‘Mysterious Tragedy in Birmingham’


The Illustrated Police News of October 29th, 1898 carried the dramatic illustration and story of a woman who had been gagged and murdered in her bed. The crime took place at number 60 Latimer Street. This road no longer exists, but was near Bath Street. It was demolished in the 20th century to make way for the inner ring road. The victim is named as Miss Mary Aliban, aged ‘about sixty two years of age’ and the report suggests that she had in the past been an ‘inmate of Winsor Green Asylum’ (clearly a misprint).

The picture is a bit startling, depicting how poor Mary might have suffered at the hands of her murderers. A smaller, inset picture shows her collecting rent, for she was in possession of some properties which, the report reveals, gave her a moderate income of about thirty-two shillings a week. She was in the habit of collecting her rent with the assistance of two boys, whom she employed to carry her money bags. Neighbours described a woman of ‘miserable disposition’ and many reported that the ‘chink of coins’ could be heard from her home as she counted up her savings.

The house in Latimer Street was a front house, with one room upstairs and one room downstairs, occupied by Mary Aliban. The back of the house was occupied by someone else.  Mary was usually an early riser, but on Thursday her shutters remained down all day. A neighbour recalled seeing her shortly before 11pm on the Wednesday evening ‘fetching some beer’, and appeared ‘in her usual health’. The unusual occurrence attracted the attention of some of her neighbours, who found that the front door was open, prompting them to call for a police officer.

Police-officer Waters entered Mary Aliban’s house and went upstairs to her room, where he found her body, on the bed ‘a piece of calico tied tightly around her neck, a handkerchief stuffed into her mouth, and both arms tied to the rails of the bedstead’. The evidence pointed to the act having been carried out by a labouring man, or men (as the illustration garishly suggests). ‘The arms were tied with cheap silk handkerchiefs, of the description usually worn by men of the labouring class when dressed up.’ The piece of calico, pulled so tightly around Mary’s neck and which was likely the cause of her death, had been torn from a garment pulled from a box near the end of the bed. Strangulation was assumed, undertaken with violent determination. Knuckle marks were seen on the victim’s face, and it was suggested that there had been two assailants, one who attempted to suffocate her with his hands while a second found the material with which to strangle and gag her. ‘It was abundantly clear that the murderer, or murderers, had carried out their work with the utmost ferocity.’

The motive had, doubtless, been Mary Aliban’s cash. One of the bags which she used for rent collection was found empty on the floor. The second, described by her neighbours, was missing altogether. There was no sign of forced entry and it was concluded that ‘whilst the victim left the house for the supper beer on Wednesday night the murderers had entered unobserved and secreted themselves in the cellar until their victim had gone to bed’.

Mary Aliban was probably in possession of considerable savings, most of which she carried about with her in an old carpet bag. One neighbour, Mrs Hewlett, claimed that Mary had once asked her to feel the weight of the bag, ‘I lifted it up’ said Mrs Hewlett, ‘and it was remarkably heavy for its size’. A search of the house found some cash overlooked by the murderer/s – police found a quantity of gold, silver and copper to the value of £108, hidden in a saucepan. Most of the neighbourhood were aware that Mary carried her savings around with her, and that she might have a considerable sum of cash in the bags she persistently carried around, or got others to carry for her.

For some time police were at a loss as to the identity of Mary’s murderer/s, but a breakthrough came through the witness statement of yet another neighbour who recalled seeing two youths leaving Mary’s house at 8am on Thursday morning. She thought they were about nineteen or twenty years of age and  of the ‘peaky blinder class’. On Friday afternoon police received information from the landlady of a lodging house in West Bromwich regarding the ‘extraordinary behaviour’ of a tenant named Frank Jones, who had bought copies of each evening newspaper as they were published, taking them to his room to read. It was soon found that Jones, who was unemployed, had previously lived in Latimer Street, and would have known of Mary’s supposed fortune. On being searched he was found to have a sovereign, which he claimed to have found when he was walking back to his lodgings in West Bromwich, admitting that he had been in Latimer Street until one o’clock on Thursday morning. ‘There is no trace of the second man supposed to be involved in the affair, nor is it known how much money has been stolen from the house.’

