Poverty and alcohol were the scourge of Victorian Britain. Women and children proving its most likely and unfortunate victims. It was a cycle that would repeat itself through the generations. A perfect illustration of that is the case of Shameful Mother and her Wretched Home. Alice Griffiths from Shrewsbury had just given birth to her 7th child. Trapped in an abusive marriage, living in a slum, she turned to the bottle to numb her squalid existence but it would lead to the death of poor baby Charles. The family’s struggles, malnutrition, neglect, poverty, would reverb for generations.
SHREWSBURY MOTHER’S SHAMEFULL STORY. A. WRETCHED “HOME”. Shrewsbury Chronicle – Friday 19 February 1904
At the Public Mortuary, Shrewsbury, Tuesday, an inquest was held before Mr. Coroner E. E. Clarke on the body of Charles Griffiths the six week old son of Henry Griffiths, plumber, St. George’s Buildings, Frankwell, who was found dead in bed his mother’s side on Sunday morning.
The mother said that on Saturday night she went to bed at about 11-45, taking the deceased with her. Her husband and the other two children had preceded her. All of them slept in one bed, the two elder children at the bottom. When she awakened next morning at eight o’clock she found deceased dead by her side.—ln reply to Chief Baxter, witness said she went to Greenfields between nine and ten p.m. on Saturday, taking the child with her; and on her way back had a bottle of stout at the Woodman Inn. Her memory had been very bad since the birth of the child, and she could not remember whether she had anything more that night.
Further questioned, witness admitted that she had another bottle of stout that her boy fetched for her, and also that she had “a port wine and brandy” whilst up town in the afternoon, and part of a pint of beer with her husband at supper time. She and her husband sometimes quarrelled, but not frequently. They did not quarrel Saturday night. She could not remember dropping the baby a fortnight previously, whilst quarrelling. The baby fell off a chair a week since, but it was not hurt, as it fell on a pillow. Witness was not awakened during Saturday night by the child crying. She had had very little sleep since its birth, as it cried a great deal. She admitted that she had taken more drink than was good for her, especially during the past twelve months; she had been convicted once for drunkenness.-Inspector Baxter: Do you bear the character of being a sober woman?- Witness: I don’t know what you would call a sober woman.
In reply to the Coroner, Inspector Luff. N.S.P.C.C., said be he had occasion to visit the woman’s house many times, and considered it was a wretched home. There was only one bed. He believed the husband might earn about £2 a week.
Continuing. Mr Griffiths said the wages she received from her husband varied from 25s. to 12s. 6. The “black eyes” which she now showed were the result of falling in the gutter, but she was not sober at the time.
Edith Jones, married woman, said she saw the last witness out with the baby in her arms at about 8-30 p.m. on Saturday, and considered her to be drunk. On several occasions she had seen Mrs. Griffiths “under the Influence”. A fortnight ago she heard Mr. and Mrs. Griffiths quarrelling, and also heard their daughter say “Oh, mother, you have dropped baby; come and see to It.”
Dr. Edward Cureton said he made a post-mortem examination of the body of deceased. On the skull, between the right eye and ear, he found a bruise which must have been caused over a week prior to death, or it would have shown externally. All the organs were perfectly healthy. The child measured 18 inches long, and weighed 5lbs. The normal weight of child at birth was 7lbs. 11oz. Deceased was thin, and ought not to have been taken out on the night in question. All the symptoms pointed to the child having died from convulsions.—A Juror: Do you think the child was overlain?—Witness: No.
In summing up, the Coroner said several other witnesses could be called, but he considered it unnecessary to take their evidence, as they would only contradict Mrs. Griffiths’ statements. As far as he could learn, the woman’s character in regard to sobriety was anything but satisfactory. He was sorry to say this, for she was a woman who ought to be in a better position in life. Both the husband and wife, if they were in Germany, would be liable to a heavy penalty for allowing their children to lie in bed with them. Practically all the fault lay in the mother’s neglect, and he earnestly hoped Inspector Luff would take note of her conduct in future.
The Jury returned a verdict of death from natural causes, and expressed the opinion that there had been great neglect on the part of the parents, and asked the Coroner to severely censure them. The Coroner addressed the husband and wife separately and severely reprimanded them. He told the latter that if ever a case of this kind came again under his notice she would in all probability be sent to trial on a charge of manslaughter. He sincerely hoped she would give up her drunken and careless habits and look after her home and family.
