Today, we seemingly take many things for granted, never giving a thought to what our ancestors went through over a hundred years ago.  Going to and from work using our cars as well as other means of transport, to carrying out our daily duties within our workplaces which is reminiscent of scenes from Groundhog Day in that each working day is just like the last.   But sometimes we may need the help of professionals to help us achieve a relatively normal way of life and again, we take doctors, nurses, the ambulance services, the police as well as other emergency response officers for granted – expecting them to be just a phone call away.

However, Victorian England was completely different, and for this next story we will be uncovering the disturbing reality of childbirth in the 1800’s.

As medical science was still pretty much in its infancy in the mid-to-late 1800’s, childbirth was still an agonizing and perilous thing for any woman to have gone through.  Painkillers were non-existent, with the exception of Opium, and even this was rarely used. 

Cleanliness and hygiene was still a thing yet to be linked with infections and other causes of illness not just towards the mother of a new-born baby but also to the baby itself, as many babies suffered from poor health days and weeks after being born.

But the medical side of things was only a small part of the wider issues that woman had to face whilst giving birth.

It seems that during the Victorian age, a woman had to suffer in silence, regardless of the pain they would go through during childbirth, and it was generally accepted that they had just had to suffer ‘for their sins’, as was the terminology over a hundred years ago.

Most women had to give birth within their own homes and to do so they would, for obvious reasons, need the help of others.  This help usually came in the form of family or friends, with some women practicing as midwives, even though they had never undertaken any formal training.  In fact, trained doctors would only be used as a last resort and when there was significant risk of death to either the mother or the baby.  And it’s the doctors and their assistants that would, at times, prove to be the main carriers of infection, often using tools that hadn’t been cleaned from previous use on other people.

And this brings us to our next story and that of 38 year old, Elizabeth Spencer.

On the morning of Tuesday, 16th June 1885, Lewis Spencer, waggon inspector for the Midlands Railway Company, was getting ready to leave for work at around 5.45am.  Having checked in on his wife, Elizabeth, who was lying in bed, he leant over to give her a kiss on her forehead, telling her he would soon be back home and that all would be okay.

Confined to her bed, Elizabeth was preparing for the birth of their fourth child, after already having three children, with the youngest being just eighteen months old.

Helping the Spencer’s was Mrs. Mary Irving, who resided at nearby Muncaster Place.  Aged 78 years old, Mary had spent most of her adult life working as a midwife, helping the most vulnerable of woman whilst in their confinements.  But just like many other midwives at that time, she had never undertaken any training prior to taking on work.  

Muncaster Place, Carlisle

However, it seems that Elizabeth had trust in Mary as she had helped deliver one of her children only a couple of years previously.  Also, Elizabeth would never entertain the idea of calling on a doctor when the time had come to deliver her baby.

Mary had arrived at the Spencer’s home early in the morning and duly began preparations for the birth of Elizabeth’s child.  She had placed towels on a table in the bedroom and had already given instructions to a younger girl by the name of Sarah Jane Magee to watch over Elizabeth’s three children whilst she was busy attending to Elizabeth.

At 7.45am, Lewis returned home for his breakfast.  He found Elizabeth lying in bed with Mary also in the room.  It was obvious that Elizabeth was in pain but he simply put this down to the effects of child birth.  He asked both Elizabeth and Mary if he could help in any way but Mary assured him all was fine and he soon thereafter left to return back to work.

By around 8.30 in the morning, Elizabeth was in a lot more discomfort so Mary asked Sarah to go to where Lewis worked to ask if he would purchase some spirits.  He duly obliged, spending a shillings worth on Whiskey and another shillings worth of Brandy to which he passed over to Sarah so she could take it back to Mary.

Back at the Spencer’s home, Sarah placed the spirits onto a mantlepiece in the bedroom and it wasn’t too long after that Mary would pour a small amount of brandy into a glass to give to Elizabeth.

By eleven o’clock, Lewis would again return home, this time for lunch and after going to see his wife, she replied saying she was “about the same” and “there was no danger.”

Lewis asked her if should bring someone to help, but Elizabeth would still object to seeking out a doctor.  With this, and just like he had done earlier in the morning, Lewis finished his lunch before returning back to work.

As the afternoon wore on, it was becoming more and more obvious that Elizabeth was struggling whilst in labour.  The pain was intensifying but despite this she would still refuse the help of a doctor.

