Annie P’s story

Annie’s father’s position – a reverend with the West African Mission supported by the Church Mission Society – led to her unusual place of birth for a British Victorian woman. Both she and her older sister Mary were born in Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone, as their parents had gone out to help educate and convert the local residents to Christianity.

Her father had been stationed in Sierra Leone since 1837, returning to the UK only rarely, and was responsible for setting up the Freetown Grammar School. He was the first principal, with Annie’s mother running the girls’ section of the school.

The idea of the grammar school was that by educating the people of Sierra Leone in a manner similar to that taught in “civilised” Western Europe, the boys would therefore serve as a beacon for the spread of Christianity in the country. To achieve this, pupils were taught all aspects of English grammar and composition, Greek and Roman history, Bible and English history, arithmetic, geography, classics and mathematics. They all had to convert to Christianity to receive this education.

The girls’ section of the school, opened slightly later, aimed at giving a higher degree of education to “those promising native girls, drawn from the village schools, who might afterwards be employed as teachers and school-mistresses.”

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Annie’s parents reputedly compared their students – who included sons of tribal chiefs – favourably to English students during a time when European racial prejudice against Africans was extremely high.

However, even their liberal-for-the-time views and their success with the school did not stretch to the education of their own children or them sharing in the instruction given to the Sierra Leone students. Rather than being brought up alongside them, Annie’s parents brought her and Mary back to London to be educated. The girls were housed at the Missionary Children’s Home in Islington, alongside children of others serving the Church Mission Society, and can be found there on the 1851 census. Annie was only four, so at an extremely young age would have been separated from her parents as they travelled many thousand miles away.

The missionary home was a temporary measure, founded in 1849, and provided accommodation for around 50 children – all from similar backgrounds and separated from their parents. It was run by a clergyman and his wife, who – although clearly competent in spiritual matters – must have been spread very thin in loco parentis. The society started work on a more permanent premises in later 1851, completed in 1853, and it’s likely that Annie and Mary were moved there with the rest of the children. This new premises housed around 100 children.

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In the summer of 1853, their father died in Sierra Leone, after a three-week fever, and their mother appears to have come home – although she did have business still in Africa and returned periodically over the next few years. She then took up the parental duties for Annie and Mary again, moving them to Gloucestershire and the rural life in which she herself had grown up. This was a far cry from the sultry climbs of Sierra Leone, where she had paid a worker from the local cotton gin a farthing for every cockroach he could catch in her house. In later life, Annie’s mother described her as a sharp and intelligent child.

Mary went to reside with relatives of her father for a while, while Annie appears to have lived with her mother. She also boarded at a private school in Weston-super-Mare for a time in her teens, spending further time away from home, which would have been intended to finish her education.

At some point in the 1870s, the family – Annie, Mary, and their mother Maria – moved to the Wiltshire market town of Chippenham. They took up residence in fashionable St Paul’s Street, which had an array of recently-built quite grand (for the time) houses, and lived off Maria’s inheritance from her husband and anything she earned from the Church Missionary Society.

Around 1874 Annie suffered a prolonged gastric fever herself, which was said to have left her mentally weak. The family moved from their original Chippenham house to another a street or two away. Two years later, while her mother was out of the country, she was sent to the care of her maternal aunt in London, while there, aged in her late 20s, she had a love affair that sadly ended, but was said to have “conducted herself well” for the duration, as might be expected from a good Christian girl from her background.

However, it was this experience – combined with the ill health that had plagued her since her fever, that seems to have exacerbated a mental health breakdown for Annie. She began writing letters filled with delusions that were sent to family and friends. She insisted that neighbours were passing evil thoughts to her by extra-sensory projection, and was afraid that someone was trying to injure her. Another delusion was that she had once died and came back to life again. She also wrote out texts of scriptures and would pass them to people in the street. She slept badly and lost weight.

Her aunt referred Annie to Bethlem Hospital in the July of 1876, where she was described as the “orphan daughter of a clergyman” and diagnosed with melancholia via unceasing debility. Melancholia, in Victorian terms, generally meant depression and low spirits. The hospital records describe her as a “small thin individual with very dry skin”, who spent most of the day sewing. Today there are many different treatments available for the illness Annie had, but back then very little was known about how to approach mental health.

