In the case of Mary Fordham of Hertford, the answer to the bleak question was yes; it was born dead. This mattered in Regency England, and not for reasons of concern for the mother, who had just gone through a traumatic experience. Murder carried the death penalty in Regency England; but then so did stealing lambs or spoons or passing a forged banknote. The difference is that the sentence for infanticide was usually carried out and the body dispatched to the anatomists for dissection.
Mary Fordham was a servant in Stevenage, living in the house of a man called Mr Whittingham. Mary Chapman, a sixteen year old fellow servant, had no inkling that Mary Fordham was pregnant, despite living at close quarters. They had shared the same bed on 2nd September 1810 and Chapman had been kept up all night by Fordham complaining about pains in her bowels. Chapman spent the next night in her own room; she went to visit Fordham the next morning and found her room in disarray. Chapman believed that Mary Fordham had given birth, and suggested that she clean up her room and go to work as normal. Later on the same day, Mary Chapman told the mistress of the house what had happened and together they searched the house for evidence of a baby. They found a five foot hole where rubbish was deposited; in the hole was Mary Chapman’s bloody stocking with a new-born boy in it.
Then the story becomes odd as well as grotesque. Mrs Whittingham appeared as a witness and recounted as story about how, about a month earlier, a labourer had entered their house in a scary mask. Although it had been a “frolic”, it had scared both Mrs Whittingham and Mary Fordham and was, according to the Mistress of the house, very likely to make pregnant women miscarry. Why would Mrs Whittingham come up with this story? Was she trying to move the date of conception by claiming that the baby had not gone full term, therefore obscuring the father’s identity- protecting the family honour-or was she trying to provide a plausible reason for the child dying at birth to protect her servant?
An apothecary (not a more expensive doctor) was called. He declared the child full-grown, but could not rule out a miscarriage. There was a wound on the child’s head, and brick the same size with blood on it next to the body. Mary was lactating; the male apothecary examined her breasts to check, truly adding insult and humiliation to unimaginable trauma.
It didn’t look good for Mary Fordham, despite the possibility of some support for whatever reason from the family. However, the draconian nature of the Georgian penal system came to her rescue. A surgeon deposed that the blow to the child’s head could have been caused either by a blow from the brick OR as a result of being thrown into the hole after dying at birth. It partly came down to who was believed, whether the defendant cut a good figure in court, and whether conspiracy could be proved. Mary’s appalling experience, whatever it was, was one that she would have to do alone; to avoid the accusation of conspiracy ; perhaps her friend Mary Chapman realised this when she suggested that Mary Fordham “clean her room” and then went on to give her enough time to hide the body before she informed Mrs Whittingham.
Desperate as her life was, Mary Fordham, as a servant away from home, had some advantages. She had no family to monitor the shape of her body or check out on her sexual relationships. She did not give birth in a room in a slum where the cries of a new-born baby would be heard through thin walls. There was just not enough evidence.
The Newgate report suggested that “the learned judge summed up the evidence with great humanity” The jury followed his hint and found her guilty of concealment of birth only, with a sentence of two years in gaol. That this was the best possible outcome shows the horror of being pregnant, single and powerless in Regency Britain. The punishment of two years in prison was a new one, enacted by the Malicious Wounding or Stabbing Act in 1803, which also made procuring an abortion a capital offence for the first time.
Lots of children were adjudged to be born dead and their birth concealed. On the same day as Mary was sent to prison, another women, Martha Woods in Winchester received the same punishment
There was very little change in attitudes over the next century .One hundred years later, 1918, also in Hertfordshire, Amy Cook (21), a domestic servant, pleaded guilty to endeavouring to conceal the birth of her male child.
Mr J.H. Murphy, on behalf of the prosecution, said that it was one of those sad cases of a respectable young woman getting into trouble and then trying to conceal the consequences. She had no assistance at the birth of her child, and afterwards hid the body away in a box in her bedroom, and was thus able to resume her work the next day.
Suspicions, however, were aroused, the police were called in, and she eventually produced the body. There was nothing against the prisoner, and probably it was more the fault of the man who got her into trouble than her own for she said that she did not know what to do.
The girl’s mother said her daughter had been well-behaved and had been in good service for several years. Asked by the Judge if she was aware of her daughter’s condition before the concealment, she replied that at about Christmas time she had had suspicions and had challenged her, but her daughter denied that there was anything wrong. She did not see her daughter again until after this affair happened.
His Lordship said the prisoner was young and hitherto had a good character; otherwise he should have passed a more severe sentence upon her than he was going to pass. This kind of offence had been too prevalent in recent years, much too prevalent. Having regard to the circumstances, he should pass the very lenient sentence of 3 months’ imprisonment in the second division.
On hearing the sentence, the prisoner screamed, threw up her hands, and was carried out of Court in a fainting condition.
The stories are remarkably similar; the main differences are that Amy had a mother she had to lie to, and the father of the child was also blamed-a bit.
Perhaps more significantly, Amy received a more severe sentence than even the Georgian “bloody code” had suggested one hundred years earlier.
Please consider my book on the Regency. More details are here, with information about other books. It is also available in libraries in the UK. I know that book like this are out of reach of many; please consider asking your library to stock it .