I have spent my evenings for the past few weeks ploughing through the infanticide records, handily digitised and available free at www.oldbaileyonline.org. You’ll be pleased to hear that I haven’t been doing this for fun, but in order to sharpen up the methodology of an article that I would dearly love to have published at some point this year. The case of Isabella Buckham jumped out at me as being perfect for a blog post, as it raises some fascinating questions about the way that birth was experienced in the lower sections of eighteenth-century society.
The first witness was Ann Smith, a nurse in Faith’s Ward at Bartholomew’s hospital where Isabella was a patient. She said,
‘I was sitting by the fire, she called to me to bring her the bed pan, she was then ill in bed, I did not know she was with child before, she had a loose stool in the pan, I took and emptied it. I went to the fire and heard her puking, I went and held the bed pan to her, and she pulled in it; I went and emptied it again, and put it by her bedside and went to the fire side again.’
From a modern perspective, it seems faintly ludicrous that Isabella could be nine months pregnant – in bed, in a hospital ward – without anyone having noticed her condition but in the eighteenth century there were no certainties around the pregnant body. Midwifery treatises of the period can offer very little diagnostic information, suggesting instead that clues such as morning sickness, or extreme tiredness should be watched for. What we now consider to be the first sign of pregnancy – the cessation of menstruation – was not particularly reliable with malnutrition and poverty having an impact upon the regularity of a woman’s ‘courses’. Even the most visible sign of the pregnant body was fraught with uncertainty, as petticoats and aprons hid the thickening of waists. Many women who were later charged with infanticide explained away their increasing size as a distemper or dropsy and this was clearly a common enough complaint to stop the neighbours accusing them of loose morals, at least for a little while.
A painting of the women’s ward at Middlesex Hospital, 1808.
Ann’s testimony continues,
‘She called me to warm her a flannel petticoat to put round her waist, she desired me to pin it round her waist; told her I could not for fear of pricking her, and she did it on herself. I went and sat by the fire again.’
This struck me as unusual, even by eighteenth-century standards. Why, when Isabella was clearly suffering from a stomach complaint, did the nurse refuse to help her? Ann’s claim that she was scared of pricking her does not ring true as almost every item of clothing was pinned at this point in time, particularly amongst women of Isabella’s status. After refusing to help her patient, Ann retires to the fireside effectively distancing herself from the following events. Perhaps, then, Ann was not unaware of the cause of Isabella’s problems. She confirmed under cross-examination that she was a mother herself – a fact which qualified her to give evidence – is it probable that she had not recognised the signs of late pregnancy and early labour? And if she had realised what was really going on, what were her motivations in removing herself from the bedside. Was she trying to help Isabella by deliberately not witnessing the birth? Or was she refusing help when she knew it was needed?
Between 1am and 2am the next day, Isabella said to Ann,
‘Nurse, my sheets are all wet’; I turned the cloaths down, and found the sheets all as they are when a woman has had a child. I said, God bless me, here has been a child’ she said, nurse do not say such a thing, for I never had a child in my life. She bid me put the sheets out and have them wash’d, and she would pay for them’
In this sentence, I hear Isabella pleading with Ann to turn a blind eye to her delivery. It reads to me like a cry for help. If it is, Ann chose not to hear it and took the sheets to her sister who, in turn, called the midwife. Isabella was discovered.
The remaining witnesses in the case were the women with whom Isabella shared a ward. Their statements remind us of what a grim, grimy and claustrophobic place the eighteenth-century hospital ward was. Ann Wing states:
‘I was in the same ward with the prisoner, I saw her get out of the bed…I saw the sheets taken off the bed, they were very bloody, and so was the prisoner. I saw the flannel petticoat lying on the floor. There were clots of blood fell on the floor, which shook out of the sheets as they were taken out of the bed, there were all the symptoms of her having been delivered of a child.’
Another patient, Mary Old, states:
‘I was in the hospital at the time, I lay in the next bed to the prisoner I heard her very ill in the night, she groaned violently; I heard her get out of the bed to go to the vault twice, and come in again. I saw the sheets taken off the bed afterwards; they were like a lying-in woman’s sheets. I saw the flannel petticoat taken out of the bed; that was bloody.’
Three women claimed to have heard a child cry in the night, a fact that could well have led Isabella to the hangman, but two others said they heard nothing of the sort. Isabella was eventually acquitted of the charge of infanticide, having argued that she was out of her senses and did not know what she was doing when she gave birth to the child in the vault..
Is it realistic to believe that these women were unaware that Isabella was giving birth that night? If they were aware, did they help her? Or did they stay in bed as they have chosen to claim? Did they stay in bed out of empathy? A birth that was not witnessed was a birth that could be made to disappear. Or did they stay in bed to punish Isabella for flouting the social and moral conventions of the time, forcing her to give birth alone surrounded by unfriendly faces? Personally, I don’t believe that these women were ignorant of Isabella’s situation. They sound experienced, confidently recognising the state of the sheets and the spot on Isabella’s petticoat where the child had fallen. Nor do I believe that they were well disposed towards Isabella’s predicament. This case does remind me, however, that not all births took place in a warm, enclosed birthroom, surrounded by supportive friends and family. There is a tendency amongst historians to assume that a gathering of women was automatically supportive, instantly connected by the binding power of shared experience. The plight of Isabella Buckham, and the many others like her, reminds us that this is not always the case.
 Isabella Buckham, Killing-infanticide, 4th December 1755, ref. t17551204-27, www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?ref=t17551204-27 [accessed 20:16 24th April 2014]
 Adrian Wilson, Ritual and Conflict: The Social Relations of Childbirth in Early Modern England, (Ashgate: Surry, 2013). Chapter Three focuses on the building of collective cultures based upon gender experiences.