Untold lives blog

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11 June 2024

Coroner’s records from late 18th-century Bombay

In February 1772 Robert Kitson was appointed by the East India Company as a writer for Bombay.  He sailed to India in the Devonshire.  Kitson started his career in Bombay working in the Secretary’s office.  In October 1775, he was appointed Coroner for the southern half of the island of Bombay at a salary of Rs30 a month plus a fee of Rs4 for each inquest.  He held this post until March 1783, in tandem with his duties as Assistant to the Select or Secret Department.

There were about 40 inquests each year.  If Kitson needed to travel for an inquest, he hired a bullock hackney, or occasionally a palanquin.  The India Office Records holds Kitson’s incomplete list of inquests he conducted, with papers about some of the verdicts.  The cases include both Indians and Europeans and are a useful supplement to the Christian church burial records for those years.  There are 23 inquests for enslaved people: fourteen boys, seven girls, and two not described.

The most common cause of death in cases investigated by Robert Kitson was drowning -in water tanks, in wells and in the sea.  Others were natural causes, murder, suicide, and accidents.

Here are a few examples from Kitson’s coroner records.

Report of inquest held on AllyReport of inquest held on Ally 19 December 1776 - IOR/H/732

On the early evening of 18 December 1776, a man called Ally was sitting near the dock head pier in his boat from Rajapore.  He was accidentally hit in the chest by a musket shot from James Logan who was on sentry duty. Logan was aiming at another boat, but no reason is given for this.

Report of inquest held on FrancisReport of inquest held on Francis 3 September 1777 - IOR/H/732

An inquest was held on 3 September 1777 on ‘Coffree Slave’ Francis who drowned in a well on Old Woman’s Island near the house of his master Captain Charles William Boye, an East India Company military officer.  Boye’s will, made in 1784, shows that there were many enslaved people in his household.  Some he ‘freed’ on his death, urging them to live with members of his family, others he ’gave’ to his children.

Report of inquest held on MungalReport of inquest held on Mungal 26 September 1782 - IOR/H/732

Mungal was found dead on 25 September 1782 at the Bantun Dancing Girls’ House near the Portuguese Church.  He died from two head wounds sustained when trying to escape out of a window at the house on 23 September.

Nattoo, horse-keeper to John Morris, died in March 1783 inn a stable near Bunder from an accidental kick from a horse in his left side.

In August 1782 Toulsie, washerwoman to Colonel Bailey of the Bengal Army, died from a snake bite.

Kitson conducted inquests on a number of murders.  In May 1778 Antonio, servant to Charles Duff, was killed by a blow to the belly from Francis de Rozara, a sailor on the ship Nancy. Sergeant John Forsyth was murdered by Patrick Atkins on the ramparts between the church and bazaar gates in April 1779.

There were suicides.  Maubet Caun, a sepoy in the Marine Battalion, shot himself with a musket in the Esplanade near the powder house in November 1779.  Soldier Isaac Reid killed himself in the town jail in March 1783.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/H/732 Papers of Robert Kitson, Bombay Civil Service


04 June 2024

Case of Edward Murphy, blind orphan at Southampton Workhouse

On 18 January 1879, C. Crowther Smith, Clerk at the St Mary Street Workhouse in Southampton, wrote to the India Office regarding a blind orphan youth named Edward Murphy. 

Letter about Edward Murphy from Mr Crowther Smith at the Southampton WorkhouseLetter about Edward Murphy from C. Crowther Smith at the Southampton Workhouse 8 January 1879, IOR/L/PJ/2/216, File 2542

Aged 19, Murphy had been sent to the Workhouse by the Superintendent of Police as he was destitute.  It appeared that he had been deported from India by the Madras Government and there was no evidence of his legal settlement in the UK.  Smith wished to know from the India Office of any course which could be adopted to prevent Murphy remaining a permanent charge to the parochial rates at Southampton.  The Workhouse Board thought it unfair that the burden of maintaining such cases should be thrown on the ratepayers of the port at which the vessel containing such destitute persons should happen to arrive.

Deportation request for a number of men including Edward MurphyDeportation request by the Madras Government Workhouse IOR/L/PJ/2/225, File 180

The India Office made enquiries.  On 2 April 1878, Major Balmer, President of the Committee for the Management of the Government Workhouse at Madras, had written to the Madras Government requesting approval for the deportation of seven men under the provision of the Indian Vagrancy Act. A short summary for each man was given, and Edward Murphy’s entry reads: ‘Register No.713, Edward Murphy, of Ireland, age 19, came out some 17 or 18 years ago with his mother to Rangoon; educated there til 17; was then employed on the Prome Railway, where he lost his eyesight.  The Doctor has recommended his deportation to England. Admitted 8th March 1878’.

India Office memorandum about Edward MurphyIndia Office memorandum about Edward Murphy - IOR/L/PJ/2/225, File 180

A memorandum records that Murphy’s parents were Irish, and his father Michael was a Drummer in the 50th Regiment of Native Infantry.  His father died in England, and his mother took Murphy to Rangoon to join an uncle who was a non-commissioned officer in the Telegraph Department.  His mother died shortly after arriving and his uncle placed him in a school there.  The uncle died in 1868, but the Orphan Society in Rangoon supported Murphy enabling him to complete his education.  At 17, he joined the Prome Railway as a Fireman, but after a year left with sore eyes and was admitted to the Rangoon Hospital, and later transferred to the Madras Eye Infirmary.  He could distinguish light from darkness but little else.  He had no one to support him and didn’t know what county or parish he was from.  Murphy was deported to England on the P&O steamer Cathay, leaving Madras on 2 December 1878.