What do you think? Do you reckon it was Frank Jones who murdered Mary? And did he act alone? If so, what might have happened to the money? 


‘Cholera’: an early 19th century interpretation

In the last quarter of 1831 news of a fatal cholera outbreak in Sunderland, believed to have originated from a ship which had been allowed to dock without quarantine in the city’s port. It sent alarm bells ringing across the country.  The government issued emergency regulations for civic administrations to control the outbreak, but nevertheless it spread mercilessly across Britain, claiming at least 30,000 lives by the following summer. In 1831 there was still limited knowledge of how disease was spread or how best it should be treated. Below is a letter to the editor of Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, taken from the edition of November 21st, 1831 and presenting what appears an authoritative presentation of the causes by T. Langston Parker, a surgeon at the General Hospital.  The claims really reflect ideas of the time, that disease could be spread by touch or by ‘miasma’, by which was meant bad smells or atmosphere. Parker refers to it here as an ‘effluvia’. 

To the Editor of Aris’s Gazette

Allow me, through the medium of the Gazette, to offer some remarks upon the problematic nature of the Epidemic Cholera. It is evident that a specific virus or poison is the sole cause of all pestilential diseases, in which class the cholera of Asia holds a conspicuous rank. The origin of this virus is due in the first instance, without doubt, to a combination of atmospheric causes which we cannot appreciate, such as electricity, heat, moisture, sol-lunar influence, marsh-miasm or malaria. This appears incontrovertible, since we find cholera originating in those countries where pestilential diseases appear most frequent and fatal, and where, at the same time, such diseases are both epidemic and contagious. However this virus or poison may have originated, it is manifest, from the evidence of facts, that the same combination of causes which produced it are not necessary to its propagation. It may be propagated by contagion; an individual, or a number of individuals, having become diseased from exposure to the first combination of causes, throw off from the body a contagious virus which is capable of producing a disease of a similar character in a healthy individual. Admitting this as one mode of propagating diseases whose character is contagious we must not forget that a similar combination of atmospheric influences may produce the complaint without exposure to contagion; and here one fact may be established that in the present state of our knowledge admits of no dispute, viz.- that all contagious diseases may become epidemic, and that they are most commonly at the same time both epidemic and contagious. This theory of cholera is the only one that can explain and reconcile the conflicting and contradictory statements with which we are on all sides overwhelmed and perplexed. When any doubt exists as to the contagious nature of a pestilential disease, the profession and the public should always decide in favour of contagion, since “no harm can come of taking up the contagious theory”. When cholera is propagated by contagion, or from exposure to human effluvia, the contagious atmosphere is limited to a certain extent around the diseased person, the poisonous effluvia becoming innocuous as it is mingled with and diffused by atmospheric air. Mr. Hermann of Moscow found the air immediately surrounding persons suffering from cholera to contain a peculiar principle, similar to that separated by Moscati from infected air. This contagious effluvia may attach itself to certain articles of clothing or merchandize, of which silks, furs, and woollen goods are the best retainers. A neglect or ignorance of this fact appears to have added in a marked manner to the spread of the cholera at Moscow. All persons do not become diseased on exposure to the matter of contagion. An individual pre-disposition appears to be required, which renders the body susceptible of being diseased by contagion. Poverty and its attendant evils, nervous irritability, characterized by fear or anxiety, bowel complaints, cold, errors in diet, and in intemperance, form the chief causes which pre-dispose to cholera, whether epidemic or contagious. Three persons out of every hundred were the subject of pre-disposition in Moscow.
The atmospheric, or animal effluvia, or virus, producing cholera acts directly upon the nervous system; whether this system may be primarily affected, or whether it become so secondarily from change produced in the nature of the blood, is a point which at present is undetermined, and indeed it is of little consequence since the natural connexion of the nervous system and the blood is so intimate that one cannot possibly be affected without disease or disorder being produced in the other.
It is most probably that the primary impression of the person which produces cholera is made through the organs of respiration on the blood, and secondarily in the nervous system, the blood itself being unduly carbonized and unfitted for the natural stimulus required by the nervous and muscular organs. Hence the diminished irritability of the heart and arteries, the cramp and spasm of the muscular organs, the oppression about the chest, and the torpor of the brain and senses.
The discharges and alteration of the secretions of the bowels and stomach in cholera, are either secondary effects of this general nervous depression, or arise from the direct application of the contagious principle to the internal surface of these organs, most probably from the former. On the nature of disordered secretion, such as that noticed in cholera, I have a remark of some importance to offer, which probably in some measure both the preventative and curative remedies adopted with regard to this disease. The healthy secretions of the body present, on analysis in a state of health, a slight excess of acid or alkali – but under a depraved or disordered nervous influence, or from irritation, the nature of these secretions becomes changed, the acid being rendered alkali and the alkaline acid. It appears from the most minute chemical analysis that the fluids formed in the stomach and bowels are, in a state of health, sensibly alkaline, and that these secretions become acid when the nervous influence which presides over the secretions becomes deranged.  In cholera the fluids voided contain a great proportion  of acetic and butyric acid which was detected by the analysis of M. Hermann, of Moscow. The blood of cholera patients always contains more or less acetic acid in which, in a state of health, a solution of alkaline salts only can be found. These facts, which do not appear to be generally known, are of the greatest importance, both in the prophylactic and curative treatment of this alarming disease. The discovery of acetic acid in the blood of a person afflicted with cholera is due to Dr. Walker of St. Petersburgh.
Since there seems to be so great a disposition to the formation of acids in the fluids of the body in cholera, every kind of ailment should be avoided which tends in the production of acidity in the stomach and bowels. Such are vegetables, particularly green ones, fruits, malt liquors, above all, poor beer, bottled ale and porter. British or French wines with ardent or neat spirit. The acid which commonly assists in malt liquors should be neutralized previous to drinking by carbonate of soda. All indigestible substances which do not immediately form acid, should be carefully avoided, as the irritation which they cause in the stomach may produce a change in its secretions. Mild cholera having prevailed epidemically during the last three months, errors in regimen solely are not unlikely to change the mild into a malignant or fatal disease.
I remain, Mr. Editor,
Your most obedient servant,
T. Langston Parker
34, St. Paul’s Square,
Nov. 16, 1831

