botched Victorian births

The number of botched births decreased with the certification of Midwives

Women from all levels of society might be faced with the problem of an unwanted pregnancy, be they a member of the aristocracy who feared bringing shame and humiliation to herself and family or more likely one of the many servants who would have been thrown out on the streets if her employer was to get wind of her trouble.

There was a maximum penalty of life imprisonment if convicted of abortion though this deterrent sentence was in theory to protect the mother rather than the unborn child.

Desperate people take desperate actions and for some women there was just no choice and abortion was a common ‘operation’ in the second half of the nineteenth century.

We can only guess at some of the methods expectant mothers may have attempted to rid themselves of their child.

Most turned to a midwife or knowledgeable woman who made up their own preparations, the desired drugs being more freely available over the counter than is the case today.

High prices were charged and in the top end of the market where anonymity was insisted upon to prevent blackmail, one midwife re-assured her clients that ‘the lady’s face need not be seen and she should keep it veiled if she liked, and has only to lie on her side.’

The actual operation was carried out for about £50 by a doctor with a catheter and the foetuses were disposed of as premature births.

Those who could not, or would not terminate their pregnancy faced grave problems. Maids would conceal their condition by all possible means and then secretly give birth to their child, some of whom died because of a botched self-delivery. If the infant survived the birth the need for quick action to avoid detection was paramount.

Babies only a few hours old were left inside entrances or on doorsteps in the more fashionable areas of Bristol in the vain hope that someone might take pity on them.

Others might be drugged so the maid could carry them about without being noticed.

A report in the ‘Bristol Mercury’ for Boxing Day 1857, would be typical of the scant coverage received:

‘A heavily drugged infant was found in a basket by two lads in St Philips Marsh; alive when discovered, but it died soon after . . .’

Some mothers were so desperate not to be detected that they paid scant attention as to where they deposited their children. The Registrar General’s report published in the 1860’s revealed that:

“ln the last five years within the Bristol district alone, at least 278 infants were murdered; above 60 were found dead in the river Avon or the canals or ponds about Bristol and many more than 100, at all events were found dead under railway arches, on doorsteps, in dustholes, cellars and the like.”

It is without doubt that there were very many more deaths than were ever officially recorded. The courts appeared by today’s standards to be very lenient with mothers caught literally red-handed.

In 1895 Jane Evans secretly gave birth and deposited the live baby in a box which she threw from her window onto a roof.

The baby proceeded to wail and when another servant enquired about the noise she was told it was cats. The baby was eventually discovered dead with a fractured skull and the mother sentenced to three months imprisonment.