Wearside Echoes: Putting a price on your baby’s life

DEPTFORD DAYS: The Saltgrass - one of the few remaining buildings in Depford. The area was once a thriving community, but most has now disappeared.
DEPTFORD DAYS: The Saltgrass - one of the few remaining buildings in Depford. The area was once a thriving community, but most has now disappeared.
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HALF A CROWN – or the baby dies!

“It sounds a lot like blackmail, doesn’t it? The price of a child’s life – two shillings and sixpence,” said local historian Norman 
Kirtlan. “But, for hard-working folk who just couldn’t afford that much for medical help in Victorian times, there really wasn’t much hope.”

The Thompson family, of Anne Street in Deptford, were looking forward to a first Christmas with their baby, John, in 1888.

However, the little lad fell ill with a serious stomach complaint – prompting them to call out a Dr Barclay.

“He duly arrived, witnessing at first hand the wretched conditions in which they lived, with just a bed and a few sticks of furniture,” said Norman.

“You would have thought that the good gentleman, well fed and well paid, would have taken pity on the Thompsons, but not a bit of it.”

Instead, before even taking a look at the sickly tot, Dr Barclay demanded to see their Parish Order – a pre-paid certificate for medical treatment.

Mary produced a crumpled piece of paper but, after finding it out of date by just a few days, the medic demanded half-a-crown before helping out.

“Considering Mary had sold most of her clothes and bed sheets to get food, the chance of finding that sort of money was nigh on impossible,” said Norman.

“Her husband, a potter’s labourer, only brought in nine shillings a week, and they did their best to survive – even if it meant pawning their winter clothes.”

Instead, on the doctor’s advice, she swapped the baby’s bread and milk diet for breast milk, bottled milk and port wine. No medical treatment, however, was given.

For a week or two young John seemed to rally but, on Sunday December 9, 1888, tragedy struck and the baby died.

An inquest was duly opened into John’s death at the King’s Arms in Deptford, just yards from the Thompsons’ home, a few days before Christmas.

Mary was one of the first witnesses to be called. Why, asked the puzzled coroner, hadn’t she just purchased another Parish Order before seeking treatment?

“The answer was simple,” said Norman. “She couldn’t afford it and, as she had hocked her boots to buy baby food, she couldn’t go outside to buy anything anyway.”

Newspaper stories from the time reveal Mary shook as she gave her evidence, telling the court how she had tried her very best – going without food to feed the baby.

“Neighbours corroborated her evidence. She was a good mother, and no doubt about it,” added Norman.

Dr Barclay was also called to give evidence, seemingly “without much emotion or compassion” – according to the same newspaper reports.

Indeed, when questioned over whether he could have bent the rules to give John free treatment, he replied he had shown “charity enough” by offering free feeding advice.

“Rules were rules”, the doctor added. “Nonsense” spat a jury member.

“Dr Barclay was slated by the court, but seemed to show little compassion. Rules were rules and that was that,” said Norman, a former police officer.

“A verdict of death by natural causes was returned by the inquest. Death by jobsworth more like.”

n Norman has written several books on Sunderland’s history. They can be purchased from Sunderland Antiquarian Society, at 6 Douro Terrace, any Saturday morning.