What would transpire over the course of the next 50 minutes would be truly horrifying.

It seems that Elizabeth had struggled to give birth to her baby and things had escalated way beyond reasonable control.

Just after two o’clock that afternoon, Sarah Magee was summoned into the bedroom.  When she entered, she noticed Mary had both of her hands hidden underneath the bedclothes.

“Fetch me a cloth!” Mary instructed Sarah. 

Sarah obliged, passing Mary one of several cloths that had been placed alongside a table opposite the bed.

After doing so, Sarah left the bedroom but returned minutes later.  Mary by this time had wrapped something in the cloth and passed it over to Sarah.

A few seconds passed, but it was long enough for Sarah to realize what had been wrapped inside the cloth.   She knew alright but still wanted clarification.

“What is it?” she asked Mary.

Mary looked at Sarah but said nothing, instead, she just nodded.

Not quite sure what to do with the wrapped up item, Sarah placed it inside a tin box.

Moments passed and Mrs Lawson, another neighbour, came into the house and up to the bedroom.  When she entered the room, Mary was trying to calm Elizabeth down.

Sarah, still in shock at the scenes that where unfolding in front of her eyes overheard Elizabeth begging with Mary.

“Don’t touch me ; I am that sore I can bide no more!” pleaded Elizabeth.

“I won’t let her touch you!” Mrs Lawson replied to Elizabeth.

Sarah also overheard Mary say, “I wish it was over, because we might have had a jig by now.”

Mrs Lawson had been in and out of the Spencer’s house throughout much of the day, seeing how Elizabeth was doing and trying to help her where she could.   Her first visit was at around nine or ten that morning and Elizabeth seemed in a lot of pain. 

At around four o’clock, Mrs. Lawson saw Elizabeth struggling and she would plead with her to let a doctor come to see to her but Elizabeth replied, saying “doctors do me no good!”

Mrs Anna Livingstone, another neighbour, would also visit Elizabeth later that afternoon to offer some help.  She would also notice that Elizabeth’s health had taken a turn for the worse and thought it best to let her husband know that things didn’t seem right.  She would therefore make her way to the works where Lewis was employed and after a short time of searching for him, she found him walking along a railway platform.  She asked him if he would be going home for tea and that Elizabeth hadn’t seemed as well as she had been earlier on in the day.

Lewis immediately left work and returned home at around 4.20pm.   In the bedroom, he saw Elizabeth and it was instantly obvious to him that she was in much pain.  She asked him if “anybody had been for him” to which he replied, “Yes.”

He would then asked both Elizabeth and Mary if he should go for a doctor but both told him there was no necessity for him to do so as well as it being wrong that Mrs. Livingstone had called for him.

Now obviously, Lewis was worried about how things were developing and seeing how much pain his wife, Elizabeth, was suffering with.  But thinking this was perhaps a normal scenario and as nature intended, he would yet again return back to work shortly after.

At six o’clock, Lewis returned home but no sooner had he entered his house, Mrs. Lawson met him at the door.  She would ask Lewis if he knew how Elizabeth was and both of them would make their way upstairs and into the bedroom.  Mrs. Lawson would head up the stairs before Lewis, but she stopped and turned around to him before they both entered the bedroom.

“She must be taking the wrong way..” Mrs. Lawson softly spoke to Lewis.

Upon entering the room, we can only speculate on what proceeded from then on as, both Mrs Lawson and Lewis would spend the next hour or so trying to comfort poor Elizabeth.  And at this time, it seems neither of them were aware of the incident that had taken place only a few hours prior with Sarah placing an item wrapped in a cloth inside a tin box.

But at around seven thirty in the evening, Mrs Lawson began to see a change in Elizabeth.  Concerned over her welfare, Mrs Lawson demanded that Lewis go and fetch a doctor.

Obviously worried, Lewis made his way to the home of Dr. Frederick Abbot.  After explaining the situation taking place at his home at Sunnyside Terrace, Dr. Abbot hurriedly made his way over in his car, leaving Lewis to run back on his own.

Arriving at the Spencer’s home, Dr. Abbot immediately made his way upstairs and into the bedroom.  Upon entering, he saw Elizabeth gasping for breath.  “She is dying!  Who is the nurse?” he asked.

Elizabeth asked if she may have a drink so Mrs. Lawson made her way down to make a cup of tea as all of the brandy had by now been drank and there was very little whiskey left.

