Thomas Carr of Lincoln was a hawker of almanacks and fish… and yes, we think that’s an odd combination too! He was well-known around the county’s markets, famous enough for a print to be made of him.
Underneath the print is some very helpful genealogical information about Thomas.
Thomas Carr of Lincoln
The well-known dealer in Almanacks & Fish being born at Hexthorpe near Doncaster and was christenened the 19th of October 1718.
So, Thomas wasn’t really a Lincolnshire man, but had obviously lived in the city of Lincoln for long enough that he was described as being of his adopted town. His baptism can be found, exactly as described on the print, in the parish registers of Hexthorpe, a small village on the outskirts of Doncaster in south Yorkshire.
He died in 1807, described as being of an advanced age: he was 89 years old, maybe not to us such an old age these days, but for someone back then, who had gained his living as a hawker which would have been a tough occupation for someone of advancing years, he didn’t do badly at all.
Last week died, at an advanced age, Thomas Carr, well known here, and to those who frequent Lincoln markets, as a vender of almanacks.
Stamford Mercury, 7th August 1807
Thomas’ funeral was held at St Swithin’s Church in Lincoln on the 26th July, and he was described in the burial register as a widower. St Swithin’s has undergone several reconstructions during its life. Originally located near the Sheep market, it was ravaged by fire in 1644 during the English Civil War and stood in ruins for just over a century and a half. The ruins can be seen in the drawing below, next to the The Greyfriars, the remains of a Franciscan friary dating back to the 1200s.
In 1801 a new church was erected on Sheep Square; a pencil drawing of this church can be seen be clicking here. In the 1880s the present church was built. The old Greyfriars buildings still stand next to it.
As you do, we have just stumbled upon a book titled ‘An Account of Prisons and Houses of Correction in the Midland Circuit’, which provides details of the conditions within the prisons following a review carried out by John Howard Esq., prison reformer, on behalf of the Duke of Montagu, so we thought we would share some bits with you.
Howard’s aim was to review the physical condition of the prisons, and the benefits or otherwise of the prisoners themselves.
The morals of prisoners were at this time as much neglected as their health. Idleness, drunkenness and all kinds of vice, were suffered to continue in such a manner as to confirm old offenders in their bad practices, and to render it almost certain, that the minds of those who were confined for their first faults, would be corrupted instead of being corrected, by their imprisonment.
Howard made a series of recommendations regarding prisons including these:
Every prison be white-washed at least once every year, and that this be done twice in prisons which are much crowded.
That a pump and plentiful supply of water be provided, and that every part of the prison be kept as clean as possible.
That every prison be supplied with a warm and cold bath, or commodious bathing tubs, and that the prisoners be indulged in the use of such baths, with a proper allowance of soap and the use of towels.
That attention be paid to the sewers in order to render them as little offensive as possible.
That great care be taken, that as perfect a separation as possible be made of the following classes of prisoners. That felons be kept entirely separate from debtors; men from women’ old offenders from young beginners; convicts from those who have not yet been tried.
That all prisoners, except debtors be clothed on their admission with a prison uniform and that their own clothes be returned to them when they are brought to trial or are dismissed.
That care be taken that the prisoners are properly supplied with food, and their allowance not deficient, either in weight or quality.
He also recommended that gaolers were to be paid a proper salary, that religious services take place and that no swearing was to be permitted. A surgeon or apothecary be appointed to tend to the sick. That attention be paid to the prisoners on their discharge and that, if possible some means be pointed out to them by which they may be enabled to gain a livelihood in an honest manner.
The book provides brief details of the finding at some of the prisons, so we thought we would share a few of these with:
County Bridewell – Warwick
A new prison is finished and occupied. There are separate apartments and courts with water, for men and women; and vagrants have a court and apartments separate from the other prisoners. Allowance, as in a gaol.
No coals: no employment at present; but a long room, ten feet and a half wide is provided, with looms, and other materials for work.
1788, Feb. 15 Prisoners – 10.
