings of the cemetery, but said they intended to have it buried the next day. The woman Punchard seems to have behaved in a most heartless way to the child. The jury, after a short deliberation, returned a verdict that the deceased died in convulsions from inanition, but whether those convulsions were brought on by natural causes, or whether the inanition was brought on by neglect or natural weakness, there was no evidence to show. The coroner said the men Hollis and Barker, ought to be indicted for perjury, but he could not undertake the trouble of prosecuting them. There was great want of a public prosecutor. He suggested, however, that the City of London Cemetery Company should take the case in hand.
Rosina Punchard, the mother of the child George, was just 26 years old. She had married William Punchard, an American from Missouri, at St Alphage’s on London Wall when she just 19. George was her fifth child and was her second to die on the day it was born.
On 25 July 1896 the Tower Hamlets Independent and East End Local Advertiser reported to its readers on an attempted suicide in the cemetery on the 29th May by a 35 year old French national. He had spent two months in West Ham hospital recovering from shooting himself in the head but then found himself in court accused of what was then still the crime of attempted suicide. A surgeon from the hospital tried to persuade the magistrate to send the poor man back to the hospital but instead he was remanded in custody at Holloway prison. His stay was mercifully brief – he was back in front of the magistrates the following Saturday and the newspaper gave a fuller account of the affair on the 1st of August;
THE ATTEMPTED SUICIDE IN THE CEMETERY. PRISONER BEFORE THE MAGISTRATE. The strange tragedy which occurred at the City of London Cemetery at Manor Park on May 29, when in the early morning a Frenchman, whose identity was unknown, was found lying against the wall inside the grounds, dangerously wounded, with a revolver beside him, was reviewed on Saturday at Stratford Police Court. The victim, who gave the name of Joseph Febert, aged 35, was charged with attempting suicide. —ln the interval of almost two months, the unhappy young man had been an inmate of West Ham Hospital. —It may be remembered that close to the accused’s body was found a little heap of torn and partly burned papers, which suggested that efforts were made to destroy identification before the revolver was used. —James Smith, labourer, said that at five o'clock on the morning of May 29, as he was passing the cemetery, he heard a groan, and looking through the railings saw the prisoner sitting down by one of the graves. He was smothered with blood by his side was a revolver. Witness got a constable, and when they got inside the cemetery prisoner was leant against the wall insensible. —Constable Short, 677 K, who was called by Smith, said the revolver had six chambers. Three chambers were loaded and two had been recently discharged, the sixth being empty. A lot of ashes, evidently of burnt paper, were lying about. Witness conveyed prisoner to West Ham hospital and he was detained there till the morning of July 21, when he was apprehended on a warrant. —Dr. Woolright, house surgeon. said prisoner regained consciousness about an hour after admission. He had a bullet wound in his right temple and the bullet is still embedded in the head. He is now all right except for a slight paralysis of his legs. His friends in Algiers had sent money to pay his passage home, and in the case of his discharge, the hospital authorities would see that he was sent back safely. —Prisoner still seemed far from strong, and in reply to the bench Inspector Cawley said some papers were found on prisoner, in one of which was a statement that he had been robbed of 5,000 francs by a woman. There was an address in France, and a letter sent to that had been returned by the British Consul, and a second letter had not been replied to. —After consulting with his colleagues. Colonel Howard (chairman) addressed the prisoner in French, telling him he would be discharged. Prisoner then rose from the seat with which he had been accommodated, and exclaimed in French "I thank the English courts and doctors, and the whole of the English in general, for the kind treatment I have received."
Two years later it was homeless, one eyed widower William Cuttle (clearly a man, as Albert King would say, who had been born under a bad sign, and "if he didn't have bad luck, he wouldn’t have no luck at all") who tried to kill himself at his wife’s grave side with a home made ‘death draught’. Like the rest of William’s efforts to improve his lot, it ended in failure;
QUEER DEATH DRAUGHT. William Cuttle, who has only one eye and no home, has had no luck since his wife died, two-and a-half years ago. For a long time he could get no work, and when he did get a job he used to have fits of despondency. On June 24 he had a particularly acute attack of depression, and decided to commit suicide. Wherefore he mixed in a pint bottle a death draught, consisting of 9d, worth of precipitate powder and half a quartern of whiskey. Having quaffed this fearsome concoction, he deposited the bottle on his wife's grave in Ilford cemetery, and then made his way to Romford-road Police station. To Constable Carter, who was on duty, he told the story of his desperate act, and was at once taken to Dr. Stocker, who administered emetics with the happiest results. On Monday the one-eyed widower was charged at West Ham with attempting to commit suicide. Having expressed his sorrow and promised never to do it again, he was discharged. (Bridgnorth Journal and South Shropshire Advertiser. - Saturday 16 July 1898)
In November 1895 a widely reported case was heard at Whitechapel County Court by His Honour Judge Francis Henry Bacon, who had a reputation as a bit of a wag and whose court was consequently regularly packed by journalists hoping for an amusing story. A Mrs Bush who had been recently bereaved and had commissioned a photographer to take a picture of her husband’s grave found herself the victim of courtroom innuendo and featured in newspapers the length and breadth of the country, this is from the Stonehaven Journal of the 28th November;
A TEMPTING BAIT There was an amusing case beard before Judge Bacon, at Whitechapel County Court, London, when Mrs Bush, comely widow, claimed the return of 12s 6d paid by her to a photographer named Martin for taking photograph of her late husband's grave. Plaintiff said she made arrangements to be photographed at her husband’s grave at Ilford Cemetery. She agreed to meet defendant there, and he never came. She waited until the cemetery closed, and was not photographed at all. Defendant—She never told me Ilford Cemetery, she told me the Manor Park. I took my camera there, and waited for her for hours. (Laughter.) Judge Bacon —You must have made the mistake. She would know where her husband’s grave was. You will have to return the money. I suppose she wanted to be photographed weeping at her husband’s grave. (Laughter.) That would have been a tempting bait for another man. (Roars of Laughter.) Defendant—That was the arrangement. I should have made splendid picture of it. (Laughter.) The Judge— You will have to give this woman back her money and pay costs. It was your mistake.