Seeing the pain Elizabeth was in, Dr. Abbot quickly helped deliver her baby which would unfortunately be dead upon arrival.  He would also be horrified at the sight in front of him.  The child had its left arm torn away from the shoulder.

“What have you let this woman lie in this state for until she is nearly dead?” Dr. Abbot asked Mary.

“Where is the arm?” he demanded to know but got no response from either Mary.

“It’s a queer thing where this arm is : I must know!” he would continue to press Mary.

Laying the baby down alongside poor Elizabeth, Dr. Abbot proceeded to check around the room until he found the arm, which was still wrapped up in the cloth Sarah Magee had given to Mary.

“What is this?” he asked, to which Mary replied; “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know what a thing is with four fingers and a thumb!” he replied back.  “This is disgraceful neglect!”

When Mrs. Lawson arrived back upstairs with the tea, Dr. Abbot held the baby up and faced Mrs. Lawson,  “Look what a fine child, but it is quite dead and with its arm torn off!” he would go on to say.  “Do you know anything about this?”.

Meanwhile, Lewis had made his way home and was stood at the bottom of the staircase.  He overheard Dr. Abbot talking to Mary, saying how “it was a very bad job” and “he could not think what they had been doing to let the woman get into a bad state.”

Ten minutes would pass and Lewis never once heard Mary speak or try to explain what had occurred.

Finally, Dr. Abbot left the bedroom and made his way downstairs.  Pausing at the bottom, he looked at Lewis and in a soft tone of voice said to him that he should go upstairs to his wife and that the case was a very bad one and that his wife was dying.  He should go up to her and bid her goodbye.

“If you have anything to say to her, you had better be quick.” he would tell Lewis.

In complete shock, Lewis asked Dr. Abbot “Is there no chance?” to which he replied, “No.  The way she is torn it is a physical impossibility for her to live.  Your place is upstairs with your wife.  You had better go upstairs now and bid her goodbye.”

Making his way into the bedroom, Lewis sat at the side of his wife, who was still conscious. 

“I think I am done.” would be Elizabeth’s last words to Lewis.

Dr. Abbot left Lewis to be alone with his wife and would return three quarters of an hour later.  By this time, Elizabeth had sadly passed away.

In the bedroom were Mrs Lawson and Mary, and this seemed to infuriate Dr. Abbot.  Shouting at both of them, he warned the two women against saying anything as the case would most likely lead to an inquiry.

News soon spread and several people whom had known both Lewis and Elizabeth arrived to pay their respects.  Amongst them was Mrs Livingstone and a lady by the name of Mrs Taylor.

The following day, at around twleve noon, Lewis visited Dr. Abbot to sort out the paperwork for Elizabeth’s death and to pick up a death certificate.  Dr. Abbot was unavailable at this time so Lewis would return at around 6pm later that evening.

After handing over the required documents, Dr. Abbot would tell Lewis that he would have to report the case and that she, Mrs. Irving, should be punished, but it seems that Lewis had taken this to mean that Dr. Abbot HAD already reported Mary Irving to the City Coroner.

Lewis would then proceed to call on Mr. Birrell, registrar, who would in turn issue a certificate of burial which would see both Elizabeth and her baby both being buried on the following Thursday.

Two days later and by Thursday, 18th June, news of the death of Elizabeth as well as the trauma and subsequent death of the baby had reached the Chief Constable. Horrified at what he had heard, he managed to send a telegram to Mr J. Hewetson Brown, the City Coroner , who was over in Cockermouth on business.

The Chief Constable also dispatched a messenger to stop the funeral from taking place and as he arrived at the home of Lewis, the hearse had already arrived and was awaiting the loading of the coffin.  Relatives and friends had by this time gathered to pay their final respects.

It goes without saying that the funeral would not take place that day, with the hearse being sent back to the town.  This in turn led to more excitement in the district resulting in more pain and anguish for Lewis and his three children.

The City Coroner instructed police surgeons, Dr. Walker and Dr. Lediard to perform a postmortem with Dr. Abbot being present if he chose to do so.  The postmortem on the body of Elizabeth would take place later that same afternoon and an inquest would take place later in the evening at the Golden Fleece Inn, St. Nicholas and would be held by Mr. Brown, the City Coroner.

