Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/A death-watch worth dreading




When King George III. and all his people were expecting an invasion in 1803, there was some anxiety as to the number of citizens who could be collected to repel the enemy. There had been a census two years before; and if it could be trusted (which was perhaps not the case) the number of people of both sexes and all ages in England and Wales was 9,000,000. In these 9,000,000 were included our soldiers and sailors who were dispersed about the world: and thus the King and Mr. Pitt were naturally anxious about the paucity of men. They were unwilling to withdraw the husbandmen from the field; for we then depended for our very existence on the food we ourselves grew. The King’s passion was for agriculture; yet, if he had had his choice of a crop, he would have begged for the mythical old harvest that we have all read of at school—armed men springing from the furrows. He considered that the greatest of national blessings would be the birth of the greatest number of boys. He was not out of humour with the girls either; for he looked upon them as the mothers of more boys. His leading political idea was the encouragement of the greatest possible increase of citizens. He noticed every large family he saw in his walks, patted the children on the head, made a present to the mother, and called the father a good citizen. The royal example spread among the authorities throughout the kingdom. Country justices patted children on the head, and ordered bread for them out of the poor-rate to such an extent that the poor-rate soon amounted, in this population of 9,000,000, to the enormous sum of 4,000,000l. Wheat was then at 115s. 11d. a quarter. The trading classes were going to ruin, or had already fallen upon the rates. No matter! Substitutes for the militia were so hard to be found that the parents of large families must be upheld and favoured; and if tradesmen could not support their own large families, the rate would give them bread.

When the war was over, and the soldiers and sailors came home, and food was dear, and the labour-market was over-stocked, and every town and village swarmed with pauper children (legitimate and illegitimate), and the rate swallowed up more and more of the capital of the country, the fact became plain that the people had outgrown the means of subsistence. An alarm even more demoralising than King George’s desire for a host of subjects now arose. Children were looked upon unlovingly, because too many of their parents were not married, or had married to obtain the benefits offered by the poor-law to unscrupulous people. Then arose a multitude of prudential schemes for economising money, and clubbing money, and insuring lives; and at last—insuring deaths.

It was even so. A person of middle age might describe the contrast he had himself witnessed between the days when a row of children presented themselves to the King, pulling their fore-locks or bobbing their curtseys, sure of being praised for their mere existence, and therefore objects of parental pride and hope, and the time when (not so many years after) it was an unconcealed relief to poor parents that their children should die. That was the opening season of tract-distributing and cottage-visitation under the early “evangelical” movement; and this modified the cottage language of the generation on which it was first tried; so that the account given of the death of children was, that “it was a happy thing—for the Lord would provide better for them.” Nothing was more common than this method of consolation, or of accounting for not needing consolation.

It began to be too well understood that, up to a certain age, children are an expense, after which they gradually turn into a source of profit. Facts of this sort, which must be considered in framing a legal charity, became only too well understood in the homes of the poor. By dying, the infant relieved the weekly fund of the family, and was itself “better provided for with the Lord.” I will not dwell on this phase of society. It was necessary to advert to it because we are suffering under the consequences to this hour, and have some remains of the perversion to deal with still; but I will hasten on to a time when trade in food had become free, and all the arts and business of life had so increased, and so much gold had been discovered wherewith to pay labour, and so many colonies were open to emigration, that no excuse remained for dreading that surplus population which had become a mere bugbear. The former surplus population was a real and grave evil: but to develop industry and education, and throw open the harvest-fields of the world, was the remedy. In the same way now there are half-fed families and depressed neighbourhoods; but there is a remedy in such an improved intelligence as shall distribute labour where it is wanted, and in good sense and good conduct which shall make the most of resources at home. In other words, there is enough for everybody, if everybody knew how to use it.

Under such an improved state of affairs how have the children been getting on? I am not considering the children who can work, but infants—infants so young that they used to be dear precisely because they were so helpless—precious, because they were of value to the heart alone—but infants of whom it had been discovered that they were unprofitable to such a degree that some arrangement must be made to compensate for the peculiarity. Under the unreformed poor-law, at its worst period, daughters had presented themselves at the board to ask for pay for nursing their parents: and such daughters were just the sort of mothers to sit down, with their baby on their lap, to calculate the gain of insuring it in a burial-club. One of them told us, a few years ago, how she managed. She put arsenic on her breasts when she suckled her babies, as soon as they grew expensive and troublesome. She had sent eight out of the world in this way; and she could not see that she had not done right. She said it was better for the children, who would be more certainly “provided for” than they could be by their father: and of course it was better for the father and herself. So she murdered her eight children before she was herself brought to the gallows.