Upon her mother’s return to the UK, Annie was released from Bethlem and put under her care. They returned to their life in Chippenham. However, Annie’s illness soon became too much for her mother to cope with, and she was admitted initially to the workhouse – where she threw things and attacked an attendant – and then to the Wiltshire County Asylum at Roundway, near Devizes.

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Here records show that Annie’s problems had exacerbated since her removal from Bethlem. She was exhibiting symptoms of pica – eating soap, pig swill and unmentionable things from wastebaskets – and having no concern for her personal hygiene. She would also become violent and begin breaking household objects. This was now classed as mania. Her delusions and melancholia continued, and she often did not eat properly or at all, resulting in extreme thinness and weight loss.

The asylum considered that she was in good physical health, had been well off and had led a moral and temperate life.

Her mother briefly attempted to remove her from the asylum again, insisting that she could cope and that her “darling Annie” would be better off at home, but it appeared that the burden on Maria and Mary was too great, and Annie returned to Roundway around three months after she left, with little change in her condition reported. She would often keep her eyes covered, and repeat the same phrases.

Her mother died in Chippenham in the early 1880s, and was buried locally. Mary left the area after her mother’s death. Annie remained in the asylum, with no reduction in symptoms and no successful treatment for a further 32 years. She died in her sixties of pneumonia, just before the First World War, and was reportedly severely underweight at that time.

Harriet and Mary Ann’s story

Abortion was illegal in the UK until 1967, so unfortunately when we hear about it publicly before this date it is likely because it has gone disastrously wrong. This is the case in Harriet and Mary Ann’s story from 1883, which may also feature elements of injustice in the British legal system of the time. It’s up to the reader to decide based on the evidence.

Wherever your politics, moral and religious beliefs take you on the subject of abortion, a crisis pregnancy is exactly that – one that a woman feels that she cannot continue with, whether for health, mental health, society factors, or any other myriad of reasons. And until a woman faces that situation, it is a real unknown as to how she will react and then choose to act. In most countries around the world abortion has been illegal at some point – and in some it still is, or is verging on being again – and therefore making a choice to end a pregnancy puts a woman into a particularly murky place morally, religiously and societally. But wherever you personally fall on these matters, some women will still want abortions.

Abortion is, therefore, very much part of women’s history. Particularly in an era when “good” girls were supposed to be chaste until marriage, sexual desire on the part of women was barely even known about much less discussed, and illegitimate children carried a huge societal stigma. However, men who did engage in sexual intercourse outside marriage – although perhaps frowned upon – were not subject to the same stigma, and male desire was an acknowledged concept throughout all walks of life.

Therefore, when Mary Ann – a single Wiltshire woman not in her first flush of youth – discovered she was pregnant in the spring of 1883, she had to decide whether to keep the baby and face the wrath of society, or undergo an illegal abortion.

She’d been born in Chippenham in the early 1850s, the oldest child of a gardener and his wife, and lived in a small cottage to the east of the town. After some schooling she lived at home with her parents and siblings, and contributed to the family income as a dressmaker. However, unmarried and staring her thirties in the face, she left the confines of a Wiltshire market town and went to London, gaining a position as a cook in an affluent townhouse. She was there for six years. She worked for a chemist and his family, as one of several servants with the family, and her employer had several unmarried sons living at home and working in his business.

It’s unknown exactly who fathered Mary Ann’s child, it could have been one of her employers’ sons or someone else entirely, but during the spring of 1883 she lost her job and returned home to Chippenham, to her recently widowed mother’s care. About this time she began to complain of “indigestion”.

Most women at this time were kept ignorant of the mechanics of sexual intercourse until they were married – when it was therefore considered necessary for them to know – but even then information (usually lying back and thinking of England) was not passed on easily between mother and daughter, and men were often ignorant too. The attitude of many doctors was that women had no sexual feelings apart from the urge to have children. So, it may be that Mary Ann did not know exactly what had happened to her.