Preparations for an epidemic


Cholera swept across the globe from 1829, perhaps beginning in China and causing tens upon thousands of deaths on its route. It reached Britain in October of 1831, generally believed to have arrived on a ship which docked in Sunderland. One of the first tragic victims there was 12 year old Isabella Hazard who lived near the docks. After attending church twice on Sunday she fell ill and died the following day. The government responded quickly, introducing legislation mandating that all civic authorities must institute a board of health and take immediate preventative action. There was still little understanding of the transmission of disease at that time, general theory was focussed on ideas of ‘miasma’, the spread of disease through bad atmosphere. The cholera epidemic was a global disaster and in Britain more than thirty thousand died. This was not as lethal as other fatal diseases of the day, particularly TB, but nevertheless it was a dreadful event that caused untold misery and suffering.

Birmingham was a notable exception. There was one death attributed to cholera, in July 1832, but otherwise the town remained completely free of the terrible impact of the disease.  Professor Ian Cawood of Newman College University and the late, brilliant Dr. Chris Upton, suggested that the attitude of the  Board of Health established in Birmingham in 1831 was a significant factor in that prevention, as it insisted on a programme of cleansing the town and creating a healthy environment. This was perhaps in line with the prevalent thinking on ‘miasma’. The minutes of the Birmingham Street Commissioners includes an entry for a special meeting held on November 7th, 1831. This really shows that the town administration was fully committed to working cooperatively in deflecting cholera and the success of the programme is remarkable.

The following minutes are taken from the records of Birmingham’s Street Commissioners, held by Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography at the Library of Birmingham,  this volume reference MS 2818/1/1/6 Please support our local archives and heritage which are under constant threat of funding cuts from the local authority. Once they’re gone, they’re gone for ever.