There is a town in England which had, five years ago, a population somewhat under 100,000. It is a healthy and prosperous place, where the average age reached by the easy classes is as high as forty-seven years, and where the work-people are so far thriving as that they pay largely to the various objects of Friendly Societies. What would my readers suppose to be the mortality among children in such a place? Of a hundred children born, how many die in infancy?—Of the children of the gentry, 18 per cent. die in infancy. Of those of the working classes how many? 56 per cent. “What an enormous mortality!” everyone will exclaim. “What can be the reason! How does this mortality compare with that of other places?”

To ascertain this, we will take some district which shall be undeniably inferior to this town in probability of life. The rural parts of Dorsetshire—where the poverty of the labourers is actually proverbial—may be selected as the lowest we can propose. Yet the infants of Dorsetshire labourers have four times as good a chance of life as the children we have been speaking of. In that healthy and prosperous town the infant mortality was, five year since, fourfold that of the poorest parts of Dorsetshire. The same thing was then true of Manchester. When wages were highest, and everybody was able to live comfortably, four times as many per cent. of the children who were born died in Manchester as in Dorsetshire.

Was there any peculiarity in the case of these short-lived families? any circumstance in their management which could account for the difference? What the impression was at the time we see by a presentment by the Liverpool grand jury, which mainly occasioned the next change in the law of Friendly Societies. What the grand jury said was this: “They could not separate without recording their unanimous opinion that the interference of the legislature is imperatively called for, to put a stop to the present system of money payments by burial-societies. From the cases brought before them at the present assizes, as well as from past experience, the grand jury have no doubt that the present system acts as a direct incentive to murder; and that many of their fellow beings are, year after year, hurried into eternity by those most closely united to them by the ties of nature and blood—if not of affection—for the sake of a few pounds, to which, by the rules of the societies, as at present constituted, the survivors are entitled. The continuance of such a state of things it is fearful to contemplate.”

The grand jury had an incitement, of course, to say what they did. The occasion was the trial which my readers may remember, for the murder of two boys, aged eight and four, for the sake of the payment from a burial-club; and the immediate sanction for their request was the alarm expressed by Lord Shaftesbury, supported by Baron Alderson’s avowed belief that burial-clubs occasioned infant mortality on a large scale. How much concern had the healthy and prosperous town I have described with burial-clubs?

The population, we have seen, was under 100,000. On the “death-lists,” as the register of insurance was popularly called, there were the names of nearly 39,000 infants. It is clear that there must be some great mistake or fraud where it was pretended that 39-100ths of the inhabitants were infants insured in burial-clubs. We find some explanation in the plan pursued by a Manchester man of uncommon thrift. He entered his children in nineteen burial-clubs. By a comparison of numbers and registers, it was found to be a common practice for parents to subscribe to as many clubs for each child as they could afford. And not parents only. It was discovered that women who undertook the charge of work people’s infants, were in the habit of insuring the children in burial-clubs; thus acquiring a direct interest in the death of their charge.

When these facts became known, through the inquiry caused by the Liverpool grand jury, and by a published letter by the well-known chaplain of the Preston House of Correction, the world naturally cried out that there must be a bad spirit of suspicion, of exaggeration, and of evil imagination in those who could say such things of English people. A Committee of the House of Commons inquired into the subject in 1854: and meantime the following facts were ascertained.

It was found, in the first place, that though the law needed mending, it was already much better than the existing practice. By law, no insurance for money payable at death could be made on any child under six years of age. The principle of the law had been the plain one, that it was necessary to uphold all safeguards of the life of infants whose existence could not be made profitable. To make their death profitable while their lives were expensive, was to offer a premium on neglect, and even on murder. As such was the law, society supposed that all was right, till the Preston chaplain showed that it was useless—and how. The law was prospective, and nobody seems to have asked how many children were on the “death-lists” at the time of the passing of the Act (1847): and the members of the old clubs insisted on understanding that the new law affected only new clubs, and went on registering infants for burial as before. They quoted the opinion of counsel for this; and, when new clubs were to be formed, they framed them on the model of the old ones, without any regard to the law. So lately as the month of May, 1853, there was a club of 1500 members set up, into which infants were received just as if no impediment existed.

