English mortuaries only came into existence in the late 19th century and in those early years they were called dead houses until the term, mortuary, became common. The Southwark mortuary opened in 1880. Search through these records and discover if your ancestor was among the first names on the registers. The registers will tell you your ancestor’s death date, address, age at the time of death, whether there was a post mortem or coroner’s inquest and some include additional notes about the cause of death.
Each record includes a transcript of the information found in the original mortuary register. The detail in each transcript can vary but most will include:
Age – this field is often used when a child younger than one year old dies and the age is recorded in months or weeks
Age in years
Post mortem or Inquest – This field will either tell you yes or no whether your ancestor received a post mortem or an inquest
Notes – can include cause of death, place of death, verdict of the coroner’s jury
Archive and reference
The index was supplied by Peter Shilham whose main area of interest is Southwark in South East London. The information was taken from the mortuary register for the parish of St George’s, Southwark, from the year 1880 to 1891. The historic borough of London, Southwark, is one of the biggest inner London boroughs. The parish of St George the Martyr takes its name from the parish church. The church is well known for its association with Charles Dickens’ novel, Little Dorritt. Many scenes from the novel are set in and around St George’s Church, giving it the nickname Little Dorritt’s church.
The need for public mortuaries became evident after Edwin Chadwick’s sanitation report in 1843. He found that many families, especially those living in more impoverished and densely populated areas, were likely to live in the same room where the body of a deceased family member was kept until a burial could take place. The family would have to eat and sleep together in the same space for up to or even longer than a week. Chadwick was concerned about the health conditions of the family in such a small, confined space.
The first proposal to build a mortuary on the disused burial ground of St George’s and on the site of the old Marshalsea Prison was met with public opposition. Many felt that the building would be destructive to the property and were concerned with the already existing graves – it was believed that the workmen would cart away the bones of those buried in dust carts. A shift in public opinion started to change after the passing of the Sanitary Act of 1866 and the Southwark Mortuary opened by 1880.
Another concern for many was the security of their loved ones. Bodysnatching was still known to happen; at least when the body of the deceased was at home the family could protect it. The mortuary guaranteed that the bodies would be guarded day and night and hired a Mortuary Keeper. However, if a family were not able to pay for the cost of burial the body would be released to the mortuary and in some cases sold to medical schools. They did make provisions for family members to come and visit their loved ones. At the Southwark mortuary the visiting times were between 10am and noon, but other establishments allowed longer visiting hours.
Before mortuaries were built, if a coroner’s inquest was needed, the body was usually taken to a local public house. An alehouse was the only space that could hold everyone needed to be present and tables large enough to exhibit the cadaver. An inquest may be called, within 48 hours of discovery, if the death was questionable. Many of the records show that inquests did occur and some include the coroner’s jury’s verdict in the notes. If an ‘open verdict’ was decided, this meant that the jury found the death to be suspicious but could not determine how or why and was therefore unable to reach a different verdict. If your ancestor did have an inquest, you should continue your search in the newspapers, where the suspicious death may have been reported.
In 1883, a charge of manslaughter was brought against Robert Cousins, 27 years old, for the killing and slaying of his son Robert Percy Clement Cousins. The same charges were filed against him only four months later for the killing and slaying of his daughter Alice Maria Cousins. In both cases he was found not guilty. We can find these results in Findmypast’s Crime, Prisons & Punishment.
Robert Cousins was a member of the religious sect, Peculiar People, an evangelical Christian group. They are an offshoot of the Wesleyan denomination founded in 1838 by John Banyard in Essex. One of the beliefs of the group was their refusal to use medicine and instead they rely on prayer, anointment and healing practices from the Bible. When Cousins’ children became sick they were prayed for and anointed, but no medical attention was sought.
The mortuary register holds the records for the deaths of both children. In the records, we find that there was a coroner’s inquest and the notes state manslaughter. This suggests that the coroner’s jury found that these were cases of manslaughter which needed to be referred to the court. The newspapers reported that the children had been sickly. Robert Percy Cousins, 3 years old, suffered from tuberculosis and Alice Maria, 11 months, suffered the same disease.
This was not the first time that Peculiar People followers were charged with this crime. The first case was in 1868, when Thomas and Mary Ann Wagstaffe were tried for manslaughter after the death of their 14 month old daughter, Lois, who died from inflammation of the lungs. The Wagstaffes followed their beliefs and prayed and anointed the child. They tried to help through dietary changes, but to no avail. Once in court, it was found that religious based medical neglect did not fit manslaughter. Changes were made to the Poor Law Amendment Act, to state that a parent was responsible for providing food, clothing and medical aid to a child or would be guilty of an offence. The first time the act was put into practice in the courts was in 1875, in the case of Queen v Downes. Robert Downes was found guilty of the manslaughter of his two-year-old son after he did not seek medical advice. However, this did not set a precedent and with other cases, as in the Cousins’ case found here, other Peculiar People were not charged by the courts for the death of their children.