On November 5th, 1831,  special meeting was held at Birmingham’s Public Office ‘for the purpose of considering what steps it may be proper to take in reference to the statement which appeared in the London papers of today, announcing the appearance of cholera in London.’ Birmingham was far from the ports, but with the ever improving transport system, the coming of the railways and the masses of bodies travelling to the town for work,  the disaster that had recently struck Russia and other parts of the continent, must have appeared imminent. Action was urgent. It was decided to form a committee – this was in advance of a government mandate requiring the establishment of Boards of Health – which would include representatives from the General Hospital as well as administrative officials and ‘clergy of all denominations’.  High Bailiff Oliver Mason presided over the committee and coordinated with the Street Commissioners and Guardians of the Poor to ensure that all recommendations of the new committee were carried out. At a meeting of the Street Commissioners held two days later, the extent of the programme was presented.

  • The Commissioners were instructed to clean all the town sewers and ensure that streets were swept and cleansed thoroughly; in response to the instruction they  ordered the Paving Committee to open and clean all the sewers and drains in the town and to employ as many extra hands as would be necessary to ensure that the roads were kept clean; special attention was called to the cleansing of courts and small passages and ‘the neighbourhoods of the houses in the lower classes’. John Dester, the town’s chief sweeper, received instruction to ensure that all of the town’s occupants swept their portion of the footpath every day
  • The Overseers of the Poor were responsible for ensuring that the homes of the poor under their responsibility were cleansed and whitewashed and ‘proprietors of small houses be respectfully and earnestly requested’ to take similar precautions in their own properties. All with ‘as little delay as possible’

These procedures, which included the whole community of the town, were really very advanced, particularly in the attention given to the sewers. It would have placed a strain on local services and inculcated the sort of expense that was usually baulked in those straitened times. But in the face of an impending crisis, the whole town came together, and it was this early ‘community spirit’ combined with level heads and rational organisation that helped to save Birmingham from the cholera.

Soup for the poor


The food bank is rapidly becoming a vital addition to local communities across twenty-first century Britain. In the nineteenth century, soup shops played an equally important role in the rapidly expanding towns that had been spawned by the Industrial Revolution. Back then, people in need were dependent upon the parish, which, under an act that had been passed in the time of Elizabeth I,  had a legal obligation to care for its poor. Everyone in the parish contributed to a poor rate, which was distributed to those deemed to be in need and worthy of assistance. In times of extreme economic distress communities often took further action and those who had the means would provide blankets and set up soup shops as large sections of local society struggled to survive on the few shillings a week from the poor fund.  The following is taken from the very first edition of The Birmingham Inspector,  a short lived newspaper published in 1817. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 would bring in the workhouse system that we tend to associate with Victorian poverty (although Birmingham was a slightly different case), but prior to that the precarious lives of the indigent poor could often be dependent on the provision of cheap soup. This notion of a nutritious and cheap ration of food had come from the continent at the beginning of the century, the brain child of Count Rumford, an advisor to the Bavarian monarchy and possibly the founder of soup kitchens. The suggestion presented by the newspaper is for the setting up of a soup shop in Birmingham.

The Inspector article begins by first decrying the national obsession with eating meat and suggests that it will therefore be fortunate, both as respect to the finances and the health of the community, if the expedients of a hard time should render a simpler diet habitual and that the consumption of meat should be reduced to its proper and moderate degree. The article then moves on to extol the virtues of soup, as first presented by Rumford:

The action of water in the preparation of food is perhaps not sufficiently known, or not considered. It was early observed by Count Rumford that the quantity of solid food necessary to form soup, amply nutritious, was so very small as to excite astonishment, how a person could possibly exist upon it…this is effected by the long-continued application of gentle heat to a mixture of water and vegetable matter; as barley-meal, oatmeal or potatoes. 

The economy of this method of food preparation was further ‘scientifically’ explained in such a way that it made soup sound like some new-fangled invention of the Industrial Revolution, rather than a simple method of cooking that has been around, probably forever!

The fairinaceous and gelatinous particles thus become completely suspended and diffused through the water, and when received into the stomach, draw it, as it were, with themselves, into a course of decomposition and consequent digestion. 

The best and most economical recipe to ensure maximum nutrition at minimum cost should be,

One pound of solid matter, in the form of grain or meal, would probably be  amply sufficient to thicken a gallon of water; or twenty ounces if a large proportion of potatoes are to be used. These proportions should be considered…as the basis of this soup, which ought to be kept several hours in a state of simmering, not boiling; the principal intention of other additions is to give flavour. The use of potatoes is strongly recommended as highly nutritious and greatly reducing the expense, they should be reduced in boiling to an uniform pulp. 