This was one fact. Another—perfectly astonishing to all but local visitors of the poor—was the way in which the illness or death of an infant was spoken of. It was a difficult affair to persuade the parents to send for the doctor. The answer was, in the ingenuousness of barbarism, that “the child was in two clubs.” It would, in other words, be no harm if the child died, while it would be a pity to have to break into the money to pay the doctor, when it was of no use. Doctors themselves have been told, and so have rate and rent collectors, that the cottager cannot pay now, but will have money when such or such a child dies. It was the commonest thing in the world to hear the neighbours saying, what a fine thing it would be for the parents if their sick child died, as it was insured in three clubs, or two, or ten, as it might be.

On the trial of Rodda, who was hanged at York, some five or six years ago, for the murder of his infant, it was proved that he had said he did not care how soon the child died, as he should then have 50s. from the club; and that he added remarks to the effect that the death of another would bring in the same amount; and two more would each fetch 5l. Clergymen could tell how often the parents of a fallen daughter, or the fallen daughter herself, found comfort for the disgrace and burden of an illegitimate child in the thought of the compensation that its death would purchase from the burial-club.

Such were the facts which inquirers encountered, and which the Preston chaplain published, to bring the representation of the Liverpool grand jury into general notice, and obtain a reform of the law.

It was full time that something of the kind should be done. In one burial-club, the deaths of children between two months and five years old were no less than 62 per cent. of the whole. If any fact could be more directly to the point than that, it is that from 6 to 8 per cent. more children died who were in burial-clubs than in the poorest class where no such insurance was made.

Full and clear as the evidence was, and remarkable as were two or three child-murders, in connection with burial-clubs about that time, many of us could not believe that such things could be done in England as Rodda was hanged for, and for which Honor Gibbons and Bridget Gerratz were sentenced to the same doom. But the prevalence of the feeling that they had done what was natural under the bribe offered for the child’s life, and the certainty that the law would be altered, caused a commutation of the sentence on these women to one of transportation for life. From that moment society was pledged to amend the law: and the thing was done.

It was a fact not sufficiently made known, that the law of the land does not permit Life-insurance in the offices to which the middle and upper classes resort when the death of the person insured can be otherwise than unprofitable to the insurer. If I remember right, this restriction was suggested by the case of Miss Abercrombie, who was thoroughly understood to have been poisoned by her brother-in-law in 1830, after he had effected large insurances on her life. It seems strange that the same limitation should not have been extended to burial-clubs. What a rich man could not do in regard to his child, was done in the case of 39,000 children in a single town of less than 100,000 inhabitants: a circumstance which occasioned repeated comment in the Committee of 1854.

The inquiries of that Committee brought out some evidence of a very interesting character. Much of it has been lightly passed over because there was no proof of any considerable number of direct murders. But, as one judge observed, in his evidence, all orders of murder are rare in the experience of any one judge: as several witnesses observed, the undetected murders were likely to bear, in this case, a large proportion to the detected, while there was no provision for detecting them: as many more observed, the mortality arose from neglect and inaction, where murder was not to be imputed: and, as nearly all agreed, it was a perilous and pernicious practice to throw the inducements into the scale of a child’s death, rather than its continued life. Hence the change in the law.

By the Friendly Societies Acts of 1855 and 1858, the amount obtainable from one or more Societies may not exceed 6l. for a child under five years of age, or 10l. for one between five and ten; and no money is to be paid without the production of a certificate of a duly qualified medical man, stating the probable cause of death, and also endorsing the amount paid upon such certificate.

It had been earnestly desired that the object of insurance should be the burial of the dead by the club, so as to preclude the passing of money into the hands of the parents or nurse. It was objected that this would break up existing clubs, and that it might interfere with a provident habit largely established. We shall all be better pleased when we see the provident habit based upon the life instead of the death of children; when we see insurance effected to procure them education, apprenticeship, or settlement in life, rather than a funeral. Also, considering that the chances of living are already far less in the case of poor children than in that of the upper classes, one would rather not see such a sum as 6l. made obtainable by the death of an infant. No doubt, the original intention was good—that the grief of losing the little one should not be aggravated by the difficulty of paying for its decent interment; but after the insight into the system obtained by the inquiries of 1854, every caution should be used in sanctioning money payments on the death of the helpless.

