Helena M’s story

Losing a child under the age of five was a common occurrence in Victorian Britain, with high infant mortality rates, and virulent diseases that we can cure easily today. Helena M lost a daughter in this way, but the death of her young son was not normal for the times and had a shocking twist.

Helena possibly came from Yorkshire, or Ireland – her census records can’t agree on a birthplace. She was the daughter of a steward, so her upbringing would have been a good few steps above the base-poor level. At the age of 24 she married a carpenter’s son turned soldier. Their marriage was reportedly a happy and affectionate one, and several children followed – the first two in England while he was stationed in cavalry barracks – and then more in India when he was posted to the Bengal army at Muttra, now Mathura in the modern state of Uttar Pradesh, in the early 1870s.

Her husband’s military rank – that of sergeant and then sergeant major – meant that he was an enlisted grade soldier, not officer class, and therefore his family would have lived with the military rather than a settled house. Although it is hard to know for sure, his status, and wages, would have been above those of the privates and corporals, and he was certainly not at the level of the poorest white people in India. The fact that three of Helena’s children were born in Muttra suggests that she probably stayed at camp, even if her husband travelled elsewhere. Other accompanying wives and children – and there were restrictions on numbers of women allowed to travel with their menfolk  – would have been nearby.

Later on, when she was pregnant with her sixth child, her husband – who at this stage was in the 10th Hussars – was moved on to train in the Muree Hills, now in Pakistan. The battle of Ali Masjid, where her husband saw action, took place six months after her daughter’s birth. He was also involved in other action during the second Anglo-Afghan War, at one point going to Jalalabad, but it is unknown how far wives like Helena followed their husbands.

Although the climate could have been slightly more temperate for British women used to the Yorkshire rain, the sun was no less strong. Her husband suffered severe sunstroke while here, alongside other ailments, and required care. His commission came to an end, and together with Helena and the children returned to Britain via a long sea voyage to survive on his military pension.

Helena gave birth to another child at the turn of the 1880s, and the family briefly moved to the Scilly Isles where her husband took up a short-lived position that didn’t suit him. Instead, they settled back in Yorkshire – where the experience in India served to increase the family’s social class standing, and her husband gained a stable job.

However, this state of affairs did not last long. Within a couple of years, Helena’s youngest son died – murdered by his father.

Newspaper reports of the crime say that her husband had suffered from “vertigo” since the incident of sunstroke, and this had led to depression. Helena stated in court that he was a temperate man, not given to drinking, and had said “very strange things” to her in the week leading up to the murder. She had been afraid that he would do himself an injury for some time, so she had moved all objects that might do him harm out of his reach. He had been attended by the doctor, who had told her to keep an eye on him, but she had not been advised that he might do any of the children harm so had left all but one with him while she went out on an errand. The boy, who wasn’t yet two, was found in the cellar with massive head injuries, which his father fully admitted to causing.

Reports of the trial indicate that her husband appeared confused, and not all there. It is possible that the diagnosis of vertigo with melancholia masked deeper health problems, possibly influenced by battle experiences. His children, as witnesses, reported that he was not a violent man and that he had always exhibited great kindness towards them and their siblings.

Helena’s husband, who called himself a “maniac” and a “lunatic” during the trial, was found insane by the jury. He was not detained in gaol, instead spending the remaining 26 years of his life in a prison asylum. Helena and her children are reported to have been tearful, but embraced him in the dock.

Within a few months of the murder, Helena gave birth to her final child – another son. She received a great deal of support and sympathy from the community. The increase in social standing and her husband’s former job enabled her to keep the family home and not fall into poverty. They moved away from the house the murder took place in. To make ends meet she took in boarders, and as her children grew up they contributed to the family finances.

In later life, Helena continued to live as a boarding house keeper, supported by her children – two of whom at least never married – which suggests she was making a reasonable living and the family were relatively comfortable. She called herself a widow from at least the turn of the 20th century, despite not actually being so for many years. She died in the mid-1920s.

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To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.

 

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