The inquest wouldn’t last too long, with Mr. Brown telling those who were sworn in as jury members that due to the late hour he would propose that after sufficient formal evidence of identity of the body was made, they resume the inquest the following day at three o’clock in the afternoon and within the West Walls Police Office.

The jury then went to view the body and on their return Lewis would be called to confirm the identity of the body as that of his wife, Elizabeth.

Mr. Brown, satisfied that the identity had been made, would leave an order for the burial of Elizabeth to take place.

The resumed inquest would take place the next day, Friday 19th June and it would be Lewis Spencer who would be the first to take to the stand.  He would tell the jury of what transpired on the day of his wife’s death and how he had left for work in the morning, only to return throughout the day whilst on his breaks.  He would also tell of how he had purchased two bottles of spirits and given them to Sarah Magee on the request of Mary Irving and this would seem to raise one or two eyebrows from the City Coroner, Mr Brown.

“At the different interviews you had with Mrs Irving, was she sober?” Mr. Brown asked Lewis.

“According to what I could see, she was.  She was never on her legs when I was upstairs.  She sat beside the bed all the time I was present. “

In fact, it seems that the Coroner as well as the Foreman of the jury would keep pushing Lewis on whether or not Mary had been drunk whilst trying to help Elizabeth.

“None of the women who were present made any suggestion as to Mrs Irving being the worse for drink, and neither did Mr. Abbot?”

Lewis replied, saying, “I never enquired what became of the drink that came into my house.”

Sarah Magee would be called before the jury and she wept and sobbed so much whilst under examination it became almost too difficult to understand what she was saying.

However, and just as they did with Lewis, they would question Sarah over the two bottles of spirits that she had brought back with her after going to see Lewis at his place of work.

“Did you notice whether all the spirit had gone?” asked Mr. Brown.

“One of the bottles was empty, and the other almost empty.  I heard Mrs Irving say, “I wish it was over, because we might have had a jig by now.”

It was becoming clearly obvious by now that the City Coroner and the jury where trying their very best to insinuate that Mary was possibly drunk whilst trying to attend to Elizabeth.

Dr. Abbot would be called before the jury and talk would soon lead to how the death certificate was issued.  It seems that the day after the death of Elizabeth, and after Lewis had made his to way over to Dr. Abbots premises, a certificate would not at first be issued until he had spoken with Mr. Birrell, registrar.  After informing Mr. Birrell of the events that had taken place the previous day, Dr. Abbot was told that the only certificate he could be given was one that Elizabeth had died from the shock of confinement. 

Mr. Birrell would also mention to Dr. Abbot that he could see no reason why an inquiry would be needed and that the details on the certificate would be sufficient.

Dr. Abbot would go on to read an extract from the instructions given to medical men by the Registrar-General :

“In all cases of deaths from violence, or suspected violence, the medical practitioner should inform the friends of the deceased that it is their duty to bring the case to the knowledge of the Coroner in order that he may decide as to holding or not an inquest, and that, should they neglect to do this, the Coroner may feel it his duty, when the case comes to knowledge, to order the body to be exhumed and inquiry instituted.”

This led to a feisty response from the City Coroner, Mr. Brown.

“You would hardly wish us to understand that if the arm of the child was torn off, no violence was used?”

“No violence was used towards the mother.” replied Dr. Abbot.

Not happy with this reply, Mr. Brown was curious as to why Dr. Abbot failed to inform the police saying, “Did it not occur to you, having regards to the serious nature of the case, it would have been better to have informed the Chief Constable?”

Dr. Abbot replied, “I did not know who he was, and I did not know the Coroner.  I should have informed them but for the information given in the instructions of the Registrar-General.”

Dr. Abbot would also be questioned a juror, who asked him, “Do you think if Mrs. Irving had sent for a doctor sooner, the child might have been saved, and the mother also?”

“Certainly” replied Dr. Abbot.

“Then by not sending for a doctor, both the child and mother are dead by neglect?”

Strangely, Dr. Abbot found this last question somewhat amusing, and replied in a mocking tone, “What answer should I give to that!”

Next up came Dr. Lediard and Dr Walker, both of whom had performed the postmortem on Elizabeth.

They had prepared a joint report which described the appearances presented by the internal organs of deceased, and state that the cause of death was hemorrhage resulting from rupture.  Dr. Lediard also added by saying that the efforts to deliver the child, great violence had been inflicted not only upon the child, but also upon the mother – violence resulting in laceration such as described in the report. 