Birmingham Town Gaol
The court is now paved with broad stones, but dirty with fowls. There is only one dayroom for both sexes, over the door of which there is impudently painted ‘Universal Academy’. Neither the act for preserving the health of prisoners, nor clauses against spirituous liquors are hung up. The gaoler has no salary, but still a licence for beer.
1788, Feb. 14 Prisoners – 13.
Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire
Two rooms. No court: no water. Keeper’s salary only £4
1788 Aug. 7. No prisoners.
An old house lately purchased. Prisoner were formerly confined in a room in the inn keeper’s public house. No allowance, keeper’s salary £20
1788, Aug 3. No prisoners.
County Gaol at Nottingham
At the entrance is this inscription on a board ‘No ale, nor any sort of liquor sold within the prison’. Gaoler’s salary now £140. The prison too small. The debtors in three rooms, pay 2s a week each, though two in a bed. They who can pay only 6d are in two rooms below, confined with such felons as pay 2s a week. The other felons lie in two dark, offensive dungeons, own thirty-six steps called pits, which are never white-washed.
Another dungeon in 1787 was occupied by a man sentenced to two years solitary confinement. The town ‘transports’ and criminals are here confined with the county felons, which it may be hoped the magistrates will soon rectify. The room used for a chapel was too close, though when I was there, only one debtor attended the service. Allowance to felons now 1 and a half pence in bread and a half penny in money. Five of the felons were county, and give town convicts.
1787, Oct 23, Debtors 9
Felons etc. 21
1788, Aug 6, Debtors 12
Felons etc. 10
County Bridewell, Folkingham, Lincolnshire
No alteration in this offensive prison. Court not secure. Prisoners locked up. No water: no employment. Keeper’s salary £40 out of which he maintains (of starves) his prisoners.
1788, Jan. 17, Prisoners 3
Lincoln City and County Gaol
No alteration. Through the window of the two damp cells, both men and women freely converse with idle people in the street, who often supply them with spirituous liquors till they are intoxicated. No court: no sewers: no water accessible to the prisoners. Gaoler’s salary augments £20 in lieu of the tap.
1788, Jan 16 Debtors none. Felons etc. 5
County Gaol at Northampton
Gaoler’s salary £200, out of which he is to give every prisoner three pints of small beer a day.
In the walls of the felons court there are now apertures for air. The prison clean as usual. The new room for the sick is over the Bridewell, with iron bedsteads and proper bedding. The bread allowance to felons is a fourpenny loaf every other day (weight 3lb 2oz). County convicts 2s 6d a week.
1787, Oct 27 Debtors 9. Felons etc. 20.
The Humours of the Fleet. Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library
There are many reasons to visit Lincoln and when you do, the one place you can’t avoid is the magnificent cathedral that dominates the Lincoln skyline. As we both live in the county we thought we really should write a bit about it. So let’s begin with its dimensions:
The foundations of the cathedral were laid in 1088, and as with any building, maintenance is required over the years and of course, the cathedral has been no exception. Today we thought we would take a look at what renovations those Georgians undertook.
In 1762 the centre window of coloured glass at the East end was executed by Mr Picket of York.
1775 The embattlement on the top of the Broad Tower was designed by Mr Essex of Cambridge and erected under his directions. The same eminent architect was employed in various extensive repairs to the edifice, particularly the roof; he also added the pointed arch with open balustrade which connects the two first pillars of the nave (a little in advance of the centre door in the West Front); and constructed the present Altar Screen.
1782 The floor of the church was newly paved, which occasioned the removal of many monuments that had escaped the ravages of time, fanaticism and mischief; and of the greater part of the inscribed grave stones. The new paving was certainly necessary and is a great improvement, but it is in consequence rendered very difficult to trace the graves of many of the learned and pious men who are there deposited.
1793 The Roman Pavement discovered several feet below the surface, in the centre of the Cloister Quadrangle. Steps descend to it, for the accommodation of visitors; and a brick shed has been built round to protect it from the weather.