The addition of other vegetables to this most basic of soup were presented only as flavourings and these should be of the finest and strongest flavour, such as celery, onions, turnip and carrot &c., all cut into small and thin slices; herbs &c….and the whole, if well seasoned with salt and pepper will absolutely not require the addition of meat, either in point of nutriment, flavour or solidity. 

The writer of the article concludes by stating that the foregoing hints have not been thrown out at random: they have been verified by actual experiment and once more congratulates the name of Rumford a name which, after all the ridicule which is affected to be cast upon it, stands foremost in the list of those who have soberly and effectually exerted themselves to remedy the evils which the madness and folly of the rich and the great, in all countries, bring down upon the poor and lowly.

Report from Samuel Jones, Inspector of Smoke Nuisance


Birmingham had a very different landscape to that other great product of the Industrial Revolution, Manchester.  There were few of those great ‘satanic mills’ that came to characterise  early nineteenth-century Northern England in the popular imagination. Nevertheless, this was a town of remarkable innovation and mass production and Birmingham certainly did have a problem with smoke pollution. When the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville visited in 1835, he described a town where everything is black, dirty and dark, although every moment breeds gold and silver (‘Journeys to England and Ireland’).

The dirt and the smoke that blighted Birmingham came from the numerous steam engines that drove the town’s metal rolling mills, glass houses and numerous furnaces. In 1818 the Street Commissioners received a letter from Walter Hopper Esq., complaining that the smoke from steam engines at the New Union Mill was exposing his estate, near Five Ways, to ‘volumes of smoke’ which rendered the land ‘quite disagreeable’. When looking through the Street Commissioners minutes this appears as a perennial complaint across several decades and across the town.

By the 1840s there was an increasing interest in issues of health and personal comfort and the Street Commissioners appointed a full time inspector of steam engine smoke in 1844. Jones was responsible to the Steam Engine Committee and would present official reports annually. There doesn’t appear to have been a formal system for measuring smoke at this time, other than timing the emissions and inspecting the engines. This report is taken from the original minute books of the Birmingham Street Commissioners, which can be viewed by appointment at Birmingham Heritage, Archives and Photography at the Library of Birmingham, reference MS 2818/1/8 (please be aware that, as a result of severe staff cut backs, opening times for the archives is now restricted, I would recommend phoning first)

Report of Samuel Jones to the Commissioners of the Birmingham Street Act
February 5th 1849

‘When I commenced my duties in 1844 there were 173 steam engine chimneys, large and small, with 225 furnaces. Several parties had at that time applied means for consuming smoke but they were very seldom used, there being 111 chimneys that emitted dense black smoke from 16 to 35 minutes within every working hour, others varying from 6 to 16 minutes per hour. At the present time there are 224 steam engine chimneys, with 297 furnaces and 2 more now in course of erection. Which makes an increase in the last five years of 57 chimneys and 72 furnaces, the nominal power of the various engines amounting to about 3500 Horse Power. The quantity of fuel used for working of this power alone amounts to about 300 tons per day and most of it of the very commonest description. There are 17 of these chimneys, including some with flues from muffles in them that emit dense black smoke from 12 to 18 minutes within the hour, and 50 others though greatly improved since first under inspection, are still indifferent, they smoke from causes that may be avoided from 6 to 10 minutes within the hour, the others vary from 2 to 6 minutes per hour. There are 50 chimneys used exclusively for muffles, annealing pots and stoves – 22 for puddling and tube furnaces, 6 for glass houses, 2 for gas works – making a total of 304 chimneys (exclusive of smiths forges) from which such a quantity of dense smoke would arise as would envelop the whole town were it not for the many and excellent means adopted for its consumption. This shews that the nuisance is greatly abated but it is not to the extent it could be, as I am convinced that all steam engine proprietors ought to be in such a position, for their own advantage, as would enable them to work their engines without making so much smoke as would either injure the health of or be a nuisance to the Public’

Diseases prevalent in Birmingham’s back-to-back courts, 1849: the Rawlinson Report

by Hayman Seleg Mendelssohn, albumen cabinet card, 1882-1887

by Hayman Seleg Mendelssohn, albumen cabinet card, 1882-1887, National Portrait Gallery

In 1849, Robert Rawlinson visited Birmingham to assess the public health of the town. Rawlinson was one of the first inspectors employed by the government under the Public Health Act of the same year.  Whilst in Birmingham, Rawlinson received reports from local doctors and listened to complaints about substandard housing conditions and the limitations of the fresh water supply. The resultant report would ultimately lead to the amalgamation of Birmingham’s many administrative bodies under a single authority of the town council.

