Imagine, for a moment if you will, that you are walking along a quiet, leafy country lane on the outskirts of a small English village. The road is dry and dusty underfoot, the air is filled with the ‘perfume’ of a nearby farm. The evening is drawing in and the warmth of the June day is beginning to fade. It’s a time before cars were common and planes were just used by carpenters, so there is no modern noise to interrupt your thoughts as you make your way home. Unless we include the baa-ing of the sheep on that farm, if that is that a modern noise?
Sorry, I have spoilt your concentration. Lets get baa-ack to the quiet leafy lane.
Suddenly, as you round a bend, a young boy appears and runs unseeingly past you. He is the first person you have seen for a while and, in this fading light, he has quite unnerved you. Take a moment to catch your breath and then please continue on your way .
Just a little way ahead, you can see a small crowd of people gathered around the edge of a large pond just to the side of the road. As you draw closer you can tell something is very wrong.
Lying beside the pond is the lifeless body of a young woman, her dishevelled hair is soaked and full of weeds and mud. Someone is lifting her arms above her head and then bringing them back to her chest in an attempt to revive her. More people arrive breathlessly from behind you. Maybe they are her family, perhaps the boy who ran past you was going to fetch them. Whoever they are, they are too late…
June 2nd 1881
Martha Styles was just 17 when she left her parents home for the last time. She told them she was going to catch the evening train from the station a mile or so away, back to the townhouse where she worked a few miles away. She said her goodbyes to her parents and siblings and made her way out of the house.
She took her youngest sister, 3 year old Ada, out to the garden gate and asked her to walk a little way with her, but their mother overheard and called out that it was far too late for the little girl to be out. Martha said goodbye to Ada and walked away. It was just after 8pm
But she didn’t go to the station. She walked the opposite way, towards a large pond about half a mile away. She stood by the water, took her hat and scarf off and then laid them on the grass nearby.
At about half past 8, Martha was discovered struggling in the pond by a couple of small boys who tried to help her. They fetched help and eventually she was dragged from the deep muddy water. When it became obvious there was nothing more to be done, her body was removed to a nearby pub, where it was stored in an outbuilding until the inquest could be arranged a couple of days later.
This was quite common for the time. Public houses usually had room for a large table where the body could be viewed, plenty of space for the Coroner, and any other interested parties and of course it would be able to provide refreshments. Hopefully not served from that large table during proceedings though.
At the inquest her mother, Ann, told the coroner that Martha had returned home from the local town in the hope of getting a position closer to her family but had missed out on it. She had moved away a couple of months earlier, telling her family she had employment in the household of a family a few miles away.
Ann had no explanation for her daughters actions, and was only able to add that Martha had suffered from fits as a child, ‘dropping down as if she was dead’ and the doctor had often been called to attend to her.
One of the boys who had tried to get Martha out of the pond said that she seemed to just struggle and take no notice of their pleas for her to grab the stick they held out for her to grab. The doctor who performed the ‘mechanical breathing’ to try and revive her said her face was discoloured as if she had been fitting in the water.
The court was told that she had worn some boots belonging to her mistress and had been caught with them, the mistress demanded 18 shillings for said boots of which poor Martha had only managed to pay 2.
Being unable to find the money to pay for the boots, she had been sacked a week or so before her death. Her parents had been unaware of this and thought their girl was still at her place, but looking for another one. Her father only learned of her dismissal when he had gone to the employers house to ask for his daughters things back. They were being kept, he was told by a servant there, until the rest of the shillings were paid.
Her father, Stephen, said he had been told by another servant at the house that Martha may have been with child, but he didn’t know if this was true. Martha hadn’t told them she was on her last visit home.
Her mother then told the court that when Martha had returned home she appeared to be as happy and cheerful as ever, only noticing her daughter seemed unable to enjoy reading as she used to. There was no unpleasantness at home at all, both of her parents would have been happy for her to remain at home.
So what had happened to Martha? Did she kill herself or was it a tragic accident? Why had she decided to walk to the pond instead of going to catch her train? She had no job to return to at that point but she had felt unable to speak to her family about her troubles. Had she simply gone for a walk to think over what to do and decided to paddle in the pond, taking her hat and scarf off first before becoming ill and falling in?
Whatever had happened, the verdict at the inquest was suicide. Martha was buried on the 6th of June, which oddly enough was exactly 135 years ago as I write this.
But that is not the end.
Martha was the 6th of 13 children, and at the time of her death only her younger siblings remained at home. The family probably lived in a small ‘two up two down’ type cottage, close to the farm where her father worked.
These cottages were so called because they had 2 bedrooms upstairs and a large kitchen and small sitting or ‘best’ room downstairs. The toilet would have been outside. It would have been a squeeze to fit everyone in and this is why children tended to leave home at a young age (especially girls) and live and work at the home of the employer.
One of the problems of having a large family in a small home was how rapidly illness could spread. In the days before many effective medications had been discovered even a minor cut could cause blood poisoning and death.
At the end of July, 9 year old Emma Ann Styles became ill. At first it was just a sore throat, but then a rash and a high temperature followed. It must have been quite serious as the doctor was called from his home just across the road.
It was Scarlet Fever. With no antibiotics and little in the way of painkillers there wasn’t much to be done except hope and pray for a quick recovery. Complications were common – kidney failure, septicemia, heart problems and secondary fever amongst other things were all killers – a family could lose several children to an illness like this in a very short period of time. And there was nothing to be done but hope the patient got better.
Emma died on the 7th of august and was buried on the 9th close to Martha.
But this is still not the end.
Shortly before she died Emma passed the illness on to her sister 11 year old Phoebe.
Phoebe to succumbed to the terrible illness and was buried alongside Emma on the 13th of August.
With 5 children still in the home, including a young baby, Ann and Stephen must have been at their wits end.
On the 10th of August as Phoebe lay breathing her last, the doctor again called at the house, and confirmed to the grieving couple that their youngest daughter, little Ada, had also become infected.
Ada was very poorly but held on for 2 weeks. She died on the 24th of August and was buried swiftly the next day close, to her sisters.
Four daughters dead and buried in the space of 3 months. How quiet that once crowded, noisy house must have been.