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Mr Frederick Chalk, Surgeon, Eythorne: Inquests and Illegitimate Child

Inquest (reported 2nd February 1850) on the body of an illegitimate child to which Margaret Garlinge (a family name common in the area for at least 250 years), living with her parents of this parish, had given birth. The child was heard to make a stifling noise but was soon afterwards discovered to be dead. Mr Chalk, Surgeon of Eythorne who was called in said he could not state whether the child had been born alive, although he believed had a medical man been attended at the birth the life of the child might have been saved. Verdict, natural death.
A child born outside marriage, or ‘out of wedlock’, was regarded as ‘illegitimate’, without full legal status, and this was a serious stigma until the mid-20th century. It was recognised in the 19th century that illegitimate children were half as likely to survive compared to children with married parents. They and their mothers were victims of discrimination. Few employers would take on a woman with an illegitimate child as a regular worker, partly because childcare distracts a mother, decreasing her productivity and partly because of the shame of illegitimacy. With a child to care for, it was extremely difficult to make enough money to survive. Many unwed mothers, or widows with small children, without a home, in poor health, hungry and exhausted, ended up having apply to enter the last place of refuge for the desperate – the workhouse.
Illegitimacy in England was never common, the number of such births in the past usually being under 2%. That number increased to 3% between 1590 and 1610. It rose to 3% again about 1750, slowly increased to 7% in the 1840s (when about a third of women were pregnant at marriage), and then declined to about 4% in the 1890s.
Since pregnancy outside of a stable relationship with a breadwinner often meant death by starvation, strong taboos arose against it. The culture at the time prized virginity, modesty, chastity and purity. These cultural behaviours were put in place to deter illegitimacy.
Baby in Pond
An inquest was held by Mr Delasaux at Nonington on Wednesday 9th November 1853 on the body of a male child found in a pond. The evidence of Henry Pledge was that he that was going to Eythorne when he saw something in Tye pond (the possible location of which is shown on the map with a blue cross, the location being identified in red (it is clearly shown on older maps) which turned out to be the body of a child wrapped in flannel. Mr Chalk expressed a belief that the child had been born alive and had lived some days but was unable to speak to the cause of death. The body was in a decomposed state. There being no further evidence, a verdict of “found dead” was returned.
Under the circumstances its almost a certainty that the child was unwanted. It may possibly have died of natural causes, but it may also have been a victim of infanticide. Before contraception was generally available, and when abortion was fraught with danger (50 % of abortions resulted in death of the mother), infanticide was a not an uncommon solution to the problem of unwanted children. Infanticide was driven by factors such as post natal depression and the sheer desperation of young women, often already living in abject poverty, finding themselves pregnant and then giving birth without any means of support. There was also the considerable social stigma of single parenthood. In almost all cases the infanticide was carried out by the mother. Seventy nine women were hanged for this crime between 1735 and 1799 and a further nineteen between 1800 and 1834. Large numbers of women and girls continued to be sentenced to death between 1840 and 1922 for killing their infant children but were all reprieved.

James Kimber
An inquest was held before the Coroner, Mr. Delasaux at Northbourne on Wednesday the 19th of May 1869. A body was found by Northbourne labourer John Kimber in a hollow in a piece of ground in the garden. It was identified as James Kimber aged 58. It was stated that the deceased had been in a low and melancholy state for nearly a year past. Witnesses said they last saw him alive on the Tuesday evening (the 18th). Sergeant Alfred Barnes, KCC (Kent County Constabulary), said he found near the body of the deceased a bottle which he produced at the inquest. Mr F Chalk, Surgeon, Eythorne, stated that he examined the body upon which there were no marks such as external marks of violence but was of the opinion that the deceased had died from the effects of opium and was confirmed in his opinion by the fact that in the bottle now produced there had been a quantity of that poison. The details of the inquest were reported in the press (22nd May 1869) under the title “Melancholy Suicide” although the actual verdict of the jury was death caused by “Temporary Insanity” 22 May 1869.
However they may have got the verdict wrong.
In the mid 19th Century, opium and its derivatives, such as laudanum and morphine, were the most common poisons in suicides in England. Laudanum was cheap and easily accessible, and so was a popular means of suicide, but it was also unregulated and the cause of many accidental overdoses. However, these were not the only dangers. Medical use often turned into habitual use (see Mary Rye previously), and many people began to take the drug recreationally. Opium was cheaper that alcohol, and the working classes saw it as an effective hangover cure.
The 1868 Pharmacy Act attempted to control the sale and supply of opium-based preparations by ensuring that they could only be sold by registered chemists. However this was largely ineffective, as there was no limit on the amount the chemist could sell to the public.
Laudanum addicts would enjoy highs of euphoria followed by deep lows of depression, along with slurred speech and restlessness. It was not until the early 20th century that it was recognised as addictive. Its possible that James Kimber was an addict (note he was said to be low and melancholy for a year prior) and took an accidental overdose rather than him intending to commit suicide. Hence the verdict might be Death by Misadventure.

Vince Croud

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