1800 The Altar Piece was painted by Mr Peters, Prebendary of Langford Ecclesia.
The Stamford Mercury, 19 July 1805 reports details of the theft of Communion Plate
On Sunday morning the cathedral church of this city was discovered to have been robbed of the whole of the communion plate, consisting of several massy silver vessels, the value of which is supposed to exceed 500l. The last time the plate was seen was on Tuesday se’nnight, when the person who had it under his care sent a little boy with the keys to show it to a stranger. The robbers must have picked five locks, and there is no appearance of violence on any of them, four of them being re-shot. Everything proves this sacrilegious transaction to have resulted from a pre-concerted and well-digested plan. What occasions much conversation is, the circumstances of a convict in the city goal (lately a dragoon solider) having intimated to the gaoler who a few weeks ago conveyed him to the hulks at Woolwich, that ‘no long time would elapse before a great building Above-hill, and the warehouse of an eminent draper in Lincoln would be robbed by two persons, one of who was well know, and little suspected to be capable of such a transaction’. In consequence of this information which Mr. Tuke, the gaoler, divulged o his return to Lincoln, Mr. Smith, who was the draper alluded to, and fortunately paid to the assertion to the convict more attention that it was generally though worthy of, had new locks and bars put upon the doors of his valuable warehouse, and the robbery of the cathedral has proved with what well-employed caution. Proper persons have been sent from Lincoln to obtain what further intelligence respecting this mysterious affair it is possible to extort from the convict dragoon.
1807 The two Western spires which were made of timber and lead were taken down. The Norfolk Chronicle, 22 August 1807 reported:
It is determined to remove form that noble pile, Lincoln Cathedral, the two spires which surmounted St Hugh’s and St Mary’s Towers. Although necessity may require this the picturesque effects of that fine building will be greatly injured by it.
1824 The ancient service of Communion Plate having been some years before sacrilegiously stolen from the Vestry, the present splendid Service was presented to the church.
Also in 1824 repairs were needed according to the Stamford Mercury 29 October.
The high winds of Tuesday blew off one of the weathercocks from the broad tower of Lincoln Cathedral, as well as the ponderous ball on which it stood. The ball fell with great force on the roof of the church making a large aperture in the lead, but was prevented from going through the stone-groined roof below by the strength of the rafters. The vane fell to the ground near to the cloisters. It is the north-east pinnacle, which has thus suffered; it is feared that the tops of the other three pinnacles are in nearly the same decayed state.
Bell’s Weekly Messenger 9 May 1825:
For the magnificent Minster at Lincoln, a large and splendid organ is now building in London, which has been already performed upon by professors, and has been pronounced equal in power and superior in many points to any in the United Kingdom. The Rev. the Dean has also presented the Minster with a set of communion plate to the value of 1,000l. It is silver chased and gilt, and is similar to that which the King has ordered for his private chapel at Windsor.
1826 The new organ erected by the Dean and Chapter was opened, the church having previously undergone a thorough cleaning.
December 1827 Great Tom of Lincoln was found to be ‘cracked’ and unfit or duty to the great regret of the inhabitants of the ancient city. In 1834 it was broken up and a new one made to replace it. This was the bell that hung in St Mary’s Tower at the West End or Front of the Cathedral (St Mary’s is one tower, the other is St Hugh’s).
And, to finish, we came across this curious article for which can offer no explanation.
Extract of a Letter from M. Johnson Esq.; to William Bogdani Esq.; concerning an extraordinary Interment.
In a letter to me from Mr. Symson, master of the works of the cathedral of Lincoln, dated 28 September last, I was informed that, in digging a grave at the west end of that church, they opened the foot of an ancient sepulcher – the corpse was sewed up in a strong tanned leather hide, the seam running up the middle of the breast. I should suppose it to be some great lay lord, before the custom prevailed of laying them within the church itself.
An augmented reality app is being designed which will allow users to experience the history of the cathedral spires giving them a taste of the height they once were before their removal in the early 1800s, in relation to the well-known building today.
The Beehive public house on Castlegate in Grantham lays claim to being the only pub in the country with a ‘living sign’. Indeed, in its early life it was known as ‘the Living Sign’ as well as ‘the Beehive’.
Both names are apt: the living sign in question is a beehive located outside the pub in which a swarm of bees often resides and it has been there, in one form or another, since at least 1791 when it was mentioned as a curiosity in several newspapers the length and breadth of the country.