The report, available to view at the Local Studies Centre, Library of Birmingham, is comprehensive and includes details of the town’s geographic features and a brief history before revealing some of the serious public health issues facing the local community. Public health had not really been a great national issue before the 1842 publication of Edwin Chadwick’s ‘The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population in Great Britain’. Below is an extract from the Report showing the information that local doctors provided in response to a request from Rawlinson. For the purpose of the investigation, the town was divided into districts and local doctors appointed to report on each.

Birmingham was, perhaps rightly, proud of its successful deflection of ‘King Cholera’ during the devastating outbreaks in the 1830s. However, as the report below reveals, this shouldn’t be taken to mean that Birmingham was any healthier than other industrial centres at that time. Many of the outbreaks were attributed to poor sanitation and lack of fresh water. The majority of Birmingham’s houses had been built in the early part of the nineteenth century, generally without any sort of planning control. As a result, they quickly deteriorated and became unfit for purpose.

n.b. ‘varicella’ is chicken pox

District A: – Dr. Hinds

  • In August 1848, there were 5 or 6 cases of typhus in Court No. 3, Sheepcote Street, resulting in several deaths.
  • Court No. 1, Cottage Lane – Smallpox and Varicella
  • Steward St the whole of Spring Hill; Eyre St; Edmund St – especially courts 9 & 4,Nelson St.,  Union Court in Mill St., Brasshouse Passage, Baskerville Place,  Lower Camden St., Barrack yard and others in its vicinity – reports of typhus and scarlet fever, rubeola (sic.) and dysentery

District C: – Mr. Clarkson

  • Henrietta St., Water St., Fleet St. and Little Charles St. – typhus, scarletina (sic) diarrhoea

Mr Clarkson further reported that, ‘when these diseases again prevail, I have no doubt they will fall upon these spots severely unless in the mean time they are much improved in their sanitary condition’

District D:- Mr. Roden

  • Hospital St; Upper Hospital St; Upper Tower St; Farm St; George St; Hampton St; Hockley St; Harford St; Howard St; and William St. North – incidents of fever, measles, erysipelas (a sort of cellulitis caused by streptococcus), smallpox and diarrhoea

District E:- Mr. Jones

Bagot Street: the dwelling house of 4 court, 5 house occupied by Ingrams is in filthy and unwholesome condition, having been the nucleus of typhus fever since the beginning of August, 1848, and requires first the removal of its inmates; second the fumigation of the house by chlorine (this was Mr. Jones full report)

District F – Mr Field

Instances during the quarter ending December 30th, 1848:

  • Influenza  – Princess St., Stainforth St., Snow Hill, Loveday St., Slaney St., Lench St., Weaman St., Price St., Brickiln St., and  Steelhouse Lane
  • Diarrhoea – Steelhouse Lane almshouses, Lancaster St., Staniforth St., Slaney St., Snow Hill, Weaman St., Loveday St., Princess St., Price St., Whittall St., Shadwell St.,  and Balloon (sic) St.
  • Measles – Stainforth St., Cotterills
  • Scarlet Fever – Lench St., Lancaster St.
  • Dysentery – Stainforth St.

District H – Mr Hill

No epidemics reported,  but ‘scattered cases’ of typhus, measles, scarlet fever and hooping-cough (sic) at Old Inkley’s, New Inkley’s, Myrtle Row, Green’s Village, Tonk St. and Hill St.