According to the latest Reports, there are 125 Burial Societies in the kingdom, comprehending about 200,000 members. Some Societies have 20,000, and some even 50,000 members each—the bulk of whom are children. The deaths last year were 5397; that is, an amount more than double the mortality of Friendly Societies generally, which is somewhat lower than that of society at large in this country.

The Registrar of Births, Marriages, and Deaths declares the mortality in burial-clubs in 1857 to be to the general mortality as 27 in the 1000 to 22. The high mortality among children is always assigned as an explanation; and this is, on the other hand, the ground of complaint about the payments of these clubs. Their members, who consider that they pay a high rate of insurance during the periods when there is least probability of death, are always surprised that their Society does not grow rich. It seems never to have any reserve. The explanation now offered is, that the same subscription is required for infants as for strong men; and, as a very large proportion of the infants die, the funeral money of adults is spent in laying the little ones in the ground, or in consoling the parents for their death.

Now, all this seems a disagreeable, unnatural, perilous way of going on. If we look at the obvious benefits of co-operation in the form of insurance, and consider the aims set forth by the Registrar of Friendly Societies, we shall see nothing that can recommend the insuring the lives of little children. The proper objects of Benefit Societies are agreed to be five, besides the expenses of management: viz. medical attendance; allowance in sickness up to the time when the pension begins; a pension at sixty years of age; a sum payable at death; and endowments.

The great and fatal mistake appears to be, the inversion of the purposes of these two last provisions. There are sound and strong reasons why a man, or a widowed mother, should insure his or her life. It may be a question whether a burial-club is the best place to put such savings in; but it is indisputably wise for those who have relatives dependent on them to secure the payment of a good sum of money on their removal by death. The only reason for such an insurance in the case of a child is, that the mere funeral expenses and family mourning may be paid; and every inducement to parents to make a profit of the loss of a child is a shocking and dangerous abuse. The child’s proper place is under the last head—that of endowments.

These endowments are sums of money to be paid at a certain future time, for the benefit of the person in whose name the insurer may subscribe.

For instance, a parent pays so much per month on behalf of an infant, in order to receive a considerable sum when the child is fourteen (in order perhaps to apprentice him); or when he reaches manhood—to settle him in business, we may suppose. Arrangements are made, under Government sanction, for such insurance; and by these it is settled that, in case of the child’s death, the deposit is returned to the insurer; and, in case of the death of the insurer, the deposit, be it more or less, may be taken out, and applied for the benefit of the child.

If we could convert into endowments of this kind the money deposited in readiness to bury 150,000 children, a new prospect would open to the next generation of the working-classes. The difference would immediately appear in the returns of annual mortality. In towns and villages where the murder of infants may not be even thought of, it makes an immense difference in the chances of life whether infants are looked upon as likely to die or meant to live. They pine under that expectation of death as under the evil eye. It is truly a death-watch to them. Their chances when out at nurse are never the best; and they are slender indeed when, in addition to the trouble the little creatures give, they may each put several pounds into the nurse’s pocket by going to sleep for good. All is changed when the money is laid up to put them to school—to bind them to a trade—to set them up in a business. Nobody thinks of their burial then. They are regarded as living, and likely to live; and hundreds and thousands of the children of England grow up, instead of dropping into an early grave. If the ghost of George III. were to come and tell us the truth about it, he would probably put it in his accustomed way: he would tell us that we might double our army, and fully man our navy, out of the difference, if we would turn over all infants from burial clubs to endowments under the Friendly Societies Act. Regarding them as civilians hereafter—or not looking beyond the immediate claims of every helpless infant for the fostering of its life—we ought all to direct our whole influence on the encouragement of the supposition that human beings are born to live. It is a disgrace to society when children die en masse. It is a sign that the laws of nature are somehow violated.

The best way of discouraging these infant burial-clubs is to keep the children alive and well.

Let everybody help, then, to get all infants properly vaccinated. Let public opinion discredit the hire of wet-nurses, which annually dooms large numbers of the children of wet-nurses. Let it appear that society expects and intends its infants to live and not die, and the terrific mortality which marks the site of burial-clubs will decline, and the clubs with it. The difference between them and the hopeful, cheery endowment insurance, is the difference between the tick of a death-watch in the stifling chamber in the dreary night, and the stir and chirp of nestlings in the wood, in the breeze and glow of the morning. If the working-men of England saw the choice that lies before them, surely they could not hesitate between the life-fund and the death-fund for their children.

Harriet Martineau.