In 1791 the beehive was located on a pillar in front of the house, now a newer hive is located in a tree to the side of the doorway.
In May 1814 the landlord of the Beehive was one Edward Wood, and presumably he was there when Colour-Serjeant George Calldine of the 19th Foot visited.
Grantham has a very fine spire, the highest in England except Salisbury. Here also is a living sign, it being a bee-hive up in a tree, which I remember seeing when I passed through in 1814.
By March 1822 Mrs Elizabeth Wood was the landlady of the Beehive (presumably Edward Wood had died and Elizabeth was his widow) and it was Elizabeth who was painted in the doorway of the pub, with the ‘living sign’ on proud display.
Interestingly, George Calladine refers to the beehive being in a tree in 1814, but in 1791 it is recorded as being on a pillar. In this painting it is still, quite clearly, on a pillar, so either painted earlier than 1814 or George has misremembered his anecdote. The sign with the rhyme on it can also be seen on the corner above Elizabeth’s head.
The church spire alluded to in the rhyme is atop St Wulfram’s in Grantham, the sixth highest spire in the country.
Our blog today is a grisly one as we relate the story of two barbarous murders in eighteenth-century Lincolnshire.
Mr Rands, the Lincoln post-master had cause to have some words with his servant who was thrown into jail by his master owing to a considerable debt. Later set free after paying £5, the servant left in high dudgeon, swearing he would be revenged upon his master.
On the 2nd January 1732/3 a traveller was stopped by two men near Ancaster and robbed of a small sum of money and his horse. He was, it turns out, extremely lucky that this was all he lost. Two hours later the two men met with William Wright, an 18 or 19-year old youth from Market Rasen. He was travelling in his chaise from Ancaster where he had spent the day with a friend, and had a second horse tethered behind. Wright recognised the post-master’s servant and, as the two men were both upon the one poor horse, offered the man a ride on his spare horse. They parted company at an inn, after a disagreement, but the men knew where William Wright was heading and lay in wait for him. At Faldingworth near to Market Rasen, at around five o’clock in the evening darkness, the two men murdered young William although he put up a brave fight. His throat was cut and his head almost severed, and his body was then put back into his chaise and one report said that some flesh was cut from his leg and ‘tied’ upon his face. The murderous pair left, having rifled the corpse’s pockets and taking the two horses with them, leaving the gruesome discovery to be made by a milkmaid. It was assumed that Wright had been murdered to silence his tongue and prevent discovery of his assailants.
A day later the young post-boy, a lad named Thomas Gardner (or Gardiner) who hailed from the village of Nettleham to the north of the city and who was around the same age as William Wright, was found murdered upon the road from Lincoln to Grimsby. Both his throat and that of his horse had been cut from ear to ear and his post bag had been stolen. Reputedly he was made the to blow his horn, before his tormentors told him that he had just sounded his ‘death peal’. Again, his murder was to silence him, but was it also, as it turned out, from hatred of his employer, Mr Rands the post-master.
Suspicion immediately fell upon the post-master’s former servant, Isaac Hallam, and his description, and that of his accomplice, was circulated along with a reward of £40 for any information leading to the capture of the murderer of William Wright.
One of the Persons supposed to have committed the said Murder, is a slender bodied Man with a thin Face, wearing a light-coloured natural Wig, and a white straight-bodied Coat, with carved or chequer’d Buttons on it, with a blue wide Riding Coat lined with yellow, and Brass Buttons; he rode upon a block lean Punch Horse, about Fourteen Hands high, with a wisked Tail. And another of the Persons supposed also to have been concerned in the said Murther, is pale-fac’d and marked with the Small-Pox; he had on a straight bodied grey double-breasted Coat with black Buttons, and a light-colour’d Riding Coat, and a light-coloured natural Wig, and rode on a brownish Bay strong Punch Horse, about Fourteen Hands high, with a wisk’d Tail. They also took from the Deceased, and carried off, a strong dark brown Punch Gelding, full aged, trots well, and paces also, and has a small star on the Forehead, and no other white about him; he is about Fourteen Hands and a half high, and as a long whole Tail, if not altered.