District I – Mr Badger

  • Cheapside – diarrhoea, scarlet fever and measles all ‘very prevalent’
  • Essex St. – fever
  • Barford St. – diarrhoea and fever
  • Nelson St. south – Scarlet fever
  • Edgbaston St. – fever, measles and diarrhoea ‘prevalent’ – ‘Court 15 is scarcely ever free from fever’

District K – Mr Sproston

There has been no disease in my district since the 1st November last, of either an epidemic or endemic nature’ – Mr Sproston suggests this was surprising given ‘locality and class of people living in it, consisting as it does of the low Irish, whose habits generally are of the most filthy kind’. He goes on to reveal that the district had ‘a very bad and insufficient supply of water’ with no water at all available in some parts and the sewerage and drainage ‘defective’. He expresses that an inspection of this part of town would be beneficial.

The remarks on the local Irish community appear shocking to us today, but I have come across similar attitudes in other literature of the time, including Friedrich Engels Condition of the Working Class in England, written in 1844.

District L – Mr Simons

Mr. Simons called attention to state of drainage in several courts on Duke Street and Sheep Street ‘in consequence of their being below the level of the streets in which there is no main sewer’. Suggests that many of the courts were covered with pools of water and ‘stagnated filth’ which in some parts was a foot deep ‘this all runs into a cistern from which it is pumped into a well as occasion may require’.

Simons also states that, when visiting patients in Masshouse Lane, bricks had to be placed down to form an elevated footpath above the pools of water – again because of no drainage. He stated ‘the state of things unless removed may tend to produce fever and other contagious diseases’.

Dealing with Death: the early Coroner’s Court

The proceedings on the Coroner’s inquest on the body of Bassilese Steapenhill, who was shot by her husband on the night of Friday the 7th inst.were resumed on Tuesday morning at the Grand Turk on Ludgate-hill, Birmingham and brought to a conclusion on Wednesday

This inquest into the tragic death of Mrs Steapenhill was reported in Aris’s Birmingham Gazette on January 24th, 1842. At this time, certainly in Birmingham, it was standard procedure to hold inquests in a public house, such as the Grand Turk. Birmingham’s first coroner was Dr Birt Davies, appointed by the Town Council in 1839 and holding the post until his death in 1875. His successor was Henry Hawkes, who introduced an improved system of jury selection, mortuaries in every police station and a formal coroner’s court at the Public Office on Moor Street.

Showell’s Dictionary of Birmingham gives a grim account of the old practices, describing ‘the occasional exhibition of a dead body in the back lumber room of an inn yard, among broken bottles and gaping stablemen’ declaring this was ‘not conducive to the dignity of a coroner’s court or particularly agreeable to the unfortunate surgeon who might be required to perform a post mortem’.

Although the setting for these ‘pop-up’ coroner’s courts appeared unseemly, they were nevertheless carried out in a professional manner. The jury at Mrs Steapenhill’s inquest will have been selected from amongst ‘respectable’ residents living nearest to the scene of death. Aris’s gave a detailed account of the witness accounts, including friends and employees of Mr and Mrs Steapenhill, some of whom stated that the couple had argued often and that Mr Steapenhill had been seen to threaten his wife in the past. Dr Davies also called on William Hill, a local gun maker. Hill had been the first to reach the scene of the crime, after hearing the explosion of gun fire. It was Hill who had called Dr Annesley after finding the deceased ‘with blood running from her breast’. Hill was also requested to give the jury his professional opinion on the gun used in the crime: ‘It went off at half-cock, which it should not do and would not stop at full-cock; he likewise explained that a common percussion cap will frequently go off twice when the spring of the lock is weak’, the paper reported. Dr Daunt of the Enniskillen Dragoons was then called as an expert witness. He had been permitted to examine the body and give his opinion of the gunshot wounds. Dr Daunt gave his opinion that the wound had been sustained from the muzzle of a gun ‘pointed down, over the left shoulder, near the neck with the butt end elevated’, adding that ‘even the mischief done to the heart was in a slanting downward direction’. This, with other evidence, introduced the possibility of ‘accident’ and the jury had to decide whether the accused had intended to murder his wife. After a short recess, the verdict returned on Ezra Steapenhill was one of wilful murder. On March 21st, at the Lenten Assizes in Warwick, the judge presiding the case was reported to have read ‘most of the depositions, though not all of them’ and instructed the Grand Jury to determine whether Bassilese Steapenhill had come to her death through an act of ‘misadventure’. The jury, in the somewhat grander setting of the Warwick County Court, concluded that no foul play was intended and Ezra Steapenhill walked away as a free man.

