One of the ways women who had an illegitimate child could attempt to get support in Victorian times was to pursue the father of the child through the bastardy courts, and ask for him to pay regularly for the child’s upkeep.
However, if the woman involved was felt not to have been repentant or was perceived as completely fallen, that same court could decide that she deserved no support from the father whatsoever. This was the case with Susannah, who pursued Simon – the father of her child – and petitioned for financial support in 1864. The court refused this request because Susannah had been the mother of six illegitimate children, and therefore was of poor moral fibre. They dismissed the case.
Six illegitimate children would appear to be going it some, for the period, but Susannah appears to have lived a rather unconventional life with regards sexual and marital morals for the period. Simon – who at the time was caught up in the courts for other reasons too (poaching, trespass, and general roughhousing) – was apparently heard to say that if he wasn’t standing on these charges he would not mind paying for the child. This child was his and Susannah’s son George, but he does not appear to have been the father of her other five children. Most of these were little boys, several also named George, who did not live very long.
Susannah was born in a small community just outside Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire. She was one of at least nine children, and her parents were agricultural labourers. In early adulthood she left home and found work as a servant – sometimes in Bath, and sometimes in the small communities surrounding that city.
Her first son was born in 1853, when she was around 18, and three subsequent boys named George followed in 1857, 1858 and 1859. A daughter – Elizabeth – who appears to have survived infancy, was born in 1861, and then the fifth boy – also George – in 1864. This would appear to be the child that she attempted to take the father to court over.
She does not appear to have been the only member of her family who indulged in relationships that were against the public perception of decency for the time. Her brother also had a partner he wasn’t married to, who had two illegitimate children.
Having failed to convince the courts of her entitlement to support for her son, and her relationship with Simon having waned, Susannah took up with someone else. This time her paramour was a married man, Samuel, whose relationship had run its course. However, divorce in the 1860s was very difficult to obtain so dissatisfied couples would often live apart. Samuel had taken up with Susannah, and by 1867 they were cohabiting, or certainly seeing each other most evenings. The inevitable happened, and Susannah ended up pregnant again. Or as a newspaper put it, “she found herself in a fair way to increase the pauper population.”
Some months into the pregnancy, Susannah was suffering from pleurisy – an inflammation of the tissue between the lungs and the ribcage. Her partner, according to her sister, mixed her some pepper and water to ease the pain.
Around six months into the pregnancy, after an evening that involved her brother, her lover, her brother’s lover and a bottle of gin, Susannah went into premature labour. The result was premature twins, a boy and a girl, who were too under-developed to survive, but were still born alive.
Susannah asked her neighbour, Ann, to bury the new-born boy and girl in the garden, but her neighbour struggled with this instruction – despite the reward that Susannah promised her – given the children were still alive. Susannah’s sister, who was around at the time, urged her to complete the job, but Ann immediately went back to Susannah, and refused to bury the babies. She began to wash them, but both died during this process as they were too premature.
Shortly after this, Susannah died, after the physical strains involved in giving birth to the twins. Local rumour suspected that Samuel had poisoned her in order to abort the babies, and a court case followed.
It was discovered that Susannah had no trace of any abortifacient in her system, and the cause of death was double pleurisy. And that the twins were too immature to have survived, at least with the medical care available at the time. A death from natural causes was recorded.
About five years later Samuel also died, by drowning in the Kennet and Avon canal at Devizes. He slipped while crossing a lock across the water, near Prisoner and Foxhanger bridges, and struck his head against the stonework as he fell. He and his wife appear to have separated after the relationship with Susannah, and the child from his marriage was being brought up elsewhere.
The Women Who Made Me actively welcomes submissions from anyone who has a story to tell about women from their family. 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.