Nostalgia: Death – ‘by the visitation of God’

Every year there was frequent reports of drowning in the harbour and out at sea.
Every year there was frequent reports of drowning in the harbour and out at sea.

Anyone who still harbours residual, romantic notions about the times of Jane Austen should take an antidote such as Scarborough’s records of the contemporary crimes, accidents and punishments. In those days, death often came suddenly, unexpectantly and inexplicably.

Scarborough’s two coroners were kept busy hearing cases of death by unknown causes. In February 1818, for instance, a postmortem inquest was held “over the body of Mary Lawson”. Her husband had found her “dead in bed in the morning when he walked in.” Perhaps Mr Lawson had been out all night fishing or smuggling, but no one in court cared to ask him. The coroner was baffled; the doctor could not explain the cause of her death; and the verdict was that she had passed away “by the visitation of God”.

In July of that same year, Mr Brearey, the duty coroner, was invited to inspect a body on the foreshore sands. The man was entirely naked and his corpse had been left behind by the receding tide. Nearby were the gentleman’s (he was clearly a gentleman) clothes: a brown coat with gilt buttons, a quilted waistcoat with pearl buttons, shoes and grey stockings with green garters. Had he gone out for a recreational swim on his own or had he committed suicide? The jury could agree only that he had drowned and that his death was an accident. Suicide was a criminal offence and would require further investigation. The victim was known to have taken lodgings a few days earlier, but otherwise nothing was discovered about him and there seemed to be no one who cared.

In another similar case, “a strainge man” was found dead on the beach in North Bay. After he had been swimming in the sea, “he took a fit” and collapsed on the sands. No one knew who he was, no one inquired after him, and was presumed to be a visitor. The coroner pronounced that the dead man had been “found Drownded”,

In Jane Austen’s time, drowning was probably the chief cause of accidental death in Scarborough. In August 1796, a pleasure boat was overturned in South Bay and three young visitors from Leeds, John Stables, Joseph Claughton and John Wright, were drowned. At least they all got a gravestone over their burial in St Mary’s churchyard.

Every year there were frequent reports of drownings in the harbour and out at sea. Children fell down garden wells, drowned in cisterns or were scalded to death in brewery vats. Indeed, infant mortality was very high, not just from childhood diseases. Babies were found abandoned and dead soon after birth: one found in St Mary’s graveyard, another “in a ditch near the Common New Barn”. Several were burned to death sleeping in their beds. Boys fell down the castle seacliff with fatal results.

Storms at sea which wrecked ships and drowned their crews were common enough: seafaring was the most hazardous peace-time occupation. More unusual were stories of travellers who were caught in winter snowstorms on the North York Moors and perished with exposure in Harwood Dale and Stainton Dale.

“By the visitation of god” was a convenient coroner’s verdict when death had no explanation. Ralph Sandwith had “drop’d down dead in Newboro’” was all that could be recorded about his departure, though at least his identity was known.

Some verdicts in Scarborough’s coroner’s court simply betray a basic ignorance of almost everything that is commonly understood today. In August 1826, a young woman who had come from York “for her elth was kild in her bed about 10’clock” during a severe thunderstorm. The court ruled that she had been “kild by the Effects of Lightning”.

During these years there was extraordinary epidemic of suicides in Scarborough and a clear preference for self-hanging. Henry Skelton had hanged himself on the back gates of the New Inn in Newborough, but this was only one of a constable’s long list of bizarre cases brought before coroners’ inquests. In the space of a few months, there were deaths from self-inflicted razor-blade wounds, by hanging from bed posts, by hanging in the garden privy, by hanging in a stable, by hanging on the gates leading to the workhouse, and by hanging from a tree in The Plantation in Ramsdale. At least one of these suicides may well have been prompted by the calamitous failure and closure of Moorsom’s Bank at the Customs House on Sandside in February 1822. Moorsom’s liabilities were thought to amount to £70,000, a colossal sum. During the following weeks, the Town Hall’s, serjeant-at-mace, William Thornton, was kept very active riding out far and wide serving summonses and notices to places named as Cayton, Binnington, Snainton, Harwood Dale and Bickley where depositors and creditors had been affected. Each day he hired a fresh horse which cost him ten shillings.

Fast forward only a few years to 1844 when it was evident that we have reached a more familiar era. In that year, for the first time, when the coroner could not reach a verdict, instead of “by the visitation of god”, the clerk wrote “by natural causes”.

In the same year, inquests took place on the deaths of two “navigators” killed during the construction of the new railway line between Seamer and Scarborough. Eventually, steam-engined trains would transform Scarborough’s way of life and livelihood. And also by 1844 one of the most familiar landmarks at the landward approach to Scarborough, Newborough Bar, which had contained its noisome prisons, had been completely demolished.

Finally and surprisingly, Scarborough’s constables were busiest at times of national celebration. Given the misery and uncertainty of the war years, any excuse for an orgy of inebriated joy was never missed. Next to parliamentary elections, when the town floated on beer, every British victory on land or at sea was marked by street riots. In March 1814, Scarborough’s constables were paid two shillings each for “attendance in the street on account of Bordeaux being taken”. The following month the Allies entered Paris, Napoleon abdicated and was exiled to Elba. Each event required a full police turnout at two shillings a head. When at last the war came to an end with Wellington’s victory at Waterloo, bonfires were lit in the streets and on the sands and the drunken revelry lasted for several days.