In this case, it seems that an early intervention by a skilled medical man (a doctor) would have saved the life of the woman, and the child would probably have been born alive.

In summing up, Mr. Brown, City Coroner would say that it was now up to the jury to consider whether the evidence given was enough to find Mrs Mary Irving guilty of carelessness or unskillfulness.    He would remind them that the law required such duties to be undertaken with a reasonable amount of knowledge and skillfulness and if there was an absence of such then a verdict of guilty by negligance must be given and if such a verdict was agreed upon then Mrs Irving must go to trial on the charge of manslaughter.

The jury didn’t take long to consider the charges and after some consideration they returned a verdict of manslaughter against Mrs. Irving.

The foreman of the jury added, “The jury are also of opinion that the conduct of Mr. Abbot in giving a certificate as the cause of death without first informing the proper authorities, is deserving of the severest censure!”

On Monday,  22nd June, Mary would appear before the Mayor, J. R. Creighton at the Town Hall, charged with feloniously killing Elizabeth Spencer on the 16h June 1885.

Mr Errington for the prosecution would detail the circumstances of the case and he would also bring into question as to if Mary was drunk or under the influence of drink when trying to deliver Elizabeth’s baby.

He spoke of the two bottles of spirits that Sarah Maghee had brought back to the house with her after being sent out to fetch them by Mary and how one was empty and the other nearly empty by the time Lewis Spencer arrived back home later in the evening.  He would tell the bench that he could satisfy them that Mary was indeed drunk, and would ask them to come to the conclusion that the injuries inflicted upon Elizabeth were occasioned by gross and criminal negligence.

The bench, satisfied that a case should be brought before Mary would commit her for trial at the Cumberland Azzizes.

On Thursday, 2nd July – the trial of Mary Irving would take placed at the Cumberland Assizes, Carlisle.   All of the evidence we have already discussed would be mentioned and in closing, Mr. Shee, defending Mary, would tell the jury that age in itself is no evidence of negligence, although no doubt it may have been prudent for Mary to have perhaps given up the business she had work in much earlier in her life.

Although she was nearly 80 years of age, and undoubtedly infirm, and although shakey, she was perfectly justified in accepting the employment from Elizabeth Spencer.

He would argue that despite being asked on many occasions, Elizabeth and Lewis Spencer had both turned down the use of a doctor and like many sensible people in the country, they preferred a midwife to a doctor. 

Mr. Shee would also tell the court that Mary had probably spent he whole life in that line of work and in this case, she did the very best, despite her age and how shaky she may have been.

He would end by saying that the ‘mischief’ was due to an error of judgement, and therefore, Mrs Irving was not responsible.

His lordship, Mr. Justice Manisty, in summing up, asked the jury not to allow their feelings to be carried away by sympathy for an aged woman.  The question was not whether Mary did her best but whether she brought to bear upon her practice of midwifery a reasonable amount of skill. 

He would tell the jury that the real mischief was done when Mary tore away the arm off the child, saying it was an undeniable fact the violence was used.

As to the plea that Mary was old and infirm, her age would not excuse her undertaking a job that she was not reasonable competent to undertake.

The jury retired and when they arrived back in court just after two o’clock, they returned a verdict of guilty.

In passing sentence, Mr. Justice Manisty said he believed that in finding Mary guilty, the jury had done their duty.

However, he would take into account Mary’s age and infirmity as well as the fact that she had worked as a midwife for most of her life. 

It was a case he wished to be very lenient, and he would pass a sentence which would be almost nominal, but others must know that it was wrong to undertake a duty for which they were incompetent.   

The object of the sentence was not so much to punish Mary but to serve as a warning to others.

Mary would therefore be sentenced to just one month’s imprisonment without hard labour.

However, this wasn’t the end.

Less than a week after being sentenced, the Home Secretary would, after representations being made on behalf of Mary, send an order for her release, saying that she was unfit to suffer imprisonment. 


Sources used in this story;

Carlisle Express and Examiner – Saturday 20 June 1885

Carlisle Patriot – Friday 19 June 1885

Carlisle Patriot – Friday 26 June 1885

Edinburgh Evening News – Monday 13 July 1885

Soulby’s Ulverston Advertiser and General Intelligencer – Thursday 09 July 1885

+ many more courtesy of the British Newspaper Archivewww.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk


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