The importance of an informed coroner’s verdict is also clear in the accounts of the Town Council. Listed below is a schedule of coroner’s fees, which were approved, after some discussion, at a Town Council meeting held on June 4th, 1845. The list shows allowances for use of rooms in public houses as well as fees for ‘expert’ witnesses. This schedule can be seen in its original context in the first volume of Birmingham Town Council minutes BCC1/AA/1/1/1 [Archives, Heritage and Photography at The Library of Birmingham]

Schedule of Coroner’s Fees

To the keeper of any inn or other public house for the use of room wherein an inquest or inquests are held at the discretion of the Coroner but not exceeding per day  3s 6d
To the keeper of any inn or other public house for the use of room for a dead body until the inquest is held at the discretion of the Coroner but not exceeding  7s 6d
To every witness examined before the jury at the discretion of the Coroner but not exceeding  2s 6d
To every witness not residing in the Borough for travelling expenses at the discretion of the Coroner but not exceeding per mile 4d
To every person for taking a dead body out of the water, extinguishing fire in the case of a person burning, removing a dead body when found, to some convenient place until an inquest is held at the discretion of the Coroner but not exceeding  7s 6d
To a chemist or engineer or other scientific person employed by the court at the discretion of the Coroner but not exceeding  £2  2s 0d
For a car in case of lameness or indisposition of any witness and on other extraordinary occasions in the discretion of the Coroner but not exceeding per mile  1s 0d

‘Indecent usages’: the nuisance of peeing in public



Birmingham’s administrative bodies had to deal with regular complaints. These complaints most often related to incidents of ‘nuisance’, a term which can be understood generally as referring to material issues.  The Street Commissioners handled smoke nuisance, building nuisance and nuisance arising from problems with sewerage. Most usually these nuisances were approached by first sending an investigative party and then holding many discussions on the best means of tackling the nuisance. Sometimes the same nuisance was raised in committee meetings over several years. The Street Commissioners employed an inspector of nuisance, John Dester who was succeeded by his son, also John. Dester was the eyes and ears of the Commissioners, but complaints were also presented by the public.

The following nuisance was reported to the Street Commissioners in 1847, in the form of a memorial and, fortunately, was deemed important enough to be entered into the minute book. It is interesting as it raises not only a material nuisance, but also a moral one: that of men (I am presuming men) urinating in the street. The complaint may have been a regular one, as a report from John Pigott Smith, the Town Surveyor, also highlighted the problem. Smith suggested that he was investigating the installation of public urinals to alleviate this nuisance.

This memorial is a good example of the negotiations that took place between the public and the administrative authorities that sought to maintain order. It also offers an interesting snapshot, albeit a somewhat smelly one,  of life in a rapidly growing 19th century town.

This source can be found in MS 2818/7 [Archives, Heritage and Photography – Library of Birmingham]

Memorial from inhabitants of Bull Street, January 4th, 1847

In a place known by the name of ‘The Coach Yard’ in the centre of Bull Street one of the most public thoroughfares in the Boro’ there exists a Nuisance most prejudicial to the health of the inhabitants in the immediate vicinity and in its practice an outrage to the public decency, and would appropriately be designated street urinary but without the customary screen to pallae its offensiveness.

The incredible amount of putrid water floating on the pavement and collected in the hollows finds its way into the adjacent cellarage, more particularly that of Nos. 21 and 22, indeed so noxious is the effluvia arising therefrom especially on Sundays that the lower rooms of the houses alluded to become unfit for habitation and occasionally of necessity are voided for the day. –

To such an extent is the practice adopted that the occupants of houses are compelled to make repeated attempts to leave their respective dwellings ere the indecent usages will allow of their doing so.

Moreover the residents in premises on the opposite side of the street can never remain at their drawing room windows without being subject to indecencies in themselves disgraceful and which ought not to be tolerated in the least frequented, much less in the most public thoroughfare of the Boro’.

The correspondence was passed to the Paving Committee for further consideration. At the next general meeting of February 1st the committee reported that ‘a flagged footway on each side of the passage has been laid and the carriage way put in order and that a lamp has been ordered to light the passage’.

There are no further entries on this issue in the Street Commissioners minute books.