It was not many days before the keepers of Salisbury gaol realised that one of two men who had lately been committed there appeared to be the sought after fugitive. Isaac Hallam, together with his brother Thomas, had committed a robbery near to the city of Salisbury, although it seems their victim, in this instance, was allowed to escape with his life.
The two brothers did not deny the charges laid at their door and, loaded with irons, were brought back to Lincoln for trial in a coach and six from Salisbury by way of London. On the 19th February they lay at the George in St Martins at Stamford on their journey to Lincoln. Isaac showed some concern for his acquaintance William Wright who, he said, had behaved ‘so bravely’, but Thomas seemed not to care less and neither brother showed a jot of remorse for the poor young post-boy although Thomas declared he had only held Gardner’s hand while Isaac cut the boy’s throat. They had intended their list of victims to be longer, set on murdering all those whom they stole from, and on their hit-list was Mr Benjamin West (or Wells), the son of the Lincoln Carrier, a Mr Harvey and, top of their list, Mr Rands the post-master. If they had managed to murder him the two brothers would, they said, ‘have died with Pleasure’. On their entrance to Lincoln, crowds had started to gather from the Bar Gate and along the two mile route to the Castle, and the brothers were met with jeers, hisses, shouting and, in sorrow for poor murdered Thomas Gardner, post boys blowing their horns.
The trial was a short one as both Isaac and Thomas Hallam admitted their guilt, not only to the murders but to some sixty-three other robberies, and both men were sentenced to be executed and hung in chains. Before sentence was passed, they were asked if they had anyone to speak on their behalf and Isaac had the nerve to call on his former employer, Mr Rands. They also asked for a fortnight’s stay of execution but this was, quite rightly, denied them. They left the court, but not before telling the judge that they ‘they hoped to meet with a more favourable judge in the other world, and valued not what man could do to them’.
On the 16th March 1732/3, at nine o’clock in the morning, the two convicted murderers were taken to the gibbet which lay around a mile outside Lincoln. There Isaac was hung and his body placed in the irons while his brother watched on – one report said that Thomas fainted at the sight. Thomas Hallam was then taken to Faldingworth Gate, eight miles further on, to the site of William Wright’s murder where he suffered the same fate as his brother.
Thomas Gardner was buried in his home village of Nettleham. The burial register reads:
Tho: Gardiner a post boy found murdered near Langworth Street was Buryed the 6th Day of Jany – 1732.
Local legend says that no grass grows around his grave. William Wright was buried at Market Rasen.
NB: Many sources say erroneously that the brothers were arrested at Shrewsbury and not at Salisbury, and most give the date of their execution as the 20th March – however, the Stamford Mercury of Thursday March 22nd 1732/3 clearly states their demise as ‘Friday last’.
Stamford Mercury, 11th and 25th January 1732/3, 1st and 22nd February 1732/3 and 22nd March 1732/3
Derby Mercury, 18th January 1732/3 and 1st and 15th March 1732/3
Daily Journal, 12th March 1732/3
The London Gazette 13-16th January 1732/3
Ipswich Journal, 10th March 1732/3
Lincolnshire Villains: Rogues, Rascals and Reprobates by Douglas Wynn, 2012
Header image: A Distant View of Lincoln Cathedral; Peter de Wint; National Galleries of Scotland
Major Boswell was a gypsy – he was born in 1780, and baptized on the 6th August, in the Oxfordshire village of Bloxham where he was recorded as the son of John Boswell.
A noted fiddler, as a young man he earned his living by playing at different venues and one day he arrived at Longton in the Staffordshire Potteries – where ‘he was engaged to play for the dancing classes held at a young ladies’ academy’. This episode of Major’s life dates to the very end of the eighteenth- or the dawning of the nineteenth-century, as it must have occurred between 1798 and 1801.