The India Office was scornful of the complaints from the Southampton Workhouse, and in an internal memo, William Macpherson, Secretary to the Judicial & Public Department, noted ‘…there would scarcely seem to be any ground for complaint, as that Parish is best able to maintain the burden by reason of the great advantage the locality must derive from the fleet of the P&O Company sailing to and from that Port, and from the rates they must receive in respect of the Docks there’.  On 15 February 1879, the India Office wrote to the Workhouse stating that they could not advise on Murphy’s case, and that there were no funds at the disposal of the Secretary of State which could be applied in his case.

It appears likely that the Edward Murphy who was admitted, blind, to East London's Homerton Workhouse in April 1879 is the same man.  Murphy spent the next twelve years moving in and out of the workhouse, infirmary, and ophthalmic hospital. We lose track of him after the 1891 census when he is a workhouse inmate.

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
Letter from the Clerk at the Workhouse, St Mary Street, Southampton, regarding Edward Murphy, 18 January 1879, Judicial Home Correspondence, shelfmark IOR/L/PJ/2/216, File 2542.

Case of Edward Murphy, a vagrant sent from India to Southampton, 1878-1879, shelfmark: IOR/L/PJ/2/225, File 1807.

History of the Southampton Workhouse.

The registers of the Southampton Workhouse are held at Southampton Archives Office.

The National Archives - UK census returns for Homerton Workhouse.

London Metropolitan Archives - Poor Law Records.


30 May 2024

The Victorian Diary of William Fletcher of Bridgnorth

As part of Local History and Community month, David Fitzpatrick discusses the compelling diary of a young Victorian bank clerk living in a quiet corner of Shropshire.

Talking With Past Hours: The Victorian Diary of William Fletcher of Bridgnorth comprises a personal diary for 1858-60, edited by archaeologist Jane Killick.  Since 1996, the original handwritten diary has resided in the University of Birmingham’s Special Collections, following its purchase from a dealer.  Its prior whereabouts remain unknown.

Front cover of Jane Killick  Talking With Past Hours The Victorian Diary of William Fletcher of BridgnorthFront cover of Jane Killick, Talking With Past Hours: The Victorian Diary of William Fletcher of Bridgnorth. Copyright Moonrise Press.

William Fletcher was born on 20 October 1839 and was baptised in the Catholic Apostolic Church in Bridgnorth, where his father, also William, became a minister.  When eighteen-year-old William begins his diary in June 1858, he is a devout attendee at church and a well-respected clerk in Cooper’s and Purton’s Bank, located at the southern end of the high street (now the local HSBC branch).  He often works at a sister branch in nearby Much Wenlock and sometimes walks the eight miles there.

Oldbury Terrace  Bridgnorth  where William lodged from February 1858 to June 1859Oldbury Terrace, Bridgnorth, where William lodged from February 1858 to June 1859. Photograph by David Fitzpatrick, 2024.

William documents almost every aspect of his life in succinct yet candid entries, recording details of his correspondence, work, and social activities in Bridgnorth and beyond.  He appreciates a good sermon, smokes tobacco, and enjoys ‘some splendid ale’.  He takes an interest in local affairs and comments on the construction of the Severn Valley Railway, which would open in 1862.

View from Castle Hill  Bridgnorth.View from Castle Hill, Bridgnorth. Photograph by David Fitzpatrick, 2017.

Central to the first year of the diary is what initially appears to be a budding romance with a young woman named Mary Anne Jones (often referred to as ‘my dear Marianne’), with whom William eventually breaks off correspondence in frustration, following an apparent lack of reciprocation.  His failed courtship touches on universal romantic themes, yet readers who have lived in Bridgnorth will find it especially evocative, given the familiar setting.  For instance, in one entry, William recounts how Mary Anne’s brother, also named William, relayed to him that Mary Anne and her sister Martha had heard that William ‘had been seen with some girls on the Castle Hill’, which he dismisses as ‘utterly false’.  It is easy to imagine young people making similar accusations and refutations almost every year since then, all centred on Castle Hill, with its fine views of the Severn Valley.

Report of William Fletcher’s sudden death – Shrewsbury Chronicle 7 August 1863Report of William Fletcher’s sudden death –Shrewsbury Chronicle 7 August 1863 British Newspaper Archive

Also prominent throughout the diary is William’s struggle with tuberculosis (though not named as such), including consultations in Birmingham, and a trip to Bournemouth for ‘a change of air’.  As Killick’s supplementary notes inform us, William’s illness ultimately led to his premature death in Bridgnorth on 29 July 1863, aged just 23.  On 7 September 1863, Mary Anne married a man named Thomas Titterton, in Port Elizabeth [Gqeberha], South Africa. 

The Fletcher family headstone in Bridgnorth cemetery  made with local sandstoneThe Fletcher family headstone in Bridgnorth cemetery, made with local sandstone. Photograph by David Fitzpatrick, 2024.

William’s diary is an absorbing read, enhanced by Killick’s footnotes and additional biographical information (and an appendix containing an aborted diary by William, dated March-April 1857).  It is a fascinating insight into daily life in Bridgnorth during a time of great change, and a reminder of the fragile and ephemeral nature of life.

David Fitzpatrick
Content Specialist, Archivist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
Jane Killick, Talking With Past Hours: The Victorian Diary of William Fletcher of Bridgnorth (Ludlow: Moonrise Press, 2009)