Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Stillborn children: the Bermondsey Scandal of 1883


At an early hour yesterday morning Inspector Kemp and Sergeants Pickels and Wilson, of the Southwark division of police, acting upon information given at the Stone's-end police-station, Blackman-street, Borough, proceeded to the business premises of Mr. William Camden, undertaker, at 72, Long-lane, Bermondsey, and having aroused the person in charge, named Chapman, informed him that they; had a warrant to search the place for a number of dead bodies which they understood were secreted there. They were shown a recess under the staircase, and there saw a large shell, from which a most offensive smell proceeded.

On opening the shell they found in it three coffins, which contained the bodies of 11 infants in a very advanced state of decomposition. Dr. Alexander, the divisional surgeon,; was sent for, and on his arrival the bodies were removed to the St. George's parish mortuary and laid-out for examination. The sex of three or four only of the bodies could be ascertained, and Dr. Alexander is of opinion that they must have been secreted in the coffins several months. The Southwark coroner, Mr. W. J. Payne, was communicated with, and arrangements were made for holding an inquest. The police were busily engaged in seeking information as to the parents of the dead children, and in the course of the morning Mr. Camden, who resides at Peckham, presented himself at Stone's-end police-station, but was not arrested; The business premises in question remained closed during the whole of the day. As the news of the discovery spread in the locality crowds of persons assembled at the spot, and but for the presence or the special policemen who were stationed there,they would have done damage to the shop last night. Indications were not wanting that they would have given expression to their feelings by an appeal to lynch law had Mr. Camden put in an appearance. Similar excitement has been unknown in South London since a like discovery was made some years since at an undertaker's named Mummery, whose business premises in Old Kent-road wore attacked for several days by an angry mob. From certain statements which have been made by. Mr. Camden it is said, however, that no more serious charge than that of creating a public nuisance is likely to arise out of the discovery. According to the caretaker, who resides on the premises with his wife, it is not unasual for bodies of stillborn infants to be brought to the shop and to be kept there until a number have accumulated, when they are buried en bloc. It appears that a very small charge is made for the interment of such corpses, and it is alleged that the undertaker could not recoup himself unless this course was adopted. All the bodies found on the premises are those of infants bearing indications of having been stillborn.

The Times, 23 August 1883

At the Southwark Police-court yesterday ... These persons appeared to be very poor, and had stated that they had paid the undertaker sums of money to the extent of 5s. each on the promise that the bodies should be buried. ...

Ellen Jackson of 11, Victoria-place, Collyer's-rents, Borough, deposed to giving birth to a stillborn child on August 3, and said her husband arranged to pay Mr. Camden 5s. to bury it. He sent and fetched it away on Bank Holiday, and said it would be buried at Plaistow on the following Wednesday. She was horrified to learn that it had been found with eight others in the big coffin at Mr. Camden's. It was dressed with new clothes when it was taken away. She had been to the mortuary to try to identify it, but she was too frightened at the sight to stay ...

Decective Sergant Pickels, M Division, deposed to the finding of the bodies in three coffins in a large shell on the premises at 72, Long-lane. They were all pinned up in white cloths. The smell emitted was most loathsome.

The Times, 24 August 1883

A remarkable feature in the case is the method said to exist among undertakers in poor localities. It appears they arrange to bury children for a trifling sum, without troubling the parents to follow the ordinary routine of a funeral. In this way, the bodies are removed, and no more, as as rule is heard of the matter.

The Essex Standard, 25 August 1883

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