The first and the second of these [classes] at which he was present passed without incident, but at the third or fourth a big bouncing girl answering to the name of Mary Linyon persisted in treading on his toes. She did it on purpose quite clearly, and Major recognising this, and attracted no doubt by her handsome face and wilful demeanour, was not slow to take the cue she afforded him. He spoke to her afterwards, ostensibly about her behaviour, but what the really said to one another is better judged from the fact that a night or two later Mary, who was no more than fifteen, jumped from a bedroom window into his cart drawn up beneath it, on to a thick pile of straw surmounted by blankets and a feather bed.
The couple eloped together and stayed hidden in the countryside whilst, it is said, a hue and cry was raised and a reward offered for any information which led to Major Boswell’s arrest. Perhaps this inducement worked because, supposedly, Major was eventually arrested and charged with Mary’s abduction, although he protested his innocence. The story as it was told around the campfires of their descendants places Major in a courtroom to answer the charges against him and there Mary took to the witness box, telling the judge loud and clear that it was she who had insisted on the elopement. Because of her testimony Major was acquitted and the spirited and determined Mary chose to remain by his side rather than return home to her parents.
Some say she was a gamekeeper’s daughter, and others that her father was a farm bailiff or steward. No matter, she was, by all accounts, a woman of strong character, as Major, her children and more particularly her daughters-in-law, seem to have discovered when they crossed her will; a great lover of order and cleanliness, of fine clothes, old china, and shining silver; an expert needlewoman, who taught the craft to her daughters and granddaughters with considerable success…
We have yet to turn up any information which confirms that Major Boswell did indeed elope with Mary, or that he was charged in a court of law with her abduction. But Mary had certainly received an education somewhere, so perhaps the story that she trod on poor Major’s toes in the dancing class where they first met is true, and she did indeed run away with him. In 1837 Mary (as Mary Linion and recorded as 55 years of age) was arrested for ‘fraudulently obtaining half-a-dozen silver teaspoons, the property of Mr Thomas Shepherd, of Barrow-upon-Soar, on the 1st April 1835’ along with Major Boswell (aged 60 years), their 16 year old son Alfred and daughter Edingal, 21 years of age. The case was never brought into court but, in the calendar of prisoners for trial, it was recorded that while Major, Alfred and Edingal Boswell could neither read nor write, Mary could do both well.
Mary took to her new way of life with gusto, providing Major with seventeen children, becoming expert at telling fortunes and described as the ‘best Gypsy of the lot of ‘em’. They stayed mainly in the Staffordshire area but travelled into other parts of the country too. A daughter named Tieni (or Teany) was baptized at Beoley in Worcestershire on the 8th March 1801. They were in Lincolnshire during the first two decades of the nineteenth-century for the baptism of Charles Augustus, son of Major and Mary Smith at Stamford St Michael on the 27th June 1803 is likely to be them, with Major described as a tin plate worker. The next year Mary daughter of Major and Mary Boswell was baptized at Ewerby near Sleaford on the 7th October 1804 (a William and Mary Lovil, ‘traveller & gipsy’ baptized a son, William, on the 28th of the same month at Digby, less than ten miles away from Ewerby, and perhaps they were travelling in company with Major Boswell and Mary Linyon). And then on the 7th March 1819, at Rauceby again near to Sleaford, we find the baptism of Alfred, son of Major and Mary Boswell, traveller. The couple also had a daughter whose name is transcribed as ‘Elopeh’ on the baptism records for Quainton in Buckinghamshire (she was baptized on the 22nd October 1802) – does her name refer to her parent’s reputed elopement, and provide some confirmation of it?
A Major Boswell had married in 1798 at Breedon on the Hill in Leicestershire, to Lucy Boswell (a short lived son had been the product of that marriage), and if this was the same man it may explain why Mary continued to use her maiden name (as at her 1837 arrest), and could not legally marry her husband although they lived as man and wife. The couple are to be found at Willenhall near to Wolverhampton in Staffordshire in the 1861 census, living in a caravan parked in a field on the High Street; Major Boswell was aged 87 years, a tinman born at Bloxham in Oxfordshire and Mary, his wife, was 82 years of age and gave her birthplace as Gravesend in Kent.
Major Boswell ended his long life in Longton in Staffordshire, the village where he reputedly met his wife, his age exaggerated by a good few years at his death.