Her lover may also have been uninformed to a degree – unmarried men were often not given the full picture either, and contraceptives at this time were very much in their infancy. There were leather condoms for men, but these were expensive and had to be asked for directly at the chemists as they weren’t displayed. Women could use an inserted piece of sponge on a string that was coated with a spermicide substance, but only if they knew about it, which Mary Ann probably didn’t.

Therefore, when Mary Ann complained of indigestion, her mother took her to see a herbalist in Calne, the next town over, for a remedy as this would have been cheaper than seeing a doctor.

This herbalist was Harriet, who at this time was in her early 40s. She’d been born in Herefordshire, had married her husband Isaac in Wolverhampton, and they’d had six children together. Isaac had come to Wiltshire to run a pub near Malmesbury, making Harriet a landlady for a time, but by the early 1880s he was settled in Calne as a gardener and Harriet ran a herbalism business alongside him.

On Mary Ann’s first visit to Harriet, she was supplied with some liquid and 16 powders to take to cure her indigestion. This, obviously, didn’t work, and Mary Ann made several subsequent visits for further treatments, accompanied on occasion by relatives and friends of her mother. Whether the true nature of Mary Ann’s condition became obvious to Harriet during these visits is unknown. Harriet insisted, later, that she did not know at all, and certainly outwardly she was still treating Mary Ann for digestion-based complaints.

Since Mary Ann was still not cured and had taken to her bed, Harriet came to visit her in Chippenham, and they spent some time alone talking. Mary Ann then, four days later, went again to visit Harriet in Calne. Upon her return she felt unwell, vomited, and went to bed. Then a further three days later Harriet again came to see Mary Ann and her mother, and this time – according to witnesses – made it clear that something had happened to Mary Ann. Her mother stated that Harriet had said: “If anyone asks what is the matter you say it is a tumour, but it has burst now, and she will soon be all right.” And another witness said that she’d said it was a bloody tumour and she would soon be all right and up in two or three days. These witnesses also say that Harriet took something away in her basket. The following day a doctor was called, who said that Mary Ann was suffering from inflammation of the womb and peritonitis, and sadly Mary Ann died later that day.

Given the now serious nature of the matter, a post-mortem was performed on her the following day by the doctor. The opinion was that she had died either from the effects of the noxious drugs (fennel and rue were found), from the effects of an instrument used upon her, or from both. Harriet was subsequently arrested.

Information about how to administer an abortion was well known in whispers among married women at this time, for occasions when they felt they could not afford another mouth to feed. Some doctors at the time reckoned that one in four pregnancies ended this way. There were many dangerous methods: pints of gin, hot baths, knitting needles inserted into the womb, falling downstairs. Alternatively, there were dangerous drugs, which brought on an abortion as a side-effect: adhesive plasters contained diachylon, which was made from lead and could be bought from the chemist, and would then be eaten. There was also a mixture called ‘hickey-pickey’, which was bitter apple, bitter aloes and white lead, which could all be purchased from the chemist. Infusions of rue were a known irritant, and had abortifacient properties, and was sometimes combined with other herbal infusions to increase potency.

It is likely that at least two of these methods – inserting an instrument, and a rue and fennel infusion – were used in Mary Ann’s case. But whether they were administered by Harriet the herbalist – as the subsequent murder court case claimed – or by Mary Ann’s mother and friends, is open to question.

The prosecution alleged that Mary Ann’s mother claimed Harriet said to her that she had “instruments”, but they were never to be seen. Harriet apparently carried away something from the house in a bag. And the post-mortem, having found no trace of any noxious drugs in Mary Ann’s stomach, concluded that the cause of death was the instrument used to expel the pregnancy, which was used with enough force to cause the internal bruises and that Mary Ann could not have administered that herself. This was the case against Harriet.

Her defence argued that Harriet had not been seen to possess one single noxious drug in this case, and that a single piece of “rue” might not actually be the plant. And that the instruments described were not to be seen, much less obviously used. They also felt that the day the instruments were used was the day that Mary Ann had travelled to Calne and back on the train, and that if she’d suffered the amount of bruising and wounding that day she would not have been able to walk properly. The defence suggested that Mary Ann had suffered a miscarriage, and that Harriet perhaps had attempted to help her evacuate the womb to both improve her health and save her reputation. Or that Mary Ann’s friends and relations may have attempted to do the same, and subsequently accidentally caused her death.