Shrewsbury Chronicle – Friday 19 February 1904
What do we know about the family?
Alice Wynn was born in Shrewsbury and grew up surrounded by alcohol at the Plough Inn on Severn Street. Daughter to an Innkeeper, and the youngest of 7 children. A working class family but not the poorest. Her father Thomas Wynn owned various properties but little inclination to help his fellow man. That’s judging by the this story from 1883 when he refused to pay the Poor Rate, a tax on property levied in each parish, which was used to provide poor relief.
Alice grew up and married Henry Griffiths, from Shawbury, in 1887 when she was 20. So she would have been surrounded by alcohol from Birth. Henry was from Shawbury and was 23. They had a number of children as you’ll see below.
Just three years prior to sad death of baby Charles the 1901 census shows the family living in the Ditherington area of town with 6 children. A working class area with slums. Social house wouldn’t arrive for at least another 20 years there.
They had clearly been moving around the region perhaps for the husbands work as you can tell by the places of birth for the children.
Charles was born and died in 1904.
But fast forward to 1911 and the family are still in the area but with two more daughters added Florence and Doris.
Sadly, shortly after the census was taken and baby Doris’s details scribbled down, she died.
Son, John Henry Griffiths, listed in the 1901 census, joined the Army, but was discharged in 1915 for “not being likely to become an efficient soldier” despite his conduct being “good”.
It turns out health was the reason. Soldiers discharged, like John Henry Griffiths was, were done so under Paragraph 392 of King’s Regulations 1912 (http://www.military-researcher.co.uk/KingsRegs1912/para-3.html).
As for what happened to him is unclear as their are two death records of a John H Griffiths, born. 1888, from Shrewsbury.
According to one person on Ancestry Father Henry died in 1925 in Reading, Berkshire, at the age of 61. Although what he was doing there is unclear – perhaps it was work. https://www.ancestry.co.uk/family-tree/person/tree/46082237/person/24045727278/story
The mother Alice died in the summer of 1933 aged 67 in Shrewsbury.
So far I haven’t been able to trace what happened to the other children.
The area itself underwent lots of social development in the subsequent years following the first World War. At the time Alice and Henry were having their children in the St Micheal Street/Dithering area the population of Shrewsbury was just over 23,000. In 1907 there was thought to be around 200 uninhabitable houses. The Griffiths house on Bodkin Row, Springfields would have been one of those which was knocked down in development of the area.
Check out this amazing blog which tell the history of Shrewsbury’s social house and describes some of the conditions people there faced.
As cited in the blog, the conditions the Griffiths family lived were were recognised at the time as appalling.
“I had no idea that there were such places for human beings to live in as there were in Shrewsbury … some houses were entirely devoid of light, others filthy in the extreme, and some without any back door; houses which were really a disgrace to civilisation.“
Councillor Franklin ‘Shrewsbury Town Council. The Housing of the Poor’ and ‘Local Notes’, Shrewsbury Chronicle, 13 September 1907
Some people however said the poor only had themselves to blame. “Councillor Pace, a Liberal, was ‘afraid in some cases the people themselves caused a great deal of the unpleasantness that existed by their own actions’.” Council houses they sais was the “road to socialism”.
But, as John Boughton, in his blog pointed out, if being called a socialist for wanting social housing in order to decrease things like infant mortality, then that’s a label they would happily wear.
Councillor Bromley, spoke to a rival tradition of Tory Democracy that professed a concern for working-class conditions:
Mr How told them that the proposal might be ruinous to the country but was it not ruinous to the country to have an enormous infantile death-rate caused very largely by insanitary dwellings, and to permit the existence of slums which were undermining the health of the people. They were told that what they proposed was Socialism. If that was so then he was a Socialist – and he was among the Conservative Socialists because the Conservatives passed that act in 1890.
Sadly the story of Alice and her children is a common one of the time. The papers are littered with stories of infant mortality, drunken parents, and domestic abuse. If they made it out of infancy working class children, often with multiple siblings, then had to face disease, malnutrition, neglect, and hard work with long hours. For women marriage was only prospect but domestic abuse was rife. The only way to cope? Hit the bottle – a cycle that was hard to break with little social support, public sympathy, and a blame culture towards the poor – if things went wrong, you were on your own.