Complaints about the manner in which funerals were conducted at the City of London Cemetery almost always related to pauper funerals, the poor interred at the cost of the parish. In many poorer areas the parishes had significant purchasing power because of the number of pauper funerals they paid for and the Guardians, ever on the watch for opportunities to keep the poor rates as low as possible, drove hard bargains with the cemetery companies and the undertakers to get the cheapest deals possible. As a result, funerals were often careless and hurried and the poor were buried in the least desirable areas of the cemetery in common graves with several unrelated individuals sharing the same space. All the professionals who had a hand in pauper burials received smaller fees and consequently were generally less diligent in their duties than they would usually be as this story from February 1886, published in the Luton Reporter shows:
THE BURIAL SCANDAL AT ILFORD. At the weekly meeting of the City of London Union on Tuesday, under the presidency of Mr. Alfred Lyon, Chairman, the Clerk (Mr F.W. Crane) read a letter from the superintendent of the City of London Cemetery at Ilford, in reply to a communication from the board relative to the burial a poor person named Robert Heath. The writer forwarded an explanation from the Rev. J. Hayes the officiating chaplain at the cemetery, to the effect that the funeral cortege arrived there at 12.30pm, and he told the driver that he was "too late” but he would perform the ceremony at two o'clock. The men then drove down the cemetery, and had the body laid in its grave, after which he drove away, taking the poor widow, who was the only mourner, with him. In the afternoon the chaplain "duly read the service over the body," and the rev. gentleman added that he would gladly repeat the whole ceremony at the grave should the poor widow desire it (Voices: "Oh!”). —lt was asked in the course of the subsequent discussion whether the burial service would be repeated in the presence of the widow. —Mr. Beedell, C.C., said that it had already been done.
Clergymen who were reluctant to put off their luncheon for a poor funeral and undertakers who were too busy to hang around for lunching chaplains and dropped coffins into graves without benefit of clergy were the tip of the iceberg. Complaints from the Whitechapel Union made the Guardians send a couple of clergymen, one C of E and the other RC to get a balanced view, to find out what pauper funerals were like at the City of London cemetery. Their report did not make comfortable reading as reported in the Chelmsford Chronicle in August 1898;
ILFORD CEMETERY SCANDAL HOW PAUPERS ARE BURIED. SHOCKING SCENES AT THE GRAVESIDE. For same time discontent has prevailed among the poorer classes in Whitechapel Union at the way in which some of the funerals have been conducted at the City of London Cemetery, Ilford. At last, the Guardians deputed two of their number, the Rev. W. H. Davies and Father Murphy, to visit and see for themselves. These gentlemen have presented their report. It stated that they visited the cemetery and found that fourteen funerals were taking place from various Unions. With the exception of three the bodies were not taken out of the hearses into the church, the only Unions that provided bearers for this purpose being the City of London and the Holborn Unions. Consequently, it was only over these three bodies that the first portion of the funeral service was read. The mourners and friends of the others lingered outside the church, preferring evidently to be outside with their dead than inside without them. The doors of the chapel were closed during the service, though there was more than sufficient room in the chapel for all the mourners assembled. Alter the service was over, the bodies were placed in the hearse and all were taken to the place of burial. The graves were side by side, and trouble arose over identifying the dead. The clerk called over the names of the dead, and if their friends happened to be near enough, they heard who was being buried. In cases, mourners followed the wrong bodies. There was an utter absence of solemnity at the graveside and there was an unfitness of things in general. The committee recommended that in future all bodies be taken into the chapel, that the board provides bearers in sufficient numbers for this to be done, that better name plates be placed on the coffins and that representations be made to the cemetery authorities that the service be read over the whole of the bodies at the same time…The Rev. W. H. Davies said the scene at the graveside was most indecorous and painful. It seemed that the men handled the bodies much in the same manner as they would handle bales of cotton on board ship.