Major Boswell, who for the last seven years has made a tent on the Stone-road, Longton, his principal place of abode, died on Sunday, at the advanced age of 108 years. The body is ‘laid out’ in characteristic gipsy style. He ‘lies in state’ on a bed on the ground, covered with a white sheet, and a tuft of grass on the chest. The part of the tent where the body lies is lined with white, decorated with flowers, a picture of the Saviour, and wax candles on either side. The old man has not a wrinkle on his face, had only lost three teeth, and never consulted a doctor during his long earthly pilgrimage. He was twice married, and had by his second wife seventeen children, amongst whom he numbered fifty-nine grandchildren. His remains will be interred in Dresden churchyard to-day, and will no doubt be followed to the grave by an unusually large number of relatives.
Leicester Chronicle, 11th March 1837
Staffordshire Advertiser, 21st May 1870
Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, Third Series, Vol III, 1924
Potteries Landscape by Henry Lark I Pratt from The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery via Your Paintings
Today’s blog is going to be a sad little tale of a family destroyed by opium in late Georgian England. It perhaps struck us so much because the family lived not in an inner city slum but instead in the flat and open agricultural landscape of the Lincolnshire Fens, a marshland close to the Wash, an estuary on the eastern coastline of England.
We’ll turn first to a newspaper report on the inquest of a child belonging to this family, poor little Rebecca Eason who was actually younger than mentioned; she had not yet reached her fifth birthday.
An inquest was held at Whaplode on the 21st inst., by Samuel Edwards, Gent. coroner, on view of the body of Rebecca Eason, a child aged 5 years, who had been diseased from its birth and was unable to walk or to articulate, and from its size did not appear to be more than a few weeks old:- The mother had been for many years in the habit of taking opium in very large quantities, (nearly a quarter of an ounce in the day), and it is supposed from that circumstance had entailed a disease on her child which caused its death:- it was reduced to a mere skeleton, and had been in that emaciated state nearly from its birth. – Verdict, “Died by the visitation of God, but that from the great quantity of opium taken by the mother during her pregnancy of the said child and of her suckling it, she had greatly injured its health.” – It appeared in evidence that the mother of the deceased had had five children – that she began to take opium after the birth and weaning of her first child, which was and is remarkably healthy – and that her four younger children have all lingered and died in the same emaciated state as the child which was the subject of this investigation. – The mother is under 30 years of age: she was severely censured by the coroner for indulging in so pernicious a practice.
Stamford Mercury, 30th September 1825
For reasons that will perhaps become clear, we’re not going to judge poor addicted Mary Eason. She was quite clearly continuing to take opium despite knowing the effect it was having on her children but we cannot, at this remove, know what induced her first to use the drug, and once addicted very little help would be available to her.
We were surprised to find that the consumption of opium in the Fenland was extremely high in comparison to other areas. Even now large areas of the Fenland appear quite isolated and in the early nineteenth-century there was limited medical assistance for the inhabitants who suffered badly from the ague (malarial fever, often leading to rheumatism), brought on by living in a marshy and largely unhealthy district. In 1867 Dr Hawkins of King’s Lynn informed the readers of the British Medical Journal that Lincolnshire and Norfolk consumed more than half of the opium which was imported into the country.[i]
The fact that these conditions had led to a noticeably high consumption of opium was commented on at the time. `There was not a labourer’s house… without its penny stick or pill of opium, and not a child that did not have it in some form.’ According to an analysis made in 1862, more opium was sold in Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and Manchester than in other parts of the country.’ As elsewhere, poppy-head tea had been used as a remedy long before other narcotics were commercially available. Charles Lucas, a Fenland physician, recalled the widespread use of the remedy. `A patch of white poppies was usually found in most of the Fen gardens. Poppy-head tea was in frequent use, and was taken as a remedy for ague… To the children during the teething period the poppy-head tea was often given. Poppies had been grown in the area for the London drug market, where they were used to produce syrup of white poppies; and there had even been attempts made in Norfolk to produce opium on a commercial scale.[ii]
Mary married young, very young given that she was stated (erroneously) to be under the age of thirty years in the September of 1825. Mary was, in fact, probably just on the other side of thirty as she married on the 9th September 1810 at the church of St Mary’s in Whaplode. Her maiden name was Egan and her husband, a labourer (given the location he’d be an agricultural labour), was named Thomas Eason. Mary made her mark on the register of her marriage and the two men who witnessed the ceremony were possibly two of the Church Wardens as they witnessed many marriages in the parish. Their names were Robert Collins and Robert Cook Collins.