The summing up of the case by the judge was as follows:

His Lordship, addressing the jury, said it was the law of England that a person who, pursuing a felonious intent, brought about the death of another person was guilty of murder. Thus, if this woman endeavoured to procure abortion and in doing so produced Mary Ann’s death, it was murder. But if treating Mary Ann for an innocent purpose and not to procure abortion and death – through her unskilfulness – followed it was not murder but manslaughter. It was important to consider whether drugs and instruments had been used. The doctor had said that an instrument must have been used. Then who used it? Could the poor woman herself or her friends? No suspicion was associated with the friends; and it must be remembered that the deceased and the prisoner were in frequent association.

Whatever actually happened to Mary Ann, and the role of her mother and Harriet in the case, in the end, Harriet was found guilty of manslaughter by the jury. Her words on hearing the verdict were:

I am not guilty. I am entirely innocent. It is only a vile conspiracy on the part of (Mary Ann’s mother) and her friends. Oh, my lord, I knew no more of her true condition than you did. Oh, my poor children, don’t take me away from them.

It is hard, from a modern perspective, to read this case and not wonder if details were missed, and conclusions drawn on the part of each of the women involved that related to society and women’s expected role within the social structure. Modern investigation and medical practices might also have had a bearing on the case. It may be that Harriet – reportedly a devout Baptist – was entirely innocent, and suffered a miscarriage of justice, or it may be that as a married woman with six children of her own she knew how not have another and applied that knowledge to Mary Ann. What is certain though is that Mary Ann’s death was entirely accidental, and the villain of the piece is neither party, nor the man who made Mary Ann pregnant, but the society that they lived in that both denied women’s sexuality and desire, and vilified women for acting upon them in an entirely natural manner.

Harriet was jailed for ten years for the manslaughter, and sent to Woking prison, many miles away in Surrey. Her husband remained local to Calne and Chippenham, bringing up their children. However, seven years into her sentence Harriet was declared insane and taken to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum until a further order or the expiration of her sentence.

In 1893, when her original sentence ran out, Harriet was taken to the Wiltshire County Asylum at Devizes where she remained indefinitely. It is from their records that we can decipher what had happened to her.

Her insistence of her innocence in the case that had convicted her had by this time become an obsession, and she had been therefore diagnosed of chronic mania with delusions of persecution.

The doctor reports:

Says she is the victim of a conspiracy to deprive her of her liberty – that she is cruelly and shamefully treated by those in authority, preventing her husband and friends communicating with her or to make any effort to alleviate her sufferings: that her trial, sentence and consequent confinement are illegal.

Her confinement and treatment in prison, not surprisingly, appears to have had an extremely detrimental effect on her mental health. Harriet is the only patient at the time not to have a photograph included in the records – she apparently believed that if they took one they might use it against her to persecute her. Reports are that she believed the staff were against her, and that she was a force of good and others were wicked. She read and quoted from the Bible continually, and wrote to committees and asked to be released – which was denied. Victorian psychiatric care being what it was, there is no treatment recorded for Harriet and it appears that their plan was to lock her up until she gave up this insistence of her innocence. She never did.

She somehow collected money while in the asylum, which she intended to use to aid her escape, but it’s unknown exactly where this money came from. There are three incidences of her being caught with money that she should not have had, once while bathing a sovereign disguised as a button was found in her clothes, and another time she was found to have bought epsom salts while out shopping with other inmates in Devizes.

Aside from her mental health, she apparently was a great sportswoman who had a real affinity with animals. She acted as the hospital rat catcher. She was also described as an ardent naturalist – which fits with her plant knowledge as a herbalist.

She was kept in the Wiltshire Asylum for 23 years past the end of her original sentence, and does not ever appear to have given up her claim of innocence. Release, when it occurred, appears to have been unremarkable. She had had some physical health issues and was quietly allowed to return to her husband in the summer of 1915, at the age of 75.

He had been living with his sister and her husband in Oxfordshire, working as a jobbing gardener. They had six years together before he died leaving his assets to her. It’s unknown whether she remained in Oxfordshire for her final years, or lived with one of her children in Bristol, but she died some years after her husband.

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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.