So Mary was likely to have been little more than sixteen years of age and the marriage was a hasty one, possibly conducted with encouragement from the parish officials for Mary was heavily pregnant at the time of her wedding. Her child, a daughter named Ann, was born less than two months after she had walked up the aisle and was baptised in the same church on the 4th November 1810.
On the face of it, purely from the records available, things do not look too bad for the couple despite the unpromising start. They lived on Cobgate in Whaplode and, from the account given at the inquest, little Ann was a healthy baby and Mary initially a good mother. But the records belie the true facts. It was after Ann had been weaned that Mary Eason began to take opium.
We can’t know if her hastily made marriage was a happy one (for as the old saying goes, marry in haste and repent at leisure) nor if she was suffering from what would now be diagnosed as postnatal depression after the birth of her child. But begin to take opium she did which was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary in the area in which she lived and where the drug was widely available. It was not unknown for working class women to dose their infant with poppy-head tea to keep them quiet or to soothe them. Sometimes their own addiction began because they ‘tasted’ the opiates which they gave to their children. Perhaps this is how Mary’s sad story of addiction began? However it came about, now the tragic procession of the baptisms and burials of her children begins to stalk the pages of the parish register.
First was William, baptized on the 15th April 1813 and buried just a few months later on the 30th September. He was followed by another girl, Susanna, baptized on the 2nd January 1815 and who lived to see only her first birthday. She was buried on the 13th May 1816. Then comes Sarah, baptized on the 1st November 1816 and possibly, contrary to the inquest, a further child who did survive Mary’s addiction for we have as yet found no corresponding burial for her.
Sarah’s birth was followed by another sister, Elisabeth who was baptized on the 6th December 1818 and buried just over a month later on the 10th January 1819. Then a son named Thomas, baptized on the 4th December 1819 and buried five days later. And next came poor Rebecca, baptized on the 29th December 1820, who somehow miraculously clung to life but failed to grow or develop. Finally the last child we have managed to trace, another son named John who was baptized on the 6th July 1823 and buried on Christmas Eve later that same year.
We’ll be honest here, when we first went hunting through the records for Mary Eason and her children we half expected to see a trail of illegitimate children. But no, Thomas Eason is named on all the baptisms and burials as the father, the address is always Cobgate and his profession does not change. For anyone reading through the Whaplode registers the household looks to be a completely stable one, albeit tinged with tragedy. As we have not judged Mary, neither will we judge Thomas Eason. Again, we have no way of knowing whether he was a kind or a cruel husband or even if he was an opium eater himself, but the mere fact that he had stuck by Mary and that their eldest child was reported, in 1825, to still be healthy, points to him trying his best to hold his troubled home together. Possibly he just got by and did what he could, not knowing what else to do or where to turn to for help?
At least five infant children belonging to Thomas and Mary Eason now lay in the churchyard at St Mary’s and it seems that they had passed as mere statistics of high infant mortality without the cause of death raising any suspicions, or at least no suspicions which reached the authorities. In the Fenland the rates of infant mortality were even higher than elsewhere, with the use of opium being one of the main causes. But Rebecca’s death in 1825 was different, because of her deformities, leading to the inquest.
After Rebecca’s burial on the 22nd September 1825 when she joined her five siblings in the churchyard Thomas and Mary Eason vanish from the pages of the parish register. We’ve looked for them in later records, hoping to put a happy ending to their lives, but we can find no trace of them or their daughter Ann (and Sarah if she did live). A sad ending for a sad tale of a Fenland family in the early nineteenth-century.
[i] Beccles and Bungay Weekly News, 1st October 1867